So let me remind you where we are in the narrative: Croesus, king of Lydia, had decided to invade Syria with the aid of his allies the Lacedemonians, better known to us as the Spartans. Syria or maybe southern Turkey, actually; it’s hard to say without consulting sources more obscure than are worth delving into. The modern city of Kayseri, in Turkey, is where I’d guess we’re talking, if I had to guess. Herodotus knows the area as Pteria. Croesus entered Syria at Pteria, where he lit the whole place on fire. He rounded up all the citizens and stole everything they had, then sold them into slavery.
Cyrus the Persian, emperor of the land Croesus had invaded, launched a counterattack, which was inconclusive but bloody. Croesus, feeling overextended, retreated to Sardis to wait for Spartan reinforcements. He figured it would take almost half a year to get everything together, so he disbanded the bulk of his army for the winter. Then a plague of serpents befell Sardis.
“That’s probably not a good sign,” said Croesus.
Then Cyrus arrived! Rather than turn around and go home, like Croesus had expected him to, Cyrus pulled the totally cheaty move of following him to Sardis!
“Whoops!” said Croesus.
“Guess who’s conquered?” asked Cyrus. “Hint: it’s you!” Cyrus easily defeated Croesus’s cavalry by taking advantage of a little-known fact that Herodotus is willing to clue us in on: Camels scare the living bejeezus out of horses. Cyrus had all his camels go up to the front of the army, and all Croesus’s horsemen were totally, immediately neutralized. This crippling defect in the capacity of horses to wage war is why cavalry hasn’t been fielded by any nation on Earth since 300 BC.
Croesus, behind Sardis’s city walls, figured he could maybe wait out a siege, so he went word to the Spartans asking for rescue and settled in to wait. The Spartans never showed, for reasons that we’ll get to in a bit, and Sardis fell.
Sardis fell because one of Cyrus’s troops, Hyroidaes, wanted the cash bonus Cyrus had promised to the first man inside the city. Incentivized by the power of market forces, Hyroidaes noticed that while most of Sardis’s walls were well-patrolled, there was a whole section that was abandoned, because the popular perception was that part of the wall was unscalable. However Hyroidaes saw a Lydian soldier drop his helmet there, and after it rolled all the way to the bottom of the wall, the soldier had hopped down, scurried along a secret path, retrieved his helmet, and scurried back up. Hyrodiaes investigated, found hidden handholds, and next thing you knew, no more Croesus.
They almost killed Croesus when they got into the city, but then Croesus’s other son (the deaf-mute one) miraculously gained the power of speech and begged for his father’s life, so they enslaved him instead. Then they decided to burn him alive anyway, along with a dozen Lydian boys and a lot of fruit, as an offering to the gods, but while he was about to be lit on fire, Croesus started complaining about Solon’s warning at such length and with such vehemence that Cyrus put the execution/sacrifice on hold to ask what the deal was.
Croesus told Cyrus all about his exchange with Solon, about how he’d claimed to be the happiest man alive and Solon had been all “call no man happy until he is dead,” and Cyrus found this story so hilarious he cancelled Croesus’s execution altogether. But then! Croesus, though spared by Cyrus, was still in the middle of a big pile of flammable materials which were in the midst of self-converting into a bonfire. Cyrus shouted for the execution to be cancelled, but none of his soldiers could get the fire out in time! Was this the untimely end of Croesus?