Then the gods punished Croesus for his arrogance, says Herodotus, in a rare bit of editorializing. The gods sent him a prophetic dream, in which his son and heir, Atys, was slain with an iron spear-point. Croesus awoke convinced of the reality of this prophecy.
“Step one, we get you a wife and you get her pregnant,” he told Atys. “Just in case you die suddenly, I don’t want to have to worry about who my heir will be. Step two, no more of this fighting on the front lines for you. From now on you go to war from the safety of the palace!” Croesus looked around the palace. “Crap, no, this place is a death trap! Why do we even have swords hanging by a thread from the ceiling, ready to come slicing down at any moment? I’ve got to redecorate!”
Croesus busied himself getting all the javelins and lances and knives and spears and swords and poleaxes and halberds and glaives and stuff together and taken out of the living areas and piled up in closets for fear lest something hanging up might fall down upon his son. And then along came Adrastos, son of Gordias, son of Midas. Adrastos was your standard doomed Greek hero, laboring under a massive curse and seeking Croesus’s kingly curse-stymieing powers (Herodotus is nonspecific as to how that works). Adrastos found Croesus and explained that he’d accidentally murdered his brother and his father exiled him. “Can I crash on your sofa for a while?”
“You’re my cousin, or possibly you’re someone else’s cousin,” replied Croesus. “Either way, I’m good to cousins. So welcome!”
Meanwhile a giant boar rampaged the countryside. I know that seems like a non sequitur, but Herodotus is going somewhere with this, never fear. The folk whose lands were getting ravaged had been conquered by Croesus, and so they sent him envoys, with a polite request for him to send knights or heroes or hunters or something, since he was their liege. “Send us a hunting party consisting of the crown prince, a bunch of guys with spears, and about fifty dogs,” was the envoys’ best idea for dealing with this dire boar, but they were open to alternatives.
Croesus of course was utterly unwilling to let Atys go boar-hunting; he considered it far too dangerous. He ordered the envoys to under no circumstances tell Atys about any of this, and Croesus would send hunters (not his son!) to deal with the boar.
The envoys were wholly willing to accept these terms, but unluckily, Atys was standing directly behind Croesus when he gave that order! Atys cleared his throat and then gave a little speech that Herodotus, despite living over a century later, somehow is able to transcribe for us verbatim. Grene translated it into English as follows. “My father, in times past the fairest and most noble part was allotted to us, to go out continually to wars and to the chase and so have good repute; but now thou hast debarred me from both of these, although thou hast not observed in me any cowardly or faint-hearted spirit. And now with what face must I appear when I go to and from the market-place of the city? What kind of a man shall I be esteemed by the citizens, and what kind of a man shall I be esteemed by my newly-married wife? With what kind of a husband will she think that she is mated? Therefore either let me go to the hunt, or persuade me by reason that these things are better for me done as now they are.”
“Wow, that’s quite a speech,” replied Croesus. But he was unmoved! “Nevertheless, I have this evil prophecy I’m working against and I’d rather have a live son whose wife doesn’t respect him than a dead son whose widow he never got pregnant! Shouldn’t you be having sex right now?”
“My wife is pregnant! Our son will be named Pythius and he’ll be mentioned briefly in passing in Book VII of the Histories, POLYMNIA. Also, what about my unnamed deaf-mute brother?”
“He’s deaf and mute! He doesn’t count!”
Harsh, Croesus, harsh.
Atys wouldn’t take no for an answer; he insisted on accompanying the hunters. So at last Croesus did what anyone would do under the circumstances: he found his cursed houseguest Adrastos, and sent him along as Arys’s personal bodyguard.
“After all,” reasoned Croesus, “if you can’t rely on a cursed royal fratricide to protect your son, who can you count on?”
Adrastos, Atys, and some guys with dogs went out boar-hunting. They circled Mount Olympus (which is where the boar was), found the boar, cornered it, and readied themselves for the kill. And then, as I’m sure you totally didn’t anticipate, Adrastos accidentally missed the boar with a spear and instead killed Atys! Who could have foreseen, etc, etc. The surviving members of the hunting party very dolefully returned to Sardis and told Croesus what had happened. Croesus went on a long monologue about how much Zeus sucked for letting this happen.
Adrastos was extremely apologetic, offering to exile himself, or stand still while Croesus hammered spikes into him, or whatever Croesus wanted. But Croesus was merciful, and told Adrastos that he knew it had been an accident; Croesus didn’t blame Adrastos.
Then at the funeral Adrastos leaped onto Atys’s coffin and slit his own throat.
A couple of years went by, during which everyone in Sardis was very quiet. Then Cyrus the Persian, son of Cambyses, deposed his own grandfather and one of Croesus’s neighbors, King Astyages the Mede. Croesus’s sister Aryenis had been married to Astyages; while this new Persian king Croesus had no ties to. The Persians were an ascendant power, looming on Lydia’s eastern border. Should Croesus attack them, and snuff out their power before they became too strong?
To answer this question Croesus consulted a whole set of oracles. The Oracle at Delphi, the Oracle at Abi, the Oracle at Dodona, the Oracle of Amphiaraos and the Oracle at Trophonios. He sent messengers to the Oracle at Branchidai and to the Oracle at Ammon. For each Oracle he had a splendid bribe (this is the origin, by the way, of the idiom the riches of Croesus if you happened to have been unaware; dude had so much gold and silver to lavish on oracles!) and a single question.
Croesus had a calendrical scheme whereby he sent all his messengers out to ask their question on the same day, once they were all in place, one hundred days after he conceived this plan. The question: what was Croesus king of Lydia doing right that second while the question was being asked? Herodotus doesn’t know what all the other Oracles said, but he knows that the Oracle at Delphi had this answer, again translated into English by Grene:
“But the number of sand I know, and the measure of drops in the ocean; the dumb man I understand, and I hear the speech of the speechless. And there hath come to my soul the smell of a strong-shelled tortoise boiling in a bronze cauldron, and the flesh of a lamb mingled with it. Under the bronze it is laid; it hath bronze as a clothing upon it.”
Which, when Croesus heard it, he was very pleased, on account of that was exactly what he’d been doing: cooking up some tortoise-and-lamb stew in a bronze pot with a bronze lid. So he decided that Delphi was the Oracle for him, and sent them more bribes and another question, this time about whether he should attack the Persians, which was what he wanted to know anyway. Herodotus once again provides an inventory of the oracle-bribe Croesus sent: three thousand of each of all the animals that might get sacrificed, whole bedroom sets covered with gold and silver, golden goblets, the ashes of a bonfire fueled wholly by purple silks and linens, two gold bricks weighing about 350 lbs each, and one hundred fifteen gold-silver amalgam bricks (roughly 50% each, by mass) weighing 280 lbs. each. Also a giant golden statue of a lion, and a big gold bowl and a big silver bowl, five silver bottles and one gold bottle, a golden statue of a hot lady and Croesus’s wife’s jewelry. Funny story: that gold bottle was still on display in Delphi in Herodotus’s time. It had from the Spartans inscribed on it, but Herodotus claims that was a Lydian bottle and the inscription was added afterwards by a jerk who wanted to get in good with the Spartans. The best punishment Herodotus can come up with for this jackass — who was a real piece of work, he says — is willfully not writing down his name, because while all these other ancient Greeks get to have their names preserved through the ages, Herodotus is making sure this one dude gets forgotten. Screw you, guy!
Herodotus’s metallurgical lore in this section is pretty sketchy. Probably the gold-silver alloy bricks were a) hollow and b) only 27% silver. The relative value of gold and silver being what they were, one unit of 27/73 silver-gold was worth almost exactly ten units of silver, so this was a common coinage alloy of the era (also silver-gold alloys were much more durable than purer gold). Also historians are pretty uncertain as to whether from the Spartans was the forgery Herodotus claims it was, or not; you can make arguments either way, apparently.
Croesus’s question for the Oracle of Delphi was actually a two-parter:
A) Should Croesus attack the Persians?
B) If so, whom should he ally himself with?
The Oracles at Delphi (suddenly they are plural; no explanation is provided as to why) accepted the gifts and heard Croesus’s questions, delivered by his treasure-laden envoys. They considered, and gave a two-part answer.
A) If Croesus attacks the Persians he’ll destroy a great empire.
B) Croesus should make friends with the most powerful people.
Hilariously, these answers are pretty clearly the Oracles trying to wring more bribes out of Croesus. I mean, come on — destroy an empire? Which one? His own, or the Persian? Befriend the most powerful? Well duh, but who are they? “Answer like that, you may as well flip a coin!” said Croesus when he got the results back, according to Larry Gonick (who did everything I’m doing here, but better because he did it in comic-book form; look it up).
However the king of Lydia was apparently more credulous than that, for Croesus’s response was to send still more cash, as a tip. In exchange for which, Croesus was made an honorary Delphian, including free Oracle consults and box seats at the local games. He asked the Oracles one last question, about how long his reign would endure.
The Oracles answered with some nonsense verse, saying that for the moment Croesus had nothing to worry about, but as soon as a mule became the king of the Medes, he should hit the ground running. Naturally Croesus assumed this meant his line would continue forever, a single long dynasty surviving until the heat death of the universe. As to the question of whom to ally with, he considered several Greek peoples, triggering a whole brief essay by Herodotus on the different lineages of the Spartans, Athenians, Dorians, Ionians, Pelasgians, Hellenes, and how the groups interrelated and overlapped and man, it’s pretty dull so let’s skip it.
Croesus ends up picking the Spartans, as his best bet for strong allies. How and Wells, in their A Commentary on Herodotus, advance the theory that this had been his plan the whole time, and that Croesus’s extravagant gifts to Delphi were intended to butter the Spartans up. He sent an envoy to Sparta laden with still more bribes and a very complimentary letter. The Spartans had heard about the Oracles’ declaration with regards to Croesus needing to pick the strongest Greeks, and of course they were quite flattered Croesus had thought of them.
As the Spartans cast about for a nice gift to send Croesus in exchange, Croesus mobilized his forces to invade Syria, which had become part of Cyrus’s Persian Empire. One of his advisors, Sandanis, took Croesus aside on the eve of the invasion.
“Listen, boss. You know how you’re the wealthiest king in human history, famed for his ability to send cartloads and cartloads of gold out of his seemingly inexhaustible treasury?”
“What about it?”
“So, Syria. Not a wealthy country. You know what they have in Syria? They have pants. Breeches made of leather. That’s their biggest luxury good.”
Croesus shrugged. “I’m not seeing where you’re going with this.”
Sandanis sighed. “Okay, let me try again. Let’s imagine you do conquer Syria.”
“I’m totally going to conquer Syria!”
“Sure. Okay. You’ve occupied Syria. Then what? They don’t have any gold. They don’t have any stores of wine. They don’t even have any figs! Figs are the commonest fruit in the whole world, and they don’t have them. Why should a rich country invade a poor one? It just doesn’t make sense! This is a fight we’re not going to get any profit from.”
“I hear what you’re saying,” replied Croesus. “But I have three counterarguments. First, the map of Lydia has this concavity on the bottom that is unpleasant to the eye. Very asymmetrical. We add Syria to it, concavity filled, it looks great, we all get some tacos. Second, I don’t know if you heard about this, but the Oracle of Delphi said my dynasty will endure forever pretty much, which means this is a no-risk proposition. And third, Cyrus the Persian is a jackass.”
Then Croesus invaded Syria, which was part of Cyrus’s empire, in turn. 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, and he was not fooling around. First he lit the whole place on fire. Tthen he rounded up all the citizens and stole everything they had. Then sold the whole city into slavery.
Cyrus the Persian, as emperor of the land Croesus had invaded, rallied to its defense. He launched a counterattack, which was inconclusive but bloody. (Later historians claim that that Cyrus drove Croesus out of Syria entirely, but the record is very murky.) After the battle Croesus felt overextended, so instead of wintering in Pteria, he retreated to Sardis to wait for Spartan reinforcements. He also expected reinforcements from Egypt, as a result of a deal he’d struck with Amasis, the king of Egypt in this era. Croesus figured it would take almost half a year to get everything together, so he disbanded the bulk of his army for until the spring.
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 for the winter, 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 500 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.
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 Cyrus decided to burn Croesus 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?
Croesus shouted exhortations at the heavens, reminding the gods that he wasn’t the worst guy ever, and begging them to save him. Apollo or someone took pity on him, and sent a freak rainstorm that allowed the Persians to extinguish the fire. Historians agree this whole story is comical bunkum, although Croesus surviving the conquest of Lydia and becoming Cyrus’s advisor is a thing that probably happened.
“So, Croesus, got anything to say for yourself?” Cyrus asked him afterwards.
“Just one question. What are your soldiers doing in Sardis, right now?”
Cyrus let out a booming laugh. “They’re looting your city and plundering your treasure! Duh!”
“A heh, sire, well…” Croesus snickered. “I’m standing here in manacles. I don’t have a city and I don’t have any treasure.”
“…I don’t follow you.”
“They’re looting your city and plundering your treasure.”
“Crap,” said Cyrus. “That makes sense.” He ordered his troops to stand down and cease with the pillaging, which they weren’t thrilled about. On Croesus’s advice, he stationed guards at the exit of Sardis, whose job it was to examine Persian troops as they left the city, determine how much loot they were taking out, and seize some so that while the soldiers would get the loot they deserved, no one would end up with enough loot to fund a rebellion against Cyrus. The pretext Croesus suggested was claiming it was a tithe for Zeus, since “Croesus demands the loot you looted” was a hard sell.
In exchange Croesus requests, and receives, permission to write an angry letter to the Oracle of Delphi, complaining about a bum prophecy that cost him his empire. However the Pythia had a whole counterargument ready, which she laid out to rebut his assertions that her prophecy had been flawed.
1) Croesus is a descendent of Gyges, who was cursed, as related earlier.
2) If the gods hadn’t intervened, Croesus’s empire would have fallen, like, three whole years earlier.
3) And Croesus would have been killed then, instead of having his life spared by a freak rainstorm.
4) So he should be happy to just be alive!
5) Croesus asked what would happen if he invaded Syria; the Pythia said that he would destroy an empire. He destroyed his own empire. Prophecy complete!
6) If he’d thought about it Croesus should have sent more bribes and a follow-up question about which empire, but instead Croesus decided to be chintzy.
7) Don’t blame the Pythia for the choices Croesus chose to choose.
8) Cyrus was a mule, which is to say, a half-breed; his mother was a Mede, and his father a Persian. So that checked out, too.
Pretty audacious to claim Croesus was being a cheapskate, the guy who sent so many bribes to so many temples (Herodotus could just go on listing them all day, there’s a tripod of gold and golden cows and a golden shield and on and on). And that wraps up the first big story in the Histories, all about the riches of Croesus!
NEXT: BITS AND ODDMENTS!
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