Before we move on to the second half of CLIO, the epic rise and fall of Cyrus the Great, there are a number of anecdotes and digressions that we need to cover. Herodotus is great for these little side-stories; heck, most of EUTERPE is such a digression. I’ve mostly cut them, where they don’t slot easily into the main narrative, but rather than excise them entirely I’ve simply moved them here.
ARION AND THE DOLPHIN
Side note: Periander the Milesian (who intercepted Alyattes’s message to Delphi regarding the temple Alyattes had accidentally burned down) had a sidekick named Arion of Methymn, a minstrel who once had a crazy adventure. This one time he was on a ship sailing from Taras to Corinth, and the sailors aboard decided to murder him and take his money. That’s not the crazy part. They were going to just slit his throat and throw him overboard, but somehow Arion talked them into letting him put on one last musical revue before he went, right there on the deck of the ship. So there he was, all festooned with costumery and playing his harp, and as he finished his last song he took a running jump off the deck and landed on the back of a dolphin, which his incredible musicality had summoned! The dolphin carried him back home, where he told his astonishing story. It was so astonishing that everyone thought he was crazy, until the sailors showed up to corroborate! They hadn’t intended to corroborate; they had asob story about how Arion had died but before that he’d said that they, the sailors, should get all his money.
But then there he was, alive, and the sailors freaked out and confessed the truth. Corinthians and Lesbians both tell this same story, Herodotus says. He adds that at Taras he saw a votive offering of Arion, in bronze, riding on a dolphin’s back. Historians note that, in this era, coins minted in these cities — Taras, Corinth, and Lesbos — were all stamped with images of men riding dolphins. In their A Commentary on Herodotus How and Wells cite Frazer (author of the Golden Bough) citing in his translation of Pausanias the scholar Conrad Bursian asserting in his Geographie von Grieschland that the votive offering of Arion had survived at least into Roman times. And yes, I did seek out a copy of Bursian’s 19th Century German-language survey of classical Greece and run it through Google Translate, to confirm this. That’s the kind of scholarship I provide.
WHY CROESUS THOUGHT CYRUS THE PERSIAN WAS SUCH A JERK
Basically Croesus’s antipathy towards Cyrus stemmed from Cyrus’s deposing of Astyages, thus ending a marriage-alliance between the Medes and the Lydians that had endured for a generation.
Once upon a time, Croesus said (Herodotus says), a group of Scythian refugees came to the Mede Empire, at the time ruled by Astyages’s father and Cyrus’s great-grandfather, Kyaxares. Kyaxares initially was a great host to these refugees: he offered them asylum and sanctuary in his household, and all he asked for in exchange for them was teach some of the Mede boys how to speak Scythian and use a bow properly. Scythians were renowned for their archery, so famous they’re called out for it in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 5:16).
Things went on pretty well for a while, until one day the Scythian group went out hunting and returned empty-handed. This was totally unusual; the Scythians normally hauled in a big pile of boar or mammoths or saber-toothed tigers or whatever. Kyaxares thought the Scythians were holding out on him, and chewed them out for their ingratitude.
“How dare he talk to us like that!” the Scythians said to one another, and vowed to get revenge, prank war style. Prank number one: murder one of the boys they were teaching archery, skin him, cut him up, prepare him as if he were a boar, and give the basket of meat to Kyaxares! Then before Kyaxares could figure out why his sausages tasted a little off, the Scythians relocated to Sardis in Lydia, where they sought all-new asylum with the local king, Alyattes (Croesus’s father, you may recall).
For whatever reason, Alyattes went to war to protect his Scythian guests, even after he found out that they’d tricked Kyaxares into cannibalism. The Lydians and the Medes fought inconclusively for six years. And then the middle of a battle (which we know definitely took place on 28 May 585 BC, thanks to the calculating power of astronomy) they experienced a total solar eclipse! This freaked both sides the hell out and led to peace talks post-haste. Herodotus has some names to go with these peace talks: the king of the Kilikians and his comrade-in-diplomacy Nebuchadnezzar the King of Babylon. They arranged for Aryenis, Croesus’s sister and Alyattes’s daughter, to marry Kyaxares’s son Astyages, drawing the two nations together.
(Interesting side note: this eclipse was predicted by a local sorcerer, Thales of Miletos, and there’s not a lot of agreement as to how exactly Thales managed that, what with the amount of higher math and astronomical lore required for the feat. Thales is also credited with getting Croesus’s army across a river that had been deemed unfordable; he moved the army out to the edge of the river, then dug a new channel around the back of the army, diverting the river to behind them.)
Croesus’s brother-in-law Astyages eventually became the king of the Medes, and another generation or two later Cyrus conquered the Mede Empire and imprisoned him, which is a story that we’ll get to real soon, I promise.
QUICK LYDIA FACTOIDS
Information about Croesus’s homeland!
1) They got a little gold dust down from Tmolos but otherwise weren’t any great shakes, natural resources wise. No telling where Croesus got all his celebrated riches.
2) Croesus’s father, Alyattes, had a huge tomb rivaling the Pyramids of Eygpt in size and scope.
3) The tomb was built of stones donated by various craft guilds; the largest contribution came from the guild of prostitutes.
4) Lydian girls were super slutty, is what Herodotus is saying.
5) Lydians invented coinage as a concept, little slugs of precious metal you trade and use as a currency. Before that, people settled debts by shouting. I’m joking about the shouting, but I’m serious about the coins. Gyges might have been the first king to stamp little lumps of precious metals with standardized masses.
6) They also invented dice, to amuse themselves during a famine. Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays they played dice, and Tuesdays and Thursdays they ate food.
7) That famine wasn’t resolved until half of the Lydians got on boats and relocated to central Italy.
THE STORY OF PEISISTRATOS, DESPOT OF ATHENS
Once upon a time, the king of Athens was Peisistratos son of Hippocrates, whose birth was marked by ill omens Hippocrates had chosen to ignore. Peisistratos became despot during a time of political upheaval in Athens: the beach-dwelling Athenians, led by Megacles, were locked in mortal rhetorical combat with the plains-dwelling Athenians, led by Lycurgus. Peisistratos, a minor war hero, declared himself the leader of an hitherto-unknown faction, the mountain-dwelling Athenians. He faked an attack on his life, then used public sympathy to incite a riot that led to his seizing power in the Acropolis. As brutal dictators who seized power by force went, though, he was actually pretty okay: he didn’t upset the apple-cart, instead leaving existing laws and judges and so on in place.
Megacles and Lycurgus, leaders of the disenfranchised factions, teamed up to kick Piesistratos out of Athens, but then they fell back into their old habits of internecine fighting. After some inconclusive politicking, Megacles recruited Peisistratos over to his side, by offering a deal: he’d swear fealty to Peisistratos, provided Peisisatros married Megacles’s daughter. Peisistratos was amenable, but they still needed to discredit Lycurgus. Their solution: Megacles and Peisistratos threw a parade! They recruited Phya, an exceptionally lovely Athenian giantess, to dress up like Athena as part of a pro-Peisistratos parade through the streets of the city. Phya, who was over six feet tall in addition to being exceptionally well-spoken and good-looking, led the parade shouted that she was Athena, come to deliver the rightful ruler of Athens to his throne.
The Athenians loved street theater, so they ate this up with a spoon. Next thing you knew, Peisistratos was back in power! Until his new wife, Megacles’s daughter, got tired of how he refused to have sex with her. Peisistratos already had enough sons, he said, and also Megacles’s family was cursed, so he didn’t want to mingle bloodlines. The daughter complained to her mother, and Megacles found out. Next thing you knew, there another insurrection in the streets and Peisistratos deposed. Moral of the story: have sex with your wife.
Peisistratos fled to the town of Eretria, and then ten years later returned at the head of a mercenary army. Third time was the charm: this time Peisistratos kept a bunch of mercenaries around, paid with city funds, and also he sent the sons of some of his political enemies out of Athens to live as hostages in Naxos.
LYCURGOS WAS A SWELL GUY
Once upon a time the Spartans had just a terrible code of laws, total bull. But then a prominent Spartan, Lycurgos (no relation to the Lycurgos who was Peisistratos’s political enemy), bribed the Oracle of Delphi into declaring that he was beloved of the gods and deserved to become Sparta’s official lawgiver. Lycurgos, thus empowered, rewrote all of Sparta’s laws, which people accepted because in addition to the oracular endorsement he was the uncle of the underage king and brother of the dead previous king. His legal reforms were so popular that after he died, the Spartans erected a temple to him and worshipped him as a god. This story isn’t connected to anything; Herodotus just thinks it’s neat.
THE BONES OF ORESTES
Once upon a time around one generation before Croesus came to power, the Spartans were been feeling their oats. They cast about looking for some other city to make war with. A delegation of Spartans went to Delphi and asked the Pythia whether they should conquer Tegea. The Oracle gave them the usual run-around. “Dance in Tegea,” the oracle instructed them. “Measure its fields into plots.”
Naturally the Spartans assumed this meant they would defeat Tegea easily. But then, spoiler alert, they didn’t! Instead the bulk of their army was captured and enslaved. Herodotus claims that the bit about dancing and the dividing of the land into plots were poetic references to the field-work they did as slaves. The refugees from this abortive invasion returned to Delphi and demanded better advice! The Pythia told them to find the bones of Orestes, the classical hero, which was just more runaround as they had no idea where to even start looking. So they pestered the Pythia some more, and finally she sent them to a smooth place, somewhere two blasts blow by strong compulsion together. The Spartans threw up their hands in frustration at this nonsense and scattered, vowing to regroup.
Lichas, one of the Spartans, was hanging out by a forge just staring at the smooth anvil and the way the two bellows pumped the fire in two blasts, like you do. He got to talking to the smith there, who for whatever reason told him about this one time the smith found a coffin about ten feet long, which he’d assumed to be some kind of novelty prank coffin, until he’d opened it up and discovered a giant skeleton inside.
“Orestes!” thought Lichas, because apparently Orestes was a giant? (I do not recall that from the Libation Bearers.) Neither had the other Spartans, since when Lichas went to tell them about it they’d laughed in his face. Then they exiled him when he pressed the point. Bitter, Lichas returned to to the smith and demanded the giant skeleton. The smith didn’t want to hand it over, but Lichas beat it out of him. Then Lichas took the skeleton back to Sparta, and everyone apologized, and then they invaded Tegea again, this time defeating them handily. They were, in fact, just resting from this victory when they received word Croesus wanted to ally with them.
WHAT THE SPARTANS WERE DOING WHILE CYRUS WAS INVADING LYDIA
Once upon a time (shortly after Sparta conquered Tegea, in fact) Sparta and Argos were at war over a chunk of territory called Thyrae. Both city-states claimed the region, and were willing to go to war over it. However, rather than wage a costly and protracted series of battles, the Spartan and Argive politicos hammered out a deal. Three hundred soldiers from each side — no more, no less — would fight one another in Thyrae. Whichever side won that battle would claim the region, and the other side would accept it.
The six hundred soldiers split off from the main mass of troops on either side, as the armies retreated. Their thinking was that if the armies were watching this honor-combat mini-war, then the side that was losing might feel obliged to join the field, and that would ruin the whole point of the honor-combat mini-war. The six hundred fought and fought, violently, until only three soldiers were left alive. Two of the soldiers, Alcenor and Chromios, were Argive, and one, Othryades, was Spartan. Alcenor and Chromios searched the battlefield as night fell, and decided they were the only survivors of the battle. They went back to Argos to tell their countrymen the good news. Othryades hid until the Argive soldiers had left, and then spent the night piling Argive corpses into heaps and urinating on them, slicing them up, and otherwise defiling their bodies.
In the morning, the two armies reconvened. The Argives claimed that Alcenor and Chromios were the victors of the mini-war, as there were two of them and they’d scoured the battlefield looking for someone to fight. When they hadn’t been able to find anyone, the battle was over. “Plainly we won the mini-war,” they said.
The Spartans, however, insisted that the Argive soldiers had fled the battlefield while Othryades was still holding territory, and furthermore Othryades had been able to defile Argive corpses with impunity. “Obviously we won the mini-war,” they said.
Long story short, the whole mini-war concept fell apart, and Sparta and Argos went to extended war over Thyrae. The Spartans won, and had just returned home flush with victory when the Lydian messengers arrived, telling them about Cyrus’s invasion. Unfortunately by the time the Spartans were ready to head out again, more messengers had arrived bearing news that Croesus had been captured and Lydia fallen.
Othryades supposedly committed suicide out of shame that he’d failed to die gloriously alongside his 299 comrades. The men of Argos supposedly began shaving their heads (which they’d previously worn long) out of shame of the loss of Thyrae, and the men of Sparta supposedly began wearing their hair long for exactly the opposite reason.
NEXT: THE HISTORY OF THE MEDE EMPIRE
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