So to get a sense of this whole set of stories, we need a little context. A decade earlier Amasis, the pharaoh whom Cambyses deposed, had sought to create an alliance to contain Persian power in the Mediterranean. Cyprus, Samos, and Phoenicia were all members of this informal league, among others, but it was plagued with difficulties from the beginning. Cyprus and Phoenicia both deserted the league and swore fealty to Persia, and Samos had troubles of its own.
The ruler of Samos at the time was a man named Polycrates, who had arranged a coup d’etat against the previous oligarchical government. Polycrates leveraged a very small number of troops with some quick thinking and seized power in Samos before anyone else really knew what had happened.
He secured his power by allying himself with Amasis, and hired a powerful mercenary navy. His navy raided up and down the Greek coast, seizing enormous amounts of wealth and then, in a show of goodwill, returning most of it to a grateful populace. This calculated political trick made him very popular among the people.
Amasis, his friend and ally, noted his success and worried on Polycrates’s behalf. For, as Croesus learned so bitterly back in CLIO, good things do not come to us incessantly and unerringly. Sorrow comes to all men. Amasis wrote Polycrates a gloomy letter to this effect, urging him to gather his rosebuds while he may.
Polycrates took Amasis’s letter to heart. He fretted about the possibility of a sudden turn of disaster, and tried to think of a way to prevent it. The method he hit upon was to use magic, as I shall relate.
Polycrates took a boat out into the middle of the harbor, attended by many witnesses. There he lifted up his hand and displayed the signet ring on his finger, a lovely artifact of gold and emeralds: the greatest treasure of Samos. Then he pulled the ring off and threw it into the sea.
“I have lost a thing so precious to me!” he wailed. “Surely this terrible event will balance out all the good fortune I’ve enjoyed to this point!”
However shortly afterwards he was visited in his palace by a fisherman who had a remarkably fine and large fish. “I didn’t think it was right to bring such a marvelous fish to the market and sell it,” he told Polycrates. “This fish is a kingly fish, and so I give it to you, sire.”
“How nice!” said Polycrates. “You must stay to dinner.”
So the fish was taken to the royal kitchens and cleaned and cooked. Within the fish’s gut, the cooks found Polycrates’s emerald ring, as you probably expected. They presented it to him, all smiles at his incredible and unexpected good fortune.
“Well, crap,” said Polycrates.
He wrote this strange adventure up in a letter and sent it to Amasis, asking advice. Amasis replied that Polycrates was simply too lucky. Eventually he’d run out of luck, and God help everybody who was standing near him at the time.
“Under the circumstances I’m going to have to ask you to leave our informal mutual-defense anti-Persian league,” Amasis told him. “I’m sure you understand.”
So Polycrates and his island-nation Samos went their own way. Since Amasis had rebuffed him, Polycrates sent a letter to Cambyses, offering to give tribute to the Persian Empire if Cambyses was interested.
“Sure,” said Cambyses in his response.
Polycrates gathered all of his troops whose loyalty he doubted, potential rebels and revolutionaries. He was expert at identifying such, since it was how he’d come to power himself. He loaded these rebels-in-potential onto barges and shipped them to Cambyses as he conquered Egypt.
“Enjoy these soldiers,” he wrote in a message that accompanied the troops. “Just don’t send any of them back, okay?”
At this point, one of three things happened. Herodotus isn’t sure which, because he’s been given conflicting reports.
Scenario #1: the Samian rebels reached Egypt after the fighting between Amasis and Cambyses was over. Cambyses didn’t particularly need a rowdy collection of foreign troops, and so didn’t object when they left Egypt and went to Sparta.
Scenario #2: basically the same as the first scenario, except that the rebels changed course before they even reached Egypt.
Scenario #3: basically the same as the second scenario, except that instead of going to Sparta, the rebels went back to Samos and overthrew Polycrates all by themselves.
Herodotus discounts scenario number three as improbable all the way around, but includes it for completeness.
One way or another, the Samian rebels almost certainly arrived in Sparta. There they met the Spartan leadership, and asked for assistance overthrowing Polycrates. They made their case passionately in a long series of oratories, and unfortunately for them, the Spartans fell asleep. They complained that by the time the Samians finished a sentence so much time had passed that the Spartans couldn’t remember how the sentence started. Ergo, no aid.
The next day the Samians tried another tactic: they brought an empty sack. “This sack needs grain,” they said, pointing to it.
“You didn’t need to say ‘this sack’ and point to it both,” the Spartans said. “You used twice as many words as you needed to!”
The Samians rolled their collective eyes. “So you won’t help us?”
“Nah, we’ll totally help you,” said the Spartans.
Herodotus helpfully offers two possible reasons the Spartans would be interested in invading Samos. Maybe it was because Samos had sent troops in support of Sparta, back when Sparta was fighting Messina back around the events in CLIO sometime I think?
But Herodotus thinks it was more likely that the Spartans knew that Polycrates had intercepted a couple of gifts the Spartans had shipped via Samos to Croesus and Amasis, many years earlier. What goes around comes around, I guess.
Corinth, another Greek state, joined this Sparta-Samian Rebels alliance, too. This wasn’t because they particularly loved Sparta; they just wanted a chance to go to war with Samos. And this was the result of another slight that went back a generation or two: Samos rescued a shipment of boys from the island of Corcyra which Corinth had captured and was sending to Alyattes (father of Croesus, that’s how far back this goes) to become eunuchs.
“I know that we’ve been reaching further and further backwards in history,” says Herodotus, “but the story of why Corinth was so eager to punish Corcyra by sending their boys off to be eunuchs, that’s a good story! I’ll tell you right after I tell you about the battles for Samos!”
Herodotus makes use of as close to a primary source as he could manage, for this part: his friend Archias of Sparta. Archias was the grandson of one of the Spartan soldiers who invaded Samos with the Samian rebels and the Corinthians.
The way Herodotus tells it, the alliance fleet landed at Samos and attempted to cut the island’s main city off from their fresh water source, in a protracted siege. However, Polycrates’s army and a host of hired mercenaries managed to break the siege and restore the city’s connection to the aqueduct, with fierce fighting.
Archias’s grandfather was right there, in the fighting, he said, and in fact his unit was so valorous and bloodthirsty that they broke the morale of the Samians they were fighting. When the Samians retreated, Archias and another soldier, Lycopes, followed them into Polycrates’s fortress, expecting the rest of the Spartan force to follow behind. Instead the rest of the Spartan force retreated, and the fortress doors closed up with Archias on the wrong side of them. He and his comrade were slaughtered, but their valor was witnessed and remembered by the Samians.
Polycrates gave Archias and Lycopes high-end state funerals, and sent very nice notes to their widows. Archias’s wife named their son, born after Archias went off to war, Samius in honor of the courtesy shown by the Samians. Samius grew up and had a son whom he named Archias, after the father he never knew, and that Archias befriended Herodotus.
How much of this is true, Herodotus isn’t going to speculate; Archias is his friend, after all.
After the battle, the attacking alliance dissolved in failure. The Spartans may have successfully extracted some tribute from Polycrates, enough to justify the trip. The Corinthians just went home.
The Samian rebels didn’t have a home to go to, however. They invaded the island of Siphnos, not too far off. The Siphnians had recently started mining gold and silver on their island, and were a rich target. Herodotus reports that they were the first people to quarry marble from Paros and use it in their decorations; Parian marble is the blindingly white gorgeous stuff you see all the best classical sculptures made from.
The Siphians saw the Samians coming, and sent out an envoy to greet them. When the envoy declined to pay the Samians a small fortune in tribute, the Samians ravaged Siphnos and extracted a large fortune in tribute. They seized a few islands and terrorized a few others, eventually settling in Cydonia, on the island of Crete. After a few years they had made so many enemies that the Creteans led an alliance to attack them, resulting in their enslavement. Moral of the story: don’t be a jerk!
Herodotus has spent all this time talking about Polycrates and this abortive Samian invasion for two reasons. First, it was kind of a big deal at the time, what with it all happening just as the big Aegean trade leagues were forming and stuff. Maybe it didn’t make waves on the order of Cambyses’s invasion of Egypt, but still. The second reason is that Herodotus wants to tell us about this one awesome aqueduct the Samians built, the one that Archias was involved in the fighting over. It was exceptionally large, and it went right through a mountain, an amazing engineering feat. Samos also has the single best temple Herodotus has ever seen — it took many decades to build, apparently — and a pretty impressive set of earthworks protecting its harbor.
Okay! Now for the digression I promised before, the story about why Corinth and Corcyra were on such bad terms! It’s not a bad story.
The chief of Corinth, in the time of King Alyattes, was a man named Periander, and this is his tragic story. It’s also roughly fifty percent of all father-son stories extant in the Western canon, I’m pretty sure. Being a father and being a son, these are both hard things.
Once upon a time Periander murdered his wife Melissa; Herodotus doesn’t say, but my understanding from a bunch of secondary sources is that she was pregnant and he threw her down a flight of stairs because he suspected the child wasn’t his. That’s not the tragic part. Shortly after her death under highly mysterious circumstances, Melissa’s father Procles of Epidaurus sent for her and Periander’s two sons, teenagers named Cypselus and Lycophron.
Cypselus and Lycophron went to visit their grandfather, who had no other children or grandchildren, and so doted on them. After a few months they returned to Corinth, but before they went, Procles took Cypselus and Lycophron aside. He asked them what they knew about their mother’s death. He hinted darkly that maybe, just maybe, someone whose named rhymed with Oleander might have thrown his wife down a flight of stairs. How Procles knew to make this accusation is unaddressed.
Cypselus paid his grandfather no mind, because he was a nitwit, but Lycophron took the words to heart.
When they returned to Corinth Periander immediately noticed that Lycophron was avoiding him. Eventually he confronted his son, who demanded to know the truth of Melissa’s death.
Periander hotly denied everything, and after shouting at one another for a bit, they mutually agreed that Lycophron would be exiled from the palace.
After the guards dragged Lycophron away and dumped him by the side of the road outside the palace, Periander went to Cypselus.
“Son,” he said. “Do you remember your grandfather accusing anyone of anything?”
“Duh,” said Cypselus, but it wasn’t a sarcastic kind of duh, it was a duh duh idiot kind of duh. “I dunno. He said something about something but I wasn’t really listening.”
“You’re an idiot.”
Meanwhile Lycophron had picked himself up off the street and gone to stay with friends. Periander found out where he was staying, and sent guards to force him out. Lycophron went from friend’s house to friend’s house; sometimes he was able to stay for a little while, until the guards showed up. Sometimes he was turned away at the door, because the guards got there first.
However Lycophron had a lot of friends, many of whom were willing to pretend they hadn’t heard about the rift between him and Periander, at least until the guards appeared. So Lycophron got by.
Lycophron getting by on the charity of friends really bugged Periander. Eventually he issued a royal declaration that anyone who offered Lycophron any aid or comfort or spoke to him was subject to a large fine, tithed to Apollo (in his incarnation as the god of sons who respect their fathers). When Lycophron heard about this, he refused to even ask people for help, and instead went to live in the woods.
Periander found him three days later, filthy and hungry. Periander felt terrible about it, and approached his son to apologize. “Tell you what,” he said. “I know you think that I did a terrible thing the particulars of which we won’t discuss. And maybe I did, but did you ever think about it from my point of view? I had a terrible thing happen to me — I lost my wife and my unborn child, and I’m still here having to live with what happened. I’m not going to ask you to forgive me, but I am going to point out that I’m the king of Corinth and you’re the prince of Corinth and the only reason you’re living out here in the woods is because of foolish pride, yours and mine both. I’m willing to put it all aside and welcome you back into the palace with open arms, if you’re willing to embrace your father. You can stay here in the woods, or you can go back to the palace; which would you prefer? What do you say?”
“I say you owe Apollo a hefty fine for talking to me,” Lycophron said, and turned his back on Periander.
So Lycophron moved to Corcyra, which is about as far from Corinth as you can get and still be part of Hellenic culture, and he lived there for decades. Corcyra was at the time a Corinthian colony, or at least vassal state. Lycophron, as the son of Periander, was the nominal ruler of the island.
Eventually Periander grew old, King Lear style. He realized he was past retirement age, and his loyal son Cypselus was an idiot. He drafted a letter and sent it to Lycophron, who returned it unopened.
So Periander sent his daughter, Lycophron’s sister, to Corcyra to ask Lycophron to return and assume the throne.
Lycophron’s sister visited him and laid out a persuasive argument in favor of Lycophron returning to Corinth. It would prevent a civil war, Periander having no other heir worth speaking of. It would enrich Lycophron personally, and it would be good for their family to retain the rulership. “Pride is a meager possession, weighed against everything else you might own,” she said. “Our father hurt you, but now you hurt him. Do not heal evil with evil.” That last bit became a well-remembered proverb, by the by.
Lycophron wasn’t unmoved by these points. But he wasn’t willing to return to Corinth while Periander still lived.
Periander heard this, and offered to travel personally to Corcyra, exiling himself from Corinth. This was a deal, at last, that Lycophron was willing to make.
Unfortunately for them both, it was right at that point that the people of Corcyra rose up and deposed Lycophron, in a coup d’etat not wholly unlike Polycrates’s seizure of Samos. And so father and son died without reconciling. Reconcile with your fathers, sons! That’s the moral of this story.
(The historical record can confirm that there was a king of Corinth named Periander whose son ruled in Corcyra for a time, and who died without an heir. Otherwise this is all nonsense of course, you didn’t need me to tell you that.)
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