One day in 560 BC, a fleet of exotic ships docked at Cirrha. The delegation that disembarked therefrom and marched up the path to Delphi created a stir even in this place that was used to all manner of strange visitors. Ceremonial armor of gold and silver covered the men’s bodies, glittering magnificently in the sun, while the many jewels that adorned these metallic backdrops tinkled with the delicate loveliness of a light spring rain. At the center of the party was a large horse-drawn carriage, seemingly carved from solid gold. Its surface too was encrusted with jewels beyond counting: pearls, emeralds, garnets, agates. Even the harnesses of the four fearsome warhorses in front flashed with color. A man in his mid-thirties sat on a raised throne in the middle of the carriage, gazing haughtily down on the people around him. His suit of armor was the most beautiful of all, and was topped by a tall headdress of perfect lapis lazuli, encased within finely wrought curlicues of gold.
The delegation was plainly a barbarian one; no Greek would ever festoon himself to this extent. Yet if the people of Delphi joked a bit with one another about the gaudy fashions of foreigners, they greeted the king to his face with the utmost respect. For a king he was, albeit a newly crowned one. His name was Croesus, and from his capital city of Sardis he ruled a powerful eastern empire known as Lydia, which contained within its borders all of the territory that had once been under the sway of the old city of Troy and much, much more besides.
Lydia was by any objective measure a far richer, more important state than any single city of Greece, and quite possibly than all of them put together. Nevertheless, its kings had started coming to Delphi as humble suppliants seeking advice more than a century and a half ago, when Greece was a backwater still mired in its Dark Ages. Since that time, the oracle had played as pivotal a role in the politics of Lydia as she had in those of any Greek city.
The very first Lydian leader came to Delphi in 716 BC. In contrast to the strutting figure cut by his descendant Croesus, this king slipped into the town furtively from a single nondescript ship, accompanied only by a few other grim-faced, heavily-armed men, who acted more like his jailers than his servants. These men insisted, contrary to all protocol, that they be allowed to enter the temple of Apollo along with him. Nonplussed, but intimidated despite herself by their fierce appearance, the oracle agreed to let the entire assemblage seat themselves before her. The young man at the center of the group told her that he was, by a curious chain of circumstances, the ostensible leader of his land. Lydia had been ruled since shortly after the fall of Troy by a family who called themselves the Heraclids, for they claimed to be descendants of the legendary hero Heracles. But now there had come an unexpected break in that line of succession, as the oracle learned.
“My name is Gyges,” said her suppliant. “Until recently, I was the most trusted bodyguard of Kandaules, king of Lydia. But now I have been thrust into that role myself. It is in connection with these events that I have come here, accompanied by these others, to seek the advice of the god Apollo.”
The oracle noticed that the faces of the men around Gyges darkened when he claimed the role of king. She looked at him more curiously than ever; the nervous man who sat fidgeting before her seemed the most unlikely of usurpers. “Go on,” she said.
“My king Kandaules was utterly besotted with his queen. He claimed her to be the most beautiful mortal woman to have come into the world since Helen. I expressed no doubt about this, but nonetheless he kept insisting upon it, as if I didn’t believe him. Finally, he said that I must see his queen naked. Then I would be truly convinced.
“This was a shocking suggestion, for we peoples of the east consider it a great shame to be seen by others without our clothing, regardless of our sex. I knew immediately that no good could possibly come of it, for me or for anyone else. I begged to be spared the sight, stated more forcefully than ever that I already believed every one of my king’s claims about his wife’s beauty. My people have a saying which has always struck me as wise: ‘Look only at what belongs to you.’ I repeated the saying now to my king, and begged him not to order me to do something that went against all dignity. But he was determined to see his mad scheme through.
“‘Don’t worry, Gyges,’ said my king. ‘I have a foolproof plan, for I know my wife’s routine well. She always goes to bed before me, alone; then the door to our bedroom always stands open until I come in. You will hide behind the open door, whence you will be able to watch her remove her clothes. After she has done so, she will go into the washroom, which adjoins the bedroom on its other side, to perform her nighttime ablutions. This will be your chance to slip out unnoticed.’ He elbowed me mischievously. ‘Mind you, don’t let yourself get so excited by the sight that you forget to make your exit!’ But I had no heart for such raillery; I sensed my doom in the offing.
“And yet, much to my relief, all seemed to go according to the king’s plan. I hid behind the door, and then the queen came in and did just as the king had said she would. I swear I did my best to look only as much as necessary! When she turned her back to go into the washroom, I slipped away as quietly as I was able.
“The next day I dutifully nodded my assent when the king asked me if I was now convinced of his claim. I dared to hope that this would mark the end of the whole sorry episode.
“Forlorn hope! For I soon received a summons from the queen. While I knelt before her throne, she told me coldly that I had left my post behind the door too early; she had heard me on her way into the washroom, and had looked behind her and seen my departure. I didn’t know what to say — did I dare to implicate my king? — and this only made me seem more guilty. But then the interrogation took a turn I had not anticipated even in my worst nightmares. ‘I know my husband,’ she said. ‘I know the way he boasts about me, and know that he must have planned this crime. I am determined that someone must die for it — either its planner or its perpetrator, I care not which. There are just two roads open to you now. I shall let you choose which you want to take. Either kill King Kandaules and become the new king of Lydia with me as your queen, or be executed for your crime.’
“I tried — truly I did — to convince her to relent. But to no avail. When I saw that my freedom of choice really was reduced to the one course or the other, I opted for regicide. I simply wasn’t willing to die for a crime which I had been forced to commit by my king’s foolish whim. ‘Since you are compelling me to slay my master, please tell me how you expect me to do so,’ I said numbly.
“She said that poetic justice demanded that I kill him from the same place where I had viewed her naked body. So, once again I found myself hiding behind the same open door. Only this time I waited until after the queen had made a show of putting herself to bed — waited until the king entered the bedroom. Then, just as he reached around to close the door behind him, I stabbed him in the heart.
“These events caused enormous chaos in the palace, as you might well expect. I certainly got quite a hurried education in courtly intrigue! I learned only now that the king had exhibited his wife to others before me in a similarly callous and demeaning fashion. And I learned that the queen had been quietly waiting to take her revenge for years, and had recruited many partisans to her camp. But there were many others who were still loyal to the old order, who wanted to execute us both and install the next heir in the Heraclidan line in our place. To save our land civil war, we all agreed to ask the god Apollo to decide who should rule Lydia. If he decides in my favor, all will accept me as king; but if he rules for the Heraclids, I will surrender the throne immediately and accept my punishment.”
His voice nearly broke as he said these last words, even as the men around him all nodded, glowering more darkly than ever. The oracle had the distinct impression that they were convinced the god would rule in their favor, and that their swords were already sharpened to deliver Gyges’s punishment. She felt a visceral repugnance toward them, even as she felt sympathy for the young man who had been forced into such an untenable situation by his monarch’s arrogance. And she also felt for the woman who had had her privacy so thoughtlessly violated in the service of a man’s boasts.
The god Apollo apparently agreed with her. For when the oracle returned from her inner sanctum, she brought with her a verdict which no one — not even Gyges — had expected. “The god deems Gyges to be the rightful king of Lydia,” she said shortly. While the king in question gaped at his deliverance, the faces of his handlers darkened yet more, and their hands strayed toward the hilts of their swords. Fearing bloodshed here in the holy temple, the oracle added a hasty caveat: “Be aware of this, however: retribution for the crime of Gyges will be visited upon his great-great-grandson.” This promise of eventual justice, even if it was to be extremely belated, allowed the other men to save face. A relieved oracle watched them each swear grudging allegiance to the now officially anointed king of Lydia.
Gyges never forgot to whom he owed his deliverance. He sent many gifts to Delphi in the decades that followed; he was in fact the first barbarian to do so in the Age of Men. His gold and other treasures did much to support Delphi’s temples at a time when Greece itself was still painfully poor. A unique bond was forged. The people of Delphi even said sometimes that the Lydians were honorary Greeks in their eyes and those of their god.
Gyges and the kings who followed him enjoyed reigns of 38 years, 49 years, 12 years, and 57 years respectively, and Lydia grew more powerful than ever over the century and a half thus encompassed. The kings entered into their share of wars, but, just as she did with the Spartans, the oracle in Delphi acted as a moderating influence on their appetite for conquest. Most of all, she kept Lydia from turning its hungry eye toward Greece while her own land was struggling up slowly out of its Dark Ages. And thus it finally came to pass in 560 BC that Croesus, the newly crowned fifth king of the house of Gyges, came to a reinvigorated Delphi in all his pompous splendor.
When the formal welcoming ceremonies for Croesus were finished, the courtiers of the Lydian king and the functionaries of Delphi, who had been meeting one another at least once every few years for generations now, retired together as usual to drink wine and gossip about the latest goings-on in both of their regions of the world. The Delphi townsmen told the Lydians about the latest news out of Athens: that Solon, the venerable drafter of his city’s democratic constitution, had died just days before. “Why, he was just in Sardis in recent months!” cried one of the Lydians, and explained how the old man had come to attend Croesus’s coronation as part of a delegation from several Greek cities. “He made a real impression on our new king…” After glancing about to make sure that no other ears were hiding in the shadows, the flushed raconteur took a long swig of wine and prepared to tell his story. The men of Delphi leaned forward, sensing that they were about to hear some really juicy gossip.
“As you all know, we’ve assembled quite some riches in Sardis these days, and our new king does like to show them off. So, when Solon arrived, he made sure to take him on the grand tour. But the old man stayed noncommittal, which King Croesus didn’t like one bit. He prodded him for compliments. ‘My honored Athenian guest,’ says he, ‘word of your wisdom has reached us even here. We hear you have wandered through much of the world in search of knowledge, so I really can’t resist asking you now whether you have yet seen anyone who surpasses all others in fortune.’
“‘Why, yes, I have,’ answers Solon in his careful way. ‘But I didn’t have to travel at all to find him. I’m thinking of a fellow Athenian named Tallus who lived a good and stable life in our noble city. He ran his businesses honestly, had many friends, and when he died was buried with honor, leaving behind many upstanding children and grandchildren. What more can life offer a man?’
“‘Yes, very well, but that sounds a rather ordinary life, all the same,’ says King Croesus. ‘Surely a truly fortunate man must rise to more glorious heights than this Tallus of yours.’
“‘I’m not certain I agree that fortune and glory are one and the same,’ says Solon. ‘But if you ask me who I know of who has lived the most glorious life, I would have to point to the story of the two brothers Cleobis and Biton. Their elderly mother had for many years been the head priestess of Hera in Argos, the very city which that goddess chose as her own long ago. Now their mother was to be honored for her pious service at Hera’s temple in Delphi. But the oxen which were supposed to have pulled her wagon to Delphi fell ill and died just before the party was to have departed. So, Cleobis and Biton hitched themselves into the traces and pulled their dear old mother at breakneck speed all the way to her destination — all so that she could receive the honor that was due her. Legend has it that the two of them died of sheer exhaustion just after witnessing the ceremony. I don’t know how much of the legend is true, but, if we assume it is completely true, Cleobis and Biton strike me as the most glorious of all men for dying in the midst of making themselves useful to the one they loved most.’”
Now, this legend of Cleobis and Biton had been told at Delphi for centuries in one form or another. Not far from the hall where the men were gathered stood statues of the brothers, donated by the people of Argos, who were as fond of the legend as were their counterparts in Delphi. As always happened when the story came up in conversation, our group of gossips now launched into a lively debate about its veracity. But at last the arguments died down, and the original teller could return to his original tale of Croesus and Solon.
“Anyway, I thought I saw a twinkle in the old man’s eyes as he finished telling the legend. I wondered if he was deliberately needling our king. Whether he was or he wasn’t, King Croesus had certainly run out of patience. ‘My Athenian guest,’ says he, ‘are you disparaging my own fortune as nothing? Do you really think my fortune — or, if you like, my glory — less than that of these two long-dead brothers who never ruled so much as a household, much less an empire?’
“‘King Croesus,’ says Solon, ‘I will admit that I have not completely answered your question, but I would respectfully submit that the question itself was a confused one. When some men speak of fortune, they speak of material prosperity alone; when others speak of it, they speak in a more holistic sense. I chose to address your question in this latter way. For many people of modest means are in fact fortunate, while many wealthy people are the opposite. Good fortune, I believe, is grounded in wisdom rather than wealth. The man who has material fortune but lacks wisdom outdoes the poor wise man in only two ways: he can more easily gratify his passions, and can more easily sustain himself in adversity. But the poor wise man lives by my motto of Nothing In Excess, and so has less need of gratification, even as his wisdom and moderation let him steer around many forms of adversity.
“‘Of course, purely random chance plays a role as well — which brings me to another point. There is one crucial difference between you and the other men I have spoken of: you are still alive, while they are not. How can I speak of the sum total of a life’s fortune when that life is not yet concluded — when I don’t know what that man’s tomorrow may bring? So much of life is random. Fire or war, plague or betrayal, can wipe out a lifetime’s fortune in the span of hours, changing our final evaluation of the life in question forever. Would you say today that Oedipus, Heracles, or Jason had fortunate lives? No? Yet many would have called them fortunate while they were still alive, what with their riches and honors and the love they garnered from so many. No man should tempt the Fates by calling another who still lives fortunate — still less should he call himself fortunate. Momentarily lucky is as far as he should go. For a wise man passes judgment only on the whole of every matter. So, if you like, I will be pleased to call you lucky — but not fortunate. Not yet.’
“These were the old man’s words — and very wise words they were too, if I say so myself. But King Croesus, who doesn’t like to be contradicted, much less lectured to, was more displeased than ever. He dismissed the old sage almost rudely, I’m sorry to say. But no matter. Now, having learned today that Solon has died, I believe we can call him a fortunate man even by his own criteria.”
All of those assembled nodded heartily at this, and they drank many toasts to the wise old man of Athens, whose quiet dignity contrasted so markedly with the braggadocio of Croesus. Everyone there felt the contrast — but none, needless to say, dared vocalize their feelings.
Nevertheless, the more wine that was drunk, the freer the conversation became. At last, one of the Delphi functionaries asked the question that was on all their minds. “But what brings your king to Delphi at this time, so soon after taking the throne? Normally a new king prefers to consolidate his power at home before traveling abroad. Is there some crisis besetting your land?”
“To answer your second question: no, no major crisis threatens us at the moment,” said one of the Lydians reluctantly. “I can answer your first question as well, if you insist. But I’m afraid you won’t like the answer.”
“Well, out with it anyway…”
“Our king has decided to test the veracity of all of the oracles in the world. Then, if and when a crisis should arrive, he will know which ones he can trust to give good advice.” And the courtier proceeded to describe how Croesus planned to conduct the test. The men of Delphi, although shocked at the sheer effrontery the plan entailed, nonetheless listened keenly. When the description was finished, at least one of them slipped away unnoticed with an urgent look on his face.
The next morning, one of the Lydian courtiers appeared before the oracle all alone. After being asked his business, he answered that he simply wished the oracle to tell him what King Croesus was doing at that exact moment. The oracle looked at him incredulously. “You sailed all the way here to ask me this?”
The courtier felt rather ashamed of himself, but orders were orders. “Yes. I merely do what my king bids me to do.”
Much to his relief, the oracle refrained from berating him further. She retired to her inner sanctum without another word, then returned a few minutes later. The answer she gave was couched in verse, as an increasing number of them tended to be in this Age of Men.
“I know the number of grains of sand and the measure of the sea,
I understand the mute and hear the speechless.
Into the depth of my senses has come the smell of hard-shelled tortoise,
Boiling in bronze with meat of lamb,
Laid upon bronze below, covered with bronze on top.”
“Now begone,” said the oracle. “And don’t bother me with such trivialities again.”
The courtier scurried away to relay the message. Croesus himself had left the Lydians’ main camp with just a few selected guards earlier that morning, but when he returned and heard the oracle’s verse, his face lit up with delight. For he and his guards had in fact sneaked some distance away, started a campfire, and made a stew of tortoise and lamb in one of the royal household’s bronze cauldrons.
Croesus’s guards had been on-edge throughout the affair; they suspected they had been followed, insisted they had heard feet running through the forest even after they had all sat down around the fire. But the courtier shushed them. The king was pleased at the outcome of his test, he said, and a pleased king was the best of all scenarios for those around him — guards and courtiers alike.
The fact was, Croesus was very pleased indeed with Delphi, especially after its oracle proved the only one in the world to pass his test. He declared that henceforward he would know just where to turn in times of trouble. To make sure Apollo was always ready to hear his queries, he ordered sent to Delphi 117 ingots of pure gold for the town treasury; two enormous libation bowls, one of gold and one of silver, to be placed before the entrance to the temple of Apollo alongside a life-sized lion made of pure gold; gold- and silver-plated couches, golden libation cups, and rich purple robes for the oracle and the town elders; and two golden coins for every single citizen of the town. Over the course of the next decade, Croesus continued to shower the town with gifts, and to visit almost every year to inquire about matters both official and personal.
There was, for example, the matter of his son. This boy, whom the king adored, had never spoken a word, for reasons no one could deduce. So, Croesus asked the oracle how he could make the boy speak. In delivering her god’s answer, she spoke to him in a tone that absolutely no other person in the world could have gotten away with: “You are a fool, Croesus, for continuing to pester the god Apollo for more, more, more, when you already have so much. Desire not to hear the sound of your son’s voice. Rather pray for the opposite. For on the day on which you first hear it, you will be robbed of your kingdom.” Croesus nodded humbly, accepting the rebuke like a chastened child. And as with this, so with a hundred other minor consultations.
But there finally came, about a decade into Croesus’s reign, a vitally important question of state which he expected the god of Delphi to guide him through. In recent years, a people known as the Persians had been busily forging the largest empire the world had ever known. They had begun far, far to the east — hundreds of leagues farther east than the most easterly point Jason had reached on his legendary voyage, in lands which were a mystery to both Greeks and Lydians. But they had expanded westward with dismaying speed, and already now their empire was bumping against Lydia’s eastern border. Croesus was uncertain what to do about this new power. No longer daring to leave Sardis himself in light of the encroaching shadow to the east, he sent a delegation to Delphi to ask for advice on this, the most important issue he had yet confronted as king.
“Croesus, king of the Lydians, believing you to be the only true oracle in the world, has given you gifts worthy of your prophetic powers,” his representatives said. “Now he asks you whether he should wage war against the Persians, and if so how he should do so.”
Delphi itself and the rest of Greece were not uninterested in the question thus set before the oracle. For if the Persians should conquer the Lydians and continue their march westward, the disunited, squabbling cities of Greece would be the next major obstacles in their path. Some far-seeing men were already whispering that Greece, a land that had always enjoyed the freedom to go its own way in the past, was facing an existential threat the likes of which it had never known before. Even if one wasn’t willing to go that far, it was clearly in the best interest of the Greeks for the Lydians to hold the Persians at bay far away. Did this reality affect the oracle’s response? Who can say?
“If you make war upon the Persians, a great empire will fall,” said the oracle to the Lydian delegation. “Do so as you see fit — but do not do so alone if you can avoid it. Make common cause with Greek cities and as many other lands as possible, for your interests are the same in this matter. The Persians are a threat to all of you.”
When this response reached Croesus, he thought immediately of Sparta, the Greek city most noted for its prowess in war. So, even as he prepared his own empire for war and sent other diplomats to Egypt and Babylonia, two lands that lay well to the south of Greece and Lydia, he also sent a delegation westward across the Aegean Sea yet again. “Croesus, king of Lydia, has sent us to you,” they said to the two Spartan kings and the rest of the Spartan Senate, “because Apollo’s oracle in Delphi told him to ally himself with Greeks in his coming war with the Persians. Yours is the most powerful city in Greece. Therefore he invites you to become his friend and ally in this endeavor.”
The Spartans, being always ready for war on almost any pretext, agreed to do so. Meanwhile the Egyptians and Babylonians also agreed to join the common cause. Croesus decided that this alliance of four great powers would be more than sufficient to defeat the Persians, for the Lydians themselves were almost as famous as the Spartans for their prowess in battle, and could field a much larger army to boot. In contrast to the famed Spartan legions of indomitable foot soldiers, they preferred to fight on horseback behind long spears; the thunder of their cavalry charges had struck terror into many an enemy’s heart.
Truth be told, Croesus thought little of the Persians. If the Greeks considered his people barbarians as a matter of tradition and semantics, he thought, the Persians truly justified the use of such a disdainful word. The scattered reports he received of them told him that they dressed entirely in leather; that they happily ate offal; that they drank nothing but water. How could such a degenerate race field an army capable of standing up to the combined might of Lydia, Sparta, Egypt, and Babylonia? The Persians’ ruler, a man named Cyrus who dared to style himself “the Great,” was said to be an uncouth fool. The opulent halls of power in Sardis rang with mockery of him and his delusions of grandeur.
Indeed, the more Croesus thought about the question, the more convinced he became that sharing the glory of the coming war with so many allies was needless. Certain of the invincibility of his own rich empire, egged on by courtiers who flattered his supposed military genius rather than speaking truth to power, Croesus decided to launch his attack without waiting for any of his allies’ armies to arrive; let them come along behind his bold spearhead and scavenge what glory they could from his leavings. In the year 547 BC, he set off eastward to chase the lowly Persians back to where they had come from.
At first, all went just as Croesus had so confidently expected. His army marched deep into Persian territory, encountering almost no opposition; it seemed that Cyrus had been caught completely unprepared. But at last, having traveled farther east than any Lydian army ever, they ran into a Persian force that had moved up hastily to deal with the threat.
The result of that clash defied all of Croesus’s sanguine prejudices. The Persian army he encountered was well-trained, well-equipped, well-led, and battle-hardened. Shrewdly, the Persians set up their defense in a defile where the Lydian cavalry had no room to maneuver. Although outnumbered, they stopped the Lydians cold, inflicting heavy losses in the process. Then, still taking advantage of rugged terrain that suited their preferred method of fighting more than that of the Lydians, they began to push their enemies back. Discomfiting reports reached Croesus of other Persian armies moving up to attack his flanks, under the direct command of King Cyrus himself. Realizing belatedly how badly he had overextended himself, Croesus ordered a full-on retreat, all the way back to his capital of Sardis.
He arrived there feeling like the foolish beekeeper who prods the hive out of its slumber. Only now, when it was quite possibly too late, did he grasp the real magnitude of the Persian threat. He sent out urgent calls to his allies, begging them to come to his aid. But there was no time now — for Cyrus, eager to catch his enemies out before they had time to regroup and gather reinforcements, marched to Sardis almost as quickly as Croesus had ridden there.
Unlike the place where the Persians had first clashed with the Lydians, the area around Sardis was perfect territory for a charge by the skilled Lydian horsemen: it was an arid and level plain. Cyrus had very few horsemen of his own, and his infantry legions were ill-equipped to withstand any such assault. But he did have a considerable number of camels. Anticipating the cavalry charge that must come, he gathered all of them together and drove them before his army on its final approach to Sardis. Thus when the inevitable charge began — when the Lydian horsemen came galloping out to sweep the field of battle clean — they encountered the camels first, and their horses reared up and shied away, for horses fear camels, and panic at the merest sight or smell of them. Cyrus’s foot soldiers surged forward in the confusion and won the day. The Lydians were chased back inside the walls of their city, and the Persians settled down for the siege.
Trapped in this cage made of his own folly, Croesus tried desperately to get more messengers through to his allies — and, indeed, a handful did manage to run the gauntlet of the enemy army on horseback, or to sneak through the lines in the dead of night. But the Egyptians and Babylonians, having now seen a vivid demonstration of the Persians’ might, feared becoming the next incarnation of the foolish beekeeper. Croesus had, after all, brought his doom upon himself by rashly attacking before his allies were ready. Why should they save him now?
Only the Spartans, hungry as ever for war, were willing to answer Croesus’s call. But while the ships to carry their emergency relief force were still being assembled, another messenger arrived from Lydia telling them that the question was now moot. Sardis had fallen; Croesus was captured. Even the zealous Spartans were a little dismayed by this latest demonstration of the Persians’ capabilities. Sardis was known to be one of the best-fortified cities in the world. It ought to have been able to hold out for months against virtually any army. How had the Persians overrun it so quickly?
What had happened was this: one day a Persian soldier had seen one of the Lydians manning the ramparts accidentally drop his helmet down from the heights. Then he saw this same Lydian climb down the wall to retrieve it — climb down a wall that everyone had heretofore believed to be unclimbable. After nightfall, the Persian soldier crept up to examine that section, and found that its surface was not so smooth and unblemished as all the rest of the wall; it was in fact riven with cracks that could serve as handholds for a brave and dexterous man. He told his king of his discovery, and Cyrus quickly ordered his soldiers to attempt the climb en masse. They died in the dozens from the rocks and flaming oil which the Lydians rained down on them from the ramparts, then died in the hundreds from Lydian swords after making it to the top. But the Persians were as relentless as any hive of bees; they just kept on coming. In the end, they managed to battle their way to the main gates of the city and throw them wide.
Croesus was saved from death only by the intervention of the son whom everyone had believed to be mute. When the boy saw a Persian soldier raising his sword to deliver the killing blow to his father, something seemed to shake itself loose inside him. “Don’t kill King Croesus!” he shouted. And the enemy soldiers obeyed him to the extent of shackling their prize to give to their own King Cyrus.
Said king wasn’t known for his mercy. He ordered that an execution pyre be prepared while his pathetic prisoner looked on in his shackles, waiting to be burned alive upon it. But while this was being done, he noticed that Croesus, crouching there in the dirt beside himself with fear, kept muttering the name “Solon” over and over. Finally, he asked Croesus what the name meant to him.
And so Croesus told of Solon’s visit to Lydia some fourteen years earlier, and of what the elderly Athenian wise man had told a vainglorious king about fortune at that time. Cyrus, seeing his enemy laid so low before him, suddenly saw as well how easily Croesus’s fate could have been his — indeed, might still become his as part of the further wages of war. “Croesus, I have a mind to spare you,” he said, surprising even himself with these words. “I have need of a trusted advisor who understands these territories into which my empire is now expanding. If you will swear fealty to me and take on this role, I will not light your execution pyre today. What say you?”
Croesus, hardly able to believe his deliverance, obsequiously promised all Cyrus had asked of him and more, whereupon his new master ordered his shackles removed. Although the people around the Persian king would always look down on Croesus for his eager obeisance in the breach, and would certainly never entirely trust him, he went on to serve Cyrus faithfully and well, giving much good advice within the limits of his wisdom. Most importantly, he taught Cyrus everything he knew about horsemanship and the use of cavalry in battle, so much so that the Persians were soon almost the equal of the Lydians on horseback. Croesus helped them employ their cavalry in the decades that followed to conquer Babylonia, and also helped them make plans to do the same to Egypt, the second of his two supposed allies who had abandoned in his time of need. He and King Cyrus even became friends of a sort in the course of their long conversations.
One evening after they had drunk much wine, Cyrus asked his advisor a question that had long been on his mind. “Croesus, you are not a stupid man. What on earth convinced you to invade my lands when you had no idea of my capabilities, and without even attempting to become my friend?”
“Sire,” answered Croesus humbly, “what I did was a blessing for you — look how your empire has grown through the conquest of Lydia! — but it was indeed a curse for me. The one to blame is the oracle in Delphi, who I now believe speaks for only herself rather than for Apollo or any other god. She convinced me to go to war. Why else would I be so foolish as to choose war over peace? In peace, sons bury their fathers, as the natural order of things dictates; in war, fathers bury their sons, and this is tragically unnatural.”
Cyrus looked at him thoughtfully. “In time, this Delphi of yours will be in Persian hands, as will all the rest of the world. It may be, though, that these things will take longer than our lifetimes. So, in the meantime, do you wish to send a message of some sort to the oracle whose bad advice proved your undoing?”
“Why, yes, sire,” said Croesus excitedly. “As you know, I have preserved the shackles in which I would have been deservedly burned alive but for your mercy. I would send them to Delphi along with a message.”
Some weeks later, a single foreign traveler came to Delphi and asked to see the oracle. After the usual waiting time of several days — the oracle was now even busier than she had been during the Age of Gods — he entered the temple of Apollo. But he didn’t bow or engage in any of the rituals that were expected of suppliants. Instead he threw Croesus’s shackles at her feet with a contemptuous snort. “Is your god Apollo proud to have led Croesus into a foolish war, the spoils of which turned out to be only these shackles of slavery you see before you?”
It so happened that the oracle during this period was one of the stronger and prouder of those who graced Delphi during its long history. She met the uncouth stranger’s accusing gaze without flinching and matched his tone. “Fated destiny is impossible to avoid. Croesus had to atone for the crime his forefather Gyges committed a century and a half ago. Further, had Croesus considered the god’s pronouncement more carefully, he would have understood that the ‘great empire’ which was spoken of could have been either that of Cyrus or his own. He misunderstood the prophecy and then, having heard what he wished to hear, failed to question the god further. Let him own up to his own fault. And now, leave me, impious barbarian. There are Greeks who have need of my services.”
The Persian visitor spat at her feet. “You’re no god’s oracle,” he said, “just a silly woman meddling in matters too big for you.” Still, the report of his audience which he carried with him back to Sardis was rather less satisfying than Croesus had hoped it would be.
But on the other hand, Croesus did get to die peacefully in his bed, just before the peaceful death of the foreign monarch he spent his later years serving, and long after he would have perished had he not evoked the name of Solon in his worst moment of terror. Whether his survival was worth the respect it cost him, and whether he ultimately died a fortunate man, is for you to judge.
(This series's cover art is by Dorte Lassen, who hereby releases it under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)