By Francesca Leaf, Contributor from Noet, a Classical Wisdom Weekly Partner
Best-known for his epic history, The Persian Wars, Herodotus has been referred to as both the “Father of History” and the slightly less flattering title, “Father of Lies”.
Relief of Herodotusflattering) “Father of Lies.”
Herodotus earned the first title through narrating a series of globally-significant events in terms of cause and effect. The source of the second is likely his colorful writing style. A master storyteller, he wove together facts, legends, and gossip. To Herodotus, these aspects were an important part of humanity’s story—adding context to data, dates, and wars.
Herodotus’ love of legends and drama is apparent in his tale of King Croesus of Lydia. He took the historical Croesus and transformed him into a tragic, allegorical figure. More than just a fascinating read, this story provides insight into ancient perspectives on pride, religion, and fate.
The Most Blessed of All Men?
After ascending the throne, Croesus, king of Lydia, set about expanding his empire. Thanks to the legendary Lydian cavalry, he succeeded. The already wealthy Croesus became wildly, fabulously, wantonly rich. He was proud of his riches and delighted in showing them off to those who visited him in Sardis.
Among these visitors was the Athenian lawgiver and sage Solon. True to form, Croesus had his servants lead his visitor around the palace, showing off his treasures. When the tour concluded, Croesus sought out compliments, asking Solon if he had “ever seen a man more blest than all his fellows.”
Solon’s answer was surprising. Apparently, the most blessed of all men was Tellus of Athens. Solon explained his reasoning to the shocked Croesus:
“Tellus’ city was prosperous, and he was the father of noble sons, and he saw children born to all of them and their state well stablished; moreover . . . he crowned his life with a most glorious death . . .” (Herodotus, The Persian Wars, Book I)
In Solon’s opinion, wealth wasn’t the only blessing. He then elaborated, stating that it was actually impossible to judge the happiness of a living person. Many may begin their lives with wonderful things—only to experience a reversal of fortunes.
Solon before Croesus by Nicolaes Knüpfer
As it turns out, Croesus’ unchecked hubris angered the gods, who conspired to take him down a peg or two. That night, Croesus had a horrifying dream—a premonition that his favorite son, Atys, was fated to be killed by a spear.
Watch Out for Sharp Objects
As mortals often do, Croesus decided to thwart fate. He arranged a marriage for his son, informed Atys that he would no longer be commanding the spear-filled Lydian armies, and had all sharp objects removed from the palace.
Shortly after Atys’ wedding, a monstrous boar descended from the mountains and began wreaking havoc in nearby fields. A hunting party was organized, and Atys desperately wanted to join. Croesus didn’t want his son to go, but Atys pleaded, stating that boars fought with tusks, not spears. Croesus relented, but as an extra precaution, required Atys to have a guardian, whose sole duty was to protect the youth.
You can probably guess what happens next: the guardian hurls a spear at the boar, misses, and accidentally kills Atys. Croesus was horrified. He thought he’d been taking steps to circumvent fate . . . and, instead, they’d led him directly to it.
Croesus spent the next two years in deep sorrow. During this time, the Persian Empire expanded and grew in influence. When Croesus took notice of this, he awoke from his sadness and decided that he must put a stop to the Persian power.
An Empire Will Fall
Prior to waging war against the Persians, Croesus decided to consult an oracle about the outcome. He wanted to be sure that he received accurate information, so he devised a test.
Croesus sent delegates to oracles at all four corners of the earth, instructing them to “on the hundredth day inquire of the oracles what Croesus . . . was then doing,” write down the oracular answer, and return to Sardis.
When the delegates arrived at the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, the Pythian priestess, unprompted, uttered:
“What is it now that I smell? ‘tis a tortoise mightily armored
Sodden in vessel of bronze, with a lamb’s flesh mingled together:
Bronze thereunder is laid and a mantle of bronze is upon it.”
(Herodotus, The Persian Wars, Book I)
Meanwhile, back in Sardis, Croesus was busily
Croesus as imagined by Claude Vignon
boiling tortoise and lamb meat. The oracle of Apollo had passed the test with flying colors.
Croesus’ next step was to buy the favor of Apollo, god of sun and light, with a hefty donative. Thanks to Herodotus’ love of colorful detail, we know that Croesus sent the temple at Delphi a gigantic lion figure made from refined gold, gold and silver ingots, and a collection of his wife’s necklaces and girdles (unfortunately, Herodotus does not tell us how she felt about this).
After presenting Croesus’ offerings, his delegates asked the oracle what would happen if Croesus waged war against the Persians. The oracle’s now (in)famous answer was: “. . . that if he should send an army against the Persians he would destroy a great empire.” To Croesus, this could only mean one thing: victory was his!
And so Croesus, his old confidence regained, made powerful alliances and commenced with attacking lands under Persian control. After mixed results, he withdrew to Sardis for the winter and dismissed his mercenaries. His plan was to assemble a larger force and resume his invasion in the spring.
Unfortunately for Croesus, King Cyrus of Persia caught wind of the plan and realized that this was the perfect time to attack the Lydian city.
When Croesus first saw Cyrus’ army marching on Sardis he knew he was in trouble. Cyrus had the numbers. But, perhaps the legendary Lydian cavalry would prevail! What Croesus didn’t know was that Cyrus had a secret weapon . . . an army of fearsome camels! Herodotus puts it best:
“The reason of his posting the camels to face the cavalry was this: horses fear camels and can endure neither the sight nor the smell of them . . . So when battle was joined, as soon as the horses smelt and saw the camels they turned to flight, and all Croesus’ hope was lost.” (Herodotus, The Persian Wars, Book I)
A great empire did indeed fall—the Lydian Empire, that is.
A chastened Croesus was taken prisoner. Condemned to be burned to death on a pyre, Croesus had a revelation and finally understood Solon’s wisdom. Even the most powerful can experience a reversal
Red figure vase of Croesus on the pyre
of fortunes. As the flames climbed higher, he cried out “Solon!”
Cyrus was confused by his prisoner’s antics and asked his interpreters to find out what Croesus was babbling on about. Croesus, through the interpreters, shared Solon’s wise words with Cyrus. Cyrus realized that he could just as easily be the one seated on the pyre. He ordered his men to quell the flames.
The fire couldn’t be put out. Croesus panicked and began crying out to Apollo. Perhaps his lavish gifts to the temple at Delphi would pay off. Apollo must’ve really liked that gold lion—a sudden rainstorm quenched the flames.
Cyrus saw that Croesus was both wise and beloved by Apollo. He decided to make him a trusted counsellor.
Fate Strikes Again
Some may argue that Croesus’ hubris caused his fall from power. Others may blame it on the loathsomeness of camels. More may argue that his failure to ask the oracle exactly which great empire would fall was the ultimate source of his doom. As it turns out, it was all of the above . . . with the addition of fate.
After his stunning defeat, Croesus felt betrayed by Apollo. With Cyrus’ permission, he sent yet another delegation to Delphi—this time, to reproach the Greek god.
In response, the priestess reproached Croesus for not asking the right questions. However, she went on to explain that Croesus’ fall from power wasn’t entirely his own fault. As it turns out, due to the sins of his ancestors, his doom had been fated and therefore inescapable.
Nevertheless, due to his decisions (and poor oracle-interpreting skills), Croesus had gone about fulfilling his fate in a most bombastic way.
And the Moral of the Story Is . . .
A skilled storyteller, Herodotus weaves together elements both human and divine. In the tale of Croesus, the mortal king encountered the divine in the form of meddling gods, a premonitory dream, and those darn ambiguous oracles. Croesus responded to each of these encounters with his flawed, limited, and, ultimately, human understanding. Due to his pride, he incited the wrath of the gods, attempted to foil the unstoppable force of fate, and interpreted oracles as telling the future as he wished it to be.
With this tale, Herodotus sets the tone for the rest of The Persian Wars. Throughout his inquiry, he continues to explore the fickleness of fortune, the mutability of empires, and the fact that no one—not even a god—can escape their fate.
Continue learning about Herodotus and The Persian Wars with Noet. A Classical Wisdom Weekly Partner, Noet provides powerful scholarly tools ideal for university students, long-time classical scholars, and spirited newcomers who want to read and learn the literature of antiquity, the masterpieces of the Western world.
As a Classical Wisdom Weekly subscriber, you can receive 25% off and a free gift when you order any of Noet’s introductory research libraries.