History’s awkward endings Pt.1: King Croesus of Lydia

Head of Croesus on a vase in the Louvre, Paris (France)
Head of Croesus on a vase in the Louvre, Paris (France)

History often serves as a sort of mirror of the past, showcasing what our species is capable of and offering perspective on present-day events. Plenty of lessons can be learned from it. Plenty of how-not-to-do-its. The big picture can teach us about development, trends, bla bla bla you know the story. But history is also rife with ridiculous stories that are just too good not to tell, despite their often questionable nature and, perhaps, little direct present-day relevance. So who am I to deny these stories their turn in the limelight?

Through the course of my studies I’ve naturally built up a bit of an arsenal of these kinds of stories, and I thought it would be nice to do a (themed) series incorporating some of them. So, enter History’s awkward endings, in which each post will tell a different tale. Yes, the ‘endings’ part is deliberately vague, to give myself some more options. All ye with weak stomachs or a too highly attuned sense of vicarious shame, turn away before it’s too late

Our first target of ridicule is weirdly wonderful, war-mongering king Croesus of Lydia.

Imagine living in the kingdom of Lydia, which spanned roughly the western half of present-day Turkey, in the fifth century BC. Your Greek neighbours across the Aegean Sea are all busy forming city-states and trying to one-up their rivals by inventing even cooler ways to rule their cities. Sparta’s holding fast to her “What’s better than one king? – Two kings!” thing, while Athens is under expert tyrant management by the Pisistratids and still has some way to go before coming up with all that democracy nonsense. Closer to home, on your own side of the pond, there are some little Greek colonies that can easily be scared into submission by a capable king. Lydia’s capital, Sardis, has a river running through it that supposedly carries gold dust, in part explaining the kingdom’s wealth, and King Croesus’ reputation for being filthy rich. Croesus is not only rich; he is also stupidly confident and ambitious, and of course wants to ensure he will go down in history. And he will.

Now, our main and almost only written source on Croesus is Herodotus, the ‘father of history’. He wrote the Histories, an account of the Persian Wars (you know, the ones during which the whole ‘300’/’This. Is. SPARTA!’ thing took place) and the prelude to it, with a vast amount of background given about the Persian Empire, too. He was a bearded (albeit originally non-mainland-) Greek with a passion for recording even the most obscure titbit of information he had gathered on his travels. Herodotus had the admirable goal of trying to be as historically accurate as possible; and, to be fair, he does a decent job at this, casting his often critical eye on a huge variety of matters. For instance, he’ll strive to give both versions if he has heard two conflicting stories on a certain matter and can’t figure out which one’s correct. However, he sometimes records utter nonsense as well: despite his claims to the contrary, camels do not actually have four thigh-bones and four knee-joints. (Hdt. III.103). Herodotus wrote his Histories about a full century later than when Croesus did all of his sallying forth and conquering and such; something definitely worth remembering. He also likes a good story (including his own book, of course), so literary motives might distort matters a bit further here and there. All in all, I think it’s fair to take the stories he tells about Croesus with a bit of a pinch of salt

According to Herodotus, Croesus succeeded to the throne at the age of thirty-five, predictably after the death of his father (shit – that’s how kingdoms work?). Almost instantly he began indulging in his new favourite pastime of non-mainland Greek bashing, which he started by invading the Ephesians and then worked his way through the rest. Expanded kingdom: check. Wealth: check. Happiness? Croesus thought so, but there’s an interesting passage to be found in the Histories which tells of his meeting with Solon the Athenian that sheds some light on this point.

Yes, THE Solon, the one who’s remembered for his laws and reforms. After having given his city a helping hand, Solon seems to have gone on some sort of Grand Tour, and happened to stop by Sardis, too. Croesus, holding Solon in high regard, asks him who he considers to be the happiest among men, obviously expecting Solon to flatter him and say Croesus’ name. Solon will have none of that, however, and proceeds to list a few men who for example became wealthy, fathered sons and saw them grow up and have kids of their own, and died a glorious death in battle. A.k.a., they met a good end, too. When Croesus asks why he isn’t included in this in his opinion none too impressive list, Solon replies that he can’t name him yet, until his life has been brought to a fair ending, while having held on to all of his wealth. (Hdt. I.30-32).

His conquering needs not satisfied yet, Croesus decides he wants to become even richer (which, if he can hang onto it, would make for a great ending) and devises taking his megalomania into the neighbouring hulk that is the Persian Empire. In the meantime, by the way, his son dies, arguably as a result of his own paranoia; not a good sign. A pitt-stop at the renowned Delphic Oracle, situated in the most beautiful place on earth (Delphi, in Greece; seriously, go visit it if you have the chance) was meant to give him piece of mind regarding this not entirely risk-free enterprise. Luckily the oracle tells him that if he marches against the Persians, he will destroy a great empire. (Hdt. I.53). Score!

Now of course one can imagine that oracles, as some sort of precursors to modern-day horoscopes (shudder), could boost their success rate considerably by being ever so slightly ambiguous. I’m sure you can see it coming. Croesus, of course, didn’t, and learned his lesson the hard way. By pissing off Persia’s king, Cyrus, who with the epithet ‘the Great’ already appeared to have the symbolical upper hand over Croesus, Croesus secured the fate of his own kingdom. Cyrus bulldozed over the ant that was his now former neighbour, sacked Sardis, annexed his kingdom and took his gold. It is unsure where and how exactly Croesus died. Herodotus claims Cyrus released Croesus from the great pyre they had intended to roast him on and was then made an advisor (Hdt. I.87-88), but this seems like a bit of a stretch. Either way, I think we can safely assume Croesus never made it onto Solon’s shortlist of happy men. The king who lost his kingdom; a sort of ancient version of scoring an own goal – and we all know how much of a disaster that is!

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