546: Croesus

Add comment January 5th, 2019 Headsman

It was perhaps around the winter outset of 546 BCE that the Lydian king Croesus was captured and executed or spared by the Persians.

Famed for his wealth — he funded the construction of the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders* — Croesus was heir to a 600-year-old empire dominating western Anatolia. Herodotus credits the Lydians as the inventors of coinage, a likely basis for the “rich as Croesus” expression.

Would that he had been so rich in wisdom.

In perhaps 547 BCE, Croesus launched a war against the rising power on his eastern border — the Persian Achaemenid Empire, led by Cyrus the Great. In a classic ancient own-goal, Croesus got the thumbs-up for this adventure from the Oracle of Delphi, who told the Lydian envoys that if Croesus fought Persia, he would destroy a great empire.** That empire turned out be his own.

After fighting to a stalemate in the autumn of 547, Croesus retired to his capital of Sardis to winter, believing war would abate with the end of the campaigning season — even dismissing his allies until the spring.

Cyrus surprised him instead, marching aggressively on Sardis and putting it to siege after routing a much larger Lydian army at the Battle of Thymbra.† It wasn’t long before the Persians found an ill-defended entrance into the city’s citadel via a mountain ascent, and fulfilled the Pythian priestess’s prophecy.

We have no certain record of Croesus’s actual fate; the histories for him come from later Greeks, whose accounts are contradictory and even folklorish; J.A.S. Evans suggests in a 1978 scholarly exploration that the Greeks were equally in the dark about the matter but that “Croesus had become a figure of myth, who stood outside the conventional restraints of chronology.”

Herodotus renders his version thus, turning the action on Croesus’s remembrance of a previous encounter with the Greek wise man Solon, who had counseled him that wealth is not happiness:

The Persians gained Sardis and took Croesus prisoner. Croesus had ruled fourteen years and been besieged fourteen days. Fulfilling the oracle, he had destroyed his own great empire.

The Persians took him and brought him to Cyrus, who erected a pyre and mounted Croesus atop it, bound in chains, with twice seven sons of the Lydians beside him. Cyrus may have intended to sacrifice him as a victory-offering to some god, or he may have wished to fulfill a vow, or perhaps he had heard that Croesus was pious and put him atop the pyre to find out if some divinity would deliver him from being burned alive. So Cyrus did this.

As Croesus stood on the pyre, even though he was in such a wretched position it occurred to him that Solon had spoken with god’s help when he had said that no one among the living is fortunate. When this occurred to him, he heaved a deep sigh and groaned aloud after long silence, calling out three times the name “Solon.” Cyrus heard and ordered the interpreters to ask Croesus who he was invoking … He explained that first Solon the Athenian had come and seen all his fortune and spoken as if he despised it. Now everything had turned out for him as Solon had said, speaking no more of him than of every human being, especially those who think themselves fortunate.

While Croesus was relating all this, the pyre had been lit and the edges were on fire. When Cyrus heard from the interpreters what Croesus said, he relented and considered that he, a human being, was burning alive another human being, one his equal in good fortune.

In addition, he feared retribution, reflecting how there is nothing stable in human affairs. He ordered that the blazing fire be extinguished as quickly as possible, and that Croesus and those with him be taken down, but despite their efforts they could not master the fire.

Then the Lydians say that Croesus understood Cyrus’ change of heart, and when he saw everyone trying to extinguish the fire but unable to check it, he invoked Apollo, crying out that if Apollo had ever been given any pleasing gift by him, let him offer help and deliver him from the present evil.

Thus he in tears invoked the god, and suddenly out of a clear and windless sky clouds gathered, a storm broke, and it rained violently, extinguishing the pyre.

Even in this one text, Cyrus both does and does not execute Croesus, a figure whose proportions of historicity and legend are impossible to measure. In different variants of this tragic fall, Croesus puts up his own pyre for desperate self-immolation like the Steward of Gondor

… or it is or is not successfully extinguished. A post-pyre Croesus then goes on to become a dutiful slave of Cyrus, the relationship of conquered and conquering kings full of aphorism and fable-ready vignettes with no dependable historical warrant.

* For the pedants in the room, the “Seven Wonders” roster was composed later in antiquity, and the Temple of Artemis made the list based on its rebuild version after the one put up by Croesus had been torched by the fame-seeking Herostratus.

** Croesus rated the Delphic oracle’s advice highly. Aesop, the fable guy got himself executed by the Delphians by misbehaving while in the course of delivering a tribute from Croesus.

† Allegedly, the unnerving sight of Cyrus’s camels arrayed for battle panicked the Lydian cavalry into flight.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Burned,Execution,Executions Survived,Famous,Heads of State,History,Language,Last Minute Reprieve,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Persia,Popular Culture,Power,Reprieved Too Late,Royalty,Summary Executions,The Supernatural,Turkey,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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