Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The Wealth of Croesus

True happiness is not a thing to be measured by one's possessions. The idea that money alone cannot buy happiness is an ancient teaching, and remains today one of the great philosophical maxims which we preach but so rarely practice. It is folly to think that true serenity is something to be bought. This hasn't stopped many from trying however. One such man was Croesus of Lydia.


The Eastern Mediterranean c. 560 BC
Map created by the author
The land in which Croesus grew up was a nation which has largely been lost in the mists of time. For over five centuries, the Kingdom of Lydia had been powerful nation, enjoying the prosperity and envy only a far larger realm would normally bring, when the great King Alyattes died in the five hundred and sixtieth year before Christ. The ruling House of the Mermnadae had been blessed with strong rulers, and their domains had soared to heights of culture long forgotten now. It is testament to the wealth of Lydia that in fact, the first known coins were minted there. The most powerful cities in Asia Minor had all been subdued by the prowess of the Lydian Kings, and even the vast Median Empire in the East was at best an equal. Alyattes had lead the Lydians to war with the Medes at the River Halys, but, at the height of the battle, a solar eclipse occurred (this was indeed a real event), seeing this as an omen from the Heavens, both sides laid down their arms. Alyattes and King Cyaxares of Media decreed that the River Halys would henceforth be the natural boundaries of their realms, and both nations would trouble the other no more. Things were promising indeed when Alyattes son, Croesus, was crowned King of Lydia at the age of thirty five.


The Tribute to Croesus
Painting by Claude Vignon
Thirsty for treasures anew, Croesus turned West and sieged the great city of Ephesus, the greatest metropolis of the Greeks in Asia, and after a time, took the city. By so doing, Croesus became the first foreign foe to subject the Greeks to tribute. Wealth flowed into the coffers of Sardis, the great capital city of Lydia. One by one, the Greek cities of the coast fell to Croesus' might. Beaten, and humiliated, the Greeks in the West submitted to peace with Lydia, as the King overpowered more and more of the peoples of Asia. Soon, Croesus could count among his subjects the Phrygians, Mysians, Mariandynians, Chalybes, Paphlagonians, Thynian and Bithynian Thracians, Carians, Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians and Pamphylians. Wealth flowed into the coffers of Sardis. The prosperity of Croesus grew so great that Lydia became the first nation to ever mint coins in pure gold. Centuries later, the finest offerings stored at the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi were still the gifts which hailed from Lydia. The fame of Croesus spread throughout the known world, and the power of this foreign King became legend. People far and wide sought trade with the dazzling splendour of his domains. Wealth flowed into the coffers of Sardis. One day, when all the peoples West of the Halys bowed to the Lydian King, when the riches of Sardis were without number, when Croesus stood at the very height of his power, a stranger approached the mighty citadel which housed the royal palace. This man's name was Solon.


Solon comes before Croesus
Painting by Gerard van Honthorst
A native of Athens, a humble and learned man, Solon was himself a renowned statesman, poet and philosopher, who gave many laws to the people of Athens. In his latter days, retired from public life in Athens, Solon set out to see the world, visiting many of the great courts of the Orient. Having graced the court of Pharaoh Amasis in Egypt, at the invitation of Croesus, Solon now came to the palace of Sardis. Croesus gave Solon a lavish room in the palace, and granted him the most extravagant luxuries to furnish his chamber. Soon after his arrival, Croesus gave Solon a spectacular tour of the treasuries, and not a single splendid or shining thing was left unseen, desperate to impress Solon as the King was. Room after room of the most fabulous pearls, emeralds and sapphires stretched before them, as it was once said that Croesus counted his jewels as a man might count the grains of sand in a beach. When at last the glittering tour came to an end, Croesus, burning with pride, turned to his guest and spoke:


         " 'My dear guest from Athens', he said, 'we have often heard about you in Sardis:
            you are famous for your learning and your travels. We hear that you treasure
            knowledge and have journeyed far and wide, to see the world.
            So I really want to ask you whether you have ever come across anyone
            who is happier than everyone else? "
                                         - CROESUS SPEAKS TO SOLON


Solon, without hesitation, replied "Yes my lord: Tellus of Athens". Croesus, taken aback that he himself was not named, asked Solon with urgency to explain why. Solon proceeded to tell the story of Tellus of Athens, a modest man who had many fine sons, and watched them grow old and have many grandchildren, who all survived. At the peak of his life, having enjoyed the fruits of his times, he died a glorious death and was honoured highly by his city. In a war between Athens and Eleusis, Tellus had hurled himself into the breach, routing the Eleusinians at the cost of his own life. His name was remembered by Athens, and a magnificent funeral was granted to him on the spot of his final departure.


Cleobis and Biton
Painting by Nicolas Loir
Croesus listened with amusement at Solon's admiring words of Tellus, as he asked who the second happiest person he knew was, this time certain that he would gain the accolade. "Cleobis and Biton", came the reply, as not for the first or last time, Croesus' face fell. These men made enough to live adequately, and were blessed with great strength, which they put to good use in athletic games. Both brothers were devoted to their family, and earned their fame through their selfless actions. One day there was to be a festival to the goddess Hera at Argos, and the twins' elderly mother was desperate to go. The oxen that were to pull her cart, however, could not be found in the fields. Unfazed, the brothers harnessed themselves to the yoke, setting off with the cart - and their mother - in tow. The brother pulled the cart for forty five stades (a stade being the length of the stadium at Olympia, about 192 metres), all the way to the sanctuary. The gathered people looked on in amazement at the sight before them, as the brothers arrived at the sanctuary at last. The Argive men shouted their awe and congratulations to the brothers for their strength, whilst the Argive women praised the mother for the fortune she had been bestowed in her sons. Overcome with joy, the mother came before the statue of the goddess, and prayed that she would give her sons the finest reward humankind can receive. That night, with the ceremony complete, and the feasting subsided, the brothers at last laid down in the temple to rest. Drained by their immense feat, the brothers never again got up the next morning, as the goddess spirited both away to the Heavens. The Argives, glowing with admiration, raised statues to the twins and dedicated them at Delphi, and honoured them as the best of men.

Solon ended his remarkable story, as Croesus was angered that he had still not been named. "My dear guest from Athens, do you hold our happiness in utter contempt? Is that why you are ranking us lower than even ordinary citizens?" Wise Solon answered the King, "It follows, Croesus, that human life is entirely a matter of chance". A man may live for thirty thousand days, yet it takes but one to raise him to the towering heights, and an instant to hurl him to the deepest depths. Many a man is wealthy yet unlucky, and many a man of moderate means has the blessings of fortune. While the poor man is not as capable of coping with disaster, his good luck will watch over him, as he is stranger to disease and disfigurement and catastrophe, is blessed with fine looks and illustrious progeny. If in addition to all this he dies a heroic death, then he may truly be called happy. Call no man happy until he is dead, just fortunate, for the winds of Fate are fickle indeed. In the real world, no person is truly self sufficient, as one person possesses some things yet lacks others. Yet he "who retains more of these advantages than others, and then dies well, my lord, is the one who, in my opinion, deserves the description in question". Divinity may offer prosperity with one hand and ruin with the other.

These noble words, however, fell on deaf ears, as Croesus was furious that he had still not been confirmed as the happiest man on Earth. Sending Solon away with contempt, the King set about showing the world his true greatness. So began the chain of events which would change the course of civilisation forever...

To be continued...

NOTE: Something must be said about the book from which this story was taken (follow the links below to find it at Amazon). This work has lifetimes' worth of knowledge and understanding within it, with a series of carefully interconnected stories making one majestic tale. If you ever wanted to know where the true conflict between the East and the West began, read this. You will neither regret nor forget it.


United Kingdom

The Histories:
The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
(I can not recommend this work enough. The sheer number of the most gripping stories inside, is formidable)

United States:

The Histories:
The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
(I can not recommend this work enough. The sheer number of the most gripping stories inside, is formidable)

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