Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Fall of Croesus

Today we return to the story of Croesus, King of Lydia, paragon of wealth and eager for greatness (for the first part of the story, please click here). "No man may know if he has had a happy life until it is over", came the warning from Solon, but it had fallen upon deaf ears. Croesus had it all, how could it possibly go wrong?

The Summit of Mount Olympus
Photograph taken by 'Jkelly'
However, no man or woman could become too powerful or too beautiful without disaster befalling them. For it was always upon the tallest trees that the old gods hurled their thunderbolts. One night, soon after Solon departed, the gods sent a dream to Croesus, a dream with a dire prophecy, that his own son Atys would be slain by an iron spear. Roused, shaken, from his slumber, Croesus was afraid. Croesus had two sons, one deaf and dumb since birth, and Atys, the pride of the Kingdom. Desperate to ensure the dream would never come to pass, Croesus ordered all spears, swords, javelins and all manner of weapons removed from the men's quarters, and forbade his son to leave the Royal Palace. One day soon after, a delegation arrived from Mysia in Greece. They bowed before the King and pleaded with him to send Atys and his finest men to help them, for a monstrous boar had descended from Mount Olympus, spreading carnage wherever it went. Fearful of the dream, Croesus replied that Atys would have to remain behind, but he would send his finest warriors in his stead. The Mysians were disappointed, but gratefully accepted. Seeing the disheartened delegates, Atys implored his father, begging to be allowed with them. Seeing no way to delay so any longer, Croesus reluctantly told to his son the story of his vision, and how he could never let it come to pass. "What a dream!", Atys exclaimed. Though humble before the gods, Atys was a brave man, and he tried to console his father, explaining that the dream had referred to an iron spear, not a tusk, and he would march against boar, not man, and so he was quite safe. As the commander of the Lydian army, it was his duty to prove himself a man before it too. Delighted at this line of thought, Croesus, relented, and bade his son farewell.

Days passed, and then, a messenger appeared in Sardis, burdened and torn with grief. Atys, the man told Croesus, had been killed. "But how can this be?!" the enraged King shouted. Relating his tragic story, the man told the King that the party had tracked the boar to the very slopes of Olympus, after a long and gruelling chase. As their victory drew near, the boar made to gore the King's son, and, meaning to save him, one of the men had hurled his spear at the creature. But in the thrashing and chaos, the iron point flew far of its target, and transfixed Atys where he stood. Croesus, and Lydians far and wide mourned their heroic prince, and an ominous sense of foreboding gripped the land.

The Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great
Map created by the author
For two whole years, Croesus mourned his son, until news was borne to Sardis that events in the East were moving fast. Far away in Asia, the once great land of the Medes had been overturned in a bloody rebellion, lead by a new man, spoken of far and wide as a divine prodigy. This man's name was Cyrus, and it would not be long before he would take the title of 'the Great'. The new nation that rose in his wake would one day become one of the world's greatest powers - the Persian Empire. Jarred from his grief, Croesus awoke to this new danger. Hearing rumours of Oracles around the world which could bear word of the future, Croesus resolved to send envoys to each, and find for himself which one was truly the greatest conduit to the gods. To the Oasis of Ammon in Libya, to the Sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona, to the Abae in Phocis, to the Pythia at Delphi, and to countless others Croesus sent messengers. Deciding upon a test for each, Croesus sent his men to ask each Oracle exactly what he was doing at that moment in time. Carefully working out on which day his messengers would arrive at the Oracles, Croesus lay in wait. Soon after, the answers of the Oracles began to flood in, and Croesus was disappointed. Just then, the messenger who had been sent to Delphi burst into the Palace with the Pythia's reply:

             " I know the number of grains of sand and the extent of the sea;
               I understand the deaf-mute and hear the words of the dumb.
               My senses detect the smell of tough-shelled tortoise
               Cooked in bronze together with the flesh of lambs;
               Beneath it lies bronze, and bronze covers it "
                                  - THE ORACLE ON CROESUS

Many in the court were deeply puzzled, but Croesus was stunned. For, as a test of the gods, on the day that his messengers came before the Oracle, Croesus decided to do something no person could predict. Going to the beach, he had cut up a tortoise ad a lamb and boiled them inside a bronze pot. The eyes of the Oracle were omniscient indeed if she had seen this. Delphi was declared the greatest Oracle under Heaven, and Croesus showered the sanctuary in his riches, with countless ingots of gold towering high in the treasuries of the Oracle. Croesus sent to the Oracle one last time. Sensing the time had come to face Cyrus at last, the King asked the Oracle whether, if there be war between Lydian and Persian, he would emerge triumphant. In one of the most famous prophecies ever to come from Delphi, the Pythia replied "If you make war on the Persians, you will destroy a great empire". Overjoyed, jubilant and relishing his coming victory, Croesus immediately made preparations for the coming storm. Soon Solon would surely have to concede he was the happiest man alive?

Marching with all haste towards the Halys River, the boundary between Lydia and Persia, Croesus sent gifts and an offer of alliance to the Spartans of Laconia, since the Oracle had advised him to march with the strongest nation in Greece. Sure that he needed no help, Croesus did not wait for assistance, but pressed on, eager for glory. One man who marched with the King, however, had a bad feeling. Speaking the words of the gods, Sandanis, as he was called, urged Croesus to turn back:

             " Their food consists of what they can get, not what they might want,
                because of the ruggedness of their land. They drink no wine, just water,
                and figs are the only good thing they have to eat. They have nothing!
                So if you win, what will you gain from them? But if you are defeated,
                think of all the good things you will lose!... "
                                      - SANDANIS URGES CROESUS TO WITHDRAW

Cyrus the Great
Image taken from a modern sculpture,
currently in Sydney
But Croesus was deaf to all warning. Bridging the Halys in haste, the Lydians and the might of Asia clashed. For a whole day the two powers fought, and thousands fell, both Lydian and Persian alike. As night fell, both sides withdrew to lick their wounds. Croesus, putting the stalemate down to lack of numbers, decided to withdraw to Sardis and await his allies there, assuming that Cyrus' losses were too great to pursue him. But the legions of Asia were without number, and the charisma of their leader was great. A spy in the Lydian camp informed the Persian Great King of Croesus' designs, and he set off in close pursuit. Before the very walls of Sardis, Croesus turned to fight once more, certain that whatever transpired, he would be victorious. The Lydian horseman charged, but were soon thrown into disarray. For as yet a Western horse had never before encountered a camel, and the sight and smell of the strange beasts struck panic into the hearts of the Lydian mounts. Scattering to and fro, the Lydians were thrown behind their walls, and the siege began.

Expecting the siege to be long and his allies to arrive soon, Croesus sat back, still confident of victory. For the great city of Sardis sat atop a dramatic plateau, surrounded by a vast wall but for the short stretch of near vertical cliff at the acropolis where the Palace stood. But, fourteen days later, Cyrus witnessed an opening. A Lydian soldier, who dropped his helmet, scrambled down the escarpment to reclaim it, and quickly climbed back up. Realising it was not as impregnable as it first seemed, Cyrus waited for nightfall, then offered a reward for the first man to reach the top. After an exhausting climb, chaos reigned, and Persian troops rampaged through the city, burning all in their path. Croesus lamented over the darkness of war, for "in peace sons bury their fathers and in war fathers bury their sons". As Persian soldiers bore down upon him within his towering, glittering and golden halls, the terrible truth was at last revealed to Croesus. The Oracle had said that he would destroy a great empire if he marched on Cyrus. She had meant his own.

Croesus on the Pyre
Image taken from a 6th century BC Attic Vase
Croesus was hurled to the floor before the Great King, and the two most powerful lords of Asia met at last. Resolving that he would leave the fate of the former Lydian King to the gods, Cyrus ordered that Croesus be bound atop a vast funeral pyre. If he was truly favoured, the gods would spare him. At the command of the Great King, torches were cast into the timbers, and the flames kindled. As the crackle of burning reached his ears, and sparks began to rise before his eyes, Croesus remembered the words of Solon. The old man had been right, fortune is fickle and only at his death does a man know that his life has been fortunate. Seeing the divine inspiration behind these words, Croesus sighed, and simply repeated the name "Solon" to the Heavens. Far below, Cyrus looked on, curious, and eager to know who it was this man called upon in his last moments. Cyrus's translators called up to him, asking him who Solon was. "Someone whom I would give a fortune to have every ruler in the world meet", Croesus solemnly replied. Stunned, Cyrus begged to know more, as the flames began to rise higher and higher. Accepting his fate, Croesus told Cyrus the story of Solon's lesson, of how he had dismissed all his wealth as meaningless, and how everything had transpired as it had been foretold. As the fire licked the soles of Croesus' feet, Cyrus took pity on him, seeing before him not a foe to be conquered, but another human being, who could just as easily be him. Desperately calling out, Cyrus ordered his men to douse the flames, but it was too late, and the conflagration roared. Embracing his end, Croesus raised his head to the skies, prepared to die. But Apollo, lord of prophecy, remembering Croesus' generosity toward his sanctuary of Delphi, took pity on him, and sent a cloud of rain to douse the fire.

Awed at the sight before him, Cyrus took the broken old man down, weeping that he had tried to destroy a man who was good at heart. "Who was it that persuaded you to invade my country, and be my enemy over my friend?" the Great King asked of him. "It was the god of the Greeks", he replied. So would be sown the first seeds of conflict between the East and the West...

United Kingdom

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

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