“Croesus (pronounced ‘KREE-sus’) was the King of Lydia, a country in western Asia Minor (corresponding to modern-day Turkey) from 560-547 BCE and was so wealthy that the old expression “as rich as Croesus” originates in reference to him. His wealth, it is said, came from the sands of the River Pactolus in which the legendary King Midas washed his hands to rid himself of the ‘Midas Touch’ (which turned everything he laid hands on into gold) and in so doing, the legend says, made the sands of the river rich with gold. The Lydians, either during the reign of Croesus or just before, were cited as the first people to mint coins of gold and silver in Asia Minor and it was Croesus who funded construction of the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Although some have claimed that Croesus was largely a legendary figure, his signature at the base of one of the columns of the Temple of Artemis (now on display at the British Museum) is evidence that he was an actual historical king who ruled from the city of Sardis.”
Now that we know where he came from and better yet, how to pronounce his name, let’s hear Herodotus tell some Croesus tales. Herodotus speaks thus:
29. While he (Croesus) was still adding to his Lydian dominions, there came to Sardis, then at the height of its wealth, all the wise men of Hellas (Greece) of that time, brought there for various reasons. One of them was Solon the Athenian who had made laws for the Athenians at their bidding, left the country for ten years and sailed away saying that he desired to visit various lands, in order that he might not be compelled to repeal any of his new laws. For of themselves the Athenians were not competent to do this, having bound themselves by solemn oaths to submit for ten years to the laws which Solon should establish for them.
30. So Solon, having left his native country for this reason and for the sake of seeing various lands, came to Amasis in Egypt, and also to Croesus at Sardis. He was entertained as a guest by Croesus in the king’s palace; and afterwards, on the third or fourth day, at the bidding of Croesus his servants led Solon round to see his treasures; and they showed him all things, how great and magnificent they were.
After he had looked upon them all and examined them, when he had a suitable occasion, Croesus asked him: “Athenian guest, we’ve heard a lot about you in regard to your intelligence and your wanderings, how in your search for intelligence you have traveled many lands to see them; now therefore I desire to ask you whether yet you have seen the man who is the most happy.” He asked supposing that he himself was the happiest of men; but Solon, using no flattery but the truth only, said: “Yes, O king, Tellos the Athenian.“
Full stop. Time out. Let’s just luxuriate in Herodotus’ prose – actually, the entire passage can be cast as free-form poetry like this snippet:
After he had looked upon them all
And examined them
When he had a suitable occasion
Croesus asked him:
We’ve heard a lot about you in regard
To your intelligence and your
Wanderings, how in
Your search for intelligence you have
Traveled many lands
To see them; now therefore I desire
To ask you whether
Yet you have seen the man who is the
Most happy”, he asked
Supposing that he himself was
The happiest of men.
Recite this snippet out loud – really – do it! Get the feel of the poetry, slow down a little and let it resonate. Beautiful. Relax, take a breath and do it again… it is beautiful.
His writing stye is powerful, direct narrative, with strong forward momentum. Perfect for story telling. All of it poetry. It was written long, long ago.
Tellos the Athenian, according to the story, had:
“sons fair and good, and saw from all of them children begotten and living to grow up; and secondly he had what with us is accounted wealth, and after his life a most glorious end. When a battle was fought by the Athenians at Eleusis against the neighboring people, he brought up supports and routed the foe and there he died by a most fair death; and the Athenians buried him publicly where he fell, and honored him greatly.”
Croesus says, then basically: Well! I never! Who is second place is the ultimate happy-life competition?!? (Must be me…).
No. Matter of fact Croesus didn’t even come in second place.
It’s a couple of studly athletes; they win the games, then die of exhaustion after dragging their crippled Mom in an ox-cart to their glorious victory celebration. Croesus was “moved to anger“.
32. …”Athenian guest, have you then so cast aside our prosperous state as worth nothing, that you prefer to us even men of private station?” And he said: “Croesus, you are inquiring about human fortunes from one who knows that the Deity is altogether envious and apt to disturb our lot. For in the course of a long time a man may see many things which he would not desire to see, and suffer also many things which he would not desire to suffer… Thus then, O Croesus, man is altogether a creature of accident. As for you, I perceive that you are both great in wealth and king of many men, but what you asked me I cannot call you yet, until I learn that you have brought your life to a fair ending. For many very wealthy men are not happy, while many who have only a moderate living are fortunate…But we must for every thing examine the end and how it will turn out at the last, for to many God shows but a glimpse of happiness and then plucks them up by the roots and overturns them.“
Speaking truth to power, thus, Solon was shown the door.
“Croesus sent him away as worthless; he thought him utterly a fool in that he passed over present good things and bade men look to the end of every matter“.
King Croesus’ destiny? Happy? Tragic? Stay tuned.