Croesus was a Lydian King who ruled for 14 years between 560 BC and 546 BC. Herodotus writes that Croesus’ reign came to an abrupt end when he was defeated by the Persian King Cyrus the Great. Most of the accounts on Croesus indicate that he was an extremely wealthy king. Both Herodotus and Pausanias mention that his gifts were kept at Delphi. His defeat at the hands of Cyrus had a drastic consequence on the Greeks, marking a fixed point on their calendar. Besides a poetical account of Croesus on the pyre in Bacchylides’ ode, which was written to honour Hiero of Syracuse, three classical accounts exist of the legendary king. Herodotus gives the Lydian accounts of the conversation with Solon, the tragedy of Croesus' son Atys, and the fall of Croesus. Xenophon provides another account of the king in his panegyric fictionalized biography of Cyrus, titled ‘Cyropaedia’. Finally, Ctesias presents a version of Croesus’ story in his encomium of Cyrus. A progeny of Gyges of the Myrmnadae Clan, Croesus has become a figure of myth, who, according to historian J. A. S. Evans, stands “outside the conventional restraints of chronology”.
- Nothing is known about the year or place of his birth. He was reportedly the son of Alyattes of Lydia, who reigned from 610 BC to 560 BC and whose own father was Sadyattes. These kings belonged to the Mermnadae dynasty of Lydia, which was was founded by Gyges of Lydia around 687 BC.
- Following the death of his father in 560 BC, Croesus was forced to compete with an opposing claimant to the throne. This rival was Pantaleon, one of his half-brothers. Croesus ultimately emerged victorious by executing several members of the rival faction and seizing their property.
- After securing his reign, Croesus embarked on a campaign against the Asian Greeks, something that had been initiated by his father. He conquered the Aeolian and Ionian Settlements on the coasts of Asia-Minor, which then paid tribute to him. However, he offered peace and friendship to the European and Aegean Greeks. He signed multiple treaties with the Greek city-states in Europe, including Sparta.
- He has the distinction of being the first ruler in history to issue true gold coins with a standardised purity for general circulation. These coins, along with their silver counterparts, have come to be known as Croeseid. The king’s father receives the credit for coming up with minting with electrum coins. Furthermore, Hermodike II, who has been attributed for inventing Greek coinage, could have been Croesus’ mother.
- Initially, the coins appeared quite crude. Electrum, a naturally occurring alloy of gold and silver, along with a little bit of copper and other metals, was used to make them. These initial coins had the same composition as the alluvial deposits of the silt of the Pactolus river, which flowed through Sardes.
- In later years, the process of making coins became more sophisticated. They refined the gold by heating it with common salt to extract the silver.
- In both Greek and Persian traditions, Croesus was considered an exceptionally wealthy king. When he ascended the throne, he received the great wealth his father had accumulated. It was Aylettes’ tax revenue that funded the military expeditions of both Aylettes and Croesus.
- The dynasty that ruled in Lydia before the Mermnads could trace its roots back to Alcaeus, the son of Hercules by Omphale, Queen of Lydia. Croesus considered himself a descendant of Heracles as well. Like the legendary hero, Croesus tried to commit self-immolation on a pyre after the Persians took control of Sardes (Lydian capital).
- By following the example from the Greek myth, he attempted to establish his Grecian heritage.
- At the height of his power and influence, Croesus had a conversation with the Greek sage Solon, during which he requested Solon to name the happiest man in the world.
- Confident in his wealth and happiness, he thought that the sage would name him as the world’s happiest man. However, Solon mentioned three men who were happier than Croesus and told him that he could not be the happiest man in the world because a man’s fortune can change at any time.
- Wanting to find out who was the most reliable among the well-known oracles of his time, the king dispatched ambassadors to all these oracles with the instruction to ask them on the 100th day from their departure from the Lydian capital what he (Croesus) was doing at the time. The answer given by Pythia or the Oracle of Delphi, along with the one from the Oracle of Amphiaraus, was the most accurate.
- To honour Pythia, he sacrificed 3,000 animals and sent a lion made of gold to Delphi. The lion was still there at the time of Herodotus, though it had grown 3.5 talents lighter.
- According to a legend, Croesus once had a dream in which his son and heir Atys died after an iron spearhead was plunged into him. The king believed the dream to be prophetic and forbade his son from taking part in any battle. However, when a wild boar was wreaking havoc in the neighbouring province of Mysia, the inhabitants there requested Croesus to send his soldiers under Atys to hunt the boar.
- Believing the prophecy would not come true during a hunt, he dispatched Atys and his soldiers. He also sent the Phrygian prince Adrastus, to whom he gave asylum, as a bodyguard for Atys. During the hunt, Adrastus mistakenly killed Atys with his spear. Although Croesus forgave him, Adrastus later killed himself.
- Despite his conflict with the Ionian Greeks, Croesus’ Lydia became the last Ionian stronghold against the growing Persian dominance in Anatolia. Eventually, he decided to launch a campaign against Persia.
- He sought the counsel of oracles of Delphi and Amphiaraus. The oracles replied, with characteristic vagueness, that if he embarked on that campaign, a great empire would fall. They also told him to make an alliance with the most powerful Greek state.
- Croesus allied himself with Sparta, Egypt, and Babylonia and began his war against the Persians in 547 BC. The empires engaged in an inclusive battle at Pteria.
- At the time, it was common for kingdoms to dissolve their armies during winter. Croesus did this, but Cyrus did not. The Persians attacked, and Croesus suffered devastating defeats in Thymbria (547 BC) and later in Sardes (547-546 BC). The prophecy came true. The empire that fell was Croesus’ own.
- Following the Siege of Sardes, Croesus was taken captive by the Persians. Cyrus instructed his men to place Croesus on a pyre and set it ablaze. However, Croesus did not die.
- There are various accounts of how he avoided death. Poet Bacchylides writes in his ode that the king was placed on the pyre with his wife and family, but he was not burned, and Apollo took him away to Hyperboreans. Other accounts say that Croesus’ wife committed suicide after the fall of Sardes.
- Herodotus gives the Lydian account, according to which, after the king mounted the pyre, he cried out “Solon” three times. When Cyrus learned the story behind it, he ordered his men to extinguish the fire. However, they failed.
- Croesus prayed to Apollo, and suddenly, there was rain, and the fire was quenched. Croesus went on to become an advisor to Cyrus and later his son Cambyses.
- The Nabonidus Chronicle, on the other hand, states that Cyrus went to war against Lydia and “killed its king, took his possessions, put there a garrison of his own”. In the ensuing centuries, Croesus emerged as a symbol of human vanity.
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