Croesus (pron.: // KREE-səs; Ancient Greek: Κροῖσος, Kroisos; 595 BC – c. 547? BC) was the king of Lydia from 560 to 547 BC until his defeat by the Persians. The fall of Croesus made a profound impact on the Hellenes, providing a fixed point in their calendar. "By the fifth century at least," J.A.S. Evans remarked, "Croesus had become a figure of myth, who stood outside the conventional restraints of chronology." Croesus was renowned for his wealth—Herodotus and Pausanias noted his gifts preserved at Delphi.
In Greek and Persian cultures the name of Croesus became a synonym for a wealthy man. Croesus' wealth remained proverbial beyond classical antiquity: in English, expressions such as "rich as Croesus" or "richer than Croesus" are used to indicate great wealth to this day. The earliest known such usage in English was John Gower's in Confessio amantis (1390):
That if the tresor of Cresus
And al the gold Octovien,
Forth with the richesse Yndien
Of Perles and of riche stones,
Were al togedre myn at ones...
Croesus is credited with issuing the first true gold coins with a standardised purity for general circulation. However, they were quite crude, and were made of electrum, a naturally occurring pale yellow alloy of gold and silver. The composition of these first coins was similar to alluvial deposits found in the silt of the Pactolus river, which ran through the Lydian capital, Sardis. Later coins, including some in the British Museum, were made from gold purified by heating with common salt to remove the silver. King Croesus' gold coins follow the first silver coins that had been minted by King Pheidon of Argos around 700 BC. In 546 BC, Croesus was defeated and captured by the Persians, who then adopted gold as the main metal for their coins.
Aside from a poetical account of Croesus on the pyre in Bacchylides, there are three classical accounts of Croesus. Herodotus presents the Lydian accounts of the conversation with Solon (Histories 1.29-.33), the tragedy of Croesus' son Atys (Histories 1.34-.45) and the fall of Croesus (Histories 1.85-.89); Xenophon instances Croesus in his panegyric fictionalized biography of Cyrus: Cyropaedia, 7.1; and Ctesias, whose account is also an encomium of Cyrus.
Born about 595 BC, Croesus received tribute from the Ionian Greeks but was friendlier to the Hellenes than his father had been. Croesus traditionally gave refuge at one point to the Phrygian prince Adrastus. Herodotus tells that Adrastus exiled himself to Lydia after accidentally killing his brother. King Croesus welcomed him but then Adrastus accidentally killed Croesus' son, Atys. (Adrastus then committed suicide.)
Croesus' uneasy relations with the Greeks obscures the larger fact that he was the last bastion of the Ionian cities against the increasing Persian power in Anatolia. He began preparing a campaign against Cyrus the Great of Persia. Before setting out he turned to the Delphic oracle and the oracle of Amphiaraus to inquire whether he should pursue this campaign and whether he should also seek an alliance. The oracles answered, with typical ambiguity, that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire – this would become one of the most famous oracular statements from Delphi.
Croesus was also advised to find out which Greek state was most powerful and to ally himself with it. Croesus, now feeling secure, formed an alliance with Sparta in addition to those he had with Amasis II of Egypt and Nabonidus of Babylonia, and launched his campaign against the Persian Empire in 547 BC. He was intercepted near the Halys River in central Anatolia and an inconclusive battle was fought. It was the usual practice in those days for the armies to disband for winter and Croesus did accordingly. Cyrus did not, however, and he attacked Croesus in Sardis, capturing him. It became clear that the powerful empire Croesus was about to destroy was his own.
In Bacchylides' ode, composed for Hiero of Syracuse, who won the chariot race at Olympia in 468, Croesus with his wife and family mounted the funeral pyre, but before the flames could envelop the king, he was snatched up by Apollo and spirited away to the Hyperboreans. Herodotus' version includes Apollo in more "realistic" mode: Cyrus, repenting of the immolation of Croesus, could not put out the flames until Apollo intervened.
Herodotus tells us that in the Lydian account, Croesus was placed upon a great pyre by Cyrus' orders, for Cyrus wanted to see if any of the heavenly powers would appear to save him from being burned alive. The pile was set ablaze, and as Cyrus the Great watched he saw Croesus call out "Solon" three times. He asked the interpreters to find out why he said this word with such resignation and agony. The interpreters returned the answer that Solon had warned Croesus of the fickleness of good fortune: see Interview with Solon below. This touched Cyrus, who realized that he and Croesus were much the same man, and he bade the servants to quench the blazing fire as quickly as they could. They tried to do this, but the flames were not to be mastered. According to the story, Croesus called out to Apollo and prayed to him. The sky had been clear and the day without a breath of wind, but soon dark clouds gathered and a storm with rain of such violence that the flames were speedily extinguished. Cyrus, convinced by this that Croesus was a good man, made Croesus an advisor who served Cyrus 'well' and later Cyrus's son by Cassandane, Cambyses. Recently, Stephanie West has argued that the historical Croesus did in fact die on the pyre, and that the stories of him as a 'wise adviser' to the courts of Cyrus and Cambyses are purely legendary, showing similarities to the sayings of Ahiqar.
It is not known when exactly Croesus died, although it is traditionally dated 547 BC, after Cyrus' conquest. In the Nabonidus Chronicle it is said that Cyrus "marched against the country -- , killed its king, took his possessions, put there a garrison of his own." Unfortunately, all that remains of the name of the country are traces of the first cuneiform sign. It has long been assumed that this sign should have been LU, so that the country referred to would be Lydia, with Croesus as the king that was killed. However, J. Cargill has shown that this restoration was based upon wishful thinking rather than actual traces of the sign LU. Instead, J. Oelsner and R. Rollinger have both read the sign as Ú, which might imply a reference to Urartu. With Herodotus' account also being unreliable chronologically in this case, as J.A.S. Evans has demonstrated, this means that we have no way of dating the fall of Sardis; theoretically, it may even have taken place after the fall of Babylon. Evans also asks what happened after the episode at the pyre and suggests that "neither the Greeks nor the Babylonians knew what really happened to Croesus."
The episode of Croesus' interview with Solon reported by Herodotus is in the nature of a philosophical disquisition on the subject "Which man is happy?" It is legendary rather than historical. Croesus, secure in his own wealth and happiness, poses the question and is disappointed by Solon's response: that three have been happier than Croesus, Tellus, who died fighting for his country, and Kleobis and Biton, brothers who died peacefully in their sleep when their mother prayed for their perfect happiness, after they had demonstrated filial piety by drawing her to a festival in an oxcart themselves. Croesus' hubristic happiness was reversed by the tragic deaths of his accidentally-killed son and, in Critias, his wife's suicide at the fall of Sardis. Thus the "happiness" of Croesus is presented as a moralistic exemplum of the fickleness of Tyche, a theme that gathered strength from the fourth century, revealing its late date.
The story was later retold and elaborated by Ausonius in The Masque of the Seven Sages, in the Suda (entry "Μᾶλλον ὁ Φρύξ," which adds Aesop and the Seven Sages of Greece), and by Tolstoy in his short story Croesus and Fate.
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