Gateway to the Classics: Cyrus the Great by Jacob Abbott
Cyrus the Great by  Jacob Abbott


The scene of our narrative must now be changed, for a time, from Persia and Media, in the East, to Asia Minor, in the West, where the great Crœsus, originally King of Lydia, was at this time gradually extending his empire along the shores of the Ægean Sea. The name of Crœsus is associated in the minds of men with the idea of boundless wealth, the phrase "as rich as Crœsus" having been a common proverb in all the modern languages of Europe for many centuries. It was to this Crœsus, king of Lydia, whose story we are about to relate, that the proverb alludes.

The country of Lydia, over which this famous sovereign originally ruled, was in the western part of Asia Minor, bordering on the Ægean Sea. Crœsus himself belonged to a dynasty, or race of kings, called the Mermnadæ. The founder of this line was Gyges, who displaced the dynasty which preceded him and established his own by a revolution effected in a very remarkable manner. The circumstances were as follows:

The name of the last monarch of the old dynasty—the one, namely, whom Gyges displaced—was Candaules. Gyges was a household servant in Candaules's family—a sort of slave, in fact, and yet, as such slaves often were in those rude days, a personal favorite and boon companion of his master. Candaules was a dissolute and unprincipled tyrant. He had, however, a very beautiful and modest wife, whose name was Nyssia. Candaules was very proud of the beauty of his queen, and was always extolling it, though, as the event proved, he could not have felt for her any true and honest affection. In some of his revels with Gyges, when he was boasting of Nyssia's charms, he said that the beauty of her form and figure, when unrobed, was even more exquisite than that of her features; and, finally, the monster, growing more and more excited, and having rendered himself still more of a brute than he was by nature by the influence of wine, declared that Gyges should see for himself. He would conceal him, he said, in the queen's bed-chamber, while she was undressing for the night. Gyges remonstrated very earnestly against this proposal. It would be doing the innocent queen, he said, a great wrong. He assured the king, too, that he believed fully all that he said about Nyssia's beauty, without applying such a test, and he begged him not to insist upon a proposal with which it would be criminal to comply.

The king, however, did insist upon it, and Gyges was compelled to yield. Whatever is offered as a favor by a half-intoxicated despot to an humble inferior, it would be death to refuse. Gyges allowed himself to be placed behind a half-opened door of the king's apartment, when the king retired to it for the night. There he was to remain while the queen began to unrobe herself for retiring, with a strict injunction to withdraw at a certain time which the king designated, and with the utmost caution, so as to prevent being observed by the queen. Gyges did as he was ordered. The beautiful queen laid aside her garments and made her toilet for the night with all the quiet composure and confidence which a woman might be expected to feel while in so sacred and inviolable a sanctuary, and in the presence and under the guardianship of her husband. Just as she was about to retire to rest, some movement alarmed her. It was Gyges going away. She saw him. She instantly understood the case. She was overwhelmed with indignation and shame. She, however, suppressed and concealed her emotions; she spoke to Candaules in her usual tone of voice, and he, on his part, secretly rejoiced in the adroit and successful manner in which his little contrivance had been carried into execution.

The next morning Nyssia sent, by some of her confidential messengers, for Gyges to come to her. He came, with some forebodings, perhaps, but without any direct reason for believing that what he had done had been discovered. Nyssia, however, informed him that she knew all, and that either he or her husband must die. Gyges earnestly remonstrated against this decision, and supplicated forgiveness. He explained the circumstances under which the act had been performed, which seemed, at least so far as he was concerned, to palliate the deed. The queen was, however, fixed and decided. It was wholly inconsistent with her ideas of womanly delicacy that there should be two living men who had both been admitted to her bedchamber. "The king," she said, "by what he has done, has forfeited his claims to me and resigned me to you. If you will kill him, seize his kingdom, and make me your wife, all shall be well; otherwise you must prepare to die."

From this hard alternative, Gyges chose to assassinate the king, and to make the lovely object before him his own. The excitement of indignation and resentment which glowed upon her cheek, and with which her bosom was heaving, made her more beautiful than ever. "How shall our purpose be accomplished?" asked Gyges. "The deed," she replied, "shall be perpetrated in the very place which was the scene of the dishonor done to me. I will admit you into our bedchamber in my turn, and you shall kill Candaules in his bed."

When night came, Nyssia stationed Gyges again behind the same door where the king had placed him. He had a dagger in his hand. He waited there till Candaules was asleep. Then at a signal given him by the queen, he entered, and stabbed the husband in his bed. He married Nyssia, and possessed himself of the kingdom. After this, he and his successors reigned for many years over the kingdom of Lydia, constituting the dynasty of the Mermnadæ, from which, in process of time, King Crœsus descended.

The successive sovereigns of this dynasty gradually extended the Lydian power over the countries around them. The name of Crœsus's father, who was the monarch that immediately preceded him, was Alyattes. Alyattes waged war toward the southward, into the territories of the city of Miletus. He made annual incursions into the country of the Milesians for plunder, always taking care, however, while he seized all the movable property that he could find, to leave the villages and towns, and all the hamlets of the laborers without injury. The reason for this was, that he did not wish to drive away the population, but to encourage them to remain and cultivate their lands, so that there might be new flocks and herds, and new stores of corn, and fruit, and wine, for him to plunder from in succeeding years. At last, on one of these marauding excursions, some fires which were accidentally set in a field spread into a neighboring town, and destroyed, among other buildings, a temple consecrated to Minerva. After this, Alyattes found himself quite unsuccessful in all his expeditions and campaigns. He sent to a famous oracle to ask the reason.

"You can expect no more success," replied the oracle, "until you rebuild the temple that you have destroyed."

But how could he rebuild the temple? The site was in the enemy's country. His men could not build an edifice and defend themselves, at the same time, from the attacks of their foes. He concluded to demand a truce of the Milesians until the reconstruction should be completed, and he sent embassadors to Miletus, accordingly, to make the proposal.

The proposition for a truce resulted in a permanent peace, by means of a very singular stratagem which Thrasybulus, the king of Miletus, practiced upon Alyattes. It seems that Alyattes supposed that Thrasybulus had been reduced to great distress by the loss and destruction of provisions and stores in various parts of the country, and that he would soon be forced to yield up his kingdom. This was, in fact, the case; but Thrasybulus determined to disguise his real condition, and to destroy, by an artifice, all the hopes which Alyattes had formed from the supposed scarcity in the city. When the herald whom Alyattes sent to Miletus was about to arrive, Thrasybulus collected all the corn, and grain, and other provisions which he could command, and had them heaped up in a public part of the city, where the herald was to be received, so as to present indications of the most ample abundance of food. He collected a large body of his soldiers, too, and gave them leave to feast themselves without restriction on what he had thus gathered. Accordingly, when the herald came in to deliver his message, he found the whole city given up to feasting and revelry, and he saw stores of provisions at hand, which were in process of being distributed and consumed with the most prodigal profusion. The herald reported this state of things to Alyattes. Alyattes then gave up all hopes of reducing Miletus by famine, and made a permanent peace, binding himself to its stipulations by a very solemn treaty. To celebrate the event, too, he built two temples to Minerva instead of one.

A story is related by Herodotus of a remarkable escape made by Arion at sea, which occurred during the reign of Alyattes, the father of Crœsus. We will give the story as Herodotus relates it, leaving the reader to judge for himself whether such tales were probably true, or were only introduced by Herodotus into his narrative to make his histories more entertaining to the Grecian assemblies to whom he read them. Arion was a celebrated singer. He had been making a tour in Sicily and in the southern part of Italy, where he had acquired considerable wealth, and he was now returning to Corinth. He embarked at Tarentum, which is a city in the southern part of Italy, in a Corinthian vessel, and put to sea. When the sailors found that they had him in their power, they determined to rob and murder him. They accordingly seized his gold and silver, and then told him that he might either kill himself or jump overboard into the sea. One or the other he must do. If he would kill himself on board the vessel, they would give him decent burial when they reached the shore.

Arion seemed at first at a loss how to decide in so hard an alternative. At length he told the sailors that he would throw himself into the sea, but he asked permission to sing them one of his songs before he took the fatal plunge. They consented. He accordingly went into the cabin, and spent some time in dressing himself magnificently in the splendid and richly-ornamented robes in which he had been accustomed to appear upon the stage. At length he reappeared, and took his position on the side of the ship, with his harp in his hand. He sang his song, accompanying himself upon the harp, and then, when he had finished his performance, he leaped into the sea. The seamen divided their plunder and pursued their voyage.

Arion, however, instead of being drowned, was taken up by a dolphin that had been charmed by his song, and was borne by him to Tænarus, which is the promontory formed by the southern extremity of the Peloponnesus. There Arion landed in safety. From Tænarus he proceeded to Corinth, wearing the same dress in which he had plunged into the sea. On his arrival, he complained to the king of the crime which the sailors had committed, and narrated his wonderful escape. The king did not believe him, but put him in prison to wait until the ship should arrive. When at last the vessel came, the king summoned the sailors into his presence, and asked them if they knew any thing of Arion. Arion himself had been previously placed in an adjoining room, ready to be called in as soon as his presence was required. The mariners answered to the question which the king put to them, that they had seen Arion in Tarentum, and that they had left him there. Arion was then himself called in. His sudden appearance, clothed as he was in the same dress in which the mariners had seen him leap into the sea, so terrified the conscience-stricken criminals, that they confessed their guilt, and were all punished by the king. A marble statue, representing a man seated upon a dolphin, was erected at Tænarus to commemorate this event, where it remained for centuries afterward, a monument of the wonder which Arion had achieved.

At length Alyattes died and Crœsus succeeded him. Crœsus extended still further the power and fame of the Lydian empire, and was for a time very successful in all his military schemes. By looking upon the map, the reader will see that the Ægean Sea, along the coasts of Asia Minor, is studded with islands. These islands were in those days very fertile and beautiful, and were densely inhabited by a commercial and maritime people, who possessed a multitude of ships, and were very powerful in all the adjacent seas. Of course their land forces were very few, whether of horse or of foot, as the habits and manners of such a sea-going people were all foreign to modes of warfare required in land campaigns. On the sea, however, these islanders were supreme.

Crœsus formed a scheme for attacking these islands and bringing them under his sway, and he began to make preparations for building and equipping a fleet for this purpose, though, of course, his subjects were as unused to the sea as the nautical islanders were to military operations on the land. While he was making these preparations, a certain philosopher was visiting at his court: he was one of the seven wise men of Greece, who had recently come from the Peloponnesus. Crœsus asked him if there was any news from that country. "I heard," said the philosopher, "that the inhabitants of the islands were preparing to invade your dominions with a squadron of ten thousand horse. Crœsus, who supposed that the philosopher was serious, appeared greatly pleased and elated at the prospect of his sea-faring enemies attempting to meet him as a body of cavalry. "No doubt," said the philosopher, after a little pause, "you would be pleased to have those sailors attempt to contend with you on horseback; but do you not suppose that they will be equally pleased at the prospect of encountering Lydian landsmen on the ocean?"

Crœsus perceived the absurdity of his plan, and abandoned the attempt to execute it.

Crœsus acquired the enormous wealth for which he was so celebrated from the golden sands of the River Pactolus, which flowed through his kingdom. The river brought the particles of gold, in grains, and globules, and flakes, from the mountains above, and the servants and slaves of Crœsus washed the sands, and thus separated the heavier deposit of the metal. In respect to the origin of the gold, however, the people who lived upon the banks of the river had a different explanation from the simple one that the waters brought down the treasure from the mountain ravines. They had a story that, ages before, a certain king, named Midas, rendered some service to a god, who, in turn, offered to grant him any favor that he might ask. Midas asked that the power might be granted him to turn whatever he touched into gold. The power was bestowed, and Midas, after changing various objects around him into gold until he was satisfied, began to find his new acquisition a source of great inconvenience and danger. His clothes, his food, and even his drink, were changed to gold when he touched them. He found that he was about to starve in the midst of a world of treasure, and he implored the god to take back the fatal gift. The god directed him to go and bathe in the Pactolus, and he should be restored to his former condition. Midas did so, and was saved, but not without transforming a great portion of the sands of the stream into gold during the process of his restoration.

Crœsus thus attained quite speedily to a very high degree of wealth, prosperity, and renown. His dominions were widely extended; his palaces were full of treasures; his court was a scene of unexampled magnificence and splendor. While in the enjoyment of all this grandeur, he was visited by Solon, the celebrated Grecian law-giver, who was traveling in that part of the world to observe the institutions and customs of different states. Crœsus received Solon with great distinction, and showed him all his treasures. At last he one day said to him, "You have traveled, Solon, over many countries, and have studied, with a great deal of attention and care, all that you have seen. I have heard great commendations of your wisdom, and I should like very much to know who, of all the persons you have ever known, has seemed to you most fortunate and happy."

The king had no doubt that the answer would be that he himself was the one.

"I think," replied Solon, after a pause, "that Tellus, an Athenian citizen, was the most fortunate and happy man I have ever known."

"Tellus, an Athenian!" repeated Crœsus, surprised. "What was there in his case which you consider so remarkable?"

"He was a peaceful and quiet citizen of Athens," said Solon. "He lived happily with his family, under a most excellent government, enjoying for many years all the pleasures of domestic life. He had several amiable and virtuous children, who all grew up to maturity, and loved and honored their parents as long as they lived. At length, when his life was drawing toward its natural termination, a war broke out with a neighboring nation, and Tellus went with the army to defend his country. He aided very essentially in the defeat of the enemy, but fell, at last, on the field of battle. His countrymen greatly lamented his death. They buried him publicly where he fell, with every circumstance of honor."

Solon was proceeding to recount the domestic and social virtues of Tellus, and the peaceful happiness which he enjoyed as the result of them, when Crœsus interrupted him to ask who, next to Tellus, he considered the most fortunate and happy man.

Solon, after a little farther reflection, mentioned two brothers, Cleobis and Bito, private persons among the Greeks, who were celebrated for their great personal strength, and also for their devoted attachment to their mother. He related to Crœsus a story of a feat they performed on one occasion, when their mother, at the celebration of some public festival, was going some miles to a temple, in a car to be drawn by oxen. There happened to be some delay in bringing the oxen, while the mother was waiting in the car. As the oxen did not come, the young men took hold of the pole of the car themselves, and walked off at their ease with the load, amid the acclamations of the spectators, while their mother's heart was filled with exultation and pride.

Crœsus here interrupted the philosopher again, and expressed his surprise that he should place private men, like those whom he had named, who possessed no wealth, or prominence, or power, before a monarch like him, occupying a station of such high authority and renown, and possessing such boundless treasures.

"Crœsus," replied Solon, "I see you now, indeed, at the height of human power and grandeur. You reign supreme over many nations, and you are in the enjoyment of unbounded affluence, and every species of luxury and splendor. I can not, however, decide whether I am to consider you a fortunate and happy man, until I know how all this is to end. If we consider seventy years as the allotted period of life, you have a large portion of your existence yet to come, and we can not with certainty pronounce any man happy till his life is ended."

This conversation with Solon made a deep impression upon Crœsus's mind, as was afterward proved in a remarkable manner; but the impression was not a pleasant or a salutary one. The king, however, suppressed for the time the resentment which the presentation of these unwelcome truths awakened within him, though he treated Solon afterward with indifference and neglect, so that the philosopher soon found it best to withdraw.

Crœsus had two sons. One was deaf and dumb. The other was a young man of uncommon promise, and, of course, as he only could succeed his father in the government of the kingdom, he was naturally an object of the king's particular attention and care. His name was Atys. He was unmarried. He was, however, old enough to have the command of a considerable body of troops, and he had often distinguished himself in the Lydian campaigns. One night the king had a dream about Atys which greatly alarmed him. He dreamed that his son was destined to die of a wound received from the point of an iron spear. The king was made very uneasy by this ominous dream. He determined at once to take every precaution in his power to avert the threatened danger. He immediately detached Atys from his command in the army, and made provision for his marriage. He then very carefully collected all the darts, javelins, and every other iron-pointed weapon that he could find about the palace, and caused them to be deposited carefully in a secure place, where there could be no danger even of an accidental injury from them.

About that time there appeared at the court of Crœsus a stranger from Phrygia, a neighboring state, who presented himself at the palace and asked for protection. He was a prince of the royal family of Phrygia, and his name was Adrastus. He had had the misfortune, by some unhappy accident, to kill his brother; his father, in consequence of it, had banished him from his native land, and he was now homeless, friendless, and destitute.

Crœsus received him kindly. "Your family have always been my friends," said he, "and I am glad of the opportunity to make some return by extending my protection to any member of it suffering misfortune. You shall reside in my palace, and all your wants shall be supplied. Come in, and forget the calamity which has befallen you, instead of distressing yourself with it as if it had been a crime."

Thus Crœsus received the unfortunate Adrastus into his household. After the prince had been domiciliated in his new home for some time, messengers came from Mysia, a neighboring state, saying that a wild boar of enormous size and unusual ferocity had come down from the mountains, and was lurking in the cultivated country, in thickets and glens, from which, at night, he made great havoc among the flocks and herds, and asking that Crœsus would send his son, with a band of hunters and a pack of dogs, to help them destroy the common enemy. Crœsus consented immediately to send the dogs and the men, but he said that he could not send his son. "My son," he added, "has been lately married, and his time and attention are employed about other things."

When, however, Atys himself heard of this reply, he remonstrated very earnestly against it, and begged his father to allow him to go. "What will the world think of me," said he, "if I shut myself up to these effeminate pursuits and enjoyments, and shun those dangers and toils which other men consider it their highest honor to share? What will my fellow citizens think of me, and how shall I appear in the eyes of my wife? She will despise me."

Crœsus then explained to his son the reason why he had been so careful to avoid exposing him to danger. He related to him the dream which had alarmed him. "It is on that account," said he, "that I am so anxious about you. You are, in fact, my only son, for your speechless brother can never be my heir."

Atys said, in reply, that he was not surprised, under those circumstances, at his father's anxiety; but he maintained that this was a case to which his caution could not properly apply. "You dreamed," he said, "that I should be killed by a weapon pointed with iron; but a boar has no such weapon. If the dream had portended that I was to perish by a tusk or a tooth, you might reasonably have restrained me from going to hunt a wild beast; but iron-pointed instruments are weapons of men, and we are not going, in this expedition, to contend with men."

The king, partly convinced, perhaps, by the arguments which Atys offered, and partly overborne by the urgency of his request, finally consented to his request and allowed him to go. He consigned him, however, to the special care of Adrastus, who was likewise to accompany the expedition, charging Adrastus to keep constantly by his side, and to watch over him with the utmost vigilance and fidelity.

The band of huntsmen was organized, the dogs prepared, and the train departed. Very soon afterward, a messenger came back from the hunting ground, breathless, and with a countenance of extreme concern and terror, bringing the dreadful tidings that Atys was dead. Adrastus himself had killed him. In the ardor of the chase, while the huntsmen had surrounded the boar, and were each intent on his own personal danger while in close combat with such a monster, and all were hurling darts and javelins at their ferocious foe, the spear of Adrastus missed its aim, and entered the body of the unhappy prince. He bled to death on the spot.

Soon after the messenger had made known these terrible tidings, the hunting train, transformed now into a funeral procession, appeared, bearing the dead body of the king's son, and followed by the wretched Adrastus himself, who was wringing his hands, and crying out incessantly in accents and exclamations of despair. He begged the king to kill him at once, over the body of his son, and thus put an end to the unutterable agony that he endured. This second calamity was more, he said, than he could bear. He had killed before his own brother, and now he had murdered the son of his greatest benefactor and friend.

Crœsus, though overwhelmed with anguish, was disarmed of all resentment at witnessing Adrastus's suffering. He endeavored to soothe and quiet the agitation which the unhappy man endured, but it was in vain. Adrastus could not be calmed. Crœsus then ordered the body of his son to be buried with proper honors. The funeral services were performed with great and solemn ceremonies, and when the body was interred, the household of Crœsus returned to the palace, which was now, in spite of all its splendor, shrouded in gloom. That night—at midnight—Adrastus, finding his mental anguish insupportable, retired from his apartment to the place where Atys had been buried, and killed himself over the grave.

Solon was wise in saying that he could not toll whether wealth and grandeur were to be accounted as happiness till he saw how they would end. Crœsus was plunged into inconsolable grief, and into extreme dejection and misery for a period of two years, in consequence of this calamity, and yet this calamity was only the beginning of the end.

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