Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: Greek by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: Greek by  Charles Morris

The Fortune Of Croesus

The land of the Hellenes, or Greeks, was not confined to the small peninsula now known as Greece. Hellenic colonies spread far to the east and the west, to Italy and Sicily on the one hand, to Asia Minor and the shores of the Black Sea on the other. The story of the Argonauts probably arose from colonizing expeditions to the Black Sea. That of Crœsus has to do with the colonies in Asia Minor.

These colonies clung to the coast. Inland lay other nations, to some extent of Hellenic origin. One of these was the kingdom of Lydia, whose history is of the highest importance to us, since the conflicts between Lydia and the coast colonies were the first steps towards the invasion of Greece by the Persians, that most important event in early Grecian history.

These conflicts began in the reign of Crœsus, an ambitious king of Lydia in the sixth century before Christ. What gave rise to the war between Lydia and the Greek settlements of Ionia and Ĉolia we do not very well know. An ambitious despot does not need much pretext for war. He wills the war, and the pretext follows. It will suffice to say that, on one excuse or another, Crœsus made war on every Ionian and Ĉolian state, and conquered them one after the other.

First the great and prosperous city of Ephesus fell. Then, one by one, others followed, till, by the year 550 b.c. , Crœsus had become lord and master of every one of those formerly free and wealthy cities and states. Then, having placed all the colonies on the mainland under tribute, he designed to conquer the islands as well, and proposed to build ships for that purpose. He was checked in this plan by the shrewd answer of one of the seven wise men of Greece, either Bias or Pittacus, who had visited Sardis, the capital of Lydia.

"What news bring you from Greece?" asked King Crœsus of his wise visitor.

"I am told that the islanders are gathering ten thousand horse, with the purpose of attacking you and your capital," was the answer.

"What!" cried Crœsus. "Have the gods given these shipmen such an idea as to fight the Lydians with cavalry?"

"I fancy, O king," answered the Greek, "that nothing would please you better than to catch these islanders here on horseback. But do you not think that they would like nothing better than to catch you at sea on shipboard? Would they not avenge on you the misfortunes of their conquered brethren?"

This shrewd suggestion taught Crœsus a lesson. Instead of fighting the islanders, he made a treaty of peace and friendship with them. But he continued his conquests on the mainland till in the end all Asia Minor was under his sway, and Lydia had become one of the great kingdoms of the earth. Such wealth came to Crœsus as a result of his conquests and unchanging good fortune that he became accounted the richest monarch upon the earth, while Sardis grew marvellous for its splendor and prosperity. At an earlier date there had come thither another of the seven wise men of Greece, Solon, the law-giver of Athens. What passed between this far-seeing visitor and the proud monarch of Lydia we have already told.

The misfortunes which Solon told the king were liable to come upon any man befell Crœsus during the remainder of his life. Herodotus, the historian, tells us the romantic story of how the gods sent misery to him who had boasted overmuch of his happiness. We give briefly this interesting account.

Crœsus had two sons, one of whom was deaf and dumb, the other, Atys by name, gifted with the highest qualities which nature has to bestow. The king loved his bright and handsome son as dearly as he loved his wealth, and when a dream came to him that Atys would die by the blow of an iron weapon, he was deeply disturbed in his mind.

How should he prevent such a misfortune? In alarm, he forbade his son to take part in military forays, to which he had before encouraged him; and, to solace him for this deprivation, bade him to take a wife. Then, lest any of the warlike weapons which hung upon the walls of his apartments might fall and wound him, the king had them all removed, and stored away in the part of the palace devoted to the women.

But fate had decreed that all such precautions should be in vain. At Mount Olympus, in Mysia, had appeared a monster boar, that ravaged the fields of the lowlands and defied pursuit into his mountain retreat. Hunting parties were sent against him, but the great boar came off unscathed, while the hunters always suffered from his frightful tusks. At length ambassadors were sent to Crœsus, begging him to send his son, with other daring youths and with hunting hounds, to aid them rid their country of this destructive brute.

"That cannot be," answered Crœsus, still in terror from his dream. "My son is just married, and cannot so soon leave his bride. But I will send you a picked band of hunters, and bid them use all zeal to kill this foe of your harvests."

With this promise the Mysians were quite content, but Atys, who overheard it, was not.

"Why, my father," he demanded, "do you now keep me from the wars and the chase, when you formerly encouraged me to take part in them, and win glory for myself and you? Have I ever shown cowardice or lack of manly spirit? What must the citizens or my young bride think of me? With what face can I show myself in the forum? Either you must let me go to the chase of this boar, or give a reason why you keep me at home."

In reply Crœsus told the indignant youth of his vision, and the alarm with which it had inspired him.

"Ah!" cried Atys, "then I cannot blame you for keeping this tender watch over me. But, father, do you not wrongly interpret the dream? It said I was to die stricken by an iron weapon. A boar wields no such weapon. Had the dream said I was to die pierced by a tusk, then you might well be alarmed; but it said a weapon. We do not propose now to fight men, but to hunt a wild beast. I pray you, therefore, let me go with the party."

"You have the best of me there," said Crœsus. "Your interpretation of the dream is better than mine. You may go, my son."

At that time there was at the king's court a Phrygian named Adrastus, who had unwittingly slain his own brother and had fled to Sardis, where he was purified according to the customs of the country, and courteously received by the king. Crœsus sent for this stranger and asked him to go with the hunting party, and keep especial watch over his son, in case of an attack by some daring band of robbers.

Adrastus consented, though against his will, his misfortune having taken from him all desire for scenes of bloodshed. However, he would do his utmost to guard the king's son against harm.

The party set out accordingly, reached Olympus without adventure, and scattered in pursuit of the animal, which the dogs soon roused from its lair. Closing in a circle around the brute, the hunters drew near and hurled their weapons at it. Not the least eager among the hunters was Adrastus, who likewise hurled his spear; but, through a frightful chance, the hurtling weapon went astray, and struck and killed Atys, his youthful charge. Thus was the dream fulfilled: an iron weapon had slain the king's favorite son.

The news of this misfortune plunged Crœsus into the deepest misery of grief. As for Adrastus, he begged to be sacrificed at the grave of his unfortunate victim. This Crœsus, despite his grief, refused, saying,—

"Some god is the author of my misfortune, not you. I was forewarned of it long ago."

But Adrastus was not to be thus prevented. Deeming himself the most unfortunate of men, he slew himself on the tomb of the hapless youth. And for two years Crœsus abandoned himself to grief.

And now we must go on to tell how Crœsus met with a greater misfortune still, and brought the Persians to the gates of Greece. Cyrus, son of Cambyses, king of Persia, had conquered the neighboring kingdom of Media, and, inspired by ambition, had set out on a career of wide-spread conquest and dominion. He had grown steadily more powerful, and now threatened the great kingdom which Crœsus had gained.

The Lydian king, seeing this danger approaching, sought advice from the oracles. But wishing first to know which of them could best be trusted, he sent to six of them demanding a statement of what he was doing at a certain moment. The oracle of Delphi alone gave a correct answer.

Thereupon Crœsus offered up a vast sacrifice to the Delphian deity. Three thousand oxen were slain, and a great sacrificial pile was built, on which were placed splendid robes and tunics of purple, with couches and censers of gold and silver, all to be committed to the flames. To Delphi he sent presents befitting the wealthiest of kings,—ingots, statues, bowls, jugs, etc., of gold and silver, of great weight. These Herodotus himself saw with astonishment a century afterwards at Delphi. The envoys who bore these gifts asked the oracle whether Crœsus should undertake an expedition against the Persians, and should solicit allies.

He was bidden, in reply, to seek alliance with the most powerful nations of Greece. He was also told that if he fought with the Persians he would overturn a "mighty empire." Crœsus accepted this as a promise of success, not thinking to ask whose empire was to be overturned. He sent again to the oracle, which now replied, "When a mule shall become king of the Medes, then thou must run away,—be not ashamed." Here was another enigma of the oracle. Cyrus—son of a royal Median mother and a Persian father of different race and lower position—was the mule indicated, though Crœsus did not know this. In truth, the oracles of Greece seem usually to have borne a double meaning, so that whatever happened the priestess could claim that her word was true, the fault was in the interpretation.

Crœsus, accepting the oracles as favorable, made an alliance with Sparta, and marched his army into Media, where he inflicted much damage. Cyrus met him with a larger army, and a battle ensued. Neither party could claim a victory, but Crœsus returned to Sardis, to collect more men and obtain aid from his allies. He might have been successful had Cyrus waited till his preparations were complete. But the Persian king followed him to his capital, defeated him in a battle near Sardis, and besieged him in that city.

Sardis was considered impregnable, and Crœsus could easily have held out till his allies arrived had it not been for one of those unfortunate incidents of which war has so many to tell. Sardis was strongly fortified on every side but one. Here the rocky height on which it was built was so steep as to be deemed inaccessible, and walls were thought unnecessary. Yet a soldier of the garrison made his way down this precipice to pick up his helmet, which had fallen. A Persian soldier saw him, tried to climb up, and found it possible. Others followed him, and the garrison, to their consternation, found the enemy within their walls. The gates were opened to the army without, and the whole city was speedily taken by storm.

Crœsus would have been killed but for a miracle. His deaf and dumb son, seeing a Persian about to strike him down, burst into speech through the agony of terror, crying out, "Man, do not kill Crœsus!" The story goes that he ever afterwards retained the power of speech.

Cyrus had given orders that the life of Crœsus should be spared, and the unhappy captive was brought before him. But the cruel Persian had a different death in view. He proposed to burn the captive king, together with fourteen Lydian youths, on a great pile of wood which he had constructed. We give what followed as told by Herodotus, though its truth cannot be vouched for at this late day.

As Crœsus lay in fetters on the already kindled pile and thought of this terrible ending to his boasted happiness, he groaned bitterly, and cried in tones of anguish, "Solon! Solon! Solon!"

"What does be mean?" asked Cyrus of the interpreters. They questioned Crœsus, and learned from him what Solon had said. Cyrus heard this story not without alarm. His own life was yet to end; might not a like fate come to him? He ordered that the fire should be extinguished, but would have been too late had not a timely downpour of rain just then come to the aid of the captive king,—sent by Apollo, in gratitude for the gifts to his temple, suggests Herodotus. Crœsus was afterwards made the confidential friend and adviser of the Persian king, whose dominions, through this victory, had been extended over the whole Lydian empire, and now reached to the ocean outposts of Greece.

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