Call No Man Happy

The Best Stories of Herodotus returns today – after a shamefully long gap – with a story that has nothing to do with our favourite topic, the Greek-Persian Wars. Because The Histories of Herodotus is so much more than the long-winded retelling of a few gory battles: in his effort to unearth the causes of the war, Herodotus went as far back in time as the origins of the War of Troy and ranged across the Eastern Mediterranean and across subjects in a way that modern historians would never dare. Today’s story is a great example.

Let’s introduce the three protagonists first: Solon, Croesus and Cyrus.

Solon, the Athenian Law-Giver

Solon, 630-560 B.C.

The man Athenians generally credited with creating their democracy was Solon, archon1 in 594/93 [B.C.], who was given extraordinary powers to write laws…

Peter Krentz: The Athenian Government in Herodotus,
Appendix A to The Landmark Herodotus: The Histories

Solon, the Law-Giver, whom his fellow citizens asked to give them laws.

Solon writing laws for Athens. By anonymous engraver.

I yoked together might and right, and I succeeded. I finished as I promised.
I wrote laws for the Bad and the Good alike,
I gave to each and every one straight justice.


Having written the laws to which the city of Athens signed up for a minimum of ten years, Solon thought it prudent to absent himself from the city for the aforesaid ten years – lest he should be forced to revoke his laws. Excusing himself therefore that he wished to see the world, he went gallivanting around the Ancient Mediterranean.

In due course, he arrived to Sardis, to the court of the Lydian king, Croesus.

Rich as Croesus

Croesus, 595-546 B.C.

It was Croesus who gave the world its first reliable currency. The gold standard starts here. The consequence was great wealth…

Neil MacGregor: A History of the World in 100 Objects

Gold coin of Croesus, British Museum

Croesus, the king of Lydia in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) from 560 to 547 B.C., is credited with minting the first gold coins. The gold came from the River Pactolus in whose waters King Midas washed his hands in order to set himself free from the curse of the ‘Midas touch’2.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great, c.590-529 B.C.

I have raised him up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the LORD of hosts.

Isaiah 45:13, King James Bible

You might find this hard to believe but this exalted one of the Lord above is a Gentile: King Cyrus the Great, Cyrus II of Persia – clearly identified by name in the preceding verses. For the more archeologically minded, this would be Cyrus of the Cyrus Cylinder3 fame, c. 600-530 B.C.

Cyrus ruled for about 30 years and the story of how he built the world’s greatest empire (as of then) is related both by Herodotus and the Bible.

And now, today’s story!

Call No Man Happy

(Or The Life and Misfortunes of King Croesus)

Solon in Sardis

On a sunny summer day4, Solon the tourist arrived at the harbour of Sardis, the capital of Lydia. The celebrity wise man of Athens was, of course, immediately invited to the palace, where King Croesus fancied himself in a little need of flattery:

…on the third or fourth day, Croesus gave orders to his servants to give Solon a tour through the treasuries and to point out all his great riches. When Solon had viewed and inspected everything long enough, Croesus said to him,

“My Athenian guest, word of your wisdom and travels has reached us even here. We hear you have wandered through much of the world in the search for knowledge, so I really can’t resist asking you now whether you have yet seen anyone who surpasses all others in happiness and prosperity?”

(Herodotus: The Histories, Book I. 30)

Croesus showing his riches to Solon. By Willem de Poorter

A leading question if we’ve ever heard one. I think none of you need to be told by Herodotus that Croesus really expected himself to be named as happiest and most prosperous of all. Rather disappointingly for him, however, Solon named Tellus the Athenian.


Who on earth is Tellus the Athenian? How could Solon consider this nonentity be happier than Croesus?!

Solon replied, “For one thing, he [Tellus] lived in a famous city and had good and noble children, and he saw all his children and grandchildren surviving him. Besides, he was well off, at least by our standards of living, and he ended his life in the greatest glory, for he came to the aid of the Athenians in a battle against their neighbours in Eleusis and forced them to flee before he died most nobly on the battlefield. The Athenians buried him at public expense in the very place he fell and gave him great honours.” (I.30)

Croesus had to concede that Tellus had it good but he was sure to win at least second place, therefore he questioned Solon further…

…only to be disappointed again.

…Croesus now became annoyed.

“My Athenian guest,” he said, “are you disparaging my own happiness as though it were nothing? Do you think me worth less than even a common man?”

Solon replied,

“Croesus, you asked me about human concerns, and I know that the gods are jealous of human prosperity and disruptive of our peace. Over a long period of time, a man will see and experience many things that he would rather not… human life is pure chance.

You seem to be very wealthy, and you rule over many people, but I cannot yet tell you the answer you asked for until I learn how you have ended your life.

You see a man who is very wealthy is no more happy and prosperous than the man who has only enough to live from day to day, unless good fortune stays with him and he retains his fair and noble possessions right up until he departs this life happily. For many wealthy people are unhappy, while many others who have more modest resources are fortunate. The man who has great wealth but is unhappy outdoes the fortunate man in only two ways, while the fortunate man outdoes him in many ways. The former is more capable of gratifying his passions and of sustaining himself in adversity, but the fortunate man, although he does not have the same ability to sustain himself in adversity or passion, avoids these anyway by virtue of his good fortune. Moreover, he has no injury, no sickness, no painful experiences; what he does have is good children and good looks. Now if, in addition to all these things, he ends his life well, too, then this is the man you are looking for; he alone deserves to be called happy and prosperous.” (I.32)

An open-and-shut case!

Atys and the Iron Spear

Solon did not please Croesus at all by telling him this, and Croesus dismissed him, thinking him worthless and extremely ignorant for overlooking the good things right before his eyes and telling him instead to look to the end of every matter. (I.33)

But, as attested by numerous Greek myths, the gods are jealous. It doesn’t do for a mortal to think too highly of himself or even to consider himself too fortunate. Herodotus, like all Greeks of his time, was a firm believer in hubris5 and its inevitably tragic consequences:

…after Solon left, the god took a dreadful vengeance upon Croesus, apparently because Croesus had thought himself the happiest and most prosperous of men. (I.34)

It so happened that Croesus had two sons: one a poor mute, but the other, Atys, “greatly surpassed his peers in everything”. This apple of Croesus’s eye was serving as a general in the army and enjoyed hunting and other manly pastimes. Soon after Solon left Sardis, however, Croesus had a terrible dream in which Atys was killed by an iron spear. Forewarned is forearmed, thought Croesus, and like the good father he was, he prudently removed all spears, javelins, lances, you name it, from the house6. Not only that but he forbade his son to have anything to do with war. Finally, lest the young man become restless, he even provided him with a wife!

So far, so good.

While all this was going on, another visitor turned up in Sardis:

…there arrived in Sardis a man caught up in bad luck, with blood guilt on his hands. He was a Phrygian of royal birth and came to Croesus’ household in accordance with the local custom; he needed to obtain ritual purification because of his crime. And so Croesus performed this service for him. (I.35)

Having purified the young man, Croesus wished to know more:

“Now, you, who are you? And from where in Phrygia have you come here as my suppliant? What man or woman did you murder?”

And the man answered,

“I am the son of Gordias, son of Midas; my name is Adrastos. I killed my brother unintentionally, and am here because I was banished by my father and am now deprived of everything.” (I.35)

Man of bad luck indeed, to have killed his own brother by accident. Croesus, nevertheless, decided to take him in:

“It so happens that you are descended from friends of mine; therefore you have found friends here and will lack for nothing in my home. You will do best to bear this misfortune as lightly as possible.” (I.35)

Time passed, Adrastos lived happily at Croesus’s house, Atys lived happily with his wife… etcetera. This happy state of affairs, however, was not to last.

Meanwhile a huge monster of a boar appeared on Mount Olympus in Mysia, from which it would set out to ravage the Mysians’ fields. The Mysians often went out to attack it but could do it no harm and they suffered injuries from it instead. At last, messengers from the Mysians went to Croesus… (I.36)

Yep, you’ve guessed it. They asked for the peerless Atys to come and deal with the boar for them!

Ever mindful of his disturbing dream, Croesus replied:

“About my son—do not bring up that subject again, because I would not send him with you. He has just been married, and this sort of thing is not his concern right now. I will, however, send with you a group of the best Lydians as well as my whole pack of hunting dogs, and I will order them to help you remove the beast from your land with their utmost determination.”  (I.36)

The Mysians were well satisfied with this answer; not so Atys, who overheard the lot:

“Before this, Father, I always enjoyed the best, the most noble status when I went to war or to the hunt, and I was held in high esteem. But now you exclude me from both, although I do not believe you have detected in me any cowardice or lack of bravery. How am I supposed to show my face when I visit the public square? What kind of man will the citizens think I am? And my bride? What kind of man will she think she is living with?…” (I.37)

Faced with these not unreasonable questions, Croesus explained Atys about his dream. Atys replied,

“Father, since you had such a dream, I forgive you for watching over me; but let me tell you that you missed something in the dream. You said that in your dream I appeared to die by an iron spear. Well, what kind of hands does a boar have? Or what kind of spear could it use that you are so afraid? If the dream told you that I would die by its teeth or by some other means natural to this animal, then you ought to act as you are doing, but it told of a spear. So, since I will not be in a battle against men, please do let me go.” (I.39)

Atys certainly had a point – the boar was not yet born that wielded an iron spear. Croesus therefore consented for him to go on the hunt; and as additional security, he sent Adrastos to watch his back (in case he fell in with some wicked thieves on the road). Adrastos, feeling himself in debt to Croesus, did not refuse.

“You have ordered me to protect your son; therefore you can expect him to return home safe under my protection.” (I.42)

Well, you can’t doubt his good intentions. But was the ill-fated Adrastos really the best man to try to help Atys evade his ill fate?

Off they went to Mysia: Atys, Adrastos, a group of the best young men and the dogs.

When they reached Mount Olympus, they searched for the boar, and when they found the beast, they surrounded it and cast their spears at it. But at that point, the supplicant stranger, Adrastos, the very man whom Croesus had purified of blood guilt, missed his mark while aiming his javelin at the boar and hit the son of Croesus. Thus wounded by the iron spear, Atys fulfilled the prophecy of the dream… (I.43)


Reluctantly we’ll here pass by the tragic aftermath, including Croesus’s lamentations, the funeral and Adrastos’s suicide (all of which you can read in I.44-45) because we have to move on with the main story – this is no way yet the end!

Three Phrophecies from Delphi

For two years, says Herodotus, Croesus did nothing but sat at home and moped. He was finally stirred out of his grief by arising affairs of state. News came from the east that the Persian Cyrus had destroyed the empire of the Medes.

He [Croesus] wondered if he would be able to check the Persian power before it became too strong. (I.46)

Croesus thought it prudent to consult the oracles; but which one? There were too many! In order to determine which one of the oracles7 could really foresee the future, he devised a test:

Croesus gave his sacred delegates the following instructions for testing the oracles: that they were to count the days from their departure from Sardis until the hundredth day, on which they would then consult the oracles, asking what the Lydian king, Croesus son Alyattes, happened to be doing just then. Then they were to record in writing whatever each of the oracles answered and bring that record back to him… (I.47)

We don’t know what the various oracles replied; Herodotus merely says only one of them answered correctly8. This winning candidate replied in verse:

I know the number of grains of sand and the measures of the sea,
I understand the mute and hear the speechless.
Into the depth of my senses has come the smell of hard-shelled tortoise
Boiling in bronze with the meat of lamb,
Laid upon bronze below, covered with bronze on top. (I.47)

So what was Croesus doing, exactly?

…after he had sent his sacred delegates off to the various oracles, he watched for the day he had appointed with a plan in mind that he thought would be impossible to discover and disclose: all by himself, he had chopped up a tortoise and a lamb, then boiled them together in a bronze cauldron covered by a bronze lid. (I.48)

Good for the Pythia, Apollo’s oracle in Delphi who gave the correct answer. Croesus wasn’t ungrateful:

After this he tried to please the god at Delphi with generous offerings. He sacrificed 3,000 of every kind of appropriate animal. He piled up gold- and silver-plated couches, golden libation cups, and purple garments, and then burned them on a huge pyre, hoping thereby to gain a bit more of the god’s favour. He ordered all the Lydians to sacrifice according to their means. After the sacrifice, Croesus melted down a great amount of gold and beat it into ingots, 117 in all, each measuring eighteen inches long, nine inches wide, and three inches high. Of these, four were made of refined gold, weighing two and half talents each, and the rest were made of white gold, weighing two talents each. He also had a statue of a lion made of refined gold, weighing ten talents… (I.49)

And so on. Gold and silver bowls, storage jars and other objects, statues, even some of his own wife’s jewellery. The description of what Croesus sent to Delphi and what became of it subsequently goes on for a page and a half. Of course, he wanted something more in exchange: advice regarding the Persians.

His envoys duly fetched up at Delphi with the offerings and said to the oracle:

“Croesus king of the Lydians and other peoples, in the belief that yours is the only true oracle in the whole world, gives you gifts worthy of your prophetic insight, and asks whether he should wage was against the Persians and whether he should seek to add any military force to his own as an ally.” (I.53)

The Pythia replied,

that if Croesus were to wage war against the Persians, he would destroy a great empire… and… advised him to find the most powerful Hellenes and to make them his friends and supporters. (I.53)

All was peachy between Croesus and the Pythia. Croesus loved the prophecies; the Pythia loved the presents.

Croesus… was overjoyed with the prophecies, confidently expecting that they foretold that he was going to destroy the empire of Cyrus. Then, having sent yet another mission to Delphi, and after having ascertained the size of the population of Delphi, Croesus gave each man of that city a present of two gold staters. In return, the Delphians granted to Croesus and the Lydians the privileges of priority in oracular consultation and exemption from fees, along with front-row places at their festivals. They also granted in perpetuity that any of the Lydians could become a Delphian citizen. (I.54)

As I said, all was simply peachy.

But to top it all, Croesus felt that a third prophecy was called for. Off he sent his men again to Delphi…

This time he asked whether his reign would be long-lasting. The Pythia answered him as follows:

…But whenever a mule8 becomes king of the Medes,
Then, tender-footed Lydian, flee by the pebbled River Hermus
And do not delay, nor feel shame at being a coward.

These verses, when delivered to Croesus, delighted him more than ever before. He was confident that a man would always rule the Medes—never a mule—and therefore assumed that he and his descendants would rule forever. (I.55)

Croesus now felt he knew everything he needed to know; it was time to act. Taking the oracle’s advice, first of all he looked around to make the most powerful Hellenes into his allies. He soon found that there were two candidates: the Spartans and the Athenians.

And so Croesus learned that the Athenians were being oppressed in this way at the time9. But the Spartans, he heard, had just emerged from great difficulties and were now waging war victoriously against the Tegeans… (I.65)

…so he sent messengers bearing gifts to Sparta in order to request a military alliance… (I.69)

Which the Spartans, who have heard of the Delphic prophecies given to Croesus, granted willingly. There was an exchange of gifts (although the Spartan gift never arrived to Sardis but ended up in the hands of the Samians – but this is another story).

All was prepared. It was time for Croesus to start his victorious war.

The Pyre

Meanwhile Croesus, who had misunderstood the oracle, was preparing an expectition to Cappadocia, assuming that he would depose Cyrus and defeat the Persians.

While he was preparing for war against Persia, a Lydian named Sandanis, who was considered a sage even before this, achieved greater fame among the Lydians for the advice he now gave to Croesus.

“Sire,” he said, “you are preparing for war agains the sort of men who wear leather trousers and leather for all their other garments as well. They eat not as much as they want, but as much as they have, since their land is rugged. Moreover, they have no wine but drink water instead. They have no figs for dessert, nor anything else good to eat. Now if you should conquer them, what will you take from these people who have nothing at all? And then again, if they were to conquer you, think of how much you will lose: as soona s they taste our good life, they will never give it up and you will never get rid of them…” (I.71)

Very sound advice by the old man Sandanis – there was really one side in this contest who stood to gain anything, and that wasn’t Croesus’s side!

It would take too long to describe all the gory battles here – the particularly war-minded among you should refer directly to the relevant paragraphs (I.72-73, I.76-84).

The (relatively) short version is that Croesus’s army moved into Cappadocia where he crossed the River Halys10 and fought a pitched battle against Cyrus’s army outside the city of Pteria. This battle was inconclusive; Croesus attributed this to the fact that his army was much smaller than Cyrus’s. Therefore he packed up and returned to Sardis to collect a larger army. Cyrus however figured that his best chance lay in following hot on the heels of Croesus and attacking before the Lydian king could gather potential reinforcements. In consequence, another battle was fought on the plain in front of Sardis which the Lydians lost (their horses took fright from the camels of the Persians). The Lydians retreated into the city where they were duly besieged by Cyrus. At this point Croesus sent a herald across the Aegean to ask the Spartans for help but before the Spartans had time to set sail, on the fourteenth day of the siege, the city fell.

What became of Croesus after his city fell? This is where I have to hand over entirely to Herodotus.

What happened to Croesus himself was this.

As I mentioned earlier, he had a son, who, although healthy in all other respects, was unable to speak. In the past, during peace and prosperity, Croesus had done everything for this boy and, among other things, sent a mission to Delphi asking the oracle about him. This is what the Pythia said:

Lydian of race, king of many, Croesus, you fool,
Desire not to hear at home that prayed-for sound
Of yours son’s voice. Much better for you to be far from that:
The day on which you hear it first will rob you of prosperity.

And indeed it turned out that when the wall was being taken, one of the Persians, who did not recognise Croesus, approached the king and was going to kill him; Croesus saw him coming but did nothing; in his misery he did not care that he would die by a stroke of violence. But when his mute son saw the Persian approaching, he shouted out in fear and horror,

“You there! Do not kill Croesus!”

These were the first words he ever spoke, and after this, he could speak for the rest of his life.

When the Persians took Sardis and captured Croesus, he had ruled fourteen years and had been under siege fourteen days. And as the oracle predicted, he put an end to a great empire—his own.

The Persians seized him and led him to Cyrus, and to a huge pyre that the King had them build, and they mounted Croesus bound in shackles on top of it, and with him, fourteen Lydian boys.

Cyrus did this either to consecrate them as a sacrifice of victory offerings to some god, or to fulfill a voew, or perhaps, having found out that Croesus was god-fearing, he wanted to see if some divinity would save him from being burned alive.

As Croesus stood there on the pyre, despite the horror of his predicament, he thought of Solon and how divinely inspired he had been when he stated his maxim that no living human can be called truly happy and prosperous. Until then he remained quiet, but when this occurred to him, he sighed deeply and groaned and repeated aloud “Solon” three times.

Cyrus heard this and ordered his interpreters to ask Croesus who was this man he had called by name. Croesus kept silent at first, but when they pressed him to answer, he said,

“A man to whom I would pay a fortune if only he could talk to all tyrants.”

Since his words were obscure to them, they questioned him again, asking what he meant, and they continued to pester him until he told them what had happened when Solon the Athenian had visited him; indeed he related the whole story form beginning to end, even repeating Solon’s very words, of how after the Athenian had seen all  of the king’s prosperity, he had still made light of it and refused to call Croesus a fortunate man. And now everything had turned out just as Solon had said, and indeed it was clear that his words applied no more to Croesus himself than to the whole human race, and especially to all those who consider themselves happy and prosperous. While Croesus related all this, the pyre had been lit and its edges were now burning.

Cyrus, after learning through the interpreters what Croesus had said, reflected that he, too, was human, and changed his mind about committing a living man to the fire, a fellow human being who had been blessed with happiness no less than he. Moreover, he began to fear retribution, and to contemplate the fact that nothing is really secure and certain for human beings. So he gave orders that the fire should be extinguished at once and that Croesus and the Lydian youths with him on the pyre be brought down. The Persians immediately tried to carry out his orders, but they were unable to get the fire under control.

Then, say the Lydians, as Croesus watched all the men attempting but failing to put out the mounting flames, he realized that Cyrus had changed his mind, and now called out to Apollo, beseeching him that if any of his gifts had ever pleased the god, to come now to his rescue and save him from the danger at hand.

And as he called on the god and began to weep, clouds suddenly converged out of the clear, calm sky, and a storm burst out, and rain poured down in floods, extinguishing the fire.

Cyrus understood from this that Croesus must be a good man and dear to the gods. He had him brought down from the pyre and asked him,

“Croesus, who on earth persuaded you to wage war against me rather than to become my friend?”

Croesus replied,

“Sire, what I did was a blessing for you, but a curse for me. The one to blame is the god of the Hellenes; it is he who encouraged me to go to war. Otherwise, no one could be so foolish as to prefer war to peace: in peace sons bury fathers; in war fathers bury sons.” (I.85-87)

Call No Man Happy

Croesus on the pyre. Red figure vase, 5th century B.C.

So call no man happy…

…while he still lives.

1 Archon = A chief magistrate / civilian head of state in Athens
2 Midas touch: According to legend, everything King Midas of Phrygia touched turned into gold. As this included his daughter and any food he tried to eat, he wasn't entirely happy. Depending on which version of the legend you read, he either died of starvation or liberated himself from the curse (which he did bring upon himself by the way) by washing his hands in the River Pactolus. 
3 Cyrus Cylinder = a clay cylinder, now in the British Museum, with text in cuneiform writing, which praises King Cyrus and denounces his defeated opponent, King Nabonidus of Babylon
4 This is called poetic licence - for all we know it was the middle of winter and it was pouring with rain.
5 Hubris = Excessive pride, especially towards the gods, which will result in your downfall. Think of Arachne.
6 Shades of the Grimm Brothers' Sleeping Beauty here.
7 The Hellenic oracles were Delphi, Abai in Phocis, Dodona, Amphiareion, Trophonios and the Branchidai in Miletus. The one in Lybia was the oracle of Ammon.
8 Although he does say that Amphiareion also gave a sufficiently accurate answer for Croesus to feel that there was a true oracle there as well.
9 Mule = Cyrus was half Persian, half Mede (I.91) 
10 At this time Athens was under the yoke of the tyrant Peisistratos.
11 The mathematician Thales figured out a way to get the army across the river (I.75). 

Links:Book of Isaiah, Chapter 45The Histories by Herodotus - resources on the Open University

Image credits:
Solon, Croesus & Cyrus: public domain via Wikipedia
Croesus's gold coin: Courtesy of the British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Solon writing laws for Athens, Croesus shows his riches to Solon, Croesus on the pyre: public domain, various sources

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