Croesus shows his treasures to Solon, the sage and law-maker from Athens.
You may have heard the myth of King Midas, he of the golden touch. Naturally we have that story on Storynory. Everything he touched turned to gold, including his own daughter. Eventually he washed away the curse of his wealth in the river Pactolus.
The Midas Touch is a myth of course, and its moral shows how greed for wealth can destroy what is truly valuable in your life. But there really was a King Midas in history. In fact there were three of them, fathers and sons, and they were kings of the land of Phrygia in what is now Eastern Turkey. They probably did not have the golden touch but it is true that the rivers in that part of the world were rich in gold.
At the time of our story, Phrygia had been taken over by its bigger neighbour, the Lydia, and was part of the great Lydian empire. Lydia now owned the rivers that contained the famous gold. The Lydians became incredibly rich. But It was not just the gold that made them wealthy, it was what they did with it.
The Invention of Money
Lydian Gold Stater. Herodotus wrote,
The Lydians are the first people we know to mint and use coins of gold and silver.
They were about eight grams of gold, and were made in mass quantity, making them possibly the first international gold trade coin in the world - though the Chinese also invented coins around the same time.
The Lydians invented the idea of money. The kings of Lydia were among the first people to mint gold and silver coins. Interestingly, the same idea came about in China around that time. The government purified the gold by melting it at very high temperatures, took out all the other metals such as silver, and formed the gold into coins with fixed and known weights. To prove that these were government coins they put their stamps on them - in the case of the Lydians this was often the face of a lion.
Money made trade very efficient because people knew and trusted the value of the coins. And trade, buying and selling goods in the bazaars, made Lydia the business capital of the world.
560 years before the birth of Christ, a man called Croesus, who was then 35 years old, became King of Lydia, He was a descendant of Gyges, whose family, according to the oracle, was destined to rule for five generations. Croesus belonged to the fifth generation.
Even today, more than two and a half thousand years after he lived, the name “Croesus” is still associated with wealth. You can hear people say that a modern billionaire is as “rich as Croesus.” There’s even a golden winged butterfly named after him.
Croesus ruled Lydia (in what we now call Turkey) from 560-547 BCE and was famed for his wealth. We still use the expression "as rich as Croesus".
Solon (c. 640 – c. 560 BC) was an Athenian statesman, famous for making the legal code that set the foundations of Athenian democracy. He cancelled the debts of poor workers, and restructured the Athenian class system.
King Croesus conquered the Greek cities along the coast of what is now Turkey. But he was not just their enemy, he was clearly fascinated by Greek culture. He built the temple of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting, which you can still see in the city of Ephesus. In fact, his name is inscribed on one of the pillars.
Wealth Meets Wisdom
The curiosity was mutual. The Greeks were fascinated by tales of Croesus and his wealth.
Herodotus tells us that an Athenian wise man, one of the Seven Sages of the ancient world, visited his court. The Greek’s name was Solon. Solon had been a ruler of Athens and had written down its laws. After he stepped down as its highest official, like Herodotus, a 100 years later, he went travelling, in search of knowledge, visiting Egypt and the near east. He came to Lydia and its splendid Capital, Sardis. It was at the time, says Herodotos, when Croesus was at the height of his powers.
And It was a meeting of two great people: one representing Wisdom, the other Wealth. And although Croesus and Solon really did exist it’s probable that the story of their meeting is something like a fable.
Croesus welcomed his learned visitor and took him on a guided tour of the most magnificent objects in his treasury. We can imagine the chests brimming with golden coins, the chains and the necklaces, bowls, knives, swords, the statues, the pillars - all gleaming with gold.
After showing Solon his treasures, King Croesus spoke to his famed Athenian visitor :
“We have heard much of your wisdom, and of your travels through many lands, from love of knowledge and a wish to see the world. I am curious therefore to ask you, who, of all the men that you have seen or heard of, do you consider to be the happiest?”
Of course this question was a little bit like the queen in the fairytale who asks, “Mirror Mirror on the Wall who is the fairest of them all?” Croesus expected a reply that would be flattering to him, but instead he received an earnest answer.
Solon replied, “In Athens there lived a man called Tellus. He had handsome, proud, sons, and he ended up a grandfather. All his children and grandchildren lived to adulthood. He died in battle, fighting for his City, and it was such a glorious death, that the Athenians built a shrine in his honour, on the spot where he fell.”
Of course this was not the answer that Croesus was hoping for. And so he said, “Fortunate indeed was Tellus, but can you think of somebody almost as happy as him?”
“Well, yes,” said Solon, and he proceeded to tell the story of two worthy young men of Argos who were so dutiful to their mother, that they pulled her many miles in an ox cart to a religious festival. When they arrived they crawled, exhausted, into the temple and died there peacefully but beautifully, honoured by all.
This was too much for Croesus. How was it that he, the richest person who had ever lived, was not the happiest?
Now Solon gave him an even longer sermon. It is a speech which tells us a lot about the way the Greeks thought about life. First he calculated that a man who reaches 70 years old would live 26,250 days, which was a subtle reminder that Croesus was a mortal human, not a god who lives forever. He went on:
“I see that you are wealthy and powerful now, but I cannot call you happy yet, until I learn that you have remained fortunate right up until the end of your life. For many very wealthy people suffer a tragic twist of fate, while many ordinary people live life happily right up until they die. We must see how everything turns out in the end, and we should remember that when the gods see a fortunate man, they often bring down that man’s good fortune.”
And when you think about this, it’s a wise answer. If you see a movie that has a sad ending, it does not matter how happy the main characters began the story, it is the ending that will make you say, “that was a really tragic movie, I couldn’t help crying.”
But when Croesus heard this answer, he thought that Solon could not be as smart as he was cracked up to be. After all, here he was, in the presence of the richest man in the world, with a perfect chance to flatter him with a pleasing answer, and all he did was rattle on about some unknown worthies who did their duty to their country and their parents. If he was was expecting a generous tip, say a solid golden bowl as a souvenir, he could forget it.
Greek Idea of Hubris
But that’s not how a Greek would hear the story. Greek myths, their stories, and their plays, are full of their understanding of human life. They realised that if a person gets too powerful, and too arrogant, there is a danger of them committing the sin of hubris.
Hubris can be something like bullying, when you use your power to humiliate somebody. It can also be a bit like boasting or bragging. I think we all know people who are hubristic.
But there is something a little bit below outright hubris. It’s more tragic. It’s when an essentially good person gets above themselves. The gods become jealous, and their story ends badly for them.
The perfect example is Icarus, the boy who flew too high. His father, Daedalus, gave him wings made of wax, and warned him about flying too close to the sun. But icarus disobeyed his father - an act of hubris in itself - and soared high into the air. The sun melted his wings, just as his father had warned, and he fell into the sea.
In the Greek mind, the moral of the story of Icarus is clear. It is dangerous to soar too high and to get too close to the gods. So when Herodotus says that Croesus was at the height of his power, and shows him boasting of his wealth, and thinking of himself as the happiest man alive, and forgetting that he is a mere mortal, subject to the whims of the gods, the Greeks would know that there is only one way his life story could go from there on, and that way was down.
And over the next couple of episodes I will tell you more about Croesus.
Story written, narrated, and illustrated by Bertie for Storynory.com