7, King Croesus and the Oracle of Delphi

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Pythia - Delphic Oracle - predicts A Great Empire will Fall to Croesus

Hello this is Bertie, and I’m here with the latest in our series retelling the Histories of Herodotus. And this story is dedicated to Tadeus and Alma Rose.

Written read, and illustrated by Bertie.
Proofread by Jana Elizabeth.

In the last few episodes we have been hearing about an incredibly wealthy country called Lydia that was based in the the part of the world we now called Turkey.

By far the most famous, King of Lydia was a man called Croesus, who was known throughout the world for his incredible wealth.

Croesus felt increasingly threatened by warlike people coming from the east. The latest of these were the Persians, a hardy tribe of horse riding warriors lead by Cyrus, whom we now call Cyrus the Great.

The Persian empire began when Cyrus united the Persians with a neighbouring tribe called the Medes. We have heard of the Medes before, when the Lydians fought them at the battle of the eclipse. The Lydians could not be sure what Cyrus and the Persians would do next. Perhaps they would attack Lydia.

So Croesus wondered if he should move against the Persians before they grew even stronger.

In those days when you were not sure what to do, the natural course was to ask the gods for advice. As we have heard before, the Lydians had a long history of consulting the Greek oracles, the priestesses who claimed to be in touch with the gods and also able to foretell the future.

The very survival of the Lydian empire hung in the balance. Croesus wanted to be absolutely sure that the oracles were accurate in their predictions, and weren’t just making stuff up to cheat gullible people out of their gold. He decided to test them.

To do this, he sent messengers to the leading oracles in Greece and Libya with strict instructions. Exactly 100 days after leaving Sardis, the Lydian messengers asked each oracle a very specific question: what was King Croesus of Lydia, the son of Alyattes, doing at that very moment?

On the 100th day after the messengers had left, he did something so peculiar that he felt certain no one could predict it without the help of the gods. He made tortoise and lamb soup in a bronze cauldron.

When the messengers returned to Sardis he eagerly read the scrolls with the replies of the oracles. This was what the Pythian priestess of Delphi had written down:

I can tell how many grains of sand lie at the bottom of the sea.
And those who cannot speak can communicate with me.
Now I feel the scent of a dish that is hot,
Lamb and tortoise boil in a big bronze pot.

Croesus was impressed that she knew his strange recipe.

He immediately made a rich sacrifice to Apollo, the god who supposedly guided the Delphic oracle. As an offering, he ordered his priests to build a fire, and to melt down a huge amount of gold, including a magnificent statue of a lion. In theory, the god Apollo would receive this offering up in the sky.

But was this extravagant expenditure of riches the right way to please a Greek god? For sure, the Greeks loved to receive gold, but their outlook on life, was slightly different from the Lydians’.

The temple of the oracle at Delphi had two motos written up over its doorways. One was “know yourself” and the other was “nothing in excess.” Excess means “too much” or “more than you need.”

For example, if you eat an excess of chocolate, you will probably be sick. You get the idea.

And I think most Greeks would have agreed that by melting down vast amounts of gold, King Croesus was showing off his wealth - excessively.

The gods, perhaps, would see fit to take him down a peg or two.
Croesus sent many gifts to the Delphic oracle. He donated huge golden bowls for mixing wine, basins for holy water, and a gold statue of the woman who cooked his bread in the mornings. Many of these fabulous gifts from the East could still be seen at the temple of Delphi when Herodotus was writing over a 100 years later.

Croesus then sent messengers to Delphi with the following question:

Should he go to war with the Persians?

The Delphic Oracle replied as follows:

If Croesus goes to war, he will destroy a great empire.

And that, is probably the most famous prophesy of all time, famous not for its accuracy so much as for its ambiguity. Ambiguity means that it could be understood in more than one way. But the one and only way in which Croesus chose to understand it was this: that if he went to war against the Persians, the Persian empire would fall.

When Croesus received this answer from the Pythian Priestess of Delphi, he was pleased he sent her more gifts. Then he asked another question:

Would he reign for many years as king of Lydia?

Her reply was:

When a mule becomes leader of the Mede
Then, oh Lord, it is time to flee

This reply pleased Croesus even more because he reasoned that the Medes would never choose a mule for their leader and he would not have to flee.

Also, on the advice of the oracle, he made a treaty of friendship with the Greeks who lived in Sparta. The Spartans were the toughest and most warlike nation among the Greeks and might be useful to him in time of need.

Next he readied his army to attack the Persians. While he was doing this, the wisest among his advisers, tried to warn him not to start the war. This is what he said:

“Let us remember what type of people we are about to attack. They are wild men, who wear leather trousers, who know no luxury, drink no wine, and barely have enough to eat - they can survive on a few figs a day. They have nothing that is worth having, and if you defeat them, you will gain nothing. We on the other hand live in enormous comfort. Our treasuries are overflowing with gold. If they defeat us, they will gain everything, and we shall lose everything. So what is the advantage for us of this war? Let us be grateful that the gods have not put the idea into the heads of the Persians that they should attack us. It is far better for us to sit tight, and to do nothing.”

Herodotus says this was excellent advice, but sadly, Croesus did not take it. His army crossed the river Halys with the help of the Greek scientist, Thales of Miletus, the same sage who had predicted the eclipse during clash with the Medes. Thales diverted with river into channels so that the water was shallow enough to wade across. The Lydian army then marched into Cappadocia, the vast central part of Turkey that was the under the influence of the Medes and their new masters, the Persians. When Cyrus heard about the invasion, he raised an army to face the Lydians. On the way to Cappadocia he forced any young and fit men along the way to join his army. Eventually it became a vast force. They met the Lydians at the battle of Pteria in the year 547 BC. Both sides fought long and hard with many casualties, but neither came out on top. Croesus was disappointed that he had not gained victory, and he put this down to the fact that he had the smaller army. The next day, Cyrus did not renew the attack, and Croesus decided to return to his capital, Sardis. His plan was to fight again in the following spring with a much bigger army that included his allies, the Egyptians and the Spartans.

When he reached Sardis, he sent many of his soldiers home and told them to return next year. He never guessed that Cyrus and his army would follow him all the way to the gates of Sardis.

One night, soon after Croesus returned home, he had a nightmare. He dreamed that snakes were swarming through the streets of Sardis until horses came down from the fields, and ate all the snakes. He wondered what the meaning of this strange dream could be - but by the time he found out, it was too late.

For the snakes were the Lydians, born of native ground, and the horses were foreigners from the mountains, who came down to eat them.

He soon heard that Cyrus was approaching the city. The Persians vastly outnumbered the Lydians, but Cyrus was far from complacent. He had seen how the Lydians possessed highly skilled and courageous horsemen, armed with long, ferocious, lances, and he needed a plan to overcome this threat. Cyrus’s most trusted general came up with a solution. He was a Mede called Harpagus. His suggestion was to take the camels who had been carrying the bags of the army, and to put them in the front line. This was because horses are often afraid of camels. Cyrus took this advice and the plan worked. When the Lydian cavalry charged, their horses came up against the strange-smelling, humpbacked, snorting camels, and were terrified. The result was that the Persian army defeated the Lydians in battle.

So Croesus, and the surviving Lydian soldiers retreated into Sardis. The war was not over yet. The city walls were strong and impressive and Croesus felt confident that Persians would have no chance of busting in. He sent messengers to his allies - including the Spartans - asking them to come to his aid as soon as possible. The Spartans received the message, and would have to gone to help the Lydians, but unfortunately they were tied up in a war of their own with their neighbours.

Back in Sardis, there was a part of the defences where the walls were especially strong, steep, and high. According to legend, one of the first kings of Sardis had taken a lion around the walls to make them proof against attack, but the walls in this part of the citadel were so high that he did not bother to take the lion around them. And it was here that one of the Lydian guards dropped his helmet. It tumbled down the wall and became lodged on a buttress. The clumsy guard climbed down the wall to retrieve it. At ground level, a sharp eyed Persian soldier was watching, and he saw that it was possible to climb up that part of the wall. He was eager to win the prize for being the first soldier into the city, and he bravely started to clamber up. He was followed by other Persian soldiers and soon they were swarming over the battlements of Sardis. Croesus saw his men take their last stand against the invading Persians. They were taken by surprise, heavily outnumbered, and all too easily overcome.

His ears were filled with the shouts, and cries of war, the clash of arms, the crackling flames. Soldiers and civilians were running this way and that, and he decided to mix in with the crowd, hoping that nobody would recognise him. At his side was his one remaining son. You may recall, that his other son, Atys, had been killed in a hunting accident. This surviving son was dumb - which meant that he was unable to speak. Croesus had tried everything to cure this boy of his affliction, and had even consulted the Delphic oracle about him. The oracle’s reply was telling - because she had warned.

Be careful what you wish for.

And it was now that the father’s wish came true, but not in the way that he had hoped. A Persian soldier was running towards them, and in terror, his son called out his first ever words. He said,

“Please sir, do not kill this man, for he is my father, Croesus, son of Alyattes, king of Lydia. ”

And of course Croesus was exactly the person whom the Persian soldiers were looking for. As soon as his son had spoken, he was immediately captured.

Lydia was defeated. Sardis was in flames. Croesus was a prisoner. The words of the Delphic Oracle had come true. Croesus had gone to war, and a great empire had fallen. He had assumed that it was the Persian empire he would destroy by his warlike actions. In fact, it had been his own.

The victor, Cyrus, king of the Persians, ordered a giant bonfire, to be built. Croesus and 14 sons of the leading Lydians were placed on the pyre, chained to a post. As the fire began to smoulder, Croesus called out :

“Oh Solon, wisest of all men, the gods should command that every ruler on earth listen to your words!”

Cyrus was greatly intrigued, and realised that he might benefit from the experience and advice of Croesus. He ordered his men to put out the fire, but already the flames were leaping around the captives. Croesus, seeing his that chance to survive was slipping away, called out again, this time to a god of the Greeks, “Oh Lord Apollo, if any of my gifts have pleased you, come to my aid now!”

Apollo the sun god looked down and saw the suffering of his favourite king, who had dedicated so much gold to him. He wept with pity, and his tears rained down onto the bonfire, and put out the flames.

Well at least, that’s how Herodotus tells the story.

Cyrus then had the benefit of speaking to Croesus. Croesus admitted that starting the war had been a great mistake,

“For in peacetime, sons bury their fathers, but in war, fathers bury their sons.”

While the two kings were speaking, Croesus said, “You should stop your soldiers from burning Sardis and carrying away all the riches that they find.”

“What is it to you?” asked the Persian King.

“Nothing,” said Croesus, “But now all this wealth belongs to you, and it is you who are being robbed.”

Hearing these wise words, Cyrus understood that Croesus was a good man. He decided to spare his life. He ordered a guard to set his prisoner free and to undo the chains. He gave his permission for Croesus to send these chains to the Delphic oracle. The lydian messengers laid them down at the door of the temple and asked the oracle if it was her custom to cheat those who had paid her well, and for the Greek gods to show such ingratitude.

But the Pythian priestess of Delphi was not lost for words. She replied that five generations ago, a man called Gyges, the great, great, great, great grandfather of Croesus, had murdered the king of Lydia and stolen his throne. Now King Croesus was paying for the crime of his ancestor.

And of course, she pointed out that a great empire had fallen, just as she had predicted, only it wasn’t of Persia that had been defeated, but the empire of Lydia.

And as for her advice that Croesus would be safe until a mule became king of Persia, the Oracle explained it like this. A mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey, just as Cyrus was born to a mother who was a Mede and father who was a Persian. And when you looked at it like this, you could say mule was indeed on the throne of Persia.

And that is where Herodotus brings the story of Croesus to an end. He remarks that Greece is full of the rich gifts that Croesus gave to the Greeks - even more than the ones he had already mentioned.

And I hope you have enjoyed the story of Croesus. Perhaps you feel that many of the details told by Herodotus are quite fanciful - for example the tale of how the God of Apollo wept tears and put out the fire on the pyre, is not one that we would believe today, I suspect.
Some of the conversations that Croesus held with Solon and Cyrus are probably fiction too. I am not saying that Herodotus invented them, but he heard stories that had improved over the years in the retelling , and he shaped them with the mindset of a Greek. The Greeks were clearly fascinated with Croesus and his wealth. His life seemed to Herodotus to have the shape of a Greek tragedy. Croesus was an essentially good man, who had one big character fault - he was too pleased himself and his great wealth. It was inevitable, from the Greek point of view, that the gods would punish him for his hubris.

And I’m delighted to dedicate this story to Tadeus aged and Alma Rose aged And their parents, Laura and. Farhad. Laura tells us that their family have been listening to us for about six months now, usually when they are in the car together. Tadeus particularly enjoys the histories and Alma Rose is keen on our Katie stories. And we are extremely grateful for their support for us on Patreon.