Historical Tales: 10—Greek - Charles Morris

The Ring Of Polycrates

Near the coast of Asia Minor lies the bright and beautiful island of Samos, one of the choicest gems of the Ægean archipelago. This island was, somewhere about the year 530 B.C., seized by a political adventurer named Polycrates. He accomplished this by the aid of his two brothers, but of these he afterwards killed one and banished the other,—Syloson by name,—so that he became sole ruler and despot of the island.

This island kingdom of Polycrates was a small one, about eighty miles in circumference, but it was richly fertile, and had the honor of being the birthplace of many illustrious Greeks, among whom we may name Pythagoras, the famous philosopher. The city of Samos became, under Polycrates, "the first of all cities, Greek or barbarian." It was adorned with magnificent buildings and costly works of art; was supplied with water by a great aqueduct, tunneled for nearly a mile through a mountain; had a great breakwater to protect the harbor, and a vast and magnificent temple to Juno: all of which seem to have been partly or wholly constructed by Polycrates.

But this despot did not content himself with ruling the island and adorning the city which he had seized. He was ambitious and unscrupulous, and aspired to become master of all the islands of the Ægean Sea, and of Ionia in Asia Minor. He conquered several of these islands and a number of towns in the mainland, defeated the Lesbian fleet that came against him during his war with Miletus, got together a hundred armed ships and hired a thousand bowmen, and went forward with his designs with a fortune that never seemed to desert him. His naval power became the greatest in the world of Greece, and it seemed as if he would succeed in all his ambitious designs. But a dreadful fate awaited the tyrant. Like Crœsus, he was to learn that good fortune is apt to be followed by disaster. The remainder of his story is part history and part legend, and we give it as told by old Herodotus, who has preserved so many interesting tales of ancient Greece.

At that time Persia, whose king Cyrus had overcome Crœsus, was the greatest empire in the world. All western Asia lay in its grasp; Asia Minor was overrun; and Cambyses, the king who had succeeded Cyrus, was about to invade the ancient land of Egypt. The king of this country, Amasis by name, was in alliance with Polycrates, rich gifts had passed between them, and they seemed the best of friends. But Amasis had his superstitions, and the constant good fortune of Polycrates seemed to him so different from the ordinary lot of kings that he feared that some misfortune must follow it. He perhaps had heard the story of Solon and Crœsus. Amasis accordingly wrote a warning letter to his friend.

The great prosperity of his friend and ally, he said, caused him foreboding instead of joy, for he knew that the gods were envious, and he desired for those he loved alternate good and ill fortune. He had never heard of any one who was successful in all his enterprises that did not meet with calamity in the end. He therefore counselled Polycrates to do what the gods had not yet done, and bring some misfortune on himself. His advice was that he should select the treasure he most valued and could least bear to part with, and throw it away so that it should never be seen again. By this voluntary sacrifice he might avert involuntary loss and suffering.

This advice seemed wise to the despot, and he began to consider which of his possessions he could least bear to lose. He settled at length on his signet-ring, an emerald set in gold, which he highly valued. This he determined to throw away where it could never be recovered. So, having one of his fifty-oared vessels manned, he put to sea, and when he had gone a long distance from the coast he took the ring from his finger and, in the presence of all the sailors, tossed it into the waters.

This was not done without deep grief to Polycrates. He valued the ring more highly than ever, now that it lay on the bottom of the sea, irretrievably lost to him, as he thought; and he grieved for days thereafter, feeling that he had endured a real misfortune, which he hoped the gods might accept is a compensation for his good luck.

But destiny is not so easily to be disarmed. Several days afterwards a Samian fisherman had the fortune to catch a fish so large and beautiful that he esteemed it worthy to be offered as a present to the king. He accordingly went with it to the palace gates and asked to see Polycrates. The guards, learning his purpose, admitted him. On coming into the king's presence, the fisherman said that, though he was a poor man who lived by his labor, he could not let himself offer such a prize in the public market.

"I said to myself," he continued, "'It is worthy of Polycrates and his greatness;' and so I brought it here to give it to you."

The compliment and the gift so pleased the tyrant that he not only thanked the fisherman warmly, but invited him to sup with him on the fish.

But a wonder happened in the king's kitchen. On the cook's cutting open the fish to prepare it for the table, to his surprise he found within it the signet-ring of the king. With joy he hastened to Polycrates with his strangely recovered treasure, the story of whose loss had gone abroad, and told in what a remarkable way it had been restored.

As for Polycrates, the return of the ring brought him some joy but more grief. The fates, it appeared, were not so lightly to be appeased. He wrote to Amasis, telling what he had done and with what result. The letter came to the Egyptian king like a prognostic of evil. That there would be an ill end to the career of Polycrates he now felt sure; and, not wishing to be involved in it himself, he sent a herald to Samos and informed his late friend and ally that the alliance between them was at an end.

It cannot be said that Amasis profited much by this act. Soon afterwards his own country was overrun and conquered by Cambyses, the Persian king, and his reign came to a disastrous termination.

Whether there is any historical basis for this story of the ring may be questioned. But this we do know, that the friendship between Amasis and Polycrates was broken, and that Polycrates offered to help Cambyses in his invasion, and sent forty ships to the Nile for this purpose. On these were some Samians whom the tyrant wished to get rid of, and whom he secretly asked the Persian king not to let return.

These exiles, however, suspecting what was in store for them, managed in some way to escape, and returned to Samos, where they made an attack on Polycrates. Being driven off by him, they went to Sparta and asked for assistance, telling so long a story of their misfortunes and sufferings that the Spartans, who could not bear long speeches, curtly answered, "We have forgotten the first part of your speech, and the last part we do not understand." This answer taught the Samians a lesson. The next day they met the Spartans with an empty wallet, saying, "Our wallet has no meal in it." "Your wallet is superfluous," said the Spartans; meaning that the words would have served without it. The aid which the Spartans thereupon granted the exiles proved of no effect, for it was against Polycrates, the fortunate. They sent an expedition to Samos, and besieged the city forty days, but were forced to retire without success. Then the exiles, thus made homeless, became pirates. They attacked the weak but rich island of Siphnos, which they ravaged, and forced the inhabitants to buy them off at a cost of one hundred talents. With this fund they purchased the island of Hydrea, but in the end went to Crete, where they captured the city of Cydonia. After they had held this city for five years the Cretans recaptured it, and the Samian exiles ended their career by being sold into slavery.

Meanwhile the good fortune of Polycrates continued, and Samos flourished under his rule. In addition to his great buildings and works of engineering he became interested in stock-raising, and introduced into the island the finest breeds of sheep, goats, and pigs. By high wages he attracted the ablest artisans of Greece to the city, and added to his popularity by lending his rich hangings and costly plate to those who wanted them for a wedding feast or a sumptuous banquet. And that none of his subjects might betray him while he was off upon an extended expedition, he had the wives and children of all whom he suspected shut up in the sheds built to shelter his ships, with orders that these should be burned in case of any rebellious outbreak.

Yet the misfortune that the return of the ring had indicated came at length. The warning which Solon had given Crœsus applied to Polycrates as well. The prosperous despot had a bitter enemy. Orœtes by name, the Persian governor of Sardis. As to why he hated Polycrates two stories are told, but as neither of them is certain we shall not repeat them. It is enough to say that he hated Polycrates bitterly and desired his destruction, which he laid a plan to bring about.

Orœtes, residing then at Magnesia, on the Mæander River, in the vicinity of Samos, and being aware of the ambitious designs of Polycrates, sent him a message to the effect that he knew that while he desired to become lord of the isles, he had not the means to carry out his ambitious project. As for himself, he was aware that Cambyses was bent on his destruction. He therefore invited Polycrates to come and take him, with his wealth, offering for his protection gold sufficient to make him master of the whole of Greece, so far as money would serve for this.

This welcome offer filled Polycrates with joy. He knew nothing of the hatred of Orœtes, and at once sent his secretary to Magnesia to see the Persian and report upon the offer. What he principally wished to know was in regard to the money offered, and Orestes prepared to satisfy him in this particular. He had eight large chests prepared, filled nearly full of stones, upon which gold was spread. These were corded, as if ready for instant removal.

This seeming store of gold was shown to the secretary, who hastened back to Polycrates with a glowing description of the treasure he had seen. Polycrates, on hearing this story, decided to go at once and bring Orœtes and his chests of gold to Samos.

Against this action his friends protested, while the soothsayers found the portents unfavorable. His daughter, also, had a significant dream. She saw her father hanging high in the air, washed by Zeus, the king of the gods, and anointed by the sun. Yet in spite of all this the infatuated king persisted in going. His daughter followed him on the ship, still begging him to return. His only answer was that if he returned successfully he would keep her an old maid for years.

"Oh that you may perform your threat!" she answered. "It is far better for me to be an old maid than to lose my father."

Yet the infatuated king went, despite all warnings and advice, taking with him a considerable suite. On his arrival at Magnesia grief instead of gold proved his portion. His enemy seized him, put him to a miserable death, and hung his dead body on a cross to the mercy of the sun and the rains. Thus his daughter's dream was fulfilled, for, in the old belief, to be washed by the rain was to be washed by Zeus, while the sun anointed him by causing the fat to exude from his body.

A year or two after the death of Polycrates, his banished brother Syloson came to the throne in a singular way. During his exile he found himself at Memphis, in Egypt, while Cambyses was there with his conquering army. Among the guards of the king was Darius, the future king of Persia, but then a soldier of little note. Syloson wore a scarlet cloak to which Darius took a fancy and proposed to buy it. By a sudden impulse Syloson replied, "I cannot for any price sell it; but I give it you for nothing, if it must be yours."

Darius thanked him for the cloak, and that ended the matter there and then,—Syloson afterwards holding himself as silly for the impulsive good nature of his gift.

But at length he learned with surprise that the simple Persian soldier whom he had benefited was now king of the great Persian empire. He went to Susa, the capital, and told who he was. Darius had forgotten his face, but he remembered the incident of the cloak, and offered to pay a kingly price for the small favor of his humbler days, tendering gold and silver in profusion to his visitor. Syloson rejected these, but asked the aid of Darius to make him king of Samos. This the grateful monarch granted, and sent Syloson an army, with whose aid the island quickly and quietly fell into his hands.

Yet calamity followed this peaceful conquest. Charilaus, a hot-tempered and half-mad Samian, who had been given charge of the acropolis, broke from it at the head of the guards, and murdered many of the Persian officers who were scattered unguarded throughout the town. The reprisal was dreadful. The Persian army fell in fury on the Samians and slaughtered every man and boy in the island, handing over to Syloson a kingdom of women and infants. Some time afterwards, however, the island was repeopled by men from without, and Syloson completed his reign in peace, leaving the sceptre of Samos to his son.