Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

The Richest King

Nearly six hundred years before the Christian era began, Croesus was king of Lydia. He was a brave and successful warrior and had a large kingdom. He was at that time the richest man in the world, though his fortune of nine millions of dollars would not now be considered very great. He was also extremely proud of his wealth. It is said that when Solon was upon his travels he went to Sardis, the capital city of Lydia. The king was glad to see him and showed him all the treasures gathered in his palace. There were chests full of gold and silver money, boxes in which shone thousands of precious stones, rooms in which hung many dresses of silk, velvet, and cloth of gold. There were pictures, statues, ivory carvings, shields, swords, spears, and musical instruments, gathered from every part of the known world.

Solon had never seen such treasures but he did not say, "How wonderful! How beautiful!"

Croesus was not pleased at this silence. "Did you ever see a happier man than I am?" he inquired at last. "Yes," said Solon.

"Who was he, and where did he live?" asked the king.

"He lived in Athens, and his name was Tellus. He always had enough to live on, and when he died it was in battle fighting for his country. Not only his children but the state mourned for him. I never knew anybody else so happy as he."

"Who was next in happiness?" asked Croesus.

"Two sons of a priestess of Hera in Argos. Once she was to offer sacrifice and the oxen which should draw her were not ready. Her sons harnessed themselves to the chariot and brought her to the temple. She prayed that those dutiful sons might receive the best of all gifts, and her prayer was answered. That night they fell asleep and never woke again. They passed away without sorrow or pain. Their kindred loved them, their country honored them. Who could be happier than they?"

"Do you mean that a rich and powerful king is not happy?" asked the king angrily.

"O king!" replied the sage, we can call no man truly happy until he dies. Power, health, and riches may all pass away. That which we may lose in a day cannot make us happy and he who looks for joy in such things is not wise."

Croesus was displeased with these words of Solon but he could not forget them. He was not really so happy as he pretended to be. He had two sons, one of them dumb; the other, Atys, handsome and gifted. Croesus dreamed that this son was killed by an instrument with an iron point. He was much afraid that the dream would come true.

Gordius, king of Phrygia, had two sons one of whom, Adrastus, accidentally killed the other. His father drove the unfortunate boy from his court; and he went to Croesus who received him kindly.

A wild boar had done much damage in the fields and vineyards, and Croesus sent Atys with Adrastus to hunt and kill the beast. They found him and Adrastus threw an iron-pointed spear, which missed the animal and struck Atys in the side. Thus the prophecy of the dream was fulfilled.

It is said that, some time after, the son who was dumb saw his father in danger of being killed. The power of speech came to him and he called out, "Look, father! Take care, take care!"

Cyrus was now gaining power and Croesus, afraid for his kingdom, asked for help from the Greeks and advice from their oracles. All gave him fine words, but none kept the promise.

Croesus led out his own army against Cyrus, and fought a battle in which neither side won the victory. Croesus retreated toward Sardis and Cyrus followed. The Lydian king ordered his cavalry to charge upon the Persians. Cyrus put a number of camels in the front rank, and when the horses saw those strange beasts nothing could hold them. They ran wildly away and the defeat of Croesus was complete.

He shut himself up in his city of Sardis which Cyrus besieged for many months. One day a soldier, leaning over the wall of the citadel, dropped his helmet which rolled into the plain below. He climbed after it down the face of the rock and went up again by the same path.

A soldier in the army of Cyrus saw this and asked permission to lead a party up the rocky height. They started in the night. The Lydians did not watch that point for they did not think an enemy would come that way. The Persians took the citadel by surprise and quickly had the city at their mercy.

Capture of Sardis


Croesus was taken prisoner and Cyrus ordered him to be burned alive as a sacrifice to the gods.

He was chained and laid upon the piled up wood. As the fire was kindled he called out in a loud voice, "O Solon! Solon! Solon!"

Cyrus ordered that the fire should be put out and the captive brought before him.

"Upon whom did you call so earnestly?" he asked. "Was it your god to whom you prayed, or was it some friend whom you remembered?"

"O king!" said the captive Croesus, "it was the name of a wise man who warned me that I could not be happy while I trusted in power, health, or riches.

"My power is gone for I am your slave. My riches are mine no more for they are yours. What health have I, who a moment ago was at the door of death and in another moment may return there by your command? I am the most unhappy wretch in all the world!"

But Cyrus said, "I will give you freedom, and you shall be my friend." Often afterwards he took the advice of the man whom Solon had warned.

Of this story only part can be true. Solon had gone home to Athens before Croesus began to reign. But it is true that Croesus was thought to be the richest man in the world; that he had two sons one of whom was deaf and dumb; that the other son was killed by accident; that Croesus was defeated by Cyrus, and ordered to be burned alive; and that he was spared, and became the friend of his conqueror.