Stories of the Ancient Greeks - Charles D. Shaw

The Ring of Polycrates

Herodotus, the famous historian, tells this story:—

Polycrates was ruler of the island of Samos. He had raised an insurrection against the Persians and taken the government into his own hands. To increase his power, he sent gifts to Amasis, king of Egypt, and made with him a treaty of friendship.

He sent into other countries for the best workmen, to whom he paid high wages, and set them to work at building splendid temples. His palace was richly furnished with splendid hangings, and he had many cups and dishes of silver and gold. These he lent to any of his citizens who wished to hold a wedding or to give a great feast.

He was very fond of animals and brought into Samos the finest kinds of sheep, goats, and pigs.

The fabled Argo was said to have seats for fifty rowers, and tradition called her the largest vessel in the world. Polycrates had a fleet of one hundred fifty-oared galleys, with which he sailed from island to island, robbing friends and foes.

Good fortune followed him everywhere. It seemed as if nobody could defeat him in battle or get the better of him in trade.

The king of Egypt, knowing this, began to be afraid that his friend would come to a dreadful end. He sent a letter to Polycrates, telling him that such continual good fortune was a token that the gods were keeping him for some terrible fate and advising him to throw away his most valuable treasure.

"In that way," said Amasis, "thou mayest escape punishment from the beings who rule the world, and who do not like to see any man too prosperous."

Polycrates decided that his dearest treasure was a signet-ring of emerald set in gold. This he determined to throw away and therefore ordered one of his fifty-oared galleys to be made ready for sea. Going on board he sailed a long way from the island, and with sorrow, threw the ring into the deep waters.

A few days afterwards, as he sat in his palace, a fisherman came to the gate and asked to see the king. Polycrates having permitted him to enter, beheld in his hands a large and beautiful fish.

"O king!" said the fisherman, "I am a poor man who lives by his trade, yet, when I saw this prize in my nets I said that it should not be sold, but that I would give it to the great king in whose waters it was taken."

Ring of Polycrates


Polycrates was pleased and answered, "Thou hast done well, my friend. Come to supper with me and help me to eat thy gift."

The servants took the fish and began to make it ready for the table. When they opened it they saw, shining before them, the ring their master had thrown away!

The king was glad to have his ring again, and he wrote a letter to Amasis, telling him of this new piece of good fortune.

The king of Egypt sent an answer saying that they could no longer be friends, because he did not dare to keep a treaty of friendship with a man who was always fortunate.

A Persian named Oroetes was governor of Sardis. He had never seen Polycrates, but hearing much of him he determined to match himself against that fortunate king, and, if possible, to destroy him.

He was wise enough to see that this could only be done by treachery. He wrote a letter in which he pretended to be afraid of losing his power and his life, and begged Polycrates to come to his rescue. In return he offered to share his great treasures with his deliverer, and promised to show his money and jewels to any one whom the king would send for the purpose of ascertaining that they were genuine.

Polycrates was glad of these offers and sent his secretary to make sure that it was all true. Oroetes had nearly filled eight chests with stones, over which he had laid gold in money and in bars. These he showed to the secretary, who, only seeing what was before his eyes, went home and told the king that he had seen great treasures, and that the Persian was really very rich.

Polycrates declared that he himself would go and bring away the governor and his money. Many friends begged him not to be so foolish. His daughter had a dream, in which she saw her father high in the air, "washed by Zeus and anointed by the sun." She tried to keep him at home, for she believed that this dream meant some dreadful danger for her father. But he did not listen to her prayers or care for her tears. He sailed away with a company of friends, but without his army, thinking that his good fortune would not forsake him.

He had fallen into a trap. The Persian governor killed him, and then nailed his dead body to a cross. As he hung high in the air Zeus might be said to wash him with rain, and the sun to anoint him by pouring over him powerful rays. The poor girl's dream was fulfilled, and the fortunate Polycrates came to a miserable end.