For the opera, see Croesus (opera).

Croesus[1] (/ˈkrsəs/ KREE-səs; Ancient Greek: Κροῖσος, Kroisos; 595 BC – c. 546 BC) was the king of Lydia who, according to Herodotus, reigned for fourteen years: from 560 BC until his defeat by the Persian king Cyrus the Great in 546 BC[2] (sometimes given as 547 BC).

Croesus was renowned for his wealth—Herodotus and Pausanias noted his gifts were preserved at Delphi.[3] The fall of Croesus made a profound impact on the Greeks, providing a fixed point in their calendar. "By the fifth century at least," J.A.S. Evans has remarked, "Croesus had become a figure of myth, who stood outside the conventional restraints of chronology."[4]

Legendary biography

Aside from a poetical account of Croesus on the pyre in Bacchylides (composed for Hiero of Syracuse, who won the chariot race at Olympia in 468), there are three classical accounts of Croesus: Herodotus presents the Lydian accounts[5] of the conversation with Solon (Histories 1.29-.33), the tragedy of Croesus' son Atys (Histories 1.34-.45) and the fall of Croesus (Histories 1.85-.89); Xenophon instances Croesus in his panegyric fictionalized biography of Cyrus: Cyropaedia, 7.1; and Ctesias, whose account[6] is also an encomium of Cyrus. Croesus is a descendant of Gyges, of the Myrmnadae Clan, who seized power when Gyges killed Candaules after Candaules's wife found out about a conspriracy to watch her disrobe, according to Herodotus. [7]

Early rule and wealth

Gold coin of Croesus, Lydian, around 550 BC, from modern Turkey

Born about 595 BC, Croesus received tribute from the Ionian Greeks but was friendlier to the Hellenes than his father had been.

Croesus is credited with issuing the first true gold coins with a standardised purity for general circulation. However, they were quite crude, and were made of electrum, a naturally occurring pale yellow alloy of gold and silver. The composition of these first coins was similar to alluvial deposits found in the silt of the Pactolus river, which ran through the Lydian capital, Sardis. Later coins, including some in the British Museum, were made from gold purified by heating with common salt to remove the silver.[8] King Croesus' gold coins follow the first silver coins that had been minted by King Pheidon of Argos around 700 BC.

In Greek and Persian cultures the name of Croesus became a synonym for a wealthy man. Croesus' wealth remained proverbial beyond classical antiquity: in English, expressions such as "rich as Croesus" or "richer than Croesus" are used to indicate great wealth to this day. The earliest known such usage in English was John Gower's in Confessio amantis (1390):

That if the tresor of Cresus

And al the gold Octovien,
Forth with the richesse Yndien
Of Perles and of riche stones,
Were al togedre myn at ones...[9]

Interview with Solon

According to Herodotus, Croesus encountered the Greek sage Solon and showed him his enormous wealth.[10] Croesus, secure in his own wealth and happiness, asked Solon who the happiest man in the world is, and was disappointed by Solon's response that three had been happier than Croesus: Tellus, who died fighting for his country, and the brothers Kleobis and Biton who died peacefully in their sleep after their mother prayed for their perfect happiness because they had demonstrated filial piety by drawing her to a festival in an oxcart themselves. Solon goes on to explain that Croesus cannot be the happiest man because the fickleness of fortune means that the happiness of a man's life cannot be judged until after his death. Sure enough, Croesus' hubristic happiness was reversed by the tragic deaths of his accidentally-killed son and, according to Critias, his wife's suicide at the fall of Sardis, not to mention his defeat at the hands of the Persians.

The interview is in the nature of a philosophical disquisition on the subject "Which man is happy?" It is legendary rather than historical. Thus the "happiness" of Croesus is presented as a moralistic exemplum of the fickleness of Tyche, a theme that gathered strength from the fourth century, revealing its late date. The story was later retold and elaborated by Ausonius in The Masque of the Seven Sages, in the Suda (entry "Μᾶλλον ὁ Φρύξ," which adds Aesop and the Seven Sages of Greece), and by Tolstoy in his short story Croesus and Fate.

Croesus' votive offerings to Delphi

According to Herodotus,[11] Croesus desired to discover which of the well known oracles of his time gave trustworthy omens. He sent ambassadors to the most important oracles ordering that on the 100th day from their departure from Sardeis they should ask what the king of the Lydians, Croesus, son of Alyattes was doing on this exact date. Then the envoys entered on the 100th day to the oracle of Delphi in order to ask for the omen, Pythia answered in verse:

I know the number of the sand pieces and the depth of the sea. I can understand the mute and listen to him, although he is not talking. I sensed the smell of a turtle burning together with lamb's meat in a bronze cauldron. Under the cauldron there is copper and above it copper as well. The envoys wrote down the answer and returned to Sardeis. Croesus read all the answers brought by his envoys from all the oracles. As soon as he read the answer of Pythia he bowed, because he was persuaded that it was the only real oracle, along with that of Amphiaraus. Indeed, on the specific date Croesus had put pieces of a turtle and lamb to boil together in a bronze cauldron, covered with a bronze lid. Then, Croesus wanted to thank and take on his side the oracle of Delphi. He sacrificed three thousand of all kinds of sacrificial animals. Then he lit up a bonfire and burned precious objects. After the sacrifice he melted down gold and made golden blocks, each one 2,5 talents. He ordered his artists to make the copy of a lion out of pure gold, weighing ten talents. At the time of Herodotus this was situated at the Treasury of the Corinthians, but 3.5 talents lighter, as the priests had melted down part of it. Croesus also sent along two enormous craters, one made of gold and one made of silver, situated on one side and the other of the entrance to the temple or Apollo. After the fire which destroyed the temple, these craters were transferred elsewhere: the golden one was transferred to the treasury of the Klazomenians, whereas the silver one was placed again in the vestibule of the new temple. Within this crater took place the mixing of water and wine during the Theophania. In Delphi they used to say that this one had been made by Theodorus of Samos. The votive offerings of Croesus comprised also four silver pithoi, situated at the Treasury of the Corinthians, and two perirrhanteria made of precious metals and the statue of a woman made of gold; they said that it depicted the woman who kneaded Croesus' bread. Finally, he dedicated the pendants and belts of his wife as well as other simpler and smaller liturgical objects and a golden shield which he offered to the Archaic temple of Athena Pronaia, later on melted by the Phocians in the course of the Third Sacred War.

Death of son

According to legend, Croesus gave refuge at one point to the Phrygian prince Adrastus. Herodotus tells that Adrastus exiled himself to Lydia after accidentally killing his brother. Croesus later experienced a dream for which he took as prophecy in which Atys, his son and heir, would be killed by an iron spearhead. Taking precautions against this, Croesus kept his son from leading in military expeditions and fighting in any way. However, according to Herodotus, a wild boar began to ravage the neighboring province of Mysia, which soon begged Croesus to send a military expedition led by Atys to kill the boar. Croesus thought this would be safe for his son, as Atys wouldn't be fighting an enemy that could throw a spear. However, he sent Adrastus with Atys as a bodyguard in case they would be waylaid by bandits on the expedition. While fighting the boar, Adrastus accidentally hit Atys with his spear, killing him. Croesus absolved Adrastus for his son's death; however, Adrastus later committed suicide.[12]

Campaign against Persia and testing of oracle

Croesus' uneasy relations with the Greeks obscures the larger fact that he was the last bastion of the Ionian cities against the increasing Persian power in Anatolia. He began preparing a campaign against Cyrus the Great of Persia.

Before setting out, he turned to the Delphic oracle and the oracle of Amphiaraus to inquire whether he should pursue this campaign and whether he should also seek an alliance. The oracles answered, with typical ambiguity, that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a great empire this would become one of the most famous oracular statements from Delphi.

The oracles also advised Croesus to find out which Greek state was most powerful and to ally himself with it.[13] Croesus, now feeling secure, formed an alliance with Sparta in addition to those he had with Amasis II of Egypt and Nabonidus of Babylonia,[14] and launched his campaign against the Persian Empire in 547 BC.[15] He was intercepted near the Halys River in central Anatolia and an inconclusive battle was fought. It was the usual practice in those days for the armies to disband for winter and Croesus did so accordingly. Cyrus did not, however, and he attacked Croesus in Sardis, capturing him. It became clear that the powerful empire destroyed by the war was Croesus's own.

Rescue from death and advisor to Cyrus

Croesus on the pyre, Attic red-figure amphora, Louvre (G 197)

By 546 BC, Croesus was defeated and captured by the Persians. According to various accounts of Croesus's life, Cyrus ordered him to be burned to death on a pyre, but Croesus escaped death. The nature of his escape varies considerably.

In Bacchylides' ode,[16] Croesus with his wife and family mounted the funeral pyre, but before the flames could envelop the king, he was snatched up by Apollo and spirited away to the Hyperboreans.

Herodotus tells us that in the Lydian account, Croesus was placed upon a great pyre by Cyrus' orders, for Cyrus wanted to see if any of the heavenly powers would appear to save him from being burned alive. The pile was set ablaze, and as Cyrus the Great watched he saw Croesus call out "Solon" three times. He asked the interpreters to find out why he said this word with such resignation and agony. The interpreters returned the answer that Solon had warned Croesus of the fickleness of good fortune (see Interview with Solon above). This touched Cyrus, who realized that he and Croesus were much the same man, and he bade the servants to quench the blazing fire as quickly as they could. They tried to do this, but the flames were not to be mastered. According to the story, Croesus called out to Apollo and prayed to him. The sky had been clear and the day without a breath of wind, but soon dark clouds gathered and a storm with rain of such violence that the flames were speedily extinguished. Cyrus, thus convinced that Croesus was a good man, made him an advisor who served Cyrus "well" and later Cyrus's son by Cassandane, Cambyses.[17]

Recently, Stephanie West has argued that the historical Croesus did in fact die on the pyre, and that the stories of him as a wise advisor to the courts of Cyrus and Cambyses are purely legendary, showing similarities to the sayings of Ahiqar.[18]

After defeating Croesus, the Persians adopted gold as the main metal for their coins.[19][20]


It is not known when exactly Croesus died, although it is traditionally dated 547 BC, after Cyrus' conquest. In the Nabonidus Chronicle it is said that Cyrus "marched against the country -- , killed its king,[21] took his possessions, put there a garrison of his own". Unfortunately, all that remains of the name of the country are traces of the first cuneiform sign. It has long been assumed that this sign should have been LU, so that the country referred to would be Lydia, with Croesus as the king that was killed. However, J. Cargill has shown that this restoration was based upon wishful thinking rather than actual traces of the sign LU.[22] Instead, J. Oelsner and R. Rollinger have both read the sign as Ú, which might imply a reference to Urartu.[23] With Herodotus' account also being unreliable chronologically in this case, as J. A. S. Evans has demonstrated,[24] this means that we have no way of dating the fall of Sardis; theoretically, it may even have taken place after the fall of Babylon. Evans also asks what happened after the episode at the pyre and suggests that "neither the Greeks nor the Babylonians knew what really happened to Croesus".[25]

See also


  1. The English name Croesus comes from the Latin transliteration of the Greek Κροῖσος, in Arabic and Persian قارون, Qârun.
  2. "Croesus". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online
  3. Among them a lion of gold, which had tumbled from its perch upon a stack of ingots when the temple at Delphi burned but was preserved and displayed in the Treasury of the Corinthians, where Pausanias saw it (Pausanias 10.5.13). The temple burned in the archonship of Erxicleides, 548-47 BC.
  4. J.A.S. Evans, "What Happened to Croesus?" The Classical Journal 74.1 (October 1978:34-40) examines the legend and the date 547 BC.
  5. Herodotus credits his Lydian sources for the fall of Croesus in Histories 1.87.
  6. Lost: what survives is a meager epitome by Photius.
  7. "Histories, Book 1"
  8. "A History of the World-Episode 25 - Gold coin of Croesus". BBC British Museum. Retrieved 2011. Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  9. Confessio amantis, v. 4730. "Croesus". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  10. Herodotus 1.2933.
  11. Herodotus, 1.46-51
  12. Herodotus, Histories, Book I 34-45.
  13. Herodotus 1.53.
  14. Herodotus 1.6970, 77.
  15. Evans 1978 examines the conflicting dates implied in Herodotus.
  16. Bacchylides Ode 3.23-62.
  17. Just such an intervention in extinguishing a funeral pyre was adapted by Christian hagiographers as a conventional literary topos in the martyrdom of saints.
  18. Stephanie West, "Croesus' Second Reprieve and Other Tales of the Persian Court", Classical Quarterly (n.s.) 53(2003): 416-437, esp. pp. 419-424.
  19. "Gold coins - A Brief History".
  20. "Monetary Episodes from History".
  21. The verb is "annihilate"; F. Cornelius, "Kroisos", Gymnasium 54 (1967:346-47) notes that the verb can also mean "destroy [as a military power]" as well as "kill".
  22. J. Cargill, "The Nabonidus chronicle and the fall of Lydia: Consensus with feet of clay", American Journal of Ancient History 2 (1977:97-116).
  23. J. Oelsner, "Review of R. Rollinger, Herodots babylonischer logos: Eine kritische Untersuchung der Glaubwürdigkeitsdiskussion (Innsbruck: Institut für Sprachwissenschaft 1993)", Archiv für Orientforschung 46/47 (1999/2000:378-80); R. Rollinger, "The Median "empire", the end of Urartu and Cyrus' the Great campaign in 547 BC (Nabonidus Chronicle II 16)", Ancient West & East 7 (2008:forthcoming).
  24. Evans 1978:35-38.
  25. Evans 1978:39.
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Preceded by
Alyattes of Lydia
King of Lydia
595?c.547? BC
Succeeded by
Persian conquest
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