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The Last Words of King Croesus

King Croesus
Croesus at the pyre. Attic red-figure amphora at the Louvre, Public Domain

The last words of king Croesus are a phrase that is still used today, while the name of the king is synonymous with someone who is excessively rich.

Yet the last words of king Croesus actually belong to Solon the Athenian, one of the seven wise men of Ancient Greece.

When Solon uttered the phrase to the king of Lydia, Croesus was so caught up with his wealth and arrogance that he never realized its meaning — or never bothered to — until he was one step away from his death.

The disturbing phrase is “Count no man happy until the end is known.” Or “Μηδένα προ του τέλους μακάριζε” in Greek.

The wealthy empire of Lydia

The true story of king Croesus of Lydia is intertwined with legend and myth. Historians Herodotus and Pausanias wrote about him and his reign, and he is also considered a descendant of Hercules in mythology.

He reigned from approximately 560 to 546 BC, conquering all the Greek cities of mainland Ionia in Asia Minor, including Ephesus and Miletus.

He was a member of the Mermnad dynasty, succeeding to the throne of his father, Alyattes, after a struggle with his half-brother, Pantaleon.

The throne of Lydia was in Sardis, a city which the Pactolus River ran through.

According to Herodotus, the gold contained in the sediments carried by the river was the source of the wealth of king Croesus. The electrum, a natural alloy of gold and silver, was used to forge the first coins of Lydia under king Alyattes.

Croesus is said to have acted as viceroy and commander-in-chief before his father’s death. After completing the conquest of mainland Ionia, he formed alliances with the islanders of Ionia.

Through his conquests, he amassed more wealth and made several rich gifts to the oracle at Delphi.

King Croesus and Solon

King Croesus was so rich that he believed he was also the happiest man in the world. Such arrogance was considered hubris in ancient Greece, however.

His fame had made him well known in Greece and other parts of the world of the time. Myth has it that philosophers traveled from Greece to Sardis to meet the famous man.

One of them was Solon, who was credited for having created new laws in Athens in an effort to stave off factional strife among the ruling families.

After establishing the laws in Athens, he left the city and traveled around the world. Amongst all his travels, he went to Lydia to visit the famous king, Croesus.

Croesus entertained the Greek wise man and made it a point to show off his riches. Knowing that Solon had traveled the world and had met many people, he asked him:

“Who is the happiest man you’ve seen?”

The Lydian king expected Solon to name him as the happiest man he had come to know After all, he felt he was the wealthiest and happiest.

He was surprised when the Athenian did not say it was Croesus. Most likely he was a bit irritated as well.

Solon’s famous quote

Solon told king Croesus three stories of men who were the happiest, according to his own standards. The stories sounded much like Christian parables of later years.

The first was about an unknown man by the name of Tellus. Solon considered Tellus the happiest man he had ever known, because he lived in a well-governed country, had virtuous sons with good children of their own and at the end, he died valiantly in battle.

King Croesus was not impressed by the story of Tellus, however. He demanded to know who the second-happiest man was that Solon had met.

The second man Solon considered the happiest in the world was Aglaus. The man spent all his life happily living on his farm without ever feeling the need to leave it. And that is where he died, admired by his friends and surrounded by his loving family.

Again, King Croesus was not convinced that a farmer could possibly be happier than he himself, surrounded by his riches. He demanded to know who was the third happiest man.

Solon named Cleobis and Biton, two youths of a wealthy family who, one day, after the oxen of their mother Cydippe went missing, yoked themselves to the cart and drove their mother for five miles to the temple of Hera.

Cydippe asked Hera to bestow the best gift upon her children. Hera did: the two young men lay down in the temple and died peacefully in their sleep a little later. After that, everyone fondly remembered the two young men for their strength and devotion.

Croesus was enraged by the Athenian’s answer and asked Solon why he thought him less happy than those ordinary men.

Solon explained to him that while a man was still alive, he was subject to the whims of the gods, and suffered both good and bad luck.

Therefore, he could not possibly determine if Croesus was truly happy until he knew whether or not the king had died happily, as did Tellus, Aglaus, Cleobis and Biton.

As for the incredible riches Croesus had amassed, Solon explained that wealth is no guarantee for happiness. Instead, only the man who enjoyed good fortune for much of his life and died peacefully and honorably, had been truly happy.

Croesus was not pleased and sent Solon away, believing that the Athenian lawmaker was an ignorant man.

King Croesus
Croesus-issued Lydian gold coins c. 550. Credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc/Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

King Croesus’ end

It was later that King Croesus found the true meaning of Solon’s words. There are several recounts of his fate, all of them clearly not as happy as he had expected.

First, he lost his favorite of his two sons in a hunting accident. Then he saw the mighty Persian empire army under Cyrus II the Great coming to conquer Lydia.

The Lydian king formed an alliance with Nabonidus of Babylon and Egypt, and Sparta promised to send troops. But when Cyrus attacked Sardis, he stormed the city and captured Croesus in 546 BC.

According to the Greek poet Bacchylides, Croesus tried to burn himself at a funeral pyre when the Persians entered Sardis but was saved by the god Apollo.

Following is the original poem translated into English (Bacchylides’ poem, an ode [No. 3, in Greek Lyric, Vol. 4,] ed. David A. Campbell, Loeb Classical Library, 1992) :

[…]But when the burning force
of the terrible fire blazed up,
Zeus raised overhead,
the black cover of a cloud
and quenched the yellow flames.
Nothing that the will of the gods
has accomplished is beyond belief.
Then, Delos-born Apollo brought
the old man to the fabled Hyperboreans,
and left him there,
along with his lovely daughters,
because of his piety,
for he, of all mortals,
had sent the greatest gifts
to holy Delphi.

In another telling of Croesus’ fate, when he was tied to the pyre, he started screaming the name of Solon, exclaiming how right the Athenian had been.

When Cyrus heard his cries, he asked who was the man whose name Croesus was calling. He ordered his men to untie him and the Lydian recounted his meeting with Solon and what he had told him: “Count no man happy until the end is known.”

Impressed by the story, Cyrus let Croesus live and the two men became friends.

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