Croesus (pronounced 'KREE-sus') was the King of Lydia, a country in western Asia Minor (corresponding to modern-day Turkey) from 560-547 BCE and was so wealthy that the old expression "as rich as Croesus" originates in reference to him. His wealth, it is said, came from the sands of the River Pactolus in which the legendary King Midas washed his hands to rid himself of the 'Midas Touch' (which turned everything he laid hands on into gold) and in so doing, the legend says, made the sands of the river rich with gold. The Lydians, either during the reign of Croesus or just before, were cited as the first people to mint coins of gold and silver in Asia Minor and it was Croesus who funded construction of the great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. Although some have claimed that Croesus was largely a legendary figure, his signature at the base of one of the columns of the Temple of Artemis (now on display at the British Museum) is evidence that he was an actual historical king who ruled from the city of Sardis.
Although Croesus is mentioned by Xenophon and Ctesias, among others, two of the most famous stories regarding him come from the Histories of Herodotus (1.29-45 and 1.85-89). The first has to do with the great Athenian lawgiver Solon the Wise. Solon travelled throughout Anatolia and down to Egypt and came, at last, to the palace of Croesus at Sardis. Croesus was overjoyed to have so illustrious a visitor and was anxious to show off his treasuries and, after Solon had inspected them, asked him who, of all the men he had met in his travels, he would call the most happy. Solon answered, “Tellus of Athens.” Croesus, upset that he himself had not been named, asked why Tellus. Solon answered that Tellus had lived well and happily, had a beautiful family, and had died gloriously for Athens in battle. Croesus, conceding this was a good life, and hoping he would at least be named second, then asked Solon who else he would consider the happiest of men he had met; Solon answered:
The brothers Cleobis and Bito of the Argive race” and explained why, noting again a life well lived and a good death. Croesus, angered now, shouted: "Man of Athens, am I not the happiest man in the world? Dost thou count my happiness as nothing?" Solon replied calmly: “In truth, I count no man happy until his death, for no man can know what the gods may have in store for him. He who unites the greatest number of advantages, and retaining them to the day of his death, then dies peaceably, that man alone, sire, is in my judgment entitled to bear the name of 'happy.' But in every matter it behooves us to mark well the end: for oftentimes God gives men a gleam of happiness, and then plunges them into ruin.
Croesus sent Solon away, thinking his reputation for wisdom overrated, but would soon learn the truth of what Solon had said through the events narrated by Herodotus' second story. The first misfortune to come upon Croesus was the death of his son Atys, killed while hunting a boar in Olympus (and, ironically, killed by the man whom Croesus had sent on the hunt for the express purpose of keeping Atys safe). Croesus grieved for his son for two years until he was alerted that the Persians under Cyrus were gaining power and decided he should check them sooner rather than later.
He sent to the great Oracle at Delphi to know whether he should go to war against the Persian Empire and the oracle replied: "If Croesus goes to war he will destroy a great empire." Pleased by this answer, Croesus made his necessary alliances and preparations and went out to meet the Persian army at the Halys River (which Thales of Miletus, an engineer in his corps, helped him to cross by diverting the waters). The battle at the Halys was a draw and Croesus marched his force back to Sardis where the army was disbanded for the winter. Croesus expected Cyrus to do the same, as this was customary, but Cyrus instead pressed the attack, massacred Croesus’ cavalry in the field by mounting his own cavalry on dromedaries (whose scent frightened the Lydian horses) and captured Croesus. After the fall of Sardis, Croesus’ wife committed suicide and Croesus was dragged before Cyrus in chains.
For daring to raise an army against the Persian Empire, Cyrus ordered Croesus to be burned alive along with fourteen noble Lydian youths. When Croesus saw the flames of the pyre lapping toward him, he called out for aid from Apollo to rescue him and a sudden rain shower broke overhead and put out the fire. Croesus was saved from burning to death but was still the captive of the Persian King and, remembering the words of Solon the Wise, cried out, "O Solon! Solon! Solon!" Cyrus asked a translator what this word meant and Croesus told the story of Solon’s visit, how no man can be counted happy until after his death, and further, of how he was misled by the Oracle at Delphi who had told him that if he went to war against Cyrus he would 'destroy a great empire’ and here the 'great empire’ destroyed had been his own, not that of Cyrus.
Cyrus was so moved by this story that he ordered Croesus to be released and had him send to Delphi for an answer from the god as to why he was betrayed. The answer came back that the Oracle had spoken only truth - a great empire had, in fact, been destroyed by Croesus – and it was not the fault of the god if man misinterpreted his words. Cyrus felt sorry for Croesus and, according to some sources, kept him on as a wise counsellor. This positive account of Croesus' end has been disputed by many scholars both ancient and modern. According to other accounts, the god Apollo carried Croesus and his family away after the fall of Sardis and they all lived happily ever after. Most modern-day scholars and historians believe that Croesus died on the pyre but that the ancients of the 4th century BCE did not care for that ending to the life of so wealthy and powerful a king. The story of Croesus served as a cautionary tale among the Greeks on hubris and a warning on not tempting the gods’ wrath by thinking of oneself as the happiest person in the world.