March 14, 2012


This man’s story has long haunted me, not just because of its poignancy but because of its applicability in today’s world.  Today, where the richest person in the world is Carlos Slim of Mexico, with $69 billion; second, the erstwhile richest person in the world, Bill Gates, with $61 billion; and third, Warren Buffet, with $33 billion.


* * * * *


In the ancient world, one man stands out against the ages, Croesus, last King of Lydia (560 – 546 B.C,).  After defeating his half-brother, he conquered Ionia (including Ephesus and Miletus, allied himself with Sparta, and extended the Lydian empire as far as the Halys.  His wealth, due to trade, was proverbial.  In truth, Alexander the Great’s wealth was greater, but it was just as ephemeral as that of Croesus.


According to legend, adulation from all across the ancient world resulted in Croesus becoming as proud as his wealth.  So much so that when Solon (Athenian statesman and visionary, reputed to be one of the wisest men in antiquity) visited Croesus’s impressive royal court, Croesus did his utmost to astonish Solon with his magnificence, and make him acknowledge that no man on earth could possibly be happier than the mighty Lydian king.  But Solon, unlike the king’s other flattering visitors, merely listened and watched in relative silence.  At the end, when his silence was all too obvious, he declared that every man must wait until the end of his life, and see what fortune would finally bring him, before deciding whether he could be justified in calling himself happy or not.  After that verbal cold water, Croesus could hardly wait to get rid of his now unwelcome visitor.  In fact, never again did he even mention Solon’s name; with one glaring exception: some years later, Cyrus, emperor of the vast Medo-Persian empire, hearing about the wealth of Croesus, concluded it would be wise to appropriate it for himself, so he invaded Lydia.  After Croesus was defeated, he was condemned to be burned alive in the presence of his conqueror.


But just as the sentence was about to be executed, Croesus, remembering Solon’s counsel, broke his long Solon-related silence, and loudly called out the name of Solon three times.  Cyrus, wondering what this outburst meant, stopped the execution long enough to have Croesus explain what it was all about.  Croesus then told Cyrus the story of Solon’s visit and Solon’s counsel, the validity of which was now tragically confirmed.  Cyrus was deeply impressed by the story, and by Croesus’s awareness of his own miserable end; so much so that he released Croesus, and thereafter kept him as an honored member of his court.  Croesus lived on even into the reign of Cyrus’s successor, Cambyses.


Nevertheless, during those long years of luxurious semi-captivity, Croesus must have replayed in his mind again and again those timeless words from Solon: Never assume that happiness can be anything more than a temporary condition.


As for the application of this story, in today’s world, I leave that to the readers of this blog.  What thoughts come to you as the result of listening to Croesus’s story?




E. H. House’s “Bright Sides of History,” St. Nicholas, December 1898; 146-7.

Will Durant, The Life of Greece (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1939, 1966), 18-19.

Encyclopedia Britannica




Published in: on March 14, 2012 at 5:45 pm  Comments (3)  
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