CROESUS

Reigned ca. 560-546 B.C.

Last king of Lydia

Lydia was a kingdom in the western part of Asia Minor, the peninsula east of Greece that is now the nation of Turkey. Beginning in the mid-600s B.C., Lydia became involved in wars and alliances with other ancient peoples, including the Egyptians, the Persians, and the Greeks. This involvement came to a climax during the reign of Lydia’s last king, Croesus.

After defeating his half-brother in a struggle for the throne, Croesus conquered Ephesus and other Greek cities on the coast of Asia Minor. Despite these conquests, Croesus admired Greek culture and wanted to remain on good terms with the people of Greece. His hospitality to Greek visitors was famous as were his lavish gifts to Greek temples. His golden gifts to the temples at Delphi helped spread the story that he was enormously rich.

Alarmed by the rising power of the Persian Empire under its leader, Cyrus the Great, Croesus urged Babylon, Egypt, and the Greek city-state of Sparta to form an alliance with him against the Persians. Before the alliance formed, however, Croesus and Cyrus found themselves at war. According to legend, the oracle* at Delphi told Croesus that if he made war on Persia, a mighty kingdom would fall. The oracle did not tell him that the fallen kingdom would be his own. Cyrus’s forces soundly defeated the Lydians.

Several versions of Croesus’s fate appear in ancient Greek documents. According to one story, Cyrus ordered Croesus burned alive but changed his mind when a rainstorm put out the fire. Later, the legend arose that Croesus was saved from the fire by the god Apollo. Other accounts say that Cyrus pardoned Croesus, who was his great-uncle through marriage, and made him an adviser, or perhaps even a governor, in Persia.

Even more widespread and enduring was the legend of Croesus’s great wealth. Lydia’s capital, Sardis, was located near rich mineral deposits of gold and silver. The first coins in history are believed to have been cast there in the 600s B.C. People still use the phrase “as rich as Croesus” to describe someone with great wealth.

* oracle priest or priestess through whom a god is believed to speak; also the location (such as a shrine) where such utterances are made

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