Cautionary Chronicle#1: How Croesus was undone by a prophercy

Croesus (or Κροῖσος) (595 BC – c. 547 BC) was King of Lydia  or Λυδία (an Iron Age kingdom of western Asia Minor located generally east of ancient Ionia in the modern Turkish provinces of Manisa and inland İzmir and the birthplace of money as we know it) from 560 to 547 before his misfortune.

Croesus‘ name became a synonym for a wealthy man and his wealth remained proverbial – as reflected in English expressions such as “rich as Croesus” or “richer than Croesus“. The earliest known such usage in English was John Gower’s 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…

(Please do not seek to point out the apparent mis-spellings – that was how they were spelt then and in the wise words of Ustaad, “So There!”… and whats more, you can translate the fragment on your own).

However, Croesus was not content to rest on his riches… and neither did I intend that this post should chronicle his immense wealth and all that he did (or did not) do with it but I want to focus on something else and more relevant.

Croesus, planning to attack the Persian Empire, got taken in the ambiguous statements of the most famous oracle of his day – the Pythia at Delphi – and came to ruin.

The Pythia (Πυθία), the priestess at the Temple of Apollo at Delphi on the slopes of Mount Parnassus, was widely credited for her prophecies inspired by Apollo, giving her a prominence unusual for a woman in male-dominated ancient Greece. Established in the 8th century BC, the last recorded response of the Delphic Oracle as given in 393 AD, when the emperor Theodosius I ordered pagan temples to cease operation. During this period the Delphic Oracle was the most prestigious and authoritative oracle in the Greek world.

She uttered advice on where and how to build cities, which laws to incorporate, and which prayers to utter. Her predictions were often very shrewdly phrased, which caused many supplicants to misinterpret the advice – as our friend Croesus did.

 Before his planned invasion, Croesus consulted the Oracle about his chances for victory. After sacrificing 300 head of cattle to Apollo, he had gold and silver melted down into 117 bricks, which were sent to Delphi, along with jewels, statues, and a gold bowl weighing a quarter of a ton, seeking an answer about the success of his proposed venture.

The Pythia answered that, if he crossed a river, “Croesus will destroy a great empire.”

Encouraged by this response, he invaded, not only to suffer a decisive defeat but causing the Persians to invade his own kingdom and capturing him. A most bitter Croesus, is now sent to have sent his iron chains to Delphi with the question, “Why did you lie to me?” The Pythia answered that her prophecy had been fulfilled.

Croesus had indeed destroyed a great empire — the only thing, it happened to be his own.

The lesson to be learnt is that be careful of ambiguous prophercies and examine them to see if by any stretch of imagination they can be taken to refer to you instead. 

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