Lydians: Diodoros on materialistic Croesus, consultation of Anacharsis and other sages, and Persian conquest (mid-first century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Lydians: Diodoros on materialistic Croesus, consultation of Anacharsis and other sages, and Persian conquest (mid-first century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified March 26, 2024,

Ancient authors: Diodoros of Sicily (mid-first century BCE), Library of History 9.21-36, fragments from a series of extracts done for Constantine Porphyrogennetos (link).

Comments: These extracts from the lost ninth book of Diodoros’ work characterize the Lydian king Croesus on the verge of the fall of his kingdom to the Persians. Because we possess very few Greek ethnographic descriptions of Lydians as a people and of their customs, passages like this remain among the only ways of gauging a Greek perspective on Lydians.

Croesus is pictured as obsessed with wealth and his own success, suggesting impending doom for his kingdom. Cyrus then does successfully take the kingdom and imprison Croesus, though keeping him as a sidekick. In the process of relating these events, Diodoros or his source relates a tale about Croesus’ consultation of four of the famous seven sages. This rings of the “wise” foreigner theme, because Croesus is here consulting foreign Greek sages, although he does not follow their lead. Also making an appearance is the Scythian wise man, Anacharsis, who is a frequent cameo among the “wise barbarians” in the category to your right. Croesus (or is it Diodoros as well) is most dismissive of this supposed sage from among the wildest savages.

The portrayal of the Persian king, Cyrus, here is generally affirming of his wisdom and bravery. But this positive start heads downhill according to Diodoros or his sources, on which see the next post (link). Throughout any narrative about foreign kings, it is important to remember that often ancient writers use such a king as a proxy for the king’s people. So in a somewhat limited way we get a characterization of Lydians and Persians by way of their kings.


[For Diodoros’ preceding discussion of Cretans, go to this link.]

Book 9

[Cyrus’ bravery and wisdom early on contrasted to Astyages the Mede’s cruelty and lawlessness]

22  Cyrus, the son of Cambyses and Mandane, the daughter of Astyages who was king of the Medes, was pre-eminent among the men of his time in bravery, wisdom and other virtues. For his father had reared him after the manner of kings and had made him zealous to emulate the highest achievements. And it was clear that he would take hold of great affairs, since he demonstrated an excellence beyond his years.

23  When Astyages, the king of the Medes, had been defeated and was in disgraceful flight, he vented his wrath upon his soldiers. And he displaced all who had been assigned positions of command, appointing others in their place. Astyages picked out all who were responsible for the flight and put them to the sword, thinking that by punishing them in that way he could force the rest to show themselves brave fighters in times of danger, since he was a cruel man and, by nature, hard. Nevertheless, the people were not dismayed at the harsh treatment he dealt out. On the contrary, every man, hating his violent and lawless manner, yearned for a change of the situation. Consequently, there were gatherings of small groups and seditious conversations, the larger number exhorting one another to take vengeance on Astyages.

24  Cyrus, we are told, was not only a courageous man in war, but he was also considerate and treated his subjects in a humane manner. And it was for this reason that the Persians called him “Father.”

[King Croesus of the Lydians as obsessed with physical possessions]

25  Croesus was once building ships of war, we are told, with the intention of making a campaign​ against the islands. And Bias, or Pittakos,​ who happened to be visiting Lydia at the time and was observing the building of the ships, was asked by the king whether he had heard of any news among the Greeks. And when he was given the reply that all the islanders were collecting horses and were planning a campaign against the Lydians, Croesus is said to have exclaimed, “Someone should persuade the islanders to fight against the Lydians on horseback!” For the Lydians are skilled horsemen and Croesus believed that they would come off victorious on land. (2) At that point, Pittakos, or Bias, answered him, “Well, you say that the Lydians, who live on the mainland, would be eager to catch islanders on the land. But do you not suppose that those who live on the islands have prayed to the gods so that they may catch Lydians on the sea, in order that, in return for the evils which have happened to the Greeks on the mainland, they may avenge themselves at sea on the man who has enslaved their relatives?” Croesus, in admiration of this reply, changed his purpose at once and stopped building the ships.

[Croesus seeks approval from some of the seven sages: Anacharsis, Solon, Bias and Pittakos]

26  Croesus used to send for the most distinguished wise men from Greece, to display to them the magnitude of his prosperity, and would honour with rich gifts those who admired his success. And he also sent for Solon as well as others who enjoyed the greatest fame for their love of wisdom, wishing to have the witness of these men set the seal of approval upon his own prosperity.

(2) Anacharsis the Scythian, Bias, Solon and Pittakos came to visit Croesus.   Croesus showed them the highest honour at banquets and at his council, and he displayed his wealth to them and the magnitude of his own power.

[Questioning Anacharsis of Scythia on what is most just]

(3) Now in those days, educated men aimed at brevity of speech. After Croesus had displayed to the men the prosperity of his kingdom and the multitude of the peoples subject to him, he asked Anacharsis, who was older than the other sages (sophistai), “Whom do you consider to be the bravest of living beings?” He replied, “The wildest animals, for they alone willingly die in order to maintain their freedom (eleutheria).” (4) Croesus believed that Anacharsis had made a mistake in his reply and believed that, if Croesus asked him a second time, Anacharsis would give an answer to please Croesus. So Croesus asked him, “Whom do you consider to be the most just (dikaiotatos) of living beings?” And Anacharsis again answered, “The wildest animals, for they alone live according to nature (kata physin), not according to laws (or: customs; kata nomous), since nature is a work of God. Law, on the other hand, is something established by human beings, and it is more just to follow the inventions of God than those of human beings.” (5) Then Croesus, wishing to make Anacharsis appear ridiculous, inquired of him, “And are the beasts, then, also the wisest?” And Anacharsis agreed that they were, adding this explanation: “The peculiar characteristic of wisdom consists in showing a greater respect to the truth which nature imparts than to the ordinance of the law.” Croesus laughed at Anacharsis and the answers he had given, as if they were coming from Scythia and from a way of life like the wildest animals.

[Questioning Solon of Athens]

27  Croesus asked Solon who, of all living beings, he had seen enjoying the most prosperous life. Croesus thought that Solon would by all means concede this distinction to him. But Solon replied, “I cannot justly apply this term to anyone, since I have not seen the end of life of anyone still living. Until the end of life, no one may properly be considered to be blessed. For it often happens that those who have been regarded before then as blessed by Fortune all their lives have at the very end of their lives experienced the greatest misfortunes.” (2) The king then said, “Do you not judge me to be the wealthiest?” And Solon made the same reply, explaining that not those who have the greatest possessions, but those who consider wisdom to be the most valuable of all possessions, are to be regarded as the wealthiest. He also replied that wisdom, which has nothing which can compare to it, confers upon those who value it highly, and only upon them, a wealth which is the greatest and most secure.

[Questioning Bias of Argos and Pittakos of Mytilene]

(3) Croesus then asked Bias whether, in his opinion, Solon had answered correctly or had made a mistake. And he replied, “He answered correctly, because he wants to make his decision after he has seen the possessions you have in yourself. However, up until now he has seen only the possessions which lie around you, and it is through the former, not the latter, that men have prosperity.” The king said, “But even if you do not give first honour to wealth in gold, at least you see my friends, so great a multitude as no other man possesses.” But Bias answered, “Even the number of friends is uncertain because of your good fortune.”

(4) And Croesus, we are told, asked Pittakos, “What is the best form of government you have seen?” And he replied, “That of the painted wood,” referring to the laws. . . [omitted extracts].

[Conquest of the Lydians by Cyrus]

31  When Croesus was advancing to the battlefield​ against Cyrus the Persian [ca. 547 BCE], he consulted the oracle. And the answer was: “If Croesus crosses Halys river, a mighty realm / will he destroy.” He received and interpreted the ambiguous answer of the oracle in the light of his own purpose and so was upset. (2) Croesus inquired a second time whether he was to enjoy a rule for a long time. And the oracle spoke the following verses: “The day a mule becomes the king of Medes, / then, tender-footed Lydian, you will flee / along the pebbly bed of the Hermos river, nor / abide, nor be ashamed to be a coward.” By a “mule” Cyrus was meant, because his mother was a Mede and his father a Persian.

(3) Cyrus, the king of the Persians, appeared with all his army at the passes of Cappadocia. Cyrus sent messengers to Croesus both to spy out his power and to declare to him that Cyrus would forgive his previous mistakes and appoint him satrap of Lydia, provided he presented himself at Cyrus’ court and acknowledged, as others did, that he was his slave. But Croesus answered the messengers that it would be more fitting if Cyrus and the Persians would submit to be the slaves of Croesus, reminding them that, up until then, they had been slaves of the Medes and that he had never yet taken orders from another.

[Eurybatos betrays Croesus]

32  Croesus, the king of the Lydians, under the guise of sending to Delphi, dispatched Eurybatos of Ephesos to the Peloponnesos, having given him money with which to recruit as many mercenaries as he could from among the Greeks. But this agent of Croesus went over to Cyrus the Persian and revealed everything to him. Consequently the wickedness of Eurybatos became a by-word among the Greeks, and to this day whenever a man wishes to cast another’s knavery in his teeth, he calls him a Eurybatos.

33  Although evil men may avoid for the moment punishment at the hands of those whom they have wronged, the report about their evil is still preserved forever and punishes them as much as possible even after death.

(2) We are told that Croesus, on the eve of his war with Cyrus, dispatched ambassadors to Delphi to inquire by what means it would be possible for his son​ to speak (his son was born mute), and that the Pythian priestess replied: “Oh you of Lydian descent, over many king, / you great fool Croesus, never wish to hear / within your halls the much-desired sound / of your son speaking. It is far better for you / if he remains apart, for the first words / he speaks will be upon a luckless day [cf. Herodotos, Histories 1.85].

(3) A man should bear good fortune with moderation and not put his trust in the successes that happen to human beings, since they can take a great shift with a slight turn of the scale.

[Croesus as prisoner]

(4) After Croesus had been taken prisoner and the pyre​ had been quenched, when he observed that the city was being plundered and that much silver and gold, besides everything else, were being carried off, he asked Cyrus, “What are the soldiers doing?” Cyrus laughingly replied, “They are plundering your wealth.” So Croesus said, “Not so, by Zeus, but of yours, for Croesus has no longer a thing of his own.” And Cyrus, impressed by his words, at once changed his purpose. Putting a stop to the plundering of the soldiers, Cyrus took the possessions of the inhabitants of Sardis for the royal treasury.

34  Cyrus, believing Croesus to be a pious man because a rainstorm had burst out and quenched the flame, and calling to mind the reply of Solon,​ kept Croesus at his side in a position of honour. He gave him a place also in his council, believing him to be a person of wisdom by reason of his having associated with many men of learning and wisdom.

35  Harpagos had been appointed commander on the sea by Cyrus the Persian, and when the Greeks of Asia sent an embassy to Cyrus​ [ca. 545 BCE] for the purpose of making a treaty of friendship with him, Harpagos remarked to them that what they were doing was very much like a former experience of his own. (2) Once when he wished to marry he had asked a girl’s father for the hand of his daughter. At first, however, her father decided that he was not worthy to marry his daughter and engaged her to a man of higher position. However, later on, observing that Harpagos was being honoured by the king, he offered him his daughter. But he replied that he would no longer have her as his wife, but would consent to take her as a concubine. (3) By such words he pointed out to the Greeks that formerly, when Cyrus had urged them to become friends of the Persians, they had been unwilling. But now, after matters had taken a different turn and they were anxious to agree upon relations of friendship, Cyrus would not come to terms with them as with allies. Instead, he would receive them as slaves if they would throw themselves upon the good-faith of the Persians.

36  When the Lakedaimonians learned that the Greeks of Asia were in peril, they sent a message to Cyrus​ stating that the Lakedaimonians, being relatives of the Greeks of Asia, forbade him to enslave the Greek cities. And Cyrus, marvelling at such words, remarked that he would judge their valour when he sent one of his own slaves to subdue Greece. . . [omitted other extracts].

[For Diodoros’ subsequent discussion of the character of Persian kings, go to this link.]


Source of the translation: C. H. Oldfather, Diodorus Sicilus: Library of History, volumes 1-6, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1935-1952), public domain (passed away in 1954), adapted by Victoria Muccilli and Harland.

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