King Croesus: Biography, Mythology & Gold

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Croesus is an interesting figure in Greek histories. Was he real, fictional, or a little bit of both? In this lesson, we'll look at the stories of Croesus and see where fact meets fiction.

King Croesus

There's an old saying that a very wealthy person is ''as rich as Croesus.'' Okay, so who's Croesus? Ancient Greek authors identified Croesus as king of Lydia, an Anatolian kingdom where Turkey stands today. It was said that when the famed king Midas washed his hands in the river Pactolus, he turned the sands to gold. This was the source of Croesus' wealth.

So, what do we do with this story? Croesus must have been mythological, right? For a long time, many historians thought he was. However, mounting evidence found over the years suggested that Croesus was a real king who lived in the 6th century BCE. We may never be able to fully separate fact from fiction with Croesus, but if the legends are even partly true, then he was one intriguing figure.

Croesus, as seen on a Greek vase
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Life of Croesus

According to Greek authors like Herodotus, Croesus was born around 595 BCE to King Alyattes of Lydia. At this time, Asia Minor was becoming a focus of Greek colonization, and a few Greek cities had appeared along the coastline. Alyattes had conquered at least one of these, but also signed treaties recognizing an alliance with another.

Croesus would have to battle his half-brother for control of the throne but eventually emerged as the ruler of Lydia sometime after 560 BCE. Based in his capital city of Sardis, one of Croesus' first actions was to invade the Greek city of Ephesus near the Anatolian coast. It would not be the last Greek city that Croesus would invade. Within years, he conquered all the Greek cities in Asia Minor except Miletus, the city which had signed an alliance with Alyattes. All other Greeks in Lydian territories were subject to Croesus, and had to pay their taxes and tributes to him. A few notable Greeks of the time mention this, including the Athenian statesman Solon and the author Aesop.

The Gold of Croesus

Croesus was a wealthy king, likely controlling mineral mines in Asia Minor, as well as collecting hefty tribute from across his empire. To the Greeks, his connection to Midas-like wealth was likely a result of an interesting innovation of the Lydians. Croesus is generally credited as the first king to start minting money in gold and silver.

Gold coin dated to the reign of Croesus
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So, what did Croesus do with his wealth? Like many proud kings, he displayed it. Most notably, he commissioned a new Temple of Artemis at Ephesus to replace the one destroyed in his siege of the city. Sparing no expense, Croesus financed a temple that would ultimately take 120 years to build and become so grand and inspiring it was named by the Greeks as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. When Croesus sponsored a project, he went all out. Interestingly, the ruins of the temple provided some of the first clues that Croesus was a real person; his signature was engraved on the base of one of the columns.

The Tragedy of Croesus

According to Greek mythology, Croesus claimed to be the happiest man ever; but Solon refuted that, saying no one could be said to have lived a happy life until after death, as the living still had to deal with an unknowable future. Croesus dismissed Solon, but soon learned what he meant when his son died in a hunting accident. Croesus was said to have mourned for two full years.

Croessus was eventually distracted from his grief by troubling events in West Asia. The Median Empire, a neighbor of Lydia, had just been conquered by the Persians and their ambitious ruler, Cyrus. Croesus consulted the prophetic Oracle of Delphi whether he should go to war. The oracle replied: ''If Croesus goes to war, he will destroy a mighty empire.'' Croesus took this as a good omen, and set out to attack Cyrus.

After fighting to a draw, Croesus disbanded his army for the winter, the custom of the time. Cyrus ignored tradition and attacked. Croesus tried to reorganize his army and counter-attack, but Cyrus had a plan. Rather than charging with horses, he charged on dromedary camels, which produce a smell that frightens horses. Croesus' cavalry scattered as the horses panicked, and Cyrus sacked Sardis.

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