Croesus Tests The Oracles and Gives Presents- Herodotus I. 47-52:

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At the end of this time the grief of Croesus was interrupted by intelligence from abroad. He learnt that Cyrus, the son of Cambyses, had destroyed the empire of Astyages, the son of Cyaxares; and that the Persians were becoming daily more powerful. This led him to consider with himself whether it were possible to check the growing power of that people before it came to a head. With this design he resolved to make an instant trial of the several oracles of Greece, and one of them in Libya. So, he sent his messengers in different directions, some to Delphi, some to Abae in Phocis, and some to Dodona; others to the oracle of Amphiaraus; others to that of Trophonius; others, again, to Branchidae in Milesia. These were the Greek oracles which he consulted. To Libya he sent another embassy, to consult the oracle of Ammon. These messengers were sent to test the knowledge of the oracles, that if they were found really to return true answers, he might send a second time, and inquire if he ought to attack the Persians.

This beginning section introduces Croesus learning new information that Cyrus had destroyed the empire of Astyages and the Persian Empire was gaining more and more power. As a result of this knowledge, he began to question whether he would be able to take on the growing empire. He decided to consult numerous oracles by dispatching messengers to the oracle of Abae, Dodana, Amphiaraus, Trophonius, Branchidae and Ammon. The reason for sending to many ambassadors to so many oracle sites was to test them. If the oracles gave true responses back to Croesus, then he would inquire their knowledge for a second time regarding whether or not to attack the Persian Empire.

The messengers who were despateched to make the trial of the oracles were given the following instructions: they were to keep count of the days from the time of their leaving Sardis, and, reckoning from that date, on the hundredth day they were to consult the oracles, and to inquire of them what Croesus the son of Alyattes, king of Lydia, was doing at the moment. The answers given them were to be taken down in writing, and brought back to him. None of the replies remain on record except that of the oracle at Delphi. There, the moment that the Lydians entered the sanctuary, and before they put their questions, the Pythoness this answered them in hexameter verse:

Those delegates who were sent to the numerous different oracles were instructed to keep count of the days since their departure from Sardis, and on the hundredth day, they were to ask the oracle the question that was instructed: what was Croesus was doing at the exact moment? The answers of each oracle were recorded and brought back to Croesus for evaluation. However, none of the replies made it back to him, except for the oracle at Delphi.

I can count the sands, and I can measure the ocean;
I have ears for the silent, and I know what the dumb man meaneth;
Lo! on my sense there striketh the smell of a shell covered tortoise,
Boiling now on a fire, with the flesh of a lamb, in a cauldron-
Brass is the vessel below, and brass the cover above it.

This is the answer the Oracle at Delphi gave to Croesus' messenger regarding the King's actions at that moment. This statement proclaims that she can do what normal individuals cannot accomplish; she knows what others cannot fathom ("I can count the sands" and "I can measure the ocean"). This statements also reflect the divine power that they received from the Gods ("I have ears for the silent" and I know what the dumb meaneth"). This oracle states that she has a sense of a shell-covered tortoise boiling over a fire, with the flesh of a lamb. The oracle even describes the type of metal used, brass.

These words the Lydians wrote down at the mouth of the Pythoness as she prophesied, and then set off on their return to Sardis. When all the messengers had come back with the answers which they had received, Croesus undid the rolls, and read what was written in each. Only one approved itself to him, that of the Delphic oracles. This he had no sooner heard than he instantly made an act of adoration, and accepted it as true declaring that the Delphic was really the only oracular shrine, the only one that had discovered in what way he was in fact employed. For on the departure of his messengers he had set himself to think what was the most impossible for any one to conceive of his doing, and then, waiting till the day agreed on came, he acted as he had determined. He took a tortoise and a lamb, and cutting them into pieces with his own hands, boiled them together in a brazen cauldron, covered over with a lid which was also of brass.

The Lydians recorded the response directly from the oracle and the scrolls on which they were written was taken to Croesus (back in Sardis). Croesus read it and immediately accepted it at truth; it had approved itself to him. He instantly made an act of adoration and declared the oracle at Delphi the only authentic and sincere oracle. It was the only one that discovered what he was in fact, doing, at the time. Before the messengers departed, he had thought of the most unimaginable and mind-boggling act that no one would guess him to do. He waited for the right do to come then he took action. He cut up a tortoise and lamb using his own hands, boiled them in a brass cauldron and covered it with a brass lid. This action was so strange that no one would have ventured to guess anything like it. However, because of the supreme power of the oracle, the Pythoness was able to answer the question with great accuracy.

Such then was the answer returned to Croesus from Delphi. What the answer was which the Lydians who went to the shrine of Amphiarans and performed the customary rites obtained of the oracle there, I have it not in my power to mention, for there is no record of it. All that is known is that Croesus believed himself to have found there also an oracle which spoke the truth.
After this Croesus, having resolved to propitiate the Delphic God with a magnificent sacrifice, offered up three thousand of every kind of sacrificial beast, and besides made a huge pile, and placed it upon couches coated with silver and with gold, and golden goblets, and robes and vests of purple; all which he burnt in the hope of thereby making himself more secure in the favor of the god. Further he issued his order to all the people of the land to offer a sacrifice according to their means. When the sacrifice was ended, the king melted down and vast quantity of gold, and ran it into ingots, making them six palms long, three palms broad, and one palm in thickness. The number of ingots was a hundred and seventeen, four being of refined gold, in weight two talents and a half; the others of pale gold, and in weight two talents. He also caused a statue of a lion to be made in refined gold, the weight of which was ten talents. At the time when the temple of Delphi was burnt to the ground, this lion fell from the ingots on which it was placed; it now stands in the Corinthian treasury, and weighs only six talents and a half, having lost three talents and a half by the fire.

Because Croesus was so overjoyed with the response from the oracle, he showered Delphi with lavish gifts made of gold and silver, and sacrificed the best of beasts in their honor (and in extraordinary quantities, up to three thousand beasts). He then placed them upon silver and gold coated couches and burned it all to the Gods in the hope of making himself more appealing and favorable to them later on. He further issued an order to all the Delphic people declaring that they had to make a sacrifice according to their means. Once the sacrifice ended, Croesus melted down the rest of the gold and molded it into a statue of a lion, so large it weighed ten talents. Subsequently, the temple at Delphi was burnt down, where the golden lion was placed; it now weighs six talents and is in the Corinthian Treasury.

On the completion of these works Croesus sent them away to Delphi, and with them two bowls of an enormous size, one of gold, the other of silver, which used to stand, the latter upon the right, the former upon the left, as one entered the temple. They too were moved at the time of the fire; and now the golden one is in the Clazomenian treasury, and weighs eight talents and forty-two minae; the silver one stands in the corner of the ante-chapel, and holds six hundred amphorae. This is known because the Delphians fill it at the time of the Theophania. It is said by the Delphians to be a work of Theodore the Samian, and I think that they say true, for assuredly it is the work of no common artist. Croesus sent four silver casks, which are common in the Corinthian treasury, and two lustral vases, a golden and a silver one. One the former is inscribed the name of the Lacedaemonians, and they claim it as a gift of theirs, but wrongly, since it was really given by Croesus. The inscription upon it was cut by a Delphian, who wished to pleasure the Lacedaemonians. His name is known to me, but I forbear to mention it. The boy, through whose hand the water runs, is (I confess) a Lacedaemonian gift, but they did not give either of the lustral vases. Besides these various offerings, Croesus sent to Delphi many others of less account, among the rest a number of round silver basins. Also he dedicated a female figure in gold, three cubits high, which is said by the Delphians to be the statue of his baking-woman; and further, he presented the necklace and the girdles of his wife.

Croesus had also donated bowls of gold which were to be placed at both sides of the entrances to the temple, but these were also moved during the fire. The golden bowl is in the Clazomenian treasury and the silver bowl is in a different location and holds six hundred amphorae (vases), which the Delphians filled themselves. Additionally, Croeus sent even more presents, including silver casks and gold and silver vases. One of the vases has the name of the Lacedaemonians (who claimed it was a gift from them), but it truly was from Croesus. That inscription was made on the vase by a Delphian citizen who wished to please the Lacedaemonians.

These were the offerings sent by Croesus to Delphi. To the shrine of Amphiaraus, with those valour and misfortune he was acquainted, he sent a shield entirely of gold, and a spear, also of solid gold, both head and shaft. They were still existing in my day in Thebes, laid up in the temple of Ismenian Apollo.

In addition to the presents sent to the Oracle at Delphi, Croesus also sent gifts to the shrine of Amphiaraus; a gold shield, a spear also made entirely of solid gold. These gifts still exist and are in modern day Thebes.

The messengers who had the charge of conveying these treasures to the shrines, received instructions to ask the oracles whether Croesus should go to war with the Persians and if so, whether he should strengthen himself by the forces of an ally. Accordingly, when they had reached their destinations and presented the gifts, they proceeded to consult the oracles in the following terms:- “Croesus, of Lydia and other countries, believing that these are the only real oracles in all the world, has sent you such presents as your discoveries deserved, and now inquiries of you whether he shall to go to war with the Persians, and if so, whether he shall strengthen himself by the forces of a confederate.” Both the oracles agreed in the tenor of their reply, which was in each case a prophecy that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire, and a recommendation to him to look and see who were the most powerful of the Greeks, and to make alliance with them.

The same messengers who were to deliver the gifts were told to ask the oracle at Delphi whether or not Croesus should go to war with Persia, and whether or not he should take on any allies (thus strengthening his own power). Once the messengers had placed the presents with the oracles, they proceeded to ask the question as instructed: "Croesus of Lydia, who believes that the oracle of Delphi is the only true oracle in the world, has sent you these presents to reward you. Now, he requests of you whether he should or should not go to war with Persia, and if so, shall he strengthen himself by working with an ally?" The oracle responded by saying that if Croesus were to attack the Persians, then a great empire would fall. The oracle recommended to determine who among the Greeks was the most powerful and to establish an alliance with that particular polis.

At the receipt of these oracular replies Croesus was overjoyed, and feeling sure now that he would destroy the empire of the Persians, and he sent once more to Pytho, and presented to the Delphians, the number of whom he had ascertained, two gold staters apiece. In return for this, the Delphians granted to Croesus and the Lydians the privilege of precendency in consulting the oracle, exemption from all charges, the most honourable seat at the festivals, and the perpetual right to becoming at pleasure citizens of their town.

Once Croesus heard this response, he was extremely elated and confident that he would destroy the Persian empire. He sent even more presents to Pytho and again to Delphi. In return for all the gifts Croesus had sent, Delphi gave Croesus (and all Lydians) priority in consulting their oracle. They were also exempt from all charges, guaranteed the best seats at all festivals and now had the right to become a citizen of Delphi.

Questions regarding the Passage:

1) Who was Croesus?

Croesus was the last king of Lydia located in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) who reigned from 560 to 546 BCE. He allied Lydia with Egypt and Babylonia against Persia, but was subsequently defeated and captured by Cyrus the Great. Croesus was friendly with the Greeks and some of whom (notably Solon) visited his capital at Sardis. The Lydians also contributed to the rebuilding of Greek shrines, including the Oracle at Delphi. The best-known anecdotes about Croesus are from the writings of Herodotus, but little is know about the true magnitude of his wealth. After Croesus was captured, he was either burned on a pyre, miraculously saved by the god Apollo or put to use as an administrator by Cyrus (depending on the legend).

2) Why did Croesus go to the oracles? What did he consult them for?

After Croesus had ruled over Lydia for about 10 years, he initiated a test to discover which was the world's most accurate oracle. He sent his men to ask numerous different oracles the same simple question: "What was the King doing right now?" The answers were written down and brought back to Croesus so he could compare. The Oracle at Delphi was proclaimed the winner, and showered gifts onto Delphi. The reason for this test was to ask a follow-up question: Should Croesus attack Persia? With Cyrus the Great as its leader, Persia was pressing on Lydia's borders, and Croesus felt like he had to take action.

3) What did the oracle say?

The Oracle at Delphi claimed that if Croesus was to attack the Persians, then, "a great empire would fall." It also stated that Croesus should consider the most powerful Greek city and ally himself with it to make himself more powerful.

4) How did Croesus interpret the oracles?

Upon hearing this information, Croesus was overwhelmed with happiness and euphoria. Croesus interpreted this information to imply that if he would pair himself with the most able and influential Greek power, then he would defeat the Persians and become the supreme conqueror of all the land. He gained confidence in his quest and supported by his vast wealth, he resolved to attack the Persian empire.

5) What actually happened?

Croesus invaded Persian territory in 546 BCE, and was quickly defeated by Cyrus. Croesus' kingdom Lydia fell to the Persians, along with Ionia. Croesus was taken prison by Cyrus but was eventually treated with respect in honor of his former status. He was later allowed to return to the Oracle of Delphi to complain, that it's advice had been wrong and the god had not repaid the favor that Croesus had given him (regarding all the splendid presents and gifts given to the oracle and to the city of Delphi). The oracle then replied to his complaint by answering that if Croesus had been wise, he would have asked another follow-up question: whose kingdom was he going to destroy with this expedition, Cyrus', or his own?

Croesus and Fate:

"Croesus and Fate" is a short story told by Leo Tolstoy that is the retelling of Herodotus' Greek legend, published in 1886. Below is his synopsis.

"Croesus is a rich king in ancient Greece who is quite enamored with his own wealth. When the wise man Solon comes to visit his kingdom, Croesus asks Solon if he had ever seen greater opulence than his own. Solon replies that birds like peacocks are incomparable in their beauty. Croesus disagrees, and he tries to impress Solon with a list of vanquished foes and claimed territories. Solon still disagrees, telling Croesus that the happiest man he had ever met was a peasant in Athens. He explains that the peasant worked hard, raised a family, and was content with what he had. Croesus takes this as an insult and Solon leaves.

"Soon after Solon's departure, tragedy befalls Croesus. His oldest son is killed in a hunting accident, and then Emperor Cyrus invades. Cyrus' army is triumphant, and Croesus' kingdom is ravaged and Croesus himself is captured and ordered to be executed. As Croesus is about to be burned on a pyre, he cries out Solon's name. Cyrus stops the pyre to hear what Croesus has to say. Croesus relates Solon's story to Cyrus, and Cyrus is moved by the notion that Fate can bring misery to a rich man and happiness to a poor man. Croesus is freed and the emperor and the king become good friends."

This is the report passed down by Greek historian Herodotus; but according to Persian historians and Persian school texts, Croesus had himself tied on the pyre to be burned rather than be tortured by Cyrus. What Croesus didn't know was that Cyrus was a kind liberator. So when he saw the pyre on fire, Cyrus ordered it to be doused and told Croesus that he was still king in Lydia and that he could keep all his riches because Cyrus would never want such a burden.

About the Author: Herodotus of Halicarnassus

Herodotus of Halicarnassus lived between 484 and 425 BCE and is often viewed as the "Father of History." Others sometimes call him the "Father of Lies," because he loved telling intricate and dramatic stories that some people consider to be figments of his attention-seeking imagination.

Little if known regarding his own history, but his writings along with other ancient sources suggest
  • He was born in Halicarnassus in 484 BCE. He was the son of Lyxes and Dryo and had at least one brother.
  • He was exiled after he participated in a failed coup d'etat.
  • Following his exile, Herodotus claimed to have spent some time in Athens after travelling to Egypt, the Aegean, Palestine, Phoenicia, Babylon and Susa. Some of his descriptions make it seem likely that he did visit them, others not so much.

In regards to his identity and context, we can make the assumption that because Herodotus knew how to write, he was possibly upper-class and rich. He was Ionian Greek, born and raised in the Persian Empire. He most likely fought as a hoplite, as suggested by his comments on military matters. He also lived in Athens at the height of its economic power.

The values, beliefs and philosophy of history, we can infer that
  • Herodotus believed in the Greek Gods, although not as strongly as others. He makes some references to divine intervention in his Histories, but recognizes that events are shaped by people, not Gods.
  • The Histories were meant to entertain, they would have been read in courts.
  • He outlines the "astonishing achievements" of societies to preserve their memory.
  • The name Histories literally translates into "researches," reflecting Herodotus' approach to history.

Herodotus' stories were originally constructed as an oral history in narrative style. One of his influences may be Homer, is sometimes regarded as being the first historian (although most give this title to Herodotus). The history written was within living memory, which allowed Herodotus to speak with witnesses about a past event. This made his work reliable. He also aims to give Persian and Greek perspectives.
Included everything he heard on matters, although he explains why he does or does not believe different sources and judges them on their merits. Herodotus often comes under fire for his inclusion of a myth about giant ants in The Histories, although there is no evidence that he believes it to be true; he is merely stating that he heard it. He gives his opinions as to which version of events he supports, although he rarely states that one is correct or not.

Despite some account of his historical accuracies, there are some biases recognized in the Histories. He describes battles from the soldier's perspective, he doesn't criticize foreign customs, even thought they would have been strange to him, he does see Greece as the center of the Earth and he tends of favors Athens in his stories.

Lingering Questions:

When was this event supposed to have taken place?
Why did Croesus make his messengers wait 100 days before questioning the oracles?
Why did he determine that the oracle at Delphi was the best? Why not any of the others?

These are some questions that remain unanswered by the passage itself. As to the time of when this sequence of events occurred, we can estimate a year based other primary sources and historical research (it was said to be around 546 BCE), but it is not directly stated in the passage itself. Regarding why Croesus made his messengers wait 100 days before asking the oracles the first of his questions and how he determined that the oracle at Delphi was superior to the others is something we'll never know; we can only speculate. Croesus sent many messengers to numerous oracles but to guess as to why he chose that one is questionable. It's difficult to try to understand the thought process of a great king from 2500 years ago, but everything is up to interpretation by the reader.


The summary throughout the text is great! It helps to understand as the reader views the document rather than being confused until the very end. Maybe relate how Tolstoy's synopis can be understood in today's terms. Great work! -Alexandra Watkins

I really enjoyed the way you summarized each part of the passage. It made it very easy to understand what was going on - something that isn't always the easiest when reading Ancient Greek texts! Putting in the synopsis from Tolstoy was also very interesting. My only question is this: what other oracles did Croesus test? All of the oracles of Greece, or just a select few? All around, well done! - Lindsay Gaard