Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course


Download this course

Share this free course

Herodotus and the invention of history
Herodotus and the invention of history

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.1 Beginning with Croesus

Directly after his refusal to comment on the accounts given by the Persians and Phoenicians, Herodotus states that he will start from the person ‘who I know first did wrong against the Greeks’ (1.5.3). This someone isn’t a Persian at all but a LydianCroesus, who was ‘leader of all the nations inside the river Halys, which flows from the noon sun between Syria and Paphlagonia and empties towards the north into the Euxine Sea’ (1.6.1). These next activities will ask you to explore the account Herodotus gives about Croesus, starting with why he begins his history proper with this figure.

Activity 7

Timing: Allow approximately 5 minutes for this activity

Read the passage below. Then, using the map as an aid, answer the following questions, jotting down your thoughts in a sentence or two:

  • Why does Herodotus start his history with Croesus?
  • What relations does Croesus have with the Greeks?
  • What territories do the Greek communities mentioned occupy?

Herodotus 1.6.2

This Croesus was the first of the foreigners [barbaroi, plural of barbaros] who we know rolled over [i.e. conquered] some Greeks and took tribute from them, and made friends with others. He rolled over the Ionians, the Aeolians and the Dorians of Asia, and made friends with the Lacedaemonians [also known as Spartans].

The map shows the eastern part of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Three regions are marked out in bigger font: Lydia (in the middle of the Asia Minor (Anatolian) coast next to the Aegean Sea); Paphlagonia (just under the Black Sea); and Syria (in line with the island of Cyprus). In smaller (green) font are three Greek communities along the Asia Minor coast: Aeolians at the top, Ionians in the middle, and Dorians at the bottom. The settlement of Sparta (Lacedaemon) is marked out (also in green) on the Greek mainland, in the middle of the Peloponnese; the Pontus and the river Halys are both indicated in red.
Figure 12 A map showing Lydia and the Greek communities (in green) along the Asia Minor (Anatolia) coast.
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


You may have made some notes along the following lines:

  • Herodotus starts with Croesus because he’s the first figure the Greeks know who conquered and ruled over them.
  • Croesus conquered some Greeks but he also made friends with others.
  • The Greek communities mentioned are on both mainland Greece and along the Asia Minor coast.

Three important points follow these observations. First, Herodotus starts with Croesus because, unlike the previous accounts (discussed in Section 1), he is a figure to whom knowledge can be attached. He’s known because of what he did to the Greeks: he conquered and ruled over those who lived along the Asia Minor coast. Second, Herodotus also notes that Croesus made friends with other Greeks, namely the Spartans. That is to say, Croesus is not an exclusively enemy figure, which should make us wary of conflating the term ‘barbaros’ with modern notions of ‘the barbarian’. He’s not all bad and, indeed, shares many things in common with the Greeks, as you shall see. Third, and related, an additional complexity emerges if we map the Greeks whom Herodotus mentions here. Figure 10 is an apt demonstration that the Greek world of antiquity was not limited to the mainland and islands of the Aegean that is now known as modern nation-state of ‘Greece’. There were Greek communities across the Mediterranean, as well as all around the Black Sea (otherwise known as the Pontus or Euxine).

As you have just seen, Herodotus starts with Croesus because, apparently, he is the first foreigner ‘who we know’ (1.6.2) conquered Greeks. But what might an ancient reader of Herodotus’ text already have known about Croesus? To answer this question, we can look at evidence from material culture – that is, physical objects which were produced in the ancient world. Figures 13 and 14 below are images of two pieces of material culture associated with Croesus. These pre-date Herodotus’ Histories, and can therefore help us to fill out the picture Herodotus’ contemporary reader might indeed have known. Interpreting visual sources like these requires analytical skills which are different from those which we use when we read an ancient text. A short audio discussion will help to guide your own analysis of these images.

Activity 8

Timing: Allow approximately 30 minutes for this activity

As you study Figures 13 and 14, listen to the accompanying discussion.

Note: In the audio you will hear the speakers refer to Sardis, which is the capital of Lydia and the seat of Croesus’s power, and the god Apollo, with whom Croesus seems to enjoy a special relationship.

Using the audio discussion and the images, answer the following questions:

  1. What are the two types of evidence that are explored in the audio discussion?
  2. What does the decoration on each source depict?
  3. What did you learn about Croesus? Try to note at least one thing using each source.
Download this video clip.Video player: hds_4_screencast.mp4
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript | Hide transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
Figure 13 Gold Stater (a type of coin) from the mint at Sardis, 561–546 BCE. American Numismatic Society ID: 1997.9.143.
Figure 14 Amphora (a large jar for storing wine), attributed to the Athenian Myson, c.500–475 BCE, found in Vulci, Southern Italy. The Louvre, Paris, ID: G197.
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


You may have noted down the following points from the discussion:

  1. One source is a gold coin. The other piece of evidence is a storage jar (for wine).
  2. The coin represents a lion and a bull facing each other, which is a mark of Croesus’s royal mint. The storage jar shows a finely dressed character seated on a throne on top of a pyre that is about to be lit by another figure. The figure on the throne is identified by writing alongside it spelling out Croesus’ name in Greek letters.
  3. We learn from the coin that Croesus was a rich Eastern monarch who had the power to mint gold currency. We learn from the amphora that Croesus was going to be burned alive.

Both sources, then, help us build up a picture of a Croesus the Greeks of Herodotus’ time would have known. Croesus is rich. So wealthy, in fact, that his name has become synonymous with wealth. (You may even have heard the expression ‘as rich as Croesus’.) One aspect of his wealth is the fact that he mints gold coins. Herodotus is alert to the importance of this, when he writes: ‘So far as we have any knowledge, they [the Lydians] were the first people to introduce the use of gold and silver coins, and the first who sold goods by retail’ (1.94.1). Minting coins is important: they literally demonstrate the circulation of power. Yet the other source provides a rather different picture. He’s still the regal figure seated on a throne, but that throne is on top of a pyre that is about to be set on fire! There’s a story here about the downfall of a king in spite of all his wealth. Moreover, it is a story well known enough to make sense to a Greek audience from as far apart as Athens and Vulci (a Greek community in what is now southern Italy) with very little help apart from the situation (a pyre) and a name (Croesus).