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

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3.2 Croesus tests the oracles

Herodotus begins his account of Croesus by recording a visit to his palace at Sardis by the Athenian, Solon (1.29). Both a poet and a leading figure in the political affairs of Athens, Solon was known for his wisdom. Later Athenians attributed to him the founding principles of their democracy. After showing him around his treasury, Croesus eagerly asks Solon, of all the people he knows ‘who is the happiest of them all?’ (1.30.2). Croesus asks this question fully expecting Solon to name him: how could someone so wealthy not be the happiest person alive? When Solon not only doesn’t name him but instead urges him to ‘look to the end’ in all things, Croesus sends him away ‘considering him to be a nobody’ (1.33.1, using that same phrase as in 1.13.2: poieō logon oudena). Soon after, wary of a growing power to the east of his kingdom (Persia), Croesus ponders whether to launch a pre-emptive strike. To help him decide, he tests various oracles by setting them a puzzle.

A detailed crowd scene. In the centre foreground stands a regal figure, wearing a rich red robe, a golden scarf around his waist, an ermine cloak that flows to the floor, knee-high ivory-coloured boots, and a gold-coloured hat with a dark-green plume. He poses with his right arm on his waist; in his left hand, he holds a golden rod that points towards a mass of treasures — wine jars of all shapes and sizes, jewellery, gold bowls — spilling over carefully laid tables on to the floor, such is their number. Next to him stands a man, much more simply dressed in a dark green robe and walking boots, who appears to be animated conversation with him. To the left of the central figure stands a woman, as regally dressed as he is, with a golden red dress that billows out, and a royal blue bejewelled top that opens at the waist; she too wears an elaborate plumed hat. Milling around them are an array of finely drawn characters, around twenty in number. Behind them is a wall with a large landscape painting at its centre, and further off to the left (as the viewer sees it) is an outdoor scene with a temple-like building and trees.
Figure 23 Krösus zeigt Solon seine Schätze (Croesus displays his treasures to Solon). Colour on oak wood, by Frans Francken the Younger, about 1620; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, ID: GG_1049.

Activity 11

Timing: Allow approximately 25 minutes for this activity

Read Herodotus’ description of Croesus’ first consultation of the oracles. What are the different stages of the process? You will need to read the episode at least twice in order to work out what’s going on. In your answer, pick out (at least) three stages as they are revealed to us.

Note: Remember that the Pythia, as referred to in this text, is another name for the priestess at Delphi who conveyed oracular messages to enquirers.

Herodotus 1.46.3–1.48.2

Croesus sent out messengers to test the oracles for what they knew. He did this so that, should he discover that they knew the truth, he might then enquire of them again to find out whether he should launch a military expedition against the Persians.

When he sent to test the oracles, he gave the Lydians these instructions: they were to keep track of the time from the day they left Sardis, and on the hundredth day enquire of the oracles what Croesus, king of the Lydians, was doing. Then they were to write down whatever divine utterance each oracle made and bring it to him.

What the other oracles prophesied is not said, but at Delphi, as soon as the Lydians had entered the hall to consult the god and ask what they had been instructed, the Pythia spoke these words in hexameter verses:

‘I know the number of the sands and the measures of the sea;

I understand the dumb; I hear who does not speak.

A smell comes to my senses of a mightily armoured tortoise

Being boiled in bronze together with lamb meat.

Bronze lies underneath, and bronze lies above.’

After they had written down the Pythia’s divine utterance, the Lydians went back to Sardis. When those who had been sent to other places came bringing their oracles, Croesus unfolded each and read what had been written. In what they had to say nothing pleased him. But, when he heard the oracle from Delphi, immediately he proclaimed it and accepted it, considering the only place of divination to be the one in Delphi, because it had discovered what he had been doing.

For, after he had sent his envoys to the oracles, he had waited for the appointed day and devised this cunning plan – something that would be impossible to discover or to imagine: he cut up a tortoise and a lamb, and then boiled them together in a bronze pot with a bronze lid on top.

The map shows the eastern part of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Four locations are marked: on the Greek mainland are — from top to bottom — Delphi, Athens, and Sparta (or Lacedaemon); in Anatolia is Sardis. Far off to the east is the region of Persia.
Figure 24 A map showing the key places mentioned in the narrative of Croesus consulting the oracles: Sardis, Delphi, Persia, Athens and Sparta.
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These are the stages of the process which you may have picked out:

  • Croesus sends out messengers to the oracles.
  • He instructs the Lydians to keep track of the time and to write down whatever divine utterance they receive and bring it to him.
  • At Delphi they receive an oracle as soon as they walk in the door.
  • They write it down and take it back to Sardis.
  • Croesus reads each oracle and immediately proclaims Delphi as the one true oracle.
  • Only then does Herodotus narrate what Croesus had done.

Did you notice that this oracular consultation isn’t really an enquiry into what will happen? Croesus asks the oracles to determine, when the appointed time arrives (‘the hundredth day’), what he’s doing at that very moment. This oracle isn’t about what was going to happen but what was actually happening. In fact, the person making the enquiry knows the answer already. This is a clear case of someone reading into the oracle’s intelligence report what they already have in mind.

In the next activity you will reflect on the potential ramifications of this way of reading the oracles by examining Croesus’s next move. Having discovered the truth of the oracle at Delphi, Croesus sends his Lydian messengers back to it to so that he can determine what to do about that growing power of Persia.

A richly painted scene. A woman sits on a stool, like that depicted in the Attic red-figure kylix (Figure 22), head forward and eyes looking up, as if in a trance. She has thick black hair that runs down her back, and wears a white robe, a band of golden necklaces, and an embroidered scarf. Around her are four elderly, bearded men, all dressed in simple white robes with a white band around their heads. One, in profile, looks intently at her; another — whom the viewer sees from behind — holds his arms out straight in front of him; a third stands behind her, looking up; the fourth holds a scroll in his left hand and a writing instrument in his right. All five figures are in a special sanctuary, set off from the immediate foreground of the painting. A dark red wall provides the background to the sanctuary; there is also a laurel tree (and many laurel leaves strewn all over the floor), while high up on the wall on the right are hung various votive objects. Before them, and in front of the sanctuary, two figures kneel, with their heads bent and right arms raised. There appear to be twirls of smoke coming from somewhere.
Figure 25 The Oracle. Oil on canvas, by Camillo Miola, 1880. Getty Center, ID 72.PA.32.

Activity 12

Timing: Allow approximately 20 minutes for this activity

As you read the following description, consider the following questions and write a sentence or two in your own words to answer each:

  1. What is the specific question that he asks?
  2. What is the answer that he receives?
  3. How does Croesus interpret the oracle’s answer?
  4. What might an alternative interpretation be?

Herodotus 1.53.2–54.1–2

When they arrived at Delphi, the Lydians dedicated offerings before consulting the oracle in the following manner: ‘Croesus, king of Lydia and other nations, considers you the only place of divination among mortals, and gives you gifts worthy of your discoveries. Now he asks you whether he should send an army against the Persians, and whether he should take allies.’ This is what they enquired about. The judgement given to Croesus proclaimed that, if he sent an army against the Persians he would destroy a great empire; and that he should discover the most powerful of the Greeks and make them his friends.

When the divine answer had been brought back and Croesus learned of it, he was overjoyed with the oracle. Since he was in no doubt that he would destroy the kingdom of Cyrus [king of the Persians], he sent once again to the Pythia and gave to the Delphians, whose number he had learned, two gold coins for each man. The Delphians in return gave Croesus and all Lydians the right to consult the oracle first, free of charge, the front seats at festivals, and, to whoever wanted it, the right of Delphian citizenship for all time.

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These are the points you may have picked out:

  1. Croesus wants to know whether he should attack Persia.
  2. He receives the answer that, if he attacks, he will destroy a great power.
  3. Croesus interprets this to mean that, if he attacks, he will destroy Persia, and he’s very happy about that!
  4. However, the oracle doesn’t spell out which power he will destroy. It’s equally possible that his own power is meant.

Croesus is pondering whether he should launch a pre-emptive strike against Lydia’s main rival, Persia. When he learns that, if he does this, a great power will fall, he thinks that this means he will succeed in defeating the Persians and removing them as a threat. But, as we’ll soon learn, he’s wrong. He’s failed to see that the oracle is ambiguous: that is to say, that it can be read in more than one way. And so he fails to ask the follow-up question: which power does the oracle mean, when it says that a power will fall?

You may wonder whether Croesus’ response here relates back to that first test that he set for the oracles, when he already knew the answer? This is because Croesus also reads this second oracle as confirming his own expectations and desires. Herodotus describes him as being ‘overjoyed’ at the oracle, which seems a subtle criticism of the lack of consideration he gives to its response.

If Herodotus is implying subtle criticism of Croesus, however, it is because of what he does – or, in this case, doesn’t do, since he doesn’t ask the follow up question – and not because of who he is. That is to say, there is no indication that Croesus gets things wrong because he’s one of those foreigners (barbaroi). On the contrary, Herodotus is at pains to show the high regard in which Croesus holds Delphi – a Greek community – and the mutual respect between them. The Delphians even make him a citizen owing to his generosity in showering them with gifts – a story that Herodotus backs with his own eye-witness account of those dedications (1.51.1–5). There’s nothing inherently bad about Croesus.

The photo depicts an almost intact temple, which is bricked all around with the exception of its open front where stand two columns. The simple building is capped by a triangular pediment. It stands on the side of a hill, which rises quite dramatically behind it. In the background stand a number of tall cypress trees.
Figure 26 The Athenian Treasury, Delphi.

Still, the episode shows the importance of being open-minded to information and Croesus’ position as an all-powerful monarch doesn’t help, since there’s no one to contest his interpretation. Our second example explores the importance of reading closely more fully.