The Empires of Croesus and Cyrus

The notion of imperial conquest, or the need to build a city that is enduring, is central to the inquiries of Herodotus. What is lasting human greatness? How can we inquire into our shared human past while preserving the question of enduring greatness? What is the just city? Is the just city also an enduring city? These and many other questions are integral to Herodotus’s work.

The first barbarian empire identified in the text is that of the Lydians, inherited from the actions of Gyges, a man who by fate acquired a vast empire. His descendants, Sadyattes and Alyattes, conquered the surrounding territories. When conquering Miletus, they laid siege to the city and nearly burned down every house in order to maintain a slave labor population, the fruits of which they could plunder. The empire of the Lydians comes to us as a tyrannical rule, one that is prone to frequent revolution and attack. A self-conscious rule that destroys the cultures of the people it conquers (see the burning of the temple of Athena, called ‘Asseos’ 1.19). Croesus, the son of Alyattes, inherited this vast kingdom and expanded it into Asia even further, and in his vast splendor, Croesus reclined comfortably in his riches until Solon, the lawmaker of Athens, arrived in his travels at Sardis. When Solon failed to affirm either Croesus’s wealth or his happiness, Croesus grew angry. Croesus asks Solon if he is nothing more than the “common man”. Solon’s advice is to look to the end of a man’s life to discover his true happiness and wealth, otherwise he is merely a lucky man. Thus, if we look to the ends of Croesus’s empire, we find it in decay -his son was killed in a boar hunting accident, and his empire was eventually conquered by Cyrus’s Persian empire. Croesus’s empire had desperately chased after prosperity and happiness at the same time, and tragiclly had found neither. Though Croesus was kept alive as a trusted advisor to Cyrus, it was only because of Croesus’s account of Solon’s visit which he delivered when nearly burned alive by Cyrus.

In contrast, the Persian Empire has its roots in rebellion as Cyrus once overthrew the Medes under Astyagas and claimed kingship. As a result of the war, the Empire lived under constant war and expansion in Cyrus’s 29 year rule from the Medes to the Lydians to Ionia and Babylon. However, unlike the Lydians, the Persians did not subjugate its conquered territories. Client cities were all allowed to adopt and maintain their cultural customs, and in fact, the Persians were liberal enough to assimilate and incorporate the habits and practices of their conquests, as well, unlike the Scythians -a nomadic tribe who ruthlessly ruled Asia for a brief two decades but collapsed as they did not integrate any new customs into their tribe and also failed to establish an enduring regime. However, Cyrus was often praised by his conquered peoples, earning him the moniker of “The Great”. Elsewhere in the Biblical Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is referred to by the subjugated Jews as the “Annointed One” (Isaiah 45:1). He was remembered for his empire that did not force Persian influence upon its conquered territories, but rather adopted the various cultures, unlike the forced subjugation of the Scythians wo were a nomadic group without a connection to place.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

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