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Herodotus (Polycrates)


The Tyrant Polycrates of Samos and his Fate: Herodotus’ History

Polycrates seized power in Samos ca. 535 B.C. and during his tyranny he made the island a great naval power (he conquered many of the neighboring islands, including Lesbos), courted artists and poets including Anacreon), his building achievements were magnificent and his fame knew no bounds. Amasis, the king of Egypt, could not help but be aware of Polycrates’ splendid good fortune and how it was steadily and greatly increasing and so he sent a letter to Samos. Herodotus (3.40–43) tells the story of Polycrates  as follows. This translation is a faithful, although not literal, rendering.

A Letter from Amasis to Polycrates

It is a pleasure to learn that a man who is a friend and an ally is doing so well. Yet I do not like your great and constant good fortune because I know how jealous god is. I wish both for myself and those whom I care about a measure of success along with some failure and a life in which good fortune alternates with misfortune, rather than continuing uninterrupted. For I have never heard of anyone who was so fortunate all the time, who did not end badly—as a matter of fact, in utter ruin. So I ask you to do what I suggest in the face of your perpetual and excessive prosperity. Decide what you value as most precious, what in your heart you would most deeply regret losing. Then throw it away, so that it may never be seen or possessed by anyone. After you have done this, if your good fortune goes on without any suffering, continue to find a cure in the way I advise.

After reading the letter and concluding that Amasis’ advice was good, Polycrates pondered long and hard about choosing from his treasures the one which he would feel the greatest distress to lose. Finally he decided upon a signet ring that he wore, with an emerald set in gold, made by Theodorus of Samos, the son of Telecles. Thereupon he boarded a fifty-oared ship with its crew and ordered them to set out to sea. Once he was far from the island of Samos, he took off his ring in the sight of all on board and threw it into the waters. Then he sailed back and upon returning to his palace, grieved deeply for his loss.

Five or six days later, it happened that a fisherman caught a big fish, so splendid that he considered it a worthy gift for Polycrates. He brought it to the entrance of the palace and was granted his request to speak to Polycrates. He presented his gift to him with these words.

FISHERMAN: O king, when I caught this fish, I did not think it right to take it to market, although I am a fisherman by trade, because it seemed to me to be worthy only of you. So I have brought it as a gift.

POLYCRATES: You have done well and I am very pleased both with your words and your gift and I invite you to come back to have dinner with me.

The fisherman returned home feeling very proud.

When the servants cut up the fish, they found inside its belly, the signet ring of Polycrates. As soon as they saw it they snatched it up and brought it to him immediately, full of joy at their discovery. As they presented the ring, they told him how they had found it and Polycrates saw the hand of god in what had happened. He wrote a letter to Amasis in Egypt to tell him everything, what he had done and the result.

After reading Polycrates’ letter, Amasis understood that it is impossible for a human being to save another human being from what is fated to happen. Polycrates was destined to come to a bad end because his good fortune persisted and he even found what he had thrown away. Therefore he sent a herald to Samos to renounce their bond of guest-friendship, so that when a great and terrible misfortune did befall Polycrates, he would not have to be grief-stricken for a man who was his friend.

Herodotus tells us that Polycrates’ ruin was brought about by the enmity of Oroetes, a Persian who had been appointed by Cyrus to be governor of Sardis. Being aware of Polycrates’ efforts to create a mighty naval empire, Oroetes sent the following message to Samos from the city of Magnesia where he lived. Herodotus (3.122.3–125) continues the story.

A Letter from Oroetes to Polycrates

I have learned of your great ambitions and that you do not have enough money to achieve them. If, however, you do what I suggest, you will win success and assure my safety as well. I have certain information that King Cambyses is plotting my death. If you come to my rescue and save not only me but my money, you may take a share of it for yourself and leave the rest to me. With my wealth you will be able to extend your power over all Greece.

Polycrates was very pleased with the offer and eager to accept. Since, however, he wanted a great deal of money to satisfy his goals, he sent to verify the amount Maeandrius, a fellow Samian and his secretary, the very man who, not long afterwards, dedicated to the temple of Hera splendid offerings, well worth seeing, taken from the men’s quarters in Polycrates’ palace. When Oroetes learned that an inspector was to come, he made his preparations. He filled eight chests with stones almost up to the top and over the stones he placed a layer of gold, Then he locked up the chests and kept them ready. Maeandrius arrived, made his inspection, and returned with his report to Polycrates.

Polycrates decided to visit Oroetes himself, despite the many objections of his friends and also soothsayers. For in a dream his daughter saw a vision of her father high in mid air, being washed by Zeus and anointed by Helius (the Sun). Because of this dream, she did everything she could to dissuade Polycrates from making the journey and even as he was on his way to his fifty-oared ship, she prophesied that he would suffer some evil. He in turn threatened that she would remain a virgin for a very long time, if he returned safe and sound. She answered that she prayed that this would happen to her, for she preferred to remain a virgin, however long a time, rather than lose her father.

Polycrates would not listen to all this advice and he set sail to visit Oroetes, along with a retinue of many friends, including Democedes from Croton, the most skilled physician of his time. As soon as Polycrates arrived in Magnesia he was foully murdered in a manner unworthy of him and his grand aspirations. Except for the tyrants of Syracuse, no Greek tyrant deserves comparison with him for magnificence. Oroetes killed Polycrates in a way too horrible to describe and then crucified him. All the Samians in his retinue he let go, telling them to be grateful to him for their freedom; those who were not Samians and slaves he took as captives.

Thus Polycrates was hung high in the air on a cross and the dream of his daughter came true, for he was washed by Zeus when it rained and he was anointed by Helius, the sun, with the sweat from his body.

The great good fortune of Polycrates thus ended so horribly and the prediction of Amasis was fulfilled. As for Oroetes, it turned out that he too was murdered and when Samos was made a client kingdom by Darius, the exiled brother of Polycrates, named Solyson, was put in charge.

Herodotus in his introduction to the story of Solon and Croesus mentions that Solon also visited King Amasis of Egypt. On the basis of his dealings with Polycrates narrated above, it seems that Amasis took to heart basic tenants from the wisdom that he learned from Solon.

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