After the murder of King Candaules of Lydia, Gyges, of the family of the Mermnadae, assumed power. Herodotus (1.8–12) explains how he did it in the first of the countless brilliant stories that enrich his History throughout—this one a perfect gem. This translation is a faithful, although not literal, rendering.
King Candaules became passionately in love with his wife, so madly in love that he thought that she was by far the most beautiful of all women. His obsession with her beauty had disastrous consequences, for indeed it was inevitable that Candaules suffer a bad fate.
Now Candaules had in his bodyguard, a man named Gyges, with whom he was especially pleased, and to this Gyges he entrusted very important duties, and besides, revealed to him his passionate adoration of his wife’s beauty. For some time, over and over again, Candaules regaled Gyges with his excessive praise, until one day he suggested that Gyges must confirm for himself the truth of his boasts.
CANDAULES: It seems to me, Gyges, that you are not convinced by what I say about the loveliness of my wife. Since it is the case that what one sees with one’s own eyes is much more convincing than what one merely hears with one’s own ears, find some way to behold my wife naked.
GYGES (horrified, cried out): O my king, what are you saying? How unseemly to order me to behold my mistress naked. When a woman takes off her clothes, at the very same time she strips herself completely of all her modesty. Long ago, the rules of proper behavior were established for our society, and we must follow them. Cardinal is the one ordaining that each of us should look upon his own. You have convinced me that your wife is the most beautiful of all women. I beg you, do not ask me to do what is wrong.
With these words, Gyges tried to say no to the king’s proposal, terrified that some evil would result if he agreed. But Candaules was insistent.
CANDAULES: Have courage, Gyges. Do not be afraid of me. I am not attempting to put you to the test by what I propose; and do not fear my wife because you think that she will cause you some harm. From the outset, I shall find a way by which my wife will not even know that she has been seen by you. I shall place you in the room where we sleep, behind the open door. After I enter to go to bed, my wife will follow. Near the entrance, there is a chair. On it she will lay her clothes as she takes them off, each garment, one by one. And so you will have plenty of time to have a good look at her naked. When she moves from the chair to the bed and you are facing her back, then be very careful that she does not see you as you leave though the doorway.
Gyges, since he was unable to escape, was ready to do what he was told. Candaules led Gyges to the bedchamber, when he thought it was time for bed, and very soon afterward his wife followed. Gyges watched her as she came in and took off her clothes. Then, when she went from the chair to the bed and her back was towards him, he stealthily slipped out. But the woman saw him as he left. Had Gyges dallied a moment too long, mesmerized by the beauty that he had beheld? Realizing what her husband had done, the queen did not cry out because she had been disgraced, nor did she even let on that she knew, because it was her intention to exact revenge upon this Candaules, her husband. Indeed, among the Lydians and almost all the other non-Greeks, even for a man to be seen naked brings great shame. And so, at the time of the outrage, she revealed nothing and kept quiet.
As soon as day broke, however, the queen made ready with daggers those among her retinue whom she knew to be the must trustworthy and then summoned Gyges. He came at her bidding, not suspecting that she knew about what had happened the night before. He was accustomed on previous occasions to visit the Queen, whenever she called. When Gyges arrived, she spoke bluntly.
QUEEN: Now, Gyges, there are two courses open to you, and I give you a choice of whichever one you want: either kill Candaules and take both me and the kingdom of the Lydians or die at once, right here, by the daggers of my attendants, as you must. In the future, you will never again look upon what you should not, in obedience to Candaules’ command. Either my husband must be killed, since he devised the whole sordid scheme or you, the one who saw me naked, defied our mores, and committed this offense.
Gyges, at first, was amazed at her words and stunned. Just as he had been transfixed by her beauty, now, as never before, he was overwhelmed and dismayed by her intelligence, strength, and inflexible determination. When he was able to speak, he pleaded with the queen not to force him to have to make such a horrendous choice. He could not persuade her and now realized in horror that Necessity lay irrevocably upon him: either he must kill his master or be killed by the queen’s attendants. He chose that he himself should live.
GYGES: Since you compel me to kill my master and my king, against my will, please let me hear in what way we shall attack him.
QUEEN: The attack will be on the very spot where he showed me naked to you — a perfect retribution for what he has done; and let him be killed while he is sleeping.
They made their preparation for the murder and, at nightfall, Gyges followed Candaules’ wife into the bedchamber. There was no way Gyges could be released from the choice, no possible escape: either he must die or Candaules. The queen gave a dagger to Gyges and hid him behind the same door where he had spied on her. While Candaules was asleep, Gyges stole up from behind the door and killed him with the dagger. And now Gyges possessed both the wife and the kingdom.
Thus ends Herodotus story. He goes on to inform us that Gyges was confirmed as king by the oracle of Apollo at Delphi; once he had established himself as king, he sent many fine offerings of silver to Delphi and also of gold, of which six golden bowls are the most noteworthy. In this way, the family of the Mermnadae deposed the family of the Heracleidae. The Pythian priestess, however, prophesied that, in the fifth generation from Gyges, the Heracleidae would exact vengeance.
Gyges was succeeded by his son Ardys, there followed Ardys’ son, Sadyattes, and then the son of Sadyattes, Alyattes, and finally, in the fifth generation, Croesus, Alyattes’ son, the most important king of all, who brought Lydia to its greatest power. Croesus had under his control almost all the nations west of the Halys River, including the areas settled by the Greeks on the coast of Asia Minor: Aeolia, Ionia, and Doris. At the height of Croesus’ power, the major wise men of Greece came to visit Sardis at one time or other, including the renowned Solon of Athens.