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Another Version of Croesus’ Death: Bacchylides, Ode 3

Another, earlier, version than that of Herodotus by the poet Bacchylides about the salvation of Croesus  is depicted on an Attic Greek amphora , which shows a slave lighting fire to the funeral pyre that  Croesus has voluntarily erected  in order to burn himself and his family rather than suffer defeat by Cyrus.  Croesus is saved by a rainstorm sent by Zeus and rewarded by Apollo for his piety by being transported with his daughters to the land of the Hyperboreans.

Bacchylides’ poem, an ode (No. 3, in Greek Lyric, Vol. 4, ed. David A. Campbell, Loeb Classical Library, 1992) celebrating the victory in the chariot race at the Olympic Games by Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse in 468 B.C., includes the following lines (3.23–62):

A long time ago, Croesus,
the ruler of horse-taming Lydia,
was saved by Apollo,
god of the lyre,
after Sardis was captured
by the Persian army,
whereby Zeus fulfilled
the judgment of fate.

Now that Croesus had reached
the day he had never expected,
he was not about to wait
for tearful slavery also. Instead,
in front of  his bronze-walled courtyard,
he had a pyre built up,
which he mounted,
along with his dear wife
and fair-tressed daughters,
weeping inconsolably.

Raising his hands
to the lofty sky above,
he exclaimed: “Almighty god,
where is the gods’ gratitude?
The palace of my father, Alyattes,
has fallen, my countless gifts to Delphi
have availed me naught,
my city is sacked by the Persians,
the waters of its river, Pactolus,
are reddened with blood,
and women are shamefully
dragged from our splendid houses.

What was hateful before,
now is most welcome:
Death is the sweetest desire.”
These were his words, and then
he ordered an agile attendant
to light the wooden pyre.
The girls cried aloud and reached out
with their hands to their mother.
For the death that can be seen approaching,
is the most bitter for mortals.
But when the burning force
of the terrible fire blazed up,
Zeus raised overhead,
the black cover of a cloud
and quenched the yellow flames.

Nothing that the will of the gods
has accomplished is beyond belief.
Then, Delos-born Apollo brought
the old man to the fabled Hyperboreans,
and left him there,
along with his lovely daughters,
because of his piety,
for he, of all mortals,
had sent the greatest gifts
to holy Delphi.

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