Cyrus and the conquest of Lydia

Imperial Achaemenian Susian Shield Bearer Soldier -750

Being the King of the Persians and the Medes was no small thing, especially in the ancient Near East. A combined Media and Persia were an ancient superpower to be reckoned with. Cyrus had accomplished in his life what most other kings could only have dreamed of doing. Did he stop? Apparently not.

Cyrus, King of Anshan and Media

In the ancient world, most kings ruled territories comprised of people who were ethnically and/or linguistically similar to themselves. Those who spoke a different tongue, had a different culture, customs and worshiped different gods were either heavily taxed, forced into slavery, banished or sometimes simply terminated. The brutality that the ancient Assyrians displayed towards non-Assyrians and Babylonians is an example of this. 1

Cyrus had become the king of a united Persia and Media, kingdoms with people who both shared a common origin, history and whose mother tongues were quite similar. There was no real reason for him to aspire to anything beyond that. After all, wars against dissimilar peoples were fought by kings primarily for glory, plunder and sometimes self defense. From what we know of Cyrus’ personality as described by the Greek historians Xenophon and Herodotus (two people who had no love for Persian “barbarians” but clearly admired Cyrus), it is unlikely that Cyrus was initially considering the acquisition of many other areas in the region, at least not for sport or sheer ambition. In those days, there was no such thing as a world empire, only foreign territories to subdue and exploit.

We may never really know for certain if Cyrus initially had designs on the realms of his neighbors. What we do know is that his neighbors were alarmed at his relatively quick rise to power. The Lydian king Croesus was the first to act. For Croesus, it was both a matter of security as well as family honor. Astyages, the Median king who Cyrus had deposed, was married to Croesus’ sister.

Croesus of Lydia

The court of Croesus
The court of Croesus
Croesus was famous in the ancient Near East for being fabulously wealthy. He essentially controlled a good deal of the trade that took place between the Mediterranean and the rest of Asia. There used to be a phrase to describe an insanely wealthy person: “as rich as Croesus.” The Greeks who visited his capital city of Sardis would return with tales of his vast wealth and the splendor with which he lived his life.

In the year 547 or 546 BCE, Croesus decided to put his new upstart neighbor in his place. Knowing him, he probably looked down on the Medes because well, compared to him and his extravagant kingdom, they were simply lesser cultured horsemen of from the east. Good warriors, perhaps. Wealthy? Not really. The only reason he really had to tolerate them was because he was related to Astyages by marriage. Now that the latter’s authority had been swept aside by the presumably even poorer Persian prince Cyrus, a man who had the audacity to call himself a king, Croesus felt that he was no longer bound to an alliance with Media. As far as Croesus was concerned, Cyrus was a usurper. Thus, he decided to act and made preparations for war with Persia.

The Oracle of Delphi Speaks

Before making the necessary preparations for war, Croesus decided to consult an oracle to reassure himself that it was indeed wise to go to war with Persia. There were several famous oracle-temples in the ancient world, and he decided to test them all to see which one was the most trustworthy. He sent emissaries to several oracle-temples and told them to ask the seers at each one what it is that he would be doing exactly 100 days from their departure from his capital city, Sardis. Only the oracle in the Greek city-state of Delphi correctly foretold that he would be boiling a tortoise and a lamb in a bronze cauldron, which indeed he was doing 100 days later. Satisfied with the results of his test, Croesus sent his attendants back to the Oracle of Delphi and showered its staff with gifts of precious stones and ornaments made of gold and silver. He then had his messenger ask the question that was plaguing his mind: should he go to war with Cyrus and Persia. The oracle answered that if he crossed the Halys river, which was the old boundary between Lydia and Medea, he would destroy a great empire. Happy with the answer, he ordered his men to get ready for war.

Not everyone in Lydia was so sure of Croesus’ foretold victory over the Persians. One of his advisors is reported to have cautioned him to reconsider his actions. He is reported to have advised Croesus,

“My Lord, you are preparing to fight against men who dress in leather – both breeches and everything else. So rough is their country that they eat as much as they have, never as much as they want. They drink no wine but only water. They have no good things at all, not even figs for dessert. Now if you conquer this people, what will you get from them, seeng they have nothing for your to take? And if they conquer you, think how many good things you will lose.” 2

Croesus however was unconcerned, not only because of what the Oracle of Delphi had foretold, but also because logically speaking, he had the upper hand. After all, he and his allies of Babylonia and Egypt were old civilizations that were extremely rich whereas the Persians and the Medes were not. In fact, the Persians were barely even a state and without any glorious history of their own. It was not possible that they could muster enough support, even amongst themselves, to defeat an old and storied kingdom such as Lydia.

In 547 BCE, Croesus crossed the Halys river and marched into what is now Cappadocia, an area that had previously been under Median rule before Cyrus. He captured the Median fortress of Pteria and awaited for Cyrus and his army to come to him, which they did, making a 1,200 mile march from Susa in today’s southwestern Iran. The ensuing battle was bloody and without a clear victor and with massive casualties on both sides. Feeling that Cyrus’ army was larger than his own, the day after the battle he packed up his troops and left for Sardis. In his mind, the campaign could wait until the Spring, when he could also count on the help of his Babylonian, Egyptian and Spartan allies to assist him, as well as a fresh group of mercenaries from the Greek Ionian cities along the Mediterranean coast. Besides, armies typically did not campaign during the winter.

Cyrus however was not the typical or even traditional ruler. Waiting just long enough for Croesus to reach Sardis and pay his troops, Cyrus and his army then advanced at lightening speed and caught Croesus by surprise. Herodotus’s description is as follows:

“When Croesus started for home after the battle in Pteria, Cyrus was sure that he would disband his army as soon as he arrived; so after consideration he found that his best course was to press on to Sardis with all speed before the Lydian forces had time to muster again. This was no sooner determined than done. Indeed he was his own messenger – for so swift was his advance into Lydia that Croesus had no news that he was on the way.” 3

Croesus hastily reassembled his army including his calvary and lancers and went out to the plain of Thymbra in front of Sardis to confront the combined Persian and Median army. Cyrus though was not out of surprises. Herodotus further describes what happened next:

“The armies met on the level ground in front of Sardis; it is a broad expanse, bare of trees, and watered by the Hyllus and other streams which join another and a larger one called the Hermus. … When Cyrus saw the Lydians take up battle positions on this plain, his fear of their calvary led him to adopt a suggestion of Harpagus, one of the Medes; this was to get together all the camels (they were used as pack-animals to carry equipment and stores), unload them and mount men armed as cavalrymen on their backs. He then ordered them to advance as the first line of attack against the calvary of Croesus, with the infantry following and his own calvary bringing up the rear. … The reason for confronting the Lydian calvary with camels was the instinctive fear which they inspire in horses. No horse can endure the sight or smell of a camel. This is the fact upon which the stratagem was based, and its object was to render useless Croesus’ calvary, the very arm in which the Lydians expected to distinguish themselves. The ruse succeeded, for when the battle began, the horses turned tail the moment they smelt and saw the camels – and Croesus’ chief ground of confidence was cut from under him.” 4

His calvary rendered ineffective, Croesus and his troops withdrew back behind the walls of Sardis to wait out the Persian siege of the city. Croesus sent word to Sparta asking for reinforcements. Sardis was believed to be impregnable, and Croesus figured that he could withstand Cyrus’ siege of the city until his allies arrived.

On the 13th day of the siege, one of Cyrus’ soldiers observed something interesting on a part of Sardis’ wall that was lightly guarded because they were particularly steep. One of the Lydian soldiers had dropped his helmet but was able to retrieve it quickly and return to his post. The Persian soldier took note of the route the Lydian took and the following day led an attack up that particular part of the wall. Sardis was then captured and Croesus forced to surrender.

The Persian Empire after the conquest of Lydia.  Babylonia, looks like you're next...
The Persian Empire after the conquest of Lydia. Babylonia, looks like you’re next…

Tradition has it that in keeping with the local custom, Croesus prepared to have himself burned to death. Herodotus tells us that as the flames began to consume the pyre on which he was upon, Croesus muttered the name “Solon” three times. Cyrus was intrigued as to what this meant and asked his interpreters who replied that Solon was an Athenian who had warned Croesus of the transitory nature of good fortune (I’ll write about this story in future). Realizing that the same thing could happen to him one day, Cyrus was touched by Croesus’ plight and ordered that the flames be put out and Croesus spared. However, the flames could not be reversed and it appeared that Croesus’s body would be engulfed by the flames until he called out to the god Apollo to save him. Just then, dark clouds appeared in the sky and it began to rain heavily, which put out the flames. Seeing that Apollo approved of Croesus and that he was indeed a good man, Cyrus freed Croesus and made him one of his trusted advisors. Herodotus though was known to exaggerate tales and rely a lot on hearsay evidence for what he claims are facts. Thus, it is improbable that the events of Croesus’ final days in Sardis occurred as he stated.

Croesus the king of Lydia, getting ready to be consumed by fire as was the customary fate of defeated rulers
Croesus the king of Lydia, getting ready to be consumed by fire as was the customary fate of defeated rulers

However the the Nabonidus Chronicle, a cuneiform tablet describing the events of the years 556 – 539 BCE and believed to have been written around the time of and shortly after the Persian conquest of Babylonia (though this its date of origin has not been definitively proven), simply states that Cyrus marched against a country (believed to be Lydia), killed its king, took its possessions and left a garrison there.

Whatever the final fate of Croesus was, the fall and annexation of Lydia left only one real opposing power to the Persians in western Asia, that of the fabled Babylonians.

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