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Candaules, his wife and Gyges


The citadel of Sardes, seen from the west. Photo Jona Lendering.
The citadel of Sardes

Herodotus, The Histories 1.7-12 [1]

The sovereignty of Lydia, which had belonged to the [dynasty of the] Heraclids, passed into the family of Croesus, the Mermnads, in the following way.

Candaules, king of Sardes (the Greeks call him Myrsilus), was descended from Alcaeus, son of Heracles. His father was Myrsus, and he was the last of the Heraclids to reign at Sardes. [...] Candaules conceived a passion for his own wife, and thought she was the most beautiful woman on earth. To this fancy of his there was an unexpected sequel.

In the king's bodyguard was a fellow he particularly liked whose name was Gyges, son of Dascylus. With him Candaules not only discussed his most important business, but even used to make him listen to his eulogies of his wife's beauty.

One day the king (who was doomed to a bad end) said to Gyges: "It appears you don't believe me when I tell you how lovely my wife is. Well, a man always believes his eyes better than his ears; so do as I tell you - contrive to see her naked."

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Gyges gave a cry of horror. "Master," he said, "what an improper suggestion! Do you tell me to look at the queen when she has no clothes on? No, no: 'off with her shirt, off with her shame' - you know what they say of women. Let us learn from experience. Right and wrong were distinguished long ago - and I'll tell you one thing that is right: a man should mind his own business. I do not doubt that your wife is the most beautiful of women, so for goodness' sake do not ask me to behave like a criminal."

Thus he did his utmost to decline the king's invitation, because he was afraid of what might happen if he accepted it.

A Lydian. Relief from the eastern apadana stairs, Persepolis. Photo Marco Prins.
A Lydian offering tribute to the Persian king. Relief from the eastern stairs of the Apadana at Persepolis (more).

The king, however, told him not to distress himself. "There is nothing to be afraid of," he said, "either from me or my wife. I am not laying a trap for you; and as for her, I promise she will do you no harm. I'll manage so that she doesn't even know that you have seen her. Look: I will hide you behind the open door of our bedroom. My wife will follow me in to bed. Near the door there's a chair - she will put her clothes on it as she takes them off, one by one. You will be able to watch her with perfect ease. Then, while she's walking away from the chair towards the bed with her back to you, slip away through the door - and mind she doesn't catch you."

Gyges, since he was unable to avoid it, consented, and when bedtime came, Candaules brought him to the room. Presently the queen arrived, and Gyges watched her walk in and put her clothes on the chair. Then, just as she had turned her back and was going to bed, he slipped softly out of the room. Unluckily, the queen saw him.

At once she realized what her husband had done. But she did not betray the shame she felt by screaming, or even let it appear that she had noticed anything. Instead she silently resolved to have her revenge. [...] For the moment she kept her mouth shut and did nothing; but at dawn the next morning she sent for Gyges after preparing the most trustworthy of her servants for what was to come. There was nothing unusual in his being asked to attend upon the queen; so Gyges answered the summons without any suspicion that she knew what had occurred on the previous night.

"Gyges," she said, as soon as he presented himself, "there are two courses open to you, and you may may take your choice between them. Kill Candaules and seize the throne, with me as your wife; or die yourself on the spot, so that never again may your blind obedience to the king tempt you to see what you have no right to see. One of you must die: either my husband, the author of this wicked plot; or you, who have outraged propriety by seeing me naked."

For a time Gyges was too astonished to speak. At last he found words and begged the queen not to force him to make so difficult a choice. But it was no good: he saw that he really was faced with the alternatives, either of murdering his master, or of being murdered himself. He made his choice - to live.

"Tell me," he said, "since you drive me against my will to kill the king, how shall we set on him?"

"We will attack him when he is asleep," was the answer; "and on the very spot where he showed me to you naked."

All was made ready for the attempt. The queen would not let Gyges go or give him a chance of escaping the dilemma: either Candaules or he must die. Night came, and he followed her into the bedroom. She put a knife into his hand, and hid him behind the same door as before. Then, when Candaules was asleep, he crept from behind the door and struck.

Thus Gyges usurped the throne and married the queen.

[translation: Aubrey de Selincourt]

Notes

[1]
The entire story, with three actors, appears to be based on a play. We happen to know that there was indeed a Greek tragedy called Gyges, but it is uncertain whether this play is identical to the story by Herodotus.
 
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