Herodotos, bk 3, logos 9

Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.480-c.429 BCE): Greek researcher, often called the world's first historian. In The Histories, he describes the expansion of the Achaemenid Empire under its kings Cyrus the GreatCambyses, and Darius I the Great, culminating in Xerxes' expedition to Greece (480 BCE), which met with disaster in the naval engagement at Salamis and the battles at Plataea and Mycale. Herodotus' book also contains ethnographic descriptions of the peoples that the Persians have conquered, fairy tales, gossip, and legends.

Affairs on Samos (3.39-60 and 3.120-125 and 3.142-149)

Map of the Aegean world

Note: the eighth and ninth logoi are both divided in two pieces, which are grouped like ABAB.

The story of the rise and fall of Polycrates, the tyrant (= sole ruler) of Samos, is one of the most famous parts of The Histories. Herodotus first tells about his exceptional happiness. Even when he throws a precious ring into the sea, a fisherman will catch the fish that has swallowed the ring. The pharaoh Amasis, who is allied with Polycrates, thinks that a man who is so lucky will one day be punished by the gods, who are envious of human happiness. And this is, to him, sufficient reason to end the alliance. Nonetheless, Polycrates  is able to hold his position against a joint attack by the Spartans and the Corinthians.

After the illness of Cambyses and the two coups, the Persian satrap of Lydia, Oroetus, decides to terminate the rule of Polycrates, who is a dangerous man to have as an enemy. Promising money, he lures the tyrant of Samos to the continent, where the Samian leader, who had been the happiest of all human beings, is crucified. (Here, the story is told at greater length.) However, the Persian king Darius has Oroetus killed. Under his successor Otanes, the Persians occupy Samos.       


The story of the ring of Polycrates is a very common fairy tale, known from other cultures as well (e.g., the Dutch tell the story of the rich woman of Stavoren). But if we dismiss this, we still find a probable story. For example, we know that Polycrates' power was based upon his navy:

Polycrates was the first Greek we know of to plan the dominion of the sea [...] and he had high hopes of making himself master of Ionia and the islands.note

Polycrates' navy was paid for by the pharaoh, who must have seen Polycrates as a useful ally in the struggle against Persia. But Polycrates became dependent on his Egyptian ally, and when this source of income had dried up, the tyrant of Samos had to look elsewhere for money - exactly as Herodotus describes. The combination of ships plus silver was to be of great importance in the next century, as we shall see below.

To Herodotus, this story must have had special significance, because it is a fine illustration of his idea that the rich and powerful would sooner or later be tempted by the gods to do something that would cause their destruction.

This page was created in 1996; last modified on 25 January 2017.