This painting, by the Flemish artist Caspar van den Hoecke (c. 1585-1641/1648), re-creates a legendary meeting between King Croesus of Lydia and the Athenian law-giver, Solon, who both flourished in the first half of the 6th century BCE. For information on the ancient story that inspired this scene, we can turn to the writings of Herodotus (c. 490-425/420 BCE) and Plutarch (c. 50-120 CE). Herodotus, in his Histories, wrote that “Solon left home and, after a visit to the court of Amasis [Ahmose II] in Egypt, went to Sardis to see Croesus. Croesus entertained him hospitably in the palace, and three or four days after his arrival instructed some servants to take him on a tour of the royal treasuries and point out the richness and magnificence of everything” (Herodotus, The Histories, 1.30). Plutarch’s later account is slightly different; he downplays the role of the servants to refocus the tale on the bejeweled figure of King Croesus. Plutarch wrote:
“[Croesus] was decked out with everything in the way of precious stones, dyed raiment, and wrought gold that men deem remarkable, or extravagant, or enviable, in order that he might present a most august and gorgeous spectacle. But when Solon, in this presence, neither showed any astonishment at what he saw, nor made any such comments upon it as Croesus had expected, but actually made it clear to all discerning eyes that he despised such vulgarity and pettiness, the king ordered his treasure chambers to be thrown open for the guest, and that he should be led about to behold the rest of his sumptuous equipment” (Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Life of Solon, 27.2-3).
Such is the scene that is playing out in the foreground of the painting. King Croesus, in his expensive regalia, points out to his guest the nearby hoard of treasures, which are haphazardly scattered over the table and floor. Solon, according to both Herodotus and Plutarch, acknowledged that Croesus had a great quantity of wealth, but instead of being impressed, Solon found the heaps of jewels and precious metals to be distasteful and dangerous. As the story goes, Solon tried to give Croesus a cautionary lesson on the wide-spread ancient Greek belief that great fortune can easily and unexpectedly plummet into terrible misfortune. This philosophy often was encapsulated by catchy sayings such as ‘don’t count a living person lucky or happy until they meet death with their wealth, happiness and reputation still unscathed.’ The Lydian king, however, did not take the lesson to heart; instead, he quite angrily expelled Solon from his court.
When Croesus’ luck, wealth and power ultimately did take a spectacular dive through the means of Cyrus the Great’s conquest of Sardis in 546 BCE, Croesus finally remembered Solon’s warnings. According to legend, Cyrus the Great of Persia decided to burn Croesus alive, and as the pyre was being lit, Croesus verbally lamented for all to hear that he wished he had listened to Solon. As told by Herodotus, “While Croesus was speaking, the fire had been lit and was already burning round the edges. The interpreters told Cyrus what Croeus had said, and the story touched him…made him change his mind and give orders that the flames should at once be put out…” (The Histories, 1.86). Caspar van den Hoecke re-created this later legend in the background of the painting (at the upper-right corner). According to legend, Cyrus ultimately spared Croesus’ life and kept him around as an advisor.
Written by C. Keith Hansley:
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.