This bawdy painting, by the Dutch artist Nicolaas Verkolje (c. 1673-1476), was inspired by the ancient legends and myth of a man named Gyges, who reportedly lived in the 7th century BCE. Accounts differ about Gyges’ occupation, with some claiming that he was a shepherd, while others insist he was a military officer or a palace guardsman. Whatever the case, Gyges ultimately found himself embroiled in an awkward drama with his liege, King Candaules of Lydia.
Perhaps the most popular account of the legend about Gyges was the one preserved by the philosopher, Plato (c. 427-347 BCE). According to his account, Gyges or one of his kinsmen found a magical, invisibility-granting ring while exploring the wilderness. In his Republic, Plato wrote, “he eventually found that turning the bezel inwards made him invisible and turning it outwards made him visible. As soon as he realized this, he arranged to be one of the delegates to the king; once he was inside the palace, he seduced the king’s wife and with her help assaulted and killed the king, and so took possession of the throne” (Plato, Republic, 360a-b). Yet, as the figure representing Gyges in the painting in not wearing a noticeable ring, perhaps the artist opted for one of the other variants of the story. The historian, Herodotus (c. 490-425/420 BCE), for instance, claimed that a ringless Gyges was intentionally invited by King Candaules to take an intimate glimpse at the queen, who was unaware of her husband’s mischief. Herodotus narrated how the conversation between Candaules and Gyges might have unfolded, and then he went on to describe the ploy in action:
“‘There is nothing to be afraid of,’ he [Candaules] 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… 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. But the queen saw him” (Herodotus, The Histories, 1.9).
In this magicless second version, the queen was furious with her husband for exposing her to the stranger. In her fury, she confronted Gyges and told him that only one living man could see her robeless and therefore he needed to make a deadly choice—either take his own life, or kill King Candaules. Gyges took the second option. After killing the king and marrying the widowed queen, Gyges became the new ruler of Lydia. Whether or not this is how he really ascended to the throne, Gyges reportedly took power about the year 680 BCE, and ruled until his death around 652 BCE. He founded the Mermnad Dynasty of Lydian kings.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
- Republic by Plato, translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1994, 2008.