This painting, created by an unknown 17th-century artist, was loosely inspired by a famous legend about Polycrates, ruler of the Greek island of Samos from around 540 to 522 BCE. Polycrates commanded a great fleet, and he put this naval power to use in the profitable but precarious game of manipulating the balance of power between rival states. These power-brokering ploys mainly concerned Persia and Egypt, both of which coveted and feared Samos’ strength at sea. Polycrates’ playing of both sides would come back to haunt him eventually, but he was able to pull it off for years, and during that heyday he was said to have been a man who had an abnormal share of luck. According to legend, Polycrates was so lucky in his prime that he and his allies feared that if his luck was not somehow contained, then his fortune might one day plummet to a deadly low. These concerns of luck and fortune are directly relevant to the painting featured above.
When Polycrates was aligned with the Egyptians, the allied pharaoh allegedly sent a letter of advice on the issue of Polycrates’ luck. In it, the pharaoh recommended that Polycrates take a beloved item that he held dear and cast it away forever. This personal sacrifice would supposedly moderate excessive luck. Polycrates agreed to this advice and chose an ornate ring to be the object that he would throw away. The ancient Greek historian, Herodotus (490-425/420 BCE), described what happened next in the legend:
“This was a signet-ring he used to wear, an emerald set in gold, the work of a Samian named Theodorus, the son of Telecles. Having decided that this was the thing to get rid of, he manned a penteconter, went aboard, and gave orders to put to sea. When the vessel was a long way off-shore, he took the ring from his finger, in full view of everyone on board, and threw it into the water. Then he rowed back, to the island, returned to his house, and lamented his lost treasure. Five or six days later it happened that a fisherman caught a fine big fish and thought it would make a worthy present for Polycrates…Polycrates’ servants cut up the fish, and found the signet-ring in its belly” (Herodotus, The Histories, 3.41-42).
This tale is re-created in the lower right corner of the painting, where Polycrates can be seen inspecting the fish in which the ring was found. The rest of the painting, however, was reserved by the artist for the complex layering of landscapes, waterscapes and cityscapes that can be seen stretching back toward the horizon. Polycrates stands before a river, which weaves its way through a beautiful scenery of forests, settlements and mountains.
As for the fate of Polycrates, he was initially pleased to find his prized ring returned, but the incident was quickly interpreted as an ill omen. Polycrates’ luck had apparently foiled the ritual, meaning that his fortunes would remain volatile. His luck finally reached its long-awaited crash after he ended his alliance with Egypt. Polycrates tried to align himself with Persia (which understandably did not trust him), but in the end, he was captured and executed by the Persians in 322 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- The Histories by Herodotus, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt and revised by John Marincola. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.