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Ditior Croeso

Original post date: Monday, October 23, 2006

In English: Richer than Croesus.

This is a proverb that I think is still fairly current in English. At least, I've heard people use this comparison, so presumably they know at least that Croesus must have been very rich in order to merit a proverbial status like this.

But what else do they know about Croesus? I'm guessing this is like the phrase "sour grapes," where people might know what the saying means, without knowing the story behind it. So to fill in what I suspect is a gap in people's knowledge, I'll tell the story of Croesus in today's blog post.

Croesus is a figure from distant antiquity whose story is already told in the old histories of Herodotus. Croesus was the king of Lydia (in modern Turkey) in the 6th century B.C.E. until he was defeated by the Persians in 547 B.C.E.

Croesus was famous for having befriended Solon, one of the legendary "seven sages" of ancient Greece. Although Croesus was immensely wealthy and powerful, Solon warned him about the fickleness of fortune: "It is necessary to see how the end of every affair turns out," Solon told him, "for heaven promises fortune to many people and then utterly ruins them."

When Croesus was preparing to attack the Persians, he is supposed to have consulted Apollo's oracle at Delphi and was told: "If Croesus crosses the Halys River (boundary of Lydia and Persia), a great empire shall fall." Of course, Croesus assumed that this meant he would topple the Persian empire, but the opposite is what ensued. Croesus was the one whose empire fell.

After his defeat, the Persian king Cyris supposedly put Croesus upon a pyre. As the flames began to burn, Croesus spoke the name "Solon, Solon, Solon" remembering the wise words Solon had spoken to him about the fickleness of fortune. Cyrus was impressed by this and ordered that the pyre be extinguished, but the flames were already burning out of control. Croesus then called upon Apollo in prayer, and this caused rainclouds to suddenly appear and douse the flames. This made a tremendous impression on Cyrus, and he pardoned Croesus, appointing him to be a royal advisor.

So, while Croesus was proverbial for his wealth, the real lesson of the story of Croesus was that wealth is something insubstantial and fleeting.

And yes, I have posted this proverb in honor of the sentencing of Enron's Jeff Skilling, who was sentenced today to 24 years in prison, which I think might be considered the modern equivalent of being put on a pyre. I wonder if Jeff Skilling has reached the same conclusions that Croesus did about the ultimate meaning of extravagant wealth. (For more on Enron and wisdom about wealth, see my previous posts about Enron's Ken Lay and Andrew Fastow.)

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

611. Ditior Croeso.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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