Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Beginning of History: A Naked Woman, The First Coin and a King who believed himself to be Fortunate

In July of 2015 I visited Turkey for two weeks, enjoying the historical ruins of that magnificent country. Although I visited the standard attractions in Istanbul, Ephesus and Cappadocia, the best day of my travel was a place isolated from the larger urban centers. One hot summer morning I took a bus and stopped in the middle of a road in order to walk some 3 kms to ancient Sardis. After a long walk which passes through a small town we reach the Temple of Artemisia, one of the most beloved goddesses of the ancient Hellenic peoples and their West Asian neighboring civilizations. This temple has been reconstructed only with stones found in site, therefore we can have an authentic feeling of what it was like in older times. The photos below are from my visit to the temple, with one including me. As you see these isolated ruins do not have any tourists besides me, being are ideal for those who wish to escape the crowds.

Now these ruins introduce us to the very first few pages of the earliest history book, “The Histories” of Herodotus! I received such a book as a birthday gift from my twin brother some 10 years ago and its lessons were not wasted on me. The Histories is a fantastic book in three dimensions at the very least: 1) it is a serious History treatise in which the author separates facts and sources from mere tale, legend and hearsay, posing well-grounded comments on what is known with more certainty and what is more doubtful; 2) it includes an anthropological and ethnographic narrative of the ancient peoples of Herodotus time (5th century BC) and their customs; and 3) a geographical description of the eastern Mediterranean world and its natural phenomena such as the flood of the Nile, the Ukrainian/Caucasian steppes and the river Danube. Therefore Herodotus is the founder of three sciences: History, Anthropology and Geography.

Furthermore, Herodotus wrote with great flair and style. This man did not receive government grants or visit universities full of boring academics. He was a serious scholar and yet one who travelled from town to town reading excerpts of his book and living from the support of ordinary people. Therefore instead of using a dry language Herodotus wrote the most profound tales with a beauty many novelists and poets today could envy!

Well, the beginning of Herodotus’ work is truly just like the title of my post. His story starts with the oldest kings of whom he knew accurate facts. In the 8th century BC Candaules was king of Lidia, a region in west Asia. The Lidians were a people known by their civilized culture and beautiful horses, worshipping gods similar to their Greek neighbors. Candaules tells his friend Gyges that his queen is the most beautiful woman in the world. The king hides Gyges behind the entrance to the royal quarters, so that his friend can spy on the naked queen after her bath and ascertain the truth of his words. Unfortunately, the Queen realizes there was a second man who escaped the room and in the following day orders Gyges to her presence. Since no man was allowed to see the queen in a state of nakedness and the previous event represented a shame for her honor, the Queen poses two options to Gyges: either kill himself or kill her husband, becoming himself her new spouse and king. Gyges begs not to choose between two terrible acts, but the Queen is adamant and Gyges ends up killing his friend Candaules and becoming the new king. The Lidian people is scandalized and a group of citizens goes to Delphi to consult the oracle. Apollo’s priest answers that Gyges shall be King of Lidia, but at the end of five generations the vengeance of the god will fall on the house of Gyges.
Gyges, his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren become great rulers, conquering many of the neighboring cities and kingdoms. Furthermore, the Lidians open mines of gold and silver, becoming the first people to make coins! Although the world had currency instruments such as written tablets before then, it was indeed the Lidians who invented those small metal circles we all carry in our pockets. Their coins were neither of pure silver or gold, but of a mixed alloy called electrum. I show an ancient Lidian coin with their traditional lion in front. You can see pics of Lidian coins here or here or here, with all heads showing lions or a lion and bull pair.

No one remembers a curse after 150 years. Croesus, a descendant of Gyges, is now King and even wealthier than his predecessors, being the first king to issue gold coins! Below I show photos of the ruins of a gold mine (left) and an electrum factory (right) from my visit to Sardis.

Croesus’ fame and power reach far and wide over the East Mediterranean sea. He receives the famous philosopher Solon, a mysterious wise man who laid down the constitutional laws of ancient Athens. The king asks his wise guest whether he is or not the most fortunate man in the world, but Solon answers that fortune may come and go and that men is at the mercy of unpredictable disasters. Indeed one man may know such a disaster at the end of his life that the event wipes away his fondest memories. Unpersuaded by his guest, Croesus lets Solon go. Several years later Croesus loses his only male son in a boar hunt.

Afterwards Lidia faces an invasion from a new eastern empire, Persia. Croesus seeks Apollo’s advice, receiving an apparently auspicious answer “By initiating the war you will end a great empire”. Croesus, after a battle ending in a tie, retreats to Lidia, but he is followed by the Persians who take over his kingdom and reach his capital, Sardis, where Croesus is preparing to immolate himself in a funeral pyre. Cyrus, the Persian King, orders that Croesus must be saved from the flames, but over the following days his prisoner only repeats the words “Solon, Solon, Solon”. After calming Croesus and hearing his story, Cyrus understands that Fortune is ever changing and turns Croesus into one of his most trusted advisers.
After the Persians came the Macedonians and then the Romans, who moved the city one mile away from its original site. Above is my photo of the Imperial Temple of the ancient roman Sardis.


  1. 1/ Artemisia was also the name of the Greek Admiral who was leading the Persian Dareius'es fleet against Athens , though defeated at MARATHON.

    2/ There is a notorious Greek say: ΜΗΔΕΝΑ ΠΡΟ ΤΟΥ ΤΕΛΟΥΣ ΜΑΚΑΡΙΖΕ=Do not beautify anybody before his very end. This is what Solon allegedly advised Croesus. He was damned right.

  2. The name of the godess was actually Artemis (Άρτεμις) and her temple in Ephesus was called Artemision (Αρτεμίσιον). Her name was also given to a month of various Greek calendars (ancient Greeks didn't use the same calendar and month names throughout the Greek world but every city or region had its own calendar), f.i. Artemision (Αρτεμισιών) in the Ephesian calendar and Artemisisios (Αρτεμίσιος) in the Macedonian one. An inscription of the temple of Ephesian Artemis reads as follows:

    "Forasmuch as it is notorious that not only among the Ephesians, but also everywhere among the Greek nations, temples are consecrated to her, and sacred precincts, and that she hath images and altars dedicated366 to her on account of her plain manifestations of herself, and that, besides, the greatest token of veneration paid to her, a month is called after her name, by us Artemision, by the Macedonians and other Greek nations and their cities, Artemisius, in which month general gatherings and festivals are celebrated, and more especially in our own city, the nurse of its own, the Ephesian goddess."
    (ἐπειδὴ ἡ προεστῶσα τῆς πόλεως ἡμῶν θεὸς Ἄρτεμις οὐ μόνον ἐν τῇ ἑαυτῆς πατρίδι τ̣ε̣ιμᾶται, ἣν ἁπασῶν τῶν πόλεων ἐνδοξοτέραν διὰ τῆς ἰδίας θειότητος πεποίηκεν, ἀλλὰ καὶ παρ̣ὰ̣ Ἕλλησίν τε κα̣ὶ̣ βα̣ρ̣β̣ά̣ρ̣οις, ὥστε πανταχοῦ ἀνεῖσθαι αὐτῆς ἱερά τε καὶ τεμένη, ναοὺς δὲ αὐτῇ τε εἱδρύσθαι καὶ βωμοὺς αὐτῇ ἀνακεῖσθαι διὰ τὰς ὑπ’ αὐτῆς γεινομένας ἐναργεῖς ἐπιφανείας, καὶ τοῦτο δὲ μέγιστον τοῦ περὶ αὐτὴν σεβασμοῦ ἐστιν τεκμήριον, τὸ ἐπώνυμον αὐτῆς εἶναι μῆνα καλούμενον παρ̣’ ἡ̣μῖν μὲν Ἀρτεμισιῶνα, παρὰ δὲ Μακεδόσιν καὶ τοῖς λοιποῖς ἔθνεσιν
    τοῖς Ἑλληνικοῖς καὶ ταῖς ἐν αὐταῖς πόλεσιν Ἀ̣ρτεμίσιον, ἐν ᾧ μηνὶ πανηγύρεις τε καὶ ἱερομηνίαι ἐπιτελοῦνται, διαφερόντως δὲ ἐν̣ τῇ ἡμετέρᾳ πόλει τῇ τροφῷ τῆς ἰδίας θεοῦ τῆς Ἐφεσί-