Now King Croesus fancied himself the happiest man in the world. He ruled a powerful kingdom, he had magnificent wealth and a strong and brave son, Atys. But destruction was upon him.
One night Croesus had a dream: he saw Atys killed with a spear. Terrified, he took away all the weapons in the young man’s room (in case one might fall and kill him). He forbade his son to fight in war, and had him marry a woman and stay at home. Croesus was proud of staying one step ahead of fate. His son was safe.
One day some of his subjects came to Sardis begging for help. A monstrous boar had appeared near their homes, they said, and was destroying everything. “Please, Sire,” they pleaded, “Send us your brave son along with some hunters and hunting dogs to get rid of the beast!”
“I will certainly not send my son,” replied Croesus. But he was not a heartless king. “I will however send you picked hunters and dogs to help you get rid of this boar.”
When Atys learned of what his father had done, he could stand it no longer. He said, “Father, why do you keep me away from what men ought to do? I am not allowed to fight, and now I am not allowed to hunt, either! What would my wife think of me? What would the whole kingdom think of me?”
Croesus explained, “My son, no one thinks you are a coward. But I am doing this for your own good.” And he explained the dream to Atys, and how his fear for his son had led him to do what he had done.
“But father, surely I will be safe on this hunt”, Atys said. “Boars do not wield spears. And since your dream said that I would be killed with a spear, there is nothing to fear from this boar. So let me go on this hunt.”
Croesus agreed, and sent Atys along with the hunters. But he told the hunters to watch out for Atys, in case he should be attacked by bandits, who do wield spears.
Not long after, a messenger returned with news of the hunt. Atys was dead.
The messenger told of how they had found the boar, a truly monstrous beast. They had surrounded it and thrown their spears at it. And as fate would have it, one of the hunters missed the boar but struck Atys, killing him. Croesus was devastated. Heaven had taken away what he had thought his happiness. And worse was to come.
For two years King Croesus mourned for his son. Then he heard that King Cyrus of the Persians had conquered the kingdom of Media. This young boy, thought Croesus, had to be stopped. But first he asked the Oracle of Delphi, “Should I make war on King Cyrus?” To this the Oracle replied, “Should you make war on King Cyrus, you will destroy a great kingdom.” Croesus was overjoyed with the answer, and prepared his army for war.
Less than a year later, a great kingdom indeed lay destroyed. But it was not Persia, but Lydia. Croesus was captured and tied to a stake, about to be burned to death by Cyrus. As he stood waiting for the end, Croesus lamented what had happened. The war had been full of surprises: the Persians had suddenly arrived at the gates of Sardis, catching the Lydian army off guard; Cyrus had sent camels against the Lydian knights, frightening their horses and destroying them; and Sardis was seized in less than two weeks because the Persians had found a way to scale the walls without being noticed. Now Sardis, the jewel of Asia, was being ravished, and her king, once the happiest man in the world, was about to die.
Suddenly Croesus remembered Solon’s words: only a man who dies happily is truly happy. He gave a loud and bitter cry, and shouted Solon’s name three times. Cyrus came forward and asked who this Solon was. “Solon was a man who should have spoken to every king in the world,” Croesus replied. And he explained to Cyrus what Solon had taught him.
King Cyrus now realised that Croesus was a good man, who had once been a great king, just as Cyrus was now. So he freed Croesus and became his friend. Cyrus asked, “Croesus, why did you fight me instead of becoming my friend?” To this Croesus replied, “O King, heaven fooled me into making war on you. But the fault is mine for hearing the Oracle and acting without second thought.”
So Croesus, who had once thought himself the happiest man in the world, was destroyed. But he had learned to look toward the end in all things, and so he himself became a wiseman, who knew what heaven could do to men.