fate pt 5: the fate of Polycrates

Nestled in the shadow of the Persian Empire was the island of Samos. The Samians were a proud people, good sailors. Now the rulership of Samos had fallen into the hands of one man, Polycrates, son of Aiaces, a king in all but name.

In those days the emerald waters of the eastern Aegean Sea were not yet completely ruled by the Great King of Persia. So this Polycrates, with his magnificent wealth, became the greatest of the seafaring kings. He had built for himself a fleet of one hundred warships, and an army of one thousand paid bowmen. Everywhere he sent his fleet he met with victory; he could rob any island he wanted, then return what he had stolen as a sign of friendship.

Far to the south of Samos, the Pharaoh Amasis of Egypt was such a friend of Polycrates. But having noticed that Polycrates was enjoying too much fortune for his own good, and himself knowing that fortune was fleeting (you see, Amasis had also been visited by Solon), Amasis sent his friend a letter.

‘Amasis says the following to Polycrates of Samos’, the letter read, ‘“It is very good to see my friend doing so well. But your good fortune worries me, because I know that fortune is fickle – far better for a man to enjoy good and bad fortune equally, than good fortune through and through! For there has never been a man who enjoyed only good fortune and did not come to utter ruin in the end. So do this: take what you treasure most dearly, something which for which you will mourn should you lose it. Then throw it away, so that you will never see it again. This should solve the problem of your unending good fortune.”’

Having read the letter, the advice of Amasis seemed good to Polycrates. So he found what he treasured the most; not his children nor his rulership, but a beautiful golden ring. He boarded one of his ships and ordered the crew to take him to the deepest part of the sea. When the ship finally stopped, Polycrates took the ring from his finger, and flung it into the ocean.

Now Polycrates was deeply saddened by the loss of this ring. But fortune returned it to him. Not long after a fisherman came to his court with a royal gift, the largest fish he had ever caught. “Your majesty, I did not think the market was the right place for such a fish, so here it is, a gift worthy of you!” Polycrates thanked the man for such a gift. But what was inside was even more wondrous. For when the cooks cut open the fish, there was Polycrates’ golden ring!

Polycrates was overjoyed of course to see his most valuable possession again. He thought that this could only have been the blessing of heaven, for how else could this have happened? So he sent a letter back to Pharaoh Amasis of Egypt, telling him of his most excellent fortune. And Amasis, having read the letter, decided that fate had already decided the end of Polycrates. A man who enjoyed such good fortune as Polycrates could not expect to meet a happy end, and no man could change what fate had already decided. So Amasis cut off his friendship with Polycrates, because he did not want to grieve for this friend when the time came for his ruin.

Ruin did find Polycrates at the very end. The Great King of Persia, worried by the growing power of the ruler of Samos, sent his governor Oroites to destroy him. This man, Oroites, knowing that Polycrates’ burning desire to rule the Aegean Sea was matched only by his greed, sent this letter to him: “Oroites says this to Polycrates of Samos: I hear that you have great plans, but I know that your wealth is beginning to dry up. So do as I tell you and you will benefit not only yourself but also me. For I know that the Great King wants me dead. Rescue me then from the king, and you can have a share of my wealth; it would be enough to make you the greatest ruler! If you do not believe me regarding my treasure, send one of your men here and he can see for himself.”

Polycrates was very pleased with this, because desire for power and gold can blind even great men. So he sent his steward Maeandrius to inspect Oroites’ riches. And this Maeandrius made the trip and returned not long after, reporting to Polycrates that indeed, the Persian’s riches were beyond belief. He had seen eight large chests filled to the brim with gold, and this was only a fraction of Oroites’ treasures! But Oroites had played a trick. The eight chests were filled, in fact, with stones, with gold only at the top. So Polycrates prepared to leave for Oroites’ palace, unaware of what awaited him.

The day Polycrates set sail, his daughter came to him. “Father, I beg you not to go!” she cried. “For heaven has sent me a vision in my sleep. I saw you raised up on high, bathed by heaven and anointed by the Sun!” Polycrates however would hear none of it. “Hinder me no more, daughter”, he said, “or else when I return safely I will make sure you remain unmarried for the rest of your life!”

She wept, “I would gladly have that, if only to see my father alive again.” But Polycrates paid the girl no heed and sailed off to Oroites.

Little can be said of what exactly Oroites did to Polycrates. It can only be said that the great ruler of Samos was killed in a way which did not befit his great achievements at all, though this was in the end the act of fate. His dead body was raised up on a gibbet, and the heavens bathed it in rain while the Sun anointed it with light, as his daughter had foretold. So Polycrates came to ruin after a life of fortune, as fate had decreed.

But this was only the start of evils for his city.

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