King Croesus (pronounced “kree-sus”) and his riches are still making news.
Oh, you didn’t know about Croesus?
Join the crowd.
And Croesus was rich. Gold deposits in the Pactolus River and an emphasis on mining filled his coffers to overflowing. He was the first to mint gold coins for trade, and became famous for his love of lucre.
As Cyrus the Persian grew stronger and began to build his empire, Croesus recognized the threat, made some alliances, and sallied forth in 547 BCE to do battle rather than waiting for Cyrus to come to him. He was encouraged in this by the Oracle of Delphi, who told him that the venture would result in the destruction of a great kingdom.
Alas, Croesus didn’t recognize that the kingdom to be destroyed was his own. After an inconclusive battle near the Halys River, Croesus did what most ancient leaders did and disbanded his army for the winter. Cyrus did not, however, and his forces soon overthrew Lydia and captured Croesus.
Tales of Croesus’ fortune grew even larger with time, so that in classical antiquity his name was synonymous with great wealth. In English, he became the subject of the proverbial simile “as rich as Croesus.”
I grew up hearing my grandmother use this expression and have often run across it in reading, but it appears to have fallen from use in popular culture. When I tell my Old Testament students about Cyrus’ conquests en route to defeating the Babylonians and allowing the Hebrew captives to return from exile, I always remark that he conquered Lydia and its wealthy King Croesus along the way.
I pause to point out that this was the very man who gave rise to the expression “as rich as Croesus,” thinking that I have enlightened my students in a delightful way.
Inevitably, the response has been a room full of blank faces. So far, I have yet to have a student admit to hearing the expression “rich as Croesus” — so I consider it part of their education to add it to their vocabulary.
And now to yours, dear reader, if you didn’t know it already.
So what made me think of King Croesus today? It turns out that a huge hoard of Croesus’ wealth was found and looted from burial mounds in western Turkey in 1965, then sold. By the 1980s, much of it had ended up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
In 1993, some of the treasure, including the beautifully wrought gold seahorse brooch pictured above, was repatriated to Turkey and put on display.
In 2006, according to a recent article in the Los Angeles Times, an anonymous tipster alerted authorities that the brooch on display was a fake: the museum director, Kazim Akbiyikoglu, had sold the original to pay gambling debts. Akbiyikoglu said he believed the brooch was cursed and was responsible for his losses, so apparently he didn’t feel badly about fencing it.
The real brooch has been found somewhere in Germany (its whereabouts and owner are being kept secret), and it will reportedly be returned to Turkey by the end of the year. Hooray for that.
But has the curse been broken? Will the brooch remain safe?
Who knows? — but if a few more readers learn the expression “as rich as Croesus,” at least the old king’s legacy will live a while longer.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.