Polycrates’ ring

Polycrates’ ring

Eternal happiness is God’s privilege, in contrast, the fate of man is constant change with alternating and unpredictable passions, fortunes and feelings.

As Herodotus recounts, in a part (p. 39-43) of the third book of his Histories, the tyrant of Samos Polycrates, during  the years that he ruled ( probably 535-522 B.C.), had made the island an important naval force and commercial center accumulating great wealth, thus acquiring himself power and wealth as well. Within a short time, the power of Polycrates grew rapidly, and the whole world was talking about him, because wherever he moved his ships and his army, everything was in his favor, and a guaranteed success. Possessing a naval force of one hundred ships called “Samena” and a thousand archers, he was conducting raids and attacks, without any distinction, because, as he said, “I would oblige them (those that he attacked) more if I gave them back what I had taken, than if I had not taken anything from the outset”.

Polycrates’ ring, Chromolithography

The extreme success and happiness, however, according to the perceptions of the ancients, causes the “envy of the Gods”, which is why his friend, Amasis II (or Ammoses II), King of Egypt (570-526 BC famed for his thoughtful wisdom), wrote him a letter: “It is a true joy to learn that one of your friends, bound with a close friendship with you, is happy; but I don’t like your great fortunes because I know that they cause the envy of the Gods. That is why I want, and especially those that I love, in some things to have good luck, but sometimes to face some bad luck as well, and so that life passes with alternations, not constantly and only to be happy. Because I have not heard and I know of anyone who always lives in happiness and his life does not end in pain and misery. So trust me and do as I tell you. Look to find out what is most precious to you, something that if you lose it, your soul will hurt, and throw it away, never to be seen by a human eye again. And if it does happen so that your happiness and your sorrow does not begin to alternate again, continue every now and then with the same tactic”.

Polycrates’ ring, Copper engraving by Matthäus Merian 1630, later coloring

 Polycrates thought of Amasis’ advice and considered it correct, so he started looking for which one of his precious things would make him unhappy in case he lost it. Searching, he thought of the precious golden ring with an emerald seal that he wore, which Theodore, son of the Teleklis from Samos had crafted and gave to him as a present. After taking the decision to throw away his precious ring, he boarded a ship (Samena) and once he sailed away enough from the island, he pulled the ring from his finger and in front of the eyes of the entire crew threw it into the sea and then he sailed back to Samos feeling truly unhappy.

Polycrates’ ring, Albumen silver print by Josef Albert 1859–1862.

Five to six days later, some fishermen caught a big fish, which they felt was fit to offer it as a gift to Polycrates. When the palace servants prepared to cook the fish they found in its belly Polycrates’ shining ring! Once they saw it, they delivered it to Polycrates, explaining the way they found it. Polycrates considered it a “divine sign” and with great pleasure he wrote a letter to King Amasis, narrating him all that has happened regarding the ring.

Once Amasis read the letter, he understood that it is impossible for Polycrates to escape his destiny, since even if he tries to change his luck, it still remain the same.   Amasis, fearing that great sadness and pain would hit him as well,  after the certain calamity that the gods would send to his friend, sent a herald to Samos and told him to dispel the alliance and the friendship that bound them (although most likely the alliance was dissolved because Polycrates had sent help to king Cambyses when he attacked Egypt).

Polycrates’ ring, by Cornelis Massijs (possibly), 1520 – 1557

After a few years (in 522 B.C. probably), Polycrates was brutally murdered, falling into the trap of Orites, satrap of Asia Minor, who hated him, either because he had failed to conquer Samos or because Polycrates had disrespected a Persian ambassador. Orites, knowing Polycrates’ greed, asked him to help him smuggle the treasure of the king of Persia who was in danger, promising to give to Polycrates half of it. Polycrates, despite the advice of his friends and the prophecy of his daughter ( Herodotus says that she had seen a bad dream that foretold the death of her father), went to Sardis, capital of Lydia in Asia Minor, where Orites arrested him, skinned him alive and then crucified him.

Polycrates’ inglorious end was confirmation of King Amasis’ advice and the perception of the ancients that those who enjoy long, great and constant happiness, cause the envy of the gods, “Gods become jealous because eternal happiness is their own privilege”. In contrast, the fate of man is constant change with alternating and unpredictable passions, fortunes and feelings.

Τranslation Yiannis Koulas