Note: The chapter numbers in brackets indicate chapters I omitted; brackets around ellipses within the text indicate shorter omissions. I. Herodotus’ Introduction to his Work



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The Story of Croesus

(from Book 1 of Herodotus)

Excerpted and translated by Peter Aicher

to accompany the article “Herodotus and the Vulnerability Ethic in Ancient Greece” (Arion 21.2, Fall 2013)
Note: The chapter numbers in brackets indicate chapters I omitted; brackets around ellipses within the text indicate shorter omissions.
I. Herodotus’ Introduction to his Work (Chapters 1-5)
Herodotus of Halicarnassus here makes public his investigations into things past, in order that the remembrance of human events may not wither away with the passage of time, and so that the great and astonishing deeds of Greeks and barbarians alike may have the fame that is their due, beginning with the cause of the great war between them.
Persian chroniclers say it was the Phoenicians who were initially responsible for the conflict, and give the following account of its origins.

After the Phoenicians migrated to the Mediterranean from the Erythraean Sea and settled in the land they still inhabit, they immediately began their long-distance trading, shipping goods from Egypt and Assyria to a number of ports, including Argos, which was then the preeminent polis in the land we now call Greece.

The trouble began (say the Persians) on one of these trading missions to Argos, when the Phoenicians were displaying their merchandise alongside their ships. After five or six days in port, when almost all of the goods had been sold, a group of Argive women came down to the shore led by the daughter of Inachus, who was the Argive king; her name, according to both Greek and Persian accounts, was Io. While the women were milling around the stern of the ship, examining the merchandise and bargaining for items that captured their fancy, the Phoenician sailors made a run for them, spurring each other on with shouts. Most of the women were able to escape, but the sailors managed to seize Io along with several others. Stowing them on board one of the ships, they sailed off to Egypt.

Such is the Persian as opposed to the Greek account of how Io came to Egypt and they reckon her abduction to be the beginning of the wrong-doings. After this (the Persian account continues) some Greek sailors—though unidentified, one can surmise they were from Crete—put in at the Phoenician city of Tyre and abducted Europa, also the daughter of a king. Up to this point, it was an eye for an eye, say the Persians, who judge the Greeks guilty of the second violation when, after sailing a war-ship across the Black Sea to Colchis to acquire the Golden Fleece, they made off with the king’s daughter Medea. The king of the Colchians sent a herald to demand both the return of his daughter and reparation for her abduction. The Greeks responded that the barbarians had not given any reparation for the abduction of Argive Io: nor would the Greeks give recompense for Medea.

A generation later, Alexander, the son of Priam, heard these stories and wished to acquire a Greek wife by abduction, believing that he would not have to pay any penalty: the Greeks, after all, had gotten away with the abduction of Europa. Accordingly, he stole Helen. The first response of the Greeks was to send messengers to demand Helen’s return along with reparations, but when they made their claims, the Trojans cited the theft of Medea: the Greeks had neither paid restitution nor returned her, and here they were demanding satisfaction from others.

Up until this point the offenses were limited to the mutual theft of women, say the Persians, but they insist that the Greeks bear most of the blame for what followed, since the Greeks invaded Asia before the Persians invaded Europe. Although the abduction of women, the Persians reason, is the work of lawless men, an eagerness to begin hostilities over the loss of a woman is the mark of foolish men; sensible men would pay these women no further regard, since it is clear that if the women themselves had been unwilling, they would never have been abducted in the first place. Accordingly, they themselves took no account of the women stolen from Asia, and yet the Greeks, because of a single woman from Sparta, launched an entire fleet, sailed to Asia, and destroyed the power of Priam. From this point forward the Persians considered the Greeks to be their enemies, in light of the Persian claim that Asia and all the barbarian tribes who inhabit it, including the people of Priam, are part of their own domain, while Europe and Greece are a separate part of the world.

Such are the origins of the war according to the Persians, who trace their hatred of the Greeks to the sack of Troy. […] I myself will not attempt to parse the truth and falsehood of these accounts, but will begin instead by identifying the person I know in fact was responsible for beginning the injustices against the Greeks, and will go forward from there with my history, taking into account cities both large and small. Many great cities of the past have since become small, and those that grew to be great in my own day were small in the past, so I will make mention of both, being fully aware that human prosperity does not abide in one place forever.
II. The family background of Croesus: Gyges and Candaules (Chapters 6-14)
Croesus was a Lydian by birth and the son of king Alyattes. He ruled over all the peoples west of the Halys River, which flows north between Syria and Paphlagonia and empties into the Black Sea. This Croesus was, to our knowledge, the first barbarian ruler to subjugate some of the Greeks and force them to pay a tribute—these were the Ionians, Aeolians, and Dorians dwelling in Asia [Minor]—as well as the first to make an alliance with other Greeks, namely the Spartans. Before the rule of Croesus, all the Greeks were free. (The Cimmerian invasion of Ionia, it is true, occurred before Croesus, but the Cimmerians simply plundered on the fly and did not subjugate any Greek cities.)

The rule of Lydia once belonged to the descendants of Heracles but passed on to the family of Croesus, the Mermnadae, in the following manner. Candaules, whom the Greeks call Myrsilus, was tyrant of the Lydian city of Sardis and a descendant of Alcaeus, the son of Hercules. […] The family descended from the union of Hercules and a slave girl belonging to Jordanus, and they ruled for twenty-two generations, 505 years, with each son receiving the kingship from his father until Candaules, son of Myrsus, ended his family’s rule.

This Candaules happened to be in love with his own wife, to such an extent that he imagined her the most beautiful woman in the world. And since Candaules was in the habit of sharing his most pressing concerns with his favorite bodyguard, Gyges, son of Dascylus, he also raved about his wife’s beauty in Gyges’ presence. Not long after this behavior began (since it was fated that things go badly for Candaules in the end), he had the following conversation with his bodyguard.

“I suspect, Gyges,” Candaules said, “that you are not entirely convinced when I tell you how beautiful my wife is. Since the human eye is a more trustworthy witness than the human ear, I want you to see her naked somehow, with your own eyes.”

Gyges was horrified. “Master,” he cried out, “How can you order me to do something so outrageous! See my Queen naked?! When a woman takes her clothing off, her dignity goes with it. The rules of proper behavior were discovered long ago, and we ignore them at our peril. Among them is this rule: keep your eyes on what is yours. And as a matter of fact, I do believe your wife is the most beautiful woman in the world. So I beg you: do not command me to do something so indecent.”

Gyges tried in this manner to escape from the king’s proposal, dreading the possible consequences to himself. Candaules, however, persisted. “Courage, Gyges; I’m not asking you to do this just to test you, in case you are worried about that. And there is no need to fear that my wife will do you any harm: I have a plan that guarantees she will have no idea that she is being watched. All I have to do is station you behind the open door to our bedroom. When I come to bed, my wife will follow. Since there is a chair near the door where she puts her clothes one by one as she undresses, you can gaze on her at leisure. Then, when she turns her back to the chair to walk to the bed, see to it that you slip out the door undetected.”

Seeing no way to avoid doing what his king commanded, Gyges agreed. Candaules, when he judged the hour for bed had arrived, led Gyges into the bedroom, followed a short time later by the queen herself. Gyges saw her come in and watched her as she took off her clothes. Then when the woman’s back was turned, he slipped out from behind the door and left the room. Unknown to Gyges, however, Candaules’ wife had seen him leave.

The queen knew at once that this was the work of her husband. Rather than screaming out, however, or showing any awareness that she’d been shamed, she determined instead to make her husband pay for the outrage. (One must understand that among the Lydians as well as among almost all other non-Greek peoples, it is a great humiliation for even a man to be seen naked.) And so she kept quiet and revealed nothing that night. As soon as morning came, however, she gathered her most trusted servants and briefed them on her intentions. Then she summoned Gyges. Accustomed to come whenever the queen called and not suspecting that she knew anything about his violation, Gyges reported as usual.

“Gyges,” the woman said, “there are two paths open to you, and I will let you choose between them: either you kill Candaules, marry me, and assume the kingship of the Lydians, or you yourself must die, right here and right now. Whichever way you choose, in the future you will not, out of blind obedience to Candaules, be looking at things that you should not see. Let me be clear: either the one who planned these things will die, or you will die, as payment for the crime of seeing me naked.”

At first, Gyges stood speechless, stunned by her words. Then he begged. The queen was deaf to his pleas to be released from such a choice. Finally, realizing that he faced the choice of either killing the king or of being killed himself by the queen’s guard, Gyges chose to live.

“Since you are forcing me, against my will, to kill my king … just how were you thinking of doing it.”

“The attack will take place” the queen replied, “in the same place he exposed me naked: you will murder him in his bed.”

The two of them made their preparations, and when night fell, Gyges, seeing no way out of his dilemma, having to kill or be killed, and granted no reprieve by the queen, followed her into the bedroom, where she gave him a dagger and hid him behind the all-too-familiar door. After Candaules had come to bed and fallen asleep, Gyges crept out and murdered him, thereby acquiring in one stroke both the wife and kingdom of Candaules. (This is the same Gyges about whom Archilochus of Paros, a contemporary of his, has written in iambic trimeters.)

Gyges’ position as king was strengthened by the Delphic oracle. The Lydians, as might be expected, considered the murder of Caudaules a grave offense and took up arms, but then came to the following agreement with the faction that supported Gyges: if the Delphic oracle should declare him king of the Lydians, he would so rule; if not, they would restore the kingship to the Heraclidae. In the event, the oracle spoke for Gyges, and he accordingly became the king. The Pythia did add this, however: “Retribution will come upon the fifth generation of Gyges’ descendants.” It was a prediction that the Lydians and their kings forgot about until it was fulfilled.

Such was the manner in which the Mermnadae deprived the Hericlidae of power and gained it for themselves. When Gyges secured the kingship, he sent many votive offerings to Delphi; no one, in fact, dedicated more silver objects there than Gyges. He also sent countless gold offerings, the most worthy of mention being the six gold mixing bowls, which together weigh 1,800 pounds. These are housed in the Treasury of Corinth, although strictly speaking they are not in the public treasury of the Corinthians, but in that of the Corinthian tyrant Cypselus, son of Eetion. To my knowledge, Gyges was the first non-Greek to send offerings to Delphi, except for King Midas of Phrygia, son of Gordias, who dedicated his judgment throne. This is well worth seeing, and stands next to the mixing bowls of Gyges. The people at Delphi refer to all of the gold and silver offerings sent by Gyges as “the Gygian collection,” after their dedicator.
[15-25]1
III. Solon’s visit to Croesus (Chapters 26-33)
[Five generations later,] upon the death of Alyattes, his son Croesus inherited the throne of Lydia at the age of thirty-five. This is the Croesus who began the hostilities against the Greeks, conquering first the Ephesians [... ] and proceeding to attack the other Ionian and Aeolian cities one by one on various grounds, leveling serious charges against them if there were any at hand and citing trivial ones if there weren’t. After the mainland Greeks of Asia Minor had been subdued and forced to pay tribute, Croesus made plans for the creation of a navy, intending to take over the islanders as well. When construction of the ships was about to begin, it is said that Bias of Priene, while on a visit to Sardis, put a halt to the whole plan (some say it was not Bias, but Pittacus of Mytiline, who was also one of the Seven Sages). Asked by the king if there was any news to report from Greece, the Greek sage replied, “The islanders, your Majesty, are building a force of 10,000 horse and intend to mount a land attack against you and Sardis.”

Croesus took Bias’s words at face-value. “Islanders riding against the sons of Lydia on horse?! I can only hope the gods have put such an idea in their heads!”

“Your Majesty,” Bias responded, “you seem quite eager to engage islanders on horseback, and reasonably so. But do you think that the islanders, ever since they have heard you were planning to construct a fleet to sail against them, are any less eager to engage Lydians on ships? If that happened, they might well avenge your enslavement of the mainland Greeks!” Croesus took his point; he canceled the construction of the navy and came to friendly terms with the Ionian Greeks who inhabited the islands. Eventually, however, almost all the mainland people west of the Halys River fell under the domination of Croesus. […]

While Sardis was at the pinnacle of its prosperity, all of Greece’s leading scholars found one reason or another to visit the wealthy city, including, most importantly for my narrative, Solon of Athens. Solon had already instituted his series of laws he drew up for the Athenians at their request, and was now traveling abroad for ten years. His stated reason for leaving Athens was to see the world; in truth he also left home so that the Athenians had no chance to compel him to nullify any of the laws he established—nor could they change them in his absence, since they had taken solemn oaths to abide for ten years by whatever laws Solon might enact for them. For this reason, in addition to sightseeing, Solon first went to Egypt to visit the court of Amasis, and then to Sardis and the court of Croesus.

Croesus welcomed Solon and entertained him in the royal palace as his guest. Three or four days after his arrival, Croesus instructed his servants to take Solon on a tour of the treasuries to display all of his vast wealth (panta… megala te kai olbia).2 After Solon had a chance to see and assess everything, Croesus took the first available opportunity to put the following question to him: “So, my Athenian friend: you have a great reputation here, both for your wisdom and on account of your travels throughout much of the world in your search for knowledge. I would like to know if you have an answer to a question of mine: is there any one person you could single out as the most prosperous (olbiotatos) of all?”

Although Croesus asked the question expecting to hear that he himself was the most prosperous human on earth, Solon dispensed with flattery and told the king what he really thought: “Your Majesty, that person would have to be Tellus of Athens.”

The answer surprised Croesus. In a somewhat more commanding tone he asked, “What makes you say this Tellus was the most prosperous?”

“In the first place,” Solon answered, “he lived in a prospering city and not only had good and beautiful children, but lived to see children born to each of them as well, all of whom survived him. Moreover, after a life-time of plenty—at least according to Greek standards—the end of his life was distinguished by glory: during a battle between the Athenians and their neighbors in Eleusis, Tellus died bravely after leading a charge that routed the enemy. The Athenians gave him the great honor of a funeral at public expense and a burial site where he had fallen in battle.”

Solon’s review of the numerous riches in Tellus’s life provoked the king to ask him who the second most fortunate person was, figuring he had to be at least second on Solon’s list.

“Cleobis and Biton,” Solon said instead. “And this is my reasoning: in addition to being born in Argos, where they enjoyed a comfortable living, these young men had exceptional physical strength, and both of them were prize-winning athletes. And there is more, as the following story will show.

“During a festival in Argos in honor of Hera, the mother of Cleobis and Biton, a priestess of Hera, was required by ritual to travel to the temple in a wagon. When the time came to depart, however, their oxen had not yet returned from the fields. Eventually the trio could wait no longer. Yoking themselves to the wagon, her sons pulled their mother the entire way to the temple—a distance of more than five miles.

“This feat was witnessed by the entire community and was followed by the finest possible conclusion to a life—an occasion whereby the god also revealed how much better it is for a human being to die than to live. While the Argive men crowded around the young men and congratulated them on their strength, and the women congratulated their mother for having such fine boys, their mother, in a flush of joy over the deed and all its praise, prayed in the presence of the statue of Hera that the goddess grant to Cleobis and Biton, sons who had brought such great honor to their mother, the greatest blessing a mortal can hope to receive. After this prayer, the Argives performed sacrifices and feasted, and the two young men fell asleep right there in the temple and never awoke; death took them where they were. In commemoration of their excellence, the people of Argos fashioned statues of the pair and dedicated these at Delphi.”

When Solon awarded the second place of happiness (eudaimonie) to these brothers, Croesus could not contain his irritation. “Do you mean to tell me, Athenian guest, that my own happiness (eudaimonie) is of so little worth in your eyes that I rank below even ordinary citizens?”

Solon replied: “You are asking someone who understands how envious and how eager divinity is to cause chaos in human affairs. In the length of a life there is much to see that one would rather not see, and much to suffer as well. I calculate that the average span of a human life is 70 years. These 70 years comprise 25,200 days, not counting the intercalary months; and if you figure that every second year needs the addition of an intercalary month so that the calendar stays on track with the seasons, you must add to those 70 years another 35 months, which comes to an additional 1,050 days. The average life, then, will have a total of 26,250 days. Now in all this time, not a single day can possibly contain the same experiences as any other day. And from this, Croesus, you can see how totally a thing of accident and chance (symphore) we humans are.

“You, Croesus, are obviously a very rich person, and king over a great many men. Even so, I cannot judge your happiness until I have seen your life in its entirety and witness that it has ended well. You see, even the richest man is no happier (olbioteros) than one who lives on what he earns one day to another, unless good fortune should also attend his days until he dies with his prosperity intact. But in fact, the lives of many very wealthy people are full of misfortune, while the lives of many people of modest means are full of good luck. Someone who is rich but unlucky has only two advantages over a lucky person, whereas someone who is lucky has numerous advantages over a person who is wealthy but unfortunate. The rich, it is true, are better able to gratify their desires and to deal with disasters when they do occur. But if someone, though possessed of only moderate means to satisfy their desires and cushion them against disasters, nonetheless has luck, he never has to deal with disaster: he never loses a limb, never falls prey to diseases, never experiences any other serious misfortune, and has good children and good looks as well. If his good fortune lasts right up to his death, this is the person you asked me to identify, the one deserving to be called prosperous; but until he dies, refrain from calling him prosperous and simply call him fortunate.3

“Now in truth,” Solon continued, “it is impossible for any one mortal to possess all these goods of fortune in one life, just as no single country can on its own produce everything it needs, but has some resources and lacks others; the best land is that which happens to have the most. Likewise, no one human can be self-sufficient, but will have some goods and lack others. The one who has the most goods continuously through life and then dies well—in my opinion, this is the one, your Majesty, who deserves the title of most prosperous. For it is necessary to regard the end of all things and how everything turns out; god gives many people a glimpse of prosperity, only to tear up their lives by the roots.”

Solon’s words did not find favor with the king, who sent him off as a man of little worth: only a fool would dismiss existing goods and tell him to focus instead on their termination.4
IV. Death in the Family: Atys and Adrastus (Chapters 34-45)
After Solon’s departure, a devastating retribution (nemesis) sent by god seized Croesus, probably because he thought he was the most prosperous (olbiotatos) man on earth. Almost immediately he was visited by a dream revealing the disaster that would befall his son.

Croesus in fact had two children, both of them boys. The one son was disabled, being deaf and mute from birth. The other son was far superior in every respect to other boys his age. This boy’s name was Atys, and he was the one Croesus’s dream revealed was soon to die, from a wound inflicted by an iron spearhead. When he awoke, Croesus took stock of this dream, and was deeply disturbed. In response to his fear, he arranged a marriage for his son. As a further precaution, he no longer allowed the boy to engage in any dangerous activities, although the young prince had been accustomed to lead the Lydians into battle. Croesus even had all the iron weapons of warfare— javelins and spears and so forth –- removed from the men’s quarters and stowed away in the inner chambers so that nothing made of iron might accidentally fall on his son.

While Croesus was busy with his plans for his son’s wedding, there arrived in Sardis a man who, as the result of an accident (symphore), had blood on his hands. He was a Phrygian by birth and a member of the royal family in his homeland. Arriving at the palace of Croesus, he asked to receive the rites of purification as practiced in Lydia (which are much like those in Greece), and Croesus complied. Having duly performed the purification ritual, Croesus asked the stranger about himself: “Now tell me, sir: what is your name, and where in Phrygia did you live before you came here as a suppliant? And what man or woman did you kill?”

“Your Majesty,” the man replied, “ My name is Adrastus, and I am the son of Gorgias, son of Midas. I killed my own brother in an accident, and for this my father drove me into exile and stripped me of all my possessions.”

“Your family and my family have been friends in the past,” Croesus assured him, “and you are among friends now. If you stay here with us, I will see that you have everything you need. Under the circumstances, the best thing you can do is to take this unfortunate accident as lightly as possible.”

And so Adrastus took up residence in Croesus’s palace. No sooner had he done so, however, than a wild boar of unnatural size appeared on Mt. Olympus in Mysia. Charging down from its mountain lair, the beast ravaged the surrounding crops, rooting them up with his tusks. Although the Mysians sent one hunting party after another other against him, the boar escaped all injury, injuring instead those who hunted him. Finally, messengers of the Mysians came to Croesus for help. “Your Majesty,” the Mysians reported, “A monstrous boar has descended on our lands and is destroying our crops. We have done everything we can to kill him, and everything we tried has failed. And so we beg you: send your son back with us, and a team of your best young men and dogs, to help us rid our land of this scourge.”

“Let me hear no more talk about my son,” Croesus replied, remembering his dream. “He is recently married and has other things on his mind. But I will grant you a team of expert hunters and a full pack of hounds, with orders to do everything in their power to help you rid your land of the beast.”

The Mysians were satisfied with this assurance of support from the king. But Croesus’s son, who had overheard the Mysian request for his help, now came in and confronted his father. When Croesus held firm in his refusal to send him on the expedition, the young man argued his case. “Father, the finest, the most honorable thing among our people has always been the glory we gained through warfare and hunting. And now you have denied me both of these activities—though certainly not because of any cowardice or hesitation on my part. How can I continue to hold my head high when I show myself in the marketplace? What will the people in town think of me? What will my new wife think of me, what kind of man will she think she married? You must let me go on this hunt, or at least give me some explanation of how this new life of mine is at all in my interests!”

“Child,” Croesus responded, “I made my decision not because I saw some cowardice in you, or any other fault for that matter, but because of a vision that came to me in my sleep and told me that you had not long to live, but would die by an iron spearhead. This is the reason I rushed you into marriage, and now forbid you to go on this expedition. Perhaps, by taking such precautions, I can steal you from death, at least until my own death. As fortune would have it, you are my only child, since my other son is crippled and I do not count him a son of mine.”

The young man responded: “Father, you cannot be blamed for wanting to protect me, especially after such a vision. But with all due respect, I think you have misinterpreted this dream. You say it revealed that I would die from an iron spearhead? But how can you fear the hands, how can you fear the iron spear of a boar?! I admit, if the dream had revealed I was fated to die by a tusk or some such object, I could understand your keeping me here at home. But since the dream predicted an iron spear, and since the expedition in question is not against men … let me be a man and join them!”

Croesus relented. “You win, child; your interpretation of the dream defeats my own and compels me to change my mind. You have my permission to go on the hunt.”

After his talk with Atys, Croesus sent for Adrastus. “Adrastus, when you were struck by that terrible accident,” the king said to his Phrygian guest, “I never blamed you for it, but purified you and took you into my house and gave you everything you needed. Now it is time for you to repay favor with favor: I need you to provide protection for my son on his way to the hunt, in case you cross paths with a gang of violent thieves. Besides, you yourself have an obligation to go where you can win some fame of your own: family honor demands it, while you still have the strength for it.”

“Your Majesty,” Adrastus replied, “under any other circumstance I would not go on this expedition. It is not right for someone with an unlucky past like my own to join a band of young men in the flush of good fortune—nor do I wish to, and even if I did, other considerations would hold me back. But because I can see how much this means to you and because, as you rightly remind me, I am in debt to your kindness, I am at your service. You can expect your son to return home to you unharmed, as far as it is in my power to protect him.”

And so Adrastus and Atys set off, with a company of the best young hunters and a pack of dogs. Arriving at Mt. Olympus, they hunted for the boar, and when they found him, they trapped him in a circle and threw their spears. It was then that the stranger, the one purged of blood-guilt, the man with the name of Adrastus,5 threw his spear, missed the boar, and struck the son of Croesus. The boy fell, fatally wounded, and so fulfilled the prophecy of the dream.

One of the hunters hurried back to Sardis and Croesus to report their attack on the boar and the fate of his son. Croesus was stunned by the news of his Atys’ death, then angrily lamented that the man who killed his son was the very man he had purified of murder. In his grief over the accident (symphore) he cried out bitterly to Zeus the Purifier, calling him to witness what he had suffered at the hands of his purified guest, and then to Zeus of the Hearth and to Zeus of Friendship (calling on the same god in this triple capacity)—invoking Zeus of the Hearth because Croesus had welcomed a man into his house and thereby unwittingly nourished the killer of his son, and the Zeus of Friendship because the man that Croesus assigned to protect his son turned out to be his son’s destruction.

Soon the Lydian hunters arrived back in Sardis carrying the corpse of Atys, followed by the killer. Standing then in front of the body, Adrastus surrendered himself to Croesus, stretched out his hands, and begged Croesus to cut his throat open over the corpse: life was no longer livable now that, after his earlier misfortune, he had ruined the man who purified him. Though in great pain himself, after hearing these words Croesus took pity on Adrastus: “My friend, that you would sentence yourself to death is punishment enough in my eyes. You are not the one responsible for my suffering, you were simply the unwilling agent; most likely one of the gods is responsible, who long ago, in fact, revealed to me what has now come to pass.”

Croesus saw to the proper burial of his son. Then, left alone at the tomb after the other mourners had departed, Adrastus, son of Gordias son of King Midas, convinced, after killing his own brother and then destroying the man who had cleansed him of this crime, that his life was a disaster without equal, slit his own throat and bled out his life on the grave of Atys.


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