The Guilt of King Polycrates
by Herodotus

Herodotus - The Guilt of King Polycrates

BBC Third Programme

Broadcast: Tuesday 8th March 1960

Polycrates, the king of Samos, was one of the most fortunate of men, and everything he took in hand was fabled to prosper. This unbroken series of successes caused disquietude to his friends, who saw in the circumstance foreboding of some dire disaster; till Amasis, king of Egypt, one of the number advised him to spurn the favour of fortune by throwing away what he valued dearest. The most valuable thing he possessed was an emerald signet-ring, and this accordingly he resolved to sacrifice. So, manning a galley, he rowed out to the sea bearing the guilt of his prosperity, and threw the ring away into the waste of the waters. Some five or six days after this, a fisherman came to the palace and made the king a present of a very fine fish that he had caught. This the servants proceeded to open, when, to their surprise, they came upon a ring, which on examination proved to be the very ring which had been cast away by the king, their master.

With his fortune found, his friends turned from him for fear of a foreboding disaster that all felt would befall him.

"The Guilt of King Polycrates" was written for radio by Peter Gurney from "The Histories" by Herodotus (written about 440 B.C.).

With Michael Hordern [King Polycrates], June Tobin [Argia, Daughter of King Polycrates], Leon Quartermaine [Amasis, King of Egypt], Heron Carvic [The Egyptian Ambassador], Malcolm Hayes [Oroetes, the Governor of Lydia], Hugh Manning [The Lydian Ambassador], Charles Simon [Herodotus, the Historian], and Kenneth Dight [ Anacreon, the Poet].

Other parts played by members of the cast.

Music by Humphrey Searle

Produced by Raymond Raikes

Re-broadcast on Friday 11th May 1973

60 min.


Polycrates, son of Aeaces, was the tyrant of Samos from 535 BC to 515 BC.

He took power during a festival of Hera with his brothers Pantagnotus and Syloson, but soon had Pantagnotus killed and exiled Syloson to take full control for himself. He then allied with Amasis II, pharaoh of Egypt, as well as the tyrant of Naxos Lygdamis. With a navy of 100 penteconters and an army of 1000 archers, he plundered the islands of the Aegean Sea and the cities on the Ionian coast of Asia Minor, defeating and enslaving the navies of Lesbos and Miletus. He also conquered the small island of Rhenea, which he chained to nearby Delos as a dedication to Apollo.

He had a reputation as both a fierce warrior and an enlightened tyrant. On Samos he built an aqueduct, a large temple of Hera (to which Amasis dedicated many gifts), and a palace later rebuilt by the Roman emperor Caligula. He was a patron of the poet Anacreon, and of the Crotonian doctor Democedes. According to Herodotus, Amasis thought Polycrates was too successful, and advised him to throw away whatever he valued most in order to escape a reversal of fortune. Polycrates followed the advice and threw a jewel-encrusted ring into the sea; however, a few days later, a fisherman caught a large fish that he wished to share with the tyrant. While Polycrates' cooks were preparing the fish for eating, they discovered the ring inside of it. Polycrates told Amasis of his good fortune, and Amasis immediately broke off their alliance, believing that such a lucky man would eventually come to a disastrous end.

It is more likely that the alliance was ended because Polycrates allied with the Persian king Cambyses II against Egypt. By this time, Polycrates had created a navy of 40 triremes, probably becoming the first Greek state with a fleet of such ships. He manned these triremes with men he considered to be politically dangerous, and instructed Cambyses to execute them; the exiles suspected Polycrates' plan, however, and turned back from Egypt to attack the tryant. They defeated Polycrates at sea but could not take the island. They then sailed to mainland Greece and allied with Sparta and Corinth, who invaded the island. After 40 days they withdrew their unsuccessful siege.

In another attempt to rid himself of possible opponents, he caused the gymnasia to be destroyed in an attempt to put an end to pederastic friendships which had the reputation of being dangerous to tyrants. However, what he forbade to others he did not deny to himself. He kept an eromenos of his own, a boy named Smerdis. When the poet Anacreon, a guest of the tyrant at the time, was taken with the youth's spiritual qualities and Smerdis returned the poet's friendship, Polycrates became jealous and had the youth's long hair cut off, an incident that occasioned a poem by Anacreon.

Herodotus also tells the story of Polycrates' death. Near the end of the reign of Cambyses, the governor of Sardis, Oroetes, planned to kill Polycrates, either because he had been unable to add Samos to Persia's territory, or because Polycrates had supposedly snubbed a Persian ambassador. In any case, Polycrates was invited to Sardis, and despite the prophetic warnings of his daughter, he was assassinated. The manner is not recorded by Herodotus, as it was apparently an undignified end for a glorious tyrant, but he may have been crucified.


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