THE RING OF POLYCRATES
BY M. M. BIRD
"Then, would'st thou keep thy happy place,
Beseech the Immortals of their grace
Some bitter with their sweet to blend;
For when the gods on any pour
Of happiness an unmixed store,
Ruin full sure will be his end."—Schiller.
Of all earth's monarchs, the lordliest and the proudest
was Polycrates, Tyrant of Samos. Whatever
he set his hand to had prospered. One by one he had
conquered all the isles of Greece, and never had his galleys
by sea or his archers on land known defeat. Alone
to be compared with him in power was his friend and
ally, Amasis, King of Egypt, by whose side he had
warred and shared the spoils of victory.
This Polycrates, in his palace on Samos, gazing out
across the shining sea and meditating what new venture
should occupy his arms, saw one day a single galley
speeding swiftly from the south. It bore the cognizance
of the King of Egypt, the watchmen said.
"What message can our good brother Amasis have
for us?" mused the King. "For what new exploit does
he demand our aid, what deed does he not dare to venture
till he league our charmed fortune with his own?"
The galley flew over the waters; it glided round the
outflung arm of the mole, and reached the quay. Messengers
bore in haste to the palace a missive sealed with
the great seal of Amasis.
Polycrates searched the hieroglyphics in vain for some
bold scheme, his share in which shall be more slaves,
more land, more gold, more power, and more hate from
those he conquers.
For this is what Amasis wrote to his ally:
"It is pleasant to hear of the success of a friend and
ally. But thy excessive good fortune doth not please me,
knowing as I do that the divinity is jealous. As for me,
I would rather choose that both I and my friends should
be partly successful in our undertakings, and partly suffer
reverses; and so pass life meeting with vicissitudes
of fortune than be prosperous in all things. For I cannot
remember that I ever heard of any man who, having
suffered no reverse, did not at last utterly perish. Be
advised therefore by me, and act thus with regard to thy
good fortune. Consider well what thou valuest most,
and the loss of which would most pain thy soul; this
treasure so cast away that it may never more be seen of
Polycrates put down the letter and meditated. He
looked round the gorgeous hall wherein he sat, he looked
out of the window at the marble terraces, the vines and
fruit trees of his palace gardens. Below he saw the
crowded streets of his busy town, his quays where ships
unloaded their merchandise for his pleasure. There was
the harbor where his galleys lay, a hundred of them,
each manned by fifty strong oarsmen, slaves. Beyond the
great mole that captives of war had built for him lay
the crowded islands of the Grecian seas, and they too
were his vassals or allies. His power knew no check;
the stream of gold flowed unbroken to his shores. He
owned to himself with mingled pride and alarm that
such prosperity was a thing to provoke the jealous envy
of the immortals.
Amasis had seen this danger, and had sent a kindly
warning to his friend. It was well done.
What loss would he most mourn?
Tyrant as he was, Polycrates was a patron of the arts.
It was at his court that Anacreon sung of wine and love
as none had sung before. Painters and sculptors and
musicians were entertained there, and he delighted in
their arts. Should he sacrifice his favorite singer, his
most gifted painter? Should he obliterate the world-famous
fresco of his banquet hall, or slay the most beautiful
of his slaves? But a new singer would soon replace
the old, another artist would arise and would paint a
more enchanting scene, a lovelier slave would fall captive
to his arms.
He despaired of selecting among his countless treasures
what was most precious, when his eye fell on the
great gold signet on his fore-finger. There was the symbol
of his power itself, the splendid gold ring, carved
by Theodorus, son of Telecles the Samian. There was
the emerald engraved by Theodorus with his signet
device. The impress of that signet on the pliant wax set
the seal of the King's command on every order. His
eyes dwelt on the beautiful ring; he turned it on his
finger, he marked the cunning work of it, the elegant
design. The gold glittered in the sunlight, the heart of
the great emerald glowed with green fire.
"This ring," he cried, "my dearest treasure, my most
valued possession, I will cast into the sea!"
His ministers and courtiers heard him astonished.
They spoke among themselves with bated breath of the
thing the King proposed to do. How could the business
of the realm go on without the King's recognized seal
to set upon his ordinances? The news spread through
the palace, where astonishment was mingled with consternation,
and consternation with admiration of the
King who would sacrifice so great a treasure to propitiate
the gods for the good of his realm. From the
palace the news spread to the town, and men gathered
in knots to discuss it, and women ran from house to
house to tell and hear it. Then they saw the royal barge
of fifty oars being swiftly prepared for sea. The crowds
of workers left their toil in the workshops of the town
and clustered on the quay. They looked and saw the
King coming in procession from the palace, his ministers
about him, his courtiers following after. A frown was
on his brow and a fierce resolve in his eyes. And as
he passed along the gangway they marked that his royal
hand was bare; no green fire shone from it like a glow-worm
Out, far out into the sea the rowers drove the swift
galley; the water boiled beneath the keel, and fled hissing
from the stroke of those fifty oars. At last the silent
King made a sign, and the oars flashed out of the water,
scattering a silver fountain of spray.
Thrice the King raised his arm in act to throw, and
thrice as he eyed the priceless gem he clutched it in his
open palm. But the fourth time he closed his dazzled
eyes and flung it far from him. And the great emerald,
as it fell into the main, flashed like a streamer in the
No sign that the gods accepted his sacrifice followed
the deed. The sun shone bright overhead, and below
was the innumerable laughter of the waves.
The King made a sign with the hand, now so significantly
bare, and the galley sped back to the quay. And
all the days that followed there was mourning in the
palace, the King was wrapped in gloom, the business of
the state seemed to have been brought to a standstill.
On the sixth day a humble fisherman climbed to the
palace gates, bearing as a gift a royal sturgeon. "Accept,
O King," he cried, "an offering worthy of thee.
For three-score years have I plied my humble trade, yet
never before have my nets brought to land so goodly a
Polycrates thanked the fisherman and bestowed on him
a purse of gold, and the fish he ordered to be served for
that night's banquet.
The King was in his chamber, deep in state affairs,
when a scullion came running demanding instant audience.
In his hand was a jewel that flashed and glowed.
Polycrates stared in amazement, and then stretched
forth his hand to seize the ring that had been miraculously
restored. For when the fisherman's gift had been
cut open the ring had been found in its belly.
The courtiers whispered together in fear: "What can
this mean? Have the jealous gods rejected the sacrifice?"
But Polycrates was beside himself with joy. He wrote
in haste to Amasis, King of Egypt, to tell him what had
befallen. "Such good fortune as mine," he declared,
"is unassailable by gods or men."
But Amasis was of a different opinion. He felt that
no power could avail to save a man so unnaturally fortunate
from the vengeance of the jealous gods. He sent
his herald to say that he renounced the friendship between
them lest, said he, if some dreadful and great
calamity befell Polycrates he might himself be involved
Black anger at this desertion filled the heart of
Polycrates. He heard that Cambyses, son of Cyrus, King
of Persia, was on the point of invading Egypt with a
great army, so he offered him help by sea. Cambyses
gladly accepted this alliance, and Polycrates despatched
forty ships of war.
But in his heaven-sent blindness he manned them with
malcontents and men of conquered nations whom he suspected
of disloyalty and wished to remove—sending with
them secretly a message to Cambyses that he did not
wish a man of them to return.
These warriors mutinied before they reached the battle
ground, and returned in war array against Samos, but
they, too, failed and Polycrates became more powerful
than ever. And then it was that Orœtes, the Persian
satrap of Sardis, who had conceived a hatred of Polycrates,
enticed the fortunate tyrant to visit him and
seized upon him treacherously and crucified him, so that
men might see how the jealous gods will not suffer a
mortal to share immortal bliss, and that soon or late
pride has a fall.