Ravi loves writing within the realm of relationships, history, and the bizarre—where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.
A Colourful Tale Concocted by Herodotus
If there is one fact that clearly comes from Herodotus, the Greek historian’s writings, it is his liberal use of suspense, sex, and sanctity. The man certainly knew how to win over his audience and was not at all averse to using yellow journalism at times.
And perhaps that is the reason that the amusing tale of the Lydian king Candaules, his wife, and usurper Gyges features right at the start of his epic work The Histories. Needless to say, The Histories is Herodotus’s eternal bestseller to date.
Herodotus’s script had only three actors; Queen Nyssia of Lydia, King Candaules, and the usurper (or voyeur) Gyges. As the story goes, the foolish King Candaules of Lydia arranged for his guard and confidante Gyges to see his wife naked so that he can appreciate his beauty and agree to the fact that she was the most beautiful woman in the world.
Gyges protested but had to bend to the whims of the king. The queen was scandalized by this blatant display of her modesty and plotted to take revenge on the king which finally ended in Candaules getting slain and Gyges taking over the throne.
The story ends here but one is still left wondering if this actually happened or was a figment of Herodotus’s over-imagination. The amusing tale is the plot in the famous German play 'Gyges und sein Ring' written by German playwright and poet Friedrich Hebbel. It was written in 1854, published in 1856, and premiered in Vienna on 25 April 1889.
The Kingdom of Lydia
Herodotus starts his story in a rich land called Lydia. Lydia was named after its first King Lydus according to Herodotus and was also known as Maeonia. It occupied the western region of Asia Minor (Anatolia) which prospered due to its natural resources and position on trading routes between the Mediterranean and Asia.
Due to its strategic location between East and West, Lydia was a prosperous trading center which further enriched the kingdom already blessed with fertile land and abundant natural resources, of silver and gold from the Pactolus River.
Lydia was also noted for its production of fine textiles, wine, saffron, zinc, and leather goods. The Lydians were also proficient in making fabrics, luxurious clothes, hats, shoes, and exquisitely crafted ceramics which were exported throughout the ancient world.
The royal capital of Lydia was Sardis (about 50 miles (80 km) west of present İzmir, Turkey) which was noted as a powerful city exerting great influence over the regional rivals. The Lydians had great commercial acumen and were the first people to establish permanent retail shops.
They were also the first to invent metallic coinage with gold and silver coins being minted in their country and shops overflowing with luxurious goods of every kind. The Lydian monetary system was widely used across the ancient world.
King Candaules, a Foolish King of Lydia
Herodotus writes about the country being ruled by a king called Candaules. He was supposedly a foolish and arrogant king who was not only headstrong but also a poor judge of people.
Candaules’ best friend was his bodyguard called Gyges. With him, Candaules not only discussed his most important business but also made him listen to his eulogies of his wife's beauty. Candaules was proud of his wife’s beauty proclaiming her as the most beautiful woman in the world.
One day Candaules went too far in proving his point. He said to Gyges.
"It appears you don't believe me when I tell you how lovely my wife is. Well, a man always believes his eyes better than his ears; so, do as I tell you - contrive to see her naked."
Gyges protested. He refused to do the bid for the king stating it is inappropriate and would be an insult to the queen. But the foolish Candaules could not be convinced. Gyges relented to his master’s wishes and agreed to see the queen naked in her chamber.
Obviously, the queen was shocked by seeing the voyeur in her chamber. She could not believe that the king had stooped so low and compromised on her modesty. But she kept quiet and formed a detailed plan of action. The following morning, she called Gyges to her chamber, wormed out the whole story from him, and then gave him two options.
"Slay Candaules, and thereby become my lord, and obtain the Lydian throne, or die this moment in this room."
As Herodotus writes.
"All was then prepared for the attack, and when night fell, Gyges, seeing that he had no retreat or escape, but must absolutely either slay Candaules, or himself be slain, followed his mistress into the sleeping-room. She placed a dagger in his hand and hid him carefully behind the self-same door. Then Gyges, when the king was fallen asleep, entered privily into the chamber and struck him dead."
The Lydian people were incensed by this sudden development and revolted against Gyges. But Gyges turned out to be smart. He consulted a Delphic oracle and send her a hoard of gold and silver to her shrine at Delphi. The Oracle legitimized his rule declaring him the ‘golden king’ in the history of Lydia.
The people accepted him. Thus, Gyges usurped the throne and married the queen.
Did It Really Happen?
Today, many historians question the accuracy of the account by Herodotus.
But all agree that the characters actually existed and Gyges also known as “Guges” ruled over the Kingdom of Lydia for over 30 years between 687 BC and 652 BC after killing Candaules. He apparently married Candaules’ widow and he was followed to the throne by his son, Ardys II.
That said, King Candaules’s life and Gyges have inspired many painters and sculptors over the years attempting to depict the scene of the naked Nyssia being watched by Gyges. King Candaules might not be well known but Herodotus's juicy account ensured that his sex scandal remains immortalized over the centuries.
- The Histories
- Herodotus on Candaules, his wife, and Gyges
- In Defence of King Candaules
- The Ancient Kingdom of Lydia (1200–546 BC)
- King Candaules of the Ancient Greek Kingdom of Lydia
- Herodotus, the Kingdom of Lydia
- Gyges und sein Ring
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2022 Ravi Rajan