1. Of Samos, one of the most fortunate, ambitious, and treacherous of the Greek tyrants.
With the assistance of his brothers Pantagnotus and Syloson, he made himself master of the island towards the latter end of the reign of Cyrus.
At first he shared the supreme power with his brothers; but he shortly afterwards put Pantagnotus to death and banished Syloson. Having thus become sole despot, he raised a fleet of a hundred ships, and took a thousand bowmen into his pay.
With this force he conquered several of the islands, and even some towns on the main land; he made war upon Miletus, and defeated in a sea-fight the Lesbians, who had come to the assistance of the latter city. His navy became the most formidable in the Grecian world; and he formed the design of conquering all the Ionian cities as well as the islands in the Aegean.
He had formed an alliance with Amasis, king of Egypt, who, however, finally renounced it through alarm at the amazing good fortune of Polycrates, which never met with any check or disaster, and which therefore was sure, sooner or later, to incur the envy of the gods. Such, at least, is the account of Herodotus, who has narrated the story of the rupture between Amasis and Polycrates in his most dramatic manner.
In a letter which Amasis wrote to Polycrates, the Egyptian monarch advised him to throw away one of his most valuable possessions, in order that he might thus inflict some injury upon himself.
In accordance with this advice Polycrates threw into the sea a seal-ring of extraordinary beauty; but in a few days it was found in the belly of a fish, which had been presented to him by a fisherman. Thereupon Amasis immediately broke off his alliance with him. Of course the story is a fiction; and Mr. Grote remarks (Hist. of Greece,
vol. iv. p. 323) with justice, that the facts related by Herodotus rather lead us to believe that it was Polycrates, who, with characteristic faith-lessness, broke off his alliance with Amasis, finding it more for his interest to cultivate friendship with Cambyses, when the latter was preparing to invade Egypt, B. C. 525.
He sent to the assistance of the Persian monarch forty ships, on which he placed all the persons opposed to his government, and at the same time privately requested Cambyses that they might never be allowed to return.
But these malcontents either never went to Egypt, or found means to escape; they sailed back to Samos, and made war upon the tyrant, but were defeated by the latter. Thereupon they repaired to Sparta for assistance, which was readily granted. The Corinthians likewise, who had a special cause of quarrel against the Samians, joined the Spartans, and their united forces accompanied by the exiles sailed against Samos. They laid siege to the city for forty days, but at length despairing of taking it, they abandoned the island, and left the exiles to shift for themselves.
The power of Polycrates now became greater than ever.
The great works which Herodotus saw and admired at Samos were probably executed by him, He lived in great pomp and luxury, and like some of the other Greek tyrants was a patron of literature and the arts.
The most eminent artists and poets found a ready welcome at his court; and his friendship for Anacreon is particularly celebrated.
But in the midst of all his prosperity he fell by the most ignominious fate. Oroetes, the satrap of Sardis, had for some reason, which is quite unknown, formed a deadly hatred against Polycrates.
By false pretences, the satrap contrived to allure him to the mainland, where he was arrested soon after his arrival, and crucified, B. C. 522. (Hdt. 3.39
; Thuc. 1.13
; Athen. 12.540