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A semi-legendary "philosophical" tale...
on 16 March 2014
Many reviewers seem to have liked this book (on the UK site at least), or even "loved" it, to use Amazon's terminology. I did not, since I was looking for something historical as opposed to a semi-legendary philosophical tale that I found quite implausible.
Although it certainly does have a number of qualities, this is in fact a pseudo philosophical tale derived from Herodotus, portrayed as a piece of "historical fiction" and loosely based on the story of King Croesus, the last King of Lydia who lost it all (his wife, his kingdom, his riches and his freedom), to Cyrus, the founder of the Achaemenid Empire. The book collects together and expands upon a number of semi-legendary moralising Greek tales about fortune, fame, happiness, and their opposites.
The main philosophical tale is about what makes a man happy, based on a question that Croesus allegedly asked Solon, the elderly Athenian statesman visiting him. The book is supposed to demonstrate that Croesus, even when used and abused as a slave and after having lost just about everything, including his elder son, his wife and his personal pride, is far happier than when he was the all-mighty king of Lydia. This I found rather implausible, to put it mildly.
I also disliked the character of Croesus, whom I found utterly unsympathetic from beginning to end. He essentially appears as a spoilt, selfish and self-centred individual, even at the end when a slave. This again did not seem realistic to me. Before being overthrown by Cyrus, Croesus reigned for some fifteen years over Lydia which was at the time the major power in Asia Minor. Although his father does seem to have done much of the conquering and Croesus was perhaps more of an administrator than a soldier, it is difficult to believe that he was the kind of uncaring and rather useless whimp that is depicted in this book. It is also somewhat difficult to imagine Croesus the slave getting roughed up or worse and believing that he has never been so happy in his life.
The character of Cyrus is a bit more plausible. While Cyrus has come down to us as a paragon of tolerance given the mild way in which he treated those he conquered, it was clearly in his interest to be so as it made it so much easier to impose Persian dominance over the conquered kingdoms. In the book, however, he comes across as a cold, almost indifferent and somewhat inhuman conqueror. Initially, as Croesus is about to be executed, he clearly has little time to spare for his defeated enemy. The reason for his change of mind - what could have been Croesus' last words - did not appear convincing. Why would even care about philosophy when too busy conquering and administrating an Empire for himself?
All in all, this book is a bit similar to "I am Cyrus" to the extent that it is a tale based on semi-legendary stories told about "great men". It is not really about history however, and contrary to other reviewers, I would certainly not call this a piece of historical fiction.