King Kroisos (Κροῖσος), the king of Lydia from 560 to 547 BC, was one of the wealthiest, most powerful, most impressive kings in the history of ancient Hellas. In fact, there is an English saying that goes: as rich as (or richer than) Croesus, the Latinized version of his name. Even though he was a man of great fortune, his life was not without its ups and downs. For one, Kroisos lost a son, Atys, after he dreamt Atys would die "by the blow of an iron weapon". Kroisos kept Atys out of wars, removed all weapons from the house, but eventually he was accidentally killed by a ally on a boar hunt.

It was, perhaps, this experience that caused Kroisos to seek out the counsel of oracles when he set out to combat the Persians, who were gaining ground. Divination played a fairly large role in Hellenic every day life. Oracles given directly, like at Delphi, were rare and called chesmomancy. All other forms of divination practiced in ancient Hellas were performed by seers, not oracles. The biggest difference between oracles and seers was that oracles gave long answers which usually needed some for of interpretation while seers usually answered yes-or-no questions.

Divination of any kind was rarely turned to, to predict the future. To desire knowledge of the future was considered hubris. Instead, oracles and seers were petitioned to help answer questions about the present or to advice on a decision which had to be made in the very near future; 'Shall I go to war?', ' Shall I put my sheep out on the high pasture?'. This is what Kroisos did. As Herodotos has recorded in his 'Histories':

"With this design he resolved to make instant trial of the several oracles in Greece, and of the one in Libya. So he sent his messengers in different directions, some to Delphi, some to Abae in Phocis, and some to Dodona; others to the oracle of Amphiaraus; others to that of Trophonius; others, again, to Branchidae in Milesia. These were the Greek oracles which he consulted. To Libya he sent another embassy, to consult the oracle of Ammon. These messengers were sent to test the knowledge of the oracles, that, if they were found really to return true answers, he might send a second time, and inquire if he ought to attack the Persians.

The messengers who were dispatched to make trial of the oracles were given the following instructions: they were to keep count of the days from the time of their leaving Sardis, and, reckoning from that date, on the hundredth day they were to consult the oracles, and to inquire of them what Croesus the son of Alyattes, king of Lydia, was doing at that moment. The answers given them were to be taken down in writing, and brought back to him. None of the replies remain on record except that of the oracle at Delphi. There, the moment that the Lydians entered the sanctuary, and before they put their questions, the Pythoness thus answered them in hexameter verse:-

I can count the sands, and I can measure the ocean;
I have ears for the silent, and know what the dumb man meaneth;
Lo! on my sense there striketh the smell of a shell-covered tortoise,
Boiling now on a fire, with the flesh of a lamb, in a cauldron-
Brass is the vessel below, and brass the cover above it.

These words the Lydians wrote down at the mouth of the Pythoness as she prophesied, and then set off on their return to Sardis. When all the messengers had come back with the answers which they had received, Croesus undid the rolls, and read what was written in each. Only one approved itself to him, that of the Delphic oracle. This he had no sooner heard than he instantly made an act of adoration, and accepted it as true, declaring that the Delphic was the only really oracular shrine, the only one that had discovered in what way he was in fact employed." [Bk. 1]

Kroisos was elated and made the requested offering, then sent a massive amount of treasure to Delphi in gratitude and supplication. He also sent with it another question, the most important one:

"The messengers who had the charge of conveying these treasures to the shrines, received instructions to ask the oracles whether Croesus should go to war with the Persians and if so, whether he should strengthen himself by the forces of an ally. Accordingly, when they had reached their destinations and presented the gifts, they proceeded to consult the oracles in the following terms:- 'Croesus, of Lydia and other countries, believing that these are the only real oracles in all the world, has sent you such presents as your discoveries deserved, and now inquires of you whether he shall go to war with the Persians, and if so, whether he shall strengthen himself by the forces of a confederate.' Both the oracles agreed in the tenor of their reply, which was in each case a prophecy that if Croesus attacked the Persians, he would destroy a mighty empire, and a recommendation to him to look and see who were the most powerful of the Greeks, and to make alliance with them."

Kroisos figured this meant he would succeed in his war against the Persians and he set out to do just that. Fast forward a whole lot (seriously, the Histories go into glorious but very lengthy detail of this whole campaign and the many, many oracular messages that drove Kroisos forward), to where Kroisos is on the eve of attack.

"Meanwhile Croesus, taking the oracle in a wrong sense, led his forces into Cappadocia, fully expecting to defeat Cyrus and destroy the empire of the Persians. [...] When Cyrus beheld the Lydians arranging themselves in order of battle on this plain, fearful of the strength of their cavalry, he adopted a device which Harpagus, one of the Medes, suggested to him. He collected together all the camels that had come in the train of his army to carry the provisions and the baggage, and taking off their loads, he mounted riders upon them accoutred as horsemen. These he commanded to advance in front of his other troops against the Lydian horse; behind them were to follow the foot soldiers, and last of all the cavalry. The two armies then joined battle, and immediately the Lydian war-horses, seeing and smelling the camels, turned round and galloped off; and so it came to pass that all Croesus's hopes withered away. [...] They were driven within their walls and the Persians laid siege to Sardis.

Sardis [was] taken by the Persians, and Croesus himself fell into their hands, after having reigned fourteen years, and been besieged in his capital fourteen days; thus too did Croesus fulfill the oracle,
which said that he should destroy a mighty empire by destroying his own."

The ancient Hellenes trusted the Gods--and the Gods were right. The meaning of Their words weren't always clear, however, and most were only interpretable after the events took place. We live in an age where fewer and fewer people listen to the Gods--let alone Their predictions. We now listen to the promises of politicians like we used to listen to the words of the Gods. Those that shout the hardest get the most ears turned. I don't want to say that some oracles in ancient Hellas could be bought, but I will most certainly say politicians can be bought. And they are bought. So be careful listening to these modern "oracles" who say they can predict the future. Don't end up like King Kroisos, who was only saved from death by chance--or perhaps divine intervention.