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The Last King of Lydia

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Later, as a slave, he lives in fear over the rumors that the Persian general Harpagus killed his brother-in-law and wants to add Croesus to the count. There’s the strong air of the fairy tale in this: characters are simplistic, motives are haphazard, society barely exists outside the palace, the land is at peace and no outside action can affect it. Almost all the characters and their stories can be found in Herodotus: Solon, Cyrus, Harpagus, Adrastus and the rest.

Christian Rodska interprets this well written and thought provoking book with a depth of skill and sensitivity that surpasses expectation, even though I am a huge fan of his Falco readings. It is, instead, a book that examines deep, sometimes philosophical issues such as the lust for power, wealth, happiness, immortality and freedom. Characters talk out their motivations, their longings, and their regrets, and it is these conversations that are the heart of the story, despite the epic conquests and and empire-spanning travels that serve as the backdrop. Leach lets us examine a distinctive ancient period of grand gestures and empires, as well as the individual wisdom of characters we come to know and, despite all their failings, admire. We gradually see what sort of a man can vanquish so many, choose so many destructive wars, and also leave behind a written legacy of religious tolerance that still stands out in a narrow-minded world.This transformation, from fear to wary understanding, is echoed in Croesus's changed relationships with others once he is no longer king. I’ll quote a few “goodies” that I found along the way and hope they’ll hold up taken out of context. As king, Croesus has only to speak to make men obey -- a dream about his son's death by iron leads to a ban on all iron weapons. This is a book without large set piece battles or gallons of blood and core but studies the human psyche and emotions. He also plays with Plato a bit, offering up a philosopher-king who becomes more of a philosopher as his station falls in life, resulting in the greatest insights arriving concomitant with his enslavement.

Like any good philosopher, Leach doesn’t answer the big questions he asks, but his exploration and hints are the more interesting as a result.So long as you allowed a king the illusion of servility he would go with your calmly, even as you led him to his death. Just look at this comparison of the teaching of Solon which saves Croesus’ life: In Herodotus it’s the gloomy “Count no man happy until he is dead. It is a strange friendship that he strikes up with Isocrates as a fellow slave; an odd respect that he learns for his conqueror, the Persian King Cyrus. Fortunately, the book does go in a slightly more inventive direction once we get past the traditional Croesus narrative. His subsequent fate soon became the theme of legend: he is cast or casts himself on a pyre, but is miraculously saved by Apollo and translated to the land of the *Hyperboreans or becomes the friend and counsellor of Cyrus.

I will only discuss general aspects of the book rather than specific plot points and therefore consider it a spoiler-free review. We watch as greed and power lead him to gamble his vast wealth and his very kingship in a confrontation with Persia. The prose is quite simple but there are some really beautiful and poetic descriptions of life that lift it above the ordinary. Croesus, at least in this telling, provides an interesting example of how suffering derives not just from privation, but from excess as well. Leach puts these words in the mouth of a 5th Century BC ruler, yet I’m not sure I’ve read a more apposite phrase to sum up what’s wrong with modern society.I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Last King of Lydia, not least because it is not exactly run of the mill, but also because of its ability to engage the reader and mix in a variety of settings, battles and courts across Asia Minor whilst remaining focused on the key issues of the book.

King Cyrus of Persia will destroy Croesus hopes and dreams and as he awaits his execution atop a pyre, his city being pillaged, his wealth gone and his wife and son dead. I didn’t know the subtleties and complexities of their lives, I often had no idea what characters were thinking, and the philosophy felt ham-handed and straining too hard for my attention. They were veterans of many wars of conquest, and they knew that a king bled and died like any other man. It follows the life of Croesus, the titular Last King of Lydia, and how he deals with life throwing him around to some of the highest and lowest positions available to people 2,500 years ago. The book does deal with some rather unpleasant situations like rape and murder which I wouldn’t expect to see in a children’s book.Croesus is not a man one might aspire to be like or be with, but his journey through life is a deep, varied and intimate one which I really enjoyed.

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