Historians differ over the date at which Polycrates came to power. Was it 542, 537, or 566 BC ? Polycrates was the son of Aeaces and had two brothers: Pantagnotus and Syloson.
Vigorous and brilliantly clever, he resolved to seize power by force. He chose for his purpose the day on which all the people offered a sacrifice in the temple of the goddess Hera and there was a procession of armed men. Polycrates, with this festival as a pretext, gathered together a large number of weapons and told his brothers to take part in the procession along with the rest.
They has instructions, at the moment when the others had deposited their arms in front of the temple, to kill all those who were hostile to them. At the same time, Polycrates himself gathered his friends together in the city and captured the key points.
The plan was a success and worked without a hitch. In this way, Polycrates became master of the game, without encountering resistance. He immediately took care to fortify the acropolis, Astypalaia, and, obtaining mercenaries from the tyrant of Naxos, made himself tyrant of Samos.
He divided Samos into three parts. He kept Astypalaia and gave Hesia to his brother Pantagnotus and Aeschrionia to Syloson. But after a short time, he killed Pantagnotus and drove out Syloson, thus becoming master of the whole island.
In order to consolidate his rule, he made friends with Amasis, King of Egypt, who supported him in various ways. Polycrates had soon acquired remarkable power and a reputation, which spread throughout Greece and to the shores of Asia Minor, or Ionia as it was then called.
Under Polycrates' rule, Samos reached the height of its power and greatness. It built up a navy of 100 ships, each with 50 oars. It had 1,000 archers and kept up this force in time of peace.
Later, Herodotus tells us, when Polycrates went on campaigns he had at his command 'a vast crowd and innumerable ships'.
He captured Rheneia, Syros, and other islands. In this way he acquired the name of "Ruler of the Seas", a title which he kept for many years. He beat Lesvos, which had helped the Miletans, traditional enemies of the Samiots, in a sea battle.
Mythology depicts Polycrates as the luckiest man in the world. A story is told to demonstrate that he always found again whatever he lost. It is said that he dropped a fine ring, of beautiful craftsmanship and great value, which he used as a seal, into the sea. His sorrow was great, but was turned to joy when, five days later, a fisherman brought him a large fish as a present-and the ring was found inside it.
Polycrates became very wealthy and Samos, along with him, experienced years of power and prosperity. He imposed taxes on all the vessels, which passed through the island's territorial waters, sold protection to the neighboring states, developed farming and stockbreeding, and brought water to the ancient city by means of a tunnel, known today as the Efpalinion or Tunnel of Eupalinus.
Polycrates ruled with wisdom and cunning. He is said to have taken booty from his enemies and his friends, but he returned it to his friends pointing out that taking it and then returning it made him more popular than if he had not taken anything from them.
He gathered together the mothers of those who had been killed in battle are assigned them to the richer citizens, telling them to look after the women and to regard them as their own mothers.
In 525 BC, war broke out between Samos and the Spartans. Cambyses, son of Cyrus, King of Persia, preparing to embark upon a campaign against Egypt, sent envoys to Polycrates to ask for naval assistance. Polycrates supplied him with those Samiots whom he suspected of being his enemies. Sending them to Egypt, he told Cambyses not to let them return to Samos. Finally, they returned to Greece and sought the aid of the Spartans-which they eventually received.
Polycrates did not have a hero's death. Having been favored by fortune for so many years, he met an end which was cruel and very degrading. Herodotus tells us that Oroetes, satrap of Sardes, sent a message to Polycrates seeking his help, as he was under threat from Cambyses."If you come to fetch me and give me protection on Samos, I have eight chests full of gold and I will give you half of them." At that time, Polycrates was in need of money, so, having satisfied himself that Oroetes was telling the truth, went with his escort to Sardes.
Once there, however, he was arrested on the orders of Oroetes and crucified on Mount Mycale, opposite Pythagoreio. Such was the end of the 40-year tyranny of Polycrates.
MAEANDER AND SOLYSON TYRANTS OF SAMOS
After the death of Polycrates, Maeander became tyrant. To begin with, he behaved like a democrat and a liberator and built altars to the gods. However, he soon revealed his true character and began to oppress the islanders.
The Persians, who always had designs and the rich and powerful island, attacked Samos with an army led by Otanes. The climax of the outrages committed by the invaders was the firing and looting of the Heraion-the sanctuary of Hera-which contained important art treasures. Having inflicted total defeat on Maeander, the Persians replaced him on the throne with the younger brother of Polycrates, Syloson, who was in effect totally dependent on them until his death in 509 BC.