Candaules was the King of Lydia from 735-718 BC. How he surrendered his throne is a matter of dispute.
Some say he lost it in a battle with Gyges, a Cimmerian warlord, and committed suicide. But the story told by the historian Herodotus, which may be true, or a legend, or even cribbed from a lost piece of Greek dramatic literature, is far more interesting. Herodotus said that Candaules shamed his wife Nyssia by revealing her nakedness to one of his officers, also known as Gyges…
According to Herodotus, Candaules was very fond of Gyges, a member of his bodyguard. He discussed the business of state with him, and also boasted about how beautiful Nyssia was. He wanted to prove this point conclusively, and insisted that Gyges take a peek at her as she prepared to get into bed with Candaules. “Don’t worry, she’ll never see you. Just watch her put her clothes on the chair, and then slip away.”
Unfortunately, Nyssia did see Gyges, out of the corner of her eye—but she said nothing, and simply got into bed with Candaules for the night.
It was a different matter the next morning, though. Nyssia sent for Gyges—a normal occurrence as he was a member of the palace staff—and told him she knew he had seen her. “And here is your choice,” she said. “Either kill Candaules, take his throne, and me as your queen; or die for your impudence in spying on me.”
“But the king insisted!” said Gyges. “I could not refuse.”
“Such mindless obedience is not to be trusted. You know the customs of our people; how a woman, any woman, is shamed merely by seeing her husband naked! How much greater a shame is it for a woman to be seen naked, and how even greater is the dishonor inflicted on me, your queen, by looking upon what is not yours! But it can be yours if you kill the royal fool who has disgraced me, and himself.”
After more fruitless debate, Gyges realized he had no choice. Nyssia could summon her minions, and he would perish. He did not want to kill Candaules, but he also did not want to die. He agreed to assassinate his king. Nyssia gave him a knife, and hid him in the same spot where he had previously peeped at her. Presumably, the same nightly routine ensued, although Herodotus does not say if Gyges got to see Nyssia naked this time as well. She disrobed and got into bed. When Candaules was asleep, she beckoned to Gyges, and he thrust the knife into Candaules.
Thus ended the Heraclid dynasty of Candaules, and began the Mermnadae line of Gyges. A more interesting story than just another bloody battle, hmm?
“Candaulism” is an obscure term for the desire to show off one’s partner to a third party. It is related to “cuckoldism,” which of course is the desire to actually see one’s partner having sex with a third party. Although the stakes are rarely as high as a kingdom, it can be a very risky fantasy to fulfill. The woman might like the other guy better, and leave…
There are various explanations about why a man would want to see his woman displayed to another man. Some say it’s a manifestation of latent homosexuality, in that the first man is using the woman as a “proxy” for himself–that he actually wishes he were the woman being displayed, to arouse the desire of the second man. The repressed homosexual angle could be manifested in another way, too–as a substitute for having sex with the second man, the erotic focus is put on a woman that the men “share” at least in the visual sense.
But here’s a third angle to consider, a heterosexual one. Men admire women in the various expressions of their beauty, so why not simply wish to share a splendid natural phenomenon with another man? It could almost be a brotherly sort of thing. “Isn’t Nyssia gorgeous?” Candaules might have said to Gyges the next day, if things hadn’t turned out the way they did. “Didn’t you like the shape of her breasts? Her bottom? Didn’t it warm your heart that such beauty exists in the world?”
To carry the idea further: a man can admire watching his woman play tennis, or work in her garden, or do her professional job. Why is curiosity about watching her as a spectator in the act of sex so bizarre then? It is only our societal inhibitions which judge it so. Indeed, we know how in our digital age, with easy recording available, that there has been an explosion of men recording their women in the act of sex…so perhaps if Candaules were around today, and in tune with modern kinkiness, he might have the desire to focus a digicam on the exquisite sight of his Nyssia mounting another man…or a woman…or a she-male. (Just thinking out loud here.)
On the other hand, getting back to the main story, Candaules could have been just showing off at Gyges’ expense, or trying to offset his otherwise chummy relationship with the officer by giving him a reminder of just who was king, and who got to sleep with that lovely queen. Or maybe Candaules had had a spat with Nyssia, and was sadistically trying to shame her for his own secret satisfaction–which unfortunately for him turned out to be not so secret.
In the first painting, by the French artist Jean-Leon Gerome, as well as in the second painting by Etty, Candaules looks young but slightly effeminate in his gestures and positioning. In the Etty, he looks strong and buff like the gladiator movie actor of the 1960s, Steve Reeves, but arranged in the traditional position of a female odalisque out of a 19th century academic harem painting! Meanwhile, Gyges looks like one of the hairier characters in a Flash Gordon serial of the 1930s, I can’t remember which. Was it Thun? Or a Viking.
I think the implication in these canvases is that Candaules was not quite the right type of territorial-minded hetero brute necessary to keep a hot number like Nyssia under his thumb.
In contrast, the plate from the Italian Renaissance (circa 1540-1550, as posted by Marion del Okes on Flickr) shows Gyges as a virile young lover, struck by Cupid’s arrow because he has been stupidly introduced to the naked Nyssia by a much older looking Candaules. It’s more like a ribald story of “a fool and his riches are easily parted”…
Well, if they were to make this anecdote into a movie, whom would you cast? Classic movie buff that I am, I reach into the past for Susan Hayward, who so memorably played another steely-nerved aristocrat, Roman temptress Messalina, in the 1954’s Demetrius and the Gladiators. She was also great–and spied on while disrobing–in 1951’s David and Bathsheba.
Yep, this tough-as-nails redhead from Brooklyn could have done a bang-up job with Nyssia. Paging Miss Hayward in heaven! Call your agent…