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The Lycian coast north of Phaselis. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Lycian coast, north of Phaselis
Lycia: the mountainous southwest of Turkey.

Landscape and Early History

The landscape of southwestern Turkey, ancient Lycia, is dominated by the fact that in this region, a part of the African Plate collides with the Eurasian Plate. The southern slopes of the Western Taurus rise almost directly from the Mediterranean Sea, making the country almost inaccessible and the coast dangerously rocky. However, over the ages, the little rivers flowing down from the mountain range have laid down fluvial sediments: plains that can be cultivated., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
Lycia. Design Jona Lendering.
The country, or at least a part of it, is almost certainly identical to the land of the Lukka people, who are mentioned in Hittite sources. There are no known treaties and Lukkan kings are not mentioned, which suggests that these people were not organized as a real state. This is more or less confirmed by the absence of monumental architecture, which suggests that the inhabitants of Lycia were nomads, living in a tribal society. There was no state apparatus.

Officially, the Lukka people were subject to the great king in Hattusas, but just as often, we read about the Lukka as allies of the western enemies of the Hittites. They are also mentioned as pirates, and perhaps this is confirmed by Homer's Iliad, in which the Lycians are mentioned as valiant warriors (12.307-330). Indeed, it is not impossible that in the Late Bronze Age, Lycian pirates were active in the Aegean Sea, and that Homer remembered this.

Bellerophon and Pegasus on a sarcophagus from Megiste. National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.
Bellerophon and Pegasus on a sarcophagus from Megiste. (National Archaeological Museum, Athens).

In the Iliad, the commanders of the Lycians are Glaucus and Sarpedon. The latter was a son of Zeus and Europa, and a brother of king Minos of Crete, who had sent him into exile. This ancient story was explained by later generations as evidence that the Lycians were, originally, Cretans.

The Iliad contains another story about Lycia's early history: the tale of Bellerophon, who killed a monster called Chimaera. It is a traditional legend about a dragon slayer, and is situated in the eastern part of the country, where future generations knew a place called Chimaera. Although the story from the Iliad may be a much older Lycian myth, Bellerophon's Corinthian ancestry was later taken as evidence for a Greek origin of the Lycians. Iit must be noted, though, that one of the first authors to record this story, the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, adds that the Cretans were no Greeks (Histories, 1.173).

Omphale. Lycian bust from the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.
Lycian bust of Omphale (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)

In reality, the Lycians were autochthonous. Their language, known from a corpus of less than 200 fifth- and fourth-century texts, is not well understood, but is clearly related to Luwian, the dominant language of Anatolia in the Bronze Age. For example, the Luwian storm god Tarkhunt was venerated by the Lycians as Trqqas (who was later identified with Zeus). Another example of religious continuity is the cult of the "mother of the gods" of the ancient Luwians; she was to become identified with Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis.

Archaic Age

The inhabitants of Lycia called themselves Trmmili, a name almost never used by other nations, who invariably called them Lycians. An exception is Herodotus, who correctly calls them "Termilae" and informs his reader, rather implausibly, that these people were renamed when an Athenian called Lycus had come to live with them (Histories, 7.92).

The Lycians become archaeologically "visible" in the eighth century BCE, when the acropolis of Xanthus was settled. Not much later, Greeks from Rhodes founded Phaselis and several other towns. These settlers must have given the alphabet to the Lycians, and their demand for agricultural products must have stimulated the economy. Yet, most people remained shepherds, roaming through the mountains with their herds. When, in the first half of the sixth century, the Lydian kings Alyattes (r. ca.600-ca.560) and Croesus (r. ca.560-ca.547) united western Turkey, Lycia remained independent - at least according to Herodotus (Histories, 1.28). It was impossible to send an army into the mountainous area, and besides, there was little to conquer in a country of pastoralists.

Lycian tombs at Myra. Photo Jona Lendering.
Lycian tombs at Myra

After 547, the Persian king Cyrus defeated Croesus and added the Lydian kingdom to his empire. After he had left, his general Harpagus led several mopping up operations, and he was the first to conquer the Lycians. According to Herodotus, his army completely destroyed Xanthus and killed all inhabitants, except for eighty families that had not been in town during the attack (Histories, 1.176). They may have been shepherds, who were in the mountains.

After the Persian conquest, the dynasty of Xanthus became more important, and it is almost certain that it owed its special position to Persia. It is likely that the great king had appointed the Xanthian prince as representative of all Lycians, responsible for the payment of tribute. (If we are to believe Herodotus' list of Persian satrapies, king Darius regarded the Pamphylians, Lycians, Carians, Ionians, Magnesians, Aeolians, and Milyans as one tax unit; Histories, 3.90.) The Xanthian was also the commander of the Lycian fleet. Herodotus mentions a man named Cybernis as taking part in Xerxes' invasion of Greece (in 480) (Histories, 7.98). His real name must have been Kuprlli.

There were other dynasts. Names like Khinnakha, Sppntaza, and Tethtiweibi are known from inscriptions and coins, which were issued to pay soldiers and to stress the dynast's autonomy. (The economy was not yet monetized, so coins served other purposes.) Yet, the Xanthian dynasty was clearly the most powerful.

Classical Age

After the mid-fifth century, we find the Lycians in the Athenian alliance, the Delian League, which was directed against Persia and Sparta. This may indicate that the Lycians had become unhappy with Persian rule, but it is also possible that an Athenian army or navy had forced them into surrender. We know for certain that Cimon was active in this area in c.468, but there must have been similar, unrecorded expeditions.

From this moment on, Greek civilization influenced the Lycian way of life. The small towns increasingly started to look like cities; people who built rock tombs were often imitating Greek architecture; and many texts were written in two languages. The Greeks also became increasingly interested in Lycia. However, there was always room for misunderstanding. For example, Herodotus says that the Lycians thought it was more important to know a person's mother than his father (Histories, 1.173), an idea that is hardly borne out by epigraphic evidence.

When the Athenians and Spartans in 431 became enemies, Lycia regained its independence, which inevitably led to more Persian influence. Its main ally Xanthus was able to expand its power and conquer Telmessus. Yet, there were also people who wanted to revert to a more pro-Athenian policy, or proposed complete independence. One such leader was Pericles of Limyra, who, in c.400, established himself in the eastern part of Lycia, started to call himself "king of Lycia", proceeded to the west, defeated a prince named Arttumpara (the Lycian form of the Persian name Artembares), captured Telmessus, and put an end to the Xanthian dynasty.

A tower in the southeastern part of the city wall. Photo Marco Prins.
Tower in Oenoanda

After the Revolt of the Satraps (367-362), Lycia reverted to Persian authority, as is clearly shown by the Xanthus Trilingue, which shows that the local Persian ruler was fully in charge. The Lycians were now dependent on Maussolus, the satrap of Caria. He was also a hellenized ruler, proving that Persian political control did not exclude Greek cultural influence.

Hellenistic Age

Independence was never recovered and Lycian culture was now disappearing. The latest known Lycian inscription was written in the fourth quarter of the fourth century. When the Persian Empire collapsed in the late 330s, the Lycians did not become autonomous again: they were conquered by Alexander the Great, who marched through the country in the winter of 334/330. There was some resistance, but Alexander's local commander, Nearchus, put an end to it.

A brief list of foreign rulers dominates the next stage of Lycian history: after the death of Alexander in 323, the country was successively ruled by his general Antigonus, by Ptolemy I Soter of Egypt, by a brother of Cassander, and finally by the son of Ptolemy, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, who firmly established his power in 275. The Ptolemaeans ruled over Lycia for almost a century, but in 197, during the Fifth Syrian War, the Seleucid king Antiochus III the Great took power. However, he lost the Syrian War against the Romans, and in 188, the Senate gave Lycia to its ally Rhodes.

The twelve Lycian gods. Archaeological Museum of Antalya (Turkey). Photo Jona Lendering.
A dedication to Zeus (top, center), Artemis (bottom, center), and the Twelve Lycian Gods, who are standing on twelve dogs (Archaeological Museum of Antalya)

The Lycians hated their knew master, and united in the Lycian League. According to the geographer Strabo of Amasia, there were twenty-three member towns, divided into three classes (Geography, 14.3.3). Every small town had one vote; the larger towns could hold two votes; and the cities of Pinara, Tlos, Xanthus, Patara, Myra, and Olympus held three votes. Judges and other officials were elected from the towns in the same proportion. The Romans soon reverted their decision and granted Lycia its independence in 168, but the League continued to exist, for the first time as an autonomous nation after a century and a half.

Roman Age

Yet, Lycia was now part of the Roman sphere of influence and suffered from the First Mithridatic War (89-85), when king Mithridates VI of Pontus attacked all Roman possessions in Asia Minor. When the war was over, the Romans redesigned the map and added Cibyra, Balbura, Bubon, and Oenoanda to Lycia, towns situated in the interior. Phaselis was occupied by the Cilician Pirates, but they were no match for the Roman general Pompey the Great, who in 67 reorganized the Near East. A couple of years later, Cicero visited Lycia, and described the inhabitants as "a Greek nation". This suggests that the fantastic stories about Bellerophon and Sarpedon were by now widely believed as accurate descriptions of events in the early days. The Roman politician also observed that "they come close to singing at the end of their speeches" (Orator, 18.57).

In the crisis after the assassination of Julius Caesar, one of the murderers, Brutus, attacked Lycia. Xanthus was ruthlessly sacked, and it became clear that the country, although formally independent, was in fact Roman territory. (The main city was, after the destruction of Xanthus, Patara.) A prince named Gaius, grandson of Rome's first emperor Augustus, traveled easily trough Lycia, and although he died in Limyra (in 2 CE), this had nothing to do with violent anti-Roman resistance. In these years, Strabo wrote that Lycia was a well-governed region (Geography, 14.3.3). The Romans finally annexed it in 43 CE, creating the new province of Lycia et Pamphylia.

The arch of Vespasian at Xanthus. Photo Jona Lendering.
Arch of Vespasian, Xanthus

The Roman Empire guaranteed rest, and for some time, Lycia was quiet. The Lycian League, expanded to thirty towns, played a role in the cult of the emperor, but was no longer a political instrument. Our sources do not refer to sensational events. For example, Pliny the Elder tells an anecdote about a governor who had dinner inside a plane tree with seventeen guests (Natural History, 12.9). Athenaeus praises the rue from Myra (Deipnosophistae, 2.59b) and Pliny has a kind word about Telmessian wine (Natural History, 14.74). Other sources refer to Lycian sponges (which Aristotle, had already mentioned as something special: History of Animals, 5.16), to the rose attar from Phaselis, and to the saffron from Olympus. No serious matter, in other words.

Several emperors are known to have ordered buildings in Lycia. Hadrian, for example, ordered better port facilities in Andriace (near Myra). Antoninus Pius intervened after an earthquake. Septimius Severus and Caracalla are also mentioned as benefactors of the Lycian towns. The bridge at Limyra, one of the oldest segmented arch bridges in the world, cannot be dated accurately, but is certainly a Roman construction.

Gradually, Lycia disappears from our sources. The Byzantine author Zosimus knows about a bandit leader, Lydius, who ravaged Pamphylia and Lycia, until in 280 the Roman emperor Probus captured him in Cremna (in Pisidia) (New History, 1.69). We learn about Christian leaders, but even the most famous of them, Nicholas of Myra, is just a name. In 366, an usurper named Procopius fled to the mountains of Lycia, but he was handed over to the emperor Valens, who had him beheaded (Ammianus Marcellinus, Roman History, 26.9). Again: just anecdotes.

Yet, we know that the population continued to increase, and that Lycia did not really suffer from the plague of 541. Perhaps people fled to this isolated part of the Roman world, perhaps it was too far away from the great trade routes to suffer from the disease. We don't know. The only thing we can establish, is that the decline from which the Mediterranean world generally suffered, started late in Lycia. Yet, by the mid-seventh, when the Arabs started to raid the coasts, the ancient country suffered heavily. Now, the Middle Ages had also begun for the Lycians.
Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 22 April 2010
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