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The End of Lydia: 547?

One of the most important texts for the study of the chronology of the sixth century BCE is the Nabonidus Chronicle, which seems to prove that the Persian king Cyrus the Great captured the Lydian capital Sardes in 547. This is an important synchronism between the chronologies of Greece and the ancient Near East. However, things are more complex than they are usually presented: it was not Lydia, but Urartu that was overthrown.

The Problem

Nabonidus Chronicle. British Museum, London (Britain)
Nabonidus Chronicle. British Museum, London (Britain)
The historian's first task is to get the sequence of events right. The more important issues, like explaining the events and explaining their significance, must wait until the chronology has been established. Those studying the eastern Mediterranean in the Archaic Age, have to cope with two problems:

At the moment, dendochronological researchers are making great advances, but the complications for the centuries before 490 BCE are still great, and our chronology remains to a large extent based on Egyptian king lists (overview) and Babylonian chronicles and Astronomical Diaries.

For Greece, the sequence of events in what we call the sixth century BCE is more or less known from Herodotus of Halicarnassus. The Histories contain a general account of the history of towns like Sparta, Corinth, and Athens, and many synchronisms: people who knew each other, battles, et cetera. It is obvious that Herodotus uses two chronological systems, which appear to be out of step for a generation, but his outline of Greek history - the relative chronology - is pretty clear. Unfortunately, it is difficult to establish an absolute chronology, i.e., to make a match between the events and the number of years.

However, the situation is not entirely hopeless. It is clear that the rule of Polycrates, the tyrant of Samos, coincided with the reign of the Persian king Cambyses, and that Polycrates' downfall occurred after the double coup d' état in Persia that took place in 522. We can be reasonably certain that the death of Polycrates occurred in 522-518. Finally, there is another synchronism between Greek and Persian history: the conquest of Lydia and the death of its king Croesus. This event is mentioned by Herodotus and several other authors, and took place between 550 (when the Persian leader Cyrus the Great overcame his Median overlord Astyages) and 539 (the year in which Cyrus took Babylon).

The Nabonidus Chronicle

The Nabonidus Chronicle, also known as ABC 7 (= document #7 in A.K. Grayson's Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, 1975), appears to offer more information. The text mentions Cyrus several times. In the first place, there's a reference to his overthrow of Astyages in the sixth year of the Babylonian king Nabonidus, i.e. 550 or 549. In the second place, the events in the ninth year of Nabonidus, 547/546:

In the month of Nisannu, Cyrus, king of Persia, called up his army and crossed the Tigris below the town of Arbela. In the month of Ajaru he marched against the country [damaged], killed its king, took his possessions, put there a garrison of his own. Afterwards, his garrison as well as the king remained there.

The damaged word is of course the crux. One sign can be read, and there is space for two other signs. In 1924, Sydney Smith proposed to read Lu-..., which he took as the first syllable of the word Lydia. Grayson thought that even a second sign could be read, and reconstructed Lu-u[d-di]. If this is correct, the king who was killed was Croesus, and we have a synchronism between the histories of the Near East and the Aegean world.

A first problem, however, is that Herodotus says that Croesus was not killed. Cyrus wanted to burn him alive, but when Croesus prayed to Apollo, it started to rain, and Cyrus - understanding that the Lydian was blessed by the gods - accepted him as a courtier. But this story poses no real problem. The Greek poet Bacchylides writes that when the last king of Lydia wanted to burn himself alive, the god intervened and took him  away to the mythical Hyperboreans in the extreme north. This is another way of saying that the god had pity and gave Croesus a tranquil death - he was not tortured but quietly "taken away" to a better place. Herodotus has rationalized this story and used Croesus to shape his narrative: the former king is always the "tragic warner" who invariably gives sound advice that is ignored. This is not historiography as we like to read it, but this is how Herodotus does things.

So, Croesus was killed or killed himself when Sardes was captured, and Herodotus' story is no objection to accepting the synchronism. Most historians have put the end of Lydia in 547, which gives us the possibility to date several important events in Greece. An example is the battle of Thyrea between the Spartans and the Argives, which took place at the time of the fall of Sardes.

Of course, this assumes that Smith and Grayson are right that the damaged word is Lu-u[d-di]. However, Zadok pointed out that the orthography of Lydia is Lu-ú-du, and Grayson says in the "Addenda and Corrigenda" to ABC 9 (included in the second edition) that the signs may indeed be Lu!?-ú!?-[du]. However, he also notes that Lambert read the first sign as Zu. To make matters worse, the first scholar to read this text, Hagen in 1894, read Su. Walther Hinz has argued that the executed king may have been the leader of Suhu, a country along the Middle-Euphrates, at the beginning of the road to Tadmor (Palmyra) and Syria. But this creates a new problem: Suhu had lost its independence long ago - although it is not impossible that it had regained some autonomy after the fall of the Assyrian Empire, or during the reign of Nabonidus.

Nobody accepts the synchronism any more, and many scholars feel a bit embarrassed that they have so long seen on this tablet what they wanted to see. The only thing we know for certain is that in 547, Cyrus conducted a successful campaign west of the Tigris. In 1977, Cargill summed up the evidence and concluded:

There exists [...] no clear evidence for the exact date of the conquest of Lydia

Latest theories

But this was too pessimistic. In 1997, Oelsner decided to settle the issue once and for all, and concluded that the sign is Ú, the first sign of Urartu. This makes sense. It is likely that Cyrus, after he had conquered Media, spent several years to establish his power in Iran - in other words, he demanded subjection by the tribes that had once been loyal to Astyages. Urartu belonged to these territories. If this is correct, we may assume that Sardes was in fact captured in 542 or 541, although a date after the fall of Babylon (539) can not be excluded: we have only Herodotus' word that Sardes was captured before the cultural capital of the ancient world - which means that the principle of testis unus testus nullus applies.

So, it would seem that Urartu was the target of the campaign in 547. However, a recent collation (12 March 2013; still unpublished) by Bert van der Spek, Mark Geller, and Irving Finkel, suggests that after all Lu is the most probable reading for the damaged sign, as was also suggested by professor W.F. Lambert on 3 June 2010 (cf. Zawadski 2010, 147 note 27). So in the end, we're back where we started: the interpretation "Lydia" seems to be the most probable interpretation. Van der Spek is working on a new edition and discussion of the text.


This page was created in 2007; last modified on 29 December 2014.