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Lydia

Lydia: ancient kingdom in western Turkey. Its capital was Sardes. In Antiquity, this country was well known for its gold carrying river Pactolus; the wealth of the last Lydian king Croesus, who had been the first to mint gold, was and is proverbial.

The country

A Lydian. Relief from the East Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
A Lydian. Relief from the East Stairs of the Apadana, Persepolis
Lydia is the western part of Turkey. Its center consists of the city of Sardes and the lofty valley of the river Hermus. The country is fertile, but its greatest asset is the small river Pactolus, which carries gold.

To the north, the region was separated from Mysia and the Troad by the river Caicus; its most eastern point was the sacred mountain Dindymus, dedicated to the goddess Kuvav (Greek Cybele); in the south, we find Caria, which is on the other bank of the river Meander and south of Miletus.

As early as the thirteenth century BCE, the Aegean shores were occupied by Greeks. In the Archaic age, they were divided into three groups: the Aeolians in the north, the Ionians in the center (around Ephesus and Miletus) and the Dorians in the south, opposite Caria (main town Halicarnassus).

Early history

King Tarkasnawa of Mira
King Tarkasnawa of Mira
In the thirteenth century BCE, the valley of the Hermus belonged to the powerful kingdom of Mirâ, with Abasa (Ephesus) as capital. The people spoke Luwian; one of their kings is represented on a relief in the Karabel pass between Ephesus and Sardes. Although Mirâ was conquered by the Hittites and disappears from the written record at the beginning of the twelfth century, there is considerable continuity between Mirâ and Lydia, because Lydia's borders are more or less identical and the Lydian language (which is known from some 100 inscriptions) resembles Luwian. It is interesting, although not very important, to notice that the Greeks were incapable of pronouncing Lydian; many names with a /d/, they render with an /l/ (e.g., Dugdammê > Lygdamis).

The first Lydian to be recorded after the Dark Ages is king Gyges, the founder of the Mermnad dynasty, who can tentatively be dated to 680-644. According to the Greek researcher Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the house of Gyges replaced an older dynasty, the Heraclids, which had ruled for twenty-two generations or 505 years. (This dynasty claimed to descend from the Kuvav's escort, the god Sandon, called Heracles by the Greeks.) Adding 680 to 505, we arrive at 1195, about the time of the disappearance of Mirâ, but this probably just coincidence. In fact, the history of Lydia between the early eleventh and seventh century is simply unknown, although the Hermus valley must have become, at some stage, part of the kingdom of Phrygia.

The Mermnads

The Pactolus
The Pactolus
In the first decade of the seventh century BCE, Phrygia was overthrown by the Cimmerians, who sacked the capital Gordium. Gyges was one of the men who rose to power. He overthrew Sadyattes, a vassal of the Phrygians, and after he had defeated the Cimmerians in 679, he was able to create a kingdom of his own, Lydia. Archaeologists have shown that at this time, the second quarter of the seventh century, Sardes became an impressive city with real houses, covered with roof tiles. One of the sources of Gyges' power must have been his control of the river Pactolus and its gold.

Tumuli at the Lydian royal cemetery at Bin Tepe
Tumuli at the Lydian royal cemetery at Bin Tepe
After these successes, he moved to the west, where he conquered parts of the Troad and the Greek city of Colophon. From now on, Lydia had a harbor.

However, Gyges' success seemed temporary. Although the king of Lydia had allied himself to Assyria, he had to face a new invasion of the Cimmerians in 644. Gyges was defeated, Sardes was sacked, and the Greek cities in the west suffered. However, Gyges' kingdom was strong enough to survive the violent death of its founder. His son Ardys succeeded him and buried his father on the plain of Sardes at the Lydian royal cemetery at Bin Tepe.

Lydian stater.
Lydian stater.
At first, Ardys continued his father's policy. He continued the struggle against the Greeks in the west, and captured Priene. However, he understood that he could not take Miletus, the largest city on the Aegean coast, because the Lydians had no navy. Therefore, he signed a peace treaty with the Milesians and allowed them to build colonies in the Troad. Abydus, where one can easily cross from Asia to Europe, is probably the most important of these Greek settlements.

Several numismatists think that Ardys was the first to mint coins. Although not everyone agrees on the date, it seems reasonably clear that the first coins were used to pay soldiers. Almost every coin shows a lion, probably the heraldic symbol of the Mermnads.

The Halys (Kizil Irmak) near Kirikkale
The Halys (Kizil Irmak) near Kirikkale
In c.625, Ardys was succeeded by his son Sadyattes, who is hardly more than a name to us. The reign of his son and successor Alyattes is much better known. In the west, he fought an inconclusive war against Miletus but was able to capture Smyrna and concluded a treaty with Ephesus. He also advanced to the east, where he took Gordium, decisively defeated the Cimmerians, and reached the river Halys. Here, his army, which included the Greek scientist Thales of Miletus, met the armed forces of another empire on the rise, Media.

In 612, the Medes had descended from the Zagros mountains, where they lived, and had sacked Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrians. Their empire had been taken over by the Babylonians, and the Medes continued their raids to the east, south and northwest. So, in 585, the Median leader Cyaxares entered Armenia and invaded the country known as Cappadocia. On 28 May, he fought a battle against Alyattes of Lydia, but before a decision was reached, the sun eclipsed and the two kings decided to sign a peace treaty. The ties were strengthened even more when the Median crown prince Astyages married a Lydian princess. The Halys was to be the border. Herodotus describes the size of Alyattes' empire:

Bin Tepe, large tumulus
Bin Tepe, large tumulus
Except the Cilicians and Lycians, he kept all the people west of the Halys in subjection - Lydians, Phrygians, Mysians, Mariandynians, Chalybians, Paphlagonians, Thracians (both Thynian and Bithynian), Carians, Ionians, Dorians, Aeolians, and Pamphylians.note

Alyattes bequeathed this empire to his son Croesus, whose reign started after a civil war against his half-brother Pantaleon.

Croesus finished the Greek war of his ancestors, capturing every town in Aeolia and Ionia, except for Miletus, but including Ephesus, where he rebuilt the famous sanctuary of Artemis - or Artimus, as the Lydians said. Croesus' court was famous for its luxury and splendor, and received many visitors: e.g., the Greek writer Aesopus and the Athenian statesman Solon.

The citadel of Sardes, seen from the west
The citadel of Sardes, seen from the west
However, the rich city of Sardes became a natural target for the armies of Cyrus, the king of Persia. He had overthrown his overlord, the Median king Astyages, and was rapidly expanding his territories. Croesus decided to strike first; after all, Astyages had been his brother-in-law, and if it were not possible to restore him to the Median throne, Croesus might, for example, conquer Cappadocia and Armenia. He allied himself to the pharaoh of Egypt, Amasis, and to the Spartans of Greece. Perhaps, king Nabonidus of Babylonia belonged to the same alliance.

Head of Croesus on a Greek vase
Head of Croesus on a Greek vase
The war is usually dated to the year 547 BCE, depending on a very uncertain reading of the Babylonian Chronicle #7 (more...). However, whatever the precise date, Cyrus defeated Croesus somewhere east of Ankara, besieged him in Sardes, and took the city before the Spartans or Egyptians could come to Croesus' assistance. His ultimate fate is variously described. According to Chronicle 7, Croesus was killed. The Greek poet Bacchylides, on the other hand, writes that when Croesus wanted to burn himself alive, the god Apollo intervened and took the last king of Lydia away to the mythical Hyperboreans in the extreme north. Herodotus rationalizes this story and says that Cyrus put Croesus on the pyre, regretted his act before it was too late, ordered the pyre to be extinguished, and made Croesus his adviser. Whatever the precise circumstances of Croesus' death, Lydia had lost its independence. A part of the population appears to have been deported to Nippur in Babylonia, where a community of Lydians is recorded in the Murašu Archive.

Gyges
ca. 680 - 644
Ardys
644 - ca.625
Sadyattes
ca.625 - ca.600
Alyattes
ca.600-ca.560
Croesus
ca.560-ca.547

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 24 August 2014.