Alyattes of Lydia


Alyattes: fourth king of the Mermnad dynasty. His reign lasted from ca. 600 to 560.

After Gyges, Ardys, and Sadyattes, Alyattes was the fourth king of Lydia. His name may be derived from the Lydian word walwi, 'lion'. Alyattes' father and grandfather had consolidated the kingdom in western Turkey, and Alyattes embarked upon a policy of conquest. To be fair, the yearly campaigns against Miletus had already started six years before Alyattes became king, and we do not know whether the crown prince or his father made the decision:

Alyattes' custom each year was to invade Milesian territory when the crops were ripe, marching in to the music of pipes, harps, and treble and tenor oboes. On arrival he never destroyed or burned the houses of the country, or pulled their doors off, but left them unmolested. He would merely destroy the trees and [seize the] crops, and then retire. The reason for this was the Milesian command of the sea, which made it useless for his army to attempt a regular siege; and he refrained from demolishing houses in order that the Milesians, having somewhere to live, might continue to work the land and sow their seed, with the result that he himself would have something to plunder each time he invaded the country.
He employed this strategy for eleven consecutive years, during which the Milesians suffered two serious defeats, one in the neighborhood of the harbor district in their own country, the other in the plain of the Meander.note

After the fifth campaign, the two parties agreed to sign a peace treaty. The precise terms are unknown, but Miletus remained independent and the Lydians offered to rebuild one of the Milesian temples. What Alyattes gained is not known, but there must have been something. His yearly campaigns had been easy and the war was, taken as a whole, successful and cheap. Perhaps he received something like a trade concession, or a military alliance, or perhaps he simply needed to secure his western border because in the east, a new war was about to break out - against the Medes, as we will see below. Whatever the precise terms of the treaty, Alyattes sent large offerings to the Greek oracle at Delphi.

For the time being, Alyattes had succeeded where his great-grandfather Gyges had failed: the Lydians had captured Smyrna, something that is confirmed by archaeologists. Although a subsequent attack on Clazomenae was unsuccessful, the Lydians now controlled two ports directly, Colophon and Smyrna, and exercised some influence in Miletus. This means that the Lydians controlled the rivers Meander, Caystrus, and Hermus. They were also masters of the Troad.

In the east, Alyattes conquered the former capital of the ancient capital of Phrygia, Gordium, and built a fortress. The Lydian expansion had now reached central Turkey, and this resulted in new complexities. For instance, the Cimmerians, which had once overthrown Phrygia, were still active, and Alyattes is credited with a victory over this tribe of nomads. It is possible that this remarkable victory was not as spectacular as it seemed to the contemporaries. After their first incursions, nomads often settle down and become less aggressive. It is possible that the Cimmerians had in the meantime become sedentary, and that Alyattes merely boasted that he had overcome a dangerous enemy.

The Medes were another enemy. In 612, they and their Babylonian allies had overcome the Assyrians. Nineveh had been sacked (text) and the Medes and Babylonians divided the empire that had once united the entire Near East. So, the Median king Cyaxares entered central Turkey from the east, through Armenia, and invaded the country known as Cappadocia. Herodotus writes that there was a diplomatic incident in which some Scythians were involved, and continues:

Thales. Roman mosaic from Suweydie near Baalbek. National Museum, Beirut (Lebanon)
Thales. Roman mosaic from Suweydie near Baalbek. National Museum, Beirut (Lebanon)

War continued for five years, during which both Lydians and Medes won a number of victories. On one occasion they had an unexpected battle in the dark, an event which occurred after five years of indecisive warfare: the two armies had already engaged and the fight was in progress, when the day was suddenly turned into night. This change of daylight into darkness had been foretold to the Ionians by Thales of Miletus, who fixed the date for it in the year in which it did, in fact, take place.
Both Lydians and Medes broke off the engagement when they saw this darkening of the day; they were more anxious than they had been to conclude peace, and a reconciliation was brought about by Syennesis, a Cilician, and Labynetus of Babylon, who were the men responsible both for the pact to keep the peace and for the exchange of marriages between the two kingdoms. They persuaded Alyattes to give his daughter Aryenis to Astyages, son of Cyaxares - knowing that treaties seldom remain intact without powerful sanctions.note

Syennesis was the title of the king of Cilicia; the Labynetus mentioned in this fragment is probably the later king of Babylon, Nabonidus (ruled 556-539). Thales' solar eclipse can be dated to 28 May 585 BCE.

The Halys (Kizil Irmak) near Kirikkale,
The Halys (Kizil Irmak) near Kirikkale,

The border between Lydia and Media was established at the river Halys. Herodotus offers a list of nations that were subject to Alyattes' son Croesus. Most of them were by now already subdued:

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

Although this list refers to the situation in c.550, it is likely that most of these tribes were conquered by Alyattes. The Mysians, Mariandynians, Chalybians, Paphlagonians, Thynian Thracians and Bithynians lived in the Troad and along the southern shore of the Black Sea, and had already been subjected by Gyges. The Ionians, Dorians, and Aeolians were the Greeks living in Asia. The Carians had been allies of the Lydians, but it is likely that they had become subjects of Alyattes after a diplomatic marriage (Alyattes' son Croesus had a Carian mother). This leaves only the Pamphylians, in southern Turkey, as a newly conquered people. Perhaps they were subdued by Croesus, but Alyattes' forty-year reign leaves sufficient room for a campaign to Pamphylia.

Bin Tepe, large tumulus
Bin Tepe, large tumulus

Alyattes had at least two wives. A Carian woman gave birth to his daughter Aryenis and his son and successor Croesus, and a Greek woman was the mother of Pantaleon. When Alyattes died, it was not clear who was to succeed him - at least, there was civil strife between Croesus and Pantaleon.

Alyattes was, like all kings of the Mermnad dynasty, buried by his son at the royal cemetery of Bin Tepe, on the plain of Sardes.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 21 April 2020.