A short History of the Lydian Kingdom
Introduction: The Rise and Fall of Phrygia
1. Gyges’ Usurpation of Power and his Reign
2. Subjugating the Greeks
3. Fighting the East
4. The Lydian Culture
5. King Kroisos Wealth and his End
The collapse of the Hittite domination over Asia Minor created a power vacuum at the end of the 8th century BC, which was filled by a powerful people of the Phrygians under their King Mita. This name gained mythical fame known as King Midas, but it is not easy to denominate a certain King with it. This Kingdom was short-lived. In the 7th cent., horse-nomad hordes swept over Asia and Asia Minor. The Kimmerians, probably being of Thrakian descent, brought empires to ruins, including that of the Phrygians. Although partly successfully repelling the Kimmerians with the help of mighty Assyria, Phrygian supremacy did not prevail. Asia Minor succumbed into many small realms, none of them was really stable. But one of them became the most powerful Nation known so far. Lydia.
1. Gyges’ Usurpation of Power and his Reign
However, in the beginning, Lydia was as unstable and weak as every other so-called Kingdoms in Asia Minor. The Story of King Gyges Accession was colourfully written by Greek historians and Philosophers, such like Herodot and Platon. Actually, most of them are hardly more than fairy tales of beautiful women, honor, betrayal and mythical rings (which was one basis of JRR Tolkien’s ring btw). Nevertheless the story of Gyges being member of the royal bodyguard and revolting with the help of other nobles against the ‘legitimate’ king told by Plutarch, is quite realistic. It is in any case an interesting parallel of all stories emphasizing the bodyguard’s role in this usurpation.
When Gyges of the Mermnad Dynasty took power in ca. 680BC, he quickly strived for expansion and allies, especially with Assyria. While the first task was rather easy regarding the state of ruinous Asia Minor, the second was more difficult. But after beating back the Kimmerians, he did not think much of alliance with Assyria anymore. It may have been his hoplite force, which assisted reportedly an Egypt usurpator, who soon opposed the Assyrians. Therefore, Gyges made Assyria his enemy. This did not stop his ambitions anyway. He attacked the Greeks, who recently had colonized the eastern coast, establishing the first contact by the means of war.
The greatest thread was not posed by Greeks or Assyrians, but again Kimmerians. They stormed again in Asia Minor and again, nothing could withstand their assault.
This time, Assyria was not willing to assist naturally and so the Lydian capital, S’Fard (or Sardeis in Greek) fell together with King Gyges himself. It proves the strength of his reign, that his kingdom did not fell with him, but recovered. Gyges’ son Ardys finally defeated the Kimmerians once and for all.
2. Subjugating the Greeks
Ardy also continued attacking the Greeks. They proved to be a mighty foe due to their military technology, but their disunity gave Ardys and his successors free hand subjugating their cities one after the other.
As one of the three most important cities in Ionia, Ephesos rulers decided to intermarry with the Mermnads.
Kolophon at first viciously fought the Lydians with their excellent cavalry, but Ardys could overcome them with a strategem, at least, this is what Polyainos reports. From this time forward Kolophon had tense ties with Lydia. Although often regarded by the Greeks as being enslaved, Kolophon enjoyed almost as much freedom as before. They only had to accept Lydian overlords, who did not interfere in internal matters, but asked for military assist in campaigns. That is actually hardly different to any military alliances in antiquity… and it might be a reason for the acceptance of the Lydian rule among many Greeks not only Kolophonians.
Miletos resisted the Lydians for the most time, repelling the attacks of Gyges, his grandson Sadyattes and his son Alyattes. Sadyattes also had to face an Ephesian uprising caused by internal struggles in Ephesos, but when the new Ephesian rulers realized a cooperation of their city with Lydia would be better than the total enslavement seeing the sad fate of Smyrna, they intermarried with the Lydians once again. By this time, during Alyattes reign, most of the Ionian Greeks were subjugated, except of Miletos. They lived perfectly well with it.
But a striking change in the relationship between Greeks and Lydians was caused after the death of Alyattes in ca. 560 BC. (see below)
3. Fighting the East
In 612 BC, the capital of Assyria was sacked by Skythians, Babylonians and Medes putting an end to centuries of cruel Assyrian murderous kingship.
Four major powers filled the gap. The Lydians expanded further eastwards without hindrance, the Babylonians took Mesopotamia back, Egypt now undisputedly reclaimed it’s realm and the Medes now controlled Iran expanding west.
Thereby, Medes and Lydians collided at the Halys. Again, the Greek historian Herodot provides a nice story.
“A tribe of wandering Skythians separated itself from the rest, and escaped into Median territory. This was then ruled by Kyaxares (orig.: Uwakištar), son of Phraortes (orig.: Frawatiš), son of Deiokes (Assyr.: Daiukku ?) . Kyaxares at first treated the Scythians kindly, as suppliants for his mercy; and, as he had a high regard for them, he entrusted boys to their tutelage to be taught their language and the skill of archery. As time went on, it happened that the Skythians, who were accustomed to go hunting and always to bring something back, once had taken nothing, and when they returned empty-handed, Kyaxares treated them very roughly and contemptuously (being, as appears from this, prone to anger). The Skythians, feeling themselves wronged by the treatment they had from Kyaxares, planned to take one of the boys who were their pupils and cut him in pieces; then, dressing the flesh as they were accustomed to dress the animals which they killed, to bring and give it to Kyaxares as if it were the spoils of the hunt; and after that, to make their way with all speed to Alyattes son of Sadyattes at Sardis. All this they did. Kyaxares and the guests who ate with him dined on the boy's flesh, and the Skythians, having done as they planned, fled to Alyattes for protection.” (1,73,3ff)
The truth behind this story are clearly the clashing interests of these empires, taking any opportunity in pretence of pursuing justified issues. When the battle took place, all warriors were stunned as there was a total sun-eclipse. Whether it was the comprehension of the gods’ unwillingness to favour this battle or rather the comprehension that a war between the empires on such a scale would ultimately only weaken both of them and make them easy prey is still up to debate. However it may be, a peace treaty was arranged with the help of Babylon.
Of course, the tensions between the eastern empire and the Lydians never ceased.
4. The Lydian Culture
There is the sever problem that we don’t have much sources on the Lydian culture other than later Greek historians. Moreover, they often used contemporary clichés for describing the Lydian culture, especially about the Lydian laziness and softness. This may have some true core, as the Lydians are indeed attributed with the ‘invention’ of taverns, professional prostitution and dice by the Greeks. However, the Lydians must have been very warlike in their past, otherwise their empire would not have lasted so long against Kimmerians, Medes and Greeks.
What we know is mostly for the nobility during the 6th cent.BC, i.e. when the empire was in it’s prime. The nobility was an equestrian nobility ruling over vast estates, having serfs who worked on these estates. The cities developed much the same way like the ones in Greece, but they had a noble overlord with the King of Lydia.
By the 6th cent.BC, the nobility and society in the cities were widely hellenizied accepting the Greek pantheon, enjoying Greek lyrics etc. This is also expressed in their architecture and partly in their clothing, which adopted Greek forms and patterns. Before this they had a culture similar to the Phrygian and other peoples of Asia Minor, which is extremely difficult to reconstruct due to the lack of sources. Even the few things we know about that, like the worship of Goddess Kybele, are only known to us, because the Greeks partly adopted them (Kybele was identified with Rhea).
A Lydian Nobleman
Those nobles also were the very heart of the Lydian military. According to the Greeks the Lydians were masterful horsemen, who’s combat performance with long lances wielded on horseback was terrifying. Indeed, even Kings trained all their live for war. Kroisos himself took care of always having the best and most modern arms and armour for his retinue.
The conquered peoples provided support troops in various forms, the Greeks, Pamphylians and Karians mustered hoplites, the Phrygians and Mysians light troops and the Paphlagonians light cavalry. The Lydian cities provided hoplites as well, but they also had a tradition of eastern archery since the Kimmerian raids.
Hoplites from Asia Minor, Note the sickles
Lydian Helmet from Sardeis
5. King Kroisos' Wealth and his End
The enormous wealth of Lydia is a bit surprising regarding the constant war warring of their rulers, but trade income from the ports, metals from the mines and crops from the fields provided Lydia with all they needed, moreover the trade partners of Greece and Egypt were rich as well. Nonetheless, another factor concerning the Lydian wealth needs to be stressed: the mintage. Maybe the Lydians were not the very first issuing coins, but the professional, centralized way they did so is still astonishing. Having the most reliable – and only non-payment in kind – currency known so far monopolized, the Lydian court became rich as Croesus … which leads perfectly to the man himself, King Kroisos (the Greek spelling of Croesus)
The heraldic animal of the Mermnads’ dynasty, the Lion is on all coins, although Kroisos has replaced the old motive of the Lion’s head in front of a rising sun by a bull-slaying Lion.
Right his beginning (560 BC) was troublesome. The Greeks, who meanwhile had accepted Lydian rule willingly, were an influential party at the Lydian court and favoured not the eldest son of Alyattes, Kroisos, but a younger son of Ionian descent. One can imagine Kroisos not being all too happy about this.
Being a warrior like his fathers before him, he took up the arms against the Ionians and lay Ephesos under siege. They had to surrender after a while. Interestingly, Kroisos did not enslave everybody, but granted even local self-government. The only punishment was the forced abandoning of the elevated, easy to be defended part of the city. Miletos, undefeated so far, surrendered without fighting to Kroisos benevolence. In 550 BC he was the undisputed ruler over Asia Minor as far as the Halys, the old borderline.
His court was a great allurement for the Greeks with it’s powerful, rich king. Although Kroisos finally subjugated all Greeks in Asia Minor, he also was very philhellene honoring the Greek pantheon and holding the oracle of Delphi and other Greek sanctuaries in high esteem. And last but not least, the Ionian Greeks were a notable cultural power and their overlord, Kroisos fostered that. Many great minds are reported to have met Kroisos, including Solon, Thales and Bias.
At the height of his power, he marched east, crossing the Halys. Whatever one may think about the oracle, which (according to the Greeks) has told him the crossing of the Halys would destroy a great empire, the eastern empire indeed was in some disarray, so the timing was good.
The old Median realm was destroyed, a small tribe called Persian under the leadership of Kuruš had taken power.
The end of the war is well known. Kuruš resisted the Lydian attack for some months and after an undecided battle in Kappadokia the Lydian army retreated. But the Persians followed unexpectedly. It is because Kroisos could not campaign over the seasons due to his levies, who wanted home and some internal problems. Kuruš on the other hand could pursue him his professional troops, who might have threatened the levies in the Persian army to stay.
Finally, in 547, Kroisos stood alone with his nobles and the Sardeian population against the huge Persian army. He put up a great fight, but in the end he lost.
Greek historians now report, that Kroisos almost was killed but his magnitude and Apollon’s interference saved him, so he became chief advisor to Kuruš. The Babylonian chronicles however say he was simply executed.
However, the Lydian empire was not anymore. Kroisos wealth remains proverbal up to day, while his victorious foe is far less known.
Aischylos Persai 41-47
Ephoros Fragment 23
Herodot book 1
Justin Epitome book 1
Platon Republic 2, 359c
Plutarch Moralia 1,302
Polyainos book 7
Sappho Fragment 16
s.v. Lydia (historischer Teil), in: RE 13,2, p.2167-2213
Buxton, A.H.: Lydian Royal Dedications in Greek Sancturies, Berkley 2002
Cook, J.M.: Old Smyrna, in: ABSA 53/54 (1958/59), p.24f.
Cook, J.M.: Archaeology in Greece, in: JHS 72 (1952), p.92-112
Hanfmann, G.M.A.: Sardis und Lydien, in: AbhBerlin 1960, p.497-537
Hellmann, F.: Herodots Kroisos-Logos, Diss., Berlin 1933
Ramage, A.: King Kroisos’ Gold, Harvard 1999
Ramage, A.: Lydian houses and architectural Terracottas, Cambride 1978
Shabazi, Sh.: s.v. Croesus, in: Encyclopaedia Iranica, 401f
Stillmann, N./Tallis, N.: Armies of the Ancient Near East, Sussex 1984
You can muster King Kroios’ excellent army in the recent Rise of Persia Preview!
Lydian Noble Cavalry