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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Lydia and Phrygia

Located in western Anatolia and bordered by the kingdom of Phrygia to the east and Ionia to the west, the kingdom of Lydia flourished during the first millennium B.C. Much of what is known about Lydia derives from the Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century B.C.). He records that King Gyges founded a dynasty (in the late eighth to seventh century B.C.) that flourished until the Achaemenid Persian period. Herodotus also records information about the political relationship between Lydia and its eastern neighbor Phrygia. He reports that Midas, son of King Gordios of Phrygia, was the first Near Easterner to dedicate gifts to the Greek oracle at Delphi, and that the second was Gyges of Lydia. Midas’ dedication would have occurred in the late eighth century B.C., Gyges’ in the late eighth or seventh century, an event likely prompted by knowledge of Midas’ earlier dedication. The precise chronological relationship between Gyges and Midas remains under debate. To Herodotus, the two monarchs were in part contemporary, but from Assyrian texts we know that Gyges also ruled at the time of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (r. 668–627 B.C.). The first Assyrian reference to Gyges was in the 660s and concerned attacks by the Cimmerians, nomadic invaders from the Caucasus who had previously ravaged Urartu and Phrygia. The Assyrian texts state that Gyges defeated the Cimmerians, but that a decade later he was defeated and killed by them. Whether Gyges was an old man at his death and had been a contemporary of Midas, or was a later, seventh-century king, remains unresolved.

Herodotus also provides a moving description of the Lydian king Alyattes’ confrontation at Pteria in Central Anatolia with the Medes, who invaded from Iran, across the Zagros Mountains. In 585 B.C., following a surprise eclipse during a battle, a treaty was signed, and Alyattes’ sister married the Median king. Herodotus also records a later event that links Lydia to Phrygia: Adrastus, a son of the Phrygian king Gordios, son of Midas, sought sanctuary at the Lydian court of King Croesus. Both kingdoms eventually and simultaneously succumbed to the successors of the Medes, the Persians, whose king Cyrus captured Sardis in 546 B.C. Phrygia and Lydia ceased to be independent kingdoms and became provinces (satrapies) of the Persians.

The capital city Sardis is the prime source of Lydian cultural remains. It was first excavated in the early twentieth century and extensively from 1958 to the present. Given the massive overlay of post-Lydian settlements, little of the pre-seventh-century remains—and, indeed, relatively little of the kingdom’s architectural and cultural remains—have been uncovered, except for parts of a monumental fortification wall. A large group of burials each placed under a tumulus exist here, a few of which have been investigated, but they had been robbed in the past; one of them is the largest in Anatolia (198 feet high), and may have held the body of Alyattes; another is claimed for Gyges.

From limited inscriptions, scholars know that Lydian was an Indo-European, Anatolian language. Its culture was basically Anatolian, but by the sixth century B.C., the state maintained strong contacts with Greek cities to its west. Local examples of Phrygian fibulae (ancient safety pins), pottery and metal vessel shapes, decorated roof tiles, and probably the tumulus burial custom also attest to contact with Phrygia. Indeed, a rich tumulus burial containing many typical Phrygian artifacts was excavated in 1986 at Bayandir, not far from Lydian territory.

Lydia was reputed to have much gold. Herodotus records the wealth and variety of Lydian gold artifacts, and a gold refinery has been excavated at Sardis. Lydia has been credited as the first state to have coined money. Lydian pottery is easily identifiable. Especially characteristic is a distinctive shape called a lydion that probably contained a cosmetic, and also a typical form of wavy decoration called marbling; examples of both have been found at many sites, including Gordion—helping to date specific architectural features.