A look at Lydian warfare

Before the rise of the Persian Empire, the kingdom of Lydia was the most powerful neighbour to the ancient Greeks.

Josho Brouwers

Ancient Lydia was located in Western Anatolia, east of the Greek region of Ionia. During the Late Bronze Age, the region was probably known as the Seha River Land, based on references in Hittite archives. Whether or not we may consider the inhabitants already as Lydians is a matter of debate. Homer referred to Lydia and Maeonia.

During the Early Iron Age (ca. 1200–700 BC) we have the pseudo-historical account of Herodotus, in which Atyad kings (Tantalids) made way for Tylonid kings (Heraclids). With the seventh century BC, we enter Lydian history proper. According to Herodotus (Hdt. 1.7–13), the last Tylonid king, Candaules, was assassinated by his bodyguard, Gyges, who subsequently married Candaules’ widow and founded the Mermnad Dynasty.

The Greek word turannos, from which our modern word “tyrant” is derived, is itself taken from a Lydian word that seems to have been first used to denote Gyges (Archilochus fr. 19 West), who seized absolute power by murdering his predecessor. The last king of this dynasty, Croesus (r. 560–547/546 BC), would be defeated by Cyrus the Great. Lydia then became part of the Achaemenid Empire.

To Archaic Greeks, the capital of Sardis had the status of something like Paris: a wealthy city characterized by high culture, opulent with perhaps a little more than a hint of decadence. The city is located at the point where the River Hermus (modern Gediz Cayi) plain meets the foothills of the Tmolus mountains (Boz Dag). Most of the city occupied the area north of the natural acropolis of the city. The city is flanked by two streams that flow down from the mountains toward the River Hermus. The Gygaean Lake is located about two hours’ walk from the city.

Archaeological investigations into Lydian culture have mostly focused on Sardis, a small part of which has been excavated. Field surveys have added considerably to our knowledge of Lydia as a whole, but much work still needs to be done. Interestingly, many details mentioned by Herodotus have been demonstrated to be more or less accurate: for example, Herodotus’ claim that the Lydians mostly used thatched roofs seems to have been confirmed at Sardis.

Cultural exchange

One of the problems in discussing Lydian warfare is that it is very difficult to distinguish “Lydian” from “Greek” material culture. Especially during the Archaic period (ca. 700–500 BC), there were many contacts and exchanges between the Greeks and the various peoples of Anatolia, such as the Carians, Phrygians and Lydians. We may consider the Aegean and Western Anatolia to form part of a single cultural koine, where ideas were freely exchanged between different peoples.

According to Herodotus (Hdt. 1.171), parts of the typically “Greek” panoply were actually invented by Carians, a people that lived just south of the Lydians and in whose territory Herodotus’ home town of Halicarnassus had been founded. Specifically, the Carians are credited with having invented the method of fastening crests to helmets (see also Alcaeus fr. 388 West), the use of shield blazons, and the use of handgrips for carrying shields (in lieu of leather straps).

Some commentators have dismissed Herodotus’ claim that the Carians were responsible for these inventions, but there is no compelling reason to doubt the Greek historian. Ionian Greeks and Carians are known to have cooperated closely in the seventh century BC (for example, Archilochus fr. 216 West), and served as mercenaries in Babylon and Egypt. For example, King Psammetichus (r. 664–610 BC) used Ionian and Carian mercenaries to oust the Assyrians from Egypt (Hdt. 2.152–154). We also know that East Greek mercenaries from Ionia and Rhodes, and probably Carians too, were stated at Mesad Haschavjahu, a coastal fortress on the border of ancient Judea, constructed ca. 630–620 BC and located between Jaffa and Ashdod.

It is sometimes claimed that the Greeks were unusual for fighting beneath the scorching Mediterranean sun in bronze armour. However, bronze plate armour, too, is not a Greek invention, but was also used by certain Near-Eastern peoples, who fought in similar or even hotter conditions. In fact, the techniques for making bronze helmets seem to have been (re)introduced into Greece at the end of the eighth century from Assyria, and we know that the Assyrians used other pieces of metal armour and shields.

Similarly, it seems that the Greeks owed a debt of inspiration to Anatolia when it came to true cavalry. At Gordion, the capital of the Phrygians, ivory inlays of the ninth century BC – that is, more or less contemporary with the Assyrian use of true cavalry – were unearthed within the remains of a structure referred to as Megaron 3 that depict horsemen. These horsemen are very similar to later Greek depictions, complete with round shield and a helmet similar to the later “Phrygian cap” and equipped with cheek-pieces. Another ivory inlay shows a cavalry battle, where the men fight equipped with long lances. Phrygia would eventually be conquered by the Lydians.

Outside of the realm of war, we have the symposium and the use of coins, the latter of which certainly originated in Lydia, which was famous for its wealth. In the Greek world, we can trace the spread of the symposium – where especially drink while lying on couches – from east to west in the course of the seventh century BC, with the process complete around 600 BC. The earliest coins were made of electrum – a naturally-occurring alloy of silver and gold – and minted in Lydia, perhaps as early as the late seventh century BC.

Lydian arms and armour

As far as equipment is concerned, the Lydians were generally equipped with the same types of arms and armour as the Greeks. For the most part, they were equipped with metal body-armour, greaves and helmets, as well as round, Argive shields (with the double-grip) and thrusting spears. However, a Lydian wall-painting from the Tartarli tumulus, near Dinar (province of Afyon) depicts a battle-scene between heavily-armed warriors equipped instead with curved or “sickle” swords.

A silver alabastron of Lydian make and dated to the sixth century BC features an engraved battle-scene, in which heavily-armoured men with Argive shields, greaves and Corinthian helmets fight each other. Interestingly, a few of the shields are equipped with “curtains” – probably intended to ward off arrows – that would later appear on Greek red-figure vase-paintings.

Corinthian helmets were probably invented in Greece and perhaps really even in Corinth itself toward the end of the eighth century BC. (The names of most other types of helmets tend to be conventional, such as the “Chalcidian” helmet.)

Around the middle of the seventh century BC at the latest, a new type of helmet appeared in East Greece: the Ionian helmet. This type of helmet left more of the face exposed and often featured hinged cheek-pieces – perhaps adopted from Assyrian helmets? – and sometimes had a reinforced section running across and above forehead. They may have been very similar to Lydian types of helmets, a late example of which – dated to the mid-sixth century and made of iron with bronze decorations and moveable cheek-pieces – has been unearthed at Sardis

Linen corslets, such as may have been used by Greeks from at least the later sixth century BC onwards (if they were not actually made of leather), may have been a Lydian invention of the seventh century BC. Interestingly, when describing a large store of armours and weapons, the poet Alcaeus ( floruit early sixth century BC) mentions linen corslets rather than bronze cuirasses. Alcaeus was a native of Mytilene, a major settlement on the island of Lesbos; the close proximity to Anatolia may explain the perceived discrepancy.

The Lydians, following the example of other Near-Eastern kingdoms, probably fought in formation (see also the comments on their cavalry, below). This need not have been taken from the Greeks. In fact, it stands to reason that Greek phalanx fighting, if it dates back to the seventh or sixth centuries BC, probably was inspired by similar modes of fighting in the ancient Near East.

Lydian cavalry

Already in Homer, the peoples of Anatolia were famed horsemen. The Greek poet Mimnermus of Smyrna (floruit in the latter half of the seventh century BC), composed exhortation poetry, in which he encouraged his countrymen to defend their city from Lydian attacks. In one fragment, he describes how a single Greek defended himself against the onslaught of Lydian cavalry (fr. 14 West; transl. M.L. West):

His strength and bravery were not like yours,
as I have heard from older men who saw
him on the plain of Hermos with his spear
routing the Lydian cavalry’s thick ranks.
Pallas Athena ne’er had cause to fault
his acid fury, when in the front line
he hurtled through the battle’s bloody moil
against the stinging missiles of the foe.
No warrior of the enemy remained
his better in the strenuous work of war,
so long as he moved in the swift sun’s light.

The Lydian troopers are referred to as hippomachoi, “horse-fighters” (that is, true cavalry in all likelihood). The reference to thick ranks (punikas phalaggas) suggests that they may even have operated in formation. Herodotus remarks that, later, at the time of Croesus, “no nation in Asia was more valiant and warlike than the Lydians. Their mode of fighting was from on horseback; they were armed with long lances, and managed their horses with admirable address” (Hdt. 1.79).

Despite the bravery of the inhabitants of Smyrna, the city nevertheless eventually succumbed to the imperial ambitions of Lydia’s kings. Around 600 BC, King Alyattes II besieged the city and eventually managed to conquer and sack it after building a large siege ramp to scale the walls. (Smyrna’s fortifications were impressive, and I have earlier mentioned that Greek settlements in Asia Minor may have built their fortifications in order to compete with fortified Lydian towns located further inland, and that the city walls of Sardis were very similar to those of Smyrna.)

After the death of Alyattes, his successor Croesus started a large-scale campaign aimed at subjugating the Ionian and Aeolian Greeks in Asia Minor. Once he had forced them all to pay tribute, he decided to build a large fleet in order to conquer the Greek islands.

According to Herodotus (Hdt. 1.27), either Bias of Priene or Pittacus of Mytilene came to Croesus and said that the men of the islands were hiring thousands of mercenary cavalry. Croesus scoffed, since no cavalry could possible hope to match the quality of Lydian horsemen. He then received the reply that the islanders likewise were hoping to catch the Lydian fleet at sea, since their own seamanship was unmatched. Croesus then decided to let the island-dwelling Greeks remain as they were.

Closing remarks

The Greek cities in Asia Minor frequently came into conflict with the Lydians, who grew ever more imperialistic in the course of the Archaic period. But there were also plenty of friendly contacts between Greeks and Lydians. Aside from trade and cultural exchanges, there may even have been official alliances – summachia in Greek – between, for example, the Lydians and the Milesians in the seventh century BC (Hdt. 1.22).

Lydian warfare was very similar to Greek warfare, even if many details – such as battle tactics used – remain largely unknown and the Lydians fielded superior cavalry. It is clear that the peoples of the Aegean and Western Anatolia formed part of a cultural matrix with a free flow of ideas. The Lydians, like other peoples of Western Antolia, shared many similarities with the Greeks, including equipment and probably also modes of fighting: we can easily speak of a common cultural koine.