History of Nations: Phrygia & Lydia

1200 BC – 500 BC

Moving over a bit from Urartu into ancient Anatolia, there are a couple of kingdoms to cover before I move into a bout of early ancient Greece proper. Mainly because, like Troy, these kingdoms would interact with both Greece and the kingdoms further east and though we don’t have as many records from them, they serve as an important bridge and particularly Phrygia would be instrumental in the development of warfare, being the inspiration for the famous Phrygian helmet that . They also make a few appearances in mythology, Phrygia being the homeland of kings Midas and Gordias.


Western Anatolia. If you imagine western Turkey, Phrygia was in the middle, at the west end of the plateau that goes across central Turkey, while Lydia straddled much of the western coast. They were certainly not the only kingdoms in Anatolia, Karia, Mycia, Cappadocia and Cilicia were also around as independent kingdoms at this point but I have chosen them as both gained a fairly large amount of power around the turn of the first millennium and would have been two principal connectors of the Greek world to the Mesopotamian world. Lydia would have been the more fertile of the two nations but Phrygia seemed to be the stronger.


Both appear first in the record after the Hittite Empire declines in the 12th century, so they could be seen as the splintered continuations of that superstate. Lydia’s languages were fairly typical of the Anatolian family, but Phrgyia somewhat surprisingly spoke a language that is much more similar to Greek. Even more confusingly, later Hellenic settlements in Anatolia would appear pretty much everywhere but Phrygia, if you discount the upper hills of Cappadocia. But yes, Lydians were more direct descendants of the Hittites while the Phrygians were a migratory force. Herodotus thought that they were descended from a tribe called the Bryges, who lived north of Greece prior to probably moving to Anatolia and becoming the Phrygians. They could have even been a form of the ‘Sea Peoples’ although they probably migrated earlier than that disaster. Of course, this probably referred to the ruling class and native Anatolians and migrants probably intermingled among the kingdoms.

We’re starting to encounter Herodotus a lot so let me go into what he said about Lydia. According to him, the Lydians were the first people to use silver and gold coins, which is a rather ambiguous claim, but it might mean that they introduced the concept of coinage to Greece so Herodotus saw them as the land of coin. He also goes into detail about the kings of Lydia, I know Gyges is one of the first people he talks about in his Histories, a king from c. 600 BC, who was the founder of the latest dynasty of Lydia prior to its fall. Gyges was a favourite servant, guard or noble of King Candaules but, and here the histories differ, but the basic gist is that he sees the wife or bride of Candaules naked, falls in love with her and then assassinates his boss because of it. As you do. He was one of the kings of Anatolia that the Greeks loved to mythologise.

The other, from Phrygia was Midas. And Gordias, his father, who tied a knot that no one could ever untie, until Alexander The Great came along with a sword and chopped it apart, forever ruining the challenge for everyone else. They were believed to have lived, quite apart from Gyges, at the founding of Phrygia. Midas was Gordias’ son and he had the ability to turn everything he touched to gold. In mythology, literally, in reality, Midas was probably just a very talented king for turning a profit, so much wealth would have been starting to pass through Anatolia that he made Phrygia very rich. There was a real King Midas who ruled Phrygia around the time it was destroyed, at about the time Gyges was coming to the throne. Phrygia you see, was more open to raiding parties and the group called the Cimmerians, who also destroyed Urartu, and they came and sacked Phrygia. Midas was recorded by Strabo as having committed suicide.

Lydia made Phrygia from then on into a province of their empire. This worked for about 100 years until Croesus came on the scene. I like Croesus as you get a fabulous historical story out of him.

Croesus was the king of Lydia from 560 BC until 546 BC. In the century between him and his ancestor Gyges, Lydia had used the power of Phrygia to become desperately wealthy. It was the leading power in Asia Minor and business was booming, the Greeks knew of Lydia and considered it a force to be reckoned with, the outside force that could threaten them if it chose. He had several encounters with Greek fortune tellers in his time, at least that’s what the Greeks recorded, so this is a bit legendary. He asked a sage called Solon who the happiest man in the world is, expecting himself, but got three people who were happier than him – all already dead, to enforce the opinion that a man’s happiness cannot be judged until his life has finished. That’s important for the story.

Later, he dreamt that his son would be killed by a spear. So he kept his son well away from the front line and because of course it would, a boar they were hunting speared him dead. The first known incident of the dreaded ‘hunting accident’ that would in the 21st century be the bane of many a dedicated Paradox Interactive player.

He then paid a visit to Delphi, as foreign kings do. He asked the Oracle if he should attack Persia, a mysterious rising power from out of the East. The Oracle answered that if he attacked Persia, a great kingdom would be destroyed. Seeing no ambiguity in this statement whatsoever, Croesus merrily attacked Cyrus the Great. Shockingly, following his engagement with Cyrus, the great kingdom of Lydia was destroyed. Who could have seen that coming? Well, Cyrus cheated a bit by not playing the then gentleman’s game of going home for winter and attacked Croesus in Sardis and made him his servant. Lydia came under control of the Persians and there ends its story of being an independent state.

I should stress that all these stories are legendary and probably didn’t happen, Croesus probably was executed by Cyrus and all these oracle sayings were probably not accurate, because they’re fun and fun things never happen in history. Croesus’ fall became a common chronological point for Greece, as the mostly friendly Lydia was gone, replaced by a rather expansionist Persia, and the Greek city states were far from being united against the threat as well…


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