Lydians: Herodotos on king Croesus and Lydian customs (mid-fifth century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Daniel Mitchell, 'Lydians: Herodotos on king Croesus and Lydian customs (mid-fifth century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 26, 2024,

Ancient author: Herodotos of Halikarnassos, Histories, or Inquiries, portions of books 1, 2, 4, 5 and 7 (link).

Comments (by Daniel Mitchell): Writing about 420 BCE, Herodotos (also Latinized as Herodotus) of Halikarnassos in Karia (Caria) provides our earliest account of Lydians. As a Greek inhabitant of Karia, Herodotos offers a great deal of first-hand knowledge about the Lydians, who were both neighbours of Karia and ethnically related to the indigenous Carians (cf. 1. 171; below). Herodotos’ excursus on the Lydians focusses more on the history of events surrounding the rise and fall of Croesus, the fifth and final king of an independent Lydia, than it does on Lydian customs and culture. The notable dearth of detail on Lydian culture may be explained by Herodotos’ neighbourly familiarity with them, since he is accustomed to discuss only those aspects of Lydian culture that depart from that of the local Greeks, who had first established colonies on the western coast of Asia Minor around 1,000 BCE. In this regard, Herodotos’ limited ethnographic analysis of the Lydians gives the impression that their customs were quite similar to those of Greeks, which may well have been the case after nearly six-hundred years of close contact and trade between the Lydians and Ionian Greek colonists.

Herodotos’ account of the Lydians covers a number of topics, including their history, geography, military habits, and some social and cultural practices. His generally positive reception of the Lydian people may also be influenced in part by his narrative recounting of King Croesus’ war with Persia, the failure of which brought the Greek world into direct contact with the Persians and set the table for harrowing Greco-Persian wars that would follow. Herodotos also relates a legend about a Lydian migration which connects Lydians with Tyrrhenians or Etruscans settled in Italy.


Book 1

[The origin story of Croesus, the fifth and final king of Lydia]

6 Croesus was a Lydian by birth, son of Alyattes, and sovereign of all the peoples west of the Halys [Kızılırmak] river, which flows from the south between Syria and Paphlagonia and empties into the sea called Euxine [Black Sea]. (2) This Croesus was the first barbarian we know who subjugated some Greeks and took tribute from them, and who won the friendship of others: the former being the Ionians, the Aiolians, and the Dorians of Asia, and the latter being the Spartans. (3) Before the reign of Croesus, all Greeks were free: for the Kimmerian army [from what is now the Crimea] which invaded Ionia before his time did not subjugate the cities, but raided and plundered them.

[Greek stories about the origins of Lydian kings]

7 Now the sovereign power that belonged to the descendants of Herakles [i.e. a Lydian deity identified by Greeks as Herakles] came to the family of Croesus, called the Mermnads (Mermnadai), in the following way: (2) Kandaules, whom the Greeks call Myrsilos, was the ruler of Sardis. He was descended from Alkaios, son of Herakles; Agron son of Ninos, son of Belos, son of Alkaios, was the first Heraklid king of Sardis, and Kandaules son of Myrsos was the last. (3) The kings of this country before Agron were descendants of Lydos, son of Atys, from whom this whole Lydian district got its name. Before that it was called the land of the Maionians (Meiones). (4) The Heraklids, descendants of Herakles and a female slave of Iardanos, received the sovereignty from these and held it, because of an oracle. They ruled for twenty-two generations, or five hundred and five years, son succeeding father, down to Kandaules son of Myrsos. . . [material omitted].

[Lydian social perception of nudity]

10 The [wife of king Kandaules] glimpsed [Gyges] as he went out, and perceived what her husband had done. But though shamed, she did not cry out or let it be seen that she had perceived anything, for she meant to punish Kandaules; (3) since among the Lydians (Lydoi) and most barbarian peoples it is felt as a great shame that even a man be seen naked. . . . [material omitted].

[Croesus’ conquests of peoples in Asia Minor]

26 After the death of Alyattes, his son Croesus, then thirty-five years of age, came to the throne [ca. 560 BCE]. The first Greeks whom he attacked were the Ephesians. (2) These Ephesians, who were besieged by him, dedicated their city to Artemis. They did this by attaching a rope to the city wall from the temple of the goddess, which stood seven stadium-lengths away from the ancient city which was then besieged. . . . [material omitted].

28 As time went on, Croesus subjugated almost all the peoples west of the river Halys; for, with the exception of Cilicians (Kilikes) and Lycians (Lykioi) , Croesus held subject under him all the rest. These were the Lydians, Phrygians (Phryges), Mysians (Mysoi), Mariandynians (Mariandynoi), Chalybians (Chalybes), Paphlagonians (Paphlagones), the Thracian Thynians (Thynoi) and Bithynians (Bithynoi), Carians (Kares), Ionians (Iones), Dorians (Doriees), Aiolians (Aioliees), and Pamphylians (Pamphyloi). 29 After these peoples were subdued and subject to Croesus in addition to the Lydians, all the sophists [i.e. learned men] from Greece, who happened to be alive at that time came of their own volition to Sardis [i.e. the capital city of the Lydians], which was at the height of its prosperity. Among them were Solon the Athenian, who, after making laws for the Athenians at their request, went abroad for ten years, sailing out to see the world, Solon said. . . . [material omitted].

[Lydian “purification” custom the same as the Greeks]

35 Now while Croesus was occupied with the marriage of his son, a Phrygian of the royal house came to Sardis in great distress and with unclean hands. This man came to Croesus’ house, and asked to be purified according to the native custom. So Croesus purified him (2) (the Lydians have the same manner of purification as the Greeks) and when he had done everything customary, he asked the Phrygian where he came from and who he was. . . . [material omitted].

[Croesus’ contributions to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi]

49 Such, then, was the answer from Delphi delivered to Croesus. As to the reply which the Lydians received from the oracle of Amphiaraos when they had followed the due custom of the temple, I cannot say what it was, for nothing is recorded of it, except that Croesus believed that from this oracle too he had obtained a true answer.

50 After this, he tried to win the favour of the Delphian god [i.e. Apollo] with great sacrifices. He offered up three thousand animals from all the kinds fit for sacrifice, and on a great pyre burned couches covered with gold and silver, golden goblets, and purple cloaks and tunics. By these means he hoped to increase his chances of winning the assistance of the god, to whom he also commanded that every Lydian sacrifice what he could. (2) When the sacrifice was over, he melted down a vast store of gold and made ingots of it. . . There were a hundred and seventeen of these. Four of them were of refined gold, each weighing two-and-one-half talents, and the rest were of gold with silver alloy [i.e. electrum], each of two talents’ weight. (3) He also had a figure of a lion made of refined gold, weighing ten talents. When the temple of Delphi was burned, this lion fell from the ingots which were the base on which it stood. Now it is in the treasury of the Corinthians, but weighs only six talents and a half, for the fire melted away three and a half talents.

51 When these offerings were ready, Croesus sent them to Delphi, with other gifts additionally: namely, two very large bowls, one of gold and one of silver. The golden bowl stood to the right, the silver to the left of the temple entrance. (2) These were also removed about the time of the temple’s burning. Now the golden bowl, which weighs eight and a half talents and twelve minai, is in the treasury of the Klazomenians, and the silver bowl at the corner of the forecourt of the temple. This bowl holds six hundred nine-gallon measures: for the Delphians use it for a mixing-bowl at the festival of the Theophania [i.e. Divine Appearance]. (3) The Delphians say it is the work of Theodoros of Samos, and I agree with them, for it seems to me to be good workmanship. Moreover, Croesus sent four silver casks, which stand in the treasury of the Corinthians, and dedicated two sprinkling-vessels, one of gold, one of silver. The golden vessel bears the inscription “Given by the Lakedaimonians [Spartans],” who claim it as their offering. But they are wrong, (4) for this is also Croesus’ gift. The inscription was made by a certain Delphian, whose name I know but do not mention because he wants to please the Spartans. The figure of a boy, through whose hand the water runs, is indeed a Spartan gift, but they did not give either of the sprinkling-vessels. (5) In addition to many other offerings, Croesus also sent certain round basins of silver and a female figure five feet high, which the Delphians assert to be the statue of the woman who was Croesus’ baker. Moreover, he dedicated his own wife’s necklaces and girdles.

52 Such were the gifts which he sent to Delphi. To Amphiaraos, of whose courage and fate he had heard, he dedicated a shield made entirely of gold and a spear made entirely of solid gold, the spear-head and spear-shaft alike. Both of these were until my time at Thebes, in the Theban temple of Ismenian Apollo. . . . [material omitted].

[Oracle concerning the Lydians and Persians]

53 The Lydians who were to bring these gifts to the temples were instructed by Croesus to inquire of the oracles whether he was to send an army against the Persians and whether he was to add an army of allies. (2) When the Lydians came to the places where they were sent, they presented the offerings, and inquired of the oracles, in these words: “Croesus, king of Lydia and other peoples, believing that here are the only true places of divination among men, endows you with such gifts as your wisdom deserves. And now he asks you whether he is to send an army against the Persians, and whether he is to add an army of allies.” (3) Such was their inquiry, and the judgment given to Croesus by each of the two oracles was the same: namely, that if he should send an army against the Persians he would destroy a great empire. And they advised him to discover the mightiest of the Greeks and make them his friends.

54 When the divine answers had been brought back and Croesus learned of them, he was very pleased with the oracles. So, altogether expecting that he would destroy the kingdom of Cyrus, he sent once again to Pytho and endowed the Delphians, whose number he had learned, with two gold staters each. (2) The Delphians, in return, gave Croesus and all Lydians the right of first consulting the oracle with an exemption from all fees, the chief seats at festivals, and perpetual right of Delphian citizenship to whoever should wish it.

55 After his gifts to the Delphians, Croesus made a third inquiry of the oracle, for he wanted to use it to the full, having received true answers from it, and the question which he asked was whether his sovereignty would last long. To this the Pythian priestess answered as follows: (2) “When the Medes have a mule as king, / Just then, tender-footed Lydian, by the stone-strewn Hermos / Flee and do not stay, and do not be ashamed to be a coward.” 56 When he heard these verses, Croesus was pleased with them above all, for he thought that a mule would never be king of the Medes instead of a man, and therefore that he and his descendants would never lose his empire. Then he sought very carefully to discover who the mightiest of the Greeks were, whom he should make his friends. . . . [material omitted].

[Lydian military tactics and courage]

79 . . . (3) Now at this time there was no people in Asia more valiant or warlike than the Lydian. It was their custom to fight on horseback, carrying long spears, and they were skillful at managing horses. . . . 80 . . . (2) When Cyrus [reigned over Persia, ca. 559–530 BCE] saw the Lydians maneuvering their battle-lines here, he was afraid of their cavalry, and therefore at the urging of one Harpagos, a Mede, he did as I shall describe. Assembling all the camels that followed his army bearing food and baggage, he took off their burdens and mounted men upon them equipped like cavalrymen and, after equipping them, he ordered them to advance before his army against Croesus’ [Lydian] cavalry. Cyrus directed the infantry to follow the camels, and he placed all his cavalry behind the infantry. (3) When they were all in order, he commanded them to kill all the other Lydians who came in their way and to spare none, but he commanded them not to kill Croesus himself, even if he should defend himself against capture. (4) Such was his command. The reason for his posting the camels to face the cavalry was this: horses fear camels and can endure neither the sight nor the smell of them. This then was the intention of his maneuver that Croesus’ cavalry, on which the Lydian relied to distinguish himself, might be of no use. (5) So when battle was joined, as soon as the horses smelled and saw the camels they turned to flight, and all Croesus’ hope was lost. (6) Nevertheless the Lydians were no cowards, and when they saw what was happening, they leaped down from their horses and fought the Persians on foot. Many men of both armies fell. At length the Lydians were routed and driven within their city wall, where they were besieged by the Persians. . . . [material omitted].

[Tomb of Alytattes and Lydian marriage customs and prostitution]

93 There are not many amazing things in Lydia to record in comparison with other lands, except the gold dust that comes down from Tmolos [in reference to both mount Tmolos and Tmolos the god]. (2) But there is one building to be seen there which is the best of all, except for buildings in Egypt and Babylon. In Lydia is the tomb of Alyattes, the father of Croesus, the base of which is made of great stones and the rest of it of mounded earth. It was built by the men of the market, the craftsmen and the prostitutes. (3) There survived until my time five corner-stones set on the top of the tomb, and in these was engraved the record of the work done by each group [i.e. market-men, craftsmen, and prostitutes]; and on measurement it showed that the prostitutes’ share of the work was the greatest. (4) All the daughters of the common people of Lydia practice the trade of prostitution to collect dowries, until they can get themselves husbands, and the women offer themselves in marriage. (5) Now this tomb has a circumference of thirteen hundred and ninety yards, and its width is above four hundred and forty yards, and there is a great lake near the tomb, which the Lydians say is fed by ever-flowing springs; it is called the Gygaian lake. Such then is this tomb.

[Lydian custom and the legend of colonizing Tyrrhenia in Italy]

94 The customs of the Lydians are like those of the Greeks, except that they make prostitutes of their female children. They were the first men whom we know who stamped and put into circulation coins made of gold and silver [i.e. the alloy electrum], and they were the first to sell by retail. (2) According to what they themselves say, the games now in use among them and the Greeks were invented by the Lydians: these games, they say, were invented among them at the time when they colonized Tyrrhenia.

This is their story: In the reign of Atys son of Manes there was great scarcity of food in all Lydia. For a while the Lydians bore this with what patience they could. Then, when there was no abatement of the famine, they looked for remedies. Diverse plans were devised by diverse men. Then it was that they invented the games of dice and knuckle-bones and ball, and all other forms of pastime except only draughts, which the Lydians do not claim to have discovered. Then, using their discovery to lighten the famine, they would play for the whole of every other day, so that they might not have to seek for food. The next day they stopped playing and they ate. This was their manner of life for eighteen years. But famine did not cease to plague them, and rather afflicted them even more seriously. Finally, their king divided the people into two portions and made them draw lots, so that the one part should remain and the other leave the country. The king himself was to be the head of those who drew the lot to remain there, and his son, whose name was Tyrrhenos, of those who departed. Then one part of them, having drawn the lot, left the country and came down to Smyrna and built ships. They loaded all their goods that could be carried onto the ship and sailed away to seek a livelihood and a country. Finally, after sojourning by many peoples in turn, they came to the Ombrikians [Umbrians], where they founded cities and have lived ever since. They no longer called themselves Lydians, but Tyrrhenians, after the name of the king’s son who had led them there. The Lydians, then, were enslaved by the Persians. . . . [material omitted].

[Stories regarding the relationship between Lydians, Carians, Kaunians, Lelegians, Mysians, and Lycians]

171 After subduing Ionia, Harpagos [Mede who was a general for the Persian Cyrus] made an expedition against the Carians, Kaunians, and Lycians, taking with him Ionians and Aiolians. Among these, the Carians were a people who had come to the mainland from the islands. In the old days they were islanders, called Lelegians and under the rule of Minos, not (as far as I can learn by hearsay) pay him tribute, but manning ships for him when he needed them. Seeing then that Minos had subdued much territory to himself and was victorious in war, this made the Carians at the time to be the most highly regarded of all peoples. The Carians invented three things in which they were followed by the Greeks: it was the Carians who originated wearing crests on their helmets and devices on their shields, and who first made grips for their shields; until then all who used shields carried them without these grips and guided them with leather belts which they slung round the neck and over the left shoulder. (5) Then, a long time afterwards, the Carians were driven from the islands by Dorians and Ionians and so came to the mainland [i.e. Asia Minor/Anatolia].

This is the Cretan story about the Carians, but the Carians themselves do not subscribe to it, but believe that they are aboriginal inhabitants of the mainland and always carried the name which they bear now. (6) The Carians point to an ancient shrine of Karian Zeus at Mylasa as evidence, to which shrine Mysians (Mysoi) and Lydians are admitted as brothers of the Carians, for Lydos and Mysos, they say, were brothers of Kar. More to the point, those people who have come to speak the same language as the Carians but originated from another people are not admitted to the shrine.

172 The Kaunians, to my mind, are indigenous to this soil. However, they themselves say that they came from Crete. Their speech has become similar the Carian language, or the Carian to theirs (for that I cannot clearly determine). Nonetheless, in their customs they are mainly cut off from the Carians, as from all other men. Their chief pleasure is to assemble for drinking-competitions in such companies as accord with their ages and friendships – men, women, and children. Certain foreign rites of worship were established among them. But presently when they were otherwise minded, and would worship only the gods of their fathers, all Kaunian men of full age put on their armour and went together as far as the boundaries of Kalynda, striking the air with their spears and saying that they were casting out the foreign gods.

173 That’s what their customs are like. The Lycians were from Crete in ancient times, because in the old days no one living on Crete was Greek. Now there was a dispute in Crete about the royal power between Sarpedon and Minos, sons of Europe, Minos prevailed in this division and drove out Sarpedon and his partisans. Once they were thrown out, Sarpedon and his partisans came to the Milyan land in Asia. What is now possessed by the Lycians was Milyan in the old days, and the Milyans were then called Solymians. For a while Sarpedon ruled them, and the people were called Termilians (Termilai), which was the name that they had brought with them and that is still given to the Lycians by their neighbours. However, after the arrival of Lykos son of Pandio (another exile, banished by his brother Aigeus) from Athens to join Sarpedon in the land of the Termilians, they came in time to be called Lycians after Lykos. Their customs are partially Cretan and partially Carian. But they have one custom which is their own and shared by no one else: they take their names not from their fathers but from their mothers. When someone is asked by his neighbour who he is, he will say that he is the son of such a mother, and recount the mothers of his mother. In fact, if a woman of full rights marries a slave, her children are considered pure-born, and if a true-born Lycian man takes a foreigner as a wife or concubine, the children are dishonoured, even though he is a native of the land.

174 So neither the Carians nor any Greeks who live in this country accomplished anything of note before they were all enslaved by Harpagos. . . [omitted sections].


Book 4

[Lydians on the etymological origins of “Asia”]

45 . . . (2) I cannot guess for what reason the earth, which is one, has three names derived from women. . . and I cannot learn the names of those who divided the world, or where they got the names which they used. (3) For Libya is said by most Greeks to be named after a native woman of that name, and Asia after the wife of Prometheus [cf. Herodotos 4.12]. Yet the Lydians claim a share in the latter name, saying that Asia was not named after Prometheus’ wife, Asia, but after Asies, the son of Kotys, who was the son of Manes, and that from him the tribe called “Asiades” at Sardis also takes its name. . . . [material omitted].


Book 7

[Lydians in the Persian army]

74 The Lydian armour was most similar to the Greek. The Lydians were formerly called Maionians (Meiones), until they changed their name and were called after Lydos, son of Atys. The Mysians wore on their heads their native helmets, carrying small shields and javelins of burned wood. (2) They are settlers from Lydia, and are called “the Olympian ones” (Olympienoi) after the mountain Olympus. The commander of the Lydians and Mysians was the Artaphrenes son of Artaphrenes who attacked Marathon with Datis.


Source of translation: A. D. Godley, Herodotus, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920-25), public domain, adapted and modernized by Daniel Mitchell and Harland.

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