Lycia's Unique Government

The Lycian League is the first known democratic union in history.  The Lycians always had an instict for collaboration with a strong regional-cultural identity and Lycia is famous for its tradion of independent city-states that joined in the strong Lycian League that was in many ways a model political organization.  Despite the steep geography that divides the lands of Lycia, some invasions of foregin powers and some attempts of would-be tyrants to take power, the League remained strong.



The League's Assembly building at Patara

Lycia's system of elected representatives was unique in the ancient world and much admired by ancient writers and later peoples. In fact, the writers of the constitution of the United States studied the Lycian federal system of government with proportional representation as a possible model for their own government (see the Federalist Papers). 

Of the early League there is no precise information, but even under the dynasts of the fourth century BC Lycian inscriptions refer many times to the payment of fines to the "Federal Treasurer of the Trmmli". (Trmmli the word that the Lycians called themselves).  It is believed that as a political alliance of member cities, under a ruling Lychiarch (the head of the Assembly) and Assembly, the League was formed in about 205 BC.

Triskeles emblem on Lycian coin, British MuseumCoinage of Lycia confirms the testimony of ancient historians, especially with regard to the federal league; among no other ancient people were federal institutions so wisely made and firmly rooted as among the Lycians.  It is clear that some sort of federation existed between the early dynasts (coins were minted representing them).  A distinctive symbol marks the federal coinage of the cities that took part in the league, a Triskeles, which may be a solar emblem representing rotary motion.  If so, this may refer to Apollo, a Lycian national deity, the god of light.

Regarding the later Lycian League we have information supplied by Strabo, Livy and Pliny.  It seems that 23 member cities elected one, two, or three representatives to the Assembly (Synedrion), depending on the size of the city.  Smaller towns combined to send one representative. The six largest cities - Xanthos, Patara, Pinara, Tlos, Myra and Olympos - each held the maximum of 3 votes, and the less important cities possessed either one of two votes each.  Taxes and other public financial burdens were allocated in these proportions to the various cities as well.  Each year when the Assemby convened it elected the Lyciarch and other federal officers.  A League court and judges settled disputes between cities and minor magistrates and jurors in the federal courts were elected from each city proportional to its voting power.

The League held extensive rights over the cities of Lycia and controlled communal land, trade rights and the rights of citizens to marry.  Free male Lycian citizens who were city residents or landowners outside of the cities were allowed to vote for their representatives in the Assembly and had other various privileges.

Livy tells us that the Lycian League's capital was at Patara, rather than Xanthos, and that the archives were held in the Apollo temple there. (Read about the discovery of the Lycian League's parliment building at Patara)

The League's system of representative government with privileges and obligations in direct ratio to a city's classification is its outstanding feature.  Strabo tells us that the political stability of Lycia's strong union of cities was the main reaason the cities were able to survive under various occupations, especially during the troubled years of the Late Hellenistic period.  Even during the Roman period when the governor, empire and army maintaned the ultimate authority, the Lycian League was responsible for the religious, economic and legal matters of Lycia - distinct from the areas of Pisidia and Pamphylia that technically belonged to the same Roman province.  Once difference under the Romans, however, was that unlike early times when the Lycian League decided on questions of war, peace and alliance, these decisions now (except in special cases) rested in the hand of Rome.

Local council buildings have been found, such as that of Arycanda.  During this bouleuterion's excavation, voting pieces made of fired clay were discovered.  The number of holes piercing them indicated "yes", "no" and "abstain", excellent proof of the existence of democratic government in Lycia long ago.