Who Were the Lycians?

History has not left us with as clear a picture of the Lycians as it has with some other ancient civilizations, such as the Greeks.  However, some questions and facts regarding the Lycians can be answered or at least speculated upon.

Relief detail from the ceiling of a tomb at Sidyma

The Lycians were an ancient people who inhabited the area of present day Turkey between the bays of Antalya and Fethiye, a compact, mountainous territory. The ancient Greeks knew and admired the Lycians, for the Lycians had solved a problem which baffled the ancient world: how to reconcile free government in the city-state with the needs of a larger political unity. The Lycians had a fierce desire for freedom and independence and this found its expression in their sense of unity and federation.  The institutions of the democratic Lycian Federation (the first democratic union known) were studied and envied by most classical writers.  While Greek city-states were constantly at war with each other, the Lycian cities enjoyed peace amongst themselves.

The Lycians were an important part of the Greek and Near Eastern worlds since they lived at the point where the two cultures intermingled at an important strategic juncture. The Lycians came under the twin influences of their neighbours. As a result they developed a very different style of art.

Relief detail from the ceiling of a tomb at Sidyma

The Lycians were also one of the few non-Hellenistic nations of antiquity which could not be called ‘barbarians’. In fact, their image in antiquity was much like that of today's Swiss: a hard-working and wealthy people, neutral in world affairs but fierce in the defense of their freedom and conservative in their attachment to ancestral tradition. Lycia was the last region on the entire Mediterranean coast to be incorporated as a province in the Roman Empire and even then the Lycian Union continued to function independently. The Lycians spoke a language of their own, with their own unique alphabet, before adopting Greek around the 3rd century BC. Their many monuments, especially their beautiful tombs which embody their ancestor cult, still dot the entire landscape of the southwest coast of Turkey between the Gulf of Fethiye and Phaselis.

Click here to see a map of the ancient regions of Turkey.

Besides their unique form of government, the Lycians may have had one unusual custom that the Greeks found very unfamilliar. Herodotos noted: "They have customs that resemble no one else’s. They use their mother’s name instead of their father’s. If one Lycian asks another from whom he is descended, he gives the name of his mother. And if a citizen woman should cohabit with a slave, the children are considered of free birth; but if a citizen man, even the foremost of them, has a foreign wife or mistress, the children are without honour".   However, it seems that Herodotos may have been speaking of an older Lycian custom, for in Lycian and Greek inscriptions alike a man is described as the son of his father.  But it may be that in private life the Lycians followed a matriarchal order while adhering to contemporary customs in public expression, such as inscriptions on tombs.  So far, no one has been able to solve the question. It is noteworthy, however, that a woman was allowed to preside over the national assembly held each year at the national shrine of Lycia, Letoon.  This is a reminder of the ancient matriarchal customs in Anatolia.


The Lycians’ Origins   

The Lycians were most likely in origin an Anatolian people since they spoke their own Indo-European language closely related to Luwian and Hittite. 

Relief detail from the ceiling of a tomb at Sidyma

From archaelogical excavations in the Karataş-Semahoyuk area near Elmali, examples of earthenware pottery have been found reveal that the region was settled  by the third millennium BC.  Moreover, the fact that Lycian place names containing, "-nd", "-nt", "-ss" (Kalynda, Arykanda, Telmessos, Idebessos) occur in a number of Anatolian sites also dated to the fourth millennium B.C. verifes this early settlement date linguistically.  An axe has also been found at Tlos, dated around 2000 BC.  

We know that the Lycians had powerful sea and land forces by the second millennium BC and had already established an independent state. The earliest historical references to the Lycians date back to the Late Bronze Age (ca 1500-1200 BC) in numerous Egyptian, Hittite and Ugaritic texts. It is known from these that the Lycians (called ‘Lukka’ in these sources) were involved in acts of piracy against Cyprus around 1400 BC, that they fought against Egypt in the ranks of the Hittites during the battle of Kadesh in 1295 BC and that they participated with the Libyans.  What is interesting is that in early records, the Lycians are referred to as 'Lukka', 'Lukki' or 'Ruw-ku', while the Lycians themselves never used these terms, instead calling themselves Trmmli (Termilae in Greek) and their country Trmmisa.

Good webpage about the Lukka from Penn State

Lycia as a rather self-ruling area existed until the Byzantine period (ca 395-1176 AD) though it was affected by disturbances during the Persian domination (545-333 BC) and the Roman Tyranny in 42 BC by Brutus. 

In Greek legend the Lycians first appear as allies of Troy in the Trojan Wars.  Homer reports: "From distant Lycia and the whirling Xanthos came the Lycians led by Sarpedon and heroic Glaucus".  They Lycians seem to have identified with this version of history.  The reliefs of the Heroon of Trysa, one of the greatest finds of Lycian archeology (owned by the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, though not on public display) are unique in classical art as they show scenes of the Trojan War from a Trojan rather than a Greek perspective.

In myth the rulers of Lycia also sometimes appear as the offspring of the mythical hero Bellerophon

In the Lycians' early history, they were confined to the Xanthos River Valley and in later classical times the country expanded north to the Indus River (Dalaman Çayi) and east to Phaselis.  Some scholars believe that before the 6th century conquest of Lycia by the Persians, Lycia's political boundry only existed no further than the Xanthos Valley.  The rest of Lycia's future territory was inhabited by other tribes, such as the Solymoi.

What Did the Lycians Look Like?

We don't have much of a record of physical descriptions, but one interesting aspect of the Lycians may have been their hairstyles, at least in earlier times.  Polyaenus notes that a man named Charimenes managed to escape across Lycia by putting on false hair.  Oeconomica tells a story of Mausolos' hyparch taxing the hair lenght of the Lycians.  Long-haired Lycians are also depicted in some relief sculptures, on a sacrophagus from Limyra, on some coins and on a silver-head vase in the British Museum.  These are the only descriptions and depictions we have of long-haired Lycians, however.

Relief detail from the ceiling of a tomb at Sidyma

In 480 BC the Lycians joined the Persian king Xerxes's invasion of Greece with 50 ships. Heredotus gives us this description of the Lycian crew:

"The wore greaves and corslets; they carried bows of cornel wood, cane arrows without feathers, and javelins. They had goatskin slung round their shoulders, and hats stuck round with feathers. They also carried daggers and rip-hooks."

This description tells us that the Lycians had a very different appearance from other troops from Asia Minor, who wore Greek armor.