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Regionalism in Hellenistic and Roman Asia Minor

Hugh Elton
Gary Reger

The Identities of Lykia

David Potter

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1The theme of this paper is the relationship between empire and ethnic identity. I will argue that the invention, or re-invention, of ethnic identities in the Hellenistic monarchies was a form of local response to external stimulus within the framework constructed on the basis of contemporary Greek culture. But the process of ethnic identification was far older. Imperial states must deal in conceptual collectives, and hence display a tendency towards encouraging subject peoples to establish administratively viable units for themselves. The discourse of ethnicity was every bit as important in the definition of the diverse regions that were once the western satrapies of the Persian empire.

2My interest in Lykia in this connection stems from the fact that the surviving evidence allows us to detect the construction of diachronically distinct Lykian identities, a case study in the impact of the dominant cultures of the eastern Mediterranean upon local populations. From the sixth to the fourth centuries BC, Lykia expanded to roughly triple its initial geographic extent. Within the political and geographic construct of the land of Lykia there were other factors – among them language, taste, family, structure, class division, and, what is often most difficult to define, a sense of national history – that also played a role in the formation of ethnicity. A complete Lykian was a product of all these factors.

  • 1 Bryce 1986, 1-10: 22-23.
  • 2 Frei 1993, 88-89.

3At the end of the sixth century BC enough evidence first appears to begin to discuss ethnic identity in Lykia. At this first appearance of an external record of the future Lykian people, they may be best described as the dominant group in the Xanthos valley (Bresson’s small Lykia). In the indigenous records of the Lykians, which are primarily on inscriptions, we find a people who describe themselves as Tmmerli, apparently a subgroup of the Lukku people attested in various sources from the second half of the second millennium1. The fact that Homer placed the Lykians in the area around Xanthos made it virtually inevitable that the Tmmerli would be identified as Lykians in the Greek world. Thus, from the very earliest point in the classical record, Lykian identity is a two-headed monster, a local identity joined to a broader Aegean identity. Local Lykian traditions were dressed up with Greek myths to offer a character named Tremiles and a Kretan ancestry to explain the difference in terminology2.

  • 3 Bryce 1986, 1.158-71.

4The inhabitants of the Xanthos valley appear to have been receptive to outsiders. Study of the onomasticon of Lykian funerary monuments reveals a number of families with a mixture of Greek and Lykian names3. The evidence for an admixture of Greeks into the upper class – those housed in the tombs – fits with three other features of Lykian culture in this period: the development of an alphabetic script based on a Greek alphabet (Rhodian in this case), the employment of sculptors who were either Greek or trained in Greek workshops for major public monuments, and the adoption of civic coinage by a number of Lykian cities.

  • 4 Coulton 1993b, 79-86; Frei 1993, 89-90.

5Before I go any further along a path that might lead to the suggestion that the evolution of Lykian culture might be taken as a sign of progressive hellenization from the archaic period onwards, I should stress that the Lykian alphabet (like the Karian and Lydian) was developed as a medium for the indigenous languages and that the Lykians insisted on calling themselves Tmmerli, and their land Trmmisa, retained distinctive forms of elite burial, and were ruled by dynasts who were either of Iranian extraction (or adopted Iranian names) and dynasts who retained an indigenous onomasticon. A distinctive culture evolved in the Xanthos valley, drawing strength from a number of sources. It was also quite distinct from the cultures, identifiable as Solymian and Milyan, to the east and northeast, regions that were later to be incorporated in greater Lykia, their own identities all but lost in the literary record4.

  • 5 Zimmermann 1992, 27-51.
  • 6 Zimmermann 1992, 29-48.

6The crucial development of the Persian period was the annexation of new territory to that occupied by the Tmmerli, and the spread of their culture to the east, into the region later known as central Lykia, lands then occupied by peoples who appear in Greek texts as Solymians and Milyans5. The spread of the Tmmerli was a feature of the second quarter of the fourth century, traceable through the appearance of tomb inscriptions and coins that reveal the emergence of new urban communities. Without delving into the role that rivalries between dynasts in the Xanthos valley and the recently emerged dynasts of central, or, as it would be better to say at this time, eastern, Lykia, played in the Satrap’s revolt, the important point here is that the emergence of a vigorous Tmmerlian society is a feature of Persian domination6.

7The dynasts of Lykia appear to have contended for influence within the Persian administrative system while expressing themselves in distinctive style.

  • 7 Wörrle 1991, 206.
  • 8 Wörrle 1991, 206.
  • 9 Mørkholm & Zahle 1972, 92.

8The rulers of Lykia called themselves xntawati in their own language, basileus in Greek. The Greek text on the Xanthos stele records that Gergis “passed on the portion of the kingdom to his family”. A recently published text from Limyra containing a dedication by the fourth century dynast known in Greek as Perikles reads: “Honoring Zeus, son of Kronos and Rhea, highest of the gods, Perikles, ruling the Lykians, set up this altar”7. The emphasis on kingship, with a Homeric ring to it, may, as M. Wörrle has suggested, look back to Homer8, a suggestion that may receive support from the evidence for interest in one highly relevant part of the poem: the story of Bellerophon. Representations of Pegasus and the Chimera appear as early as the fifth century BC9. Other Homeric scenes were popular in the art of contemporary Lykia, especially in the eastern sections from which Perikles emerged.

  • 10 Coupel & Demargne 1969, 159.
  • 11 Asheri 1983.

9Perhaps the best illustration of this dual style appears on the remarkable monument of the Nereids at Xanthos, erected in the first quarter of the fourth century BC10. The decorative scheme combines depictions of wind-blown Nereids (from which this structure takes its name) taken from Greek mythology with vivid illustrations of the virtues of an Iranian satrap: success in war, the joys of the hunt, and the pleasures of the table. It is a masterpiece of the particular style of epichoric sculpture that blended Iranian elements with Greek to create an extraordinarily varied idiom. Erbinnas, the dynast entombed in the Nereid monument, described himself as tyrant over the Lykians, and employed a rather good Greek poet to compose verses in his honor11.

  • 12 Demargne 1958, 75-105, figs. 9-14.
  • 13 Boyce 1982, 2.206-7.
  • 14 Demargne 1958, 1, 39.
  • 15 Bruns-Özgan 1987, 24-25.
  • 16 Berger 1970, 129-140; Demargne 1974, 113.
  • 17 Boyce 1982, 2.172-73.
  • 18 Jacobs 1987, 46.
  • 19 Jacobs 1987, 60-61.

10Similar combinations of styles appear on two other Xanthian monuments. One is the famous Xanthos stele, inscribed on the southern and eastern faces with two long texts in two forms of Lykian, along with a twelve-line Greek poem commemorating the deeds of a local dynast named Gergis in the late fifth century BC. In antiquity, the monument (which reached a height of around ten meters) consisted of a large limestone pillar resting upon a two-stage limestone base topped by a marble-faced funeral chamber with an elaborate frieze. This chamber supported a flat roof which, in turn, supported a seated statue of the dynast12. Is this sort of monument an indigenous development, or is it a reflection of a local adaptation of Zoroastrianism13? According to Zoroastrian beliefs about ritual purity, anyone who approached within thirty paces of a corpse lost ritual purity. This concern with preventing the spread of impurity is first evident in the tomb of Kyros at Pasargadae, where the embalmed corpse from “good creations” was isolated. It has been argued that the same concern may explain the choice of an elevated tomb for one of Gergis’ predecessors who lay within the tomb of the Harpies14. We cannot identify the occupant of this tomb for certain, though it is significant that a number of Iranian names appear among the earliest attested dynasts. What is also of interest is that the celebrated reliefs reveal a considerable debt to Iranian and Mesopotamian techniques of representations, which is at variance with other nearly contemporary sculpture from the site which shows distinct connection with contemporary Greek work15. The tomb derives its name from the depiction of winged women bearing off children on the north and south faces who C. Fellows thought were Harpies16. On one interpretation, the scene of a seated figure on the east side, thought to represent the founder of the dynasty, is executed in a style reminiscent of the carving at Persepolis. The south side represents the founder’s consorts, the east side other members of the family, and the west side the deceased himself. A small aperture cut into the tomb here is a symbolic window for the passage of the soul17. This may be true, and it is certainly the case that there is nothing like it from the first part of the fifth century, or earlier18. Returning to the Xanthos stele, which dates from the end of the fifth century, I want to stress that the nature of the sculptural program cannot be separated from the inscription underneath it. The battle scene may be intended to represent the virtues of the satrap, but the extensive epigraphic program in two languages suggests an allusion to the style of multilingual self-expression exemplified in the Bisitun monument, as Bruno Jacobs has argued in his excellent study of Greek and Persian elements on Lykian grave reliefs19.

  • 20 Bryce 1986, 1.177; Wörrle 1991, 216-217.
  • 21 Bryce 1986, 1.177-78.

11The issue of Zoroastrian influence is complicated by the fact that Gergis explicitly states that he was aided in his endeavors by Athena the sacker of cities, and that he constructed altars for Zeus. In this context Zeus would appear to be the indigenous god Trqqas, an identification that is supported by the Lykian text and evidence from other cities, Trqqas himself being a sky god20. Athena the sacker of cities has been identified with the goddess Maliya21. In other words, the gods that Gergis commemorates are two of the chief gods in the Lykian pantheon in their standard identifications with Greek gods. Where then is there room here for Ahura Mazda? It is possible that the extraordinary sculptures on the Tomb of the Harpies may indeed have been intended to express Zoroastrian ideas, while the tomb of Gergis is an imitation of the style without the religious connotations: That is, Gergis was interested in illustrating the extent of his power in an idiom that borrowed from the idiom of the dominant power.

  • 22 Metzger 1979 with Wörrle 1977, at 60.
  • 23 Jacobs 1987, 65-66.

12If these monuments do indeed express Iranian ideals, or illustrate the Lykianization of Iranian influence, it is all the more striking that we do not get inscriptions in Aramaic in these contexts. The one major Aramaic inscription that we do have, on the Letoon trilingual, comes from the very end of the Persian period, and it is then that we find two archons, plausibly identified as administrators of eastern and western Lykia under the authority of the satrap22. The use of Aramaic on a public document at this period might also need to be read in light of some developments in the self-expression of dynasts emanating from eastern Lykia in the immediately preceding period. If the dynasts of Xanthos appear to have favored a style that was evocative of Iranian ideology, a conscious desire to say something else in their monuments may be attributed to the leading figures of eastern Lykia. The heroa at Trysa and Limyra derive themes exclusively from Greek myth23. Thus again we have a case of local self-expression determined by the canons of an external culture. The occupants of the heroa in question were no less Lykian as a result.

  • 24 Bryce 1986, 1.48-51.

13The coming of Alexander marked the beginning of the end for Tmmerlian culture. At a very short distance from the Tomb of the Harpies there is a third tomb, this one in the form of a sarcophagus mounted on a pillar. It was built rather differently from its neighbor: the sarcophagus is not mounted on a monolith, but on a base constructed of four upright blocks of local stone. It appears to have been constructed in the fourth or even the third century, possibly in imitation of the archaic monuments, an eccentricity that illustrates the passing of the old ways24.

  • 25 Wörrle 1977, 48-56.

14Lykia, now extended to the borders of Pamphylia in the east, fell to the portion of Ptolemy in 309, and appears to have remained under his control, possibly with a brief hiatus after the battle of Salamis, thereafter25. With Ptolemaic rule, the dynasts vanish, and so does the epigraphic expression of Lykian, a development paralleled by the disappearance of Karian in epigraphic contexts, and of the Greek Kypriot writing system. Some aspects of the old administrative system were taken over at first, for two administrators of Lykia appear on an early Ptolemaic inscription from Limyra as oikonomoi, but they seem to have been replaced by a strategos when the cities came to be organized into a koinon around 212/211. It is this league, as Bresson shows, that gave definition to Lykia in the Ptolemaic period, and it was a considerably more peaceful Lykia than that which had been torn apart by the struggles of various dynasts in the last century or so of Persian rule.

  • 26 Bousquet 1988.
  • 27 Walbank 1989, contra Bousquet 1988, 42-51.

15Lykians appear to have acquired a new heritage along with their new rulers. If Wörrle is right, the Greek expression of the notion of rulership was connected with Homer. Under the Ptolemies, a connection with Hercules and Argos becomes more pronounced. Even before the arrival of Alexander, Ephoros appears to have asserted that Xanthos was the son of Triopos, who was a king of the Pelasgian Argives (Diod. 5.81.2). In the late third century this ideas is spelled out in a rather more complex way in a dossier of four letters from the Letoon26. The first document in this collection is a letter of 73 lines which records the Xanthians’ response to an embassy from the people of Kytenion in Doris which had come to them in 206/205 asking for money to help repair damage that had been done to their city by Antigonos Doson twenty-three years earlier27. The next three documents are a decree of the Aitolian league supporting the embassy of the Kytenians to “the Dorians”, a letter from the magistrates and council of the Aitolian league to the people of Xanthos asking them to help the Kytenians, and a letter from the Kytenians to Xanthos explaining their situation and asking them to come to their aid, “to make clear to the Greeks the sympathy which you have for our people and our city in a manner worthy of the ancestors both of yourselves and of Hercules and his descendants [a reference to the well advertised descent of the Ptolemies from the Argead house, which claimed descent from Hercules]” (lines 104-107). In their own decree the Xanthians spelled out their connection to Doris in much more detail (lines 14-30):

... they asked us to be mindful of the kinship which exists between us from the Gods and heroes and not to ignore the ruined wall of their city. Leto, the founder of our city, gave birth to Apollo and Artemis among us: Asklepios the son of Apollo and Koronis, the daughter of Phlegros, the descendant of Doros, was born in Doris. Having exposed the common parentage which links us to them through the gods, they moved on to expose as well the intertwining descent of the heroes among them, establishing the genealogy of Aeolos and Doros. They showed that the colonists departing our land under Chrysaor, son of Glaucos son of Hippolochos, were taken in hand by Aletes, one of the descendants of Hercules: when he left Doris to come to the aid of them when they were engaged in war, and when he had removed the danger that was threatening them, he married the daughter of Aoros, the son of Chrysaor.

  • 28 Robert 1978.

16The continuity of the Argive connection may also appear in the next century in another text from Letoon. The event it describes is the celebration of the Rhomaia, not a great success judging from the number of prizes that were not granted, but interesting in this context in that the only recorded performers from mainland Greece were from Argos28. The Argive connection cannot be traced to any indigenous Lykian tradition, nor can it be derived from Homer. While Homer may have contributed to Tmmerlian self-definition through an internal dialogue between Greek and Tmmerlian habits, the Dorian tradition is a Ptolemaic imposition, adopted by the Lykians as a way of facilitating communication in the post-Alexandrine world.

17Lykia received a new territorial definition from the Ptolemies, and a new identity. With the collapse of Ptolemaic domination in the early second century, the Lykian league passed first under the influence of Rhodes (and a recently discovered text reveals a Lykian contingent being sent to Rhodes in the time of the Mithridatic war) and, increasingly, under the authority of Rome.

  • 29 Weber 1993.
  • 30 Ormerod 1922, 41-44; Magie 1950, 1.281-3, 287-92.
  • 31 Peek 1978, 247-8.
  • 32 Syme 1994, 280.

18With Rome the question of identity become problematic once again. The alliance with Troy in Homer appears to have offered a vehicle for communication from the start, possibly resulting in a situation where a Lykian who behaved in undesirable ways could be identified as something else29. Thus Strabo (14.3.2) says that the Lykian league did not indulge in piracy. When Servilius Isauricus assailed Zeniketes in his stronghold on Olympos (well within the Ptolemaic, and even late Achaemenid, territory of Lykia) he appears to have stated that he was going after an Isaurian bandit30. Zeniketes had called himself a king, and despite what Servilius said, his capital was in Lykia31. In other words, it might begin to appear that if you were a pirate who lived in Lykia, you were not a Lykian. To Cicero we owe the statement that the Lykians, a Greek people, hold Phaselis: the Kyberatis on the northern border of Lykia was a land of brigands, like Pamphylia to the east, but the Lykians were a respectable Greek people whom Roman governors ought to treat with respect – and they were independent. Lykian action against Mithridates may have endeared the koinon to the Republic, and the desperate resistance of Xanthos to the army of Brutus may have endeared them to Augustus. The region continued to exist as an autonomous enclave until the reign of Claudius, when a nasty incident involving some resident Romans led to its incorporation into the dual province of Lykia-Pamphylia. Freedom was briefly granted under Nero, and retracted under Galba, if Syme’s recently revealed argument is accepted32.

  • 33 Plin., Nat., 13.88.

19It is to the reign of Vespasian that we owe a further glimpse of the evolving identity of the area. It must have been around Xanthos that Mucianus was shown a letter that Sarpedon had written from Troy, and which he told the elder Pliny (who believed him) was authentic33. Therefore it appears that when Lykians celebrated their distant past, they firmly believed that past linked them with Greece through the same medium that had linked them with Greece in their earliest history. The Ptolemaic stress on Hercules seems to have given way to older traditions: the Xanthos valley became again the land of Apollo and Artemis, born according to local tradition at Letoon, and it is in this context that I would like to conclude with a vision of Xanthos as it developed in the next century. When Opramoas of Rhodiapolis reconstructed the theater at Xanthos, one pillar tomb was carefully moved to the side of the theater, while the tomb of the Harpies sat atop the cavea, along with the fourth or third century pseudo-pillar tomb that I mentioned earlier. The great stele of Gergis stood in the heart of the agora. The Tmmerlian past was reasserted as a form of communication with the ruling power: it was now suitably ancient and impressive (even if untranslatable).

20What then was Lykian history? It was always an artificial construct from an external perspective, shaped by the forces that shaped Greek culture more broadly, just as Lykia itself was given shape by its external rulers. The discourse of history and cultural memory was the discourse of dominant powers, shaping, on the local level, an idiom that enabled communication both between the ruling powers and the Lykians, and amongst the Lykians, however defined, themselves.


1 Bryce 1986, 1-10: 22-23.

2 Frei 1993, 88-89.

3 Bryce 1986, 1.158-71.

4 Coulton 1993b, 79-86; Frei 1993, 89-90.

5 Zimmermann 1992, 27-51.

6 Zimmermann 1992, 29-48.

7 Wörrle 1991, 206.

8 Wörrle 1991, 206.

9 Mørkholm & Zahle 1972, 92.

10 Coupel & Demargne 1969, 159.

11 Asheri 1983.

12 Demargne 1958, 75-105, figs. 9-14.

13 Boyce 1982, 2.206-7.

14 Demargne 1958, 1, 39.

15 Bruns-Özgan 1987, 24-25.

16 Berger 1970, 129-140; Demargne 1974, 113.

17 Boyce 1982, 2.172-73.

18 Jacobs 1987, 46.

19 Jacobs 1987, 60-61.

20 Bryce 1986, 1.177; Wörrle 1991, 216-217.

21 Bryce 1986, 1.177-78.

22 Metzger 1979 with Wörrle 1977, at 60.

23 Jacobs 1987, 65-66.

24 Bryce 1986, 1.48-51.

25 Wörrle 1977, 48-56.

26 Bousquet 1988.

27 Walbank 1989, contra Bousquet 1988, 42-51.

28 Robert 1978.

29 Weber 1993.

30 Ormerod 1922, 41-44; Magie 1950, 1.281-3, 287-92.

31 Peek 1978, 247-8.

32 Syme 1994, 280.

33 Plin., Nat., 13.88.

© Ausonius Éditions, 2007

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