Herodotus on Lydia

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Joshua J. Mark
published on 05 November 2022
Available in other languages: Persian

Herodotus’ narrative on Lydia takes up almost one half of Book I of his Histories and the section dealing with King Croesus is among the best-known and often anthologized. The last section, in which he discusses Lydian women as prostitutes, is not as well-known but continues a criticism of the region earlier reserved only for its king.

Herodotus (l. c. 484-425/413 BCE) visited Lydia in the course of his travels and provides an account in I.6-I.94 of Histories. In the last two chapters, he describes the women of Lydia as prostitutes who sell themselves to build up a dowry for marriage and then discusses how this relates to the famous Tomb of Alyattes before moving on to a discussion of how the Lydians reacted to famine by playing distracting games and some of them relocating and changing their names.

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Map of Lydia
Map of Lydia
Roke (CC BY-SA)

His description of the young women of Lydia as prostitutes is thought to be accurate as the same is mentioned by Strabo (l. c. 64 - c. 24 CE) and Aelian (l. 175-235 CE) – Strabo at 11.14.16 of his Geography and Aelian at 4.1 of his Histories – regarding other cultures. Strabo references Herodotus as accurate and, at 5.2.3, also supports Herodotus’ claims below (I.94) on the Tyrsenians changing their name from Lydians after leaving the region.

Scholar Irene-Evangelia Georgiou, and others, however, have noted how Herodotus seems to use the description of the Tomb of Alyattes, and how it was funded primarily from prostitution, to encourage a sense of superiority among his Greek readers at the Lydians’ expense. He writes at I.94, “Now the Lydians have very nearly the same customs as the Hellenes, with the exception that they prostitute their female children” and then continues on, having already described the practice, without further commentary.

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Croesus' story is told in an unflattering light beginning with the first king of the Mermnad Dynasty.

This silence on Herodotus’ part here has led some scholars, including Georgiou, to surmise that, in his last two chapters on Lydia, Herodotus is not-so-subtly suggesting Greek superiority in a way that is not apparent elsewhere in his work. As Georgiou notes, “Herodotus' implication is that the Greek way is the right way” in that, however wealthy and prosperous Lydia may have been, they still engaged in a practice that Greeks would reject as shameful (201). While this may be true, Herodotus’ criticism of Lydia is not reserved for the last two chapters of his narrative. It actually begins in I.6, continues all the way through, and is only overlooked because, for most of the account, it is directed at Croesus.

Herodotus on Croesus

Herodotus spends most of his time on the reign of Croesus between I.6-I.92 and, midway through I.6, seems to hint at how he will portray the Lydians to his Greek audience when he notes how “Croesus was the first non-Greek to have subjected Greeks to the payment of tribute.” He moves on from this point to his now-famous narrative of the Mermnad Dynasty (c. 700-546 BCE) and its fall. This sentence on tribute may mean little to a modern-day reader but, to Herodotus’ Greek audience, it would have been a reminder of the subjugation of the Ionian Greeks by Croesus whose story is then told in an unflattering light beginning with the first king of the Mermnad Dynasty.

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Lydian Silver Stater
Lydian Silver Stater
Mark Cartwright (CC BY-NC-SA)

The dynasty was founded by Gyges (r. c. 680-645 BCE) who had assassinated the last king of the Heracliade Dynasty, Candaules. Gyges, who had been Candaules’ bodyguard, had been forced by the king to hide in the royal bedchambers so he could secretly see the queen naked and corroborate Candaules’ claim that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. The queen noticed him, however, and, humiliated at having a bodyguard see her unclothed, offered him the choice of helping her avenge herself on her husband, as she recognized he had come up with the scheme, or being executed on the spot. Gyges chose survival, killed the king, married his widow, and assumed the throne.

Gyges and his successors Ardys (r. 644-637 BCE) and Sadyattes (r. 637 - c. 635 BCE) all died fighting Cimmerian raiders who were continuously sacking Lydian settlements. The Cimmerians were defeated by Alyattes (r. c. 635-585 BCE) father of Croesus (r. 560-546 BCE), who becomes Herodotus’ focus for the first part of Book I of the Histories. Under Alyattes, the first coins in the world were minted – made of electrum – while under the reign of Croesus, they were minted of gold.

Croesus, as the central character of the narrative, is regularly shown as dull-witted, malicious, and greedy.

After a power struggle with his stepbrother Pantaleon, Croesus took the throne and began systematically conquering the Greek city-states of Asia Minor. Once he had subdued Ionia, he then drew up treaties with the island cities off the coast in the Aegean and profited from these alliances in exacting tribute. From Herodotus’ mention of Croesus subjecting Greeks to payment of tribute in I.6, through his description of Croesus’ harsh military tactics in his war with the Greek colony of Miletus in I.17 and his predecessors’ tactics in I.18-I.25, his interview with the Greek lawgiver Solon the Wise (I.29-I.33) and on through I.94, Croesus – as well as his predecessors – are depicted as graceless and scheming tyrants while the Greeks, epitomized by the Solon meeting, are shown as wise and thoughtful. Croesus, as the central character of the narrative, is regularly shown as dull-witted, malicious, and greedy.

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Fall of Croesus

Herodotus focuses on Croesus’ greed in I.46-I.91 – from the time he contemplates attacking Cyrus II (the Great, r. c. 550-530 BCE) of the Achaemenid Empire until his defeat by Cyrus at the Battle of Thymbra in 547 BCE, the siege of Sardis, and his capture. Croesus sent emissaries to the Oracle at Delphi, asking if he should go to war against Cyrus and, in hopes of receiving a propitious answer, sent “an enormous amount of gold” (I.50), confident in the future wealth he would amass once Cyrus was defeated and his young empire under the control of Lydia.

Red-Figure Depiction of Croesus
Red-Figure Depiction of Croesus
Marco Prins (Public Domain)

The Oracle accepted the gold and gave the emissaries their famous answer: “they told Croesus that, if he made war on the Persians, he would destroy a great empire, and they advised him to find out which was the most powerful Greek state and ally himself with it” (I.53). Croesus was delighted, launched his war against Cyrus and, after his defeat at Thymbra and a 14-day siege, found himself in chains and about to be executed on a pyre in front of Cyrus.

At this point, it is only because he begins moaning about Solon’s visit and how he should have listened to him regarding the mistake of thinking himself the happiest man in the world, that Cyrus stays the execution and allows Croesus to send to the Oracle to find out where he had gone wrong. The Oracle replies that Croesus should have followed up his first question with another: which empire – Cyrus’ or his own? – and so the fault was entirely his. The Oracle also informed him that his defeat was destined from the moment Gyges assassinated Candaules – usurping a position he was not entitled to and betraying the trust of his master – and that this punishment was simply justice.

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However a modern-day audience might interpret the story of Croesus, Herodotus is careful to present it in a light that would not only be acceptable to his Greek readers, but satisfactory. The story could be interpreted as the Lydian tyrant getting what he deserved for his treatment of the Greek city-states of Ionia. Herodotus becomes more direct in his last two chapters, at least in how an ancient Greek audience might have understood them, but they are not the singular criticism some have claimed.

Tomb of Alyattes & the Prostitutes

After a final discussion of Croesus’ dedicatory offerings in I.92, Herodotus moves to his narrative on the tomb of Alyattes and how it was financed before concluding the narrative with his account of how the Lydians dealt with misfortune by some of them migrating to other lands. The following passages come from The History of Herodotus translated by G. C. Macauly:

I:93. Of marvels to be recorded the land of Lydia has no great store as compared with other lands, excepting the gold-dust which is carried down from Tmolos; but one work it has to show which is larger far than any other except only those in Egypt and Babylon: for there is there the sepulchral monument of Alyattes the father of Croesus, of which the base is made of larger stones and the rest of the monument is of earth piled up. And this was built by contributions of those who practised trade and of the artisans and the girls who plied their traffic there; and still there existed to my own time boundary-stones five in number erected upon the monument above, on which were carved inscriptions telling how much of the work was done by each class; and upon measurement it was found that the work of the girls was the greatest in amount. For the daughters of the common people in Lydia practice prostitution one and all, to gather for themselves dowries, continuing this until the time when they marry; and the girls give themselves away in marriage. Now the circuit of the monument is six furlongs and two hundred feet, and the breadth is thirteen hundred feet. And adjoining the monument is a great lake, which the Lydians say has a never-failing supply of water, and it is called the lake of Gyges. Such is the nature of this monument.

I:94. Now the Lydians have very nearly the same customs as the Hellenes, with the exception that they prostitute their female children; and they were the first of men, so far as we know, who struck and used coin of gold or silver; and also they were the first retail-traders. And the Lydians themselves say that the games which are now in use among them and among the Hellenes were also their invention. These they say were invented among them at the same time as they colonised Tyrsenia, and this is the account they give of them:—In the reign of Atys the son of Manes their king there came to be a grievous dearth over the whole of Lydia; and the Lydians for a time continued to endure it, but afterwards, as it did not cease, they sought for remedies; and one devised one thing and another of them devised another thing. And then were discovered, they say, the ways of playing with the dice and the knucklebones and the ball, and all the other games excepting draughts (for the discovery of this last is not claimed by the Lydians). These games they invented as a resource against the famine, and thus they used to do: —on one of the days they would play games all the time in order that they might not feel the want of food, and on the next they ceased from their games and had food: and thus they went on for eighteen years. As however the evil did not slacken but pressed upon them ever more and more, therefore their king divided the whole Lydian people into two parts, and he appointed by lot one part to remain and the other to go forth from the land; and the king appointed himself to be over that one of the parts which had the lot to stay in the land, and his son to be over that which was departing; and the name of his son was Tyrsenos. So the one party of them, having obtained the lot to go forth from the land, went down to the sea at Smyrna and built ships for themselves, wherein they placed all the movable goods which they had and sailed away to seek for means of living and a land to dwell in; until after passing by many nations they came at last to the land of the Ombricans, and there they founded cities and dwell up to the present time: and changing their name they were called after the king's son who led them out from home, not Lydians but Tyrsenians, taking the name from him.

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Defeat of Croesus at Thymbra
Defeat of Croesus at Thymbra
Unknown Artist (Public Domain)


The last two Lydian passages begin with Herodotus’ insult regarding Lydia having “no great store” of marvels when compared with other lands and then moves to the description of the tomb and how its construction was financed. He notes how most of the contributions came from prostitutes, which is to say the young women of Lydia, without commentary which, as noted, is a deviation from his usual practice. Georgiou comments:

[Herodotus, who did not know the language] is satisfied with the inscriptions on the tomb, which he cannot even read…his attitude toward the custom [of Lydian women prostituting themselves] is not at all cautious, as it was in other cases, and thus raises suspicions. Herodotus does not offer a rational financial explanation for its use, as he does in the case of the Babylonian prostitution, or a religious one, as in the case of the Milytta worship. It seems as if he mentions prostitution only to describe how the tomb was built and to explain the inscriptions on it…Herodotus’ lack of a rational explanation for the Lydian custom [may be] to encourage prejudice against the Lydians…as he differentiates the Greeks and Lydians on account of this very custom. (201-202)

This interpretation of I.93-I.94 is sound as Herodotus seems to have been uninterested in relating anything about the Lydians and their customs from I.6 up until the beginning of I.93. In relating the marvel of the Tomb of Alyattes, he seems suddenly compelled to comment on their custom of prostitution and then continues in the next chapter to speak on how the Lydians invented games to help them deal with the hardship of famine. The games, as Herodotus presents them, do not actually address the famine which is finally resolved when part of the population migrates elsewhere.

None of this is to say that Herodotus’ account of the Lydians is inaccurate; only that it is carefully tailored for a Greek audience. Herodotus seems to be saying to his Greek readers, “Yes, you may have heard great things about Lydia but, nothing to worry about, they are nowhere near the level of the Greek civilization and never have been” and makes that point clearly, as Georgiou and others have noted, in the last two passages. Actually, though, his conclusion is simply his clearest criticism of Lydia, not his only one, as he has been quietly informing his Greek audience since Chapter I.6 that they are superior to the Lydians in every way.

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Editorial Review This article has been reviewed by our editorial team before publication to ensure accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards in accordance with our editorial policy.
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About the Author

Joshua J. Mark
Joshua J. Mark is World History Encyclopedia's co-founder and Content Director. He was previously a professor at Marist College (NY) where he taught history, philosophy, literature, and writing. He has traveled extensively and lived in Greece and Germany.



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Questions & Answers

What is Herodotus' account of Lydia about?

Herodotus' account of Lydia focuses primarily on the rise and fall of the Lydian king Croesus but includes tacit criticism of Lydian customs and other monarchs.

Where in Herodotus' Histories is his section on Lydia?

Herodotus discusses Lydia in Book I:6-94. The story of the famous response of the Oracle at Delphi comes at I.53.

Is Herodotus' account of Lydia accurate?

Yes. Herodotus' account of Lydia is accurate but carefully presented to appeal to a Greek audience at Lydia's expense.

Where is Lydia today?

The region of Lydia is in present-day Turkey.

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Mark, J. J. (2022, November 05). Herodotus on Lydia. World History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/article/81/herodotus-on-lydia/

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Mark, Joshua J.. "Herodotus on Lydia." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified November 05, 2022. https://www.worldhistory.org/article/81/herodotus-on-lydia/.

MLA Style

Mark, Joshua J.. "Herodotus on Lydia." World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 05 Nov 2022. Web. 24 Jul 2024.