Who Are Lycians?

Southwest Turkey was home to the ancient Lycians who were one of the most enigmatic people of antiquity. Although little historical record has been left behind as it has with some other ancient civilizations, what has been discovered reveals a fascinating people culturally distinct from the rest of the ancient world.


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.


The Lycians were also one of the few non-Hellenistic nations of antiquity who 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 and had their own unique alphabet before adopting Greek around the 3rd century BC.

Besides their unique form of government the Lycians may have had one unusual custom that the Greeks found very unfamiliar. 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 male citizen even the foremost of them has a foreign wife or mistress the children are considered without honour". It seems however 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. 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 were most likely in origin an Anatolian people since they spoke their own Indo-European language closely related to Luwian and Hittite. 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. verify this early settlement date linguistically. An axe has also been found at Tlos dated around 2000 BC.

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". The 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.

Around twenty major sites remain today with the Lycians' unusual architecture dominating the breathtaking unspoiled land of Lycia.

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