Reconstructing the Lydian siege of Smyrna

One of the advantages in writing  Henchmen of Ares  was that I could make full use of the talented illustrators that work for  Ancient Warfare  magazine. One thing that I especially wanted to do was to feature some illustrations that try to give an idea of what some events in Early Greek military history might have looked like.

Henchmen of Ares  will feature no less than eighteen original illustrations and in this blog post I not only want to show you one of them, but also try to explain why it looks the way it does. This picture is an impression of what the famous siege of Old Smyrna might have looked like. The siege took place in 600 BC and pitted the might of the Lydian Empire, then ruled by King Alyattes, against the inhabitants of the Greek city of Smyrna.

The illustration of the Lydian siege of Smyrna for  Henchmen of Ares  has been made by Milek Jakubiec, a talented illustrator who has most recently also done the centrefold for  Ancient Warfare issue VII.3. You can see more of his work over on  his website .

The city of Old Smyrna and its walls

The written sources do not offer much in the way of further information. The Greek historian Herodotus mentions that Alyattes captured Smyrna (Hdt. 1.16). One of the reasons for Lydian interest in Smyrna was that it finally offered them a good harbour located at the edge of the Aegean Sea.

Excavations at Old Smyrna have revealed part of the plan of the original town and we have a fairly good idea of its fortifications. The city was originally founded in the Early Iron Age and possessed a wall even at this early date, ca. 850 BC. A total of four different walls have been unearthed that each seem to correspond to a particular phase: wall 3 belongs to the time of the Lydian siege.

Smyrna’s walls were very impressive. The Greeks here may even have built the giant walls in order to compete with Lydian cities located further inland. At least two gates have been found, and R.V. Nicholl’s reconstruction of the city posited the existence of another gate in the northwest corner. The excavations also found the remains of Alyattes’ siege mound, which may have risen to a height of 20m and was raised even higher than Smyrna’s walls, creating a raised platform for archers.

Reconstructing Lydian warriors

A reconstruction of the Lydian siege of Smyrna seemed like a great idea. However, there is one major problem: what did the Lydian army look like? We have a very good idea of what Greek warriors looked like around 600 BC, and we can also offer a plausible reconstruction of Smyrna and its walls, but when we come to the Lydians – a subject I have tried to tackle  before – the evidence is far less abundant.

There is one thing that we know for certain: the Lydians were expert horsemen. This is clear from fragments of Greek poetry and the account of Herodotus. They fought with thrusting spears (Hdt. 1.79). When the Persians sent camels against the Lydian cavalry, the latter dismounted to fight on foot. A poetic fragment even makes mention of “thick ranks” of Lydian “horse-fighters”, perhaps suggesting that the horsemen fought in formation. Herodotus even states that the Lydians fielded the strongest army of Asia at the time (mid-sixth century BC).

However, this is not sufficient information to base a reconstruction on. But we do have some further information. During the seventh and sixth centuries BC, the peoples of western Asia Minor – Lydians, Carians, Lycians, Phrygians, and also Greeks – formed a kind of cultural continuum. Greeks probably lived in Sardis, the capital of Lydia, and some Lydians probably also lived in Greek cities in Asia Minor, or conducted trade there. We also have the account of Herodotus on Ionian (East Greek) and Carian mercenaries – “men of bronze” – being hired by King Psamtik I, the founder of the Saite Dynasty in Egypt, in the 660s BC. Herodotus mentions that Carians invented elements of the Greek panoply, including the use of shield blazons and a method for fastening crests to helmets. We know that Gyges, the founder of the Mermnad Dynasty of Lydia, sent mercenaries to Psamtik, too.

We also have some Phrygian and Lydian iconographic evidence that gives valuable glimpses of what warriors in western Asia Minor may have looked like. Phrygia itself was absorbed by the Lydians in the seventh century BC. Fragments of painted terracotta revetments from Pazarli (Phrygia) of the sixth century BC show warriors with helmets, Argive shields, and lances: they look “Greek”, but the patterning on their legs suggest that they also wore leggings of some sort, perhaps in combination with bronze greaves.

Archaeologists have also found a wooden tomb at Tatarli that probably dates to around 480 BC. Late, but its painted scenes show a mixture of Greek, Lydian, Phrygian, and Persian influences, demonstrating how open and receptive ancient cultures could be to outside influences. The original occupant of the tomb may have been a local dignitary or, perhaps less likely, a member of the Persian diaspora. One of the most interesting features is a battle between hoplites equipped not with spears, but by sickle-shaped swords.

As far as armour is concerned, we know very little. It seems very probable that by 600 BC, at least, some Lydian heavy troops also wore the bronze armour that was such a characteristic feature of Ionian Greeks and Carians. We know that linen corslets were probably in use already around the same time, since they are mentioned by the poet Alcaeus and perhaps even shown on a Protoattic pottery fragment of the early seventh century BC. Alcaeus himself was from Lesbos, and considering sources of flax, it is possible that the linen corslet was invented by an Eastern civilization, rather than the Greeks.

Creating the illustration

Putting all of the evidence together, it seemed likely that the Lydian army would not have been much different from a Greek army, albeit larger and probably more varied. The core would have been heavy infantry: these must have included Greek mercenaries as well as local Lydian forces with similar equipment. The Lydians also no doubt included Phrygian troops, as well.

The end result is an illustration in which various elements have been mixed together. Lydian heavily-armed warriors – in addition to what are perhaps Greek mercenaries – standing behind lines of archers and preparing to walk up Alyattes’ siege mound, which is still in the process of being raised higher and higher. In the centre, we see a horseman raising his thrusting spear in the air: there is no need for cavalry manoeuvres during this siege, so his compatriots are probably elsewhere or he is a commander of some sort.

One thing that the limited iconographic evidence makes clear, is that the troops of Asia Minor were probably very colourful to see. There is no reason to think that the Lydians would have been very uniformly equipped, so they wear a combination of bronze bell-shaped cuirasses and linen corslets of different kinds, as well as regular tunics. In addition, some of the men wear colourful leggings inspired by Archaic paintings; the man left in the foreground is armed with one of the sickle-shaped swords seen in the Tatarli tomb paintings.

In order to add some variety, one warrior sports an Ionian helmet. The Ionian helmet first appeared in the late seventh century in Asia Minor, and truly seems to have been invented in Asia Minor, perhaps somewhere in Ionian Greece, or else nearby (Rhodes has been suggested, but a Carian or Lydian origin cannot be excluded). The Ionian helmet generally features a pronounced forehead plate, leaves more of the face exposed, and has hinged cheek-pieces.

The end result is a beautiful illustration by Milek Jakubiec that gives some idea of what the Lydian siege of Smyrna may have looked like. I also hope that it will inspire further research into warfare in Asia Minor, which I think is a fertile field of study that deserves a greater deal of public and scholarly attention.

Leave a Reply
Post your comment

Karwansaray Publishers