Lydia Rises to Power Under the Mermnad Family

The Mermnad family brought Lydia to a state of power and prosperity before being conquered by Cyrus the Great.

Summary of Event

The best written source on this period is the Greek historian Herodotus, who gives an account of each Lydian king of the Mermnad Dynasty, telling famous anecdotes about each king, especially Gyges and Croesus, the first and last dynasts. Although his narration provides lengths of rule that cannot be acceptable for each king, especially for Ardys and Alyattes, to whom he gives lengths of reigns of 49 and 57 years respectively, Herodotus provides a better understanding of events that can also be reconstructed in the archaeological excavations, such as the siege of Sardis by Cyrus the Great in 546 b.c.e.
Cyrus the Great

Gyges, who founded the Mermnad Dynasty around 645 b.c.e., is known from Herodotus’s tale, which reveals how he chose to take the throne after the former king Candaules compelled him secretly to view his beautiful queen naked in her tent. When the queen discovered Gyges, she forced him to choose between losing his life to her guards and killing her husband and taking his place as king. Gyges wisely chose the latter option of survival and later expanded the Lydian kingdom into the territories of Miletus and Smyrna. He is also famous for his gifts of gold and silver to Delphi, becoming the first barbarian to make such gifts after Midas, son of Gordius of Phrygia. His gifts were most likely to derive from the Delphic Oracle’s confirmation of him as king (although the Oracle “predicted” his dynasty would last for five generations), and these gifts to Delphi were known henceforth as Gygian.

Ardys was the son of Gyges and ruled Lydia for some decades after his father. Herodotus maintains that Ardys expanded military campaigns against Priene and the Milesians, but his kingdom was attacked by the Cimmerians, who sacked nearly all of Sardis. His rule was followed by that of his son, Sadyattes, who drove the Cimmerians out of Asia with the help of Cyaxares and the Medes and continued the long-term war against the Milesians. According to Herodotus, Sadyattes often left the Milesian buildings intact but destroyed the crops and trees. His aim reportedly was not to drive the Milesians away but to let them continue living in the area and produce more crops and goods so that he would have more to plunder in the next campaign.

Alyattes, the son of Sadyattes, continued the Milesian wars. He burned down a temple of Assesian Athena in Milesia but became sick and sent a request to Delphi for wisdom. Herodotus said the Delphic Oracle then replied that no answer would come until the temple was rebuilt. Alyattes tried to negotiate a truce with Thrasybulus, king of the Milesians, that would be favorable to Lydia, but the king tricked him into believing that the Milesians had great supplies of wheat and food. Thinking the Milesians would be able to withstand a long siege, Alyattes made peace quickly and then built two temples instead of one. Herodotus claimed Alyattes recovered from his sickness and was the second Lydian to give gifts to Delphi, vessels made of silver and inlaid steel in gratitude. The tomb of Alyattes at the royal necropolis of Bin Tepe is famous for the still extant great marker over the tumulus.

Croesus is the most famous of the Mermnad kings. He attacked Ephesus and subdued all the Ionian and Aeolian states of Asia Minor, which he ruled. His legendary wealth—which reportedly made him the richest king in his area—was such that not only was he the first to mint coins, which portrayed the Lydian lion struck in electrum, an alloy of gold and silver, but also he was proud of and confident in his wealth and thought it made him the happiest man on earth. Solon, the self-exiled Athenian lawgiver, was traveling through Asia Minor when Croesus wanted to impress him with his happiness derived from material wealth. Solon was unimpressed and said that a man’s happiness could only be measured at death and that a poor man could live a long life happily in good health until the end with children of whom he could be proud.

Fearing the Persian rise under Cyrus the Great, Croesus sent messengers to inquire at Delphi and also dedicated sacrifices on a pyre with three thousand animals and an immense treasure of gold and silver couches, golden goblets, purple mantles, and vests. From this pyre, Croesus melted down the equivalent of several tons of gold and silver into ingots, which he sent to Delphi in the shape of a lion statue (the symbol of Lydia) along with immense gold and silver bowls, silver chests, a gold statue of a female around 4.5 feet (1.4 meters) tall, his wife’s gold and silver filigree necklaces, and belts inlaid with gems. As Herodotus related, the Delphic Oracle replied in typical ambiguity that if Croesus attacked the Persians “he would destroy an empire”; he did not realize that it would be his own. Croesus battled evenly against Cyrus and the Persians in Cappadocia and in Sinope on the Black Sea, then disbanded his mercenary army, thinking himself safe. However, Cyrus continued to advance with alacrity and took Lydia, even with its Spartan allies, using camels in the battles against Croesus’s vaunted cavalry because horses feared camels.

Perhaps Croesus’s late-acquired wisdom showed when, in 546 b.c.e., Cyrus conquered Sardis after a fourteen-day siege. After a storm put out the flames rising from Croesus’s self-made pyre, Cyrus removed Croesus from the smoldering pile. Croesus, remembering the words of Solon, asked Cyrus what his men were doing. Cyrus pointed out to Croesus that sackers were burning Croesus’s capital city. Croesus looked at burning Sardis and replied, “No, it’s your city,” which made Cyrus stop the complete sacking of Sardis after conquering Lydia.


One of the most significant measures of Lydian wealth is that this kingdom under Croesus is generally accepted as the first to mint coins of precious metal, especially the electrum (gold and silver), a small elliptical ingot stamped with the Lydian lion seal. The Lydians were also instrumental in extending greater Greek influence to Asia Minor, such as through the counsel of Solon. Several of their wealthy kings, including Gyges and Croesus, gave magnificent gold gifts to Delphi. Another compelling influence of Lydian history is seen in the narration of Herodotus, which brings to life customs of ancient Lydia for his Greek readers. These famous stories of Gyges and Croesus influenced subsequent Western literature and history and are still memorable today.

Further Reading

  • Greenewalt, Crawford H., and Marcus L. Rautman. “The Sardis Campaigns of 1994 and 1995.” American Journal of Archaeology 102, no. 3 (1998): 469-505. Extensive report of excavating the Lydian capital of Sardis, especially the archaic walls of the Mermnad Dynasty and the Bin Tepe funeral mounds of the Lydian royal necropolis. Includes studies on the tumulus of Alyattes.
  • Guralnick, Eleanor, ed. Sardis: Twenty-seven Years of Discovery. Chicago: Chicago Society of the Archaeological Institute of America, 1987. A collection of papers presented at a symposium in 1987 held in conjunction with a traveling exhibition on the archaeological finds at Sardis. Covers metal working and the arts.
  • Komroff, Manuel, ed. The History of Herodotus. Translated by George Rawlinson. 1928. Reprint. New York: Tudor, 1947. Herodotus (especially in book 1) discusses the succession of the Mermnad Dynasty, including the anecdotal history and famous stories associated with each ruler, especially Gyges and Croesus.
  • Mellink, Machteld. “Archaeology in Anatolia: Lydia.” American Journal of Archaeology 95, no. 1 (1991): 147. Describes recent excavations in chamber tombs at Bin Tepe, the royal Lydian necropolis and skeletal remains of a soldier killed in the siege of Sardis by Cyrus.

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i><br />

Croesus; Cyrus the Great; Solon. Mermnad Dynasty