The history of Lycia is a story of fierce struggles against those who sought to invade and dominate it, as it was a very desireable region. It appears that Greek efforts to colonize Lycia during the first millennium B.C. were largely unsuccessful even though there were several Athenian expeditions, including the famous one under Melesander in 430 BC. The Greeks were able to establish only one important colony in Lycia, Phaselis.
The first recorded instance of Lycian resistance fighting occurred around 540 BC when the Persians overran all Asia Minor. The Persians attacked the Lycian capital city of Xanthos and the Xanthosians put up a heroic fight. In the end however, they chose mass suicide over surrender. The men of Xanthos gathered their wives, children and possessions in the acropolis and set fire to all before rushing out fighting to die to the last man. Herodotus of Halicarnassos reports:
"The Persian Army entered the plain of Xanthos under the command of Harpagos, and did battle with the Xanthians. The Xanthians fought with small numbers against the superior Persians forces, with legendary bravery. They resisted the endless Persian forces with great courage, but were finally beaten, their womenfolk, children, slaves and treasures into the fortress. This was then set on fire from, below and around the walls , until destroyed by conflagration. Then the warriors of Xanthos made their final attack on the Persians, their voices raised in calls of war, until every last man from Xanthos was killed."
This disaster was confirmed during excavations by a thick layer of ash covering the site.
Xanthos was later repopulated by about 80 families outside the city at the time of the mass suicide as well as other Lycian immigrants to the city. Persian rule of Lycia actually proved to be quite mild, requiring only tribute, and the country was left to be ruled by its own dynasts. The state of calm that came over Lycia fostered economic growth and the strength of the region. It was during this period that the first monumental rock-cut tombs were carved and the Lycian alphabet came into wide-spread use.
In 480 BC the Lycians contributed fifty ships to the Persian King Xerxes' invasion of Greece. Heredotus gives us this description of the motley Lycian crew:
"The wore greaves and corslets; they carried bows of cornel wood, cane arrows without feathers, and javelins. They had goatskin slung round their shoulders, and hats stuck round with feathers. They also carried daggers and rip-hooks."
The Athenians had little success at capturing Lycia in the next century despite several attempts, only managing to set up one important colony, Phaselis. However, in 333 BC, the Macedonian king Alexander the Great received a friendly reception from the Lycians following his defeat of the Persians - he was welcomed as a deliverer of the Lycians from the threat of attack by their neighbor - the Carian dynasts of Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), as the Persians were forcing the Lycians to submit Carian rule. Following the death of Alexander this general Ptolemy, who declared himself king of Egypt, took over Lycia. It was during this Ptolemaic rule which lasted over a hundred years, that Lycia began to lose a bit of its native character. Greek was adopted as the nation’s language and the Greek influence was also felt in art and culture. For example, the popularization of sarcophagus-tombs to replace the earlier rock-tombs. The rule of the Lycian dynasts ended with Pericles, as cities adopted Greek consitutions. It was also during this time that the democratic Lycian Union was formed. It eventually consisted of 23 cities.
The strong unity of the Lycian Union became very important in resisting foreign invaders. In 197 BC Lycia was taken from the Ptolemies by Antiochus III, king of Syria. Phaselis, Limyra, Andriace, Patara and Xanthos are specifically mentioned as having been captured by him. Shortly afterwards he was defeated by the Romans at the battle of Magnesia. Lycia was then handed over to Rhodes by Rome (with the exception of Telmessos), to which Rhodes had allied itself during the battle. The Lycians were very resentful of this and spent the next two decades fiercely fighting the Rhodesians and petitioning the Roman Senate. Finally in 167 BC, by a decision of the Senate, the Lycians’ independence was recognized and the Lycian Federation could function fully. The one permanent result of Rhodian rule in Lycia was that Phaselis, a Rhodian colony, was henceforth included in Lycia.
Some time in the second century, probably near the beginning, two men, Lysanias and Eudemus, seized control of Xanthos and carried out executions in their attempt to set up tyranny. A campaign of the Lycian Federation's forces supressed them and restored order. However, shortly after this, Eudemus made a second attempt at Tlos and once again the Federation's forces were called out. From this it is evident that the the Lycian Union was strong and ready to act in defense of freedom.
The formation of the Roman province of Asia in 167 BC left Lycia untouched. In 88 BC the Pontic king Mithridates VI attacked and overran western Asia Minor and most places welcomed him as a liberator due to unsatisfactory Roman administration. Lycia, however, was among the few who resisted. Mithridates sent his officers to subdue Lycia but it was not effectively occupied and in 84 BC the king was defeated by the Romans. Rome reaffirmed Lycia's independence and showed its gratitude of Lycia's loyalty by enlarging the Lycian territory with the addition of the three cities of Bubon, Balbura and Oenoanda.
The second half of the first century BC was a time in which Lycia was affected by the internal conflicts and disturbances in Rome, sometimes suffering disaster as a result. In 42 BC Brutus attempted to take control of Xanthos during the Roman Civil Wars. Once again, as 500 years previously, the Xanthosians chose mass suicide over domination. Later Roman armies took control of Lycia by beating Brutus and then repaired the destroyed city. Antoninius, who defeated Brutus, took over Rome's eastern territories and allowed the Lycians their freedom. Thus, Lycia remained the only part of Asia Minor not to be incorporated into Rome's sphere of power.
Lycia then recovered under the reign of Augustus which began in 27 BC. During the first and second centuries BC, the emperors Vespasian, Traianus and Hadrian visited Lycia for various reasons. The emperor Vespasian treated the town with respect and built some monuments for it (69-79 A.D.) In 43 A.D. Claudius reduced Lycia to the status of a Roman province, and it was then administered by a governer whom the emperor appointed
Lycia naturally underwent a process of romanization of its culture, art and daily life during this time. Lycian aristocrats began to adopt Roman names, there was a demand for wild animal fights and gladiator combat and the emperor cult spread rapidly. Lycia prospered under imperial rule. Most of the sumptuous monuments and public works in Lycian cities dates from the Roman period, specifically from the the 2nd century A.D. As trade expanded people became wealthier and many Lycian millionaires gave generously to their country. For example, Opramoas of Rhodiapolis personally financed almost 60 major monuments in all Lycian cities including the theatres of Xanthos, Tlos, and Limyra. The power of the Lycian Union was reduced a bit under the Romans in matters of civic affairs and justice, but the Union did survive.
The Decline of Lycia
Following two very large earthquakes in 141 AD and 240 AD some cities were unable to recover and Lycia began to decline. However, a distinct Lycian nationhood seems to have survived well after the arrival of Christianity in the 4th century AD. The spread of Christianity brought important social and cultural changes to Lycia. The most important figure of this time was St. Nicholas (later known as Santa Claus), Bishop of the Lycian city of Myra. Many ancient Lycian cities became Byzantine settlements of importance. What is interesting is that while carefully constructed monumental churches were built in Lycia's mountainous areas in settlements so small that the names are unknown, buildings on the coast - even large churches - are known for their careless construction, often of rubble masonry.
Another natural disaster no doubt leading to the decline of Lycia was the bubonic plague which wreaked havoc in Anatolia for 200 years from 542 AD to the last outbreak of this pandemic in 745 AD. This was the same plague that reduced the population of Europe by about 50 percent by 600 AD and has been seen as the cause of the beginning of the Dark Ages in Europe. Through death, depopulation and the consequent abandonment of agricultural land and cities, the nature of Byzantine society and patterns of settlement and land use that had been established over centuries in Anatolia were changed throughout Anatolia. This impacted the economy, currency and military also. This 200 years of plague in Anatolia was a formative event and distinguishes classical and early Byzantine Anatolia from late Byzantine and Seljuk Anatolia.
Flourishing Byzantine Cilician coastal ports and cities were all abandoned during this period and there is no reason to suppose that Lycia was immune from the plague's depopulation. Indeed, Lycia's Myra was struck by the plague in 542-3 AD, with one-third of the population dying, most likely brought by plague carriers travelling along the coast of Anatolia by coastal shipping trade and by the return of Christian pilgrims from Palestine and Byzantine shipping to Egypt (the plague spread from Ethiopia to the Sudan to Egypt 541 AD). It was called the plague of Justinian because the Byzantine Emperor Justinian himself survived an encounter with the plague. John of Ephesus described the plague as, "The wine press of the Lord," and noted that corn was left unharvested in the fields. Evagrius, wrote in 593, "I believe no part of the human race to have been uninflicted by the disease, for it occurred in some cities to such an extent that they were rendered empty of almost all their inhabitants." Evagrius lost almost all the members of his family in the first four waves of the pandemic to sweep across Anatolia from 542 to 593.
Finally, Arab raids which started in the 8th century AD and possibly the resurgence of piracy eventually finished off Lycia. The country lay almost uninhabited for several hundreds of years until the Turks, led by the lords of the Teke Dynasty, settled the area in the 13th century. This area was known as the "Uç" (frontier) - wilderness - and the Turks mainly kept to the high plateau and left the coast to pirates where they had semi-permanent settlements. At the turn of the 19th century the Ottoman government began repopulating the coast with Greeks from the Aegean islands in order to balance the power of the local feudal lords. Many coastal towns like Kalkan (then called Kalamaki) and the neighboring town of Kas (Andifli) came into existence at this time. However, the Anatolian Greeks were obliged to leave after the war of 1919-1922 with the exchange of populations.