The Persian Sack of Sardis

Nicholas Cahill

The War between Croesus and Cyrus

According to Herodotus, our fullest source for the story, it was Croesus who started the hostilities. In the middle of the sixth century, the Persian Cyrus revolted from Astyages, king of the Medes and Croesus’s brother-in-law, seized power and imprisoned the former king. Wishing to avenge his relative, quell the growing power of Cyrus, and take advantage of the situation to expand his own empire, Croesus prepared for war. His first act, says Herodotus, was to test all the oracles in Greece, Anatolia, and Libya; and when he learned that the most reliable was the oracle at Delphi, he made offerings of gold, silver, animals, furniture, and other precious objects, the likes of which had never been seen, and which were never again equalled in the Greek world.1 He then asked the oracle whether he should he march against the Persians, and whether he should seek allies. The oracle replied, in its usual ambiguous fashion, that if Croesus attacked Cyrus, he would destroy a great empire, and that he should ally himself with the strongest of the Greeks.

Misunderstanding but nevertheless emboldened by this advice, Croesus made an alliance with the Spartans and marched against Cyrus. The two armies met in Cappadocia at the city of Pteria (perhaps the modern site of Kerkenes Dağ). There the Lydians found themselves greatly outnumbered, however, and after fighting one battle to a draw, Croesus decided to withdraw and seek further reinforcements from the Babylonians and Egyptians. Since the campaign season was ending, Croesus disbanded his own mercenary army and told the allies to join him in the spring. But Cyrus took advantage of Croesus’s unprepared state and marched on Sardis. The two armies met on the plain before the city, and the battle went badly for the Lydians. Their cavalry, the best in the world at that time and the strongest arm of Croesus’s army, was thrown into disarray when Cyrus sent camels from his baggage train into the fray, terrifying the horses. The Lydians were driven within their walls and besieged. After fourteen days, a Mardian named Hyroiades managed to climb an escarpment of the acropolis so sheer that the Lydians had thought it unnecessary to post a guard. He was followed by the rest of the Persian army; “…and thus Sardis was captured and the whole city was sacked” (Hdt. 1.84), bringing an end to a great empire—Croesus’s own—and forming a turning point in western history.2

Croesus was taken alive, and in perhaps the most famous episode of the story, Cyrus prepared to burn the former king on a funeral pyre (Fig. 1). As the flames rose, Croesus called the name of Solon, an Athenian wise man who was said to have visited the king at the height of his fortunes, and who had warned the king not to count any man truly happy before he had seen a successful end of his life. The former king was saved by divine intervention, and finally realizing the truth of the Greek sage’s advice, Croesus went on to become Cyrus’s trusted advisor. With the Persian king’s permission, he sent back to Delphi asking how the war could have come out contrary to the prophesy of the god; Apollo answered that he had postponed Croesus’s fall for three years, as long as he could, and that “as to the oracle...Loxias [Apollo] declared to him that if he led an army against the Persians, he would destroy a great empire. Therefore he ought, if he had wanted to plan well, to have sent and asked whether the god spoke of Croesus’s or of Cyrus’s empire. But he did not understood what was spoken, or make further inquiry: for which now let him blame himself” (Hdt. 1.91).

Other authors relate different versions of the story. According to Bacchylides (first half of the fifth century BC), in order to avoid slavery Croesus prepared to burn himself and his family; but the fire was quenched by Zeus, and Apollo snatched Croesus off to the land of the Hyperboreans, “along with his slender-ankled daughters, because of his piety, since of all mortals he sent the greatest gifts to holy Pytho” (Ode 3).

Soon after the capture, the Sardians revolted against their new Persian masters. Upon hearing the news, Cyrus was tempted to sell the entire population into slavery. But Croesus suggested instead he “pardon the Lydians, and give them this command so that they not revolt or pose a danger to you: send and forbid them to possess weapons of war, and order them to wear tunics under their cloaks and knee-boots on their feet, and to teach their sons lyre-playing and song and dance and shop-keeping. And quickly, O king, you shall see them become women instead of men, so that you need not fear them, that they might revolt.” (Hdt. 1.155). Thus, in Greek eyes, the Lydians were transformed from the most fearsome warriors in Asia (Hdt. 1.79) into emasculated shopkeepers.

  • Fig. 1

    Amphora by Myson: Croesus on the funeral pyre, early 5th C. BC (Louvre G 197) (<bib ref="Furtwängler_1909_40356">Furtwängler and Reichhold 1909</bib> II, 277, Fig. 97, Pl. 113)

The Date of the Capture

These events occurred roughly a century before Herodotus wrote his history, and the details certainly became confused, embellished, and romanticized in the intervening years. Other Classical accounts are even later and less reliable, and we have no definite contemporary Near Eastern accounts of these events. Even the date of the war cannot be determined precisely. Greek and Roman scholars such as Eusebius, writing centuries later and trying to reconstruct and correlate the histories of different lands, dated the sack of Sardis to 546/5 BC.3 This date, however, conflicts with the account given in the Nabonidus Chronicle, a Babylonian tablet relating the last years of this last king of Babylon. The chronicle is almost completely preserved for that year, the tenth of Nabonidus’s reign, and does not include Cyrus’s campaign; if Sardis had been sacked in that year, the chronicler would surely have mentioned it. The chronicle does relate, however, that in the previous year (547/6 BC), Cyrus crossed the Tigris River and attacked and conquered a foreign country, whose name is frustratingly broken from the edge of this clay tablet. For many years, the name was read as Lu[du], for (Ly[dia]), and this tablet was seen as secure, independent evidence for the date of the fall of Sardis; it was argued or assumed that the Classical accounts were off by one year. As there were many different ways of reckoning when years started and ended in the ancient world, such a discrepancy was relatively easy to account for. The reading of Ly[dia] in the Nabonidus Chronicle has been doubted, but the most recent examinations suggest that this is indeed the broken character, and that the battle should be dated to 547 BC.4

The Sack of Sardis in Archaeology

Whatever the exact date, many aspects of Herodotus’s account have been vividly confirmed and fleshed out in excavations at Sardis. It is rare that an important and well-known historical event is so vividly preserved in the archaeological record, but the destruction of Cyrus left clear and dramatic remains throughout the city.5 The fortification wall was burned, together with houses at its foot and elsewhere in the city. Shortly after the destruction, the fortification was deliberately demolished, and the mudbricks of its upper portion were dumped over the lower part (Figs. 2, 3, 4). Like the volcanic ash that buried Pompeii or Thera, the thick layer of destruction debris that covered the fortification and its immediate neighborhood paradoxically preserved these areas for archaeologists (Fig. 5). Houses in other parts of the city were also burned and then abandoned, leaving the destroyed remains for archaeologists to uncover (Fig. 6). In this way, buildings and artifacts that would have been salvaged or eroded, if left unprotected as most sites were after they were abandoned, were preserved by the brick and earth that blanketed them. The Persian sack offers us a uniquely well preserved and closely dated glimpse at a dramatic moment in the history of Lydia, the very end of the Lydian empire.

The battle that raged in the streets of Sardis left weapons, casualties, and looted and burned houses throughout the city. Fiery destruction associated with the sack has been identified throughout the western fortification wall, in the gate, in segments of the fortification wall excavated along the north and east sides of the city, and in Lydian houses under the Hellenistic and Roman theater. In the account of Herodotus, Croesus, watching the Persian soldiers sack Sardis, points out to the victorious king that they are sacking Cyrus’s own city, no longer Croesus’s; the story can be filled out archaeologically by a massive and systematic destruction of the fortification and much of the city.

The most striking remains of this battle are skeletons discovered in the destruction debris (Figs. 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13; No. 210). Two were soldiers, males in their early-to-mid-twenties, in life one standing 1.75–1.77 m tall, the other 1.70 m tall. They were each distinguished by the greater development of their left arms, which were accustomed to carrying heavy shields, while their right arms had freedom of movement for wielding swords and other weapons; both are characteristic of ancient soldiers. The neck vertebrae of one (No. 210) had been compressed by wearing a heavy helmet for long periods of time (perhaps the very helmet found nearby; see below), and they bore other signs of a life of violence, including healed injuries.

And both died violently. The skull of one bore three wounds, two from a sharp-edged weapon like a sword or saber (cf. No. 212), and one from a blunter weapon like a battle axe (Fig. 14). The left arms of both individuals were broken in so-called parry fractures: They had each raised their arms to defend themselves against blows from above, and instead had taken the blows on their forearms, snapping the bones. Unhealed cuts on their arms, ribs, hands, and elsewhere must have been inflicted at the time of death. The soldier with the head wounds had broken a rib about three to four weeks earlier, and in addition, had knee injuries, tendonitis and other stress patterns in his lower legs from extensive walking. One imagines this Mehmetçik marching with Croesus’s army from Sardis to central Anatolia, fighting in the indecisive battle at Pteria and, injured, limping back home 620 km as the crow flies, only to be killed defending his home town.

After the battle, the two bodies were not buried but were discarded unceremoniously with the mudbrick debris of the fortification, suggesting that these are more likely to be conquered Lydian soldiers than victorious Persians. They must have been dumped, head-first, within a few weeks after the battle, since the bodies had only partly decomposed and the bones were still partially articulated, one still grasping a small, round stone, possibly a slingstone (Fig. 9). Interestingly, the casualties were not thoroughly searched or plundered, since weapons and other valuables were discarded with them. The iron and bronze helmet was found, corroded and crushed, between the two skeletons; it is not clear which soldier, if either, the helmet belonged to; but such a helmet must have had some value even in its damaged condition (No. 211); Figs. 15, 16, 17,18), 19.6 The cavity left by a long wooden object such as a spear was found on the same level.

Next to the skull of one of the soldiers (No. 210) was the tiny silver croeseid coin with lion and bull, a twenty-fourth of a stater, weighing a mere 0.35 g but worth approximately a day’s maintenance (No. 31, Figs. 20, 21). Lacking pockets, the Greeks of the fifth century BC carried coins in their mouths, and there are even references to accidentally swallowing them (Aristophanes, Wasps 605ff; Birds 503ff; Ekklesiazousai 815ff). But it might equally have been in a cloth or leather bag around the soldier’s neck. The discovery of this coin, and the two others found under the destruction level in this area (Nos. 27 and 30), proves conclusively that this type of coin, with the lion and bull on the obverse, dates to the time of Croesus and not afterwards, as some scholars have proposed (see Kroll, “The Coins of Sardis”).7

Another, partial skeleton was found in one of the houses—abandoned, burned, and unburied—on the floor (Fig. 22). This was an older man in his forties, arthritic, and probably one of the inhabitants of the house. Only parts of the skeleton were preserved: The head, right arm, left hand, and both legs were all missing. Since this part of the house was not disturbed after the destruction, the missing limbs must have been removed in antiquity. Because the bones were so burned, it could not be determined whether the missing pieces were the result of deliberate mutilation — common in ancient warfare — or of having been carried off by dogs or other animals.

Battles must have been fought through many of the streets and alleys of Sardis, leaving weapons and other remains on the streets and in the houses. Just inside the western gate of the city (Fig. 2), 136 bronze and iron arrowheads were found together with pottery and other artifacts (Fig. 23, Nos. 212, 213, 214). The variety of arrowheads might well reflect the very mixed ethnicities of both the Persian and the Lydian armies, strengthened by reinforcements from throughout their respective empires, although it is difficult to establish convincing connections between specific types of arrowheads and specific peoples.8 Small numbers of arrowheads were found in the houses, although these might have been used for hunting, and none were found in a clear military context like those inside the gate. In one Lydian house under the later, Hellenistic and Roman theater (Fig. 6; see Cahill, “The City of Sardis”), five rounded white stones were discovered in the destruction debris, similar in size and shape to that found clutched in the hand of the skeleton (Fig. 24). In this house was also found four arrowheads, a knife and, a spearhead. It is not clear whether these were used in the final battle or simply belonged to the household.

An alley or open space just inside the fortification was littered with iron objects and other debris (Fig. 2). Some of these were certainly weapons, such as a saber (No. 212, Figs. 25, 26) and perhaps an iron sickle (No. 213, Figs. 27, 28). The relatively short saber is of a type known from Greek, Italian, and Anatolian images and a few preserved examples (Fig. 29); this must have been a true weapon of war.9 The J-shaped sickle is more rarely attested as a weapon in Greek and Near Eastern art, but depictions such as a relief from Konya (Fig. 29) and the painted wooden tumulus at Tatarlı (Fig. 30) show that they were not uncommon.10 But this area was littered with other sorts of iron objects, including four iron spits like those found in other houses, and two more small sickles, too light to have been useful in a battle. These spits and sickles were clearly not proper weapons but household implements, and were perhaps snatched up by Lydian civilians in a last-ditch effort to defend themselves after the defenses had fallen.

The defense was futile. The houses and other buildings of Sardis burned fiercely, their thatched roofs contributing to the uncontrollable blaze, as they did when the Ionians burned Sardis in 499 BC (Hdt. 5.101). The walls and contents of the houses (Nos. 6169, 7088, 100138) are all burned and blackened. Wooden structures on the fortification and in the houses burned so completely that only small pieces of charcoal are left; the fire reduced one part of the mudbrick wall to a melted and vitrified mass (although leaving other parts relatively unscathed). This burned level has been identified in excavation sectors on the western, northern, and eastern stretches of the fortification wall (although not always with the same assurance), and more recently in Lydian houses near the center of the city, under the Hellenistic and Roman theater. The conflagration must have engulfed much of the city, and the plume of smoke rising from the smoldering remains would have been visible for miles, signaling the end of a great Anatolian empire, and of its famously wealthy and generous king.11

  • Fig. 2

    Plan of Lydian fortification on the west side of Sardis, showing findspots of skeletons and other destruction debris (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 3

    View of the mudbrick fortification wall (right) with a section through the fallen and dumped mudbrick of its superstructure (left) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 4

    Drawing of destruction debris covering the fortification (right) and Lydian houses (left) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 5

    House at the foot of the fortification, burned in the Persian destruction and buried by debris from the defensive wall; the skeleton of one of the inhabitants lies on the floor of the courtyard. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 6

    House in central Sardis, under the later Hellenistic and Roman theater, which was burned and abandoned in the Persian destruction. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 7

    Skeleton of a soldier found near the fortification, during excavation (No. 210) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 8

    Detail of skeleton of soldier found near fortification, during excavation (No. 210) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 9

    Detail of hand of soldier, still clutching a stone (No. 210) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 10

    Skull of soldier found near the fortification (No. 210) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 11

    Skull of soldier found near the fortification (No. 210) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 12

    Skeleton of another soldier found near the fortification during excavation (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 13

    Skeleton of another soldier found near the fortification during excavation (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 14

    Skull of a soldier from sector MMS-III, showing three wounds from two different weapons (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 15

    Plan of recess with skeletons and coins (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 16

    Helmet, probably belonging to one of the soldiers discarded near the fortification (No. 211) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 17

    Helmet, probably belonging to one of the soldiers discarded near the fortification (No. 211) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 18

    Drawing of helmet (No. 211), front and side (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 19

    Drawing of helmet (No. 211) showing construction (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 20

    Silver coin belonging to soldier (No. 31) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 21

    Silver coin belonging to soldier (No. 31) (Courtesy of the Vedat Nedim Tör Museum, Istanbul)

  • Fig. 22

    Partial skeleton of an older man found in the court of a Lydian house (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 23

    Drawing of arrowheads from just inside the Lydian Gate (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 24

    Slingstones and other weapons from the house under the theater, with the arm of the soldier from the fortification (No. 210) clutching a similar stone. (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 25

    Iron saber from destruction level inside the fortification (No. 212) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 26

    Iron saber from destruction level inside the fortification (No. 212) (drawing) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 27

    War (?) sickle from destruction level inside the fortification (No. 213) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 28

    War (?) sickle from destruction level inside the fortification (No. 213) (drawing) (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

  • Fig. 29

    Relief, once in Konya, showing a soldier with a war sickle (<bib ref="Texier_1839-1849_30388">Texier 1839-1849</bib> II, pl. 149)

  • Fig. 30

    Modern reproduction of scene from the painted wooden tumulus at Tatarlı showing soldiers with war sickles (©Archaeological Exploration of Sardis/President and Fellows of Harvard College)

Notes