Lycian Social Hierarchy – Tombs as sources

The social hierarchy of Lycia is very hard to reconstruct, since the surviving evidence is limited to coins issued by the dynasts, tombs (of which few can be said to belong to those of the lower strata) (Keen (1998) 34) and scraps written by Greek and Roman historians. Due to the nature of this evidence we know the most about the upper strata of Lycian society, particularly those that we call dynasts: those that ruled the various cities of Lycia. Tombs were monuments of the aristocracy and if there was a hierarchy among the tombs, it was only between the elites themselves (Ibid, 36). Competition between the elites was strong, and an integral part of Lycian culture, the motifs that appear most often on these tombs are linked to competition: war, hunting, wrestling. Another common motif that shows the rigid nature of the social hierarchy in Lycia is the reception scene, where an enthroned man, larger than those around him, listens to their concerns.

Relief from the Nereid monument, showing Erbbina in Persian attire. C.380-370 BC. The elders visiting him are likely to be from one of the cities that is besieged on other reliefs on

A good example of this is a slab from the Nereid monument, which depicts the dynast Erbbina receiving a delegation from one of the cities that he conquered (fig. 1). This scene is demonstrative of the culture of power that the dynasts had over other cities within in their sphere of influence, the dynast being in an imposing position, and attempts are made to emphasise the differences between Erbbina and the elders of the conquered city. Erbbina’s dress is Persian, whilst the elders are dressed in Greek attire, this scene that is incredibly suggestive of royal power (Brosius (2011) 142), particularly that of the Persian Kings. This links in with the concept of a “dominant ethno-class” mentioned by Miller (2011, 120), Erbbina’s use of Persian dress implies that he is equal in power and prestige to the Persians. When this is combined with the Persian inspired reception scene it creates an ‘us and them’ message. Erbbina has chosen these Persian identifying features to put himself above those he has conquered. What is interesting about this is that the various siege scenes and this reception scene suggest that he was a victorious ruler. However, we know from epigraphic and numismatic evidence that during his rule various cities rebelled against his control (Keen (1998) 144-146) and that in truth his power was quite weak (Ibid, 147). The reliefs on his tomb are a triumph of propaganda, creating a victory out of his own weaknesses. Childs argues that Lycian monuments incorporate historic elements in their design to celebrate the dead (Childs (1978) 91-97). If these are representing the various sieges that Erbbina undertook to regain control of his domain (mentioned in inscriptions) (SEG 39 1414.23-25; SEG 28 1245.a.3.), what does this suggest about Lycian culture? It reveals the elites focus on history and the fact they have the power to rewrite it. History is a useful dynastic tool as it reveals the extent of the power of the ruling family and creates a national mythology which can be rallied around when the nation is under threat. Therefore, by rewriting history on his funerary monument to support the dynasty it enables Erbbina to show continuity, particularly in relation to how the other dynasts acted. The first image illustrates this perfectly, the good king expanding his territory, rather than a weak one regaining territory from his rebellious citizens.

Examining the historical aspects of the tombs helps us understand how the elites of Lycia wanted to be presented. The monumentality of the tombs is a part of this, since monumentality signifies many things about a community: the ability to organise (most likely due to an authoritative figure i.e. a king), improved technical skill that isn’t relevant to food production and having the resources either to train artists or to pay for them to come in from elsewhere (Childe (1936 4th edition) 146-147). Although Childe was applying these criteria to much earlier civilisations than that of the Lycians, due to the lack of written sources using historical monuments in this way is an important part of learning about the Lycian culture, as we have to treat them as a prehistoric society even though we know them to be a literate society.

Tomb of Kheriga, known as the Xanthian Obelisk. C.420-412 Inscribed upon it is an outline of the reigning dynast written in Lycian

I have previously mentioned how Erbbina rewrote history in the sculpted reliefs of his tomb, presenting a sanitised version of events that portrays him in the best possible light. In much the same way, the scale of the Nereid Monument plays into this. It is a tomb that is known as a herõon, or a hero monument and is in the style of a small temple. This design is a part of the misinformation Erbbina was attempting to portray. Comparing the motifs and messages of the Nereid Monument and the Xanthian Obelisk helps to reveal that size isn’t everything when discussing the success of a king. The Xanthian Obelisk   is the tomb of the dynast Kheriga, thought to be the grandfather of Erbbina, his tomb is comparatively simpler than the Nereid monument, yet his achievements are much greater (Keen (1998). It is a Pillar tomb and is inscribed with the achievements of its owner, particularly prevalent are his victories over the Athenians: “with Trbbenimi he [Kheriga] defeated the army of Melesandros.”[1] This comparison between the tombs of Erbbina and Kheriga helps to reveal the strengths and limitations of using funerary monuments as sources for Lycian culture. The Xanthian Obelisk is some forty years older than the Nereid Monument; it makes sense that the later one displays a greater variety of artistic genres. Another reason for the difference in style are the different contexts that they were built in, Kheriga is celebrated for his victory over the Athenians, a lack of Hellenising elements is unsurprising, since during this period they were free from Athenian/Delian League and Persian control (Bean (1978) 58). The ‘Pillar’ type of tomb is very symbolic of Lycia, and this is likely an attempt by Kheriga to celebrate Lycian identity, and the independence that they so greatly value. The only Hellenising element of the tomb is a short poem in the style of Simonides, written in Greek. Bean provides an excellent summary of its contents: “he was said to have been a champion wrestler in his youth, to have sacked many cities, slain seven Arcadian hoplites in a day, set up more trophies than any other man, and added glory to the house of Karikas [The dynastic family of Xanthos].” (Bean (1978) 58; this summary is based upon TAM I 44; SEG 42 1245.12.) It is poignant that the only Greek medium that is used on the tomb is used to humiliate them. The tomb, and by proxy Kheriga, are thus symbols of Lycian liberty, something that is integral to the Lycian’s identity.

The question of who had the Xanthian Obelisk inscribed also reveals a lot about Lycian culture. The inscription mentions “Erbbinahe: tezi”[2] or “sarcophagus of Erbbina”, suggesting it was written after the death of Kheriga and most likely during the reign of Erbbina himself (Keen (1998) 9). This suggests that Erbbina was attempting to create a continuity of historical funerary monuments, allowing him to be compared favourably with his more successful ancestor; this behaviour also suggests that in Lycia there was a knowledge of the activities of previous rulers in the public consciousness, allowing him to create an inscription that is historically accurate (as elements within it can be corroborated with Thucydides). The typology of the tomb (a pillar monument) as a tool to learn about the socio-political structures of Lycia has been reduced in significance in recent years (Ibid. 37), but I think is very important to understanding this aspect of aristocratic competition. The older tombs of Lycia are revered by the people, later buildings are made to accommodate them without disturbing them (Bean (1978) 55), and a Lycian dynast would have understood the significance of them and used them to his own ends, just as he understood the significance of adopting Persian dress in the Greek sculptural reliefs of his own tomb.

Siege scene from the Nereid monument. C.380-370 BC. Defenders can be seen in between the merlons of the walls. Both sides are presented rather uniformly, and it is also unclear which side the viewer should sympathise with.

It seems that the tombs represent a window into how the dynasts interacted with the common people, since it is widely believed that Lycian funerary monuments became hero shrines (Dunisinberre (2013) 223). Hero shrines of this type help to emphasise local autonomy, whilst also starting to accommodate the needs and motifs of the Persian rulers (Ibid. 223). Even when changing the perceptions of the past, the message that these shrines have is to highlight the power of the dynast, and from that the rest of the population are involved, and the funerary monuments become focal points that celebrated Lycian identity (Ibid. 225). The battles on the nereid monument are presented as wars against a generic enemy, since both sides are dressed in a Greek fashion , this helped Erbbina’s case that the war he was fighting was of conquest, rather than a civil war against fellow Lycians who revolted from his control. Lycian Hero cults were meant to draw together the people behind the ruler, and this was something the rulers did themselves (Ibid. 223), especially when their position was weak in order to reinforce it.

Lycian culture will always remain elusive, but there tombs and use as historical ‘documents’ is something that needs to be built upon. Propaganda is always a useful tool to look into the heart of a culture, as it plays upon the fears and desires of the population. It becomes apparent that the common people of Lycia are at the edge of the narrative shown in funerary art, known only through how the dynasts may have wanted them to act. For this reason, the funerary monuments of Lycia are not good for understanding the culture of Lycia as a whole, but for understanding the culture that separated the elites from the ordinary people, it is a perfect tool.


[1] TAM I 44.a.44-45, translation from Bryce (1986) 107. A battle in Lycia with a general called Melesandros is recorded in Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, 2.69. It is dated to 429 BC.

[2] TAM I 44.a.25: the stem tezi can be used for any type of tomb and not just what we would consider a sarcophagus.


Primary Sources

Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Warner, R. (1954) Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Secondary Sources

Bean, G.E. (1978 2nd edition) Lycian Turkey. (London:  Murray).

Brosius, M. (2011). ‘Keeping up with the Persians: Between Cultural Identity and Persianization in the Achaemenid Period’ in Cultural Identity in the ancient Mediterranean, eds. Gruen, E. (Los Angeles: Getty mResearch Institute) 135-149.

Childe, V.G. (1936 4th edition). Man Makes Himself. (London: Watts & Co).

Childs, W. (1978). The city reliefs of Lycia. (Princeton N.J. : Princeton University Press).

Dunisinberre, E. (2013) Empire, authority and autonomy in Achaemenid Anatolia. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Keen, A. (1998). Dynastic Lycia: A political history of the Lycians and their relations with foreign powers, C. 545-362 B.C. (Leiden: Brill)

Miller, M. ‘“Manners Makyth Man”: Diacritical Drinking in Achaemenid Anatolia’, in Cultural Identity in the ancient Mediterranean, eds. Gruen, E. (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute) 97-134.

Internet Sources

Pleket, H.W. and Stroud, R.S., “SEG 28-1245. Xanthos. Inscriptions in honour of the Lycian Dynast Arbinas, beginning of the 4th cent. B.C.”, in:Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, Current editors: A. T. N. R.A. Chaniotis Corsten Papazarkadas Tybout. Consulted online on 25 November 2018 First published online: 1978

Pleket, H.W. and Stroud, R.S., “SEG 39-1414. Xanthos. Inscriptions in honor of the Lycian dynast Arbinas, early 4th cent. B.C.”, in: Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, Current editors: A. T. N. R.A. Chaniotis Corsten Papazarkadas Tybout. Consulted online on 25 November 2018 First published online: 1989

Pleket, H.W., Stroud, R.S. and Strubbe, J.H.M., “SEG 42-1245. Xanthos. Inscriptions in honor of the Lycian dynast Arbinas, early 4th cent. B.C.”, in:Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum, Current editors: A. T. N. R.A. Chaniotis Corsten Papazarkadas Tybout. Consulted online on 25 November 2018


Figure 1: Relief from the Nereid monument (authors own photo)

Figure 2: Tomb of Kheriga (from Wikimedia Commons) (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Figure 3: Siege scene from the Nereid monument (authors own photo)

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