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Young Reader's World

Splendid Ruins of an "Excellent Republic"

Written by Christopher Walker
Photographed by Thorne Anderson

In the shadow of the herb-scented mountains, covered with a pine and juniper forest and overlooking Turkey’s “Turquoise Coast,” sits a long-silent bouleuterion, or council chamber. The Lycian League, considered history’s earliest example of a republican government, once held its meetings in this structure. A republican form of government is one in which voters elect representatives responsible for promoting the common good. The Lycian bouleuterion, with its rows of stone seats in a semicircle around a raised platform, looks remarkably like the chambers of modern legislatures and parliaments throughout the world.

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The Lycian League

The Lycian bouleuterion housed the elected representatives of the 23 city-states that came together about 205 BC and made a formal alliance in 168 BC. The resulting League is the world’s first recorded example of representative democracy. It not only kept its often-squabbling members united, but it also managed to exert authority over individual citizens in its constituent states.

The historical significance of the Lycian League was its uniquely federal character. Most other “leagues” and alliances at the time consisted of groups of city-states that had united against common foes. The Lycians, however, shared a racial and cultural ancestry. Until the American model was created half a world away and nearly 2,000 years later, no other country had apparently followed the Lycian example. The impact of the Lycian form of government on US government is what makes it so important to learn about today.

The capital of the League was the port city of Patara, which is first mentioned by the fifth-century BC Greek historian Herodotus. He credited it as the birthplace of the god Apollo.

Who Were the Lycians?

According to British archeologist Geoffrey Bean, “among the various races of Anatolia [today’s Turkey], the Lycians always held a distinctive place. Locked away in their mountainous country, they had a fierce love of freedom and independence and strongly resisted all attempts at outside domination; they were the last in Asia Minor to be incorporated as a province in the Roman Empire.”

The Lycians had their own language and alphabet, although after Alexander the Great conquered the area in the fourth century BC they gradually began to use Greek. The successors of Alexander used Patara as a naval base.

The Lycian League flourished during both the Hellenistic period (323-146 BC), when Greek cultural influence and power were at their highest point, and the Roman Empire. The Lycian parliament building was joined by such impressive structures as an amphitheater, an ornate city gate, baths, temples, a lighthouse (now claimed as the world’s oldest) and a huge granary.

During the Roman Empire, which began in 27 BC and lasted for 500 years, Lycia continued to function as a largely self-governing province. Patara’s influence began to wane in the seventh century, after the Arab conquest of the area. By then, silt had almost totally blocked the harbor. It was entirely abandoned in the 15th century.

Lycian Influence

Although Patara’s ruins were buried under thousands of tons of windblown sand at the time the US Congress came into being in the late 18th century, the once-unique representative system practiced by the Lycian League for at least 300 years was a formative influence on the framing of the US Constitution.

According to James W. Muller, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska, the Lycian confederacy made three contributions to the US Constitution:

  1. It was a model of a federal union that gave strength to its members in proportion to their size.
  2. It showed the possibility of popular government that was representative.
  3. It provided an example of a strong national government with its own strong officers and the power to make laws that applied directly to individual citizens.
Detail of a portrait of Alexander
“We the people….” So begins the Constitution of the United States. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay argued in favor of the Constitution, which drew on the model provided by the Lycian confederation some 2000 years before.
National Archives

While this system of government might seem natural today, it was one-of-a-kind at the time. Its unique attributes caught the eye of constitutional framers such as Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. In 1787-88, they authored the Federalist Papers, a series of 85 essays promoting the ratification of the US Constitution.

The proportional representation that Muller describes enabled groups of independent city-states in Lycia to work together for their welfare. “The different political weights of cities in the common assembly of the Lycian confederacy showed the possibility of a federation in which members of different sizes came together in a way that reflected their real strength,” Muller explains. “This was the basic idea for Congress in James Madison’s Virginia Plan. The latter proposed a bicameral legislature, consisting of two houses. Both would give the states representation in proportion to their population—just as in Lycia. Madison then had to compromise with his opponents and accept the equality of states in the Senate, but the American House of Representatives, where states have representation in proportion to their population, is founded, as Madison urged, on the principle of the Lycian confederation.”

In Federalist No. 9, Hamilton explained that in Lycia, the common council had the power to appoint all judges and magistrates for the allied cities. In Federalist No. 16, he pointed out that in Lycia, federal laws applied not only to cities, but also directly to individuals. In Federalist No. 45, he referred specifically to the “degree and species of power” of the national government in Lycia, which he welcomed as the model for the stronger national government established in the US Constitution.

In addition, the position of the Lycian executive was similar to that of a US president, in that the leader, or lyciarch, was elected and did not inherit the position.

In the ruins of Patara, archeologists have also found hints of the power and influence of some Lycian women. Inscriptions found in the remains of the bouleuterion show that at least two women, Marcia Aurelia and Crision Nemeso, used the title lyciarchissa. Whether they were elected to the post or were using the feminine form of their husbands’ title is still unclear.

Excavating Patara

Today, Patara’s swampy terrain and rampant vegetation are home to the endangered hammerhead turtle, as well as to legions of snakes and scorpions. The 100-hectare (250-acre) archeological site remained largely neglected until the late 1980s.

At the foot of the bouleuterion is a room believed to have housed the Lycian League’s archives. In keeping with the theme of Apollo that dominates the Patara ruins, on the room’s entrance stone are carved the three symbols of the god: a baby turtle, a lizard and a grasshopper.

On the other side of the outer wall lie hundreds of large, recently numbered stones among a carpet of daisy-like yellow and white camomile flowers. When funds are available, the stones will be set into their original positions as part of an ambitious historical reconstruction.

Although the largely unspoiled site of present-day Patara provides insight into the setting where Lycians lived and governed, there are as yet few clues about how they lived and looked. Figures found on some reliefs and coins suggest that they wore their hair long. According to Herodotus, they had “customs that resemble no one else’s. For example, they used their mother’s name instead of their father’s.” As excavations continue, more than just a model for American democracy may yet emerge from the sands of Patara.

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ERIC HANSEN Christopher Walker, now a London-based journalist and broadcaster, was Middle East correspondent of The Times of London for 15 years, based in Jerusalem and Cairo. He was also head of The Times’s bureaus in Moscow and Belfast. He can be reached at [email protected].

Thorne Anderson ([email protected]) has covered Europe and the Middle East for numerous newspapers and magazines. His collaborative book, Unembedded: Four Photojournalists on the War in Iraq, was published in 2005 by Chelsea Green. He lives in Amsterdam.