On the southwest coast of Turkey, near Greek islands in the southern Aegean Sea, shielded from the Anatolian Plateau by rugged, craggy mountains, lie the ruins of the ancient city of Patara, one of seven cities of the first century B.C. Lycian League. Turkey is littered with Neolithic, Hittite, Hellenic and Hellenistic, and Roman ruins; they are everywhere. As ancient kingdoms go, Lycia was small business: At its greatest extent it wasn't much larger than an average-size Texas county. But the Lycian League has a huge claim on our sensibilities as Americans, for it was apparently the first representative democracy in the ancient world.
Like most of that world, after the sixth and fifth centuries B.C. Lycia was a kingdom whose several small cities and towns were ruled by a king of one sort or another, whoever was strong enough and charismatic enough to command the loyalty of an army and the fealty of the region's farmers and shopkeepers. Most ruled through oligarchy, control by a single individual, confirmed and supported by a few wealthy and powerful families, the patriarch of any one of which might himself become king at any succession. Such kingdoms were in turn conquered routinely by whichever visionary was mighty enough to realize his imperial ambitions. Thus, Lycia became part of the empire of the Persian Cyrus the Great in the middle of the sixth century, then the Athenian empire in the middle of the fifth century, the empire of Alexander the Great (Macedonia) in the late fourth century, the Ptolemaic empire of Egypt in the third century, and the empire of Rhodes in the second century, and finally became a Roman province under Claudius in 43 A.D. The heir to Augustus Caesar, Gaius Caesar, died while fighting in Lycia in 4 A.D.
Through all of this the Lycians earned a reputation for jealous and fierce defense of their independence. The various conquerors usually found it easier to make an accommodation with the Lycians that left them largely in control of their internal affairs than to expend the time, resources and energy required to subdue them, though they were not above sacking and razing one or more of the Lycian cities when they felt they needed to demonstrate that they could.
Perhaps in recognition of that spirit, their Roman conquerors granted Lycia its independence in 168 B.C., and the Lycians proceeded to found a representative assembly with its capitol at Patara. The assembly, called a senate, convened every autumn. Each of the six largest cities sent three representatives, the smallest cities and towns one; together they totaled about 1,000 people. Though they rotated their meetings among the six largest cities, they met in Patara in times of crisis. Their meeting place there was an open-air theater called the bouleuterion, a stadium-like structure of tiers of marble seats fashioned in a severely raked semicircle, where the solons sat staring down at the speaker standing in what was called the orchestra. Each annual senate elected a leader, the "Lyciarch," who acted as executive during the succeeding year. The Lycian League, with its annually elected Lyciarch, lasted until the fourth century A.D., after which Lycia became part of the new Byzantine Empire. Several of the region's bishops subsequently attended various of the Christian ecumenical councils.
It is remarkable to stand today among the ruins of Patara, gazing up into the imposing bouleuterion, listening to the imagined shouts of the senators floating above the white marble tiers as they debate how to respond to the latest demands from Rome, or how much money to allocate for the new road to nearby Xanthos.
History took note of the Lycian League: Herodotus described it at length, as did Livy. Montesquieu noted its success, and both Hamilton and Madison pointed to it in the Federalist Papers when advocating adoption of the new U.S. Constitution in 1787, with its federal system and its national Congress.
The Lycians abandoned Patara after the fourth century, and remarkably, it lay mostly undisturbed until very recently. The full bouleuterion was not uncovered until just last year.
Listening to our political debates this week, one hears again those boisterous voices at ancient Patara, trying out representative democracy for the first time.
On the connection between the Lycian League and early ideas about democracy in the U.S. ... Saudi Aramco World also had a nice article on same last fall ... coverage of the excavations at Patara (and mention of this democracy connection) can also be found in an item from the New York Times from Sept. 9, 2005 which we have previously mentioned ...