Ancient History of Gordium

King Midas, and the Gordian Knot

In the ninth century BC, a Thracian tribe known as the Phrygians occupied a city called Gordium situated where the ancient Royal Road between Lydia and Assyria/Babylonia crossed the river Sangarus. The Phrygian kingdom grew to occupy the greater part of Turkey west of the river Halys. By the eighth century BC, its kings had constructed a fortified citadel containing their palace and surrounded by the now large city.

The most famous king of Phrygia was Midas. (Contemporary Assyrian sources call him Mit- ta-a.) The ancient Midas, is said to have fastened the yoke of his famous chariot with so complicated a knot that nobody could untie it, despite the fact that the oracle had promised that whosoever succeeded would become the ruler of Asia.

However, history also teaches that during the reign of King Midas, the Phrygian Kingdom was invaded by a nomadic tribe, the Cimmerians. In 710 or 709 BC, being hard pressed by the invading Cimmerians, Midas was forced to petition King Sargon II of Assyria for aid, despite which, Midas was unable to quell the tide of the invasion. In 696 or 695 BC, Midas committed suicide after losing in battle.

For the following fifty years, the region fell into confusion until the Lydians reunited western Turkey and built a fortress near the Citadel of Gordium. In 547 BC, the Persian King Cyrus the Great conquered Lidia, garrisoned the fortress and made it the capital of the satrapy Greater Phrygia. Through the reign of Darius the Persian garrison held the city. In the last months of 334, the Macedonian commander Parmenion captured the city. During that winter, his king Alexander the Great joined him and as legend recounts, loosed the famed Gordian Knot. (Plutarch 33:18)


Without a King

The Phrygians were without a king, but an oracle at Telmissus (the ancient capital of Lycia) decreed that the next man to enter the city driving an ox-cart should become their king. A peasant farmer named Gordias drove into town on an ox-cart and was immediately declared king. Out of gratitude, his son Midas dedicated the ox-cart to the Phrygian god Sabazios (whom the Greeks identified with Zeus) and tied it to a post with an intricate knot of cornel bark (Cornus mas). The knot was later described by Roman historian Quintus Curtius Rufus as comprising “several knots all so tightly entangled that it was impossible to see how they were fastened.”

The ox-cart still stood in the palace of the former kings of Phrygia at Gordium in the fourth century BCE when Alexander arrived, at which point Phrygia had been reduced to a satrap or province of the Persian Empire. An oracle had declared that any man who could unravel its elaborate knots was destined to become ruler of all of Asia. Alexander wanted to untie the knot but struggled to do so without success. He then reasoned that it would make no difference how the knot was loosed, so he drew his sword and sliced it in half with a single stroke. In an alternative version of the story, Alexander loosed the knot by pulling the linchpin from the yoke.

Sources from antiquity agree that Alexander was confronted with the challenge of the knot, but his solution is disputed. Both Plutarch and Arrian relate that, according to Aristobulus, Alexander pulled the knot out of its pole pin, exposing the two ends of the cord and allowing him to untie the knot without having to cut through it. Some classical scholars regard this as more plausible than the popular account. Literary sources of the story include Alexander's propagandist Arrian (Anabasis Alexandri 2.3) Quintus Curtius (3.1.14), Justin's epitome of Pompeius Trogus (11.7.3), and Aelian's De Natura Animalium 13.1.

Alexander later went on to conquer Asia as far as the Indus and the Oxus, thus fulfilling the prophecy.


The Knot

The knot may have been a religious knot-cipher guarded by Gordian/Midas's priests and priestesses. Robert Graves suggested that it may have symbolized the ineffable name of Dionysus that, knotted like a cipher, would have been passed on through generations of priests and revealed only to the kings of Phrygia.

Unlike fable, true myth has few completely arbitrary elements. This myth taken as a whole seems designed to confer legitimacy to dynastic change in this central Anatolian kingdom: thus Alexander's "brutal cutting of the knot... ended an ancient dispensation." The ox-cart suggests a longer voyage, rather than a local journey, perhaps linking Gordias/Midas with an attested origin-myth in Macedon, of which Alexander is most likely to have been aware. Based on the myth, the new dynasty was not immemorially ancient, but had widely remembered origins in a local, but non-priestly "outsider" class, represented by Greek reports equally as an eponymous peasant "Gordias" or the locally attested, authentically Phrygian "Midas" in his ox-cart. Other Greek myths legitimize dynasties by right of conquest (compare Cadmus), but the legitimizing oracle stressed in this myth suggests that the previous dynasty was a race of priest-kings allied to the unidentified oracle deity.