Most people today are somewhat familiar with the legend of King Midas and that he was said to have the “golden touch.” The legend has been turned into a familiar pop culture meme seen on cartoons and even adopted by an American automotive repair franchise, bringing it into the minds of millions of people who probably would not have ordinarily known anything about it. But few are aware of the legend’s historical origins.
The historical King Midas ruled the Near Eastern kingdom of Phrygia in the late eight and early seventh centuries BC, competing with the Assyrians for land and wealth in the region. The legend of King Midas turning everything he touched to gold was a literary story developed later by the Greeks and Romans and although obviously purely fictional, it was no doubt based on some degree of reality. An examination of the historical King Midas reveals that he was actually a strong and successful ruler who made Phrygia one of the most powerful and wealthy kingdoms in the early Iron Age Near East. King Midas may not have had a literal golden touch, but his successful rule was enough to inspire later Greek and Roman writers.
Phrygian culture developed out of the Late Bronze Age collapse that took place around the year 1200 BC, as one of the first cultures to bring civilization back to Anatolia (modern Turkey) after the Hittite Empire was destroyed. The Kingdom of Phrygia was located northeast of Lydia, west of the Halys River, and north of Cappadocia, with its capital city of Gordium located along the banks of the Sangarius River. The exact location of the kingdom, though, was somewhat fluid because borders between kingdoms and peoples in ancient Anatolia were not as defined as they are today.