Cyrene: Greek city in Libya, modern Shahhat.
Cyrenaica: the country surrounding Cyrene.
Cyrene was founded in c.630 BCE as a colony of the Greek island town
Thera, which had become too crowded. The first colonists settled at an island
called Platea in front of the Libyan coast (modern Bomba). Later, they occupied
a coastal strip called Aziris, and finally, after concluding a treaty with the
native Libyans, they founded the town Cyrene. The leader of the settlers was Aristoteles,
but he was called Battus. (Which means 'stammerer' in Greek, but is probably a
Libyan royal title.) In the following centuries, Battus' descendants ruled Cyrene.
|Aristoteles Battus I
|Battus II the Blessed
|Arcesilas II the Tough
|Battus III the Lame
|Battus IV the Fair
Although Cyrene was founded after a treaty with the natives, the relations
between the Greeks and Libyans were often strained, and the settlers sometimes
felt threatened. As a consequence, during the reign of Battus II, new settlers
were invited from the homeland. They received Libyan land, which caused great
resentment. The Libyans requested the Egyptian king Apries to assist them in a
war against the Greeks, but the pharaoh was defeated (570).
At this time, there were social tensions in the Greek homeland. As
usual, the aristocrats were competing for glory and honor, but the situation had
become more complex because rich non-aristocratic land-owners were beginning to
demand political influence. In many cases, one of the aristocrats became sole
ruler ('tyrant') in cooperation with the non-aristocrats; he gave them political
rights and could reign the town for some time. The same conflicts occurred in
Cyrene, but this time, the kings were able to survive.
However, the troubles were very serious. When Arcesilas II became
king in c.560, he had to cope with serious opposition, which was led by his brother
Learchus. In the end, the members of the opposition left Cyrene, settled in a
Libyan city, Barca, and allied themselves to the Libyans. When Arcesilas attacked
the Libyans, he was defeated (7,000 soldiers were killed), and was murdered by
his brother (c.550). Queen Eryxo retaliated: Learchus was assassinated too, and
her son Battus III became king.
He realized that he was not strong enough to rule effectively, and
invited Demonax, a Greek from Mantinea
who was to give Cyrene a new constitution. He divided the people into three groups:
those who came from Thera
those who originated from the Peloponnese and Crete, and those who came from other
Aegean isles. The king's power was restricted to religious tasks. However, the
monarchy remained, which was a rare development in the Greek world.
At this point, the dynasty of Cyrene started to look for support against
the Libyans and the aristocracy. It was found in Egypt
Battus III married his daughter Ladice to king Amasis, and the alliance was concluded.
In 525, the Persian king Cambyses conquered Egypt
and king Arcesilas III of Cyrene sided with the new ruler in the east. The Persians
granted an alliance, and Arcesilas felt strong enough to demand the royal prerogatives
again, which resulted in civil strive in his city. In 518, the opposition expelled
the king, but he went to Samos
where he recruited an army. Using these soldiers, he defeated his opponents, and
returned to Cyrene. His men received land, but ultimately, Arcesilas was unable
to rule, and fled to his father-in-law, the Libyan king Alazeir of Barca. However,
both men were killed.
At this moment (514?), the Persian alliance proved its worth. Queen
Pheretima, who had lost her father and husband, invited the Persians to Cyrene.
Satrap Aryandes of Egypt accepted the invitation, and conquered Cyrene. The new
king, Battus IV, was no longer the ruler of an independent kingdom, but a puppet.
It is possible but not likely that he was able to throw of the Persian yoke after
the disastrous expedition of king Xerxes to the Greek mainland (480-479).
During Battus' reign, Cyrene was a very wealthy town, which exported
wheat, barley and olive oil, and monopolized the trade in sylphium, an unidentified
plant with aromatic and medicinal properties.
One of the remarkable religious developments in Cyrene was the introduction
of a new god, Amun, the oracle god of the Siwa oasis. The Greeks identified this
Libyan-Egyptian divinity with their own supreme god Zeus, and rendered his name
as Ammon, which is a nice wordplay: ammos was the Greek word for 'sand' - in other
words, the Greeks aptly called the god Sandy Zeus. From Cyrene, the cult spread
to the Greek mainland, and was especially propagated by the famous poet Pindar
After Battus' reign, which lasted more than forty years, his son Arcesilas
IV became king (c.470). He was one of the celebrities of his age, having won the
chariot race of 462 at the Pythian games at Delphi. This victory was celebrated
by Pindar in the Fourth and Fifth Pythian ode. It is remarkable that he stresses
the rightfulness of Arcesilas' rule, because this ought to have been obvious after
eight generations. Even more striking is Pindar's advice to the young king to
reconcile himself to the opposition. The civil strife continued, and it comes
as no surprise that in 440, Arcesilas was expelled. He fled to Euhesperides, a
city in the neighborhood (modern Banghazi), but was killed. Cyrene was reorganized
as a democracy.
It was to last for more than a century, but we are ill-informed about
this period. However, we may assume that Cyrene regained its independence together
with Egypt, which successfully revolted against the Persian overlords in 404 under
its king Amyrtaeus. (It is also possible that Cyrene became independent again
in 464, when the Egyptians revolted. This time, their rebellion was suppressed,
but it is possible that the Persians did not reconquer Cyrene. If this is correct,
king Arcesilas IV must have been an even bigger celebrity in the Greek world.)
We reach more certainty after the death of Alexander the Great, the
Macedonian conqueror of Egypt and the Achaemenid empire. He was succeeded in Egypt
by his friend Ptolemy. At this time, there was civil war in Cyrenaica: a group
of exiles had invited a mercenary leader named Thibron, who happened to own a
large amount of money (the amount of taxes once paid by Babylonia). Thibron arrived
and expelled his opponents; they fled to Egypt, where they requested the support
of Ptolemy. He sent his general Ophellas, who restored order and united all towns
in one single province (322). From now on, Cyrene and the Cyrenaica were part
of the Ptolemaean empire, although there were periods of independence.
At this time, there were five important towns, which were called the
(Susah); this was the harbor of Cyrene
Ophellas added a sixth city, Ptolemais (Tulmaythah), and remained
in charge of the region until he was murdered during a Greek expedition against
Carthage (308). Immediately, Cyrenaica tried to regain its independence, but Ptolemy
of Egypt (now king), sent a general named Magas (301), who ruled the province.
However, after the death of Ptolemy (282), Magas allied himself with the Seleucid
king Antiochus I and started a kingdom of his own.
He died in 250 or 249, and was succeeded by Demetrius the Fair, the
son of Demetrius Poliorcetes, one of the Diadochi. The younger Demetrius was murdered
after a brief reign, and Cyrenaica again became part of the Ptolemaean empire.
It lasted some eighty years.
A second period of independence was the reign of Ptolemy VIII Euergetes
Physcon, a son of the Egyptian king Ptolemy V Epiphanes. In 163, he was made governor
of the Cyrenaica, but he met with much opposition, which he overcame with support
from Rome. In this way, Cyrenaica became a Roman protectorate. This lasted until
145, when Ptolemy VIII unexpectedly was made king of Egypt.
When he died in 116, he appointed his son Ptolemy Apion as successor
in Cyrenaica. The reign of the last king of independent Cyrenaica lasted twenty
years, and when he died in 96, the Romans learned that they had inherited Cyrene
and the other towns. Eighteen years later, they made it a province (together with
). During the civil wars
it was briefly ruled by a Selene, the daughter of the Roman general Marc Antony
and the last Ptolemaean queen, Cleopatra VII (34-31).
After this incident, Cyrenaica enjoyed a lasting peace under a Roman
governor. The emperor Augustus presented its capital with a new temple for the
god Zeus (with a replica of Phidias' famous statue of Zeus), and other emperors
gave similar presents. The tranquility was only briefly interrupted in 115, when
a Jew named Lukuas claimed to be the Messiah and launched a revolt. There were
large-scale destructions, but ultimately, the Romans regained their province,
and the emperor Hadrian ordered the Jews to pay for the reconstruction.
Cyrene was the hometown of several famous Greek scholars and scientists.
The mathematician Theodorus (c.465-399) developed the theory of irrational numbers
(e.g., the root of three). His namesake Theodorus "the godless" (c.335-c.260)
seems to have been one of the founders of atheism. His younger contemporary Callimachus
is considered to be one of the most important poets of antiquity, and Callimachus'
student Eratosthenes (276-193) will forever be remembered as the first one to
measure the circumference of the earth (which he thought was 43,500 kilometers).
In philosophy, the Cyrenaean school taught that the best thing in life is pleasure.
Jona Lendering, ed.
This text is cited July 2003 from the Livius Ancient History Website URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks.