Cyrene (modern-day Shahhat, Libya) was a vital cultural center and port of trade in North Africa founded in 631 BCE by Greek colonists from the island of Thera. The city is best known as the birthplace of the philosopher Aristippus of Cyrene, the poet/scholar Callimachus, and the polymath Eratosthenes, as well as from references in the Bible.
It became the foundational city of the region of Cyrenaica, also known as the Pentapolis ("five cities") which included:
- Cyrene (modern Shahhat)
- Barca (modern Al-Marj)
- Euesperides (modern Benghazi)
- Apollonia (modern Marsa Susah)
- Taucheira (modern Tukrah)
Some scholars replace Apollonia, which was the port of Cyrene, with Balagrae (modern Bayda) and still others with the later city of Ptolemais (modern Tolmeita), but the five listed above are the most commonly accepted as the original Pentapolis.
The region was exceptionally fertile, and Cyrene's wealth was derived in large part from the cultivation and trade of the silphium plant, which was highly valued in antiquity as an aromatic and seasoning, an abortifacient, and for medicinal properties. It became synonymous with Cyrene, and its image appeared on the city's currency. Silphium was extinct by the 1st century CE (according to Pliny the Elder), and, according to Strabo (l. c. 64 BCE to c. 24 CE), there was only a narrow strip of the region that produced the plant, and this was nearly destroyed by an invasion of "barbarians", though he does not name them (17:22). Modern-day scholars, however, believe the plant was driven to extinction through overgrazing and overharvesting, which depleted the soil's nutrients.
The loss of the silphium crop, expansion of Cyrenaica which exhausted natural resources, warfare and civil strife (notably the Jewish uprising during the Roman era), and natural disasters such as drought and earthquakes (in 262 and 365 CE) led to the decline of the city, which was nearly deserted by the 4th century CE. By the 7th century CE, the city was an empty ruin. The first modern-day excavations began in the mid-19th century and continued into the 20th. In 1982, Cyrene was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, in the past ten years, has been declared endangered owing to encroaching development, looting, and vandalism.
Early History & Name
The region was originally occupied by the Imazighen people (later known as the Berbers) but, it seems, not the area that would become Cyrene. According to Herodotus (l. c. 484-425/413 BCE), the island of Thera became overpopulated, and after consulting the Oracle at Delphi for advice, they were told to send some of their people south to colonize North Africa. The people ignored this advice until famine reminded them of the words of the oracle of Apollo and a group was organized for the journey (Book IV. 150-151).
The leader of the expedition was Aristoteles (later known as Battus I, r. c. 631 to c. 599 BCE), but since no one on Thera knew where the land Apollo had referenced was, they asked for help from Crete and were put in touch with a merchant named Corobius who first led them to the island of Platea, then the North African region of Asilis (also given as Aziris), and then, in 631 BCE, to the location of the future city of Cyrene.
Legend claimed the city was named after a princess who became a goddess, but this has been challenged in the modern era. Scholar Kathleen Freeman comments:
The name of the city was actually derived from the local spring called Cyre; legend made Cyrene a princess who lived in the forests near Mount Pelion and was a huntress beloved of Artemis. Apollo saw her fighting a lion without weapons and fell in love with her. He took her to Libya, and united with her; she became the queen of the country and bore a son named Aristaeus, an agricultural and pastoral deity. Local legend said that Cyrene killed her lion in Libya, where the king had offered his kingdom to anyone who would rid him of the destructive beast. At any rate, the [Greeks] made Cyrene their patron goddess along with Apollo, whose cult they had brought with them and to whom their chief worship was always consecrated. (192)
The immigrants found the land pristine and incredibly fertile. Freeman notes:
The site was well-chosen: "from its position, formation, climate and soil," says one modern writer, "the region is perhaps one of the most delightful on the surface of the globe." The whole district was a vast garden of fruitfulness and natural beauty, endowed with a fresh, cool climate. Heavy summer dews and winter showers supplied numberless springs and brooks, and the deep soil provided not only abundant crops but excellent pasturage. For the new city, the colonists chose a site ten miles inland, on a tableland bounded on the south by ravines leading to the upper plateau and on the north by the edge of a great scarp two thousand feet above sea level. (192-193)
The myth of the princess Cyrene and Apollo seems to have developed early, and construction of the city began at the site where it was believed Cyrene had killed the lion and attracted the attention of the god. Among the earliest buildings was a temple to Apollo and a palace for their king, Battus I, founder of the Battiad Dynasty.
Early Kings & Egypt
Aristoteles chose the throne name Battus (thought to be a Greek version of the Imazighen term for "king"), but the name sounded similar to the Greek for "stammerer" and so gave rise to the legend that Battus had been troubled by a speech impediment and went to the Oracle at Delphi for advice on how to cure it. Apollo instead told him to leave Thera for North Africa, and when he arrived, he saw a lion which scared him, and the sudden shock cured his stammer.
Besides this legend, and the founding of Cyrene, nothing is known of his reign nor that of his son and successor Arcesilas I (c. 599 to c. 583 BCE), except that, under them, Cyrene expanded, the port of Apollonia was established, and trade flourished. Their efforts provided the third king, Battus II (the Prosperous, r. c. 583 to c. 560 BCE), with a wealth of resources, and further expansion encouraged him to send out an invitation for more Greeks to join the community. The Greeks, especially from the Peloponnese, answered the call and arrived in droves, pushing into the outlying areas and displacing the indigenous people. The Imazighen responded by appealing to Apries, pharaoh of Egypt (r. 589-570 BCE), for assistance. Herodotus writes:
The local Libyans and their king, whose name was Adicran, resented being robbed of their land and pushed around by the settlers; a message was sent to Egypt and the Libyans put themselves under the protection of the Egyptian king Apries. He mobilized a huge army of his men and sent it to assault Cyrene. However, the Cyreneans came out to meet them at Irasa; battle was joined near a spring called Testes, and the Cyreneans were victorious. The Egyptians, who had never come across Greeks before, underestimated them and were so thoroughly annihilated that hardly any of them found their way back to Egypt.
(Book IV. 159)
Apries was soon after overthrown and succeeded by Amasis (Ahmose II, r. 570-526 BCE), who not only made peace with Cyrene but encouraged trade between the Cyreneans and Naucratis in Egypt, as well as sending lavish gifts to the city, including a large statue of the goddess Athena. The reign of Battus II provided him with his epithet "the Prosperous" as the city and surrounding regions flourished, and by the time of his death, Cyrene was fabulously wealthy.
Decline, Democracy, & Persia
Battus II was succeeded by his son Arcesilas II (the Harsh, r. c. 560-550 BCE), and Herodotus notes that "the first thing Arcesilas did on becoming king was fall out with his brothers" (Book IV. 160). The quarrel seems to have arisen due to Arcesilas II's domineering personality and distrust of others, which resulted in the brothers leaving Cyrene and founding the city of Barca. Arcesilas II marched on Barca but was defeated by an alliance of Barcans and Libyans, losing 7,000 men, and was then assassinated by Learchus, either a younger brother or close friend. Learchus reigned briefly as regent for the young Battus III before he was assassinated by Arcesilas II's widow, Eryxo, who served as regent until her son was of age.
Battus III (the Lame, r. c. 550 to c. 530 BCE) received his epithet from a deformity at birth that caused him to limp. He recognized that the stability and prosperity of the reign of Battus II had been seriously compromised under Arcesilas II and traveled to the Oracle at Delphi for advice. He was told to consult the lawgiver Demonax of Arcadia (l. c. 550 BCE), who returned with him, created (or revised) the constitution of Cyrene, and divided the people into three tribes according to their place of origin – those from Thera (including those who had intermarried with Imazighen); those from Crete and the Peloponnese; those from other areas of Greece. In so doing, Demonax established a democracy in Cyrene as legislative matters were now the responsibility of the people, and the king's function was only to officiate as high priest at festivals and approve the allocation of land.
Battus III was succeeded by his son Arcesilas III (r. c. 530 to c. 514 BCE) who, with support from his mother Pheretima, sought to overthrow the democracy and restore the absolute monarchy. When the Achaemenid Persian king Cambyses II (r. 530-522 BCE) conquered Egypt in 525 BCE, Arcesilas III acknowledged his supremacy and sent monetary gifts, as would have been expected since Cyrene had been allied with Egypt. He may have hoped, however, that his gifts would incline Cambyses II to help him restore the Cyrenean kingship. If so, his hopes were disappointed, as Cambyses II felt the amount was too small and, according to Herodotus, threw the money to his troops as there was too little of it to do anything else with.
Cambyses II was succeeded by Darius I (also known as Darius the Great, r. 522-486 BCE) and Cyrene appears on Persian lists as a tributary of the Achaemenid Empire. Arcesilas III's refusal to consider negotiations with the pro-democracy faction of Cyrene led to a civil war in 518 BCE, which he lost and was forced to flee to Samos while his mother took refuge in the city-state of Salamis in Cyprus. Pheretima failed in her efforts to win troops from the king of Salamis, but Arcesilas III had better luck in Samos.
On his return to Cyrene with his army, he stopped at the Oracle of Delphi to ask about his chances of success and was told he should treat the people of Cyrene gently if he wished to rule. Arcesilas III ignored the oracle, marched on Cyrene, and restored the monarchy, exiling or killing his former opponents and oppressing the people. While in Barca one day with his father-in-law, he was assassinated by some of the exiles c. 514 BCE and was succeeded by Pheretima until her death that same year (both events sometimes given as 515 BCE).
He was succeeded by his son, Battus IV (the Fair, r. c. 514 to c. 470 BCE), who appears in Achaemenid Persian lists as a client king of the empire. This suggests that the monarchy restored under Arcesilas III was still in place under Battus IV and further evidence of this comes from the reign of his son and successor, Arcesilas IV (r. c. 470 to c. 440 BCE). Little is known of the reign of Battus IV, but Arcesilas IV was honored in song by the poet Pindar for his victory in the chariot race at the Pythian Games at Delphi in 462 BCE.
The horses of Cyrene, as well as their chariots, were highly valued throughout the Mediterranean at this time and again served Arcesilas IV well two years later when he won the even more prestigious chariot race at the Olympic Games. Shortly after this, the Cyreneans restored the democracy, Arcesilas IV was deposed, and Cyrene became a republic in 460 BCE. Arcesilas IV fled with his son, Battus V, to nearby Euesperides, where they were both assassinated in 440 BCE, ending the Battiad Dynasty.
Cyrene supported Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars, but a growing faction admired the Athenian democracy. The earlier constitution of Demonax had resulted in an imbalance of power between the elite and the working class, who were increasingly oppressed and abused. Around 401 BCE, the working class revolted. Freeman comments:
This government repression was due to fear of the working class, which now outnumbered the upper and middle classes; in this revolution, five hundred of the rich were put to death and others fled. The democratic party now proceeded to consolidate their strength by constitutional changes. Imitating the measures of Cleisthenes at Athens a century before, they created new tribes and clan-groups, outnumbering the old ones, and they broke up the old associations, mixing the people up together as far as possible and substituting a small number of religious festivals common to all citizens for the many celebrations of family and tribal rites. (200)
How this democracy worked on a practical level is unknown as there are no extant records. Nothing is known of Cyrene until the arrival of Alexander the Great in 332/331 BCE, except that it continued as a major commercial and cultural center. Aristippus of Cyrene (l. c. 435-356 BCE), a student of Socrates, established the Cyrenaic school of hedonism there, teaching pleasure as the highest good in life (a concept developed further by the later Cyrenaics and Epicureans) and silphium was still in plentiful supply. Other than this information and that the great Necropolis of Cyrene continued in use, Cyrene's history picks up again with Alexander. On his way to the Oracle of Ammon at the Siwa Oasis, a delegation from Cyrene greeted him, offering him gifts of horses and war chariots, which he accepted. After his death in 323 BCE, the city was taken by his general Ptolemy I Soter (r. 323-282 BCE) of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of Egypt.
While Alexander's generals fought over his empire in the infamous Wars of the Diadochi, one of the lesser-known commanders, Thibron, assassinated the Macedonian governor, Harpalus, who had been placed over Babylon by Alexander. He then took the considerable sum of the treasury, outfitted a fleet, and at the urging of disaffected Cyrenean exiles, he sailed to Cyrene. His attempts to take the wealthy city severely damaged the harbor of Apollonia, and when the Cyreneans sought help from Ptolemy I Soter, the conflicts between his general Ophellas, the forces of Thibron, and the Cyreneans fighting on either side, damaged or destroyed areas in and around Cyrene further. Ophellas was victorious, and Cyrene returned to Ptolemaic rule while Thibron was captured and executed in 322 BCE. The Foundation Decree of Cyrene dates from this time, guaranteeing the same rights to newly arrived Therans as those already established at Cyrene or who remained at Thera. It is possible the decree was issued in hopes of repopulating the city after war casualties.
Cyrene produced two of the greatest scholars of antiquity during this era, Callimachus of Cyrene (l. c. 310 to c. 240 BCE), the poet and scholar associated with the Library of Alexandria who is said to have written over 800 works and developed the concept of the card catalog, and the polymath Eratosthenes (l. c. 276-195 BCE), the first to calculate the circumference of the earth and its axial tilt. When Eratosthenes was the head curator of the Library of Alexandria under the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes (r. 246-222 BCE), Cyrene was still famous as the source of silphium, of the best horses and chariots, and of other valuable trade goods.
The city remained under Ptolemaic control until the death of Ptolemy Apion in 96 BCE, who left Cyrenaica to Rome. Under the Roman Republic and early Roman Empire, Cyrene continued to flourish. During the reign of Roman emperor Vespasian (69-79 CE), however, the Jewish community of Cyrene revolted against the loss of the civil rights they had known under the Ptolemaic Dynasty and the perceived oppression of Roman rule.
This rebellion was part of the much larger Great Jewish Revolt of 66 CE (also known as the First Jewish-Roman War, 66-73 CE) that began under Nero (r. 54-68 CE). The Jewish-Roman conflict was renewed during the reign of Trajan (98-117 CE) in the Kitos War (115-117 CE), which cost the lives of over 200,000 civilians and damaged Cyrene so severely that it had to be largely rebuilt – and repopulated – by Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE).
Christianity arrived in Cyrenaica from Egypt but precisely when is unclear. Cyrene is mentioned in the Book of Acts and elsewhere in the New Testament of the Bible, most famously in the figure of Simon of Cyrene who is forced to carry the cross of Christ at his crucifixion (Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26). At the First Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, Cyrenaica was made an ecclesiastical province of Alexandria.
Cyrene is referenced as an early center of Christianity, but by the end of the 4th century, according to the Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus, there was almost no one living there: "In the Libyan Pentapolis is situated Cyrene, an ancient city now deserted" (Freeman, 210). The earthquakes of 262 and, especially, of 365 CE ended the life of the city.
By this time, the fertile fields and valleys that greeted the colonists from Thera in 631 BCE had been built over, paved over, probably harvested to sterility, and torn by the various conflicts so it seems unlikely Cyrene could have lasted much longer anyway. By the time the Muslim Arabs arrived at Cyrene in the 7th century, they were met by a far different landscape than the one that had long ago welcomed Battus I.