Greek Cyrenaica

Ancient Cyrenaica is the eastern coastal region of Libya, which, at least from the first century A.D., was also known as the Pentapolis, i.e. the federation of five cities (Pliny, Naturalis Historia 5.5.5.): these are, from west to east, Euesperides/Berenice (Benghazi), Taucheira/Arsinoe (Tocra, Tukrah), Barka/Ptolemais (Tolemaide, Tulmaytha), Cyrene (Shahat), and Apollonia (Susa). These cities were founded by Greek colonists who did not completely control their hinterland: many villages and small towns grew up in the surrounding areas leaving visible remains to this day.

«The settled region of Cyrenaica is characterized largely by the upland plateau of the Jabal Akhdar (the Green Mountain) which projects northwards into the Mediterranean between the Gulf of Sidra (the Greater Syrtis) to the W and the low, arid coastlands of the Marmaric region towards Alexandria. The plateau rises in two steps, and while on the W there is a wide coastal strip between the foot of the jabal and Benghazi, this narrows progressively as one travels north-eastward; disappearing almost completely beyond Ptolemais. Towards the E, the land drops more gradually and as it becomes drier, so settlement is more sparse toward Tubruq. ... The Jabal Akhdar, composed mainly of limestone, rises to over 800 m above sea level and enjoys higher rainfall than any other part of Libya... The vegetation and the general character of the terrain are more reminiscent of Greece and Asia Minor than of Tripolitania or other parts of North Africa.» [Kenrick 2013: 1].

Cyrenaica was originally occupied by a semi-nomadic population conventionally known as Libyan. Contacts between this area and both Mycenaeans and Minoans during the Bronze Age are attested by sporadic though significant discoveries. The region was settled by Greek colonists in and after the late seventh century B.C. The first settlers were Greeks from the Aegean island of Thera led by a certain Aristoteles, who, after two unsuccessful attempts in the island of Platea off the Libyan coast and in the nearby site of Aziris, settled definetively in the site of Cyrene on the traditional date of 631 B.C. (Herodotus 4.150-158 and SEG 9.3, the well known inscription bearing the founders' oath). Aristoteles became king of Cyrene as Battos (Pindarus, Pythia 5.87) and there followed from 631 until c. 440 B.C. a succession of eight kings, alternately named Battos and Arkesilaos, until the assassination of the last, Arkesilaos IV (Herodotus 4.159-205).

The Greeks eventually established four more cities. Euesperides was founded at the end of the seventh century B.C., but received new settlers coming from different cities of Greece in 462 B.C. through the initiative of king Arkesilaos IV of Cyrene. Around 250 B.C. the site was abandoned in favour of the new foundation nearby of Berenice, named after the wife of Ptolemy III Euergetes king of Egypt. Taucheira (or Teucheira) was said to have been founded from Cyrene shortly after 631 B.C. The city received the name Arsinoe, after a queen of Egypt, during the Hellenistic period (between 322 and 220 B.C., not necessarily in 246 B.C., as it was assumed until recently). The settlement known in the archaic period as the 'port of Barka' was also founded in the seventh century B.C., as the archaeology shows, though Herodotus assigns the founding of Barka (al-Marj) itself to the reign of Arkesilaos II (560-550 B.C.). The port was named Ptolemais during the Hellenistic period (either in 246 B.C. in the time of Ptolemy III Euergetes who returned Cyrenaica to the control of the Lagid family or as early as the end of the fourth century B.C. in the time of Ptolemy I). At the beginning of the 20th century the Italians founded a new village on the site which became known as Tolemaide, modern Tulmaytha. Apollonia was for many centuries known as the 'port of Cyrene'. The city may have received both its name honouring the patron god of Cyrene and its independence from the mother-city in the second half of the second century B.C.

After the end of the monarchy at Cyrene, the region saw conflicts between aristocratic and popular parties on the one hand, alliances between different cities and raids by displaced Libyans on the other. At Cyrene itself, the fourth century B.C. was characterized by political struggles. In 401 B.C. a revolution put a democratic government in place: the reconciliation which followed forced the oligarchs to compromise with their opponents and to set up a mixed constitution (Diodorus 14.34). It is probably to this moderate constitution that the fourth century B.C. decree bearing the ancient oath of the founders (SEG 9.3) belongs. During the next decades, perhaps in the sixties at the latest, an aggressive reaction by the aristocrats took place, following the intolerable increasing growth in the number of citizens (Aristoteles, Politica, 1319b): a restrictive regime with one thousand citizens was then established [Laronde 1987]. As to Euesperides, to cite the most prominent case of a vulnerable situation, the city was attacked by Libyan tribes in 414 B.C. and was saved only by the accidental arrival of the Spartan fleet commanded by Gylippus who was sailing towards Syracuse (Thucydides 7.50).

In 331 B.C., when Alexander the Great, king of Macedon, during his successful Asian expedition, founded Alexandria in Egypt and marched towards the desert oasis of Siwa, the Cyreneans sent an embassy with gifts for the king, namely 300 horses and five four-horses chariots, and were secured against his intervention, becoming his friends and allies (Diodorus 17.49.3; Curtius Rufus 4.7.8).

After the death of Alexander in 323 B.C, the region was partially conquered by a Spartan adventurer, a former associate of Alexander's treasurer Harpalus, named Thibron. A faction of aristocrats, exiled from Cyrene by the democrats who gained power during the siege imposed by Thibron, sought help from Ptolemy, now in control of Egypt [Laronde 1987]. He sent an army led by Ophellas. Thibron was defeated, but the Cyreneans lost their freedom: the famous constitutional diagramma by Ptolemy, acting as an agent of the king of Macedon, was imposed on ­– and inscribed at – Cyrene (SEG 9.1) in 321 or 320 B.C.

Cyrene and the Greek cities of Cyrenaica were from now on almost continuously in Ptolemaic hands. The cities were actually ruled by a governor installed by Ptolemy and his son and descendant Ptolemy II Philadelphos (Ophellas, 322-308 B.C.; Magas, a stepson of Ptolemy, from 308 or 300 until 258 or 250 B.C.) or by kings of the Ptolemaic dynasty (though they were not always controlled from Alexandria). It is in the third-second centuries B.C. that the Greeks were joined by groups of Greek-speakers of varied origins brought in by the kings of Egypt.

After the death of Magas, who had at some point taken the royal title at Cyrene and appointed governors for the other cities, some years of struggle followed. Cyrene and the Greek cities of Cyrenaica were again in firm Ptolemaic control in 246 B.C. with the accession of Ptolemy III Euergetes, who married Magas' daughter Berenike. In an inscription found at Adoulis (OGIS I 54) the king contends that he has acquired 'Libya' by inheritance from his father [Bagnall 1976].

It is only in 163 B.C. that Cyrene changed its status. The conflict between the brother kings Ptolemy VI Philometor and Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II led to the agreement of 163 B.C.: while Ptolemy VI was to be the king of Egypt and of the other possessions outside, Cyrene became the kingdom of Ptolemy VIII. One year later Cyrene revolted with the help of the governor left by Ptolemy VIII in charge of the whole Cyrenaica, Ptolemaios Sympetesis (Polybius 31.18.6-7). The separate status of Cyrene ended in 145 B.C. when Ptolemy VIII became king of Egypt: it remained in his hands until his death in 116 B.C. This king is known, from an inscription found at Cyrene (SEG 9.7), to have bequeathed his kingdom to Rome should he die without an heir. As in fact he left an heir, Cyrenaica still remained in Ptolemaic hands [Bagnall 1976].

It is not generally agreed though who controlled the region during the last quarter of the second century. Despite the testimony of Iustinus (39.5.2) who writes that Ptolemy VIII left Cyrene to Ptolemy Apion, his son by the concubine Eirene, the epigraphic sources testify that the legitimate son of Ptolemy VIII, Ptolemy IX Soter II, king of Egypt from 116 until 108/7 B.C., remained in control of Cyrenaica until some time between 104 and 101 B.C. According to the literary sources, Ptolemy Apion died in 96 B.C. bequeathing Cyrenaica to Rome. Cyrenaica passed then into Roman control, which, however, was only seriously exercised more than 20 years later.

AB (rev. CR)