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Classical Cyrenaica

Like the Phoenicians, Minoan and Greek seafarers had for centuries probed the North African coast, which at the nearest point lay 300 kilometers from Crete, but systematic Greek settlement there began only in the seventh century BC. during the great age of Hellenic overseas colonization. According to tradition, emigrants from the crowded island of Thera were commanded by the oracle at Delphi to seek a new home in North Africa.

The people of Thera, under Battus, a native of that island, were the first to colonize Cyrenaica. After a slight opposition from the native tribes, they established themselves in the country, and founded Cyrene in 631 BC. The site to which Berber guides had led them was in a fertile highland region about 20 kilometers inland from the sea at a place where, according to the Berbers, a "hole in the heavens" would provide ample rainfall for the colony.

There soon sprang up in advantageous situations other cities which, while acknowledging Cyrene as the capital of the country, were really independent, and at length threw off its yoke altogether. Within 200 years of Cyrene's founding, four more important Greek cities were established in the area: Barce (Al Marj); Euhesperides (later Berenice, present-day Benghazi); Teuchira (later Arsinoe, present-day Tukrah); and Apollonia (Susah), the port of Cyrene. Together with Cyrene, they were known as the Pentapolis (Five Cities). Often in competition, they found cooperation difficult even when confronted by common enemies. From Cyrene, the mother city and foremost of the five, derived the name of Cyrenaica for the whole region.

During the most flourishing period of the history of the city of Cyrene that town held in nominal subjection the whole of Cyrenaica, or the country lying between Carthage on the west, Egypt on the east and Phazania (Fessan) on the south, with the Mediterranean for its northern boundary. Cyrenaica remained independent at first as a monarchy under a dvnasty of kings, the successors of Battus (the Libyan title of the kings of Cyrene; the actual name of the founder stems to have been Aristoteles), who led the first colony to Cyrene.

Cyrene was situated on a rising ground, 1,800 feet above the sea, 10 miles from the coast, in one of the finest situations in the world, and was large and highly ornamented. It was the head of a flourishing state at first monarchical, afterwards republican, consisting of five towns, which lasted until the time of Ptolemy Soter, BC 321. The other towns were : 1, Apollonia, now Marza' Susa, the port of Cyrene: it was the birthplace of Eratosthenes: 2, Ptolommais, the ruins of which are called Tolmeita or Tolometa, at first only the port of Barca, which was, however, so entirely eclipsed by Ptolemai's that, under the Romans, even the name of Barca was transferred to the latter city: 3, Arsinoe, or Tauchira, more to the S.; and 4, Berinice, formerly Hosperis, the ruins now called Hen Ghazi, the fabled site of the Gardens of the Hesperides. These formed the Cyrenaic Pentapolis. In the interior, 12 miles from the sea, was Barca or Barce, the ruins called Merjeh, a colony from, and a rival of, Cyrene. In 510 BC Cyrene was taken by the Persians, who removed most of its inhabitants to Bactria, and under the Ptolemies its ruin was completed by the erection of its port.

The Greeks of the Pentapolis resisted encroachments by the Egyptians from the east as well as by the Carthaginians from the west, but in 525 B.C. the army of Cambyses (son of Cyrus the Great, King of Persia), fresh from the conquest of Egypt, overran Cyrenaica, which for the next two centuries remained under Persian or Egyptian rule. After the invasion of Cambyses the regal form of government was entirely abolished, and the republican substituted in its room. This country, almost entirely colonised by Dorian Greeks, had been the scene of serious disturbances, culminating in the flight of king Arcesilaus. Restored after a time by the help of the Samians, he severely punished the authors of the revolution, some with death, others with exile. But before long he himself fell a victim, at Barca, to the revenge of the exiles. His mother, Pheretime, who had great influence at Cyrene, where she even assisted at the deliberations of the senate, fled into Egypt, and petitioned Aryandes, the satrap of that province, to avenge the murder of her son, on the pretext that his fate had been occasioned by his friendship for the Persians.

Aryandes gave her a large army. His intention was not merely to punish the people of Barca, but to subjugate the whole of Lybia. The Persians first laid siege to Barca, and at the end of nine months compelled the people to submit to pay tribute to the king. After oaths had been exchanged, the Barcaeans, on the faith of the treaty, opened their gates, issued out of their city, and permitted the Persians to enter. The latter then declared that the treaty no longer existed, and took possession of the place. They gave up to Pheretime those of the citizens who had taken part in the murder of her son; she at once ordered them to be crucified round the walls, and having cut off the bosoms of their wives, ranged them also round the walls. The Persians reduced the rest of the inhabitants to slavery. These prisoners were sent to king Darius, and he assigned them lands in Bactria, with a village, to which they gave the name of Barca.

The rest of Cyrenaica submitted at once to the suzerainty of the king of Persia, as they had formerly to Cambyses. Carthage, terrified by the fate of Barca, and fearing an attack from Aryandes, hastened to avert the danger by offering a tribute, which was paid for some years; and thus Darius was enabled, in the proud inscription on his tomb, still existing on a rock at Persepolis, to reckon the great Phoenician city of Africa as one of his subject states.

Alexander the Great was greeted by the Greeks when he entered Cyrenaica in 331 BC. When Alexander died in 323 B.C., his empire was divided among his Macedonian generals. Egypt, with Cyrene, went to Ptolemy, a general under Alexander who took over his African and Syrian possessions. Cyrene was subdued by Ptolemy, the son of Lagus, and annexed to Egypt 321 or 322 BC. The other Greek city-states of the Pentapolis retained their autonomy. However, the inability of the city-states to maintain stable governments led the Ptolemies to impose workable constitutions on them. Later, a federation of the Pentapolis was formed that was customarily ruled by a king drawn from the Ptolemaic royal house.

Under the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt (with which country Cyrenaica was incorporated in 321 BC), Cyrenaica rose into great importance from the extent and value of its commerce. The economic and cultural development of the Pentapolis was unaffected by the turmoil its political life generated. The region grew rich from grain, wine, wool, and stockbreeding and from silphium, an herb that grew only in Cyrenaica and was regarded as an aphrodisiac. Cyrene became one of the greatest intellectual and artistic centers of the Greek world, famous for its medical school, learned academies, and architecture, which included some of the finest examples of the Hellenistic style. The Cyrenaics, a school of thinkers who expounded a doctrine of moral cheerfulness that defined happiness as the sum of human pleasures, also made their home there and took inspiration from the city's pleasant climate.

In 96 or 95 BC it was bequeathed by the will of Ptolemy Apion, the last king of Cyrenaica belonging to the Ptolemaic dynasty to the Romans. Soon afterwards, but at what date is not absolutely fixed, it became a Roman province. About 20 years later, the Romans erected it along with Crete into a Roman province, and along with the island of Crete was governed by a Roman proconsul. Rome, which formally annexed the region in 74 BC. Under Constantine it was separated from Crete and made a province by itself. Under Diocletian, Cyrenaica was separated from Crete and made a distinct province under the name of Libya Superior. Pliny relates that an ear of corn from Biracio-to the west of Tripoli-which was presented to the Emperor Augustus, contained 400 grains; and, further, that to Nero was presented an ear of corn from Cyrenaica containing 340 grains. The red soil of Cyrenaica is so wonderfully fertile and bountiful that, if it were properly cultivated, the ripened crops could be gathered in twice a year.

Under the Ptolemies, Cyrenaica had become the home of a large Jewish community, whose numbers were substantially increased by tens of thousands of Jews deported there after the failure of the rebellion against Roman rule in Palestine and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Some of the refugees made their way into the desert, where they became nomads and nurtured their fierce hatred of Rome. They converted to Judaism many of the Berbers with whom they mingled, and in some cases whole tribes were identified as Jewish. In 115 the Jews raised a major revolt in Cyrenaica that quickly spread through Egypt back to Palestine. The uprising was put down by 118, but only after Jewish insurgents had laid waste to Cyrenaica and sacked the city of Cyrene. Contemporary observers counted the loss of life during those years at more than 200,000, and at least a century was required to restore Cyrenaica to the order and prosperity that had meanwhile prevailed in Tripolitania.

The mere fact of holding a territory is not sufficient in itself to justify its retention: the justification for retaining it depends upon the wise administration and continued betterment, and the development of its intrinsic and political value. The commercial prosperity of Cyrenaica continued un-impaired till the revolt of the Jews in the province during the reign of Trajan. This revolt was quelled only after the most bloody atrocities had been perpetrated on both sides ; and the population was so much diminished in the contest, that the native tribes recommenced their incursions, and overran the province up to the walls of the principal cities. As the Roman Empire declined the attacks of the native Libyan tribes became more frequent and formidable, and the sufferings caused by their inroads and by plagues, earthquakes and locusts reduced the population and enterprise considerably.

Cyrenaica, which had remained an outpost of the Byzantine Empire during the Vandal period, took on the characteristics of an armed camp. Unpopular Byzantine governors imposed burdensome taxation to meet military costs, but towns and public services--including the water system--were left to decay. Byzantine rule in Africa did prolong the Roman ideal of imperial unity there for another century and a half, however, and prevented the ascendancy of the Berber nomads in the coastal region.

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Page last modified: 10-01-2012 19:25:05 ZULU