Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Greek presence in Libya(part 2: The history of Cyrene until Roman times)

The expansion of the Greeks in Cyrenaica.

Archaeological evidence shows that Cyrene since the early times maintained commercial contact with Greece and the Greek colony of Naucratis in Egypt. The Agricultural production was bringing a surplus of products to the Cyreneans and therefore they were able to export it along with wool and ox hides.Trade with the Libyans of the interior developed to an unpremeditated importance.This was due to the discovery of a mysterious plant which in the antiquity was called silphion(silphium).
Exportation of Silphion
The mysterious Silphion
Silphion's root served a variety of culinary and medicinal purposes. The plant was growing only in Cyrenaica and it dissapeared in Roman times. Thus the modern scientists are unable to identify it.It grew in the desert margins south of the Greek territory and the Libyan natives collected its roots.The Kings of Cyrene maintained a monopoly of Silphion trade and this brought them considerable profits. Silphion was so important that  many Cyrenean coins found in Libya that depict Silphion instead of Kings or other important figures of Cyrene.

For a half cetury after its foundation Cyrene remained a small settlement, but a great expansion took place under the third king Battos II, surnamed Eudaimon(means prosperous) who took the throne probably in 583.Battos invited new settlers from Greece promising them allotments of land. There was a flood of immigrants from Crete the Aegean islands and Peloponese.However two problems were raised from this new colonisation. The first was the integration of the new immigrants with the original Therean colonists and second was that land should be taken from the native Libyans to be given to the newcomers.

The Libyans fearing that they would lost their land appealed to the king of Egypt for military aid. The Egyptian king sent an army to deal with the Greeks but he was defeated at Irasa by the greek army. After this the Cyrenean kingdom expanded considerably in the interior of Libya.For the security of Greek estates there were constructions of fortified farmhouses called in Greek pyrgoi(towers) around which small villages developed.

Temple of Zeus . Dates from the 4rth century BC.

With the exception of the first king the reign of the succeeding kings was considered tyrranical. There were civil wars during the reign of some kings and new cities were found in Cyrenaica by the exiled.For example Barce was founded by the exiled brothers of king Arkesilas who tried to usurp his throne.Also however the first involvement of Egyptians was unforunate for them during the period of Cyrenean kingdom the Egyptian kings maintained a strong influence in Cyrenean politics and succession.Eventually after years of instability a king anamed Battus III made some reforms reducing the royal power only on religious affairs and giving the political power to a council of magistrates elected by the rich citizens.However this didn't last long and royal power was restored later at its maximum.

With the Persian conquest of Egypt the  Cyrenean cities became tributary to the Persians.However the Persians weren't stopped of being involved in Cyrenean politics. During an another civil war the a Persian army was sent in Cyrenaica as a request of one of the pretenders of the throne. This army went as westwards as Euesperidae. Since 476 with the defeat of Persians in mainland Greece Persian influence on Cyrenaica was loosened.

From the museum of Ancient Cyrene
After 476 one Cyrenean king called Arkesilas IV became famous in Greece for winning the chariot race in the Pythian games(a similar event with the Olympic games but inferior in importance) and for commissioning the notorious poet Pindar to write to odes about his victory. After his death in 439 BC the Battiad dynasty ended too(Battiad from the name of the first king Battus)

After the end of the Battiad dunasty little is known about Cyrene.  The detailed history of the early years of Cyrene was a legacy of Herodotus who visited Cyrene and recorded all it traditions.It is sure though that there were many democratic reforms after the end of the Battiad dynasty but still internal strife continued to exist.There are also indications of hostilities between Libyans and Greeks. In 413 BC the Libyans besieged Euesperidae  but fortunately a greek fleet that was blown off  course on the way to Sicily relieved the city.
Ptolemaic propylon in Cyrene

During the years 400-350 BC the Greeks achieved crucial victories over Libyan tribes to the west of Euhesperidae and expanded furthermore. The Egyptians at this time were in a weak state and were not able to interfere anymore in Cyrenean politics.

Alexander the Great captured Egypt in 332. In the same year Cyrene sent envoys to offer alliance to Alexander which he accepted. In 322 after Alexander's death the King of Hellenistic Egypt Ptolemy took advantage of the civil conflicts in Cyrenaica and conquered the whole region establishing a garrison in Cyrene and a Ptolemaic governor.Eventually in 96 BC a Ptolemaic king ceded Cyrenaica to the Romans and in 74BC it became formally a Roman province.

Source: The Cambridge history of Africa

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