Cyrene [mod. Ain Shahat-Grenna], the original capital of ancient Cyrenaica and one of the greatest of Greek colonies. It is one of the oldest and most important of the five Greek cities in the region, located near present-day Shahhat, Libya. Cyrene lies in a lush valley in the Jebel Akhdar uplands. The city was named after a spring, Kyre, which the Greeks consecrated to Apollo. It was also the seat of the Cyrenaics, a famous school of philosophy in the fourth century BC, founded by Aristippus, a disciple of Socrates.
The Theraean story of its foundation, as told by Herodotus, runs thus. Battus (whose true Greek name seems to have been Aristoteles), a native of Thera (Santorin), itself a Laconian colony, was bidden by the Delphic oracle, if he wished to put an end to domestic dissensions, to lead a portion of the citizens to Libya and build a city in a "place between waters."
By this he understood an island, and therefore established his followers on the barren islet of Platea in the gulf of Bomba. The colony being unsuccessful made further application to the oracle and was bidden to transfer itself to the mainland. The Libyan barbarians reported that a fertile and well-watered district lay to the west and were induced to act as guides. They brought the Greeks through forests to high ground from various points of which issued springs, and Battus, recognizing "a place between waters," began to build. This was in the middle of the 7th century B.C.
The result was Cyrene, so called (it was said) from a local nymph, who has been shown by Studniczka to have been a Nature goddess, like the Greek Artemis. The point first occupied was probably the hill above the "Apollo" fountain on the west; and there was erected the fortress-palace of the Battiadae, who continued to rule the colony for eight generations. The neighboring Libyans were conciliated and given a position similar to that of Laconian perioeci, and intermarriage between them and Greeks became so frequent that the colony rapidly assumed a somewhat hybrid character, and while being one of the centers of Hellenic culture, showed barbarian characteristics of violence and luxury. Battus I. reigned c. 630 to 590 B.C. and was succeeded by his son Arcesilaus (c. 590–574) of whom nothing is known.
Kings of Cyrene
The kings henceforth bore alternately the names Battus and Arcesilaus, of which the first is said to be simply the native Libyan word for "king": the latter is, of course, Greek. This fact suggests that some compromise with the natives had been come to, resulting, perhaps, in an alternation of the supreme office. Under Battus II. (570 B.C.?) a fresh band of settlers was invited from Greece, and the colony tended to become henceforth more maritime and democratic. Its port, Apollonia (Marsa Susa), now rose to importance: and a second (winter) port was created at Naustathmos (Marsa Hilal) about 15 m. E. behind a sheltering cape. Fine roads were cut through the rock connecting these harbors with the capital. Trouble followed, however, with the Libyans, who saw themselves robbed in favour of the new settlers, and they called in Egyptian help; but the force sent by Apries was defeated near the spring Theste, and presently Amasis of Egypt made peace and took a Battiad princess to wife.
Under Arcesilaus II. (c. 560–550) domestic dissensions and Libyan revolt led to the founding of a rival inland city, Barca, and a severe defeat and massacre. These misfortunes, coupled with the fact that Battus III. was thought to have disgraced the house by his lameness, prompted the Cyrenaeans to send to Delphi for more advice, and as a result Demonax of Mantinea arrived as arbitrator and framed a constitution limiting the monarchy and dividing the citizens tribally according to the date of their settlement and their place of origin. Further attempts of the Battiadae (e.g. of Pheretima, wife of Battus III., and Arcesilaus his son) to annul this constitution, and bitter family dissensions, brought about a Persian invasion and finally the extinction of the dynasty about 450 B.C.
A republic of more or less Spartan type succeeded, but it was often interrupted by tyrannies; and having made submission by embassy to Alexander in 331, Cyrene passed under Ptolemaic domination ten years later. From this epoch dates a decline which was due to economic causes (see Cyrenaica) and to the Ptolemaic policy of favoring easily controlled harbor-towns rather than an inland place like Cyrene, whose ancient factions still continued to give trouble under the earlier Ptolemies. Apollonia and Berenice gradually superseded Cyrene and Barca respectively, being more in touch with Greece and less exposed to the hostile nomad Libyans, who increased in boldness and power: but Cyrene continued to be a great city after it had passed to Rome (96 B.C.), and up to the reign of Trajan, when a Jewish revolt and the repressive measures taken by the imperial government dealt it an irreparable blow.
Ere Christianity became the religion of the empire, it was largely a ruin, and henceforward to the epoch of Arab conquest (A.D. 641) its Greek life gradually deserted it for Apollonia. At its acme Cyrene is said to have had over 100,000 inhabitants. It was noted among the ancients for its intellectual life. Its medical school was famous, and it numbered among its celebrities Callimachus the poet, Carneades, the founder of the New Academy at Athens, Aristippus, a pupil of Socrates and the founder of the so-called Cyrenaics, Eratosthenes the polyhistor, and Synesius, one of the most elegant of the ancient Christian writers.
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The first account of the site in modern times seems to be that of M. le Maire, who was French consul at Tripoli from 1703 to 1708, and twice visited Cyrene. Paul Lucas was there in 1710, and again in 1723, and Dr Thomas Shaw in 1738; an Italian, Dr A. Cervelli, who was there in 1812, furnished some information to the Société de Géographie of Paris; and P. Della Cella published an account of his visit, made in 1817. In 1821–1822 important explorations were made by Lieutenant F. W. Beechey, R.N.; and he was almost immediately followed by a French artist, M. J. R. Pacho, whose pencil preserved a number of interesting monuments that have since disappeared. L. Delaporte, French consul at Tangier, and Vattier de Bourville come next in order of time.
H. Barth, the famous African traveller, published an account of his investigations in his Wanderungen durch die Küstenländer des Mittelmeers, 1849, and James Hamilton, who was there in 1851, described the place in his Wanderings in N. Africa. In 1861 excavations were made on behalf of the British Museum by Lieuts. R. Murdoch Smith, R.E., and E. A. Porcher, R.N., the results of which are detailed in their valuable Discoveries in Cyrene (London, 1864). Since that date, owing to the increase of Senussi influence, and the consequent fears of the Ottoman authorities, the site has been very seldom visited. The Italians, M. Camperio and G. Haimann, leading commercial missions, were there in the eighties, and Mr H. W. Blundell succeeded with a special firman and a strong escort in reaching the place in 1895, but had trouble with the local Senussi Arabs. The prohibition of travel became thereafter more stringent, and it has only been overcome by a party from Mr A. V. Armour's yacht "Utowana," which marched up from Marsa Susa in April 1904, and stayed one night. They found some fifty families of Cretan refugees established at Ain Shahat and a mudir with a small guard on the spot: but no inhabited houses, except the Senussi convent and the mudiria. Cretans and Arabs live in the ancient rock-tombs. An Italian senator, Chev. G. de Martino, with two Italian residents at Derna, passed through the place in 1907, and found it in Bedouin hands.
The site lies on the crest of the highland of Jebel Akhdar (about 1800 ft.) and 10 m. from the sea. The ground slopes very gradually south, and being entirely denuded of trees, makes good corn land. The northward slope falls more steeply in a succession of shelves, covered here and there with forest. Ravines surround the site on three sides, and there are at least four springs in its area, of which one, having great volume, has been at all times the attraction and focus of the place. This is the so-called "Fount of Apollo," which issues from a tunnel artificially enlarged, and once faced with a portico. The acropolis was immediately above this on the W., and the main entrance of the city, through which came the sacred processions, passed it.
The remains of Cyrene itself are enclosed by a wall having a circuit of about 4 m., of which little remains but the foundations and fragments of two towers; but tombs and isolated structures extend far outside this area. The local Arabs say it takes them six camel-hours to go from one end to the other of the ruins, which they call generally "Grenna" (i.e. Kyrenna). Within the city itself not very much is now to be seen. Below the Apollo fountain on the N. lie a great theatre and the substructures of the main temple of Apollo, both included now in the Senussi convent garden. Above the fountain and by the main road is a smaller theatre. On the E., upon the crown of the plateau, are the sites on which Smith and Porcher placed temples of Bacchus, Venus and Augustus, but they are marked only by rubbish heaps. Remains of a large Byzantine church and a much ruined stadium lie to S.E. On the S. are immense covered tanks of Roman date, with remains of the aqueducts which supplied them.
On the W. a fine fragment of a tower, the fortifications of the acropolis, and a pedestal sculptured on four sides in good 3rd century style, are the only things worth seeing. The Cretan occupation is fast obliterating other traces. The great spectacle, however, which distinguishes the site of Cyrene, is provided by its cemeteries, which for extent, variety and preservation are unparalleled in the classic lands. There is one along each of the approaches to the main gates, but the largest and most splendid lies by the Apollonian road which winds by easy curves up the northern buttresses of the plateau. Here the sepulchres rise in tiers one above the other along fully a mile of the way. The most important have pillared façades, Doric, Ionic, and even a hybrid mixture of both orders.
Within, they open out either into large halls, leading one out of another with graves in recesses and pits in the floor; or into rock corridors lined with loculi, disposed one above another like pigeon holes. Most of the wall paintings, seen by Beechey and Pacho, have perished or become black with the smoke of troglodytes' fires; but one tomb below the road at about the middle of the cemetery still retains its decoration comparatively fresh, and seems to be that specially described by Smith and Porcher. The scenes are agonistic, i.e. represent funeral games, in which both white and black persons take part, the latter doubtless Libyan perioeci: but all wear Greek garments. Several tombs are inscribed and on some external paintings are still faintly visible. The commonest type of grave is a simple pit covered by a gabled lid. These occur by hundreds. But not all the sepulchers are rock-cut: altar tombs and other forms of heroa are found built upon plinths of rock. All visible tombs have long ago been violated, but it is probable that there are others still virgin under the talus of the hill side. To discover these and determine the topography of the city, excavation is urgently needed.
Many historical and artistic questions concerning Cyrene remain unsettled, but since the discoveries made in Laconia in 1908, the much disputed "Cyrenaic ware" has been ascribed to Sparta. A good deal of Cyrenaic sculpture, all of comparatively late date, was sent to the British Museum by Smith and Porcher. Nothing has yet been found on the site belonging to the great age of the city's independence, the fine vases sent to the British Museum in 1864, by Mr G. Dennis, having been discovered not there, but near Berenice (Bengazi). The latter site, with Ptolemais and Apollonia, has supplied most of the antiquities found latterly in Cyrenaica.
See authorities for Cyrenaica, and F. Studniczka, Kyrene, eine alt-griechische Göttin (1890).
1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 7. pgs. 704-705.