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A Greek community on the boundary

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30 August 2010

Some of the most extraordinary remains of any Greek settlement still surviving to this day can be found in modern-day Libya.

The city of Cyrene was founded by colonists from the island of Thera (modern day Santorini) in 631 BC, following the command of the oracle of Delphi and with the help of a man named Battus, who became the city's first king.

Hemmed in as it was by the sea to the north, native Libyan desert tribes to the south, Egypt to the east and the Carthaginian empire to the West (not to mention the Roman empire on all sides in later times), the city's history is a fascinating and turbulent tale of survival on the boundary of an ever changing ancient world.

Its early kings not only oversaw the development of a complex settlement, with major sanctuaries to the gods Apollo, Zeus and Demeter, but also complex civic structures including an agora which would not look out of place in any mainland Greek city.

They were also keen sportsman: king Arkesilaos IV won several races at the Pythian games at Delphi, and paid the famous poet Pindar to immortalize him in verse as a reward (Pindar Pythian 5).

The monarchy was thrown out, however, at the end of the 5th century BC after a bitter period of civil war and a democracy established. In the first part of the 4th century BC, Cyrene was an economic and cultural powerhouse, sending grain to feed cities all over mainland Greece during repeated famines, and even erecting a marble treasure-house at Delphi to show off their fortune.

But with the increasing power of Egypt, Cyrene fell under its control and was dictated a new constitution that left the final say with Egypt's kings.

This changed again soon after as Alexander the Great swept through Egypt taking control in 331 BC, and changed just as quickly once again after his death less than 10 years later, as Cyrene fell into a bitter period of civil strife, only finally settled with the imposition of a new king.

The 3rd and 2nd centuries BC were relatively peaceful ones for Cyrene, despite several revolts against their ruler and in 96 BC, Cyrene passed peacefully into Roman control.

Under the Roman emperors, it was a thriving cosmopolitan community till much of the city was destroyed in the Jewish revolt of 115 AD.

Still the city - now a sprawling mass of sanctuaries, civic buildings, theatres, baths and private houses - managed to rebuild itself (with the help of the Roman emperor Hadrian and his successors), only finally to be reduced to rubble by earthquakes and invasions in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD.

But it remains today one of the crowning jewels of ancient sites to visit on the North Africa coast - if not the whole Mediterranean. See it if you can!

Michael C Scott is a Research Fellow at and lecturer at the Faculty of Classics, Cambridge University. He is the author From Democrats to Kings and the monogram Delphi and Olympia.For more information go to: www.michaelcscott.com

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