Cyrenaica, part 4: Cyrene

Downtown CyreneCyrene was one of the great cities of the classical Greek world, comparable to Athens, Miletus, Syracuse, and Corinth. It was founded by people from the small island of Thera (Santorini), who first settled on another small island, off the African shore, before they settled on the mainland. When the colony proved successful, other settlers came, who founded Barca, Taucheira, and Euesperides (Bengazi). Ptolemais and Apollonia were originally the ports of Barca and Cyrene, but eventually became cities in their own right.

Being Greek cities, they looked to the sea. The Arkesilas cup, which was discussed on this blog the day before yesterday, illustrates the international contacts: to Greece of course, but also to the west. There were trade contacts with Carthage, Egypt, Phoenicia, and the inhabitants of the oases in the Sahara. Ostrich eggs and elephant tusks prove contacts with people much further, beyond the Sahara. The inhabitants of Cyrenaica were very international. There were also native Libyans, who must have shared characteristics with the Psylloi and the people from Slonta.

Cyrene consisted, from its very beginning, of two parts, in more than one sense of the word. It was inhabited by both Greeks and Libyans. But the city of Cyrene itself also consisted of two parts, a lower city and an upper city.

At the beginning of our era, a visitor would enter the lower city through the Propylees, a monumental gate. He would pass between the ancient Strategeion and a bath house, and would see several sanctuaries before reaching the agora, which was dominated by the temple of Apollo. Other shrines were dedicated to Isis, Artemis, and Hecate. The most important monument, however, was the well of Apollo, which guaranteed a constant supply of water. In this rather chaotic part of the city, you could also visit a large theater, built by the founders of the city but adapted to host gladiatorial contests.

Uptown Cyrene, agoraIn comparison, the upper city was well-organized. There was a square agora, where you could see the tomb of Cyrene’s founder Battos, as well as a monument commemorating the naval victory at Actium. As in any Greek city, you would see a bouleuterion and a prytaneion, temples for Apollo and Demeter, a gymnasium, and lots of minor monuments. Walking to the east, you would pass two theaters, the houses of wealthy people, and finally the Caesareum: a temple for the imperial cult, not unlike the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, surrounded by colonnades and a basilica.

Outside the city, the hippodrome, the temple of Zeus, and two theaters have been identified, bringing the grand total of theaters to no less than five. One thing is certain: the Cyreneans loved to watch a comedy or a tragedy. We would love to know more about it. There must have been local playwrights (if only because there were philosophers and poets as well), but we know almost nothing about them.

It’s frustrating. Cyrene was one of the main centers of the ancient Mediterranean world. It has been excavated and we know that the inhabitants were absolutely crazy for the theater. However, the texts that might have helped us understand this obsession, are missing. Of course, this is true for almost everything in Antiquity: we have lots evidence, but it almost never answers the questions we would like to see answered.

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