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Cyrene › Origins

Definition and Origins

by Cristian Violatti
published on 30 December 2010
Temple of Zeus at Cyrene (Sebastià Giralt)
Cyrene was an ancient Greek city on the North African coast near present-day Shahhat, a town located in north-eastern Libya. The precise location of the ancient city was thirteen kilometres from the coast.


Cyrene owes its birth to a Greek Island named Thera in ancient times and which today is known as Santorini, located in the Southern Aegean Sea. As a result of the rise in population that took place in the Greek world during the 8th and 7th century BCE, the Therans became concerned about the effects of overpopulation and dispatched an expedition to the North African region. The traditional date for this event is 630 BCE. During the expedition, some citizens were relocated to an offshore island, not far from the North African coast. The natives that lived in Libya welcomed the newcomers and showed them an inland site more auspicious and the Greeks chose a spot marked by the presence of an abundant spring to found a new city.


The name of the city is rooted in one of the many myths about Apollo ’s love affairs with young women. In this case, Kyrene was the daughter of a Thesalian King named Hypseus and a water nymph. She was a young virgin huntress who lived in the woods of Mount Pelion and protected her father's herd from beasts of prey with the aid of a sword, a spear and two hunting dogs that were given to her as a gift by the goddess Artemis. Apollo saw her fighting a lion with only her hands and fell in love: he took Kyrene to North Africa and they got married. The springs where the Greeks chose to found the city were identified as the domain of the Kyrene (since her mother was a water nymph), hence the city's Greek name Kurene. The Latin version of the name that the Romans used is Cyrene. The best known version of this myth comes from Pindar's Pythian (9.5).
The famous Greek historian Herodotus describes the difficulties of the Theran's agriculture shortly before they dispatched the expedition to North Africa: for many months, there was no rain and almost all trees in the island died. On the other hand, Cyrenes's agriculture was very generous according to Herodotus description:
The territory of Cyrene [...] has three amazing seasons. First the crops of the coastal region ripen and are harvested. When these have been collected, those of the middle region beyond the coastal area [...] become ripe for gathering. After the crops of the middle region have been collected, the high inland area ripens and bear its products. And so the first crops have been consumed just when the last ones are ready to harvest. Thus harvesting occupies the Cyrenaeans for eight months of the year.
(Herodotus, 4.199)


During the Twenty-sixth dynasty of Egypt, Cyrene and Egypt engaged in a military conflict. During the time of the Egyptian Pharaoh Wahibre Haaibre (whom Herodotus refers to as Apries, possibly Hophra of the Old Testament in Jeremiah 44:30), who ruled from 589-570 BCE, a large Egyptian army was sent against Cyrene. The Greeks defended their city successfully and the Egyptian force suffered severe loses and turned back into Egypt. According to Herodotus, the Egyptians who were defeated held the Pharaoh accountable for this disaster and once back home, they recruited the friends and family of the men who had died and revolted against their ruler.
Sanctuary of Apollon in Cyrene

Sanctuary of Apollon in Cyrene

During the Greco- Persian wars, Cyrene (along with Egypt, Libya and Barke) became part of the Sixth Province of the Persian Kingdom during the time of Darius I (r. 522-486 BCE). Herodotus even describes the details concerning the tributes that the inhabitants of the province had to send to the Persians:
From the sixth provincial district, which is Egypt, the Libyans bordering Egypt, Cyrene, and Barke (since the later two are assigned to the province of Egypt), came 700 talents plus silver from the sale of fish obtained from Lake Moeris, and also 120,000 measures of grain which was supplied to the Persian garrison and their mercenaries stationed at the White Fort of Memphis.
(Herodotus, 3.91.2)
After this, Cyrene gradually gained political independence until it became a republic in about 460 BCE. During the Peloponesian war, Cyrene supported the Spartan army by providing them with ships and sailors. The city lost its political independence again during the time of the Ptolemaic dynasty, after the death of Alexander III of Macedon (323 BCE).Finally in in the year 74 BCE, the city became under Roman control.
During the time between the foundation of the city and the Roman occupation, Cyrene had an uninterrupted Greek character and its prosperity led to the foundation of four cities on the coast: Eusperides, which the Ptolomeis renamed “Berenice” in modern Benghazi); Taucheira (renamed Arsinoe); Ptolemais (founded by the Ptolemaic dynasty) and finally Apollonia, which was originally the port of Cyrene but eventually, due to its growth, became a city in its own right. The name Cyrenaica normally refers to the region surrounding Cyrene containing the five cities, sometimes referred to as Libya Pentapolis by the Romans.
Roman Cyrene
The Roman occupation actually helped Cyrene to increase its status: the Ptolemaic rulers administered Cyrenaica from the city of Ptolemais and the importance of Cyrene declined during their time. The Romans, on the other hand, granted Cyrene the title of metropolis and turned the city into the local centre of administration; Cyrene prospered once more. The beginning of the end of this new prosperity period came towards the last days of Emperor Trajan ’s reign (r. 98-117 BCE), when a revolt led by the local Jewish community against the Romans took place. This was a major episode of social disorder which suggests that the local Jewish community increased significantly during the Ptolemaic period and early Roman occupation. The conflict lasted from 115 to 117 CE and it had a disastrous impact on the economy and demographics, in addition, causing serious damage to the city's buildings.
Agora of Cyrene

Agora of Cyrene

The Roman Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-138 CE) did all he could to restore Cyrenes's former glory: he encouraged the migration of new settlers in Cyrene and made funds available to rebuild the most important structures ruined during the revolt. Despite these imperial efforts, the city never fully recovered and even some of the major buildings remained unrepaired seventy years later. During the late third century, the city was at war with some of the Libyan tribes of the interior. Under the name of Libya superior, Cyrenaica was made a province in its own right by the Roman emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305 CE). By this time, the Libyan neighbours still remained on hostile terms with Cyrene and the city rapidly declined. Things got even worse after two earthquakes (262 and 365 CE). The Roman soldier and historian Ammianus Marcellinus, reported by the end of the 4th century CE that Cyrene was deserted. It may be the case that Ammianus is actually referring to the civic life, which at that time was non-existent. However, archaeological studies indicate that during that time, and for a while after, Cyrene was garrisoned by an army unit and the forum had been turned into a fortress. During the Arab period, no surviving record mentions Cyrene.


Several famous figures are recorded in history as coming from Cyrene: it was the birthplace of Eratosthenes, an important ancient Greek Alexandrian scholar. Aristippus, a disciple of Socrates was also born in Cyrene: The Cyrenaics, a famous school of philosophy in the 3rd century BCE founded by Aristippus, was based in this city. About 250 BCE, the Third Buddhist Council took place in India : Ashoka the Great, the famous Indian emperor who ruled form 268 BCE to 232 BCE, encouraged and supported Buddhist missions all over the Indian Mauryan empire and even beyond as far as Greece, Egypt and Syria. Cyrene is one of the many cities which received Buddhist missionaries.
During the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, according to the gospel of Mark, Cyrene receives a mention:
A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross.
(Mark, 15:21)

Aristippus of Cyrene


The ruins of Cyrene rest on the edge of an escarpment overlooking the coastal plain. Four theatres have been found. The spring that attracted the original Greek settlers is situated in a triangular area that was filled by monuments during antiquity: shrines, temples, fountains and baths. The north-eastern hill holds the largest building: the Temple of Zeus, the circus and the city's cathedral, which was built in the late period.
The intramural area of Cyrene is of about 110 hectares, which means that the city had room for 10,000 people. The population that Cyrene had, is just a matter of speculation, but 5,000 people is a likely guess for a city located at the margin of the Greek world. This population level might have been sustained from 300 BCE to 250 CE. The archaeological site of Cyrene is considered part of the UNESCO World Heritage.

Dacia › Origins

Definition and Origins

by Adrian DUMITRU
published on 28 April 2011
Map of Roman Dacia (Andrei nacu)
Dacia was a region inhabited by the Dacians in the north of the Danube (modern Romania). The kingdom of Dacia was the creation of Burebistas (c. 80-44 BCE), who conquered and united several other Dacian principalities. Burebistas practically destroyed the Celtic tribes of the Scordiscii and subjected, or allied with, the Greek cities of the Western Black Sea coast, from Odessus (today's Varna) to Olbia (near today's Odessa). During the Roman Civil War, the Dacians would probably have come to support Pompey. Burebistas was eventually killed in the same year as Julius Caesar, who allegedly was preparing an expedition against the Dacians and the Parthians.
The Dacian kingdom crumbled into four (or five) principalities, only to re-emerge under Decebalus (c. 87-106 CE). He fought victoriously against Domitian 's general Cornelius Fuscus, but he was eventually defeated and forced to sign a peace treaty which made the Dacian kingdom a client of Rome receive Roman money and technical support in return. The situation lasted until Trajan waged two extensive wars (101-102 CE and 105-106 CE) in order to crush the Dacian kingdom and raze all the strongholds.
Dacia Traiana was a Roman province for nearly 170 years, until the reigns of Gallienus and Aurelian when it was abandoned (c. 271 CE),and gradual reduction in the presence of imperial legions eventuated in the withdrawal of the local Roman administration in favour of creating Dacia Aureliana to the south of the Danube in what is now modern Serbia.
This was done, in part, to give the illusion that Roman imperial power persevered in the region, even though signs of sociopolitical stress were very apparent. Later, Dacia Aureliana was divided further into two separate provinces: Dacia Mediterranea with its capital at Serdica, and Dacia Ripensis, with its capital at Ratiaria. After 275 CE, Dacia north of the Danube was overrun by various hoards of Goths, Huns, and Avars during the barbarian invasions of the so-called ' Migration Age '. However, Dacia was briefly 'reconquered' by Rome during the reign of Constantine the Great.


Interestingly, post-Roman Dacian material culture continued to reveal a strong sense of 'Romanness'. For example, a 5th century CE Dacian burial contained a Roman type brooch which would have belonged to a well-placed member of society.And at Napoca, cross-dating using pottery remains infers a post-Roman date for the construction of a Roman styled porticus.Similarly, at Porolissum, red-slipped ware (terra sigillata Porolissensis) has been found in a post-Roman (re)construction phase of the forum. If the ceramic dates are substantiated, it may be argued that the Dacians continued utilizing spatial foci and certain architectural designs that were characteristic of Rome. Regardless, collectively the material evidence underscores the centralization of Roman life within post-Roman Dacia.
Regarding post-Roman period Dacian religious identity, at Porolissum, a Constantinian styled Chi-Rho (symbolizing JesusChris) was found inscribed on a vessel. This, in addition to a bronze dove — the symbol of the Holy Spirit — were randomly excavated from unknown contexts ( See Gospel of Luke 3:22; Gospel of John 1:32). Interestingly, a cruciform was also found in the forum of Porolissum. The presence of Christian artifacts from post-Roman contexts suggests a parallel Christianization of the province corresponding to contemporary events taking place within the greater Roman world.
Dacian Altar Piece

Dacian Altar Piece

Additionally, 4th and 5th century CE burials also showcase more affluence and cultural diversity in post-Roman Dacia Porolissensis compared to the Roman period, suggesting a change in the urban status of the local community. For example, in Potaissa, burials containing iron buckles, flint-steel, gold and silver jewelry, amber and embroidery beads have been excavated. It should be noted that proportionately 'rich' burials only represent a small segment of Daco-Roman society. Then, as now, most people in society were not wealthy.
Perhaps the notion of 'urban prosperity' during a 'Dark Age' appears counterintuitive to more traditional early medieval models for the period. However, this may be explained by the continuous trade between the Eastern Empire and Potaissa. For example, numismatic evidence reveals that during the late 3rd and early 4th centuries CE Western Imperial minted coinageceased to be used in transactions (by 262 CE in Porolissum), and was subsequently replaced by Byzantine minted coinage. In addition, burial evidence from Moigrad and Napoca suggest a cultural transition within social hierarchies, possibly related to the ascension of Ostrogothic nobility, much of which may be attributed to the post-Constantinian Romano-Gothic integration.
Furthermore, declining population estimates in Napoca — based in large part on ceramic evidence — suggest a moderate catastrophe immediately followed the withdrawal of Legio V Macedonica from Dacia. Perhaps this is nascent evidence of the eventual fragmentation of the Western Mediterranean trade network? Chronologically, examining the material culture in total, it is clear that some crisis impacted portions of Dacian society immediately after Rome's withdrawal, followed by increasing socioeconomic activity in later periods. In any case, post-Roman Dacia Traiana continued to maintain its urban hierarchical status in the region in a manner that consistently interested the imperial and merchant classes of the Mediterranean.

Wine in the Ancient Mediterranean › Origins

Ancient Civilizations

by Mark Cartwright
published on 26 August 2016
Wine was the most popular manufactured drink in the ancient Mediterranean. With a rich mythology, everyday consumption, and important role in rituals wine would spread via the colonization process to regions all around the Mediterranean coastal areas and beyond. The Greeks institutionalised wine-drinking in their famous symposia drinking parties, and the Romans turned viticulture into a hugely successful business, so much so, that many of the ancient wine-producing territories still enjoy some of the highest reputations in the modern wine industry.
Roman Transportation of Wine

Roman Transportation of Wine


The grape vine, which grows naturally in most geographical areas between 30° and 50° north with annual isotherms of 10-20 °C, was probably first cultivated (as vitis vinifera sativa ) in the Caucasus region prior to the Neolithic period. From there the practice of pressing grapes into wine spread to the Near East and Mediterranean. Cultivated in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, and Mycenaean Greece, by the Classical period wine was an important feature of ritual and everyday life. As trade routes were established in the Mediterranean the consumption of wine and cultivation of vines spread from the Black Sea to the North African coast and along to the Iberian peninsula. Winemaking thus became one of the most visible manifestations of cultural colonization in the ancient world. Indeed, viticulture became so successful in Gaul and Spain that, from the 1st century CE, they replaced Italy as the Mediterranean's major producers of wine. In Late Antiquity, vine-growing spread further to include suitable northern European regions such as Moselle in Germany.


According to Greek mythology, wine was invented by Dionysos (to the Romans Bacchus). The god generously gave Ikarios, a noble citizen of Ikaria in Attica, the vine tree. From this, Ikarios made wine, which he shared with a group of passing shepherds. However, unaware of the stupefying effects of wine, the shepherds thought they had been poisoned and so swiftly took revenge and killed the unfortunate Ikarios. Notwithstanding such an inauspicious start to the wine industry, this gift from the gods would become the most popular drink in antiquity.



The Greeks, in particular, became passionate wine-drinkers, and so demand was always high. They knew that the three essentials of good soil, climate, and type of vine could combine to create differing varieties of grape and taste. While we know of many cultural practices and the mythology involving wine in the Greek world, it was the Romans who have left us the best descriptions of the process of making it.


Training vines to grow at the optimum height from the ground (which depends on local temperatures and wind), along a trellis if necessary, the optimum distance from each other, and regular pruning to strengthen the vine were all practices well-known to the Greeks. Vines could be left free-standing, supported with timber props, or even trained to grow up trees (especially the olive). This last method was prevalent in Roman vineyards with the best reputation for quality. Like most branches of agriculture, viticulture was a serious investment and profit margins could be slim indeed if wine was not produced on a large enough scale. As the Roman historian Varro put it, "there are those who claim that the cost of keeping up a vineyard swallows up the profit" (Bagnall, 7021).


The ancients knew full well the value of fine wines and distinguished their production between new young wines for the masses or armies in the field and more mature wines for the connoisseur. Certain places quickly gained prestige as good winemakers, notably the Greek islands of Chios, Kos, Lesbos, Rhodes, and Thasos.
Roman Wine Press (Reconstruction)

Roman Wine Press (Reconstruction)

In Italy, specific vineyards such as Caecuban and Falernian enjoyed a high reputation and were endorsed by such authors as Pliny the Elder, who wrote extensively on the subject. The Alban Hills near Rome, the region of Campania, and Northeast Italy were particularly noted for their quality wines. The industry became highly lucrative and regulations were imposed, as indicated in surviving inscriptions, concerning the sale of wine, its export, and guaranteed quality. Aside from large-scale producers, most estates would have had their own vineyards for private consumption. At Pompeii, for example, two-thirds of villas had vineyards.
Grapes were harvested and then pressed underfoot in large pottery vessels, baskets, stone vats, or on a simple tiled floor which sloped to a collecting channel. The process became more sophisticated with the invention of beam and weight presses which increased the crushing efficiency and which later evolved into even better screw presses from the 1st century CE.
Many vineyards from the Greek islands added sea water to the pressed must to make the wine smoother and increase acidity.Wines were both white and red, the latter gaining its colour from leaving the mash (marc and must) longer before fully pressing out the juice. A redder colour was also achieved by ageing the wine over a few years and even exposing the wine to heat by storing it in lofts built above hearths.
Amphorae Packed for Transportation

Amphorae Packed for Transportation

Wine was fermented in large storage terracotta jars, typically set partially into the ground in open-roofed buildings which had walls with apertures to allow a cool movement of air. When ready, wine was then drained off and stored in clay amphorae for transportation, usually sealed with a clay stopper or resin. Those amphorae destined for export were usually stamped to indicate their origin. Wine was sold in markets and, in the Roman world, dedicated wine shops. The Romans most valued sweet white wines (which would have been much cloudier than today's wines due to the more primitive production process).The Carthaginians had a similar taste, producing a famous sweet white wine made from sun-dried grapes. Wine was considered best as a pure drink without additives, but sometimes more unscrupulous producers and sellers did add substances (anything from spices to honey) in order to disguise the taste of poor wine or wine which had passed its best.


Wine was a common, relatively cheap, and everyday drink in both the Classical Greek and Roman cultures. It was drunk on its own and with meals. The Greeks diluted their wine with water (1 part wine to 3 parts water), although the Macedonians scandalously drank theirs neat. This dilution helped prevent excessive alcoholism, which was (at least by the elite) considered a trait of 'barbarian' foreign cultures and which was widely parodied in Greek comedy plays. Drunkenness also crops up in many Greek myths as an explanation for terrible and uncivilised behaviour such as the fight caused by the inebriated centaurs at the wedding of Perithous.
Ancient authors warned of the dangers of drunkenness to both mind and body. Aristotle even wrote a treatise On Drunkenness (now lost) and Pliny the Elder famously noted that wine can reveal the truth ( in vino veritas ) but that such truths are usually better left unsaid. Such learned recommendations, though, doubtless went unheeded by common folk and did not stop such famous names as Alcibiades, Alexander the Great, and Mark Antony gaining a reputation as fierce wine drinkers.
Paestum Painting, Scene from a Symposium

Paestum Painting, Scene from a Symposium

Wine was drunk on social occasions such as the Greek symposium, or drinking party, where elite male citizens would discuss politics and philosophy and be entertained by musicians and courtesans ( hetairai ). Special drinking vessels developed such as the shallow stemmed kylix which could easily be lifted from the floor by a drinker reclining on a couch.Large pottery vessels known as kraters were made so that wine could be easily mixed with water. The Roman equivalent to the symposium was the convivium where respectable women were added to the guest list and food had a greater emphasis.
Besides being a tasty drink and social lubricant wine had other functions such as in the pouring of libations to the gods in religious ceremonies. Wine, often healthier than unreliable sources of water, was also sometimes prescribed as a medicine by ancient doctors. This remedy was to be taken in moderation, though, as the ancients early identified the dangers of excessive drinking including insomnia, memory loss, a distended stomach, character changes, and early death. Wine was a gift from the gods but not to be over-indulged in or one would end up meeting them earlier than one hoped.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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