The foundation of Cyrene: legends and reality

Cyrene is definitely the main Greek African colony, located on the North Libyan coast. The old city and its area, Cyrenaica, are still suggestive archaeological sites that unfortunately only partly treasure their Greek great past. Myths and legends, as usually happens in any Greek colonisation, accompany its foundation which most likely took place in the beginning of the VII century B.C.


Herodotus reports in this specific case two different versions and namely the tradition of the mother land (the island of Thera) and the legend told by the settlers and then inhabitants of Cyrene. The two stories only partly coincide because naturally the latter has more emphasis and mythical suggestion than the former.

“…This is the report of the Theraians; and for the remainder of the account from this point onwards the Theraians are in agreement with the men of Kyrene: from this point onwards, I say, since in what concerns Battos the Kyrenians tell by no means the same tale as those of Thera…”

According to the inhabitants of Thera, a former Doric colony itself, after neglecting the Delphian oracle who had suggested the colonisation of Libya, the island was struck by drought and famine for seven years, consequently the population prepared an expedition of two ships of approximately 150 people under the command of Battus and guided by a Crete sailor Corobios who was acquainted with the North African coasts. The settlers were chosen among the whole seven districts of Thera, they were male, and one each two brothers for each family.

the Pythian prophetess gave answer bidding him [Grinnos the king of Thera] found a city in Libya … so far at that time: but afterwards when he had come away they were in difficulty about the saying of the Oracle, neither having any knowledge of Libya, in what part of the earth it was, nor venturing to send a colony to the unknown. Then after this for seven years there was no rain in Thera, and in these years all the trees in their island were withered up excepting one: and when the Theraians consulted the Oracle, the Pythian prophetess alleged this matter of colonising Libya to be the cause. …they sent messengers to Crete, to find out whether any of the Cretans or of the sojourners in Crete had ever come to Libya. … they met with a fisher for purple named Corobios, who said that he had been carried away by winds and had come to Libya, and in Libya to the island of Platea. This man they persuaded by payment of money and took him to Thera, and from Thera there set sail men to explore, at first not many in number; and Corobios having guided them to this same island of Platea. …The Theraians meanwhile, when they arrived at Thera… reported that they had colonised an island on the coast of Libya: and the men of Thera resolved to send one of every two brothers selected by lot and men besides taken from all the regions of the island, which are seven in number; and further that Battos should be both their leader and their king. Thus then they sent forth two fifty-oared galleys to Platea.

According to the inhabitants of Cyrene the colonisation has a rather more emphatically mythical origin and I daresay its overture sounds like a fairy tale…:

“There is in Crete a city called Oäxos in which one Etearchos became king, who when he had a daughter, whose mother was dead, named Phronime, took to wife another woman notwithstanding. She having come in afterwards, thought fit to be a stepmother to Phronime in deed as well as in name, giving her evil treatment and devising everything possible to her hurt; and at last she brings against her a charge of lewdness and persuades her husband that the truth is so. He then being convinced by his wife, devised an unholy deed against the daughter: for there was in Oäxos one Themison, a merchant of Thera, whom Etearchos took to himself as a guest-friend and caused him to swear that he would surely serve him in whatsoever he should require: and when he had caused him to swear this, he brought and delivered to him his daughter and bade him take her away and cast her into the sea. Themison then was very greatly vexed at the deceit practised in the matter of the oath, and he dissolved his guest-friendship and did as follows, that is to say, he received the girl and sailed away, and when he got out into the open sea, to free himself from blame as regards the oath which Etearchos had made him swear, he tied her on each side with ropes and let her down into the sea, and then drew her up and came to Thera. After that, Polymnestos, a man of repute among the Theraians, received Phronime from him and kept her as his concubine; and in course of time there was born to him from her a son with an impediment in his voice and lisping, to whom, as both Theraians and Kyrenians say, was given the name Battos, but I think that some other name was then given, and he was named Battos instead of this after he came to Libya, taking for himself this surname from the oracle which was given to him at Delphi and from the rank which he had obtained; for the Libyans call a king Battos: and for this reason, I think, the Pythian prophetess in her prophesying called him so, using the Libyan tongue, because she knew that he would be a king in Libya.”

Apart from these legends that inspired the expedition, by reading Herodotus we can infer that the colonisation itself took place in a sort of paradigmatic process that strongly reminds the one of Pithecussa, Dichearchias, Cuma. The starting point is the consultation of the oracle in Delphi and the choice of the settlers and their leader (and a scout if needed), then the first settlement took places on an island off coast – Platea (probably the present Al Marakib): an island is always considered a safer way to approach a unknown area. Then after having somehow found a sort of agreement with the indigenous population or simply after having gained more confidence with the territory, the settlers left the island and occupied a safe nearby area on the continent – Aziris (probably currently Al Tamimi).

“…they made a settlement in Libya itself at a spot opposite the island, called Aziris, which is enclosed by most fair woods on both sides and a river flows by it on one side.”

Afterwards, probably under the pressure of the Libyan population, or because of the growth of the settlers’ number, or searching for a better and definitive location, they moved westward nearby a spring “Kyre” to the actual Cyrene (in the present valley of Jebel Akhdar) in those days a rainy and cultivable area.

“In this spot they dwelt for six years; and in the seventh year the Libyans persuaded them to leave it, making request and saying that they would conduct them to a better region. So the Libyans led them from that place making them start towards evening; and in order that the Hellenes might not see the fairest of all the regions as they passed through it, they led them past it by night, having calculated the time of daylight: and this region is called Irasa. Then having conducted them to the so-called spring of Apollo, they said, “Hellenes, here is a fit place for you to dwell, for here the heaven is pierced with holes.”

The information that derives from Herodotus can also be combined with an important original epigraphic text that celebrates the settlement of Cyrene. Actually it is rather amazing to notice how this ancient marble inscription matches with the narration of the Greek historian: according to the inscription Apollo has prophesised that Battus and the people of Thera will colonise Libya. The settlers were to be chosen as one male for each family plus any free citizen who would have voluntarily joined the expedition. They were to found the colony and equally share the new land. Thera gave to the expedition five years to achieve the settlement; only after that term had elapsed and in case the settlers would have not succeeded they would have been welcomed back to their homeland and reinstated in their properties and rights. Nobody of the chosen was allowed, for any reason whatsoever to withdraw or escape from the expedition. He and those who would have helped or hidden him would have been put to death. What may appear remarkable is the crude severity of the punishment for those who contravened this decision of the πολις, although it ought to be kept in mind that in that age the overpopulation and the consequent starvation were a real matter of survival. Thus the colonization process was taken as a necessity and very seriously as the marble inscription, which includes also the oath that preceded the expedition, clearly shows:

“On these conditions they made an agreement, those who stayed there and those who sailed on the colonial expedition, and they put curses on those who should transgress these conditions and not abide by them… they molded wax images and burnt them up while they uttered the following imprecation, all of them, having come together, men and women, boys and girls: “May he who does not abide by these oaths but transgresses them, melt away and dissolve like the images – himself, his seed and his property”.

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Pithekussa: the oldest Western Greek colony

Since the ninth century B.C. the Greeks from the continent, Aegean Islands and Ionia (present Turkey West coast), following the same Mycenaean routes, resumed moving west and founding new colonies in Sicily and in the South of Italy. These early colonies, within a century multiplied all over the Western Mediterranean reaching Sardinia, Corsica, France and the Iberian Peninsula.

Most certainly cities such as Syracuse (now Siracusa), Massalia (today Marseille), Akragas (now Agrigento), Taras (today Taranto), Nicea (now Nice), Neapolis (today Napoli), Emporion (now Ampurias), are widely renown as having very old Greek roots, nonetheless the oldest Greek colony is a small island in the Tyrrhenian Sea: Pithekussa.


Is here that in the beginning of the eighth century B.C. the early settlers came and founded initially an emporion and then a real colony. According to Strabo’s Geography these sailors and merchants came originally from both the two main poleij of the island of Euboea: Chalcis and Eretria as they found good soil and also gold mines on the island. The former characteristic is true belonging the island to an active volcanic area, the latter is to be considered a legend, probably sort of propaganda to enhance the number of settlers, or simply to magnify the gestae of the early settlers when sending news to their hometown. Actually, the settlers found this location suitable being its size large enough to sustain a community as well as not too wide to be defended.

Having been founded in cooperation by these two poleij is a very useful detail when trying to date the colonisation, because these two πολεις became enemies in the end of the eighth century B.C. and fought a long lasting war (Lelantine War) which gave no significant success to Chalcis and destroyed Eretria: consequently this joint colonisation project must have been planned and taken place before the Lelantine War.

Archaeological evidence corroborates this dating, as a ceramic cup found in an eighth century B.C. tomb bears an extraordinary inscription:

The cup of Nestor may have been certainly pleasant to drink from,

but who drinks from this cup immediately will be taken by the desire of Aphrodite by the splendid tiara

This is the oldest epigraph ever found in the Western Mediterranean Greek colonisation area, and both its syntax and style are quite sophisticated and mature for its age. The irony of the inscription (hinting to some aphrodisiac powers of the beverages it could have contained) and the literary reference to a precise detail of a minor Iliad character Nestor King of Πυλος confirm the degree of erudition of some island’s inhabitants in the eighth century who, by then, could not have been just sailors using it as a stepping stone. Soon the settlers expanded to another smaller neighbour island, Aenaria, just between Pithekussa and the continent.

The island was naturally endowed with argillaceous soil, which in those days was a very important resource for the island’s ceramic manufacturers: lots of pottery made on Pithekussa was exported to the continental Italy, especially in Etruscan areas. Moreover, this was probably the etymology of the island’s name: pithos (vase); although according to another – minor, though – etymology the island’s name would come from pithekos (monkey).

The settlers lived in harmony with the indigenous population – the Ausones – as they were good farmers and bartered their produces with any kind of utensil that the Greeks were so skilled at producing. The artisans of Pithekussa were also famous goldsmiths and worked the iron imported from the Etruscan Tuscany.

Later the population left the island to move to the main land. Actually this was the most common way the Greek settlers used to move along their colonial travels: they used to find little islands nearby the continent and settle down, then once they had gained enough knowledge of the site and its mainland surroundings, made friends with – or defeated – the indigenous population, they moved to the continent that could offer a wider and richer area for cultivation (mainly cereals, olive and vine) and sheep farming. Also many artisans and ceramists moved to the continent and opened shops even in many Etruscan areas.

Thus the barycentre of the Euboean colonisation shifted a few miles to the mainland and namely to Κυμη (Cuma), that is considered officially the first colony of the Western Greek colonisation, as Pithekussa and Aenaria had a relatively short life as settlements and did not became a real polij. According to Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, Cuma then founded more cities, Δικαιαρχαιας (Dichearchias), Παλεπολις and Νεαπολις.


In present days Pithekussa is named Ischia: a renowned tourist destination in the Gulf of Naples, Aenaria (now Procida) is a small fisherman island recently developing some tourism, Cuma still retains its Greek name and belongs, together with Dichearchias (now Pozzuoli) to the outskirts of Naples the metropolis that lies and where Palepolis and Neapolis used to be.

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