Cyrene (Greek: Κυρήνη, Kyrēnē) was an ancient Greek colony in present-day Shahhat, Libya, the oldest and most important of the five Greek cities in the region. It gave eastern Libya the classical name Cyrenaica that it has retained to modern times. 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 3rd century BCE, founded by Aristippus, a disciple of Socrates.
Cyrene was founded in 630 BCE as a settlement of the Greeks from the Greek island of Thera, traditionally led by Battus I, ten miles from its port, Apollonia (Marsa Sousa). Details concerning the founding of the city are contained in Book IV of Histories, by Herodotus of Halicarnassus. It promptly became the chief town of ancient Libya and established commercial relations with all the Greek cities, reaching the height of its prosperity under its own kings in the 5th century BCE. Soon after 460 BCE it became a republic. After the death of Alexander III of Macedon (323 BCE), the Cyrenian republic became subject to the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Ophelas, the general who occupied the city in Ptolemy I's name, ruled the city almost independently until his death, when Ptolemy's son-in-law Magas received governorship of the territory. In 276 BCE Magas crowned himself king and declared de facto independence, marrying the daughter of the Seleucid king and forming with him an alliance in order to invade Egypt. The invasion was unsuccessful and in 250 BCE, after Magas' death, Cyrenaica became part of the Ptolemaic empire controlled from Alexandria, and became Roman territory in 96 BCE when Ptolemy Apion bequeathed Cyrenaica to Rome. In 74 BCE the territory was formally transformed into a Roman province.
The inhabitants of Cyrene at the time of Sulla (c. 85 BCE) were divided into four classes: citizens, farmers, resident aliens, and a minority population of Jews. The ruler of the town, Apion bequeathed it to the Romans, but it kept its self-government. In 74 BCE Cyrene was created a Roman province; but, whereas under the Ptolemies the Jewish inhabitants had enjoyed equal rights, they now found themselves increasingly oppressed by the now autonomous and much larger Greek population. Tensions came to a head in the insurrection of the Jews of Cyrene under Vespasian (73 CE, the First Roman-Jewish War) and especially Trajan (117 CE, the Kitos War). This revolt was quelled by Marcius Turbo, but not before huge numbers of people had been killed. According to Eusebius of Caesarea the outbreak of violence left Libya depopulated to such an extent that a few years later new colonies had to be established there by the emperor Hadrian just to maintain the viability of continued settlement.
Cyrene's chief local export through much of its early history was the medicinal herb silphium, which was pictured on most Cyrenian coins. Silphium was harvested to extinction, which, in conjunction with commercial competition from Carthage and Alexandria, resulted in a reduction in the city's trade. Cyrene, with its port of Apollonia (Marsa Susa), remained an important urban center until the earthquake of 262 CE. After the disaster, the emperor Claudius Gothicus restored Cyrene, naming it Claudiopolis, but the restorations were poor and precarious. Natural catastrophes and a profound economic decline dictated its death, and in 365 CE another particularly devastating earthquake destroyed its already meagre hopes of recovery. Ammianus Marcellinus described it in the 4th century CE as a deserted city, and Synesius, a native of Cyrene, described it in the following century as a vast ruin at the mercy of the nomads. Ultimately, the city fell under Arab conquest in 643 CE, by which time little was left of the opulent Roman cities of Northern Africa; the ruins of Cyrene are located near the modern village of Shahhat.
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