Foundation of Cyrene: What could the Greek do well, and not so well?
It is widely understood through both archaeological evidence and Herodotus’ writings that the Foundation of Cyrene was established in 630 BC by a settlement of Greeks who originated from the island of Thera (modern day Santorini) and were lead by a Theran named Battos. However, it is Herodotus who gives all ancient historians invaluable insights into the colonisation practices of the ancient Greeks in the archaic period, and despite having his well known limitations, we must overall regard his work ‘The Histories’ as an equal to archaeological evidence and Thucydides’ work when it comes to studying colonisation in this period. With the help of Herodotus’ writings, it is clear to see that the Ancient Greeks were apt colonists, skilled in setting up trading, and overcoming hurdles that would naturally arise when colonising a new land such as resources and manpower. Their reciprocal relationship with their gods and their representatives: the Oracles, played a major role in this and it was also largely due to this arrangement that allowed the Greeks to colonise and spread throughout the Mediterranean. However, it seems the Greeks would later struggle with a unified identity as Herodotus points out multiple versions of the story, that of the Theraians, and the Cyrenians. It is also worth pointing out –although not necessarily addressing- the recent debate amongst modern scholars on the complex issue of historical reliability of the literary evidence on colonisation, as questions are asked that no scholar or learned man or woman should avoid considering.
The Delphic Oracle and the Ancient Greek’s wider religion played a major role in explaining why many Ancient Greek colonies were founded. Maurizio Giangiulio (2001, p 117) supports this argument by telling us “The decisive role played by the Delphic oracle is very strongly emphasized, through various narrative devices” in this case Herodotus (4.150): “the oracle declared that he would found a community in Libya”. It is in this way that Herodotus is able to properly shed light on a crucial part of explaining the colonising process, making it evident that it was foolhardy to go on an expedition without the expressed will of the gods “the importance attached to the God’s will is an integral part of a representational strategy [of a colony]” states Giangiulio (2001, p 118), extending this with “Cyrene represent themselves -it would seem- as a polis which stood high in Apollo’s favour” (Giangiulio 2001, p 118).
Herodotus’ writings also provide us with direct evidence of how pivotal the relationship between religion and colonising was for the Greeks, whilst simultaneously providing an example on the reciprocity between the Greek religion, and the Greeks themselves. In 4.155 Herodotus begins with Battos going to see the Oracle about his voice, and is instead tasked with settling a new land of Libya:
“For a voice thou camest, O Battos, but thee Lord Phoebus Apollo sendeth as settler forth to the Libyan land sheep-abounding”
To this Battos replies “but with what power, or with what force of men should I go?” referring to the lack of resources and manpower available to him. It is then implied that Battos leaves the Oracle disappointed “while she was yet speaking” back to Thera. Although, in 4.156, Herodotus goes on to explain that evil fortune began to befall both Battos and the people of Thera, leading them to send another envoy back to Delphi to enquire on. The oracle then responded “that if they join with Battos in founding Cyrene in Libya, they would fare the better”
(Herodotus, 4.156) a clear example of this reciprocal relationship the Greeks shared with their Gods. With this, Battos and the other men left for Thera, however once they returned, so strong was the Theraian peoples belief in their religion that they pelted Battos with missiles and “did not allow them to put to shore” (Herodotus,...
Bibliography: 1) Flavia Frisone, 2012, Rivers, land organization, and identity in Greek Western Apoikiai, Mediterranean Historical Review, V. 27 (1), pp 87-115.
2) Mario Lombardo, 2012, Greek colonization: small and large island, Mediterranean Historical Review, V. 27 (1), pp 73-85.
3) Thycidedes, History of the Peloponnesian War, Penguin Classics, 1963
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