Friday, November 22, 2019

The Early Iron Age Revival of the State, 20: Green Mountain Boys

Modern Cyrene is a complex of archaeological tourist traps on the outskirts of Shahat, Libya, although you can't see that clearly here due to my increasing the scale to get Marsa Sousa in the picture.

Given Libya's current difficulties, it isn't clear to me just how many tourists the tourist traps trap, but Shahat does have an international airport. Oil, wishful thinking, archaeotourists --I have no idea. Marsa Sousa is at the other end of what's probably a fairly spectacular road, given that it climbs from sea level to 300m in fifteen kilometers. For a modern traveller, the old town is nestled in the final switchback on the way to Shahat.

The fact that the back country road goes through Shahat rather than Cyrene makes me uncomfortable in calling old Cyrene a crossroads town, but it does seem to have been quite something. The area around the ancient ruins is graced by numerous sanctuaries and a necropolis of overwhelming scope (40,000 tombs before various modern depredations). The necropolis is a bit of a focus due to its victory over various feeble systematisation efforts of a series of archaeological investigators. There's a sense that we could learn  a lot about it if we could just grapple with its sheer scale. All credit due to the sketch work of some of these guys, though! And to the modern Polish mission to Ptolemais, which has produced a major monograph summarising a century-and-a-half of half-ass efforts to cope with an overwhelming site, written by Monika Rekowska and translated by Anna Kijak. (There's a Libyan Studies?)

Modern Marj, and the old town that  may or may not be Classical
Barca. (By Smiley.toerist -
Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
The issue here is that Cyrene is the dominant city of the ancient Cyrenaican federal league, a distinction the site hasn't enjoyed since, inasmuch as the port city of Benghazi is so obviously the better candidate. As an upland town characteristic of periods of "managed collapse" of Mediterranean world systems, I asked last time just when and how Cyrene came to be, and what its history tells us about the Iron Age transition. This post is the result of that investigation.

Before I go to the cut, I'll note that in one sense, Cyrene is not unique. There's a very similar city, and it is in Cyrenaica, too. Barca and Ptolemaishave formed a similar pairing to Apollonia (Marsa Sousa) and Cyrene. One might be unique, but two is a pattern!

Cyrenaica, ancient or modern, is two limestone massifs jutting out from the coast at the eastern end of the Gulf of Sirte. The eastern one, Marmarica, is a good place to have a tank war, but low and dry and too lazy to reach the coast, and is therefore unimportant except to those who live there. The western and more important massif tips up steeply from the Mediterranean to a plateau of about 300m elevation, with elevations reaching up to almost 900m. Well situated to receive significant rainfall, it carries a Mediterranean woodlands, forest and shrubland ecoregion, and in recent historic times had as much as a half million hectares of forest land. The rest is shrubland of the garrigue type made notorious by the Imperial Forestry Service's office in Cyprus, as an overgrazed habitat created by rapacious ovicaprines (more specifically, nasty, un-British goats). So it is not precisely clear how much of the climax half million hectares represents Nineteenth Century colonialist interventions introducing acacia, pine and eucalyptus, similar to the forests now burning in Australia. Not to minimise the role of global warming, but . . . .

 The Cyrenaican massif's exuberant rise creates a long escarpment on the north-facing coast  tht could not have been much appreciated by sailors making their way from more desirable parts of the world towards Egypt's western "horn" at Mersah Matruh. Fortunately, the escarpment is broken by a series of deltic incursions on which are founded three coastal cities of the Libyan Pentopolis, Ptolemais,  Marsa Sousa and Derna. The west facing coast, on the other hand, has a coastal plain and Benghazi, ancient Berenice and previously Eusperides, from the Fortunate Isles, said to have been located in its vicinity.   including stretching from massif slopes down to sea level again and the Great Sand Sea, a dry but miry (due to runoff) extension of the Gulf of Sirte. The escarpment is broken along the coast by a series of by deltic breaches at. The historic towns are somewhat underwhelming, having been known for sponge collecting and fishing rather than fertile fields and urban palaces. The same ecological factors make them logical locations for murex factories in ancient times, for which there is some evidence.

South of the massif, which gradually slopes down to sea level, the Libyan desert stretches east from the Gulf of Sidra towards Siwa oasis. Here's a cool map I found:

By User:Carport modified by User:Aymatth2 - File:Libya relief location map.jpg (modified to show information from Cordell, Dennis D. (January 1977). "Eastern Libya, Wadai and the Sanūsīya: A Tarīqa and a Trade Route". The Journal of African History 18 (01): 25. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved on 2013-03-25.), CC BY-SA 3.0,

No less an authority than Mario Liverani has suggested that the caravan routes already stretched west of Tripolitana to the Tunisian Sahel in the Iron Age.

What about timing? Cyrene has a famously precise foundation date of 631BC, thanks to an elaborately detailed account of its early history as one of the first Greek regions to submit to the Persians, in the aftermath of Cambyses' conquest of Egypt. It is one of those oddities of the way we write Classical history that another, contradictory account of the foundation of Cyrene is so thoroughly submerged by that of Herodotus. Didorus Siculus' account of the foundation of Cyrene by a Thessalian nymph translated by Apollo doesn't seem particularly historiographically rigorous, but it is not as though Herodotus' account passes any strenuous sniff test, either. (The supposed founder, a leading citizen of Thera, is nameless until he arrives in Libya, where he is dubbed "Battus," [The Stammerer"], supposedly "king" in the native Libyan. This gives every impression of being as much a historical myth as any nymph.)

By roughly 580, Cyrene was prosperous enough to establish a colony at Aziris, an unknown location that John Boardman identified in 1966 as Wadi al Chalig. The somewhat less than promising site, as witness the fact that it has been abandoned since Ptolemaic times, was identified by a surface scatter of pottery fragments that were dated, using the incredibly precise Aegean chronology, to 690--650. This wasn't much of a problem for Boardman, but Peter James of the University College of London, would like to overthrow the Aegean chronology to reconcile the pots to Herodotus. 

I dunno. Even if I weren't committed a priori to another thesis, this project strikes me as a bit ambitious. The fact that it is linked to the questionable attempts to reify the House of David in Biblical archaeology does not increase my confidence. Nor does James' previous association with a truly visionary effort to desire to knock 250 years out of the Late Bronze Age--Early Iron Age transition, although that might have been a fancy of the 1990s. I should apologise for the driveby slagging, but it is not like we have any other dating information for Cyrene. (We do, however, have it for Aziris, said by Herodotus to have been founded before Cyrene. I grow less and less impressed with James as the week goes on.)

The Benghazi Stakes, Classical Edition.  Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire

Taking the identification of Aziris as Wadi al Chalig seriously for a second, Herodotus' account of the Libyans leading Battus and his Theran colonists from their tiny little port town to the propitious location of Cyrene is a journey of several hundred miles through the uplands of the Green Mountains to the sacred site of Kyre's grotto spring, "where there is a hole in the sky." Here the new arrivals began to celebrated the Carneia in honour of Apollo and Kyre, or Cyrene.

This is a weird, weird story, but it actually has a mundane explanation. In 462BC,the exiled king of Cyrene, Arcesilaus IV, arrived in Delphi with an evident abundance of spending money. The trajectory that he would follow from here was written in stone in the Alcmaeonid enclosure at the sacred site. Come in exile, spread your money around, get ideological and manpower-based backing, and, arguably, a fresh new origin story for your dynasty, return in triumph. Pindar, a personal buddy, wrote his Fifth Pythian Ode to plead his cause and associate Cyrene with the Pythian cult, and there's an Alcmaeonid connection with Herodotus that might go back to his Delphic patronage. 
Specifically, the Temple of Zeus is more impressive than the Temple of Apollo
It's perhaps of note that it is actually the sanctuary of Zeus that dominates the setting, while Tamar Hodos, exploring the complex interactions of locals, Greeks and Phoenicians from the point of view of a "middle ground," thinks that the cult of Demeter was more important at Cyrene than that of Apollo.

Whether or not that is the case, Hodos' survey of the archaeology and historiography, such as it is, of northern Syria, Sicily and North Africa. (In Hodos. Local Responses to Colonization in the Iron Age Mediterranean. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2006.) is the only one that discusses the "pre-Greek layer" at Cyrene and other Libyan colonies.  With respect to pre-Iron Age contact between Libya and Greece, he notes extensive excavations at Mersah Matruh that bear out Mycenaean contacts and associate native Libyan pottery styles there with Mycenaean finds and the "pre-Greek" level at Cyrene. Not that there's much to this, as typically Libyan coarse wares do not obviously change over the period from about 2500BC to Roman times. I would add that the search for identifiable "Libyans" in Egyptian contexts has not gone well in any period, and Mersah Matruh is a point of entry to Egypt, not Cyrenaica. Cyrenaica might be in the modern country of Libya, but the first obvious Egyptian interest in the place comes with Apries' disastrous intervention against Cyrene in 570BC. The Egyptian expeditionary force seems to have travelled to Cyrenaica overland, which tells us something about the development of the western Desert routes by this point, but they were also beaten by the none-too-numerous locals, which suggests that the army wasn't large. (Cambyses' purported offensive against Carthage required the support of the Phoenician cities, so presumably would have been amphibious.)

Given the state of archaeology in Cyrenaica at the moment, this prong of the investigation has gone about as far as it can go. But I can get associative here! To the extent that one's eyes are drawn westward over the caravan routes, they arrive at Fezzan as much as anywhere, and here we do have some solid excavations, if only because the sites were more manageable and more publishable.

This evocative picture, by Jona Lendering and posted at Livius. Org, shows the promontory of Zinchecra, a little more than two miles from Garamana, the capital of the Roman-era Fezzan state of the Garamantes nation of Roman times. A hillfort on the promontory was excavated from 1965 to 1967, with the earliest phase of monumental construction dated to the familiar 800BC horizon. Hodos identifies the hillfort as dominating a ridgeline separating wadis containing farms on lower ground, which is a very similar setting to the hillforts of Wessex; with the difference that the dry climate  (or lack of subsequent contradiction) allows the confident assertion that the large enclosed space was used for animal stabling. It would be nice to have anything so clearly asserted for the uses of, say, Maiden Castle! And, yes, one functional use surely doesn't exhaust all social and cultural functions, but at some point you have to concede some ground to economic rationality. More recent archaeobotanical work has confirmed the broad timeline and the role of agriculture in the economy of the Fezzan in the early Iron Age.  Further, Hodos underlines the increasing importance of horsedrawn transportation ("chariots") in the visual record, and underlines the independent and idiosyncratic trajectory towards statehood in the Fezzan.

I should finally note that while I do not think Hodos' decision to link his three regions in a comparative study pays off as well as the original proposal suggested it might, he has some interesting points. It does not appear, for example, that Greek activity in Northwest Syria should be seen in terms of trade connections. On the contrary, the nature of the evidence brings us back to Herodotus' "Carian mercenaries--", or, bearing the historian's hometown bias in mind, Greek mercenaries more generally. Serving Egyptian masters rather than Persian pretenders, as in later periods, the Aegean is producing  a surplus of fighting men who sometimes cement their local relationships with guest-gifts to social elites and sanctuaries. In Sicily, Hodos reports the local archaeological consensus of a retreat from the coast and large settlements at the Early Iron Age transition --a managed collapse three centuries later than in Crete-- and the variety of local accommodations to Greek and Phoenician influences. This is the "middle ground" narrative in action, and perhaps paradigm rather than evidence is being used against the earlier argument that eastern Mediterranean colonists were overawing local primitives.

For the moment, though, I will roll over to the paradigm and see internal and endogenous responses as central to the "colonisation" period. States are rising around the western Mediterranean in response to internal imperatives. It is their use of Eastern Mediterranean influences that makes the subsequent "colonisation" period possible.

With all of this said in the way of reinforcing the "rise of the state thesis," it is nice to have new evidence and new arguments. The thesis that Cyrene was a backdoor to Egyptian trade seems well supported, and the fact that a Saite pharaoh launched a military expedition against it  seems telling. The location of Cyrene as an unexpected example of the pristine emergence of an Iron Age state, lightly disguised as a  Greek colony, is at least borderline convincing. The near-simultaneous developments in Fezzan are even more clearly endogenous, and suggest that the Carthaginian connection is not so wild. And, again, bullion movements solve the obvious question of what kind of good would make such long journeys worthwhile. The roles of horses, mercenaries are once again established. We are left wanting clear evidence of the nexus between supposed Egyptian bullion exports, the payment of mercenaries, and the rise of the Iron Age state.

God help me, but I think numismatics needs more attention.

Magas of Cyrene (c. 300BC--282/275BC. By Classical Numismatic Group, Inc., CC BY-SA 3.0, The plant is the mysterious "silphium."

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