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Ancient and modern: The two Libyas

Classical wisdom is reasserting itself

26 March 2011

12:00 AM

26 March 2011

12:00 AM

The Foreign Office is contemplating the possibility that — as in Iraq, where the 1992 no-fly zone allowed the Kurds to take control in the north — the current intervention may split Libya. It would revert to what it had always been up till 1911: two entirely separate administrations, one eastern and one western. A very sensible idea, too. In the 7th century bc, Greeks colonised Cyrene on the north African coast. Herodotus tells the story. A deputation from Thera (modern Santorini) had gone to Delphi to consult the oracle on various matters and was told to found a city among the Libyans. By Libyans, Greeks meant the people who inhabited north Africa. But since no attention was paid to this command, Thera suffered a seven-year drought.

A mission to Delphi to discover the reason was reminded of that command, and, after some help from Crete and many false starts, a settlement was finally founded at Cyrene in 630 bc. Despite some hostility from local berbers, other Greek towns sprang up — one was Berenice, modern Benghazi (c. 250 bc)—and the whole region became known as Cyrenaica. Cyrene itself was the jewel in its crown, a magnificent city famed for its medical school and philosophers.

Meanwhile, since the 9th century bc, other interlopers in north Africa had been making hay some 700 miles by sea to the west (1,200 miles by land). These were Phoenicians (modern Lebanon), led by queen Dido, who settled in the magnificent harbour site of what they called Qart Hadasht, ‘New City’. This was later latinised by Romans into Carthago, as was ‘Phoenicians’ (Greek Phoinikes) into Punici. They were looking for metals and had Spain in their sights.

Punic influence now spread slowly east among the berber peoples along the Gulf of Syrtes. Three Punic settlements, later known as Tripolis (‘the three cities’, whence Tripoli), were of particular importance: Oea (Tripoli), Sabratha and Lepcis Magna. I add here a pedantic note: please, it is not Leptis Magna. The Punic name was LPQY, romanised into Lepcis, as all the inscriptions on that fabulous site make clear. Leptis is a Roman misunderstanding of its real name.


And there we have it: a large and flourishing Punic settlement to the west and a large and flourishing Greek settlement to the east. The distance by land between Lepcis and Cyrene is nearly 600 miles. But that is not all that kept them apart.

In the ancient world one did not carry heavy goods any distance over land. Donkeys, bullocks, let alone horses, are adequate only for very short journeys. The sea was the only way to do it. But the north African shore was notoriously dangerous for shipping. There were few good harbours, many sandbanks, and the trade winds during the shipping season were predominantly from the north. No one wanted to be caught on that lee shore. So, trade was predominantly north-south, not east-west. It was not easy to connect Greek Cyrene with Punic Lepcis and beyond.

Further, Greeks and Carthaginians had long been trading rivals in the Mediterranean. That did not mean they could not do business; but there had been a degree of ‘form’ between them, in Sicily and around the western Mediterranean, for hundreds of years. Citing the Phoenician rape of Io, Herodotus blamed them for starting the eternal enmity between Greeks and Asians that culminated in the Trojan and then the Persian wars. Plutarch described Carthaginians as ‘coarse and gloomy, submissive to those who govern them, despotic to those they govern’, Appian considered them ‘cruel and arrogant’, and they had a general reputation among Greeks for wiliness and deceit.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Cyrenaica’s position in north Africa aligned it to the north with the Greek world and further east with its neighbours, the Egyptians. When Alexander the Great died in 323 bc and the Greek general Ptolemy was left in charge of Egypt, Cyrenaica was absorbed into the Ptolemaic kingdom, and so (with one hiccup) it remained. Berenice, for example, was named after a Ptolemaic queen.

In other words, it was not just geography that kept Cyrenaica and the Punic worlds apart: history, culture and disposition did too. No one in the ancient world ever dreamed of bringing the two together into a unitary state. So when Rome destroyed Carthage in 146 bc and got its teeth into north Africa, it eventually wound up with three separate provinces: first Roman (Punic) Africa, which extended from Carthage (now in Tunisia) east along the Gulf of Syrtes past Tripoli and well beyond Lepcis Magna, but stopping before the Gulf turned north up to Cyrene. Second, in 96 bc Cyrenaica fell into Rome’s lap, bequeathed by Apion, the area’s Ptolemaic ruler (like many, he saw which way the political wind was blowing). Rome turned it into a province in 74 bc. Interestingly and intelligently, Rome linked it with Crete to the north — that north-south connection — which had played a part in Cyrene’s Greek foundation. Finally, in 30 bc, Augustus (then Octavian) defeated Antony and the last Ptolemy, Cleopatra, and made Egypt a Roman province, too.

And that was how it stayed, with separate provinces: Roman (Punic) Africa; Cyrenaica and Crete; and Egypt — each with its own governor. The only time any of it became known as Libya was in ad 296 under the emperor Diocletian, who divided Cyrenaica into two districts, Libya superior and Libya inferior. But this redrawing did not involve the province of Roman Africa at all.

Time, the encroaching desert, earthquake and the 7th-century Muslim invasions destroyed that world, and the Ottoman empire did not improve matters, though maintaining separate provincial administrations. In 1911 the Italians tried their luck. They invaded Tripoli, and with Ottoman agreement gained control of both Tripoli and Cyrenaica, which they united for the first time into one unit. But Cyrenaica did not like it one little bit and caused endless trouble. That was finally stamped out in 1934 by Mussolini, who asserted Italy’s ‘right’ to regain control of its ancient, now reunited, dominions and call it by its real, historic, Roman name. He was wrong on all counts.

So Gaddafi is simply shoring up il Duce’s demented imperialist fiction. In Libya’s new spirit of freedom, this fiction cannot be maintained. Time to restore Cyrenaica to its ancient, independent glory.


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