Cyrenaica, Epigraphy, Hadrian1900

The rebuilding of Cyrene by Hadrian in AD 118/9 (#Hadrian1900)

In AD 115, while Trajan and the majority of the Roman troops were campaigning in Parthia in the East, the diasporic Jews rose against Rome, creating havoc in Cyrenaica, Egypt and Cyprus. The hostilities started in Cyrene and quickly spread to Alexandria, Judaism’s largest city, and resulted not only in great loss of life but also in widespread destruction. In Cyrenaica, the revolt raged all over the country and was characterized by extreme violence and bloodshed. Dio Cassius paints a horrific picture of unrelieved brutality. The Jews, he claimed,

would eat the flesh of their victims, make belts for themselves of their entrails, anoint themselves with their blood and wear their skins for clothing; many they sawed in two, from the head downwards; others they gave to wild beasts, and still others they forced to fight as gladiators. (Dio, LXVIII 32.2-4)

Dio adds that 220,000 Greeks and Romans were slaughtered in Egypt and Cyrene, and another 240,000 perished in Cyprus. Many public buildings and several temples were destroyed while the roads were made unusable. The Epigraphical and archaeological evidence for the damage caused during the rebellion is particularly clear at Cyrene where many of the oldest and finest monuments were reduced to rubble.

Apollo was the patron and foremost divinity of Cyrene, and the temple dedicated to him on the terrace beneath the sacred spring was one of the most important monuments of the ancient city.
© Mohamed Kenawi, Manar al-Athar Photo-Archive, Oxford 2013–, available at http://www.manar-al-athar.ox.ac.uk (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

After two years of bitter fighting, the rebellion was quelled by Q. Marcius Turbo shortly before the death of Trajan in August AD 117. The work of restoring the territory of Cyrenaica also began under Trajan who had time to appoint a certain Lucius Gavius Fronto of the Legio XV Apollinaris whose mission was to settle 3,000 veterans in Cyrene (SEG XVII 584). Although the plans of reconstructing the city were initiated by Trajan, it was Hadrian who was predominately responsible for the rebirth of Cyrene.

Indeed, on his accession to the throne, Hadrian immediately attended to the restoration of the cities devastated by the revolt. His restoration of Alexandria is ascribed to his first year in power, from September 117 onward, and was evidently among the first great public works of his principate (read more here). The following year, Hadrian undertook the repair of the damaged buildings in Cyrenaica, and later, brought in new settlers and founded a new city, named Hadrianopolis, probably in the hope that it would put the province on its feet again.

Milestone of Hadrian
© Livius.org (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0)

Hadrian’s work of resuscitating Cyrene is recorded by inscriptions, some dated to the early part of his reign, others to the end of his reign. The early texts, either in Latin or bilingual, are dated to AD 118 and 119 and concern the restorations initiated immediately after the devastation caused by the Jewish revolt referred to as tumultu Iudaicus. Hadrian’s first project was to restore the communications between Cyrene and its harbour Apollonia, 20 km to the northeast. A Roman milestone (AE 1951, 208) excavated in 1933 beside the main street leading to the North Gate of Cyrene, is dated to AD 118. It records the repairs undertook by an army unit of unknown identity of the road to Apollonia which had been overturned (eversa) and broken up (corrupta) during the Jewish Revolt.

Imp(erator) Caes(ar) divi / Traiani Parthici f(ilius) / divi Nervae nepos / Traianus Hadr[ianus] / Aug(ustus) p(ontifex) m(aximus) t(ribunicia) p(otestate) II co(n)s(ul) [III] / viam quae tum[ultu Iuda]/ico eversa et c[orrupta] / erat r[estit]uit / per mil(ites) coh(ortis) [

Another milestone (SEG IX 252) was discovered at the fourth mile-station on the Cyrene-Apollonia road. Only the lower part of the milestone survived with four lines of Greek text but the inscription seems to have originally been bilingual, the upper part of the milestone in Latin being completely lost.

One of Cyrene’s worst affected buildings was the Caesareum, an important symbol of Rome’s power in the city strongly connected with the imperial cult. The Caesareum was a large architectural complex located on the east side of the acropolis ridge which comprised a rectangular open space surrounded on all four sides by Doric porticoes. It was built at the beginning of the 1st century AD but the building is older as it is now believed to have been constructed as a gymnasium in the middle of the 2nd century BC before being remodelled and rededicated to Augustus as a Caesareum. In the Flavian period, the Caesareum was later repurposed as a forum when the rooms north of the complex were levelled in order to build a large basilica which housed the judicial heart of the Roman city.

The interior of the Caesareum.
© Ross Burns, Manar al-Athar Photo-Archive, Oxford 2013–, available at http://www.manar-al-athar.ox.ac.uk (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

An inscription, written in Latin and Greek, specify that part of the Caesareum was repaired as early as 118 (SEG XVII 804) and that its reconstruction came after “overthrowing (dirutum) and burning (exustum)”. The text was cut on wall blocks and was found re-used in late antiquity on the eastern monumental entrance of the Caesareum. Hadrian is named with his imperial titles and it is possible to date the inscription as it refers to his second consulship (cos. II), which occurred in 118. Another valuable information is found at the end of the inscription where we discover that the building’s destruction was caused by the Jewish Revolt (tumultu Iudaico dirutam).

[Imp. Caesar d]ivi Tr[aiani Parthici fil]ius diṿ[i Nerva]ẹ ṇepos
T[raianus Hadrianus Aug. pont. max. trib. pot. II cos. II]
[civitati Cy]ṛenensium [Caesareu]ṃ tumul[tu Iudaic]o dirutum ẹṭ
ẹ[xustum restitui iussit].

Another inscription (AE 1974, 672) was found badly damaged and in fragments on the Doric architrave of the internal collonade of the basilica. It is a single line inscription that seems to record the restoration of the building by Hadrian. As on the previous inscription, Hadrian is named with his imperial titles. However, it is dated to the emperor’s third and last consulship which occurred in 119. E. Mary Smallwood, writing about this inscription in 1952, suggested that based on the other epigraphic evidence from Cyrene, the rebuilding of the Basilica was completed, and the inscription carved in 119 or soon after, rather than later in his reign.

[Imp. Caes. divi Traiani Parthici fil. divi Nerv]AE NEP[os] TRAIA[n]VS H[adrianus] AVGV[stus pontifex maximus trib. pot. ? cos. I]II BASILIC[am ……]
The ruins of the Basilica.
© Ross Burns, Manar al-Athar Photo-Archive, Oxford 2013–, available at http://www.manar-al-athar.ox.ac.uk (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The people of Cyrene, in turn, honoured Hadrian for his benefactions on their behalf. A marble statue pedestal with bilingual dedicatory inscription to Hadrian (SEG XVII 808) can be seen in the apse of the basilica. The Latin text referring to Hadrian’s second consulship allows the dating of the inscription to 118.

To EMPeror CAESAR, DIVine TRAJAN victor in PARTHia’s son, DIVine NERVA’s grandson, TRAJAN HADRIAN AUGustus, chief priest, TRIBune’s power for 2nd time, COnSul’s power for 2nd time, the city of CYRENians offered this dedication.
Statue base honouring Hadrian inside the basilica.
© Ross Burns, Manar al-Athar Photo-Archive, Oxford 2013–, available at http://www.manar-al-athar.ox.ac.uk (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

We also know from a dedicatory inscription (AE 1928.2) and archaeological research that Hadrian restored and enlarged the Baths of Trajan, lying inside the Sanctuary of Apollo in the northwest edge of the city. The text tells us that restoration work was done to the baths porticoes (porticibus), ball hall (sphaeristeris) and other unspecified adjacencies (ceterisque adiacentibus). The inscription, now attached to the wall of the frigidarium, is written only in Latin which, as suggested by Mary T. Boatwright, may have emphasized the Roman character of the building built at the beginning of Trajan’s reign.

Hadrian inscription at the thermae of Cyrene
© By User:Klaus-Norbert (own photo) [CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Imp(erator) Caesar divi Traiani / Parthici fil(ius) divi Nervae nepos / Traianus Hadrianus Aug(ustus) pontif(ex) / max(imus) trib(unicia) potest(ate) III co(n)s(ul) III balineum / cum porticibus et sphaeristeris / ceterisque adiacentibus quae / tumultu Iudaico diruta et exusta / erant civitati Cyrenensium restitui / iussit

The Roman baths were using water from the source of the sacred spring which ran through the Sanctuary of Apollo. Apollo was the patron and foremost divinity of the city of Cyrene and the temple dedicated to him on the terrace beneath the sacred spring was one of the most important monuments of the ancient city. The history of the Temple of Apollo includes a number of building stages starting from mid-6th century BC until its destruction during the Jewish Revolt. The discovery of a statue of Hadrian in the temple in 1861 indicates that a major reconstruction must have been started by Hadrian shortly after his accession. The statue depicts Hadrian dressed as a Greek, in a demonstration of his well-known love of Greek culture. However, a recent re-examination of the sculpture by British Museum curator Thorsten Opper on the occasion of the 2008 “Hadrian: Empire and” exhibition, showed that the head of Hadrian did not belong to the body and that it was, in fact, the result of an incorrect restoration in the Victorian period.

Among the other temples destroyed during the insurrection was the temple dedicated to the Greek goddess Hecate which formed part of the Sanctuary of Apollo. The Temple of Hecate was expressly stated on a bilingual inscription (SEG IX 168) as having been “burned and plundered” and later reconstructed. The Latin text implies that the restorations started in AD 119.

[imp. Caesar divi Traiani Parthici fil.]
[divi Nervae nepos Traianus Hadrianus]
[Aug. pontif. max. trib. pot. III cos. III templum]
[restitui iussit Cyr]enensiu[m civitati, quod]
[tumultu Iudaico di]rutum et e[xustum erat].
The small podium of the Temple of Hecate built at the beginning of the 2nd century AD northeast of the Temple of Apollo. Baths of Trajan.
© Mohamed Kenawi, Manar al-Athar Photo-Archive, Oxford 2013–, available at http://www.manar-al-athar.ox.ac.uk (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The restoration of other temples and shrines followed but at an unknown date. Two other inscriptions refer to Hadrian’s restoration of the Temple of Apollo (SEG IX 189) which was ‘thrown down’, of the great Temple of Zeus and perhaps of the Temple of Artemis (SEG IX 171).

Marble torso of Hadrian in military dress, from Cyrene, ca. 130-138.

Cyrene had been founded by Greeks from the island of Thera in the Aegean and the city’s Greek heritage surely appealed to Hadrian. His favourable disposition towards Cyrene would not only be shown by the building inscriptions mentioned above but also through a series of letters exchanged with the Greek city towards the end of his reign as well as its inclusion in the new Panhellenion league. His generosity and efforts to repopulate Cyrene and the surrounding cities would help the province regain prosperity. Cyrene and the Cyreneans would later demonstrate their gratitude by erecting statues of their protector and by honouring him as “founder” and “saviour”.

These early restoration projects inaugurated Hadrian’s ambitious building programme throughout the Empire. Indeed, over the following years, Hadrian would continue to favour this policy of improving the Empire’s infrastructures. A contemporary, the Roman grammarian Cornelius Fronto, would consequently write that one might “see memorials of his journey’s in most cities of Europe and Asia”.

Sources & references:

  • Fraser, P., & Applebaum, S. (1950). Hadrian and Cyrene. The Journal of Roman Studies, 40, 77-90
  • Perkins, J., Ballance, M., & Reynolds, J. (1958). The Caesareum at Cyrene and the Basilica at Cremna, with a Note on the Inscriptions of the Caesareum by J. M. Reynolds. Papers of the British School at Rome, 26, 137-194.
  • Fuks, A. (1961). Aspects of the Jewish Revolt in A.D. 115-117. The Journal of Roman Studies, 51, 98-104.
  • Walker, S. (2002). Hadrian and the Renewal of Cyrene. Libyan Studies, 33, 45-56.
  • Boatwright, M. (2000). Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire. Princeton University Press. p. 173-184
  • Reynolds, J. (1978). Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and the Cyrenaican Cities. The Journal of Roman Studies, 68, 111-121.
  • Goodchild, R. (1950). Roman Milestones in Cyrenaica. Papers of the British School at Rome, 18, 83-91.
  • Smallwood, E. M. (1981). The Jews Under Roman Rule, from Pompey to Diocletian: a study in political relations, 2nd. edn. Leiden: Brill. Smith, M. (1956).
  • Birley, A. R. (1997) – Hadrian: The Restless Emperor, London: Routledge.
  • Bennet, J. (1997) – Trajan Optimus Princeps: A Life and Times, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  • Smallwood, E. M. (1966) Documents Illustrating the Principates of Nerva, Trajan and Hadrian, Cambridge: University Press.

I would like to thank the Manar al-Athar website (link) for allowing us to access and share their archive of photos which includes high resolution images of archaeological sites, buildings and monumental art of the Middle East.


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