When Alexander the Great took Cyprus
in 333 BC
the Iron Age city states lost what limited freedom they had enjoyed under the
Persians. Alexander’s death in
323 left his generals squabbling over his empire. Cyprus
was at the center of a three-way struggle among the Ptolemies
in Egypt, the
Seleucids in Syria,
and the Antigonids in Greece. Demetrius Poliocretes,
the Antigonid co-regent, defeated Ptolemy’s
fleet near Salamis
on Cyprus in
307 BC and controlled the island
until Ptolemy Soter displaced him in 249 BC.
For two and a half centuries Cyprus remained in Ptolemaic hands. The Iron Age city kingdoms ceased to exist and the island became part of the Hellenistic state of Egypt. Apart from periodic sea-born raids from Seleucid Syria, Hellenistic Cyprus was generally peaceful.
Kyrenia II, replica of a Hellenistic merchant ship sailing off Cyprus in 1986.
The Ptolemies moved the island’s capital from Salamis in the east to Nea Paphos on the southwestern coast (aerial view to the left), making it more accessible to Egypt. This also brought the capital closer to abundant sources of shipbuilding timber such as the pines to the right, seen today in the Troodos Mountains. A large force of mercenaries was stationed on Cyprus under command of a strategos who answered to the Ptolemaic king. Ptolemaic coinage was used throughout the island.
These and other changes
introduced by the Ptolemies affected Cypriot
culture and society. Although
dedications continued in many existing open-air sanctuaries, Greek cults
flourished in newly built Greek-style temples. The temple
of Zeus Olympios
is an example of such Hellenistic architecture. Other Greek-style buildings include the
gymnasium at Salamis and the
theater at Nea
Paphos. Some new temples, such as those of
Aphrodite, Serapis and Isis at Soloi, maintained a
traditional Cypriot character despite exhibiting certain Hellenistic
Iron Age Cypriot ceramic
traditions slowly disappeared. Black
Glaze and other Hellenistic forms, particularly from eastern Greece,
were imported and imitated in Cyprus. Red Wares imitating those from the eastern Mediterranean
and Asia Minor, also appeared.
Some local fabrics, such as White Painted Ware and Plain White Ware,
retained much of its native quality as indigenous craftsmen
continued to use local limestone. More
rarely, sculpture was done in imported marble perhaps by foreign craftsmen. The
island’s officials, priests, and prominent citizens commissioned
statues of themselves. Some of these
were actual portraits, a popular trend in the Hellenistic period. Imported terracotta figurines replaced
continued local Iron Age traditions: most tombs were rock-cut or
stone-built. One exception, at Nea Paphos, is the
vast series of underground chambers known as the “Tombs of the
Kings,” a cemetery for local nobility.
The closest contemporary parallel is found at Alexandria, Egypt.
In 168 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes,
king of Syria,
attempted to conquer Cyprus. Roman envoys intervened, forcing him to
withdraw. In 80 BC, the Ptolemies loosened control of
the island to allay Roman fears about the size of their empire. Unappeased, the Romans annexed Cyprus
in 58 BC.