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Cyprus History

Cyprus under Roman Empire

The Imperium Romannum differed fundamentally from Alexanders [the Great] empire in its social system, in its government, and as a geopolitical structure. The main territory and the centre of the power now lay in the west, while the control over part of the Near East (which Seleucid empire had already been unable to hold) was lost forever. Iran, Mesopotamia, and Arabia stayed outside the Roman Empire; from the first century onwards, they provided the setting for the Arsacid Parthian Empire, the new great power in in the East and Romes chief opponent, whose political successors were to include the Sassanids and, in the course of time, Islam. The "eastern question", seemingly resolved through Hellenism, once more came to the fore. 

With the new border between East and West running along the edge of the Syrian desert and through the mountains of Armenia, Cyprus again changed its historic position. During the Hellenistic period, After Alexander had abolished the threshold between Europe and Asia, it was a secondary border zone between Egypt and Seleucid Syria. Now it was placed closer to the centre, amidst the political calm of Pax Romana. 

Terracotta Oil Lamp Cyprus Early 2nd Century AD Shows head of a male deity within central discus bounded by acanthus wreath raised loop handle Excellent detail  Length 11cm
Terracotta Oil Lamp Cyprus Early 2nd Century AD Shows
the head of a male deity within central discus bounded by
acanthus wreath raised loop handle Excellent detail Length 11cm

However, almost twenty years of turmoil under the declining republic had to pass before Cyprus could enjoy the quiet and uneventful existence of a minor Roman province. Rome had annexed the island in 58 B.C. under a double pretext. The disputed will of the last legitimate Ptolemaic ruler had promised Egypt -and thereby Cyprus- to Rome; at the same time, Cyprus, as a base of piracy in the eastern Mediterranean, was to lose its autonomy altogether. But the real reasons behind this scheme were political and economic. After the annexation of Syria, Cyprus as the only independent Hellenistic monarchy, represented the last stage in the encirclement of Egypt; its wealth and its natural resources further made it almost irresistibly attractive to a government and an aristocracy permanently in financial straits. Another important point had to be considered; by `entrusting' M. Porcius Cato with the official takeover of the island, Clodius Pulcher, one of Caesars chief followers, had succeeded in removing from Rome a difficult contender at a critical time. 

The fate of the island, for the time being incorporated in the province of Cilicia, illustrated the part played by straightforward greed and financial speculation in the Roman takeover. Like other provincial territories in the late republic, Cyprus provided many an opportunity to make or at least recover fortunes. Ptolemaios, whom Cato offered the position of High Priest of Aphrodite in place of his former throne, had committed suicide by poison, and Cato administered the former royal fortune, which had yielded a revenue of 7,000 talents per year, with the utmost integrity. Cicero, who was governor of Cyprus 51-50 B.C., though ostensibly correct, proved himself in the end unable to resist some unsavoury financial machinations. Otherwise, the island was ruthlessly exploited by officials and businessmen for the next ten years. The terms of a `loan' given to the city of Salamis by a consortium headed by M. Brutus were highly revealing; the interest fixed at 48%, was collected by Roman cavalry. 

During the Roman civil war, Cyprus resumed a brief romantic role under the Egyptian crown, when it was returned to Cleopatra, first by Caesar (47 B.C.) after the end of the Alexandrine war, and again by Marcus Antonius (36 B.C.). Octavians victory at Actium (31 B.C.) finally brought the island under Roman rule, under which it was to remain for nearly three centuries. 

In the Roman inland lake, which the Mediterranean had become, Cyprus had little strategic significance. In 22 B.C. after the general consolidation in the east, Cyprus exchanged its status from an [imperial]- i.e. under the direct administration of Augustus (Octavian) and under military occupation- to a [senatorial] province. Separated from Cilicia in 27 B.C., Cyprus was ruled by a pro-consul as civil governor. Its capital was still Paphos, -Augusta Claudia Flavia Paphos-, which had steadily grown in importance since the Ptolemies as a political and religious centre and, as a result of the silting-up of the harbour of Salamis, one of the major ports. Paphos, Amathus, Salamis, and Lapethos each formed and administrative region. With municipal autonomy, elected officials and a considerable degree of independence in religious and cultural matters, the island enjoyed greater freedom than under Egyptian rule. The -Koinon- of the different cities, which was still chiefly an institution for the advance of the cult of the Emperor and for the organization of games, like the Roman senate, had the right to issue bronze coinage. 

To Cyprus, the centuries of the Pax Romana formed an uneventful, though contended period. a population unused to political independence or democratic institutions did not find Roman rule oppressive. The political peace of the island suffered a single interruption through the great Jewish rising of A.D. 115-6 which affected Cyprus as it did Cyrenaica and Egypt; the excesses of the rebels -vastly exaggerated contemporary figures speak of 240,000 dead on Cyprus alone- were followed by terrible counter measures under Trajans general Lusius Quietus and by the expulsion of the Jews from the island. 

In other spheres, after a brief depression in the first century B.C. Hellenism continued to flower under a competent and liberal Roman administration. The early years of the Roman empire brought outstanding prosperity to Cyprus; the luxury of its cities, as well as the reputation for immorality and indolence -[infamem nimic calore Cypron]- inevitably bring to mind the years of Lusignan rule, except that, in contrast to the Middle Ages, it was thriving in the centre of a peaceful political system and enjoying all the advantages of a great self-sufficient economic region with a unified legal and financial system. The old-established trade of India and Southern Arabia with Italy and the west, in which Cyprus had long established a secure place, intensified; the island itself was opened up by a system of Roman roads and the ports were further developed. Its diverse produce -timber, wine, oil, grain, copper, and silver- found a ready market throughout the imperium; it was a Cypriot boast of this period, that it was possible to build and equip a ship entirely with local materials. 

All the important centers were transformed by the town-planners, even more than in Hellenistic times. Great -Fora-, colonnaded squares, temples, theatres, thermae, and aquaducts were built, above all in Paphos and Salamis; Soli acquired its first theatre and a public library, Curium extended the sanctuary of Apollo Hylates. In Cyprus, as elsewhere, every aspect of day-to-day existence as well as the cultural and intellectual life was deeply influenced by the Mediterranean, Hellenistic-inspired, civilisation of Imperium Romanum. The process of the assimilation and Romanization /Hellenization of the people of the island, begun in the fourth century B.C., was completed, although as in other eastern provinces, the oriental tradition lay below the Hellenistic veneer. Thus the cult of Aphrodite, whose origins in the rites of the eastern goddess of fertility had never been forgotten, continued; her temple in old Paphos has remained one of the most famous shrines of the Mediterranean until the present day. Roman coins displaying the temple temple with the conical stone (which takes place of the cult image or fertility symbol) carried the fame of the goddess throughout the whole empire; emperors like Titus and Septimius Severius brought offerings to her. A road flanked by small chapels led from New Paphos to a much frequented pilgrimage centre; `Men and women from many cities annually march in procession to Paphos along this road'. 

Yet, in the course of time, the cult of Aphrodite gave way to Christianity, leading eventually to the replacement of the goddess by the Panagia. Its geographic position, as well as its strong Jewish population -composed to some extent of refugees from various persecutions- helped to make Cyprus one of the earliest missionary realms. Although St Paul and St Barnabas (Joseph, the Levite, from Salamis) met with little success amongst the Jews of Cyprus during their mission of the year A.D. 45, St Paul was able to convert the Roman Pro Consul Sergius in Paphos; the island thus became the first territory to be ruled by a Christian, even though only for a short span. On a second missionary journey the hostility of the Synagogues proved Barnabas undoing and he suffered martyrdom in his native city. The rise of the Cypriot church between these events and the reign of Constantine the Great is shrouded in legend; its first genuinely historic representatives -St Hilarion, St Epiphanios of Salamis, and St Spyridon of Tremithus- are contemporary with the Council of Nicaea (325). At least three bishoprics, Paphos, Salamis, and Tremithus, were established at that time. The expansion of Christianity therefore cannot have been altogether negligible, although the temples of Paphos and Soli, amongst others, were still in use in the fourth century A.D. While we know practically nothing of the relationship with pagan cults and their centres on the island, it is clear that the synthesis of old and new cultures- by no means confined to Cyprus even then- had already begun, as the church of Panagia Aphroditissa, which was built slightly later at Paphos, proves. The most remarkable evidence of the meeting of old and new faith is the early fifth century A.D. mosaic inscription at Curium, where Christ is described in archaistic couplets as the protector of the city in place of Phoebus Apollo. 

The turmoils of the third century, the military anarchy of the soldier emperors and the wars on the northern and eastern frontiers of the empire obviously barely touched the island except, briefly, in A.D. 269, when a Gothic fleet reached Cyprus in the course of its Mediterranean travels in search of pillage, having previously attacked Crete and Rhodes. The economic depression, similarly, is less marked than in the west of the empire, although the trade with the east suffered noticeably under the pressure of the new Persian dynasty of the Sassanids, who had come to power in A.D. 224. Only the struggles within the Empire under Diocletian and Constantine (A.D. 284-337) ended the peaceful isolation of Cyprus. Once more, the island was cast into the stream of events and its destiny took a new turn.



  • Maier, F.G. (1968), "Cyprus: From Earliest Time to the Present Day", Elek Books Ltd., London.



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