by Kiko Matsing

Ruins of Cyrene (Temple of Apollo)

from Herodotus, The History, 4.162-167, 200-202
(Translation: David Grene, University of Chicago Press, 1987)

During the reign of this King Battus, everything remained in this form; but in that of his son, Arcesilaus, there was considerable disturbance about the king’s privileges. For this Arcesilaus, the son of the lame Battus and of Pheretime, said he would not put up with the arrangements of Demonax the Mantinean. He demanded back all the rights of his ancestors. He founded his opposition on this; but he was worsted and fled to Samos, and his mother fled to Salamis in Cyprus. At this time the ruler of Salamis was Euelthon. (This is the man who dedicated the remarkable censer in Delphi, which is placed in the treasury of the Corinthians.) Pheretime came to Euelthon and begged him for an army to bring her son and herself back again to Cyrene. Euelthon was ready to give her anything but an army. So she took whatever he gave her and said, yes, this too was very fine, but the other thing was even better—that he should give her the army she demanded. She said this in regard to everything he gave her, and so, finally, Euelthon sent her a present of a spindle made of gold, and a distaff, and wool besides. When Pheretime made her usual comment on this, Euelthon said that these were the proper presents for a woman, but not an army.

During this time Arcesilaus was in Samos, gathering everybody with an offer of land distribution. As a huge force of people collected, Arcesilaus went off to Delphi to consult the oracle about bringing him back home. The Pythia gave her oracle in the following terms: “For the time of four Battuses and four Arcesilauses, eight generations of men, Loxias gives you the kingship of Cyrene. For more than that time, he bids you not even to attempt anything. Go back to your native land and remain quiet. If you find an oven full of pots, do not bake the pots but let them go downstream. If you heat the oven, yet enter not the land encompassed with water; if you disobey, you shall surely die yourself, together with the bull in all his beauty.” That was the prophecy of the Pythia to Arcesilaus.

Arcesilaus, with his men from Samos, returned to Cyrene and gained control of the government. But he forgot the oracle and claimed vengeance on those people of the opposition for his banishment. Some of these escaped out of the country altogether, but others Arcesilaus laid his hands on and shipped them off to Cyprus to be made away with. But these were carried out of their course by the weather to Cnidus, and the Cnidians rescued them and sent them to Thera. Others of the Cyrenaeans fled to a great tower that was the private property of Aglomachus, and Arcesilaus piled up wood against it and burned them all. When he had done so, he saw that this was surely the oracle—that the Pythia would not have him, if he found the pots in the oven, to bake them; and so he intentionally kept away from the city of Cyrene, fearing the prediction of his death; for he thought that Cyrene was the sea-girt land mentioned. His wife was kin to himself, being the daughter of the king of Barca, whose name was Alazir. Arcesilaus came for help to this king of Barca; but the people of Barca and some of the exiles from Cyrene found out that he was walking around the marketplace in the city and killed him, and they killed, too, his father-in-law, Alazir. So Arcesilaus, either willfully or accidentally, missed the meaning of the oracle and so fulfilled his destiny.

While Arcesilaus was yet living in Barca, having taken the action that was his undoing, his mother, Pheretime, had her son’s prerogatives in Cyrene, doing all the business there, including sitting in the council. When she learned that her son was dead in Barca, she went away and fled to Egypt. For Arcesilaus had done deeds of service to Cambyses, the son of Cyrus; for it was this Arcesilaus who gave Cyrene to Cambyses and agreed to pay tribute. When she got to Egypt, Pheretime sat as suppliant to Aryandes and urged him to avenge her, on the grounds that her son had been killed because he had taken the Persian side.

At this time, then, Aryandes took pity on Pheretime and gave her, for an army, all the land and sea forces of Egypt; as general of the army he appointed Amasis, a Maraphian, and, of the navy, as admiral, Badres, who was of the tribe of the Pasargadae. But before he sent off the expedition, Aryandes sent a herald to Barca to inquire who it was who had killed Arcesilaus. All the Barcaeans claimed the deed for their own, for, they said, they had received much ill at his hands. When he heard that, Aryandes sent off the expedition, along with Pheretime. This charge was the excuse for the expedition, but to my mind it was sent to conquer Libya. For the races in Libya are many and of all kinds, and very few of them were subjects of the King. Most of them cared nothing about Darius.

Those Persians who had come to the help of Pheretime, sent by Aryandes from Egypt, when they came to Barca beleaguered the city, demanding that the inhabitants surrender whoever had been guilty of the murder of Arcesilaus. The people of Barca, whose entire commonalty claimed joint guilt in the matter, refused the proposition of the Persians. Then the Persians besieged Barca for nine months; they dug underground passages against the wall and made their attacks very strongly. But a blacksmith on the Barcaean side managed to discover their passages by means of a bronze shield, and he did it this way: he carried round the shield inside the wall and struck it against the ground of the city. What he struck the shield against gave forth a dull sound except for the places that were being dug. There the bronze of the shield rang out, and there the Barcaeans dug down and killed the Persians who were building the tunnels. So the method of the besiegers was found out, and the Barcaeans beat off the attacks.

For a long time, then, both sides were sorely in stress, and many fell—again on both sides, and not least on that of the Persians—when Amasis, the commander of the land army, contrived the following. He understood that the Barcaeans could not be conquered by force, but by stratagem they might be. And this is what he did: he dug, by night, a broad trench, and stretched weak planks on the top of it, and above the timber he carried out the spoil of the digging and spread the earth on the top, so that all was even with the rest of the ground. At daybreak he invited the Barcaeans to a parley. They were pleased to listen to him to the point at which they were satisfied to make a treaty. They made their treaty in such terms as these: as they swore the oaths over the covered trench, they said, “As long as this earth abides, so long may the oath, too, abide.” The Barcaeans said that they would pay an indemnity to the King; the Persians, that they would make no changes in their dealings with the Barcaeans. After the oath, the Barcaeans, trusting the Persians, came out of the city themselves and admitted any of their enemy who wanted to come within their wall, for they opened all the gates. Whereupon the Persians broke down the hidden bridge over the trench and ran into the city. They broke the bridge they had made that they might preserve intact the oath they had sworn to the Barcaeans: that the oath should remain intact as long as earth remained beneath them. They broke the bridge, and so the oath no longer remained intact.

Those of the Barcaeans who were most guilty were handed over to Pheretime by the Persians, and she had them impaled all around the walls. In the case of their women, she had their breasts cut off and set these too on the wall around. For the rest of the Barcaeans, she bade the Persians make booty of them, save for the Battiadae and those who had had no share in the murder; and Pheretime turned over the city to these latter people.

Marginal Notes:

Today, when we think of Libya, we do not associate with it Hellenic culture. Herodotus, however, writes of a thriving Greek city in Cyrene, just a little to the north and east of Benghazi, where over two years ago a US diplomatic post was attacked by Islamic terrorists during the anniversary of 9/11. Indeed most of northern Africa was Hellenic until the Moslem expansion of the 7th century. Though, before that, it was invaded by Vandals during the decline of the Roman empire, but was brought back into its fold by Byzantine emperor Justinian. It was under the stress of these Germanic attacks that Saint Augustine, a Berber from Hippo Regius (in modern day Algeria), wrote the City of God, a cornerstone of later Medieval scholastic thought.

Pheretime’s story is that of a suppliant on behalf her son who has been deposed from the kingship of Cyrene. She flees to Salamis and begs of its king an army to restore their rightful rule. He presents her a spindle made of gold in its place, deeming an army not fit for woman. She should knit her misery instead.

But Pheretime’s patience for vengeance would eventually pay off. She allies herself with the Persian viceroy to Egypt, who saw an opportunity to expand Persian dominion in the region, and puts at her disposal his entire army and navy. Her retribution for her son’s murder was brutal. But this is not what makes her bad ass. It is her single-mindedness and cunning at going around prejudices against a woman of her time in order to access male power and destroy her enemies.