Pheretima (fl. 6th c. BCE)

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Pheretima (fl. 6th c. bce)

Queen of Cyrene. Flourished in the 6th century bce in Cyrene or Cyrenaica (present-day northern Libya); married Battus III the Lame; children: Arcesilaus III.

Known from the fourth book of Herodotus' Histories, Pheretima was a member of the Battid dynasty which ruled over Cyrene, that part of north Africa where Libya thrusts northward towards Greece. About 625 bce, the Greek island/polis of Thera, under Battus I, colonized Cyrene but failed to secure the region against indigenous enemies until subsequently reinforced by additional colonists from several Hellenic cities. These were attracted to Cyrene because of the land's rich potential. The precarious situation of this Greek colony, under attack as it was by several local enemies, allowed kingship to flourish in Cyrene long after monarchy had disappeared in the relatively more peaceful Greek homeland. In the fourth generation of the Battid dynasty's rule in Cyrene, the insecurity of the colony was compounded by intra-dynastic dissension, which incited the Libyan natives of the region to try to reclaim the land from which they had been expelled by the Greek invaders. This attempt failed, and peace among the Greeks was restored by the accession of Battus III the Lame to whom Pheretima was married.

Notwithstanding Battus III's accession and a temporary calm, the citizens of Cyrene decided to send a delegation to the oracle of Apollo at Delphi in order to inquire what form of government would best promote their prosperity. They were advised to consult a political arbitrator from the Arcadian city of Mantinea. Upon inquiry there, a man named Demonax was produced who came to Cyrene with the intention of reforming the political organization of the Cyrenian state. Among the political reforms proposed, Demonax suggested that Battus III be deprived of those powers of his office which were not religious in nature, and his former political and military duties be distributed among the people. This was done and Battus III was reduced to but a figurehead. However, when Pheretima's and Battus' son, Arcesilaus III, succeeded to his father's station, he attempted to recover all of the authority which had been stripped from Battus the Lame. Initially, Arcesilaus' coup failed, and he was forced to take refuge on the Greek island of Samos, while Pheretima fled to the city of Salamis on the island of Cyrene. There she took refuge with one Evelthon, from whom she requested an army so that she might recapture what she thought was rightfully her son's. Evelthon honored Pheretima with gifts, but would not give her an army, arguing that such a command was inappropriate for a woman.

At the same time, Arcesilaus raised an army from Samos. With it, and armed with an oracle from Delphi promising success if he would only be gentle in his rule once it had been regained, Arcesilaus attacked Cyrene so as to reclaim his heritage. Initially successful, Arcesilaus nevertheless neglected to temper his rule in accordance with the oracle's command and thus brought on another exile, this time to Barca, a city in north Africa not far from Cyrene (and the hometown of his wife). There, partisans sympathizing with Arcesilaus' enemies in Cyrene assassinated him. Meanwhile, Pheretima, having returned with her son to north Africa, remained in Cyrene to manage its government in lieu of a universally accepted alternative.

When she learned of Arcesilaus' murder in Barca, Pheretima fled Cyrene for Egypt, then under the rule of one Aryandes, who governed that ancient kingdom on behalf of the Persian king Cambyses (r. 530–522 bce), who had only recently conquered it. Pheretima sought help from this source because Arcesilaus had recently agreed to rule Cyrene as an appendage of Persian rule in Egypt. Aryandes acceded to Pheretima's request, and she returned to her native land at the head of a powerful force. With that army, the Persians laid siege to Barca (for nine months) after the Barcans made it clear that they would not surrender the assassins of Arcesilaus. The Barcans defended themselves stoutly, but eventually in vain. The victorious Persians made a gift of the survivors of this siege to Pheretima, who had those guilty of her son's assassination crucified. To make clear her anger at the loss of her son, she then had the breasts of the wives of her son's assassins cut off and nailed about the city's walls. Thereafter, with the exception of only a few lucky Barcans thought innocent of any animosity toward either her or her dead son, Pheretima returned the majority of the survivors to the Persians as slaves.

The city of Cyrene itself escaped attack at this time, since the primary reason for the Persian expedition was to avenge the death of Arcesilaus upon the Barcans. Before it was decided that Cyrene should also be assaulted in the interests of both Pheretima and the Persians, orders were received from Aryandes (who had remained in Egypt) to the effect that the Persians should return as soon as possible. Having made many enemies in and around Cyrene because of the severity of her punishments at Barca, Pheretima left her native land for the last time in the Persian train. As a postscript to these grisly events, Pheretima herself ended badly. Herodotus reports that during the return to Egypt, she contracted a disease which saw her body horribly waste away, consumed by worms before her very eyes.

William S. S. , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California