Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Hellenistic and Roman Cyprus

Although Cyprus was liberated from the Persians by Alexander the Great in 333 B.C., the island did not enjoy a long period of freedom. After the death of Alexander in 323 B.C., his successors, the Diadochoi, quarreled and Cypriot rulers became entangled in antagonisms with tragic consequences—for example, the annihilation of the royal family of Salamis in 311 B.C. The wealth of its natural resources and its strategic position on the principal maritime route linking Greece and the Aegean with the Levant and Egypt made Cyprus a major prize for the warring Hellenistic rulers.

Eventually, in 300 B.C., the whole of Cyprus came under the control of the Ptolemies, who introduced the political and cultural institutions of the Hellenistic world to the island. The Ptolemies ruled Cyprus from Alexandria through high officials who resided in Paphos, which was easily accessible by sea from Alexandria. They abolished the independent kingdoms of Cyprus and established a unified rule and a single currency. Although the Cypriot syllabic script continued to be used and the native “Eteocypriot” tongue survived, largely as a spoken language, Greek became the dominant language.

At the beginning of the Hellenistic period, Attic influence was still evident in Cypriot art and funerary architecture, but Egyptian elements gradually prevailed. By the end of Ptolemaic rule, in 58 B.C., when the Romans annexed the island, local cults assimilated with Egyptian gods and goddesses, most notably Isis and Serapis. Cyprus continued in its age-old role as an intermediary between the Greek world and the Near East, with sculptors, craftsmen, and merchants from all over the eastern Mediterranean introducing diverse artistic styles and traditions. In ceramics, sculpture, and jewelry, the Cypriots followed the styles of the Hellenistic koine, inspired by the Alexandrian school. Stone sculpture continued to be produced, and portraiture, especially depictions of the royal family, became the main form of representation.

Roman involvement in Cypriot affairs began as early as 168 B.C., although Cyprus became a Roman province only in 58 B.C. During Roman rule, Paphos retained its position as the island’s principal city and gained much fame from the temple of Aphrodite, which it advertised on its coinage. Amathus and Salamis were the two other major Roman centers, with temples to Aphrodite and Zeus respectively. Under the Romans, the island prospered and, apart from the time of the great Jewish revolt in 115/16 A.D., enjoyed the fruits of the Pax Romana. Numerous large-scale public buildings (temples, gymnasia, theaters, baths, and aqueducts) were erected, especially in the Antonine and Severan periods (mid-second to early third century A.D.). In arts and crafts, Cyprus became fully Romanized; in sculpture, ceramics, and glassmaking, one can see clearly that local producers followed styles common to the whole of the Roman world. Cyprus retained its position as an important link in the main maritime routes across the eastern Mediterranean, and its prosperity declined only when the Arabs disrupted these routes in the seventh century A.D.