Antoninus Pius, Berenice, and the assize centres of the Cyrenaica

Antoninus Pius does not grant the status of assize centre to Berenice because of Cyrene’s opposition
Typology (Honorific / Funerary / etc.): 
Summary of an imperial letter
Original Location/Place: 
Caesareum of Cyrene according to Reynolds. The original stele was broken in several fragments found in re-used contexts of late-antique buildings
Actual Location (Collection/Museum): 
Casa Parisi storeroom of the Department of Antiquities in Shahat (Lybia)
154 CE
Physical Characteristics: 
All the fragments of the stele, except for one, can be joint from top to bottom. Letter forms are rounded, well carved, and would correspond to the high Roman imperial period
Restorations of the stele suggest 142 cm in height and 72 in width
Roman, Greek

Reynolds, Joyce, “Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and the Cyrenaican Cities,” in The Journal of Roman Studies, 68 (1978), p. 114 [SEG 28.1566]


Several fragments stating the opinion of Roman emperors on issues affecting Cyrene have been found spread throughout this city in North Africa. A group of five of them can be assembled together as parts of a single stele that probably stood next to an important building of the urban centre. This stone block contained several documents issued by Hadrian and Antoninus Pius which were displayed together by the local institutions in order to confirm their privileged status with Rome. The nature of the dossier is therefore varied and starts with a letter of Hadrian mentioning that Cyrene was a member of the distinctive commonalty of Greeks (or Panhellenion) instituted by him in Athens (see Spawforth, “The World of the Panhellenion”). In the second document, the same Roman emperor praised the Aegean and Dorian pedigree (εὐγένεια/eugeneia) of the citizens of Cyrene. Both testimonies confirm the positive attitude of Hadrian towards a community which was still recovering from the Jewish rebellion that erupted at the end of Trajan’s reign (see Walker, “Hadrian and the Renewal”). Restorations of buildings such as the temple of Hecate, the sanctuary of Apollo, and the Caesareum are attested and the corresponding commemorative inscriptions refer to that episode as a tumultus Iudaicus/ Ἰουδαϊκός θόρυβος.

The third document of the dossier is the one included in our edition and corresponds to the same context of imperial favours. The emperor responsible for this communication, however, is not Hadrian but Antoninus Pius. The Cyreneans are not protagonists of its content but rather the inhabitants of Berenice. This most likely indicates that the imperial correspondence was originally addressed to the latter neighbouring community and, at a later stage, the institutions of Cyrene decided to inscribe the passages which were more favourable to them. Such a selective use of letters is rendered in the text with the term κεφάλαια/kephalaia and a reference to Antoninus (Ἀντωνείνος) with abbreviated titulature. Given the lack of offices completing the imperial name, it is impossible to provide a precise date for this document. However, since the fourth letter of the dossier does mention the 17th tribunician powers, we can fix a datefor the entire dossier before 154 CE. This year is also confirmed by the fact that Antoninus is not referred to as a god; that is, he was still living when Cyrene decided to compile the sequence of events. In this regard, the possible use of the plural ἐπιστολαί/epistolai (“letters”) in line 1 would presume the existence of multiple communications with the emperor until the issue at stake was solved.

After the introductory formula, the object of the petition from Berenice becomes clear. This city had asked (ἠξίουν/êxioun) to become the head of an assize (ἀγορὰ δικῶν/agora dikôn, or conventus in Latin). These assizes were the judicial districts set by the Roman administration and their centres hosted the visits of the governor once a year when his tribunal was summoned (Meyer-Zwiffelhoffer, Πολιτικῶς ἄρχειν, p. 227-237). On the one hand, these marked events had a profound impact on cities whose trading activities boomed during these days as illustrated by the speech that Dio Chrysostom dedicated to Apamea Kelainai in Asia Minor (Or. XXXV). On the other hand, hosting the governor’s tribunal provided a prestigious distinction that was even acknowledged in Roman law. Indeed, when the 3rd century jurist Modestinus deals with the number of rhetors that the cities could exempt from taxes, he refers to a letter of Antoninus himself in which communities are separated between “metropolis, assize centres, and the rest” (see Guerber, Les cités grecques, p. 317-323). For both reasons, economic and honorific, it is understandable that Berenice sought this imperial favour and tried to obtain it several times. Such a degree of insistence would justify that Antoninus Pius’s reply to this local demand was not a simple rejection from an authoritative position, but rather a polite reflection on the reasons that prevented the grant. The emperor explains that Berenice belonged to a Roman province combining an island in the Mediterranean (Κρήτη/Krêtê) and territories in northern Africa (Κυρήνη/Kyrênê, which in this case does not only refer to the city of Cyrene but rather to the entire region of the Cyrenaica). According to the calculations of the ORBIS project [], it took at least two days on a boat to cross from the southernmost point of Crete to the nearest harbour in Cyrene. This journey needed to cross the open sea; a task that the Mediterranean winter did not always permit. Once in Africa, it would take around 5 extra days to reach Berenice, which was 220 kilometres away from Cyrene. So, Antoninus Pius was aware of such logistics complications and adduces that the governor (ἀνθύπατος/anthypatos) of this proconsular province could not spend more time by adding another centre to his circuit of tribunals. This first motive does not seem to have stopped the people of Berenice who suggested, instead, that the cities would rotate in turns as centres of the assize (παρὰ μέρος/para meros). Antoninus Pius did not completely dismiss this idea, but was not certain (ἄδηλόν/adêlon) that those who already had the privilege would agree. This is the point that most closely pertains the city of Cyrene. We know that Roman tribunals certainly took place there since at least Augustus as confirmed by the edicts sent by the ruler himself to this community. In other words – and even if the document does not mention it explicitly – Cyrene opposed the alternative proposal of Berenice and, in the end, the rotation scheme could not gain consent (κοινωνία/koinônia).

This inscription, however, is not solely important for attesting the fierce competition for distinctions granted by the Roman emperor among the cities of the Mediterranean. It also sheds almost unique light on the difficulties that Rome may encounter to administer the vast territory under its rule. In this case, the special joint arrangement between Crete and the Cyrenaica prevented the governor from adding another stop to his legal circuit. Proconsuls normally spent just one year in their provincial offices, so both time and resources were limited. The volume of work was extremely high and Antoninus Pius sympathised with all these issues. The petition of Berenice is likewise interesting for observing that the celebration of Roman judicial activities was not considered a burden, but rather a privilege which deserved multiple diplomatic missions. It could even be affirmed that this community of Africa was asking for more Roman presence and, consequently, control instead of promoting local autonomy (see Fournier, Entre tutelle romaine). As a reward, its citizens could have easier access to the decisive verdicts of the ruling authorities and economic development may be promoted too. Nonetheless, the Cyreneans successfully defended their rights and proved again the decisive imperial favour towards them. This victory therefore signalled their higher status; superiority also supported by their Achaean/Dorian origins and acclaimed admission to the Panhellenion. Such proofs generated a degree of pride and distinctiveness that was worthy of inscribed memorialisation. The stain of the Jewish riots could thus be removed and, as a privileged community, Cyrene continued to provide a secure centre for the Roman provincial administration.

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