BMCR 2020.06.02

La naissance des cités-royaumes cypriotes

Thierry Petit, La naissance des cités-royaumes cypriotes. . Oxford: Archaeopress, 2019. 126 p.. ISBN 9781789693478 £25.00.

In the Archaic and Classical Periods, Cyprus was divided into several small states each ruled by a king. In the course of the wars between Alexander’s successors, these kingdoms ceased to exist and at the beginning of the 3rd century BC, Cyprus became part of the Ptolemaic empire. While the end date of the island states’ autonomy is quite clear, their origins are much more obscure and therefore a much-debated topic. The first written pieces of evidence mentioning Cypriot kingdoms are Assyrian inscriptions from Sargon II, dating back to the end of the 8th century BC.[1] This suggests that the emergence of political entities on the island must have taken place years or even centuries beforehand. But the exact time period in which their states formed is unknown. Did it start with the arrival of the Greeks in Cyprus in the 11th century BC? Or did Phoenician immigration to the island in the 9th century BC lead to the establishment of states? Or were the kingdoms the result of developments within Cyprus that date as far back as the Late Bronze Age? These different possibilities clearly show that the search for the origins of statehood in Cyprus is also linked to questions concerning the roots and character of Cypriot forms of kingship.

Thierry Petit, a recognized expert on Cypriot archaeology since his work at the excavations of the French mission in Amathus, has now published his views on this topic in a short, but substantial monograph. He first offers an overview of the scholarly theories developed to explain the origins of Cypriot kingship, and then he goes on to define important terms such as “state” and “chiefdom”. In the following two chapters, he analyses the archaeological evidence in Cyprus in general and devotes a case study specifically to the kingdom of Amathus. He then attempts to assess the character of Cypriot political entities in the “Dark Ages” and to trace their development from chiefdoms to states. In the last chapter, the process of state-formation on the island is put into a larger Near Eastern context.

For a long time, the prevailing theory was that Achaean settlers who had immigrated to Cyprus at the end of the Bronze Age were responsible for the development of the Iron Age states. This assumption has been strongly questioned in recent decades: today’s mainstream theory (represented most prominently by Maria Iacovou and Anna Satraki, sometimes referred to as the “School of Nicosia”) explains Cypriot kingship as resulting from local developments in a longue durée from the Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age. From the perspective of this “autochthonous theory”, there was never a clear break in the development of Cypriot monarchies between the 11thand the 8th centuries BC. State formation would have taken place in Cyprus at a very early time (11th or 10th century BC).

Petit strongly objects to this theory of an autochthonous formation of Cypriot kingdoms at such an early date. According to him, states developed considerably later, in the wake of the Phoenician immigration to the island from the 9th century BC onwards, a hypothesis already put forward by David Rupp in several articles in the 1980s and 1990s.

In order to determine the beginnings of Cypriot state formation, Petit first develops a theoretical basis. He discusses and accepts the often-challenged concepts of “chiefdom” and “state” and offers a list of criteria which he uses to define the differences between the two. Some of the criteria for a state (in opposition to a mere chiefdom) are visible in archaeological records, such as monumental architecture, organised artisanal production, a royal and sacral ideology,[2] urbanisation, use of script, and firm boundaries (e.g. in the form of border sanctuaries). Other criteria such as the monopolisation of power can only be reconstructed from texts.

Petit then applies these criteria to the Cypriot settlements and their archaeological remains. He challenges Iacovou’s view of continuity from the late Bronze Age to the Iron Age and instead emphasises that there was a break between the 11th and 8th centuries BC. For example, no inscriptions in Cypriot syllabary that date to the time before the 7thcentury have been found.[3] According to Petit, the same break between the 11th and 8th centuries BC can be seen in the lack of monumental architecture, in the decline of copper production and long-distance trade routes. In a short overview of the island’s later major urban centres, Petit makes clear that there is no evidence for the existence of larger settlements as early as the 11th century BC, contrary to Satraki’s assumptions. Even for the often-cited cases of Paphos, Kition and Enkomi-Salamis, the evidence for continuity of political systems from the Late Bronze Age to the 8th century BC is meagre, to say the least.

A large part of the study is devoted to the kingdom of Amathus on the island’s southern coast, a place Petit is familiar with due to his own fieldwork there. In Amathus, there are no traces of monumental buildings or a larger settlement from the 11th and 10th centuries BC. The oldest remains of the city’s palace can be dated to the 9th century BC, which would make it the first known building of that kind on the whole island. Accordingly, Amathus might have been the first Cypriot kingdom that was established, however not in or before the 11th century, but rather in the 9th or 8th century BC under Phoenician influence.

Petit comes to the conclusion that the developments in Cyprus and mainland Greece from the 11th to 9th centuries BC were much more similar than the “School of Nicosia” supposes: in both regions, there was a breakdown of the political system. Petit supposes that complex chiefdoms were established with a warrior-centred ethos as their driving force. Homeric basileis can be seen to exemplify these “chiefs”.[4] The surviving evidence does not justify the view that these entities should be regarded as “states”.

Convincingly, Petit argues against the Cyprocentrism of the “autochthonous theory”, which, by emphasising that Cypriot monarchy has to be considered a special insular case, refuses to compare the island’s city states with political entities from other regions. Since states had earlier begun to emerge on the Levantine coast, Cypriots were influenced by this process as a matter of course. Like David Rupp, Petit sees the arrival of the Phoenicians as the crucial point in the development from chiefdoms to monarchic states with dynasties in Cyprus: the Phoenicians established a colony at Kition and were interested in the copper trade. Therefore, Amathus, in close proximity to Kition, was the first Cypriot state to form itself.

Petit’s study represents a welcome change of perspective in the debate concerning the origins of Cypriot city-states. It offers a refreshing contrast to the “autochthonous theory” which has been propagated in the last two decades with a certain claim to exclusivity and which, unchallenged, could run the risk of becoming another “factoid” in Cypriot history. Petit develops his argument in a clear and comprehensive way: he describes the archaeological remains and then explains the conclusions he draws from this evidence. Whether one agrees with him or not, Petit offers an interesting interpretation of complex archaeological material. It is to be hoped that his study will stimulate the discussion on the origins of Cypriot monarchy—and in turn itself be questioned in order to keep the scientific debate fresh!


[1] Petit is rather sceptical concerning some scholars’ assumption that texts from the Late Bronze Age—such as the “Report of Wenamun” or the inscriptions at Medinet Habu in Egypt—might refer to Cyprus and Cypriot cities.

[2] It would have been helpful to define the term “ideology” in this context.

[3] Petit assumes that the script on the famous Opheltas’ spit of the 11th century BC, often cited as the oldest inscription in Cypriot syllabary, must rather be seen as a late example of the Bronze Age Cypro-Minoan script.

[4] The use of titles such as basileus and anax in Cyprus is sometimes associated with the Late Bronze Age immigration of Greek settlers. Petit rather favours the view that these titles were adopted later from the Homeric epics, when Cypriot rulers tried to give their kingdoms an archaic flavour by using Homeric terms.