The Spartan Adventurer Who Tried to Conquer Libya

Tristan Hughes

Ancient and Classical Ancient Greece
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In early 324 BC a boyhood friend of Alexander the Great fled from the Macedonian king, becoming the most wanted man in the empire. His name was Harpalus, the former imperial treasurer.

Absconding with a small fortune, thousands of veteran mercenaries and a small fleet, Harpalus set sail west to Europe: to Athens.

Athens and Acropolis
The Acropolis at Athens, Leo von Klenze (Credit: Neue Pinakothek).

The fate of Harpalus

Having deposited his mercenaries off at Taenarum, a camp in the southern Peloponnese, Harpalus arrived at Athens as a suppliant, requesting safety.

Though the Athenians initially admitted him, over time it became clear to Harpalus that support for his protection was waning. Staying in Athens too long would risk him being handed over to Alexander in chains.

One night in late 324 BC Harpalus fled the city to Taenarum, where he collected his mercenaries and set sail for Crete.

Having arrived at Kydonia, Harpalus set about considering his next move. Should he head east, west or south? Where was the best place for he and his men to go to escape Alexander’s grasp? In the end the decision was taken out of his hands.

Bust of Alexander the Great from the Hellenistic era.

In the spring of 323 BC one of Harpalus’ closest confidantes seized the treasurer and murdered him. His name was Thibron, a prominent Spartan commander who may well have once served with Alexander the Great. His favour with the soldiers was evident, as he quickly gained their loyalty after announcing the death of their former paymaster.

Thibron now had a sizeable army at his disposal – 6,000 hardened brigands. He knew exactly where to take them.

To the south, across the Great Sea, lay Cyrenaica in modern day Libya. The region was home to a native Libyan population, as well as a plethora of Greek colonies that had prospered over the past few hundred years. Of these cities, the shining jewel was Cyrene.

Cyrene

The ruins of Cyrene today
The ruins of Cyrene today (Credit: Maher27777)

Since its foundation in the late 7th century BC, the city had risen to become one of the wealthiest urban centres in the known world. It was famous for its bountiful grain exports, taking advantage of the climate’s 8 month long harvests.

Other products it was famous for included silphium, a plant native to the region famed for its perfume, and its high-quality steeds, renowned for pulling chariots.

By 324/3 BC however, trouble had engulfed the city. Vicious internal strife had seized the city, as oligarchs and democrats struggled for control. In the end the former came out on top. The latter were forced to flee, some of whom fled to Kydonia. They sought a saviour. Thibron was their man.

Battle for the city

2,499 years ago one of the most famous battles in antiquity, indeed one of the most famous battles in history, was fought at the Pass of Thermopylae in central Greece. King Leonidas, his 300 (or so) Spartans and their Hellenic allies fought off against King Xerxes' mighty Persian army for three days. We're joined by Paul Cartledge, a professor from the University of Cambridge and one of the world's leading experts on ancient Sparta, to sort the fact from the fiction about this iconic clash.Listen Now

Accepting their cause as his own, Thibron sailed over with his army to northern Libya in early 323 BC to confront the Cyreneans. The Cyreneans obliged, mustering their own army and marching out to oppose the invader on the open field.

In their army they had infantry, cavalry and troop-carrying chariots; they vastly outnumbered Thibron’s smaller force. Yet the Spartan’s professional troops once again proved how quality can overcome quantity in battle.

Thibron won a stunning victory and the Cyreneans surrendered. The Spartan now found himself the most powerful man in the region.

All was going well for Thibron. He had conquered Cyrene and brought its rich resources under his control. For him, however, this was just the start of his great endeavours. He wanted more.

To the west the treasures of Libya awaited. Quickly Thibron commenced preparations for another campaign. He made alliances with neighbouring city-states; he riled his men for further conquest. But it was not to be.

greek hoplites
The mainstay of Thibron’s mercenaries would have fought as hoplites, wielding a 2 metre-long ‘doru’ spear and ‘hoplon’ shield.

Reversal of fortunes

As Thibron continued preparations, terrible news reached him: the Cyrenean tribute had stopped. Cyrene had risen up against him again, egged on by a Cretan commander called Mnasicles who had decided to defect.

What followed for Thibron was disaster. An attempt to assault the city and quickly quell the Cyrenean resurgence failed miserably. Worse was to follow.

Having been forced to march west to aid a struggling ally, Mnasicles and the Cyreneans inflicted further embarrassment on the Spartan when they regained control of Apollonia, Cyrene’s port, and their lost treasure.

Thibron’s navy, now struggling to sustain its crew, was all but eradicated during a foraging mission; Mnasicles continued to inflict defeat and disaster on Thibron’s army. The tides of fortune had well and truly turned.

By the summer of 322 BC Thibron was close to giving up. His men were demoralised; all hope seemed lost. But there was a silver lining.

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Revival

Ships appeared on the horizon, transporting 2,500 mercenary hoplite reinforcements recruited by Thibron’s agents in southern Greece. It was welcome relief, and Thibron was sure to use them.

Reinforced, the Spartan and his men resumed their war with Cyrene with renewed vigour. They threw down the gauntlet to their foe: fight them on the open field. The Cyreneans obliged.

Ignoring Mnasicles’ advice to avoid playing into Thibron’s hands, they marched out to face the Spartan. Disaster ensued. Thibron may have been significantly outnumbered, but his men had invaluable experience. The Cyreneans suffered a crushing defeat.

Once again Cyrene was placed under siege by Thibron. The city itself witnessed a revolution and many of its most powerful figures – Mnasicles among them – were expelled. Some sought refuge with Thibron. Others, like Mnasicles, sought another. They boarded boats and sailed east, to Egypt.

The arrival of Ptolemy

bust of Ptolemy
Bust of Ptolemy I.

At that time, a new figure had recently established his authority over Egypt: Ptolemy, a veteran of Alexander the Great’s campaign with imperial ambitions.

Immediately Ptolemy had started cementing his power base through a series of contentious acts, as he aimed to turn his province into a bastion of defence. It was as he was looking to expand his influence and territory that Mnasicles and the exiles arrived.

Ptolemy accepted their pleas for aid. Gathering a small, but high-quality force, he sent them west to Cyrenaica under Ophellas, a trusted adjutant.

In the battle that ensued between Thibron and Ophellas, the latter was victorious. The Cyreneans surrendered; what remained of Thibron’s army melted away. Ophellas had achieved in one decisive campaign what Thibron had failed to do.

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Demise

As for the Spartan adventurer himself, he fled further and further west – the Macedonians in constant pursuit. Devoid of allies, he was chased inland and finally captured by native Libyans. Taken back to Ophellas’ subordinates, there the Spartan was tortured, before he was paraded through the streets and hanged.

Ptolemy arrived in Cyrene soon after, portraying himself as a mediator – the man come to restore order to this prosperous city. He imposed a moderate oligarchy.

In theory Cyrene remained independent, but this was merely a facade. It was the beginning of a new era. Cyrene and Cyrenaica would remain under Ptolemaic control for the next 250 years.

Tags: Alexander the Great

Tristan Hughes