Human settlements existed on Cyprus as early as 5800 B.C., during the Neolithic Era or New Stone Age. The Neolithic Cypriots' origin is uncertain. Some evidence, including artifacts of Anatolian obsidian, suggests that the setters were related to the peoples of Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). The discovery of copper on the island around 3000 B.C. brought more frequent visits from traders. Trading ships were soon bringing settlers to exploit the mineral wealth.
During the long progression from stone to bronze, many Neolithic villages were abandoned, as people moved inland to settle on the great plain (the Mesaoria) and in the foothills of the mountains. Also during this era of transition, Cypriot pottery was distinctive in shape and design, and small figurines of fertility goddesses appeared for the first time. During the same period, Cypriots were influenced by traders from the great Minoan civilization that had developed on Crete, but, although trade was extensive, few settlers came to Cyprus. The Minoan traders developed a script for Cypriot commerce, but unfortunately extant examples still await decipherment. The cultural advances, thriving economy, and relative lack of defenses invited the attention of more powerful neighbors, and during the Late Bronze Age (about 1500 B.C.), the forces of the Egyptian pharaoh, Thutmose III, invaded the island.
After 1400 B.C., Mycenaean and Mycenaean-Achaean traders from the northeastern Peloponnesus began regular commercial visits to the island. Settlers from the same areas arrived in large numbers toward the end of the Trojan War (traditionally dated about 1184 B.C.). Even in modern times, a strip of the northern coast was known as the Achaean Coast in commemoration of those early settlers. The newcomers spread the use of their spoken language and introduced a script that greatly facilitated commerce. They also introduced the potter's wheel and began producing pottery that eventually was carried by traders to many mainland markets. By the end of the second millennium B.C., a distinctive culture had developed on Cyprus. The island's culture was tempered and enriched by its position as a crossroads for the commerce of three continents, but in essence it was distinctively Hellenic. It is to this 3,000 years of Hellenic tradition that the present-day Greek Cypriots refer when arguing either for enosis or for their own dominance in an independent state.
Later Greek poets and playwrights frequently mention the early influences of Cyprus. Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, was said to have been born out of the sea foam on the island's west coast. The most important of many temples to Aphrodite was built at Paphos, where the love goddess was venerated for centuries, and even in modern times young women visited the ruins to make votive offerings and to pray for good marriages or fertility (see fig. 2, Ancient and Medieval Aites). Aphrodite is mentioned by Homer in the Iliad and Odyssey, as is a Cypriot king, Kinyras, of Paphos.
The Late Bronze Age on Cyprus was characterized by a fusion of the indigenous culture and the cultures brought by settlers from the mainland areas. This fusion took place over a long period and was affected by shifting power relationships and major movements of peoples throughout the eastern Mediterranean area. Cyprus was affected particularly by the introduction of iron tools and weapons, signaling the end of the Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age, near the end of the second millennium B.C. Iron did not displace bronze overnight, any more than one culture immediately displaced another (pockets of native Cypriot culture, for example, existed for several more centuries), but the introduction of iron heralded major economic changes, and the numbers of Greek settlers ensured the dominance of their culture.
An important eastern influence during the early part of the first millennium B.C. came from a Phoenician settlement. The principal Phoenician concentration was at Kition, the modern city of Larnaca, on the southeast coast. Three thousand years later some Turks and Turkish Cypriots would try to use such influences to prove that eastern cultures predated Greek influence on the island. On this basis, modern Cypriots were said to be descended from Phoenician Cypriot forebears. Greek Cypriots responded that, even though visits by Phoenician traders probably occurred as early as the third millennium, colonists did not arrive until about 800 B.C. The Phoenicians settled in several areas and shared political control with the Greeks until the arrival of the Assyrians.
In 708 B.C. Cyprus encompassed seven independent kingdoms that were conquered by the Assyrian king, Sargon II. During the Assyrian dominance, about 100 years, Cypriot kings maintained considerable autonomy in domestic affairs and accumulated great wealth. The number of city-kingdoms increased to ten, one of which was Phoenician. The Cypriot kings were religious as well as secular leaders and generally commanded the city's defense forces. When Assyrian power and influence began to decline, near the end of the seventh century, Egypt filled the resulting vacuum in eastern Mediterranean affairs.
The Egyptian pharaohs had built a powerful fleet of war ships that defeated the combined fleets of Phoenicia and Cyprus, setting the stage for Egypt's domination of the eastern Mediterranean. During the Egyptian ascendancy, the Cypriot kings were again allowed to continue in power after pledging themselves vassals of the pharaoh. The main impact of Egyptian domination was the reorientation of commerce, making Egypt the principal market for Cypriot minerals and timber.
When Egypt fell to the Persians in the late sixth century, Cyprus was made part of a satrapy of King Darius. By the time of Persian domination, Salamis outshone the other city-kingdoms in wealth and splendor, and its kings were looked on as first among equals. Petty kings ruled at Amathus, Kition, Kyrenia, Lapithos, Kourion, Marion, Paphos, Soli, and Tamassos, but leadership in the fifth and fourth century struggles against the Persians stemmed from Salamis. The king of Salamis, Onesilos, is remembered as the hero who died leading the revolt against the Persians in 498 B.C.
The Cypriot kings continued to enjoy considerable autonomy while paying tribute to Persia, and were even allowed to strike their own coinage. They remained culturally oriented toward Greece, and when the Ionians revolted against the Persians, those of the Cypriot kings who were Greek also rebelled. The revolt was suppressed quickly, apparently without retaliation.
In 411 B.C. another Greek Cypriot, Evagoras, established himself as king of Salamis and worked for a united Cyprus that would be closely tied to the Greek states. By force and by guile, the new king brought other Cypriot kingdoms into line and led forces against Persia. He also allied the Cypriots with Athens, and the Athenians honored him with a statue in the agora. As the Salamisian king gained prominence and power in the eastern Mediterranean (even attacking Persian positions in Anatolia), the Persians tried to rid themselves of this threat, and eventually defeated the Cypriots. Through diplomacy Evagoras managed to retain the throne of Salamis, but the carefully nurtured union of the Cypriot kingdoms was dissolved. Although Cyprus remained divided at the end of his thirty-seven-year reign, Evagoras is revered as a Greek Cypriot of uncommon accomplishment. He brought artists and learned men to his court and fostered Greek studies. He was instrumental in having the ancient Cypriot syllabary replaced by the Greek alphabet. He issued coins of Greek design and in general furthered the integration of Greek and Cypriot culture.
Cypriot freedom from the Persians finally came in 333 B.C. when Alexander the Great decisively defeated Persia at the Battle of Issue. A short time later, the Cypriot kings were granted autonomy in return for helping Alexander at the siege of Tyre. The death of Alexander in 323 B.C. signaled the end of that short period of self-government. Alexander's heirs fought over Cyprus, a rich prize, for several years, but in 294 B.C. it was taken by Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, who had established himself as satrap (and eventual king) of Egypt. Under the rule of the Ptolemies, which lasted for two and one-half centuries, the city-kingdoms of Cyprus were abolished and a central administration established. The Ptolemaic period, marked by internal strife and intrigue, was ended by Roman annexation in 58 B.C..
At first Rome governed the island as part of the province of Cilicia, and for a time Cicero, the famous orator, was governor. Later, when administration was vested in the Roman Senate, the island was governed by a proconsul and divided into four districts, Amathus, Lapithos, Paphos, and Salamis. The government seat was at Paphos and the center of commerce at Salamis.
Although the object of Roman occupation was to exploit the island's resources for the ultimate gain of the Roman treasury, the new rulers also brought a measure of prosperity as their enforced peace allowed the mines, industries, and commercial establishments to increase their activities. The Romans soon began building new roads, harbors, and public buildings. Although Paphos supplanted Salamis as the capital, the latter retained its glory, remaining a center of culture and education as well as of commerce. An earthquake leveled much of Salamis in 15 B.C., but the Emperor Augustus bestowed his favor on the city and had it rebuilt in the grand Roman fashion of the time.
Salamis was shattered by earthquakes again in the fourth century. Again reconstructed, although on a smaller scale, the city never achieved its former magnificence. When its harbor silted up in medieval times, it was abandoned to the drifting coastal sand that eventually covered it. Twentieth-century archaeologists have uncovered much of ancient Salamis, revealing glories from every epoch from the Bronze Age to its final abandonment.
The single most important event during Roman rule was the introduction of Christianity during the reign of the Emperor Claudius. According to tradition, the apostle Paul landed at Salamis in A.D. 45, accompanied by Barnabas, also a convert to Christianity and an apostle. Barnabas's arrival was a homecoming; he was a native of Salamis, of Hellenized Jewish parentage. The two missionaries traveled across Cyprus preaching the new religion and making converts. At Paphos they converted the Roman proconsul, Sergius Paulus, who became the first Roman of noble birth to accept Christianity, thus making Cyprus the first area of the empire to be governed by a Christian.
In 285 the Emperor Diocletian undertook the reorganization of the Roman Empire, dividing its jurisdiction between its Latin- speaking and Greek-speaking halves. Diocletian's successor, Constantine, accepted conversion and became the first Christian Roman emperor. In 324 he established his imperial residence at Byzantium, on the shore of the Bosporus. Byzantium was renamed Constantinople and eventually became the capital of the Byzantine (Eastern) Empire.