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Aretaphila, of Cyrene, was not born long years ago, but in the crucial times of Mithradates; she displayed, however, a bravery and an achievement which may well rival the counsel of the heroines of olden time. She was the daughter of Aeglator and the wife of Phaedimus, both men of note. She had beautiful features, and was reputed to be unusually sensible and not deficient in political wisdom, but the common misfortunes of her country brought her into prominence.

Nicocrates, having made himself despot over the [p. 543] people of Cyrene, not only ordered the murder of many persons, but killed with his own hand Melanippus the priest of Apollo, and took the priesthood himself. He also killed Phaedimus the husband of Aretaphila, and made Aretaphila his unwilling wife. In addition to his other unnumbered acts of lawlessness, he stationed guards at the gates, who maltreated the dead that were being borne to the grave, prodding them with daggers, and applying red-hot irons to them, so that none of the citizens should be secretly carried out in the guise of a corpse.

Even for Aretaphila her own troubles were hard enough to bear, although the despot, because of his love for her, granted her the fullest enjoyment of his power, for he was quite vanquished by her, and with her alone did he conduct himself civilly, being relentless and brutal in all else. But even so, the piteous and undeserved suffering of her country distressed her the more; for one citizen after another was slaughtered, and there was no hope of vengeance from any quarter; for the exiles, altogether weak and timid, were scattered here and there and everywhere. So Aretaphila, risking herself as the sole remaining hope for the common weal, and emulating the glorious and far-famed daring of Thebe2 of Pherae, but being destitute of faithful supporters in the household, such as the circumstances provided for Thebe, undertook to dispatch her husband by poison. In preparing, procuring, and testing many potent mediums she did not go unnoticed, but was betrayed. And when proofs were presented, [p. 545] Calbia, Nicocrates's mother, who was by nature bloodthirsty and inexorable, felt that she ought to make away with Aretaphila after torturing her. But Nicocrates' love had the effect of tempering his anger with procrastination and weakness, and the fact that Aretaphila vigorously met the accusations and defended herself against them provided some excuse for his attitude. But when she was apprehended by the proofs, and saw that her preparations for the poisoning admitted no denial, she confessed, but said that she had prepared no fatal poisoning. ‘No, my dear,’ said she, ‘my striving is for very important things, your affection for me, and the repute and influence which I enjoy because of you, and so am an object of envy to bad women. It was fear of their potions and devices that led me to invent some devices to counteract them. It was foolish and feminine perhaps, but not deserving of death, unless you as judge decide to put to death because of love-potions and charms a woman who yearns for more love than you are willing to grant her.’

In spite of this defence of Aretaphila's, Nicocrates decided to have her put to the torture, and, with Calbia standing by, relentless and inexorable, he tested her in this way. She sustained herself with indomitable courage under the torments until even Calbia unwillingly gave over; and Nicocrates was convinced, and acquitted her, and was sorry that he had caused her to be tortured; and after no long time he came back again, impelled towards her by his passion for her, and resumed the old relations, and tried through honours and acts of kindness to regain her goodwill. But she, who had been triumphant [p. 547] over tortures and pain, had no intention of being vanquished by a show of favour, and, with eagerness for victory added to her eagerness for the honourable and good, she resorted to another device.

She was fortunate in having a daughter of marriageable age, rather good-looking. Her she dangled as a bait before the despot's brother, who was a young man and an easy prey to pleasures. There is much talk to the effect that Aretaphila, by using charms and love-potions on the girl, got the youth in hand and upset his reasoning powers. His name was Leander. When he had been captivated, and, by importuning his brother, had gained his consent to the marriage, the girl, on the one hand, instructed by her mother, tried to influence him and to induce him to set the city free, arguing that not even he himself was living as a free man under the despotism, and had not even warrant to contract a marriage or to keep to it; and, on the other hand, his friends, thinking to do a favour to Aretaphila, suggested to his mind certain prej udices and suspicions against his brother. When he discovered that Aretaphila was planning and working to the same end, he undertook the deed, and by urging on Daphnis a servant, through him he slew Nicocrates. For the rest, he no longer paid any attention to Aretaphila, but straightway showed by his deeds that he had made away with his brother, but not with the despot; for he ruled in a crazy and foolish way. Nevertheless there remained with him some respect for Aretaphila and some influence on her part, as she was not hateful to him and not directly hostile, but carried on her activities in his affairs unknown to him. First she secretly stirred up a war with the Africans for him by persuading a [p. 549] certain potentate Anabus to overrun the country and lead his army against the city; then she falsely accused to Leander his friends and generals, intimating that they were not zealous in carrying on the war, but wanted rather peace and quiet, which his circumstances and despotism required, as he wished to hold secure his power over the citizens. She said that she herself would effect the reconciliation, and would get Anabus to come to a conference with him, if he would but give the word, before the war should have wrought some irremediable ill. When Leander gave the word, she herself had a talk with the African beforehand, in which she desired him, on the promise of many presents and much money, to seize the despot when he should come to the conference with him. When the African had been won over, Leander was hesitant, but, abashed before Aretaphila, who said that she would be present herself, he went forth unarmed and unattended. When he came near and saw Anabus, he again felt uneasy, and wanted to wait for his bodyguard. But Aretaphila, who was there, at one moment encouraged him, and the next called him a coward. Finally, as a delay ensued, she, quite impulsively and boldly dragging him by the hand, brought him up to the barbarian and handed him over. Instantly he was seized and made a prisoner, and, after having been put in bonds, was kept under watch by the Africans, until Aretaphila's friends, who were bringing the money for her, arrived, accompanied by the rest of the citizens. For almost all of them, on hearing the news, ran out at the call. When they saw Aretaphila, they came near forgetting their anger against the despot, and considered vengeance upon him a [p. 551] secondary concern. Their first concern in the enjoyment of their freedom was to greet her with joy and tears, prostrating themselves before her as before the statue of a god. As the people surged on, one close upon another, it was with difficulty that by evening they took over Leander and returned to the city. When they had had their fill of honours and praises for Aretaphila, they then turned their attention to the despots. Calbia they burned alive, and Leander they sewed up in a leathern sack and sank in the depths of the sea. They asked that Aretaphila, as her proper due, should share with the best citizens in the control and management of the government. But she, as one who had played through a drama of varying sort and of many roles up to the winning of the prize, when she saw the city free, withdrew at once to her own quarters among the women, and, rejecting any sort of meddling in affairs, spent the rest of her life quietly at the loom in the company of her friends and family.

1 Cf. Polyaenus, Strategemata, viii. 38.

2 Who killed her husband Alexander. Cf. Moralia, 856 a; Xenophon, Hellenica, vi. 4. 35-37; Diodorus, xvi. 14; Cicero, De divinatione, i. 25 (53), De inventione, ii. 49 (144) and De officiis, ii. 7 (25); Valerius Maximus, ix. 13, ext. 4. Theopompus wrote an account of this (as Plutarch says, Moralia, 1093 c).

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