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Background
This webpage reproduces part of
Cities in the Sand
Leptis Magna and Sabratha in Roman Africa

text by Kenneth D. Matthews, Jr.
photographs by Alfred W. Cook

published by University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia,
1957

Both text and photographs are in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Sabratha

p33 The Town of Leptis Magna

From the Gulf of Gabes in southeastern Tunisia the sandy beaches of modern Tripolitania stretch eastward to Cyrenaica, offering six hundred and sixty miles of low, unprotected sea-front. In the early years of the first millennium B.C. this offered little welcome to the Phoenician merchants who plied the waters of the Mediterranean. For those more venturesome among them who sought and found the protective harbors at Oea (Tripoli) and Leptis Magna, great promise was extended in the form of trade with natives of the interior. From their oasis homes in the deserts of Fezzan the primitive tribes sent caravans bearing precious and fascinating items of trade up through the plateau ranges and then down into the coastal plain of the Gefara and across to the coastal trading posts, where they could be exchanged with the Phoenician merchants. Recognizing this commercial potential these merchants from the eastern Mediterranean established regular ports of call along the Tripolitanian coast. Among these was the little settlement at the mouth of the Wadi Lebda later known as Leptis Magna which, like its sister establishments of Oea and Sabratha to the west, probably owed its early growth to these trans-Saharan caravans. Unlike these other two sites, however, Leptis was not separated from the hinterland by the Gefara plain. Instead the curving mountainous range of the Gebel swung northward to approach the coast directly behind Leptis. Here it diminished to the limestone Tarhuna plateau, overlaid with a rich stratum of soil. During the period of its development under Carthage and then republican Rome, Leptis spread its influence back up into these coastal highlands.

It was here that the cultivation of olive trees was so successful as to make Leptis one of the largest centres in Africa for the production of olive oil. To the southeast of the Tarhuna plateau a series of wadis, such as the Wadi Sofeggin and the Wadi Zemzem, run northeastward to the coast. Although there was much less rainfall in these semidesert areas, settlements along the sides of the wadis gradually converted this section into an important wheat-producing region. Thus Leptis Magna became a town whose prosperity depended far more on the agricultural produce of its inland holdings than on any caravan trade across the Sahara. Nevertheless such caravans still came northward from the regions of the Niger and Lake Chad with precious goods strapped tightly to the lumbering camels, animals which perhaps were introduced to this part of north Africa during the Ptolemaic or early Roman period. Although Roman forces occasionally penetrated to the northern edges of the desert, the Romans were generally content to leave the caravan trade to such desert tribes as the Garamantes.

p34 The growing preponderance of agricultural items, and particularly olive oil, in the markets of Leptis Magna is clearly indicated in the assessment of 3 million pounds (1,067,800 litres) of oil for which the city was made responsible by Julius Caesar. During the reign of Augustus the increase of wealth as well as population made imminent a reassessment of the town's physical appearance. New dwellings and public structures had sprung up along the road leading inland from the original Phoenician settlement near the promontory defining the northwestern side of the harbor at the mouth of the Wadi Lebda. Restricted on the east by this same wadi, the expanding town had grown toward the west from the road. In the northwest sector the civic-minded citizens of Leptis constructed a Forum, now identified as the Forum Vetus to differentiate it from the later Forum of Severan times. On its northwestern side the Forum Vetus was originally dominated by the Temple of Liber Pater, who was equated with the god Bacchus. Both he and Hercules were worshiped as the patron deities of Leptis Magna. The temple was erected atop a podium which was divided internally into a series of crypts surrounding a solid core. A row of chambers or tabernae evidently stood against the north face of the podium. The solid core of the podium's interior supported the cella or central temple chamber above. In standard fashion a colonnade surrounded this cella on both sides and across the front, where a flight of steps led up to the top of the podium.

During the reign of Augustus, when the Temple of Liber Pater was built, another temple, smaller and dedicated to a deity not yet identified, was installed a distance to the northeast of the larger temple. In the Augustan paving of the Forum in front of this temple an inscription was placed beast result the name of Cnaeus Calpurnius Piso, who thus may be associated with the building.

At some period between 14 and 19 A.D. the cult of Rome and Augustus was honored with a fine temple set up between that of Liber Pater and the smaller temple of unknown dedication to the northeast. It is known from inscriptions that at least as early as 8 B.C. this cult had been introduced to Leptis, for in that year the two citizens Iddibale and Ammicar were officiating as priests (flamines Augusti). The erection of a new temple in the period immediately following the death of Augustus in 14 A.D. was a most appropriate method of indicating devotion to the memory of the great emperor. The temple itself, which stood upon a podium, was constructed entirely of local limestone, with a cella surrounded on the sides and front by a colonnade with column capitals in the Ionic style. Probably during the reign of Claudius (41‑54 A.D.) when new paving was laid in the Forum the podium of the Temple of Rome and Augustus was extended forward so as to form a rostrum for public addresses. A flight of steps on each side led of that top of the platform.

The entire southeastern end of the Forum was bounded by the side wall of the old basilica or Basilica Vetus. With the axis running in a northeast-southwest line, this building was also built entirely of the local limestone and so probably dated to the p35first century A.D. In design it consisted of a rectangular hall with two entrance doors at the northeast end. On the interior a colonnade ran around all four sides, and against the southwest end wall three exedrae of rectangular form were built for the seats of the judges or officials presiding over law cases.

During the reign of Augustus the town of Leptis Magna had already achieved a responsible degree of prosperity and importance and under increasing pressure from the population it expanded to the southwest of the Forum Vetus. In this area a Market was laid out, surrounded by a perimeter wall of sandstone blocks resting on a ground course of limestone, and in characteristic Roman style was completely outfitted with accommodations for the sale of foods. In the Augustan period the west wall of the enclosure had a central entrance doorway flanked by two smaller entrances. On the exterior surface of this wall an inscription in Latin records the munificence of Annobal Rufus, who financed the construction of the entire Market in 9-8 B.C. In a later rebuilding these entrances were altered to provide larger doorways to the interior and the sandstone wall with its stucco covering was plastered over. The exterior was then decorated with incised circles and a painted guilloche border, while the interior surface of the wall was ornamented with a narrow frieze of cupids and garlands. The court within the Market walls was surrounded with a colonnade of black granite Corinthian columns and in the centre of the enclosure stood two octagonal porticos, each with a circular structure in the mid. Sales counters were placed between the columns of these porticos for the display of edibles to be purchased by the town's citizens. One of these buildings or tholoi contained an inscription giving the name of the person responsible for its construction. This again was Annobal Rufus. At the southeastern end of the Market another entrance provided access from the Cardo or main north-south street (Plates 3 and 4). Spanning this streets, just southwest of the entrance to the Market, an unassuming sailing arch was dedicated to the emperor Tiberius in 35-36 A.D. (Plate 25).

The generosity of Annobal Rufus had not yet attained its full expression, however, and before the Market was finished he must have been thinking already of another typically Roman structure which the citizens of Leptis sorely needed. Finally, in 1-2 A.D., this too was accomplished, and a beautiful theatre stood revealed just to the west of the Market. Designed in the standard semicircular form used by the Romans, the orchestra and the lower rows of the cavea or seating area of the auditorium were excavated from the virgin rock of the site. The most important seating area at the front was separated from the rest of the seats by a low marble screen, while the lower half of the rest of the auditorium was divided into six radial sections by flights of steps running down from the five entrance installed halfway up the expanse of seats (Plates 7, 8, and 16). Six other flights of steps starting at the centre top of the lower sections led on up to the top of the auditorium, where a semicircular colonnaded walk ran around the upper edge of the supporting wall. In the middle of this colonnade, p36opposite the centre of the stage, was set a small Temple of Ceres (Plates 9, 10, 11, and 12). The uppermost rows of seats were supported on great piers of stone and concrete, and are now largely nonexistent.

The outer wall of the auditorium, which concealed the corridors and stairs leading to the upper seating sections, was completely unpretentious in its decoration, having only simple moldings and pilasters with five arched openings leading to the corridors inside. Between the auditorium and the stage an entrance corridor on each side permitted unencumbered access to the seating arrangements for the notables (Plate 16).

The stage was probably made of wooden sections resting in front upon a stone wall ornamented with niches displaying a variety of classical statues (Plate 19). This was arranged in the form of three apses with a fine portico of columns, one row superimposed upon the other, following the contour of the wall (Plates 17, 18, 19, 20, and 21). To the sides of the stage retiring rooms were provided and, on the southeast, a room or court over the entrance to which was placed the inscription identifying the donor of the Theatre as Annobal Rufus (Plates 5 and 6). Behind the stage a portico was arranged around an irregularly shaped court in which stood a temple dedicated to the deified emperors. This certainly must have been connected with the Theatre, since it was the classical tradition to have such a portico for the protection of patrons in inclement weather or for little promenades between theatrical presentations.

Another citizen, Iddibal Caphada Aemilius, perhaps encouraged by the example of Annobal Rufus, turned his resources to the construction of Chalcidicum (possibly a market for dry-goods) to the southeast of the Theatre. Opening onto the Cardo which issued in a southwesterly direction from the southwest side of the Forum Vetus, the Chalcidicum consisted of a portico of Corinthian columns surmounting a broad flight of steps (Plate 22). In the centre of a row of shops ranged behind the portico stood a small temple and behind these, perhaps also a part of the Chalcidicum, lay a large rectangular space open to the sky and surrounded by porticos (Plate 24). An inscription from the architrave of the main portico of the Chalcidicum, facing on the street, indicates that the already-mentioned Iddibal Caphada Aemilius erected the building in 11‑12 A.D. (Plate 23). At a later date this main portico evidently was altered and cisterns were added to it, one at either end. Within the rectangular area behind the shops the southwestern portico with its double row of columns was incorporated into a long water tank also at a late period (Plates 15 and 16).

The great building activity in which Leptis thus engaged at the beginning of the imperial period was symbolic of the wealth which accrued to her from her hold over the interior agricultural regions.

To facilitate movement from the city into the Tarhuna section, a road was laid out by the proconsul of Africa Lucius Aelius Lamia, holding office during the reign p37of Tiberius (14‑37 A.D.), and this led up into the plateau for a distance of forty-two miles of the site of Mesphe. Although perhaps originally conceived to permit more rapid military movement in dealing with tribes of the interior, this road undoubtedly facilitated the transportation of produce down to the seaport. An inscription on the previously-mentioned Arch of Tiberius also indicates that movement of traffic within the city was somewhat improved at this time by the repaving of some city streets. Communication along the coast was already established by a road which ran westward from Leptis through Oea (Tripoli) and Sabratha and on to Tacapae.

While these provisions were all accomplished under Roman rule, one must be consider Leptis Magna and its surrounding territory as being largely populated by Roman colonists or Roman citizens. Quite to the contrary, the inhabitants were largely natives of Punic or Libyan background, and a strong Punic element persisted beneath the superficial veneer of Roman culture. Leptis even minted its own coinage with Punic legends until the reign of Tiberius, and neo-Punic inscriptions occur during the first century A.D., parallel with those in Latin. Indeed, aside from Romans stationed in Africa as government officials, actual Romans or Italians on the scene were very scarce and appears to have been there only to develop or protect some commercial or agricultural interest.

During the reign of Augustus, Leptis Magna was classified as a civitas libera et immunis, or a free community, over which the governor had an absolute minimum of control. As such Leptis retain its two suphetes at the head of its government, with the mhzm, similar to the Roman aediles, as minor magistrates. In addition there were such sacred officials as the 'addir 'ararim or praefectus sacrorum, the nēquim ēlīm, and probably a sacred college of fifteen members. These office were still in effective operation when Leptis was made a municipium with a certain degree of Roman rights and privileges at some time between 61 and 68 A.D., during the rule of Nero.

When the citizens first began to enjoy the fine colonnaded porticos erected in the Forum Vetus on three of its sides, in the year 53 A.D., they probably had little thought for the troubles which might befall them from tribes of the inland deserts. It is true that such danger was always present and never to be ignored. For this reason the citizens certainly must by this time have had some form of city wall or protective construction surrounding their city.

In preparing the harbor for the increased commercial activity which had already stirred the city into new life, the engineers studied the problem of the Wadi Lebda, whose waters could rush down in torrents without warning devastate the harbor constructions as well as any civic buildings along the wadi. As a result of this examination the water of the Wadi Lebda was blocked by a dam and detoured through a new channel cut to the south of the city. This led the stream across to the western channel of the Wadi er‑Rsaf, which conducted it to the sea In excavating this channel large mounds of earth were thrown up, now called the Monticelli. It is possible that these p38were also conceived as a defensive wall, standing either by themselves or as advanced works guarding a more substantial wall closer to the buildings grouped near the civic centres.

In any event, Leptis was suddenly called on, in the year 69 A.D., to turn all of her defensive arrangements to good advantage. Trouble came from a rather unexpected source, the city of Oea of that west. Rivalry between the two cities at first developed into a series of minor raids for the purpose of stealing grain and cattle. Then pitched battles ensued, in which Oea, being the weaker of the two cities, determined to secure outside assistance. For her allies she turned to the Garamantes, a savage tribe of the interior, who immediately invaded the lands around Leptis Magna and confined the terrified citizens to the area within the city walls. Relief came soon, however, when the Roman forces under the command of Valerius Festus arrived on the scene. Most of the booty seized by the Garamantes was recovered and returned to the people of Leptis, who once more resumed their daily activities undisturbed.

Not too long after this event the Forum Vetus was graced, at its southern angle, with a Temple of Magna Mater, dedicated in 72 A.D., and a Flavian arch set up over the Cardo, probably on the site of the later sixth-century Byzantine gate. On the southwest side of the Forum Vetus, at its northwest end, another temple of unknown dedication was built some time near the end of this first century A.D. By this period the conservatism of the local Punic aristocracy seems to have weakened to the point of developing a fairly typical Roman civic life and this is clearly shown by the fact that in the reign of Domitian (81‑96 A.D.) many prominent families in Leptis had come to hold Roman citizenship.

By the time of Trajan's accession to the horse of the empire in 98 the impressive accomplishments and undeniable importance of Leptis Magna demanded a consideration of the city's status in the organization of the empire. Trajan, during the few years intervening between the second Dacian war (105-106 A.D.) and his departure in 113 for his eastern campaigns, devoted his attention to the administrative problems of his empire. As a result he soon recognized the increased importance of Leptis by raising it to the rank of a Roman colony bearing the title Colonia Ulpia Traiana Leptis. The new status meant that the old Punic system of local government was to be replaced with one headed by two duoviri, having a hierarchy of officials bearing the regular Roman titles. The inhabitant themselves were now considered Roman citizens with most of the attendant privileges.

Perhaps as a symbol of the great recognition bestowed upon the town by the emperor a tastefully designed four-sided arch was erected in limestone over the intersection of two streets at the northeast corner of the Chalcidicum. Dedicated to Trajan, this was constructed by the legate Lucius Asinius Rufus, possibly through the direction of the proconsul of Africa, Caius Cornelius Rarus Sextius, although Quintus Pomponius Rufus had come to the proconsulship by the time of its completion in p39110 A.D. The arch itself had two fluted Corinthian columns on each of its four faces and a similar column in each interior corner (Plates 25 and 26).

The great soldier-emperor Trajan was succeeded on the throne in 117 by one of the most interesting of ancient personalities, Hadrian. After having overcome the immediate problems of his succession and reviewed many of the provinces in the first of his great tours, Hadrian finally embarked for Africa in 128 A.D. This was only one phase of his over-all project of visit as much as possible his empire so as to existing conditions at first hand. His wisdom suggested are propriety of personal contact with the Third Augustan Legion, on which depended the safety of Roman Africa. Traveling from Carthage to the Roman military camp, he there reviewed the forces and bestowed on them appropriate praise and encouragement. After about four months in Africa Hadrian returned to Rome during the summer, apparently having had no opportunity for visiting the cities of Tripolitania. Leptis did feel the effect of the imperial personality, however, through the predominating taste for classical forms which the emperor encouraged.

Heretofore, although in the first century A.D. classical forms did exert a certain influence over the structural design and architectural ornamentation in Leptis Magna, as well as throughout the other Roman cities of Tripolitania, the artistic and architectural flavor of this region was provincial and distinctly Tripolitanian. At Leptis the earlier imperial architectural structures were created of fine grey limestone, from the local quarries opened in the last years of the first century B.C.

When civic aspirations and prosperity called for the erection of a great public bath in the Leptis Magna of Hadrian's time, however, the architects and contractors, for the first time in the Roman history of Tripolitania, turned to marble as a structural and ornamental material. So strikingly attractive was the impression thus created that such a building as the Curia or local senate house, built in the late first or early second century, to the east of the Forum Vetus atop a podium standing within a colonnaded court, represented the last of the old manner of construction.

As for the new baths, however, the site chosen lay in the southern quarter of the city above the banks of the Wadi Lebda (Plate 1), which had already been rechanneled so as to prevent floods within the city limits. In addition to this protection, other provisions were made to guarantee a permanent source of water. Although the dating of the various structures involved in this conception is difficult, the major elements must certainly have existed by the conclusion of the Hadrianic building activities in the second century, and all certainly must have been created by the end of the Severan period.

For the size of the population of elm as it reached its greatest period of expansion during the first and second centuries after Christ, a mere blocking of the Wadi Lebda and the provision of catchment basins for the storage of rainwater was not enough. Traveling afield to the Wadi Camm, local engineers constructed a substantial p40concrete conduit which led water twelve miles overland of that Wadi Lebda, possibly joining it just below the great barrier dam constructed to divert water from the latter wadi into the channel circling to the west of the city. Here two reservoir buildings were created at some unknown date, and the conduit perhaps entered the northernmost one, which was divided into five vaulted cisterns.

The southernmost reservoir, comprising three vaulted cisterns and displaying external architectural ornamentation in the form of niches and doorways, may have been erected during the Severan period. In addition to these main sources of supply, at least the public baths in the town itself were provided with their own cisterns for storing rainwater, as well as water diverted from the public supply.

Scarce as water was in this sector of Africa, Leptis Magna had a fairly good rainfall and was favored by good wadis running from the watershed of the eastern Gebel range. Its citizens learned to draw upon all of these resources in order to maintain an adequate supply of water for indulging themselves in their taste for lovely public fountains and baths.

Safeguarded by these measures, the builders of the early second century A.D. commenced work on the great Hadrianic Baths which were finally dedicated and opened to the public in 127. With its main facade facing north, the Bath was comprised of a number of rooms arranged symmetrically along its north-south axis. The Roman bather entered from the north and immediately found himself in a large hall containing swimming pool, or natatio, about ninety feet long and forty-eight feet wide, with a depth of about five and a half feet. The pool was surrounded on three sides by columns of pink breccia marble with Corinthian capitals. Three steps, surfaced with marble slabs, surrounded the pool and led down to the floor of the basin which was decorated with a mosaic imitation of gravel. The intake and outlet for the water was located beneath a stone base erected in the center of the pool's north side.

On either side of this main hall were situated reception halls or atria, and probably dressing rooms or apodyteria. From the main hall itself the bather passed through either one of two doors into a transverse corridor to the south. Crossing this he entered the large frigidarium, or cold room, sixty feet by about forty-nine feet in size, with a ceiling covered by cross-vaults in three sections carried by eight Corinthian columns having a height of about twenty feet. The entire hall was ornamented with marble walls and finely carved statues. In the east and west ends of the room were large openings which gave onto pools of cold water with black granite columns and various statues surrounding each pool (Plates 72 and 72).

Turning to the large arch in the centre of the frigidarium's southern wall, one passed through into the tepidarium or room for the warm bath. In small wings to the right and left two bathing pools were installed, possibly at a later date, while in the center of the chamber an archway opened onto a larger basin, square in shape, with two columns on both east and west sides and a wall on the southern side (Plate 28).

p41 Passing behind the side columns and into the area behind the southern wall of the pool one entered a small vestibule from which one turned south again and walked on into the calidarium or hot room, the southernmost chamber in the bath structure. Measuring seventy-one and a half feet by about thirty-six feet, the calidarium was roofed with a barrel vault and had three large deep windows in the southern wall and one in each end wall. Later alterations led to the installation of water basins in each of the window areas, the largest basin forming a deep apse in the center of the south wall. Along the outside of this southern wall were ranged the furnaces for the calidarium. In the northwest and northeast corners of the calidarium itself doorways led into the laconica or sweat rooms, raised on false flooring to permit the circulation of hot air beneath. This air was heated by other furnaces again constructed against the south walls of these rooms.

Along the eastern and western sides of the entire bath structure there ranged a series of chambers which served perhaps as rest areas or meeting rooms. In the northeast corner of the building, near the Palaestra, provision was made for a colonnaded latrine, square in shape (Plate 29). As a form of large forecourt to the ensemble of rooms forming the bath establishment, a large Palaestra was erected with its long axis running in an east-west direction a bit to the east of the central axis of the baths themselves. This great Palaestra was surrounded with a portico and had a large apse or exedra at each end (Plates 30 and 31).

The great new public bath must have served considerably toward easing the discomfort of the hot north African daylight hours. Attracting weary citizens as well as those who merely wished to indulge themselves in a few hours of bathing and conversation, the baths became so well attended that repairs and further embellishments were inevitable. Important work of this nature was accomplished under the emperor Domitian (81‑96 A.D.), while some furnishings, apparently minor in nature, were added in the time of Septimius Severus.

The employment of marble in this attractive and important Hadrianic building led the citizens of Leptis in the second century of consider altering other existing structures by replacing the older limestone elements with the newly-appreciated marble. The columns and pediment of the Temple of Rome and Augustus were rebuilt of marble, while almost the entire Temple of Liber Pater was redone in marble in the middle of the second century. The Theatre and the Chalcidicum also underwent phases of redecoration in the new material. On the southwest side of the Forum Vetus, at its northwest corner, a three-sided marble portico was constructed with a shrine in the court dedicated to the emperor Antoninus Pius (138‑161 A.D.).

It was probably during the early years of the third century that the charming baths known as the Hunting Baths were established in the northwestern limits of the city above the foundations of some preexisting buildings. Built of rubble concrete, with ceilings in the form of domes and barrel-vaults, the baths are a remarkable expression p42of simple functional design fitting into the framework of the architectural use of concrete which developed in Rome during the first and early second centuries A.D. The Hunting Baths are completely unclassical in architectural execution and show freedom of expression in design which removes them from the traditional pattern to be found in the Hadrianic Baths in the southeast quarter of Leptis Magna. Like these great baths, however, the Hunting Baths included the accepted Roman system of apodyterium, frigidarium, tepidarium, and calidarium.

Even with later additions the Hunting Baths did not match the Hadrianic Baths in size, but fascinating wealth of mosaics and fresco decoration found in them, as well as details of the water storage and heating systems, lend these baths an importance which more than overcomes any disappointment in the small size of the structure. The Hunting Baths represent a medium-sized type of public bath ensemble which evidently found considerable vogue in the eastern Mediterranean and in Africa during these later years of the Roman empire. At least two other examples are to be found in Leptis Magna itself. The theme of the major decorations which give the name to the Hunting Baths suggests that this building may well have been owned at one time by a trader association of hunters.

During the years at the turn of the second and third centuries A.D. Leptis Magna was entering upon its last and greatest period of affluence. When the town's favorite son ascended the imperial throne in 193 A.D., as the emperor Septimius Severus, he carried with him a strong attachment to the African provinces and to Leptis Magna in particular. In Leptis his grandfather had been one of the two annual suphetes when Trajan raised the status of the town to that of a Roman colony. Thus this relative became one of the town's first two duoviri under the new constitution. Although Septimius' father, Publius Septimius Geta, was not of great importance locally, two of Septimius' uncles, Aper and Severus, were men of consular rank. Septimius himself left Leptis for Rome shortly after his eighteenth year but members of his family continued to reside in the town, and on one occasion when his sister visited him after his accession to the throne she embarrassed him in public by her inability to speak in Latin. The emperor himself always spoke Latin with a heavy African accent.

The early part of the reign of Septimius Severus was spent in suppressing several attempts made by other Roman generals to seize the throne. Interestingly enough Clodius Albinus, one of these aspirants, was also of African background, probably having been born at Hadrumetum. With these uproars successfully quelled Septimius embarked upon his eastern campaigns against the Parthian kingdom. Immediately upon his victorious return to Rome in 202, which was commemorated by the erection of the arch dedicated to him in the Roman Forum, he made arrangements for a visit to his place of birth. At this time he granted to Leptis Magna the ius Italicum, which removed from the inhabitants the burden of tribute and land taxes. Out of respect and gratitude the city nevertheless provided for the continuance of its p43annual payment of oil for the use of the citizens of Rome. In addition the magistrates, under direct imperial patronage, initiated a building program which was to make Leptis one of the most splendid cities of Roman Africa. The first evidence of this new program is found in the imposing four-sided arch, dedicated to Septimius Severus in 203 and erected over the crossroads of the two main streets of the city, the Cardo and the Decumanus (Plates 32, 33, and 34). With extremely elegant pilasters placed at each of the arch's four corners, the archways themselves were framed by Corinthian columns supporting broken pediments. On the very top of the arch were arranged four panels, one on each face, two of which depicted triumphal processions, one a sacrificial scene, and the last a domestic grouping of the imperial family. The details of the decoration suggest the craftsmanship of a designer trained in the architectural practices of the eastern Mediterranean. It is probable that the entire conception of the Severan embellishments of the city was due to the architects and craftsmen from the Greek or east Mediterranean area who came to Leptis for this purpose, importing for their work quantities of marble from Greek quarries.

Under the influence of this new school of thought the harbor of Leptis was enlarged and bounded by fine stone quays. A grand colonnaded street was laid out to connect the harbor with a splendid plaza just to the east of the Palaestra in front of the Hadrianic Baths. This plaza itself was dominated on the east side by a magnificently ornamented apse or Nymphaeum, highly decorated with marble veneer and several rows of columns superimposed one over the other. In order to provide additional area for the business and civic activities which had now outgrown the small Forum Vetus, a vast new Forum and Basilica compound was begun on the northwestern side of the colonnaded street. Completed in 216 A.D. during the reign of Caracalla, Septimius' son, this complex testifies to the great ingenuity of the Severan architects. Built on an irregularly-shaped plot of ground, the Forum still gave the appearance of conforming to the regular rectangular plan, with a Basilicaº of good design and arrangements at this northeastern end. Differences of alignment were masked by tabernae or shops placed along the wall separating the Forum from the Basilica. An apse in the center of this wall contained a doorway which led, at a slight angle, into the Basilica. Three sides of the Forum were bordered by a colonnade supporting arches instead of the more standard horizontal architrave (Plates 37 and 38). Between the arches, on the flat surface above the columns, bas-reliefs of Nereid and Gorgon heads stood out in bold chiaroscuro (Plate 39).

On the fourth side of the Forum, to the southwest, stood a high podium bearing a square temple chamber, or cella, surrounded on both sides and the front by a red granite colonnade. This colonnade in the front was comprised of eight columns across the width with two inner rows of six columns each, thus leaving a comfortable space between the two center front columns and the door to the cella The identification of this temple is probably to be made with the worship of the genius of the family of p44Septimius Severus. Along the exterior of the Forum's southeast wall stood a row of shops, in the center of which an entranceway led into the Forum. Another such entrance in the northwestern wall corresponded to this.

The large Basilica at the northeast end of the Forum, measuring 290 by 190 feet, stood with its long axis running northwest to southeast. The interior was divided into a central nave and two side aisles by two rows of red granite Corinthian columns which supported upper galleries. Each end of the nave ended in a great apse decorated with columns and having a raised floor for the seats of officials (Plates 40 and 41). At each end of the side colonnades, both ground floor and gallery, a most ornate pilaster was affixed to the wall (Plate 42). Those on the main floor were carved with medallion-scrolls of acanthus interspersed with human, animal, and flower forms, while the four pillar ares from the upper galleries bore ornamentations portraying the stories of Liber Pater and Hercules, the two patron deities of Leptis Magna. The entire area of the basilica was roofed with wood and stairs were added behind the apses to provide access those to the second galleries. Along the outer face of the Basilica's north wall a large passageway was created to link the colonnaded street with the section on the northwest side of the Basilica.

As for the harbor, which played such an important role in the commercial life of the town, the Severan architects conceived the idea of enlarging the promontory on the north side of the polygonal basin in order to construct or rebuild the Pharos or lighthouse. Corresponding to this, a watchtower was erected on the southern side of the harbor entered, and near it a small Doric temple with a colonnaded porch. The eastern quays were formed in two levels, the upper one connected to the lower by small staircases and having on its face numerous stone mooring blocks. At least on this eastern side, a portico running along the upper level of the quay masked a variety of warehouses. On the southern side of the harbor there was evidently no true quay for the servicing of cargo ships, but rather a flight of shallow steps which led up to the level of a large temple, perhaps to be associated with Jupiter Dolichenus. The low western quay had short flights of steps leading right down to the water level of the port.

The entire building project of harbor, street, plaza, forum, and basilica was executed in brown limestone from the quarries at nearby Ras-el‑Hammam, and the architects were not stinting in their creation of architectural ornamentation of marble from Euboea and the Greek islands as well as red and gray Egyptian granite. The completion of this vast program left Leptis Magna glistening in marbles, a brilliant Roman town reflecting its glory in the green-blue waters of the Mediterranean. The fickle rays of sunrise and sunset loaned colors of false fire to its walls. Buildings of great pride and humbler structures filling the blocks around gave protection, comfort, and shade to the busy citizens during the hot day, while marble and limestone warmed to the occasional light of torches and lanterns during the moonlit hours of the night. Greatness p45and beauty were here. Luxury bathing was to be had at little or no cost. Lusty or refined classical drama could be seen in the Theatre.

Noisy, thrilling contests with gladiators and wild African animals were continually scheduled in the Amphitheatre to the east of the city while here, too, the crowds could come to pour into one of the largest circuses in the Roman world. Measuring about 1462 feet by 325 feet, the Circus demonstrated the luxury taste of its builders by the row of five water basins running down the center of the course to form the spina, or wall, which divided the arena into two tracks.

But the magnificence of the new Leptis Magna had been obtained at the cost of stability. The town's treasuries had been strained to the limit to acquire this new appearance of grandeur. Such intense financial exhaustion now overtook Leptis as to carry it rapidly downhill to the point where it could never again attain the level of prosperity which had once belonged to it. The annual tribe of oil to Rome which the people of the city had willingly continued as a gift after the cancellation of this obligation by Septimius Severus soon became a great strain on the city's resources. Even with the increasing independence of the olive growers of the interior and the decrease in the city's population and wealth, this gift of oil came to assume once more the aspect of a required tribute. Not until the reign of Constantine was Leptis relieved of this burden. But this consideration could do nothing to save the city. The rigidity of societal structure and civic obligations established by the reforms of Diocletian had already begun to undermine the morale of the citizenry.

Some minor building activities were still undertaken during the first half of the fourth century, at which time new walls were built around the city which had already diminished in size. These walls, ruins of which may be seen on the west side of the city along with one of the city gates of the period, left much of the older city unprotected beyond its limits. The Hunting Baths were included in the section thus forsaken but they continued in use probably until the middle of the century. At this same time the Basilica Vetus on the Forum Vetus was severely damaged by a fire and extensively rebuilt under Constantine. The temple of unknown dedication on the southwest side of the Forum Vetus may well have been converted into a church before the middle of this century.

Life in Leptis Magna, however, was no longer secure, and its very existence was threatened when the Austuriani,a a desert tribe to the southeast of Tripolitana, invaded the limes region and marched right down to the coast. There, somewhat overawed by the strong walls and the population of Leptis Magna, they pitched camp in the fields surrounding the city and for three days they ravaged the farms and nearby estates. Finally, leaving vast destruction behind them, they withdrew inland, taking with them as hostage one Silva, a magistrate of Leptis who had been visiting a country estate with his wife and children. Romanus, the comes Africae, led a unit of soldiers to the town after the Austuriani had departed, but after waiting forty days for the p46citizens to meet his impossible demands for supplies he finally withdrew his troops without accomplishing anything.

A direct appeal to the emperor Valentinian on the part of the governmental council of Tripolitana at first profited them nothing, and for a second time the desert tribes laid waste the city's surrounding lands. The lure was too great to be forgotten, and the Austuriani came back yet once more, this time invading the suburbs of Leptis and laying siege to its walls for eight days. Ultimately they packed their booty and marched southward again to their desert dwellings. With death and destruction on their doorsteps the citizens of Leptis found little consolation in the visit of several imperial inspectors to survey the situation. Evidently nothing constructive was done and the town merely retrenched its living area, giving up most of the dwellings outside the fourth-century city walls. Now the Hunting Baths in the western suburbs were completely abandoned.

With the coming of the Vandals, Tripolitana and its citizens were among the last to be taken into the barbarian kingdom, and the citizens of Leptis found little change and certainly no improvement in their economic condition. When the Byzantine army under Heraclius invaded Tripolitana probably in 468 or shortly thereafter, on its way to capture Carthage, the citizens of Leptis must have cheered on the soldiers as they marched along the coastal road. When this venture failed Leptis settled once more into the growing obscurity of a little village. In 533 the citizens of the city once again heard the marching sound of a Byzantine army, but this time one destined to be victorious. Having united in the demonstration of revolt put forward by the whole region of Tripolitana, Leptis as well as the other coastal towns must have housed with pleasure the Byzantine forces sent to aid them. With the arrival of the great Belisarius and his forces off the coast south of Carthage, the Vandal kingdom was doomed and a certain flare of new life came to Leptis Magna.

Here as in other cities of Africa the Byzantine emperor Justinian encouraged the building of new fortifications and also churches to provide room for Christian service which had been greatly suppressed by the Vandals. The newly-reconstituted city was greatly diminished in size, as can be seen from the existing walls of this period which enclosed in their circuit the two forums, the harbor, and the intervening areas. These walls were built in part of stones removed from now-dilapidated buildings of the earlier imperial period, and it was at this time that the great Severan Basilica was converted into a Christian church. The spirit of ambition was gone from the citizens, however, and the encroaching sands proceeded to cover up the town's great past just as the vicissitudes of life had gradually overcome the moral of Roman life there. Liber Pater and Hercules withdrew into the shades of history, and when the new power of Islam first penetrated Tripolitana under the authority of 'Amr ibn‑al‑Ās and then 'Abdullāh, in turn governors of Egypt for the Caliph Uthman (644‑656 p47A.D.), Leptis Magna was nothing but a village. After the establishment of the Mohammedan center at Al‑Qayrawān, south of Carthage, in 670 by 'Uqbah ibn‑Nāfi' and the eventual conquest of Carthage and other Roman coastal towns in 698, Leptis was deserted by its inhabitants and left to the engulfing sands.


Thayer's Note:

a This section is a condensed retelling of Suet. Tib. Ammian, XXVIII.6; the full convoluted story makes very instructive reading.

Page updated: 4 Jul 07