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Chapter I
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,

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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Chapter III

 p48  The Town of Sabratha

Situated on the Tripolitanian coast to the west of modern Tripoli, Sabratha was one of the ancient triad of cities, consisting of Sabratha, Oea (Tripoli)(, and Leptis Magna, which gave the name of Tripolitana to this territory. Like its two sister settlements Sabratha was in origin a mere Phoenician trading center, dating perhaps to the seventh century B.C. The vestiges of this early outpost, situated between the harbor and the Forum, off no evidence of solid permanent structures, but rather consist of the remains of Punic storage jars and Greek vases. This would indicate that the site was merely one where occasional traders stopped or might even have resided during the good sailing season. Eventually permanent structures of mud brick on foundations of stone were built during at least three periods control.

The citizens of this developing community were protected from native tribal attacks by a strong wall, the line of which was later used as the northern limit of the Forum. Due to the geographical conformation in this area of the coast, Sabratha was not in such close proximity to the rich olive-growing fields of the hinterland as was Leptis Magna. With only the suggestion of a protective harbor, guarded mainly by a reef just offshore, the citizens of Sabratha found little economic encouragement in the dry stretches of the Gefara plain which surrounded them. Their promise lay instead along the great trade route which ran inland from the town to the oasis of Ghadames. From there the way led into the Fezzan and the sources to the south from whence Sabratha derived the wild animals and exotic wares upon which her prosperity developed.

Sabratha, like Oea and Leptis Magna, was included in the commercial coastal area known, under Carthaginian control, as the Emporia. During the mid-second century B.C. Sabratha, along with all cities of the emporia, passed into Numidian control, but little is known of the city's activities during this century or the next. The wars of Jugurtha and later of Julius Caesar certainly must have influenced the lives of the local citizenry, but it was the reorganization of Africa by Caesar that brought Sabratha into the new province of Africa Nova and the full aura of Roman culture. With prosperity and peace now encouraging the city toward expansion, new quarters were laid out beyond the limits already existing. To the south an imposing Forum developed over the complex of irregularly arranged buildings dating to the second century B.C., and to the east of the Forum new insulae or blocks of buildings were marked out during the first century A.D. For building stone the architects drew on the sandstone quarries to the southeast of the city. This material could not completely withstand  p49 the forces of erosion and so, for protection as well as aesthetic purposes, the architectural elements were covered with lim stucco which could be molded easily and painted (Plates 44 and 46).

At the northeast end of the Forum, the axis of which ran northeast to southwest, there was located a podium with a small temple on the top having moldings of painted stucco. This was probably constructed toward the end of the first century B.C. Directly opposite this temple and at the southwest end of the Forum stood the Capitolium, or the Temple of Jupiter, added to the Forum complex at some period shortly before the building of the former temple. This, perhaps the main the everyone the city, stood on a great sandstone podium covered with stucco. The front of the podium was extended into the Forum to form a rostrum for public orators, who ascended to the upper level by means of a pair of stairways which flanked the podium. Behind the rostrum area a broad flight of steps led up to the main section on which the Temple of Jupiter was placed. The original stone pediment, walls, and columns surrounding the cella on the front and both sides were probably covered with stucco, while the cella or temple chamber proper appears to have been divided into three rooms by walls erected upon those with the podium below.

A Basilica, or hall for the public handling of legal matters, was erected on the southeast side of the Forum during Julio-Claudian or Flavian times (first century A.D.) This seem to have consisted of a rectangular hall surrounded on all sides with a colonnade. A tribunal, or large apse, opened off the center of the southeast side, and the main entrance leading out to the Forum stood opposite this.

It was probably during the reign of Augustus (died 14 A.D.) that the first Temple to Isis was built on the shore to the east of the city. It stood, like most of the other major temples at Sabratha, in a courtyard surrounded by porticos. Built on a podium, the cella was surrounded by a colonnade and was approached by a flight of steps in the front. Against the west wall of the courtyard stood five chapels, and at the east end of the enclosure access was had to the whole compound through a colonnaded entrance raised on steps. During the reign of Vespasian (69‑79 A.D.), after the threatening turn of events between Oea and Leptis Magna in 69, this temple was reconstructed.

Although Leptis Magna was raised to the status of a colony by the emperor Trajan, it appears that the citizens of Sabratha retained their old Punic form of government, headed by two suphetes, until perhaps the reign of Antoninus Pius (138‑161 A.D.), at which time Sabratha also was made a colony and the suphetes became duoviri. Oea did not receive this favor until about 164 A.D. The civic pride which prosperity and the new imperial recognition brought to the citizens of Sabratha, who now maintained shipping offices at Ostia on the Tiber, led them to emulate their sister city Leptis in refurbishing the public structures of their city.

Following the example of Leptis Magna, the architects of Sabratha imported quantities of Greek marble for their new works which appears to have been initiated  p50 during the last half of the second century A.D. It was during this time or shortly afterwards that the temple at the northeast end of the Forum was completely rebuilt on a larger scale (Plate 46). New marble Corinthian columns were also arranged to constitute porticos on the northwest and southeast sides of the Forum. The original pediment, columns, and steps of the Temple of Jupiter were rebuilt of marble, and various marble sculptures were installed in the temple at this time and later. In the southwest corner of the Forum a square building with cruciform interior also belongs to this period, as does the great temple precinct to the southeast of the Forum containing the so‑called Antonine Temple (Plates 46 and 48). This latter compound was surrounded on three sides by a colonnade of columns carrying Corinthian capitals, and behind the southwest colonnade a grouping of rooms and a hall formed an impressive entranceway from the street. Against the northeast wall of the courtyard rose a high podium fronted by a flight of marble steps rising up to the temple proper. Four Corinthian columns supporting a marble entablature and pediment spanned the front of the temple, while a single column behind each of the end columns gave depth to the porch. The cella itself was ornamented on the exterior sides and front with fluted pilasters, the side pilasters being modeled in stucco while those in front were carved of marble. To the southwest of the Antonine Temple a second, unidentified temple compound was created in much the same fashion, but having no such elaborate entrance. Here the side colonnades differed somewhat in having a small apse at the southwestern end of each. Marble was used in paneling the floors and walls of these colonnades, although indications are that stucco may also have been employed at one time. The temple was set on a podium against the southwest wall of the courtyard, and here marble was used for the main steps and possibly the facade of the temple, although stucco appears on the sides of the podium.

Also approximately of the late second century may be the Temple of Serapis, located to the northwest of the Temple of Jupiter and just beyond the corner of the Forum. This temple complex followed the pattern of the others, having a colonnade on three sides, two in marble and one evidently in sandstone. Marble steps led to the top of the podium and the cella walls may have been ornamented with stucco pilasters on the exterior. When, toward the end of the second century A.D., the citizens of Sabratha extended their town planning into the area somewhat to the east of the older Forum and its surrounding quarters, they shifted the orientation of their structures to a truer north-south axis. Here, toward the end of the second century, a temple to Hercules was dedicated. Following the example of the other temples in Sabratha it was erected in a courtyard having Corinthian columns arranged in colonnades on the west, north, and east sides. At their southern ends the east and west colonnades each ended in an apse. While the floors and lower sections of the walls of these porticos were decorated with marble, the upper portions of the walls were ornamented with  p51 painted scenes. As for the temple itself, little remains to indicate its form as it stood against the south wall of the enclosure.

Southeast of the Temple of Hercules this late second-century quarter was embellished with a magnificent Roman theatre constructed basically of the local sandstone with protective covering and ornamentation of stucco. Designed in typical semicircular form with three superimposed rows of arches and pilasters to support the seats, the Theatre had an estimated capacity of five thousand people (Plates 53, 55, 58, 60, and 61). Beneath the seats two concentric corridors gave access, one to stairs which led to the upper seating area, the other to short radial passages going inward to the better seats nearer the orchestra (Plate 57). Important guests found entrance to their seats immediately around the orchestra by entering through passageways placed at either side of the auditorium and in front of the stage (Plate 69). A low stone screen separated this special seats from the rest of the audience. The front of the stage platform was ornamented with rectangular and semicircular niches containing ornamental bas-reliefs (Plates 70 and 71). At the back of the stage there were provided three entrances, each placed in a semicircular recess. A magnificent colonnade of columns with composite capitals stood in front of this rear wall, arranged in three stories and following the contour of the entire wall. A porch projected in front of each doorway (Plates 59, 68, and 69). The whole stage structure was protected by a ceiling sloping down toward the back and supported by great wooden beams.

A large room was situated at each side of the stage (Plates 57 and 69) and behind the stage itself a delightful garden was laid out with a portico of Corinthian columns on three sides. Such a portico or protected walk was an accepted part of classical theatre design, as we have already observed at Leptis Magna. Then, too, just as Leptis had an Amphitheatre, so did Sabratha. In the latter case it was located quite a distance to the east of the city and measured about 211 by 151 feet for the length and width of the arena. Two trenches were dug at right angles of the one another in the center of the arena and a corridor ran around the circumference of the arena connecting various chambers where the animals were kept.

Although by the early years of the third century Sabratha had expressed its civic interests in a manner of which it could be proud, it had not led itself to that verge of financial disaster which Leptis Magna would reach under the Severan emperors. Sabratha gave birth to no emperor for whom it could feel obliged to attempt the impossible in architectural dedications. It was comfortably satisfied with having provided the lady Flavia Domitilla as wife to Vespasian (69‑79 A.D.). Consequently the life of its citizen body ran on a fairly stable level throughout the third century and into the early years of the fourth century.

In the latter period the ever-present desire for more public buildings and structures could still be expressed in the construction of the portico which surround the East Forum Temple, at the northeast end of the Forum. At some time during this  p52 century also the old Basilica on the southeast side of the Forum was changed to a basilica with central nave and two side aisles, an apse being constructed at each end just as in the Severan Basilica at Leptis Magna (Plate 46). Soon after this it was converted into a church.

Peace was destroyed, however, by the disastrous raids of the Austuriani in 363‑365 A.D. who wrought great destruction in the very heart of Sabratha and compelled the initiation of a new building program. The native raiders had penetrated into the public squares of the city and had left in their wake many ruined and scarred public structures. Probably because of irreparable damage to the East Forum Temple at the northeast end of the Forum, a new white marble colonnade was erected across the front of the temple complex to separate it from the main area of the Forum. It may have been now that the old pagan Basilica on the southeast side of the Forum, where perhaps Apuleius of Madaura was tried for witchcraft, was converted into a Christian church, as already mentioned, and given a new front facing northeast. This completely cut off one-third of the old Basilica at this end. The width was also diminished by moving the northwest wall further in toward the center. This required a readjustment of the aisle colonnade on this side and the consequent readiness in the width of the nave. The columns on the aisles were replaced with paired columns. A baptistry for the new church was secured by altering the chamber behind the southwestern apse. Perhaps at this time also the adjacent building to the northwest, with cruciform interior, was changed somewhat to provide accommodations for meetings of the church officials. In this form its interior arrangement resembled a curia. Access to the adjoining church was provided by a doorway leading through the southeast wall.

Le the East Forum Temple at the northeast end of the Forum, the Temple of Jupiter was probably destroyed by the Austuriani and left in ruins by the citizens of the city who were now more interested in Christianity. The lack of inscriptions dating to the periods subsequent to the first half of the fourth century suggests this probability.

On the northwest side of the Forum a curia was erected in the fourth century to house the official meetings of the city magistrates. At least some work was done on the atrium of the Curia in the latter part of the century, as is clear from an inscription dedicated to Lucius Aemilius Quintus filzzz for his efforts on behalf of the province, probably during the ravages of the middle of the century. The Curia itself is rectangular in form, with four broad steps rising from the center to the side walls on the northwest and southeast. These also run across the end of the room at the southwest. The city officials sat on seats placed upon these steps which, along with the walls, were ornamented with re-used marble from other structures. Pilaster decorated the side walls, while fully detached columns were ranged along the main southwest wall. Both pilasters and columns stood upon a projecting base which ran around the walls of the room. The atrium or entrance hall to the Curia was located at the northeast end and  p53 was entered from the street by a doorway in its southwestern wall. Opposite this entrance a large niche contained an apse formed in the northwest wall, and the entire atrium was provided with an interior colonnade of Corinthian columns as well as a rather coarse mosaic floor.

In that section of the city close to the edge of the water and north of the Theatre area, two additional Christian basilicas were erected during the later period. Built above the remains of earlier structures, the southernmost and largest of these two churches followed the standard basilica form with a baptistry added on the north end and a small courtyard to the east, surrounded by a colonnade and evidently utilizing an area formerly occupy id by a series of bathing rooms. The more northern basilica was also typical in plan and was built over an earlier church, which in turn stood on the site of an unidentified rectangular structure.

Perhaps the best known Christian basilica in Sabratha is that built by order of the emperor Justinian and mentioned in the works of his courtier Procopius. This stood to the northwest of the Curia and the Forum. Its construction the builders drew upon ruins of pagan temples and early imperial monuments, some of which now stood outside the limits of the Byzantine city wall, built during the sixth century to protect the much-shrunken town of Sabratha. Of the usual basilica design, with nave and side aisles running along a northeast-southwest axis, the Justinianic Basilica had an external porch in front of the principal entrance at the southwest. In all probability there was an apse at the northeastern end of the interior as well as a pulpit, a canopied altar, and marble altar table. Perhaps the most lovely item from this church, however, is the main floor of the nave done in mosaic to represent a vast number of birds of all descriptions moving casually amid the intertwining tendrils of grape vines. A magnificent peacock poses in a frame of vines at one end. The entire piece is a charming tour de force (Plates 96 and 97).

Aside from the public buildings mentioned above, Sabratha was dotted with a number of baths, among the largest of which was the Seaward Baths situated behind the East Forum Temple in the direction of the northern beach. Another bath establishment lay just east of the temple of Hercules (Plate 44), while still another, the Oceanus Baths, was constructed to the northeast of the two Christian basilicas north of the Theatre (Plate 45). In building their homes the citizens of Sabratha faced a problem posed by the premium on good building lots. Forced by this situation to get the most usage out of a plot of ground, they frequently created second stories to their houses. In addition, the scarcity of water made it standard practice to install cisterns beneath the houses for the storage of rainwater (Plate 52).

With all of their greatness behind them, however, and in spite of the encouragement offered by the emperor Justinian in his attempt to revive Roman life in Africa, the citizens of Sabratha lost their lust for living and ability to continue building their city and culture after continuous military upheavals in the country. When the Byzantine  p54 walls were erected in the sixth century the city had already been reduced to the area of the Forum and its surrounding city blocks. The sand was beginning to overcome the town and finally, with the advent of the Moslems, it was left all but deserted. Like Leptis Magna it could not attain that continuity of existence which fell to the lot of the sole survivor Oea, the modern Tripoli.

Page updated: 10 Dec 16