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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.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Leptis Magna

 p17  The Roman Background of Tripolitania​1

Whether or not it is true that Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus Minor wept as he studied the destruction which he had wrought on Carthage in 146 B.C., it is certain that the Roman government was not prepared to comprehend the vast implications of his success. With the spoils of conquest now in hand the officials in Rome had to decide what was to be done with this African land which was now fully theirs. Of course, their initial concern was with Carthage, whose very existence had induced the planning of Scipio's punitive expedition. Having decided at last to retain the territory surrounding Carthage, which had originally belonged to the government and citizens of that town, the republican government at Rome renamed this area the Roman province of Africa. Punic holdings along the north coast to the west of Carthage were ceded to the faithful city of Utica. To the southeast of Carthage lay a long stretch of coast reaching south from Hadrumetum and then east toward the Sirtic gulf. This coastal plain and the adjacent hinterland were turned over to Masinissa, the king of Numidia and a friend of Rome. By this division Rome retained for itself the most civilized portion of this section of Africa and proceeded to manage it by installing a Roman governor at Utica. As for the new coastal lands given to Numidia, the agricultural and commercial potential of such towns as Leptis Magna, Oea (Tripoli), and Sabratha was evidently left in slow development under the rule of Masinissa.

In actuality Masinissa had already come into the possession of these towns just prior to the outbreak of the third Punic war, attracted to them by the promise which they offered of lucrative overseas trade. Originally settled as Phoenician trading stations serving as contact points on the coast for trade with native tribes further inland, Sabratha, Oea (Tripoli), and Leptis Magna gradually passed into the control of Carthage when the Assyrians seized the country of Phoenicia in the late eighth century B.C. In time the original bonds of culture and religion gave way to those of a more political nature, and by the end of the sixth century B.C. these three towns were no longer independent but had been incorporated into the Carthaginian empire. As important commercial centers they became known as the Emporia, from the Greek west emporion, meaning a commercial post. Although their relations with the external internal external  p19 world were controlled by Carthage, their internal affairs must have been left largely in their own hands. On the basis of its original Phoenician constitution Leptis Magna, and most probably Oea and Sabratha as well, maintained a senate or assembly and two principal magistrates, the suphetes, elected annually. The maintenance of ships of war and armies was denied these cities and they were compelled to depend on Carthage for their military defence. In return for this they guaranteed to supply Carthage with food, recruits, and money when necessary.

At the conclusion of the second Punic war in 202 B.C. Carthage lost her overseas holdings and was compelled to surrender to the newly-established kingdom of Numidia much of the African territory which the Numidian ruler Masinissa claimed. The cities of the Emporia, however, were left under Carthaginian control and the government must have continued much as before. Even when Carthage became an ally of Rome a few years later, and thus a Roman dependency with certain continuing obligations, the form of internal government cannot have changed. Nor was there probably any change when Masinissa, after several years of gradual encroachment, was finally confirmed in his possession of the cities of the emporia at the conclusion of the third Punic war in 146 B.C. With the Numidian government centered at Cirta, to the west beyond the new Roman province of Africa, Leptis and Sabratha must have been left relatively unhampered in their government. Since Numidia was actually a client kingdom, however, subservient to Rome in all important matters, the Emporia also must have felt the Roman influence.

In 112 B.C. dynastic problems arose in Numidia, and the Roman Senate, obliged to protect the rights of its allies Hiempsal and Adherbal as heirs to the Numidian throne, declared war on Jugurtha, who also aspired to the throne as sole ruler. When this war, known as the Jugurthine war, ended in 106 B.C. Rome divided the Numidian territories between Bocchus, the king of Mauretania, and Gauda, the single surviving heir to the Numidian throne after the assassination of the immediate heirs by Jugurtha. Leptis Magna, however, and possibly Oea and Sabratha as well, were added to the Roman province, and from this period local government must have been controlled indirectly by Rome.

With the cessation of hostilities in 106 B.C. the inhabitants of Roman Africa turned once more to their agricultural pursuits, specializing in wheat, olives, and grapes. From the proconsular status of the governor, now resident at Carthage, the province was known as Africa Proconsularis, and during the peace of the early first century B.C. it revealed the promise of great agricultural wealth for which it later became famous. Leptis Magna turned particular attention to increasing the production of olive oil, while both wheat and oil became the major products of the province in general. Vast quantities of these were assessed by the government at Rome and during this first century B.C. Africa became one of the major sources of supply for the grain dole to the populace of Rome. In 46 B.C. Julius Caesar entered Africa to  p20 engage the remaining Pompeian forces who had threatened his position during the civil war between himself and Pompey. On the field at Thapsus Caesar defeated his enemies, among whom were numbered soldiers of the Numidian king Juba. Following this victory Caesar reorganized all of the Roman territories in Africa. Africa Proconsularis, now called Africa Vetus, was left as it had already been established. New arrangements, however, were necessary for the kingdom of Numidia, which had obviously come to disregard its responsibility as a client kingdom functioning to protect the coastal territories from the desert tribes. Juba, its king, had supported Pompey. Therefore the kingdom of Numidia was abolished, and the territory formed into the new province of Africa Nova, an adjunct to Africa Vetus. At the conclusion of these arrangements Caesar placed on Africa an annual levy of 200,000 Attic medimni of wheat and three million librae of oil. Thus Leptis Magna, Sabratha, and Oea had passed by diverse stages from Punic commercial posts of Carthage through phases of Numidian control and into the expanding imperial authority of Rome.

Although the emperor Augustus never visited Africa himself he ordered a reorganization of the provinces there during his visit to Spain in 25 B.C. In 27 B.C. he had already assigned Africa to the Roman Senate as one of the provinces to be administered by that body. Two years later he directed that an official of consular or praetorian rank be appointed as proconsul to govern the province. It was highly unusual that the Senate should be given this particular authority. Earlier Augustus had married the young Numidian prince Juba II, brought up in Rome as a hostage, to Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Antony and Cleopatra. Then Augustus reestablished the client kingdom of Numidia and installed Juba as king. In 25 B.C., however, his consideration of the African situation led him to transfer Juba to the throne of Mauretania and reincorporate Numidia into the province of Africa, which now stretched from the Ampsaga River on the coast above Cirta to the western limits of Cyrenaica.

The unsettled conditions of the interior led Augustus to station the Third Augustan Legion in the province and it was the presence of this military force in an area subject to the authority of the Roman Senate which was so unusual. It was Augustus' general policy to retain in his own power those sections of the empire which required military establishments. During this early period the legate of the legion in Africa was subordinate to the Roman governor now resident at Carthage. The Third Augustan Legion itself proved most effective in bringing about the increased Romanization of the area through the efforts of its architects and engineers. Under such protection and encouragement Roman merchants must have been attracted all the more to such commercial centres as Leptis Magna, Oea, and Sabratha. The extended arm of the Roman government reached even to these places, though, and the inhabitants were subject to such regular taxes as those on the value of land and on fixed property, on income obtained from movable property, and also indirect taxes in the form of harbor dues and customs. The older local governmental system continued, however,  p22 and beneath the growing veneer of Roman culture there still ran a strong undercurrent of native Berber and Phoenician civilization. With great foresight Rome never attempted to interfere with this but wisely adapted these elements to her own purposes. Although Latin was used as the official language for the accomplishment of business by the various branches of the governor's civil and military offices, Punic was equally dominant in everyday speech and writing. Yet increasing commerce with other Mediterranean countries under the aegis of the Pax Romana brought developing prosperity to the African port cities such as Utica, the new Carthage which had been reestablished, in 123 B.C., as the Colonia Karthago Iunonia, Leptis Magna, Oea, and Sabratha. Of the eastern cities Leptis Magna grew most prominently.

The peace of the coastal cities of the Emporia was not unmarred, however, for the centres of Roman culture were confined to the narrow belt of cultivable land which ran along the coast. Inland the primitive tribal people posed a continual threat. This condition of potential danger also existed further to the west, and in 17 A.D. the peace in Roman Africa was seriously disrupted by the invasion of desert tribes under the leader­ship of Tacfarinas, a Numidian who had finally deserted after having been trained for service as a Roman auxiliary. Incorporating into his forces at various times the native tribes of the Musulamii, the Mauri, and the Garamantes, Tacfarinas led his attacks deep into Roman territory. The Third Augustan Legion was unable to meet this invasion alone and the Ninth Hispanic Legion was transferred immediately to assist. In 24 A.D. Tacfarinas was killed and the Roman general Publius Dolabella brought the revolt to an end. With the conclusion of activities the Ninth Hispanic Legion was moved on to Pannonia and peace reigned once more in Africa.

The revolt of Tacfarinas had clearly shown, however, that it was highly impractical to concentrate both military and civil authority in the hands of the proconsular governor. Consequently the emperor Gaius (37‑41 A.D.) separated these two responsibilities, confining the realm of the governor of Africa to civil control over provincial life which was mostly concentrated in the highly developed cities of the coast. Military authority was vested in the propraetorian legate of the Third Augustan Legion, who thus in essence also assumed control over most of Numidia to the west of Africa Proconsularis, inasmuch as this area seemed to be most in need of military observation to prevent trouble with the border tribes. The legate was stationed in the headquarters of his legion, which was for a while at Ammaedara, then Tebessa, and finally at Lambaesis at the beginning of the second century A.D. Among his forces the legate numbered approximately 5500 regular legionaries who were full Roman citizens, and a body of auxiliary soldiers of about the same number. These latter were enrolled from the provinces. A cohort of the regular legion was detached to serve as a guard to the governor in Carthage where there was also stationed an urban cohort sent from Rome to serve as a police force for the maintenance of peace in the city. In 42 A.D., when Mauretania was added to the Roman province as a result of the death of its king  p23 Ptolemy at the hands of Gaius, additional auxiliary forces totaling about 15,000 men were raised for the new territory. By the middle of the second century A.D. native Africans filled not only the ranks of the auxiliary groups but also a large proportion of those in the regular legion. For the protection of the eastern parts of the province, such as the area behind Leptis Magna and Sabratha, cohorts of the legion were available for minor troubles while the entire legion could be dispatched in the event of a major uprising.

In the years following the annexation of Mauretania, Africa became rather intimately involved in affairs in Rome through such men as Aulus Vitellius, who served as proconsul of Africa under the emperor Claudius (41‑54 A.D.) and later became emperor himself. Then, on the death of Nero in 68 A.D., the proconsul of Africa at the time, Clodius Macer, turned his own rebellion into a serious threat to seize the throne. In setting himself up as a candidate Macer attempted to supplement the Third Augustan Legion by raising an extra force, the First Macrianan Legion, so as to provide stronger military backing for his project. The emperor Galba disbanded this legion when he came to the throne in 68 A.D., but the emperor Vitellius reconstituted it again in the following year. Upon the latter's death in December of the same year the legion finally disappeared completely from the records.

Although Nero had paid small attention to the military aspects of his administration the serious confusion brought on by the various army units at the time of his death indicated to the emperor Vespasian and several of his successors that a close intimacy with the army had to be maintained. This policy was an important facet of the reigns of Trajan and also Hadrian who, in the year 128 A.D., landed at Carthage and traveled inland to Lambaesis where the Third Augustan Legion was then quartered. At the camp he personally reviewed the troops in special maneuvers and by this touch strengthened the devotion of the forces upon whose loyalty the safety of Roman Africa depended. Nor was this purely unselfish attention on the part of the emperor, for by this time the entire province of Africa was supplying enough grain to meet the needs of Rome for perhaps eight months of the year. Oil ranked next in importance as an article of wholesale export and therein lay the importance of Leptis Magna. Through this port passed huge quantities of oil pressed from olives grown in the orchards which covered the Tarhuna plateau to the southwest of the city. For the increasing prosperity of this region protection had to be guaranteed against the Garamantes, a native tribe on the fringes of the desert to the south. From other parts of the province came fine purple dye, figs, truffles, cucumbers, expensive woods and marbles, animals for use in the amphitheatres, and numerous medicinal items. The second century A.D. saw Roman civilization in Africa flourishing with increasing lustre, encouraged by the ever-growing demands of Italy. In addition the province had attracted Italian land investors who developed some fairly large estates which were frequently leased out to coloni for cultivation. Although originally free tenants, these coloni gradually became  p24 bound not only for their responsibility in returning a certain percentage of crops to the government but also by the obligation to work on domain land. Much private territory in the province had come into the imperial domain by confiscation under Nero and this too was parceled out and sublet for cultivation. During the second century A.D. these business interests led to an increase in the economic and social activities of the province, which found expression in typical Roman building ventures.

Prosperity for many sections of Africa Proconsularis reached its culminating glory in the early third century A.D. under the encouragement of the Severan emperors. When Septimius Severus ascended the imperial throne in 193 A.D., pride of a new sort swelled up in the breasts of the citizens of Africa, for Septimius himself had been born in Leptis Magna. Nor did he forget the country of his birth. Concern for his native land led Septimius to reassess the military measures taken to protect the province against incursions of native tribes from the interior. Heretofore the Roman military policy appears to have been one of merely depending upon units of the Third Augustan Legion which could be sent into the interior to subdue and punish any native uprisings. In this manner was protection given to the narrow civilized coastal belt which included Oea, Sabratha, and Leptis Magna. While such military units probably were quartered from time to time in these three cities and occasionally in villages along the road which ran parallel to the coast atop the Gebel escarpment, they were not garrison troops located in highly organized Roman fortifications. With Septimius' restudy of this situation a new scheme developed. This involved the creation of a deep protective area of civilized native agricultural settlement in the hinterland south and southeast of Leptis Magna, including the Wadi Sofeggin and running down to the region of the Wadi Zemzem. To lend further strength to this plan, several military stations or fortifications were erected on the road leading southeast into the Upper Sofeggin area from the vicinity of Zintan on the Gebel road. Under Septimius a part of the Third Augustan Legion was stationed at Ain Wif (ancient Thenadassa) on this same road which ran up from Leptis Magna through Medina Doga (ancient Mesphe) and on westward to Turris Tamalleni in modern Tunisia. While in the earlier period of the empire this road may have served as a form of limes or border limit, it was then never a chain of connected military settlements. Indeed, at the time of its original demarcation during the reign of Tiberius (14‑37 A.D.) it could not have been any more military than commercial in nature, since it only reached at first from employ to Mesphe, a distance of forty-two miles. Under Septimius Severus, however, the road passed all the way from Turris Tamalleni along the Gebel range to Leptis Magna and formed a stable military and commercial inner frontier connection for the developing agricultural settlements in the Sofeggin region. Protection here was also guaranteed by outposts of the Third Augustan Legion stationed on the desert fringes to the south at Bu-Ngem, Gheria el‑Garbia, and Ghadames. Throughout the reigns of Septimius' successors Caracalla and Alexander Severus this protective zone behind the  p25 coastal cities of Leptis Magna, Oea, and Sabratha was further developed by the construction of fortified farms in the wheat growing area of the Sofeggin. It was Alexander Severus who supplemented the fortifications on the desert border by establishing the fort at Gheria el‑Garbia already mentioned. When the Third Augustan Legion was finally disbanded in 238 A.D. the responsibility of maintaining the Limes Tripolitanus devolved upon the agricultural landholders dwelling on their estates in towerlike buildings surrounded by ditches. These men were of Libyan-Phoenician background and in many instances had served as auxiliaries in the Roman legion; on being mustered out, they had received grants of land in the limes region with the understanding that they stand ready to provide military service in their area when the necessity arose. After 238 A.D. forces of native border troops termed limitanei were organized by zonal divisions, each division being placed in the charge of an officer known as the praepositus. The Limes Tentheitanus was one of these zones on the border between Tripolitania and Numidia and had some of its forces stationed at Gasr Duib on the road leading from the main Gebel road down toward Mizda in the Upper Sofeggin. Several additional defensive sites have been recognized along the Wadi Sofeggin and the Wadi Zemzem.

To the east of Bu‑Ngem and Sirte (ancient Maccomades) Roman penetration was confined to the coast and reached eastward to Cyrenaica. Very little is known of military protective measures in this region. To the west of Tripolitania, however, evidence indicates that, at least in part, the limes in Tunisia was comprised of the more standard fosse, or ditch, often accompanied by a wall of earth. Such a fosse was constructed by Scipio to delimit Rome's first holdings in Africa. In the first century A.D. Roman civilization moved further inland and military structures were erected at such sites as Ammaedara, Lambaesis, and even the advanced post at Gemellae which was founded by Hadrian.

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Defensive Organization of Roman Tripolitania.

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Although Septimius Severus showered many favours upon the cities of his homeland, the very steps which he took for the protection of Tripolitania probably served eventually to weaken Roman domination in this section of the African coast. With the end of the Severan dynasty in 235 A.D. invasions and civil war disrupted the Roman world and Tripolitania fell subject to the general decline in the west. The creation of self-subsistent native strongholds in the interior, combining an agricultural existence with native military preparedness, only served to encourage the growth of a feeling of independence.

When Diocletian came to the throne in 284 A.D. the situation throughout the entire empire had so changed as to require a completely new approach to imperial administration. Africa drew its share of attention and fell subject to the general imperial policy of subdivision. By 293 A.D. Mauretania Sitifensis had been created while Byzacena, formed from the southern part of Africa Proconsularis, appeared shortly after 294. Africa Proconsularis itself was enlarged through the addition of a part of  p26 Numidia, and for the first time Tripolitana appears as a separate province sometime between 294 and 307. Whereas the coast of Tripolitana had earlier been controlled by a legate of the proconsul of Africa and the interior by the legate of the Third Augustan Legion, now it had its own governor bearing the title of praeses. All four of these provinces formed the diocese of North Africa, which was administered by a vicar. North Africa in turn belonged in the praefecture of Italy ruled by one of the four praetorian praefects.

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Roman Africa. Top: In the Severan Period. Bottom: After Diocletian.

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Although the governor of a province was primarily a judicial official, he also bore the responsibility of administering the tax levy and enforcing the fulfillment of liturgies or public burdens assigned to the various members of the local curia as well as the navicularii or groups of men owning commercial sailing vessels. The vicars of the dioceses were directly responsible to the emperor, and in the case of Africa the vicar assumed the special burden of assuring the collection of grain and oil supplies for Rome. This obligation of supplying Rome with grain and oil was termed the annona.​a At first the responsibility of collecting it rested with the governor at Carthage, who delegated the charge to local officials and members of the curia. In the time of Diocletian the proconsul of Africa Proconsularis directed this in his own domain while the vicar of the diocese of Africa assumed its direction in the other African provinces. From 395 A.D., however, the vicar of Africa held this responsibility in Africa Proconsularis as well. The portion of wheat or oil to be paid by landowners was delivered three times a year to the municipal granaries, the horrea, which were managed by officials called praepositi horreorum. When the collections were complete the vir clarissimus praefectus annonae Africae then took charge of transporting it to Rome and thus fulfilled the obligations for the annona which rested directly upon the praetorian praefect. The praefectus annonae was assisted in this transportation problem by the navicularii, merchants who possessed the means of shipping the wheat and oil across the Mediterranean to Italy.

This highly developed chain of responsibility for guaranteeing free grain and oil to the populace of Rome was completely dependent upon peace in the agricultural area of Africa. Most Roman emperors were only too well of the dangerous revolts which could occur in the capital of Rome if anything should prevent the arrival of ships bearing the promised dole. When Diocletian reviewed the military situation in Africa he found that, in spite of the emperor Gaius' attempt to separate the civil from the military offices, the disbanding of the Third Augustan Legion in 238 A.D. had permitted the provincial governors again to secure command of the armed forces in their provinces. During the latter part of the third century A.D. it had become the practice to appoint a special commander or dux to carry on especially important military campaigns. This, however, was too casual a system for Diocletian and he proceeded to reform the military organization into two units. One was a central mobile force and the other an appropriate number of squadrons to be permanently stationed  p27 on the frontiers. During the reign of Constantine the position of comes was created for the commander of the army of Africa. In Tripolitana, however, the local governor still controlled the local forces, probably only limitanei, and in this capacity employed the title dux through most of the fourth century. During this same century it is interesting to note that in an army of 21,000 men in Africa, 9500 of these were mounted horsemen. This clearly shows the value which the Roman command placed on cavalry in this region.

Although revolts did occur among native African tribes during the early years of the reign of Diocletian and Maximian, the next serious threat to Tripolitana appeared in 363 A.D. when the Austuriani, a tribe to the southeast of Tripolitana, invaded that province and penetrated as far as the very walls of Leptis Magna. Entreaties for help sent to the comes Africae, or Roman commander in Africa, Romanus, accomplished little, and in the succeeding years Tripolitana was invaded again and the land around Leptis ravaged once more, while in 365 A.D. Sabratha was partially destroyed. Direct appeals to the emperor Valentinian I failed, and it would appear that similar raids continued into the beginning of the fifth century. All of these raids seem to have been carried out by tribes who swarmed through the very areas in the Wadi Zemzem and the Wadi Sofeggin where earlier imperial policy had developed native fortified dwellings to serve as protection against just such attacks. One wonders just how this was possible if the inhabitants of these regions were truly faithful to the performance of their duties. On the other hand, the incursions may have come by way of the Tarhuna plateau directly south of Leptis and Oea. An inscription found in this region and evidently dating to the end of the fourth century or the beginning of the fifth records the gratefulness of a family saved from destruction at the hands perhaps of the very natives who attacked the coastal towns.

In other parts of Africa, from 372 to 374 A.D., native uprisings led by Firmus, a native chieftain, proved so threatening in Mauretania Sitifensis and Mauretania Caesariensis that the emperor himself at last observed the incapabilities of the same Romanus, comes Africae. The imperial magister equitum Theodosius was dispatched to quell the revolt. In 397 A.D. Gildo, a brother of Firmus, transferred his allegiance as comes Africae from Honorius to Arcadius, the eastern Roman emperor at Constantinople. Stilicho, sent by Honorius to recover Africa and preserve the all-important source of grain supply for Rome, defeated Gildo in 398 and the office of comes Africae was given to Stilicho's brother-in‑law Bathanarius.

Life in Roman Africa had now become quite disturbed by internal complications as well as those brought about by tribal threats on the borders. From the great days of Septimius Severus Africa had begun its decline, perhaps slower than throughout other parts of the western empire but nonetheless certain. Increasing bondage to civil obligations involving more burdensome financial outlays undermined the social fibre of the provinces. Most directly affected by these government policies were the prominent  p28 citizens who comprised the curia or local senate. One of their greatest problems was the collection of taxes. Any unfavorable difference between the assessed tax and that actually collected had to be made up by these curiales or members of the curia. But this was only the greatest of their many grievances. During the fourth century many emperors tried to relieve the situation, but by the end of the century affairs had returned to their former state. Rapacity on the part of government officials in the provinces was always one of the problems of Roman imperial administration. This evil, often activated through connivance with influential officers at court, added more to the burden of the provincials during the third and fourth centuries A.D. The great building surge in Africa during the reign of Septimius Severus appears to have exhausted the financial resources of such a town as Leptis Magna, and in other towns the financial status must have been severely threatened. Even though subsequent imperial patronage encouraged new building efforts, these were largely concentrated in Africa Proconsularis and Numidia. Local initiative and civil pride in the cities of Tripolitana and much of Roman Africa continued in decline under the increasing pressure and limitation of movement placed on the curiales and other members of the local societal structure.

There was other unrest in Africa during the fourth century, though, and this came as a direct result of the Christian persecutions under Diocletian. Throughout the early empire the Christian Church had survived the sporadic persecutions of the second and third centuries, gaining ever more additional strength. When Diocletian published his first edict against the Church in 303 A.D. he instituted a program of persecution which varied widely in intensity during the year immediately following. In the east the Caesar Galerius put the program into force with pagan devotion. In the west Constantius instrumented the drive in his praefecture of Gaul and Britain with very weak purpose, while Maximian, on the other hand, executed the edict with a strong hand in Africa as well as in the other dioceses under his control. After the retirement of Diocletian and Maximian the new rulers in the west, Constantine and Maxentius, desisted from this program and eventually granted toleration to the Christians in their domains. With the coming of peace in Africa, however, a more insidious threat arose in the body of the Church. How was the Church to deal with members and even officials who had capitulated to the government and had surrendered the scriptures for destruction? In 313 A.D. Anullinus, the proconsul of Africa, informed the emperor Constantine of this newly developed schism wherein the leaders of the Church in Numidia contested the recent election of Caecilian to the position of Bishop of Carthage, which city had become the ecclesiastical capital of Africa. The charge, later proven false, was that Caecilian had been ordained by a traditor, one who had been guilty of refusing to protect the prerogatives and possessions of the Church during the great persecution. A rival bishop was elected and the contest became so disruptive to the peace of the provinces that imperial intervention was necessary. By  p29 the time Constantine summoned a council in October 313 to decide the contest, Majorinus the rival bishop had died, and had been replaced by Donatus, whose name now became attached to the new religious movement. When the Donatists refused to accept the decision of the Council of Rome in favor of Caecilian the emperor summoned another council at Arles in 314. In 316 Constantine declared his decision to uphold the rights of Caecilian. The subsequent actions of the Donatists led him to attempt to coerce them in 321, but after only a few months this policy was brought to an end. Throughout the fourth century the Donatists fomented more trouble, mostly centered in Numidia where they were strongest. Mauretania Sitifensis also felt their disturbing influence. The revolts of Firmus and Gildo in the latter half of the century found some encouragement among the Donatists, although Gildo himself had good reason to complain of their lack of support. Even more discredit was attached to the Donatist movement through the brigandage of bands of wandering agricultural workers of the poorest class. These were called circumcelliones. Various attempts to repress the schismatic body in the African Church were made during the fourth century, and occasional encouragement came to them from such as the emperor Julian and the comes Africae Gildo. At last in 403, however, a Donatist bishop was declared a heretic by the proconsul of Africa and an imperial edict of February 12, 405, proclaimed Donatism a heresy. Until now able to sustain itself within the frame-work of the law, Donatism, stigmatized with the label of heresy, was severely weakened. The final blow came with the condemnation of Donatism in 411 at the Conference of Carthage. The law promulgated at the conclusion of this conference accomplished the end of the Donatist heresy to all intents and purposes, though some isolated Donatist bodies continued in existence for several more centuries.

Hardly had the imperial government committed itself to the extermination of the Donatist heresy when it was confronted with another serious situation in the African provinces. Indications of weakness in the imperial succession in Rome led to increasing discontent and difficulty in the provincial administration. With the death of the Vandal Stilicho and the termination of Bathanarius' tenure in Africa the position of comes Africae passed to Heraclian, who aspired to great authority in court circles as a highly influential general. At first loyal to the emperor Honorius during the Gothic threats of Alaric and Attalus, Heraclian finally revolted in 413 A.D. and attempted to invade Italy. Mustering his African army, he called upon the great African grain fleet to transport the forces overseas to Italy. Once on land there, however, Heraclian was defeated and finally executed.

When Honorius died in 423 the western empire of Rome passed on to his nephew Valentinian III, who was guided during the early years of his reign by Galla Placidia, the sister of Honorius. It was unfortunate for the young emperor that misunderstandings arose between the empress Placidia and the comes Africae Boniface. The latter's attitude toward Rome became so hostile that in 427 two successive military ventures  p30 became necessary to subdue Boniface. In this state of affairs Africa offered itself as a tempting lure to the Asding Vandals who had moved into the southern area of Spain in 419. Encouraged by Boniface's hostility toward the Roman court, and not necessarily directly invited by Boniface as later historians suggested, this body of Vandals along with a small group of Alans crossed into Africa in May 429. Probably by February of this same year Boniface had become reconciled with the imperial government and the expedition of the Vandals was regarded as a true invasion for the purpose of securing new territory. In Spain the Vandals had eventually been recognized as foederati or allies of the Roman government, and their progress through western Africa was so irresistible that in 435 Rome was compelled to recognize them as foederati now in Africa. In February of this year a treaty was signed with the Vandals, probably at Hippo, establishing them as foederati in proconsular Numidia with Hippo as their capital.

The peace was short-lived, however, and in 439 Gaiseric, who had led them into Africa from Spain, conducted a successful Vandal attack on Carthage. The years of the reign of Gaiseric who died in 477 were dated from this event. By 442 the Roman government was no longer able to maintain the fallacy that the Vandals were merely residents on Roman territory, and in this year Valentinian concluded a treaty with Gaiseric whereby north Africa was divided between Vandals and the Romans.

This was the birth of the Vandal state, consisting of a specified geographical area over which it exerted complete authority. By the treaty the Vandals gained Africa Proconsularis, Byzacena, the eastern and larger portion of Numidia including its southern borders, and finally the territories of the Gaetulia and the Abaritana. The latter group of people are connected with the western section of Tripolitana, which thus came under the influence of Gaiseric. Indeed, other evidence suggests that before 455 Gaiseric exercised his authority along the coast of Tripolitana at least as far as Oea, thus including Sabratha in his realm as well.

For themselves the Romans retained Mauretania Caesariensis, Mauretania Sitifensis, a section of Numidia including the city of Cirta, and also perhaps the eastern section of Tripolitana. By 455 Gaiseric had become so strong as to invade Italy, capture Rome, and carry off as hostages Valentinian's widow Eudoxia and her two daughters Eudoxia and Placidia.

Shortly after his accession to the throne of the eastern Roman empire in 474, Zeno sent the patrician Severus to Carthage to negotiate a peace agreement with Gaiseric. This was a most appropriate move on Zeno's part, inasmuch as his predecessor Leo had dispatched a great army on 1100 ships, at a cost of 130,000 livres of gold, under the general­ship of Basiliscus, the empress' brother, to defeat the Vandals in 468. The expedition had failed miserably and the more successful march of Byzantine soldiers under Heraclius through Tripolitana toward Carthage also had come to nothing. Thus, by his treaty, Zeno recognized an accomplished fact and the Vandals  p31 were left with their African domains as well as Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and Balearic Islands. Once again the wealthy cities of Tripolitana found themselves under Vandal rule.

Other than establishing an elaborate Vandal court at Carthage with offices strongly resembling some of those in the Roman imperial court, the Vandals appear to have allowed local government to continue much in the old manner. The old system established for the administration of justice continued in force excepting for matters concerning major religious problems. This was understandable in view of the fact that, as Arians, the Vandals were interested in increasing the authority of their Church at the expense of the African Catholic Church. In customs the Vandals were all too anxious to adopt the luxurious ways of the Romans, and Latin continued as the predominating tongue, thus making bilinguists of many Vandals.

When Justinian ascended the imperial throne in Constantinople in 527 A.D., the policy of the Roman government assumed new vigor. Determined to reestablish Roman prestige in north Africa Justinian appointed his most capable general, Belisarius, to the command of a Byzantine army which set sail from Constantinople in the summer of 533. By September Carthage had fallen, and in December the Vandal king Gelimer was taken captive, thus bringing to an end the great Vandal kingdom.

In 534 the reconquered provinces of Tripolitana, Byzacena, Africa Proconsularis, Numidia and Mauretania Sitifensis were placed under the charge of the patrician Solomon, who united civil and military authority under the titles of praetorian praefect and magister militum of Africa. Difficulties in restoring peace among the various native groups increased to such an extent that Solomon was replaced by Justinian's own nephew Germanus in 538. Germanus was successful in quelling these disturbances, and in 539 Solomon was reinstated to complete the pacification of the country, and ruled until his death in 544. On this occasion local uprisings again broke out in the Berber areas, but the general John Troglita finally combated them so successfully that these Roman provinces remained peaceful throughout the rest of their existence under Byzantine control.

Mauretania Caesariensis and Mauretania Tingitana had not been regained by the Byzantine forces, and these were held within the empire only by the most broadly interpreted bonds of association. Indeed, under Diocletian, Tingitana had been separated from the African sphere of influence by being incorporated into the province of Spain. Civil and military authority in the Byzantine provinces of Africa were divided, although in cases of emergency both could be combined into one office. At the head of the civil branch was the praetorian praefect, who governed the praefecture of Africa, which included the five provinces already mentioned as well as Sardinia and Corsica. Beneath the praefect were seven governors titled either consulares or praesides. Governors with the rank of consularis ruled Zeugitana (old Africa Proconsularis),  p32 Byzacena, and Tripolitana, while Sardinia, Numidia, Mauretania Sitifensis, and a sector of the reincorporated Mauretania Caesariensis were governed by men with the rank of praeses.

The military command in Africa was placed in the charge of a magister militum who directed the over-all administration of the four military districts in their praefecture (Tripolitana, Byzacena, Numidia, and Mauretania). Each district was controlled by a dux who supervised the limitanei and whatever forces were put in charge of tribunes. The limitanei were a continuation of the pre-Vandal Roman border protective pattern. Each was granted a section of land on which to sustain himself and his family, but this land could be held and even inherited only on the condition that the owner provide military service in his area when the need arose.

Inasmuch as the Vandals had destroyed the protective walls of many towns in Africa Justinian found it necessary to rebuild these, although in most cases the area enclosed was much smaller than in former times. In addition numerous Byzantine forts were constructed as far west as the straits of Gibraltar. Beyond these protective measures, special alliances were formed with the leaders of various border tribes, thus establishing a series of barbarian client princes called Mauri pacifici. The general pattern of refortification in Africa, however, clearly indicated a Byzantine withdrawal inwards from the earlier imperial limits.

The recurrence of numerous minor wars in Africa by the end of the sixth century led to the creation of a new form of governor­ship called the exarchate, which now permanently combined both civil and military powers. This same period also found the imperial government restudying the provincial border limits in Africa, as a result of which Mauretania Sitifensis and Mauretania Caesariensis were combined to form the new province of Mauretania Prima; the area further to the west, Septum, was added to the Byzantine holdings in southern Spain to become Mauretania Secunda. Tripolitana itself, probably during the reign of the emperor Maurice (582‑602 A.D.), was separated from Africa and joined to the province of Egypt.

The Byzantine reorganization meant little to the dying culture in north Africa, which had become thoroughly exhausted and depopulated by the wars of the sixth century. Depredations of undisciplined soldiers contributed to the weakened condition, and the territory proved only too fertile for the Moslem conquerors who, first establishing an outpost at Al‑Qayrawan, were finally able to seize Carthage in 698.

The Author's Note:

1 Throughout this text the reader will notice a variation in the spelling of the territory in which Leptis Magna, Oea, and Sabratha are located. "Tripolitania" is a modernization of the Romano-Byzantine name "Tripolitana" given to this area by virtue of its three important cities. Prior to the end of the third century A.D. no such name was used in official records of the province. However, the author has taken the liberty of using the spelling "Tripolitania" on occasions to simplify geographical references and to associate the area with a term still to be seen on modern maps.

Thayer's Note:

a For details, see the brief article Annona in Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, but mostly the further links and notes there.

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