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Bill Thayer

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Cities in the Sand
Leptis Magna and Sabratha in Roman Africa

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

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This book is dedicated to the Corps of Engineers,
Middle East Division, and to the men of the
United States Air Force based in Tripoli

The Book and the Authors

Kenneth David Matthews, Jr. was born in Philadelphia in 1924 and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania during World War II and immediately accepted a commission as an Ensign in the United States Navy. After the war, he returned to the University and earned a master's in education and a doctorate in history. He would eventually serve for twenty years as Assistant Curator at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, in charge of the Educational Department: he was primarily a popularizer of ancient history — mostly Roman — developing programs for children, hosting a weekly radio program, "Accent on Antiquity", and appearing as a regular panelist on WCAU‑TV's "What in the World". He later taught history at Arcadia University (formerly Beaver College) from 1973 to 1988, specializing in ancient Rome. He died at his home in Newtown Square, PA on March 30, 2007. A curious and rather revealing clip of him introducing a commercial video by the Dupont Nemours Company illustrating the history of textiles and fibers (and concluding it at 20:02) may be seen at the Penn Museum site.

Alfred W. Cook was born in England and became a citizen of the United States. In the late 1920s he studied at the New York Institute of Photography to become a professional photographer, and after some lean years during the Great Depression during which he took a variety of odd jobs, he became one of the country's leading architectural photographers; an apparent trace of his very early work is seen and further details are given by the Frick Collection under the title Alfred Cook's "Progress Photographs". In 1942 he was sent to Eritrea and North Africa with the United States Army Corps of Engineers, serving in that area throughout the entire campaign: in particular, in February 1945 he covered the Great Bitter Lake Conference between Franklin D. Roosevelt and King Abdulaziz of Arabia. In 1951 he was assigned to Tripoli as Chief Photographer for the Corps of Engineers, Middle East District, in charge of photographing air bases in North Africa.

The publisher's jacket blurb provides a useful synopsis of the book:

Today, the ancient Roman towns of Leptis Magna and Sabratha on the Mediterranean cost of Libya attract only a few curious travelers. But two thousand years ago they were thriving commercial and agricultural centers whose value to Rome was measured by the wealth of produce shipped annually to the cities of the Empire. This volume is primarily an introduction to the personality of these two towns, recovered by archaeologists from the burying sands only in relatively recent years.

The text offers a concise and informative survey of the history of the history of the region known as Tripolitania and examines the cultural and social life of Leptis Magna and Sabratha as reflected in the magnificent ruins depicted in the accompanying plates. The first chapter provides an understanding of Roman government and organization in Africa from the time of Scipio's destruction of Carthage in 146 B.C. until the beginning of Mohammedan rule in 698 A.D. This discussion gives perspective to the life of Leptis Magna and Sabratha by placing it in context with Roman Africa in general, explaining the various political divisions of the Roman provinces as well as the manner of civil and military administration under early imperial Roman, Vandal, and Byzantine rule. The second and third chapters deal, respectively, with the particular ruins of the two towns.

Although both Leptis Magna and Sabratha (unlike their sister city Oea, or modern Tripoli) succumbed to the smothering weight of drifting sand dunes, they are made to live again in the pages of this volume. Kenneth Matthews' text is an excellent summary of life in Roman times, while the photographs by Alfred Cook provide views, unsurpassed in beauty and clarity of detail, of the buildings and art that once flourished along the rim of the Mediterranean Sea.

(p7) Preface

This book is intended primarily as a pictorial introduction to the personality of two towns. Today they attract only a few curious travelers, but two thousand years ago Leptis Magna and Sabratha teemed with important agricultural and commercial life. It was this very manner of life which made these cities, their surrounding province and all of Africa so important to citizens living in Rome, the capital city of the Roman Empire. Since those ancient days the rougher forces of nature have re-exerted their control over this section of the Tripolitanian coast, knocking great colonnades to the ground, bruising finely carved architrave blocks, and finally smothering all in drifting sand dunes.

In modern times a few mysterious sentinel-like stones encouraged sporadic digging for the sake of recovering an occasional strange inscription or piece of mute sculpture. This, however, was most certainly not the way to discover exactly what lay beneath the sands, and during its control over modern Tripolitania the Italian government encouraged its archaeologists to devote attention to these symbols of Rome's ancient past. For the first time scientific methods of excavation were applied to the ruins of Leptis Magna and Sabratha and eventually authoritative reports began to appear in the indispensable series entitled Africa Italiana. In more recent years work has been done at Leptis Magna and the hinterland of Tripolitania under the auspices of the British School at Rome as well. In a forthcoming publication, the British School will survey in scholar­ly detail the result of its efforts at Leptis Magna.

From these remarks it will be evident that our present little book cannot pretend to cover all the fine points and valuable details of a scientific publication. Rather can it serve only as a visual lure to attract the attention of the curious reader to a subject of undeniable value and interest.

The author is deeply indebted to John B. Ward Perkins, Esq., for his very kind suggestions concerning the text and illustrations. While studying the latter the reader should be advised that restoration and reconstruction have been resorted to by the excavators in order to offer some concept of original forms as well as to protect what original elements still survive.

K. M.

Chapter Contents Page
Preface 7
The Roman Background of Tripolitania 17
The Town of Leptis Magna 33
The Town of Sabratha 48
Bibliography 55
Table of Illustrations

Technical Details

Edition Used

The edition followed in this transcription was that of my own hard copy, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1957. The 1957 copyright was not renewed in 1984 or 1985 as then required by law in order to be maintained. The work is thus in the public domain; details here on the copyright law involved.


This is a coffee table book, with nearly a hundred black-and‑white photographs, most of them very handsome. As such, however, it posed a special problem: the chapters are quite short already and couldn't reasonably be divided into several webpages, and even then there would still be far too many photos to put on any of the pages. So I placed on those pages only the photos that really have to be seen as large as possible, and inserted the others as thumbnails (click on them to open them in their own window).

In addition, many photographs are not mentioned in the text. In the Leptis chapter Plates 2, 13, 14, 35, and 36: I added them in suitable places. Similarly in the Sabratha chapter Plates 43, 47, 49, 50, 51, 54, 56, and 62‑67. A third group of Plates (72-97) have no chapter of their own, and only three of those are mentioned under Leptis or Sabratha: you will find the others on the Table of Illustrations page.


As almost always, I retyped the text by hand rather than scanning it — not only to minimize errors prior to proofreading, but as an opportunity for me to become intimately familiar with the work, an exercise which I heartily recommend: Qui scribit, bis legit. (Well-meaning attempts to get me to scan text, if success­ful, would merely turn me into some kind of machine: gambit declined.)

This transcription was minutely proofread. I ran a first proofreading pass immediately after entering each chapter; then a second proofreading, detailed and meant to be final: in the table of contents above, the chapters are shown on blue backgrounds, indicating that I believe them to be completely errorfree; red backgrounds would mean the chapter had not received that second final proofreading. The header bar at the top of each chapter page will remind you with the same color scheme.

The print edition was well proofread; there were only three typographical errors, all of them very minor, and merely marked by a dotted underscore like this: as elsewhere on my site, glide your cursor over the underscored words to read what was actually printed. Bullets before measurements provide conversions to metric, e.g., 10 miles. Very occasionally, also, I use this blue circle to make some brief comment.

Inconsistencies or errors in punctuation are remarkably few; they have been corrected to the author's usual style, in a slightly different color — barely noticeable on the page when it's a comma for example like this one, but it shows up in the sourcecode as <SPAN CLASS="emend">.

Any over­looked mistakes, please drop me a line, of course: especially if you have the printed edition in front of you.

Pagination and Local Links

For citation and indexing purposes, the pagination is indicated by local links in the sourcecode and made apparent in the right margin of the text at the page turns (like at the end of this line p57 ). Sticklers for total accuracy will of course find the anchor at its exact place in the sourcecode.

In addition, I've inserted a number of other local anchors: whatever links might be required to accommodate the author's own cross-references, as well as a few others for my own purposes. If in turn you have a website and would like to target a link to some specific passage of the text, please let me know: I'll be glad to insert a local anchor there as well.

[image ALT: Six Corinthian columns, in two groups of three separated by a slight space. They stand on the top of a sort of circular staircase sloping across the photograph down to the right foreground. They mark the top of a Roman theatre in Lepcis Magna (Libya); on this site the image serves as the icon for the book 'Cities in the Sand'.]

The icon I use to indicate this subsite is the book's photograph — Plate 10 — of elements of the Roman theatre of Lepcis (as the city's name is usually spelled today).

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Site updated: 23 Nov 20