A Narrative History of Ancient Algeria
Algeria is the bold, mountainous heart of North Africa, the ancient and central seat of the Berber people, whose culture and states have always intermingled with that of its two neighbours, Morocco to the West and Tunisia to the East. To understand thisd nation you have to be first aware of it's four distinctive climatic zones. The comparatively lush Mediterranean coast has always supported the largest cities and the cosmopolitan trading ports, as well as isolated fishing harbours and walled fortresses. This coastal plain is everywhere overlooked by mountain regions (such as the famous Kabyle fastness) which are the natural bulwarks against foreign invaders. South of these often thickly forested mountains stretch the undulating hills of the High Plateaux, the hidden core of the nation, a vast natural grass-land dotted with olive orchards that was well suited to horseman and herdsmen and cereal cultivation. Constantine to the west and Tlemcen to the east are the ancient and modern capitals of this internal zone. The journey south leads into ever more arid grazing land, broken by outcrops of the southern Atlas (such as the Aures mountain region) before the land descends to the Sahara proper. This vast desert landscape of sun-bleached mountains, gravel plains and sand seas is breached by an archipelago-like scattering of oasis settlements each with their own particular Berber culture, be it the Mzab, Biskra or Tuat. They were bound together by narrow sinews of trade, north to the Mediterranean markets, south towards the gold of West Africa and east towards Egypt and Arabia. In the very far south, the vast silence of the deep Sahara is broken by the black summits of the Hoggar mountain regions, the home of Berber goat and camel-herdsmen, half way across the desert towards the land of the Blacks. In short, Algeria is a vast continent of a country, composed of many determinedly different regions each with their own proud history.
Twenty thousand years ago, when the British Isles was crushed under ice and the Mediterranean was not an inland sea but a series of vast lakes. A second Italian-like peninsular reached towards modern Algeria formed out of an enlarged Corsica-with Sardinia, while Morocco and Spain were firmly married, and Sicily with Italy was directly attached to Tunisia. There was no identifiable racial difference between the bands of hunter-gatherers of the Upper Paleolithic culture that moved along the shores of these great lakes.
Origins of the Berbers
The history clock of our recognizably modern world starts around 10,000 years ago with a slow flood: as the ceaseless torrent of glacier melt waters that would eventually burst open the Bopshorus channel and the straits of Gibraltar and join up the great lakes to form the Mediterranean and the current coast of Algeria. Prehistorians have identified two material cultures in North Africa during this period, the Ibero-Mauretanian's dwelt on the shore and in the forested hills, whilst on the fringes of the Saharan desert, existed the Capsian culture, hunters poised on the brink of becoming herdsmen. Indeed it was just such an advanced Saharan pastoral culture coming out of North Africa and the Sudan that would pour into the Nile swamp-lands from the West and make use of the tools of the Neolithic revolution to create the first super-power of the world - ancient Egypt sometime around 5,000 BC . The progress of these same techniques also spread west, while increasing aridity widened and instensified the Sahara to gradually separate the population of the North African shore from the rest of black Africa. The arrival of the horse, sometime around 1,200 BC was the last dynamic piece of the jigsaw which transformed the human landscape. After which the curtain can be lifted to announce to the world that a million Berbers are in possession of their ancient indigenous homeland of North Africa. They grew barley and wheat, herded sheep, cows and goats. To give them their pedigree they are ethnically Caucasian but also related to the Chadians of the Sudan and the Semites of Arabia, whilst their language (subdivided into numerous dialects) is part of the larger Afro-Asiatic group (which includes Kushitic, ancient Egyptian and modern Coptic).
Historical Berber tribes
As depicted and described by the Ancient Egyptians (who knew them as Mashwash or Libu) and later by Herodotus, the Berbers were warlike and handsome, natural cavalrymen armed with five foot long javelins and a small, round shield, wearing long split robes gathered at the waist and one or two ostrich feathers stuck in their dark, curly hair. Centuries later, when the Berber Numidian cavalry would be depicted on Trajan's column or described in Aulus Gellius's text, they are recognizably similar but have added a bridle, riding breeches and a strong sword to their armoury. Herodotus lovingly described the differences between the various Berber tribes that occupied the deserts of Libya and southern Tunisia. His researches never took him into Algeria but we can be sure that the same style of fiercely independent tribes, set in warlike rivalry to their neighbours, stretched right across this land. By the third century BC, the Berber tribes of Algeria had become known as the Numidians who were customarily divided into three great rival kingdoms, the Mauri (the Mauretanians) occupy Morocco and a slice of western Algeria, whilst the Masaesyli dominate the Mediterranean coast and the northern half the High Plateaux, with the Massyli dominate the south, not only of Algeria but stretching right across southern Tunisia to the coast of Libya.
These kingdoms were rich in corn, olive oil and leather but not in the metals that were so highly prized in the ancient world, indeed the whole region seems to have stood outside the charmed circle of bronze age culture, passing from tools of stone, leather and wood straight into the Iron age. It was a land of thousands of small villages and hamlets, of nomadic encampments and seasonal huts, presided over by one or two ancient citadels where a dense cluster of mud-brick houses sheltered within dry-stone walls. The royal courts were highly mobile and personal, and the all-important gathering of the tribute, both a tithe from the fields and the herds, and men in time of war, was handled through a chain of client relationships, petty kings and noble clans within the rival tribes. But from surviving inscriptions (in Libyo-punic - the Berber language in the Phoenician script) there are tantalizing references to the checks and balances imbedded within this society, with sufetes, judge-like magistrates presiding over the towns, while a system of elective kingship rotated authority around the different clans of a tribe as well as meritocratic military system based on commanders of a hundred men.
Berber Kings of Numidia
The great Kings of Numidia also benefited from a line of trading ports that had been established along the Mediterranean shore by communities of Phoenician merchants, connecting their home cities along the coast of Syria with all the sources of metal; be it the tin of Cornwall, the silver of southern Spain, the copper of Cyprus or the gold dust of West Africa. These ports were often sited on bleak-looking windblown islets or a peninsula that had little agricultural value to the Berbers but contained a sheltered bay and a source of drinking water that was a vital resource to the captains of the black ships of the Phoenicians. Sometimes no more than a day's rowing apart, these ports of call were part of a thousand-year pattern of maritime trade which gradually grew into coastal trading towns, which underlie the foundation of practically all the coastal cities of modern Algeria be they Annaba, Bejaia, Algiers, Tipasa or Cherchell. They provided markets, harbours and merchants for the Kings to sell the agricultural products of the hinterland but also a skill base of architects, gardeners, surveyors, clerks, fishermen and technicians that could be employed by the courts. The language, the crafts, the food, the clothing, even their religuous practices of these coastal towns slowly permeate into the Berber hinterland of Algeria, yet we do not know exactly their legal status. Like ancient Carthage itself they may have even paid rent to a Berber Lord and had their suburban boundaries clearly fixed, while others no doubt existed as self-governing cities in some form of loose treaty relationship with both the local King and their big sister Carthage with its maritime empire. But unlike Carthage, which eventually annexed most of modern Tunisia, the Phoenician cities of Algeria never established any land-holdings of their own beyond a suburban satellite of orchard gardens. They were always the subordinate partner in the power relationship with the Berber Kings. For it is not until you have stood outside the royal tomb at Medracen (deep in southern Algeria just north of the Aures mountains or that outside Cherchell) that you begin to understand the wealth of these Numidian Kings, so often depicted as barbarian nomads. Medracen has been dated to the third century BC, a circular stepped pyramid built from well cut stone, fenced with sixty Doric columns supporting an Egyptian cornice. 29 tons of lead was used to bond the cut stones in this monument which stood in the centre of a vast ancient Berber burial ground but which probably rivaled that of Alexander the Great's at Alexandria in size and sophistication. The fascinating fusion architecture of Numidia, part Hellenistic, part Egyptian, part Phoenician can also be seen in comparatively more modest structures - built by such local Berber lords as Arteban (at Dougga) as well as those that survive at Siga, Djerba and Sabratha. No one knows for certain who was buried at Medracen, but the current favourite is Gaia son of Zilasan, High King of the Massyli. This tomb was almost certainly at the centre of a cult, for the Berbers had a very African-take on the role of ancestors, who acquired active spiritual powers after death. Dead ancestors communicated to the living through dreams, especially if you slept in the vicinity of the tomb and could assist in matters of fertility, both of the fields, brood-mares and marriage bed and in some way guarded the sanctity of the tithes and watched over the market places and entrance-ways to the citadels. So that even a modest town such as Tiddis is approached through a line of ancient circular tombs (sometimes known as bazina) and below the forum of many an impeccably-looking Roman colony, archaeologists have often unearthed evidence of an ancient ancestral foundation tomb. The Spanish geographer Pomponius Mela (writing in Latin but born within sight of North Africa just outside Gibraltar) records this attitude, when he describes how the Berbers “consider the spirits of their ancestors to be deities, and swear by them and consult them as oracles, and, having made petitions, treat the dreams of those who sleep in their tombs as messages”.
The Numidian Cavalry of Carthage
The other characteristic of the Berber's, noted by all foreign historians, was their skill as cavalrymen and their delight in horse's. Strabo mentions an annual royal census, that allowed the Numidian rulers to keep track of the 100,000 foals born every year in their land. These horses were one of the great treasuries of the land, and the reason why many Numidian warriors had direct experience of other lands. For whether as individuals, or as whole tribes, as a form of political exile or as mere mercenary employment, the cavalry of Numidia served under the armies of many a foreign prince. Their habitual employer was the city of Carthage, which for centuries was engaged in bitter and unprofitable cycle of wars with the Greek cities of Sicily, which sometimes (such as Agathocles invasion) moved the arena of warfare to North Africa itself. But Carthage herself had also to be watched by the lords of Numidia, for after a spectacular defeat in Sicily (Himera in 480 BC) she turned her back on overseas Empire and hacked out a kingdom for itself from Tunisia. Two Carthaginian frontier fortresses were established at Sicca Veneria (El Kef) and Theveste (Tebessa) which are deep in what was considered to be ancient Numidia, but historians argue about their actual purpose, were these garrisoned outposts watching the western frontier or places where Numidian cavalrymen could be both recruited into the Carthaginian army and conveniently paid off. Probably a bit of both, while Sicca Veneria was also famous as a pilgrimage town with an ancient shrine to the Goddess of love. But from this period, the royal families of Numidia were inevitably involved in the high politics of Carthage, while the secret trade routes that led south across the Sahara, the famous Garamantian Way, must have always involved a high degree of co-operation with the rulers of Massyli. The need for whole regiments of cavalry with which to fight Rome in the First Punic war (264-241 BC) drew Numidia and Carthage in an ever closer relationship, most especially as it was the Numidian cavalry as commanded by a Spartan mercenary general) that destroyed Regulus's Roman invasion army and drew the war to an exhausted close.
It was this fusion of Carthaginian and Numidian culture that would produce the most dynamic historical character of ancient Algeria, Massinissa, great King of Numidia. Massinissa was educated in the city of Carthage at a time when his father Gaia was the King of the Massyli. As a young man, he witnessed the renewal of Carthage (shattered by both the material and physical cost of the First Punic War which was compounded by a subsequent civil war, known as the revolt of the Mercenaries) when the Barcid family carved out a new Carthaginian Empire in southern Spain relying once again on Numidia to lease out its young warriors as the cavalry of Carthage. When a second round of fighting erupted with Rome (the Second Punic War, 218-202 BC), Numidia was already sucked into the complicated diplomacy of this Mediterranean world war. The ancient rivals of the Massyli, the Maesylli naturally allied themselves to Rome, the enemy of their enemy. So aged just seventeen, Masinissa won his first command, leading a Carthaginian cavalry army to victory against Syphax, King of the Maesylli. He was then summoned to cross the sea in order to support the Carthaginian forces in Spain - who were being attacked after Hannibal had drained the province of fighting men in order to undertake his famous march on Rome. The young prince was involved in the battles of Castulo and Lorca during the 211 BC campaign, and when the Carthaginian commander Hasdrubal decided to march west in order to reinforce his brother Hannibal in Italy, Massinissa was promoted to commander of the cavalry. Which he used as a highly effective guerilla force to harass Scipio's invasion of Spain throughout 208 and 207 whilst Mago and Hasdrubal Gisgo set about bringing over a new Carthaginian field army to do battle with Scipio. Though in the following year, at the battle of Ilipa, Scipio broke this combined army and ended Carthaginian rule over Spain forever.
It was a catastrophic year for Masinissa in other ways too, for his father, King Gaia died and his half-brother Oezalces seized control of the bulk of the Massyli kingdom. And in an opera-like sub-plot, the Carthaginian princess who he had been betrothed to him (Sophonisba daughter of Hasdrubal) was given to his old enemy Syphax, who was being courted by the Carthaginians as a new ally. Syphax with the support of Carthage then recovered his old kingdom and set upon absorbing the rest of Numidia. Scipio used these body blows to turn Masinissa from his old loyalty to Carthage and become the sworn ally of Rome. For his own part Masinissa's battle experiences in Spain had opened his eyes to the probable ultimate victory of Rome. Scipio also had great personal charm and knew how to reinforce this with appropriate gifts, like the time he freed Masinissa's errant young nephew, Massiva from Roman captivity and returned him to his uncle. However the first years of the new Roman alliance were bleak years, for Syphax (in alliance with Masinissa's half brother) dominated Numidia in the Carthaginian cause. Masinissa was forced to flee into the wild forested mountains of Khroumir, and having been driven out of this region, only escaped Syphax's man-hunters by heading south into the great desert, reportedly taking refuge with the Garamantians of the Fezzan oasis. It was not until Scipio landed in North Africa in 204 BC at the head of an army of 30,000 disciplined Roman legionaries that the situation changed. And once Scipio had defeated the main Carthaginian army at the battle of Bagrades, in 203 BC, he was in a position to give more active assistance to his Numidian ally. Gaeus Lellius was sent with a Roman column to aid Masinissa in crushing Syphax, who was defeated and sent as a prisoner to Scipio whilst Masinissa proceeded to occupy the citadel of Cirta (Constantine). Here he finally took Queen Sophonisba to bed, but if we are to believe the operatic tale told by Livy, Scipio was wary that her charm and beauty might yet weaken Masinissa in his attachment to the Roman alliance and return him once more to the loyalty of his youth. He demanded that Syphax's Queen, the daughter of one of the leaders of Carthage, be surrendered to Rome. But Masinissa had already promised her that she would never fall into the hands of her enemies, in the words of Livy, “I should have preferred to trust the word of a Numidian, born in Africa like myself, to that of a foreigner” and so presented her with a chalice of poison which she took saying “I accept this bridal gift, a gift not unwelcome if my husband has been unable to offer a greater one to his wife.”
But the play was not over yet, despite the peace talks, for the next year, that of 202 BC, offered the chance of a sudden and complete reversal. For first Scipio's naval squadron, which had protected his coastal headquarters, was destroyed and then Hannibal abandoned Italy and suddenly landed back on North Africa. Hannibal moved quickly inland, hoping to unite with his own Numidian ally, Prince Vergina, before Scipio could be joined by Masinissa. But on that fateful day at Zama, it was Hannibal who was still searching for signs of his Numidian ally, whilst Masinissa was firmly in place as the commander of Scipio's right wing, formed from 6,000 Numidian cavalrymen assisted by 3,000 Roman auxiliaries. Despite an attempt by Hannibal to draw Masinissa of from the battlefield, he returned later that day at the head of his horseman. His descent on the unprotected Carthaginian rear instantly decided the fate of that day and two Empires.
Masinissa's fortune was confirmed that day. In the peace treaty that Scipio fixed with Carthage, Massinissa was confirmed as King of the Two Numidia's as well as occupying half of the old Carhaginina land Empire, all territory west of a line, the fossa regia, which roughly ran between the ports of Tabarka and Sfax. Such old centres of Numidian authority as Thugga, Sicca Veneria, Thala, Hippo Regia and Bulla Regia passed under the authority of Masinissa who fixed his capital at Cirta (Constantine) the navel of ancient Algeria, standing halfway between the two great mountain ranges of the Kabyle and the Aures, as well as at the centre of Massyli united with Measylli. Statues were raised in his honour at Delos, by the Athenians and Rhodians and in Bithynia by King Nicomedes. The Romans invested him with the purple cloak of a military commander, an ivory sceptre and a golden patera. He, for his part, packed his court with Carthaginian culture; importing punic officials and priests and a sacrificial tophet, He sponsored a party within Carthage calling for union with Numidia whilst relentlessly biting off lumps of Carthaginina territitory. In 197 BC he seized control of most of the Emporia, a set of wealthy coastal cities on the southern coast of Tunisia and western Libya, and further chunks of territory in 155 and 150 BC. He was well on his way of creating a united North African Empire when Rome intervened. Ostensibly their invasion of Carthage and the Third Punic War (149-146) was fought on behalf of their ally Masinissa ( who had been attacked by Carthahe) , but in reality one of the reasons for so brutally attacking their weakened old enemy must have been to frustrate Masinissa's dream of a Berber land Empire combined with Carthaginian know-how. Cato who so famously called for the destruction of Carthage, had been on the fact finding embassy in 155BC and had observed what was happening on the ground.
Jugurtha, heir of Masinissa, defender of Numidia
So whilst privately grinding his teeth in exasperation at the frustration of his policy, the old king Masinissa publically commanded his sons to ride forth and once more assist his Roman ally. But he died before the city fell, and the reality of Roman aggression was soon made apparent. The Romans gave not an iota of conquered Carthage to their old allies, instead they made themselves a new province within the boundaries of the fossia regia. Instead as their share of the booty, the Numidian prince Micipsa was allowed to ride back to Cirta with the old library of Carthage. To drive the reality of Roman power further home, they had also insisted that on Massinissa's death in 148 BC, his vast Empire be divided (and weakened) into three portions for his sons Micipsa, Gulusa and Mastarnabal. Micipsa however was careful to cause no offense to his powerful Roman allies, and was quick to respond when called upon to give assistance in some tricky foreign wars, such as the Roman conquest of Lusitania (Portugal) in 142 and to help crush a rebellion in Spain in 134. In the latter case he even sent a member of the royal household, young prince Jugurtha (the bastard son of his brother Mastarnabal) to command the Numidian cavalry in Rome's service. Jugurtha returned with high praise from his commander, for Scipio wrote to King Micipsa that he was "a kinsman worthy of yourself, and of his grandfather Masinissa." Jugurtha also had the opportunity to watch the Roman army in action, serving alongside such future opponents as Gaius Marius. He also witnessed the greed that motivated the army commanders - dispatched from Rome to make back the fortune in the provinces that they had first spent on bribing their way to office. As Sallust (a notoriously corrupt careerist himself) had Jugurtha say, “ a city for sale and doomed to quick destruction, if it should find a buyer.”
Micipsa, once again obedient to the dictats of Roman foreign policy left a will once again dividing the Numidian Kingdom into three parts, to his sons Adherbal and Hiempsal and his adopted heir, his abundantly talented nephew, Jugurtha. With his hard earned knowledge of the enemy, Jugurtha was determined to re-unite the Numidian Kingdom and proved himself a ruthless operator, quickly killing his cousin Hiempsal and after a victorious battle, expelling Adherbal. Pretending to protect the interest of this refugee prince, a Roman delegation imposed a settlement in 116 BC giving Jugurtha the poorer western half of the kingdom while their puppet-candidate Adherbal was placed back on the throne at Cirta in nominal charge of that portion of Numidia nearest the Roman province. But four years later, in 112 Jugurtha had resumed his struggle to unite the kingdom and had bottled Adherbal up in the capital of Cirta, which fell to siege and so its defenders were massacred. Amongst those killed were Italian corn merchants, and though it was no more than an internal incident of dynastic politics in the centre of a free and independent Numidia, Rome used this as an excuse to formally invade. The ex Consul Bestia was given his chance of glory and wealth and led the legions into central Numidia, and though he could occupy land, the highly mobile nature of Berber life made them an elusive enemy. Jugurtha however sued for peace and having been offered safe conduct, himself travelled to Rome as a legal witness to the party strife, and the counter accusations of bribery and corruption. He was a charming but dangerous guest in Rome, observing the deep schism between the diehard aristocrats and the populist reformers but managed to safely return in order to take command.
The six-year long Jugurthine War (112-106 BC ) tested Roman military capabilities to the full. The Romans found it comparatively easy to occupy the few Numidian towns and seize the hill-top citadels, but thereafter found themselves tied up with garrison duties and could not make contact with their highly mobile enemy. The Numidians fought a classic guerilla campaign, a fast-hitting war of cavalry raids and rapid retreats into the mountains and desert, dispersing to live off the land and then reassembling later to do battle. The Roman historian Sallust's history of the conflict records two characteristic episodes: the massacre of the Roman garrison by the citizens of Beja and a Roman surprise attack on the oasis town of Gafsa. In both accounts it is clear that there was no distinction between the population and the military. It is a classic example of a war of attrition, of which the twentieth century has furnished so many equivalents. Jugurtha was eventually defeated, but his army and his popularity were never destroyed. In the end Jugurtha was betrayed into the hands of the Romans through the treachery of his own father-in-law, Bocchus, King of Mauretania. His adversaries at that time were Marius and his deputy Sulla (men of undoubted military proficiency who would later become the bloody commanders of opposing factions in a Roman civil war.) The Roman commander Marius turned the eastern frontier of Numidia into a Roman cordon sanitaire , held down by a chain of military settlements filled with war veterans. The westernmost provinces were taken by King Bocchus as his reward for his treachery, while the central heartland of Numidia was ruled by Jugurtha's half brother Gauda (105-81 BC ). Jugurtha was brought back to Rome, but this time in chains to decorate Marius's triumph, after which his royal robes were ripped from him and his golden earrings torn from his flesh, like some Christ-like, pre-ordained sacrifice to Roman power. He died of starvation in the Tulianum state prison in 104 BC and his two sons, Oxyntas and Iampsas, died as exiles in Italy.
For a generation the Numidian heartland of central Algeria retained its freedom, but its fate was sealed one way or the other. The excuse for the final act of conquest was that Juba I (62-46 BC ) gave his wholesale support to Pompey (106-48 BC ) in the civil war against Julius Caesar. Caesar landed in North Africa near the Tunisian town of Mahdia in 46 BC and marched quickly north to defeat the much larger Numidian-Pompeian army that awaited him passively at Thapsus. In the aftermath of the battle Juba I staged a suicide duel with a Roman legionary, watched by a slave who had strict orders to kill the survivor.
Julius Caesar's actions, however beneficial to the populace of Rome, were entirely rapacious when viewed from North Africa. First, he levied extortionate fines on the rich cities, although many were theoretically allies of Rome. Leptis Magna alone had to furnish him with three million pounds of olive oil a year. Later his surveyors stole the territories of such ostensibly free cities as Hadrumentum (Sousse) and Thysdrus (El Jem), as well as a vast rectangle of fertile coastland, and settled them with landless Italians, the urban poor of Rome and discharged army veterans. Juba's kingdom of Numidia was annexed as a new province of the empire, renamed Africa Nova, and
placed under the stewardship of Sallust, a Roman money lender who had lent vast sums to Caesar during his rise to power. The extent of the extortions he inflicted on his province shocked even his Roman contemporaries, and on his retirement to Rome Sallust was able to build a palatial villa with a famous garden, where he settled down to write his history of the Jugurthine War.
A new round of the Roman civil war started after the murder of Julius Caesar in
44 BC . The Roman legions based in Africa Nova (Algeria) and Africa Vetus (Tunisia) fought each other in support of different candidates. By 6 BC Augustus (30 BC -AD 14), the heir of Julius Caesar, had achieved mastery in North Africa, five years later victory at the battle of Actium in 31 BC gave him control of the whole Roman Empire.
The Augustan Settlement
Augustus was neither a great general nor a charismatic demagogue. Even his relationship to Julius Caesar was tenuous, he was a great-nephew not a blood descendant. His genius was patience combined with the luck of 50 years of power, which enabled him to transform Rome from a predatory military machine into a stable empire. First, he deprived the Roman nobility of any military authority and reduced the Roman army to a functional level. Secondly, he created a streamlined bureaucracy recruited from talented provincial Italian families like his own. Thirdly, he began the process of co-opting the native ruling classes into the imperial ruling class by appointing them as provincial magistrates. This policy, the Pax Romana , allowed for an unprecedented period of prosperity and creativity which would, over the next century, enrich and transform North Africa.
However this was all in the future, Augustus' immediate concern after his victory at Actium in 31 BC was to halve the size of the Roman army without causing a mutiny and a new round of civil war. The veterans could only be amicably discharged with a pension, but this was beyond the fiscal resources of the state, so they were partly paid in land. Faced with the need to settle about 200,000 veterans, Augustus established colonies throughout the empire, but was particularly attentive to North Africa. Drafts of veterans were sent to all the colonies established ten years before by Julius Caesar, as well as those established fifty years earlier by Marius. In addition, 17 new colonies were established along the fertile lands of the Mejerda valley (northern Tunisia and western Algeria) and along the western littoral of the supposedly independent kingdom of Mauretania. Only a small fraction of these had any defensive role. The major determining factor in their foundation was Augustus' desire to be rid of his excess soldiers. These veterans were not to become the smallholding heroes of Livy but petty squires dependent on local peasants and share-croppers to work their land. The veterans' lives centred on their concubines and old comrades in the local town, not on their fields. Many failed to make a living as North African landlords, sold up their portion and moved to a more urban life in one of the coastal cities. Others prospered, expanded their holdings, served their turn as magistrates and watched their grandchildren marrying into the local, landed élite: a medley of proud Berber lords from the hills, successful Italian merchants, scheming bailiffs and old Punic dynasts. A methodical analysis of inscriptions suggests that even at the height of the colonial period, some 51 per cent of the magistrates of North Africa were native, Punic-speaking Berbers. Clearly there were marked limits to the extent of colonial settlement.
In 27 BC Augustus merged the two existing provinces (Africa Vetus and Africa Nova) to create the single province of Africa Proconsularis, which stretched from eastern Libya to central Algeria. The proconsul of Africa commanded the legions that protected the southern frontier of this extensive province. It was one of the few important military commands that Augustus left open to the Roman nobility and it thus formed one of the crowning honours of a traditional senatorial career. Beneath the proconsul, Augustus made certain that his officials controlled everything of strategic importance: the ports, roads, frontiers and corn supply, as well as maintaining a careful watch over the loyalty of the legions. These salaried officials usually held the same post for five years,while the aristocratic proconsul from an old senatorial family was appointed annually.
King Juba II of Mauretania
During the reign of Augustus the kingdom of Mauretania (western Algeria and Morocco) gradually fell under Roman dominion. The major instrument of this expansion was a native Berber prince, Juba II (25 BC -AD 23), who provides a perfect example of Augustus' co-option of the native ruling class. Born into the Numidian royal family - (son of Juba I, son of Hiempsal, son of Gauda, son of Mastanabal son of Masinissa) he was Punic by culture, Greek by education and became a Roman by experience. He had been taken to Rome as a child, to grace the African triumph of Julius Caesar. He was brought up in the household of Augustus and the gratitude he felt to his patron was further confirmed when he was married to another royal orphan-in-exile, the beautiful Cleopatra Silene, 15-year-old daughter of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra. In 25 BC Augustus judged Juba the perfect candidate for the throne of
Mauretania, ruled from Iol (modern Cherchel). Juba II and Cleopatra responded in kind by renaming the capital Caesarea in his honour. They ruled over a glittering, cultured city, which they turned from a sprawling Berber-Punic port into a classically organized city adorned with a theatre, library and imported Greek and Egyptian statuary. Juba, like the ideal of a philosopher-king, found time to write critiques on art and the theatre, as well as compiling a voluminous series of histories, a geography of Africa and a treatise on the medicinal uses of euphorbia.
The Resistance of Tacfarinas
Tacfarinas provides the other side of the coin to this story of gradual cultural defusion. He was the last great leader of resistance to Roman rule in Algeria (17-24AD) , and the heroic story of his rebellion has been preserved for us in the histories of the first century Roman historian, Tacitus.
Tacfarinas was of the Musulamii, the Berber tribe who occupied the Aures mountain range in south-east Algeria. Ironically Tacfarinas had learned the craft of war serving in an auxiliary Roman regiment, which suppressed other Berber uprisings against Rome in another region. He deserted and returned home to the still independent Aurès Mountains where he forged a disciplined guerilla army from a motley band of bandits and free-booters. Tacfarinas proved himself a master of guerilla warfare. For seven long years he frustrated innumerable search and destroy missions launched against him. He infuriated the Emperor Tiberius (42 BC -AD 37) by proposing peace in exchange for territory. His name, whispered ever more approvingly in the markets, gradually assumed heroic status. The death of Juba II in AD 23 presented Tacfarinas with the perfect opportunity for a general uprising. His agents had secured the support of other free Berber tribes, such as the Garamantes, as well as fermenting rebellion amongst landless peasants within Africa Proconsularis. That year the whole of Roman NorthAfrica was swept up in the heady excitement of Tacfarinas' revolt. The Senate appealed to Tiberius to take direct control and reinforcements were rushed in from other provinces. Tiberius' appointee settled down to the unglamorous task of constructing a network of small field fortresses, but it was his successor, Cornelius Dolabella, who reaped the victory in AD 24. Tacfarinas, no longer the captain of swift-moving bands of horsemen, but a general in command of a field army, marched north from his tribal stronghold to take control of Juba II's capital of Caesarea. Dolabella seized the opportunity presented by a visible enemy and led a surprise attack on Tacfarinas' army-of-rebellion which had camped at Auzia, just 50 miles south-east of Caesarea. It was a slaughter, not a battle, and when Tacfarinas heard of the death of his son he galloped heroically into a thicket of javelins. The revolt was over, and just 14 years later the permanent Roman garrison in the province was reduced to only two legions.
The Fate of Prince Ptolemy
However the fate of the assimilising Numidian dynasty proved to be just as tragically doomed before the Roman juggernaut. Juba's young son Ptolemy (23-42), had loyally assisted the Romans in the suppression of Tacfarinas' revolt. He was declared an official friend and ally by the grateful Senate while his youth, wealth and distinguished
ancestry guaranteed him an enthusiastic reception in Rome. However his popularity masked an unpalatable fact of realpolitik , which was that with the successful military pacification of North Africa, Rome no longer needed a client king ruling over Mauretania. One morning the crowds in the Coliseum roared such a voluble greeting to King Ptolemy that it seemed to Emperor Caligula that it eclipsed his own. Caligula plotted the murder of his cousin (they shared Mark Anthony as a grandfather) and the simultaneous annexation of Mauretania which took place in AD 42 . The tribes, under the command of Ptolemy's councilor, revolted and it took four Roman legions over three years to subdue the surrounding country. It was good schooling for the Roman commander, C. Suetonius Paullinus, who twenty years later was required to subdued Boadiccea's rebellion in Britain. With resistance crushed throughout the region, North Africa settled into a period of peace from out of which emerged an ear of astonishing prosperity.
The physical remains of this era are an extraordinary heritage, impressive in detail and diversity, but above all in scale. Six hundred urban settlements have been located in North Africa from the Roman period, testimony to the transformation of the empire achieved by Augustus. Before his reign there was nothing positive about the Roman presence in North Africa, while in the 200 years that followed, the region grew progressively more prosperous, populous and powerful. This golden era was capped by the reign of the Severan emperors, a North African dynasty that ruled from Rome over the halcyon decades of the Roman Empire (193-235).
It is often incorrectly presumed that the Roman Emperors was responsible for the construction of the magnificent Roman remains in Algeria. In fact most of the Roman architecture was commissioned by local dignitaries who were proudly embellishing their own home towns. Even triumphal arches and temples, so emphatically dedicated to the emperors, were constructed and paid for by the local municipalities. Detailed examination has revealed that the indigenous Punic unit of measurement, the 20-inch cubit, was often used in preference to the Roman foot of 12 inches. Another form of underlying cultural continuity is the use of vertical stone beams in all construction work, a distinctive Punic feature known as opus Africanum . In order to give true credit to the North African mason and his North African patron it is tempting to turn pedant and talk in terms of buildings from the Roman period, rather than Roman buildings. It seems that Rome's combination of local democracy with distant overlordship was a form of government particularly suited to exploit the latent energies of the Berbers. It tapped their genius for conciliar government at local level, yet prevented the fierce canton rivalries from turning into war, thereby allowing the peaceful flowering of native talent.
Each town was the centre of a canton, a petty republic which ran its own affairs. A property-owning democracy formed the Popular Assembly, which approved proposals, passed honorofic decrees and elected magistrates. It was presided over by two town consuls, who were known either by the old Punic title suffetes or the Latin duoviri. Day-to-day administration was in the hands of the muhazim or aediles , while the influential council of elders, the ordo decurionem , was composed of all the ex-officials. It was the towns, determined to prove more civic-minded than their neighbours, that built the various public facilities: dams, markets, aqueducts, bridges, cisterns, amphitheatres and circus tracks. Baths, temples, theatres and charity schools tended to be philanthropic gifts from prominent citizens. The local magisterial class were even trusted to supervise the collection of the tithe-tax, which was sent to feed the city of Rome each year. The local Punic-speaking ruling class, even at the height of Roman colonial settlement, remained numerically dominant. An educated North African read literature and philosophy in Greek, used Latin in the lawcourts, but spoke Punic at home. Punic names, Punic deities, Punic titles and Punic speech remained in widespread use. The Emperor Septimius Severus' sister (a scion of one of Leptis Magna's leading families) was still such a Punic-speaker that she was hardly able to communicate when she visited Rome in the early third century, while even as late as the fifth century, St Augustine refers to the survival of Punic up-country.
The reforms of Augustus had ended the era of carpet-bagging governors such as the historian Sallust. The new breed of salaried governors sat lightly on the shoulders of the region. In the words of Emperor Tiberius, a governor should be a good shepherd and ‘shear, not flay his flock'. The governors were equipped with nothing more than a detachment of Rome's urban cohort as a police force, presided over the great festivals, soothed local rivalries, inspected the cities' annual accounts, licensed all clubs and societies and acted as a court of final appeal. Abuse of their power was checked by the fact that military command and the supervision of financial matters were the responsibility of independent officials reporting directly to the emperor. Another check on administrative abuse was the imperial cult, which Emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79) had established as a vehicle for expressing political loyalty in the provinces. The flamens Augusti , the priests of the cult, were recruited from amongst the rich provincials who would gather at the provincial capital to elect priests and supervise the temples. This gathering created an officially sanctioned council for discussing the common concerns of the province, while the high priest had the useful privilege of corresponding directly with Caesar, over the head of the governor.
Feed Rome and Pay the Legions
Whatever his propaganda, each emperor had two paramount political concerns: how to feed the city of Rome and how to pay the legions which patrolled the endless frontiers. Each year the provinces were, therefore, committed to sending a tribute to Rome in the form of a tithe or tributum soli . North Africa paid this levy in corn and olive oil which were collected in state granaries, usually located at a port. The shipping of the cargo was organized by private merchants, but imperial officials maintained the essential infrastructure of harbours and roads. The grainfields of North Africa provided Rome with two-thirds of its annual grain needs (Egypt provided the rest). The second major form of tribute was the poll tax, the tributum capitis , which was paid in coin into the fiscus , the provincial branch of the state treasury. The fiscus paid local staff and administration expenses, and sent detailed accounts back to the central treasury, the aerarium at Rome.
Money to pay the legions was principally raised by indirect taxation from both Roman citizens and provincials alike. The vilicus maritimius collected duty on all goods crossing a maritime frontier as well as the death tax, levied at 8 per cent. The vilicus terrestis collected a 4 per cent tax levied on the sale of slaves, a 5 per cent tax levied on the manusmission of slaves and all custom duties at land frontiers. To maximize custom collection Tiberius divided the empire into ten custom zones. Despite all these charges, state revenue was never sufficient and had to be supplemented by the emperor's privy purse. This was filled by legacies (it was impolitic, perhaps even dangerous, for the rich to make a will without favourable mention of the emperor) and revenue from the vast saltus , the imperial estates. As well as the whole of Egypt, the saltus in Algeria included all land previously held by the Numidian and Mauretanian kings. It also commanded the heights of the ancient economy by instituting a monopoly of all mines and quarries. The workforce was supplied by the courts, who punished serious crimes with a life sentence at the quarry face, damnatio ad metella.
The III Augusta Legion
At the end of Augustus' reign the population of the empire was 100 million, of which one million were Roman citizens. The security of the empire was based on a standing army of volunteer Roman citizens divided among 28 legions. This force of 150,000 men, originally enough to secure the vast frontiers of the empire, was gradually augmented by provincial legions. Provincial officers were recruited from the collegia iuvenum , a club which served as a cadet corps and was established in provincial towns for the young men of the equestrian order, the local upper class. The collegia iuvenum was a central institution of provincial life, with its own baths, library, council chamber and cult temple. By the end of the first century AD , the southern border was policed by the III Augusta Legion, assisted by a shifting galaxy of auxiliary cohorts, which could bring the numbers up to some 25,000 men. The III Augusta kept an eye on the tribes of the mountain regions as well as the actual border, which was never absolute, since it ran across nomadic lands and the tribes continued to migrate across it seasonally, bringing vital trade and labour, which was needed at times of harvest. Where it existed, The limes, the actual frontier line, was an unglamorous ditch and wall, made of dry stone and pounded wet clay. A more valuable form of intelligence was derived from policing the tribal markets, which were a barometer of the political mood of the borderlands. None of these precautions proved to be fail safe, and even at the height of empire, in the second century, the desert tribes brushed through the limes twice and occupied substantial portions of Mauretania. In AD 128 the Roman emperor Hadrian (117-38) travelled south across the breadth of the province to the fringes of the Sahara to review the III Augusta at their headquarters at Laembaesis. His address to the troops, survived as it was inscribed on a column base. He congratulates them for performing so well under adverse conditions:
“In my recollection you have not only changed camp twice but actually built new ones . . . But you were not at all remiss . . . the centurions were quick and brave as usual . . . despite the heat, you avoided being tedious by doing promptly what had to be done . . . that the care taken by my legate Catullinus has been outstanding is apparent from the fact that such men as you are under his command.”
The Rural Economy
A typical landowner lived in the town and visited the country, where he might control thousands of acres and hundreds of lives, to inspect the gathering of the harvest and to hunt in the winter months. Much of this land he would farm as a conductor , a tenant, who, at occasional auctions bid for leases on fields belonging to the town, some great absentee senatorial landlord, or even the emperor. The actual farm-labourers were known as coloni, and lived in simple round huts and were tied to the land. They paid the landlord a third of the harvest on the threshing floor (or as we might say gross), whether the crop was barley, wheat, grapes or olives. For vegetables and beans, a fifth was due. In addition each colonus worked six days on the landlord's home farm: two days of ploughing, two of cultivating and two of harvesting. There was never sufficient residential labour for the harvest, so local landless peasants, itinerant gangs of labourers and nomads were hired as required. The rewards of methodical farming could be great. Some indication of Roman North Africa's rapidly expanding agrarian economy is revealed by the growth in tribute, which was based on a fixed percentage of the harvest. In Julius Caesar's day the tribute from North Africa brought in 50,000 tons of wheat a year. By AD 46 this had increased to 500,000 tons, a tenfold increase in 100 years. Side by side with this growth in ploughland was the expansion of orchards and vineyards. For it was a society that was fed on wine (that was seldom allowed to age more than a year) from the very top to the very bottom. For even the mean-minded Roman statesman Cato budgeted an amphora of wine a month for each slave. In a good year 120 amphorae of wine could be expected from just two acres of vines. The Romans had never bothered to survey land over 500 metres in height or with less than 400 millimetres of rainfall a year, as it was rightly deemed useless for wheat. However, this fallow land provided a hard-working peasant with an opportunity for self-advancement, for the olive, providing the trees are planted 30 metres apart, can successfully be grown in the dry steppe and on hillside terraces. Especialy when an enlightened governor set up a law giving tax free concessions to help kick-start the establishment of new orchards and groves. Protected by the legions from predatory raiders, with an efficient road system that stretched as straight as an arrow to the closest port and with a growing population assuring a continuous market for olive oil, the ground was clear for a second agrarian boom. Olive oil was no fashionable accessory, but a vital requirement of the ancient economy: as soap, as favourite sauce, cooking oil, as medicine and as fuel for lamps. Gleaming new steppe cities, laid out with grid-like precision, emerged in the second century on the back of the prosperity brought by olive oil. New inland centres of pottery manufacture were established, initially to churn out storage amphorae for the oil, but which later produced lamps, figurines and red-slip tableware.
Life in the Roman Cities of Algeria
The most distinctive feature of towns from the Roman era was the open square at their centre, known either by the Latin word forum or the Greek agora . This stone-paved piazza was enclosed by a colonnade and was reached by a couple of steps, which safeguarded it from wheeled traffic. It was the political, legal, social and commercial centre of the town. Here, in a short morning stroll, a citizen could hear the rhetoric of the lawcourts, the exchanges of the merchants, the gossip of the town, the ritual of the temples and the bargaining of the shopkeepers. For around the forum clustered the curia (senate house), the open-sided basilica (law court), half a dozen temples, a dozen smaller shrines and the entrance-ways to smaller market squares lined with shops and offices. Scattered across the forum, casting lengthening shadows in the evening light, stood a plethora of votive statues and inscribed plinths commemorating the generosity of one citizen, the distinguished public career of another, the visit of a proconsul or one of the endless victories or gestures of generosity of the emperors. Amongst these ossified relics of the great and the good, the citizen body would assemble to elect magistrates, to vote on proposals and to hear speakers whose practised rhetoric spilled out from the terrace of the capitolium temple to fill the packed forum with mellifluous sound.
The other corner-stone of Roman urban life was water, necessarily captured from a nearby mountain spring and sent by aqueduct to the centre of the town . The engineers had to devise a route which would keep the gradient steady - steep enough to ensure a steady flow, but not so strong as to burst open the sealed pipes. When the water arrived it was divided equably by the town's water commissioner, between the cavernous reserve cisterns on the hilltops, a few wealthy private customers and municipal structures such as baths and public fountains. When the aqueducts ran, water would be freely available in every quarter of the city. The women of the house could fill their jars from the cool collecting basins that stood beneath opulent colonnaded fountain heads, while drinking troughs stood brimful at the city gates. Such a state of affairs was not always possible in drought-prone North Africa and so no villa worthy of its name was without its own private roof-fed cisterns. Beneath the paved streets drains took away foul water, although very few houses had latrines, since everyone used those by the bathhouses.
The baths were open to all who could pay a small fee and on great public holidays even this was waived. They were palatial edifices the like of which the world has never seen before or since: paved in mosaic, riveted with marble, heated, decorated with statues and filled with the sound of splashing water. The routine of bathing began with a visit to the forica , the opulent latrines where neighbours defecated in companionable proximity, chattering over the events of last night from their shaded stone seat, looking across to where the sun played on a gurgling fountain. Moving round to the principal entrance of the baths you arrived at the apodyterion , the changing rooms, undressing in the vestibularium and anointing yourself with oil in the unctarium . Then, some exercise in the sundrenched courtyard of the palaestra , followed by scraping away of oily dead skin with a strigil in the destrictarium . A succession of progressively heated marble chambers - the sudarium, caldarium and laconica - helped to sweat out ill-humour, and for an additional charge you could abandon yourself in the laconica to the ministrations of a skilled masseur. Immersion in the tepidarium bath prepared you for the cold pool of the vaulted frigidarium , which was decorated with the best statues and mosaics. From here you could sometimes make use of the natatio , a large outside swimming pool, or wander freely through the shops, library and gardens attached to the bath complex. Baths were usually laid out with a symmetrical floor plan, which provided for two sets of hot chambers.
This was to do with maintenance, for different admission hours, rather than walls, kept the sexes apart. The dried residue from the olive oil presses made for an abundant fuel with which to stoke the hypercaust heating system while natural hot springs were also enthusiastically exploited for their curative effects.
Theatre, Ampitheatre and Circus
At the great public festivals, such as the pre-eminent spring fertility festival of Ceres, which took place from 12-19 April, countryfolk would flock in to town to join in the dawn-to-dusk entertainments. The theatre season ran from the festival of Cybele on 4 April to the people's games in September, and consisted of Greek tragedies, interspersed with debates, lectures, farces, pantomimes, circus acts and comedy in Latin. The front three rows of the cavea were reserved for the thrones of the town's leading citizens - its senators, magistrates and priests. Next came rows for the equestrian class followed by seats for the ordinary citizens. A colonnaded promenade ran round the summit of the theatre with a shrine to Ceres, or some other attribute of the mother goddess, placed at its centre. Awnings could be attached to this colonnade to provide shade.
The most important entertainments held in the amphitheatres were the gladiatorial games. The magistrate presenting the show arranged matters with the lanistae , professional managers who ran stables of gladiators, provided wild beasts and arena attendants, as well as acting as referees on the day.The night before a show, a symbolic gladatorial duel with muffled weapons was followed by a lavish public banquet. In the morning, as a warm up, those sentenced by the magistrates to damnatio ad bestias were killed in the arena. First, they would all be exhibited in chains before being led out to their individual deaths; normally there was some form of torture, before they were mauled by wild beasts and finished off by a gladiator. Then it was time for the venatio , the wild beast hunt. A circus or dancing troupe would entertain the crowd while the amphitheatre was transformed into a more suitable setting. An alternative interlude was for miniature catapults to fling tokens, which could be exchanged for prizes, up into the poorest seats. The gladiators specializing in wild beast hunts, the bestiarii , were a professional group, fighting and working with animals in a way not far removed from a professional English huntsman today. They might slaughter antelope, wild ass and ostriches with arrows, spear wild boar, fight wild cats or face enraged bulls. In addition, they managed fights between animals, arranging for predatory cats to kill in the arena or for pairs of chained animals, such as bears and bulls, to fight one another. In the lunch hour it was the turn of robbers, arsonists and murderers to kill each other. The first pair were brought forth, one armed, one just dressed in a tunic. The business of the first was to kill the latter, which he seldom failed to do. After this feat he was disarmed and led out to confront a newcomer armed to the teeth and so the butchery continued until all lay dead. In the afternoon a fanfare of lutes, trumpets and horns announced the major event of the day, the gladiatorial duels. First, the gladiators paraded in fine embroidered cloaks, their weapons carried by valets, before giving the famous collective greeting to the presiding magistrate, Ave, morituri te salutant (‘Hail, we who are about to die salute you.'). The duels were accompanied by music, the orchestra celebrating each successful parry and blow with a fanfare, by fervent betting and by roars of applause from the crowd. Gladiators, when disabled, could usually appeal to the crowd, who would wave handkerchiefs or gesticulate with their thumbs upright crying mitte (‘let him go') or reversing their thumbs in a jabbing motion and screaming iugula (‘slay him'). The passions aroused were intense, hawkers sold food and drink to quench thirsts and appetites along the benches while prostitutes did a thriving trade in the dark vaults.
Events in the circus, the 500-metre long chariot-racing track, were less bloodthirsty but equally exciting. Twelve four-horse chariots, three in each team (the reds, the whites, the blues and the greens) raced seven times anti-clockwise round the central spina . The progress of the race was recorded on the spina by a row of seven stone eggs being removed from their posts or dolphins spouting water into a line of basins. The Berber hinterland was famous as the breeding ground of both the best horses and charioteers. One such genius had seven statues raised in his honour along the race track at Constantinople, with a detailed inscription of his stream of victories won until death stole him from the circus, aged 67.
The Golden Years of Imperium: Three Algerian Careers
Claudius (41-54) was the first emperor to fill empty seats in the Senate with upper-class provincials. In his defence he spoke of ‘transferring to this city all outstanding persons, where ever found' to assist in the direction of the Roman Empire. This enlightened policy was largely responsible for the longevity of the empire and its success. Vespasian accelerated the process after he fought his way to the throne in AD 69 and was the first to award a North African with the broad stripe and gold ring of a senator. This process of assimilation reached its natural fulfillment when Spanish-born Trajan became emperor in AD 96 and climbed the last barrier of prejudice. By the end of the second century, a third of the Roman senate originated from North Africa. This strong representation was not just due to the efficient exploitation of their agricultural estates. From the first century the region had produced a stream of men of rare ability, whose influence was felt throughout the empire. The biographies of three Algerians ( all just as proud of their Numidian Berber blood as their civilized attainments) reveal this golden Age of the Empire in all its surprising diversity and complexity. In Lucius Apuleius, Marcus Fronto and Quintus Lollius reveal just how meritocratic the Empire had become
The only complete Roman novel that is still read for pleasure is The Golden Ass. It defies categorization, for it is both a romance, a bodice-ripper, a comic satire, a patrician put-down and a deeply religious work. It was written by Lucius Apuleius (born 123 AD ), whose character has been described as ‘superficial, colorful, excessive, disordered, intemperate, and redundant'. Apuleius was, in short, as entertaining in life as in his writing, while his fellow citizens saw another side to him, raising an inscription that praised him as a ‘platonic philosopher' and an ‘ornament to the community'.
Apuleius came from Madauros (M'daourouch on modern maps of Algeria), an agricultural centre inland from the port of Hippo (Bone). The town was a modest place - even in its heyday there were only 1,200 seats in its theatre. Yet despite the bad Latin revealed in the epitaphs found in the old forum it had a good academic reputation, and St Augustine was later educated there. Lucius Apuleius was born at the summit of local society, his father had been a diumvir , a town consul, and left a fortune of two million sesterces when he died. Lucius' inheritance allowed him a life of agreeable scholarship, but his devotion to Greek and Latin literature never conflicted with his pride in his Numidian ancestry. By his thirtieth birthday he had studied, and debauched himself, at the university cities of Carthage, Athens and Rome and was down to his last three slaves. Rather than devote himself to practising law in the capital, for which he was abundantly well trained, he took ship back to his homeland. At Oea (Tripoli) he lodged with one of his numerous student friends and ended up marrying the widowed mother of the house, who was wise, very rich and only ten years his senior. His friend was delighted by the match but unfortunately died, and a gaggle of disapproving cousins formally accused Lucius of witchcraft. It was the cause célèbre of 158, with public interest so intense that the trial had to be staged in the theatre before the proconsul. Lucius, who conducted his own defence, was at last put to work, and his brilliant destruction of the charges against him is preserved for us in his Apologia. The acquittal seems to have settled something restless within him, for Lucius then settled down to write and teach.
Marcus Cornelius Fronto (100-166) was born in 100 at Cirta, the old Numidian capital, but his family originated from the small town of Calama (Guelma) some 74 kilometres inland from Hippo. Fronto, just like his near neighbour Apuleius, first studied at Carthage before moving to Rome in his early twenties. There he applied himself to law, but more specifically to an analytical study of Latin, its history, origins, true form and purpose. Fronto became an acknowledged master whose services, either as legal consultant or practising lawyer, were in continuous demand. His style was highly mannered, almost archaically correct, but he was a vigorous champion of spoken Latin. Fronto, like some archetypal Oxbridge don, carefully acquired status. He married into a collateral branch of the imperial family, served as tutor to the heir to the throne, acquired the villa of Maecenas (Augustus' highly cultured friend) and in due course was honoured with the office of consul. His influence was not limited to Rome, for he exercised a diligent correspondence with all the rising talents of the next generation. His correspondence with his old pupil, the emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-80), is distinguished by an affectionate but underlying disagreement which does them both credit. He was the central figure in the highly urbane intellectual circle preserved for us in the Latin grammarian Aulus Gellius' Attic Nights, but he always remained proud of his nomadic Berber ancestors and indulged himself in poetic yearnings for the sharp clear skies of his youth.
Quintis Lollius Urbicus raised a tomb to his kinsmen, a handsome circular drum, which still stands in the midst of fields outside his howetown of Tiddis, a typical Romanised Berber citadel whose narrow alleys cascade down the slopes of a steep hill. He was a younger son of a Numidian landowner, Marcus Lollio Senechio married to Grania Honorato, and so set off to make his own way into the world. We first get notice of Lolius's career when he was appointed one of the six military tribunes (junior officers) to the 22nd Legion on the German frontier. He did well enough to take up his seat in the Senate after which he served as one of the legate's for the Proconsul of Asia. Hadrian gave him his first independent command, over the 10th Legion at Vienna watching the Danubian frontier. Later he served in the Levant directly under the Emperor's command, helping crush the Jewish rebellion of 132-136. He was decorated during this campaign and then honoured with the consulship of 135-136 which opened the way for a governorship, that of Germania Inferior - another key frontier command over a couple of legions and a naval squadron that guarded the lower Rhine. He was transferred to Britain by the Emperor Antonius Pius who had decided to extend the area of Roman occupation north from the brand new wall built by Hadrian. So it was Lollius who from 139 achieved the conquest of Scotland at the head of three legions (the II Augusta, the VI Victrix and the XX Valeria Victrix backed up by the loan of nine auxiliary units ) winning a decisive victory in 142 which allowed him to build a brand new wall, the 35 mile long Antonine, which annexed southern Scotland by constructing a frontier on the line of the Forth and Clyde estuaries the next year. The British tribes that he subdued included the Votadini (to the east) and Selgovae (of the west) in the Borders, the Novantae of Dumfrieshire and the Damnonii of Strathcylde. Urbicus returned in triumph to Rome and after the death of Septicus Clarus was trusted by his Emperor with the post of Prefect of Rome (number 2 in the Empire) from 146 until shortly before his death in 160.
North African Apex of Empire
The apex of North African influence in Rome occurred when Septimius Severus ( born in western Libya) ascended the throne of the Caesars, and his reign also marks the high tide of the Roman Empire as an enlightened pre-Christian state. The Severan forum at Djemila is a near perfect expression of this Golden Age. The Severan dynasty continued for 24 years after Septimius' death, hampered by near-mad males but sustained by two more remarkable generations of women from the Syrian family of Julia Domna: Julia Maesa and Julia Mammaea. In 235 Julia Mammaea and her son Alexander Severus were assassinated and their deaths marked both the end of the golden age and the end of North African political influence. After the murder a cabal of rich North African landlords conspired to nominate an alternative candidate to the throne. Their motives were partly affection for the Severans, partly disgust at the usurpation of the throne by Maximinus (235-8), a simple Thracian soldier, but mostly a reaction to the extortionate taxation ordered by the new emperor. They championed Gordian, a venerable Roman senator of proved administrative ability, who was then serving as proconsul of Africa. Gordian's candidacy was accepted by the Senate and by most of the provinces. He and his co-emperor son (Gordian I and Gordian II) briefly ruled the empire (238) from the governor's palace at Carthage, while plans were perfected for the journey to Rome. However, the North African Roman senators had failed to secure the support of Capellianus, legate of the III Augusta Legion at Lambaesis, who the marched from southern Algeria to Carthage, defeating the small army led against him by Gordian II. On hearing of the defeat and death of his son, Gordian I took his own life. It was a wise decision for Capellianus was not content to merely restore order. He directed a bloody social purge, punishing the North African landed class for daring to prefer a man of senatorial background to Maximinus, the choice of the army. In Herodian's words
when Capellianus entered Carthage he killed all the leading men who were still alive after the battle, and he plundered the temples and seized the money of private persons and the public funds. And he attacked all the other cities that had taken down the dedications to Maximinus, killing the gentry and exiling the common citizens. He also gave orders to the soldiers to put fields and villages to the torch and loot.
In a further twist to this tale, Maximinus was supplanted in 238 by Gordian III (238-44), a grandson of Gordian I. Gordian avenged his kinsmen by destroying the III Augusta Legion, whose very name was obliterated. Throughout their Algerian homeland, you will find that their name has been hacked off official inscriptions.
The Soldier-Emperors & emergence of Christianity
Capellianus' terror campaign in North Africa is a good tale in itself, but it also marked the birth of a new military order in the Roman Empire. The landed class were no longer the power brokers, and in North Africa this fall from high political grace is particularly marked. The exuberant flowering of architecture, the superb mosaic floors and the boom in assertive, confident public buildings during the Severan period is followed by a complete architectural void. Not a single inscription, let alone a new building, has been identified between 244 and 270. In the half century following the murder of Alexander Severus, 28 soldiers were proclaimed emperor, only one of whom died before he could be deposed. Imperial statues were made with a replaceable head so that official portraiture could keep pace with the bloody succession of soldier-emperors. Each new accession entailed a donation to the legions who had assisted the emperor, which was in turn raised by a fresh round of confiscatory taxes and coinage devaluation. It was a period of bewildering politics where the only hope of survival lay in a studiously maintained apolitical profile and where a demonstration of wealth brought down extortionate tax demands on the whole community.
Architecturally this was a miserable period, but there is no evidence of depopulation or a downturn in agricultural production in North Africa. There were clearly still large amounts of disposable wealth around, evidenced by the many hoards of coins discovered from this period. Political uncertainty, devaluation and the constant need for hard cash to pay soldiers, meant wealth needed to be highly mobile to keep it out of the rapacious hands of Rome. The social and moral vacuum left by the disintegrating empire made way for what was to become a vital force for 400 years, the Christian Church. But the process was not easy, for the early Christians were highly objectionable to the Roman state. It was not their beliefs but their refusal to sacrifice to the official cult of the deified emperors ( as well as the gods of birth and fertility) that made them unpopular . To the majority of the population, such a refusal seemed a direct attack on the harmony of society. It was also treasonable and could be punished by death. In practice, official persecution of Christians only occured when the emperor needed a scapegoat, after natural disaster had fanned popular rage. The first persecution, which resulted in the execution of the two charismatic leaders of the early Church, St Peter and St Paul, in AD 64 occurred when the Roman emperor Nero needed someone to blame for the great fire of Rome in 61. The normal governmental attitude was one of tolerant disdain, as defined by a letter from Emperor Trajan to governor Pliny:
“this wretched cult . . . must not be hunted out . . . pamphlets circulated anonymously must play no part in any accusation [but] if they are brought before you and the charge against them proved, they must be punished, but in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned.
Few Christians, when faced with the choice between a horrifying death in the amphitheatre or an easy (and arguably temporary) apostacy, could resist making the latter call. The noble army of martyrs was a small and select group. Christianity no doubt first came to Algeria through the polyglot coastal cities, such as Tipasa and Hippo. However the first Christians to be recorded as martyrs came from the small Numidian town of Scillium (near the Algerian-Tunisian frontier outside Kasserine) who were tried before pronconsul Vigellius Saturninus on July 17, 180. The trial transcript survives, carefully copied by the Church as a record of its early heroes:
“The pronconsul asked ‘What are the things in your box?' to which Speratus, the leading Christian of the group, replied, ‘The Books, and the letters of Paul, a just man'. The pronconsul declared his own faith, ‘We, also, are religious, and our religion is simple: and we swear by the genius of our lord the emperor, and pray for his welfare, as you ought to do.'To which Speratus replied, ‘The Empire of this world I do not recognize; but rather I serve God whom no man has seen nor can see with human eyes.'
The proconsul, in a spirit of humanity, offered them ‘a postponement of thirty days [to] reconsider' but the martyrs refused and were sentenced to death. Another well-chronicled trial of Christians took place in 203. Once again it was supervised by a humane judge, the procurator Hilarion who appealed to Perpetua, a well-educated young mother, ‘spare your father's white hairs; spare the tender years of your child. Offer a sacrifice for the safety of the Emperors.'
However, this little group of Christians had already fixed their desires on the heavenly rewards of martyrdom and not even their public torture in the amphitheatre would shake their faith. It is almost certain that their deaths were watched by at least one sympathetic witness for Tertullian, born in Carthage in 155 AD , was then in full flow, pouring forth a stream of Christian pamphlets after a late conversion. Tertullian's theological beliefs were later considered too heretical for him to be included amongst the canonical ‘Fathers of the Church' but his literary influence can hardly be overrated. He virtually created ecclesiastical Latin (the language of the Christian West for the next thousand years) with his lively, bold and witty style. He invented new words and phraseology as well as perfecting a ruthlessly destructive invective and a high authoritarian moral tone that would later become a characteristic of medieval writing. Tertullian also has an exhaustingly exact opinion on everything: from female deportment, dress, marriage, medals and military service to such matters as the bodily resurrection. It is as if the passion of the early martyrs has been transformed into a clearly written legal code. Tertullian, who wrote enthusiastically and lyrically about actively seeking martyrdom, somehow managed to survive all these persecutions for his first biographer, St Jerome, wrote that ‘he is said to have lived to an advanced age'.
Despite the example of the heroic martyrs it is impossible to imagine that the impressive classical humanism of the high empire, in the first and second centuries, could be replaced by an introverted, restrictive, demanding moral faith such as Christianity. With the arrival of military anarchy after 235 however, it is all too easy to appreciate the attractions of Christianity. The Church made a virtue of the necessity of political quietism and self-sufficiency. It offered the absorbing occupation of moral self-inspection in exchange for the vanished urban display of the past. On a practical level it also offered a system of mutual support to its members in contrast to the arbitrary exactions of the tax officials. The continuous political disorder also appealed to rather than dismayed the Church, for it offered reassuring proof of the end of the world whose imminence was strongly believed in.
The Christian communities were also highly adaptable. Their treasures (gospels, epistles and acts) were, like the silver of the generals, all highly portable. They placed no faith in, nor had any responsibility for, the upkeep of buildings. The site of the humble tomb of a martyr meant much more to them than all the perfumed courtyards, marble temples and smoking altars of antiquity. They had no fear of defilement or accidental pollution; a ‘church' could be formed wherever a few believers could come together, their rites demanding nothing more than verbal prayers, bread, wine and the kiss of peace.
Decius (249-51) was the first soldier-emperor to organize a concerted empire-wide campaign against the Church. He set up local committees to supervise a loyalty oath to the state cult of Rome and the deified emperors. Certificates (libelli) were awarded stating that ‘we have sacrificed to the gods all along, and now in your presence according to orders I poured a libation and sacrificed and tasted of the sacred offerings' before the approved witnesses. As an attempt to winkle out Christians the oath failed,
although it provided opportunities for local graft. Certificates were traded, some sacrificed with ‘crossed fingers', others hid during the period of oath-taking, but many Christians simply betrayed their faith. Within the Church there was controversy about how to re-admit these temporizing libellatici (certificate holders) into the Christian fold. Matters were further complicated because many of these lapsed Christians had obtained a certificate of forgiveness (libelli paci ) by confessing to those Christian martyrs who were in prison because of their faith. The Gospel of St Mark (xiii, 11) credited Christians in prison with unique access to the Holy Spirit and so they were much in demand as confessors. But for the admirable leadership of the bishop of Carthage, St Cyprian, the Church in North Africa seemed likely to split on this contentious issue.
Cyprian is the very model of a good bishop. His life is also a characteristic example of the cultural shift that took place in the middle of the third century. Cyprian was born in Carthage in 200 to prosperous pagan parents. Throughout the heyday of Severan North Africa he was at the forefront of North African society, a successful barrister at the lawcourts who was also a professor of rhetoric at the university of Carthage. His conversion to Christianity only occured in 246, but as there were very few men of respect, position and learning in the early Church he was made bishop of Carthage just two years later. He was devoted to the unity of the Church, to letter writing (some 60 of which have survived) and to pastoral care. His humane conduct during the plague of 252 is said to have won him more converts than any preacher. The next year his moral authority was further demonstrated when he collected 100,000 sesterces in order to ransom a group of citizens from their kidnappers.
Cyprian well understood that the Church, if it was to function as a compassionate institution, had temporal needs, but he was also passionate enough to take inspiration from the heroic evangelism of the martyrs. He proved to be a natural diplomat, remaining in constant touch with his one superior, the bishop of Rome, while acting as the avuncular primate to all the lesser bishops in North Africa. Eighty-seven bishops responded to his call to attend a regional council held covertly in Carthage in 256.
A new round of official persecution, launched by the Emperor Valerian in 258, specifically targeted the Church leadership and its economic resources. The proconsul handled the trial of the celebrated Bishop Cyprian, with all the courtesy to be expected between members of the honestiores (educated men of property owning class). St Cyprian also exhibited the most graceful manners and left instructions that his executioner should be generously tipped. He was beheaded on 14 September just outside Carthage. Even as St Cyprian was being executed it was clear that some critical threshold had been crossed, for the authorities were powerless to prevent him being escorted to his execution by a crowd of well-wishers. Two years later, in 260, the Emperor Gallienus issued an edict of toleration, which ushered in a 40-year period of coexistence.
Restoration under Diocletain
It was Diocletian who finally restored the authority of the state during his 20-year reign as emperor (284-305). He curbed internal dissidence, secured the frontiers, reorganized provincial administration, established a system of imperial succession, attempted to curb inflation with price control edicts and divided the empire between an eastern and a western ruler. In his authoritarian reformation of empire, civil life was to be as disciplined as the military vocation. The peasant was to be tied to the land, the craftsman to the town, the merchant to a fixed price, just as the soldier was tied to the defence of the frontier. Roman Algeria was part of the western empire which was administered by Maximian (284-305), Diocletian's loyal co-emperor. Maximian was the first ruler since Septimius Severus to repair the network of roads, forts, walls and ditches that formed the Saharan frontier zone, in a prolonged military campaign from 297-8. He oversaw directly the creation of a new military structure that placed the provincial militia or limitanei under the command of the dux (duke) while the professional mobile army, which was doubled in size, was commanded by the comes (count). The cavalry was for the first time conceived as an equal and permanent part of the Roman army rather than being formed from native auxiliaries. Whatever the change in training and status of the cavalrymen, the Numidians retained their accustomed place as the nursery of horsemen. The permanent cavalry garrison of 16 squadrons was the largest on any imperial frontier, for these squadrons, aside from their
local duties, continued to recruit and train Berber youths for service overseas.
The administrative boundaries were altered in 303 to create smaller and more manageable provinces. Algeria was divided between the four provinces of Mauretania Caesarensis and Mauretania Sitifensis in the west, Numidia Cirtensis in the north-east and Militana in the south. Which were combined with three neighbouring provinces to form ‘Africa', one of the eight dioceses of the western empire.
The Last pagan Persecution
It was only at the end of this long reign that Diocletian (irritated by a succession of
Mysterious palace fires) turned his attention on Christians. In 303 he organized the last great state persecution in 303. It was also the most devastating, for after 40 years of de facto tolerance, the Church had become a highly visible institution, and was an easy target for the imperial officials. They destroyed Christian places of worship, forbade meetings, confiscated sacred vessels and hunted down the scriptures, which were publicly burnt. Obdurate Christians who refused to assist the authorities were imprisoned, some were tortured, but that only a few were executed. The intensity of persecution depended on the mood of the officials, which was ferocious in Numidia because it was governed by a passionately pagan governor.. Most Christians were content to hide their beliefs for a while, but a distressingly large number turned traditores and assisted the authorities in tracking down gospels and sacred vessels. The bishop of Carthage, Mensurius, meekly handed over a number of gospels, but later acquitted himself on the slightly specious grounds that they were heretical and deserved to be burnt. At the same time Caecilian, the archdeacon of Carthage, made public the breach between the temporizing church officials and the martyrs. He picketed the jail and halted the flow of pilgrims who had been giving alms and confessing to the imprisoned and professing Christians. Caecilian deplored the noisy publicity of these martyrs and considered their fate to be self-inflicted. In 305 Diocletian retired to his palace at Split on his native Yugoslavian coast and the persecution, at least in the western half of the empire, gently subsided.
But the Christians of Roman North Africa were now riven in two, between the martyrs and the temporizing establishment of church officials. There were bitter personal recriminations over who had betrayed the Church, whether they had automatically forfeited their sacerdotal office, whether they could be forgiven or ever accepted back into the Church. It also reopened the questions first posed by Cyprian: to what extent could the moral failings of a priest diminish the power of the sacraments? Was the Church to be a society of saints or a school for sinners? The dispute echoed around the empire but was most acutely felt in North Africa, where the traditional Berber respect for the tombs of the heroic dead may have reinforced the party of martyrs. The Numidian interior had suffered greatly and was littered with the tombs of martyrs, whose friends could not but judge harshly the discredited Church establishment based in the coastal cities. The dispute came to a head in 312, when two bishops of Carthage were elected, Caecilian representing the much compromised church bureaucracy while Donatus Magnus representing the holy party of martyrs. Donatus was a man of such moral authority, impassioned oratory and intellectual fortitude that the party of martyrs later became known as the Donatists. He was born in Casea, a small Berber oasis in the arid southern steppes of Algeria, south of Tebessa.
The settlement of Constantine
A period of dynastic struggle followed the retirement of Diocletian and Maximian in 305. One of the leading contenders for power was Maximian's son, Maxentius (306-12), who inherited much of his father's old power base in the western empire. But in 308 the African leadership revolted against Maxentius, who invaded and fought a fierce campaign against the African legions, which included the sack of both Carthage and Cirta. The defeat of Maxentius in 312 at the battle of Milvian Bridge by Constantine's army (the first Roman force to have fought under the sign of the cross) was celebrated throughout Roman North Africa as the destruction of a hated oppressor. Constantine (306-37), who despatched Maxentius's pickled head to Carthage, could have sent no more welcome gift to the city fathers. The next year, Emperor Constantine sent another healing gift to North Africa, the publication of the Edict of Milan, which granted Christians complete legal equality and religious freedom, as well as ordering the return of all Church property confiscated during the persecutions. However this was impossible to enforce without first defining which was the true Church in North Africa. The rival bishops of Carthage, Caecilian and Donatus, were both summoned to explain their claims before the bishop of Rome, Pope Miltiades. He had a personal interest in the issue for he was also a North African churchman who had been accused of being a traditor. So Miltiades' judgement came down in favour of Caecilian, but the Emperor Constantine, clearly impressed by the moral character of Donatus intervened. He ordered a re-trial at Arles and later dispatched a judicial investigation to Carthage. At length Caecilian and the established Church secured the grudging support of the emperor. They celebrated their legal victory by launching a persecution of the Donatists in 316 (assisted by the army), which decisively surrendered the moral high ground to the martyrs. In Donatus' telling phrase, ‘the true Church is persecuted not persecuting'. Donatism, while strong amongst intellectuals, the poor and people of principle in the cities, also enjoyed strong, at times almost universal, support from the rural interior. Donatus, who came from Numidian Berber stock was uniquely able to articulate the spiritual yearnings of the forgotten hinterland. The emperor called a halt to the persecution the next year, and granted the Donatist Church toleration, but continued his official backing of the established Church. For the next 40 years the Donatist Church was subjected to a kind of guerilla persecution, although the longer this continued the greater the mystical devotion of Donatus' followers. Although none of his writing was allowed to survive by his Catholic opponents, and he can only be known through the tracts of his enemies, even they never attempted to impugn his integrity. Despite the violent sectarianism, it would be unwise to exaggerate the cultural differences between Catholic and Donatist. No architectural differences can be detected between their churches, nor was there ever any major doctrinal division between them. The Donatists are, however, thought to have white-washed their churches and shrines in a manner still commonplace throughout the Maghreb.
Even Constantine, who had the devout St Helena for a mother, first approached Christianity through his devotion to the pagan sun god. He was not alone. Solar monotheism was the most popular form of paganism in his day and provided an easy spiritual path to Christianity. Tertullian, some two centuries before Constantine, wrote about the popular confusion between Christ and the sun god, for the Christians also worshipped on Sunday and prayed towards the east. Another influential North African Christian writer of the second century, Clement of Alexandria, made the connection even more emphatically when he wrote of ‘Christ driving his chariot across the sky like the sun god' and quoted the old testament prophecy that Christ was ‘the sun of righteousness'. Constantine deliberately encouraged this confusion and fusion of beliefs by continuing to display the old pagan divine sunburst on his coinage (which in time would become transformed into the Christian halo). It was also in the early fourth century that 25 December, the day of the winter solstice, the birthday of the sun god, became accepted as the nativity of Jesus. In his new eastern capital of Constantinople, the emperor, at the same time as he was building the great church of the apostles and that of St Sophia, was also raising in the forum a large statue of himself in the style of the sun god. The mosaic floors of North Africa bear vivid witness to the almost seamless continuity of sacred images between the pagan and Christian periods. The peacock of Venus with its incorruptible flesh becomes a Christian symbol for the Resurrection, the vine leaves, grape harvest scenes and wine bowls of Dionysius become associated with the chalice of the Christian communion, while the shepherd bearing a sacrificial lamb on his shoulders up to the hilltop shrines of Saturn is transformed into the Christian ‘Good Shepherd'.
Constantine actively supported Christianity during his long reign, but neither he nor his immediate heirs made any attempt to force it upon their pagan subjects. The transformation from a pagan to a Christian society was a very gradual process and one that was long resisted by patricians and peasants deeply attached to the old ways. As late as 380, St Augustine could write about the city of Carthage as brimming with parades in honour of Caelestis-Tanit, the wild Bacchanalian dances and orgies held in honour of the goddess Cybele. The major churches were always constructed on the outer fringe of the classical city. It was long thought that this was due to the opposition of conservative landowners refusing them city-centre sites near the old pagan sanctuaries, but it was also due to a radically new attitude to the sacred. The classical world had kept the gods, the living and the dead, religiously apart. Temple sanctuaries were for the gods, temple courtyards used by ritually clean worshippers, while the dead were always taken beyond the clearly defined gates of the inhabited city to the necropolis, the city of the dead. To the pagan world it was an unthinkable pollution to confuse the two cities, let alone introduce anything dead into a temple. Yet this is exactly what the Christians did, constructing their great churches above tombs, burying their dead beneath the floors of churches and even instituting the kissing of the bones of martyrs. Christianity, to anyone educated in the classical world, deliberately inverted all the rules of sacred geography.
The persecution of Diocletian had razed all existing churches, enabling a harmonious Christian architecture to be created across the empire during Constantine's reign. The basilica, the Roman lawcourt, was taken as the model for Christian churches, in deliberate preference to the thousands of existing religious temples. The basilica was composed of a wide central nave (lit by upper windows), which was flanked by lower side aisles, with apses at either end. Roman magistrates, surrounded by their legal assistants, were customarily seated on a throne in the apse to judge court cases, retiring behind a curtain to decide on a sentence, which would be written out and read by a junior official. The Church simply followed Roman legal practice, replacing judge with bishop. The major internal innovation was the addition of the altar, whose sanctity was stressed by a protective canopy. Initially the altar was placed near the centre of the nave but by the late fifth century it had been moved to the eastern apse and stood behind a low stone screen. The eastern apse, approached by a stairway, was raised above the nave and equipped with benches, known as synthronon , for the lesser clergy. The western apse was often occupied by the sarcophagus of an honoured martyr, although this practice gradually faded away as the west end became the entrance. The more elaborate churches would have three doors, preceded by an enclosed outer courtyard where a central fountain allowed worshippers to wash. Those who were preparing themselves for the Christian life, the catchumens , were usually restricted to the courtyard while the outer aisles and the centre of the church with its altar were reserved for baptized Christians. The rite of baptism, which offered complete forgiveness of sins, had enormous importance in the early Church, but nowhere greater than in late Roman North Africa where excavations have revealed a large number of elaborate baptisteries. The fonts were either marble-clad cruciform troughs or lip-shaped bowls whose curved walls were clad in mosaic, the entire structure shaded by a domed balcony. The candidate was dipped in the water thrice after each affirmation of belief in the Trinity, was then anointed with oil and hands laid on him for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Milk and honey were then presented as tokens of the Promised Land. A labyrinth of rooms surrounded the font, through which the neophyte would have processed, an architectural reflection of this spiritual journey.
Constantine, who saved the Church from persecution, also helped destroy its virtue for he transformed it into a pillar of the state. He gave bishops the power of magistrates and with it the appropriate dignities of a court title, staff, mitre, pallium and the right to have their hands kissed. He also increased their local prestige enormously by directing that over a third of provincial revenue should be dispensed through Church charities. The spiritual responsibilities of the bishops were increasingly swamped by these secular demands. The palace of the bishop was thronged by a stream of local clients patiently, but obstinately, waiting for their patron's assistance: help in the preferment of a nephew, the release of a prisoner, the deferral of a tax, a recommendation to a school or just a letter of introduction.
As a corollary of these new powers the Church organized itself to be a mirror to the secular administration of the empire. The Council of Nicaea clearly defined the rules for the election and behaviour of bishops and placed them under the supervision of a senior metropolitan bishop. The Church enthusiastically inherited the old civic rivalries over precedence and the extent of provincial boundaries. Constantine also attempted to put some of the new morality into practice and devised laws for the protection of children, slaves and peasants. He forbade branding on the human face and put an end to gladiatorial combat. He encouraged the special role of Sunday as a day apart: for rest, prayer or as the most suitable day for weekly rural markets.
At the same time that Christianity became a prop to the state, there was an ascetic reaction to maintain the old purity of the martyrs. The earliest and most famous ascetic was St Anthony, who in 300 gave away his inheritance and forsook the cosmopolitan joys of urban Egypt to pursue a life of solitude in the desert. His heroic struggle to know God, beset by the dangers of possession by evil spirits but befriended by the wild beasts, was vividly chronicled in his biography, written by Athanasius, the Greek father of the Church. The Life of Anthony proved a continual inspiration to a rich assortment of heroic ascetics: those anchorites, eremites, hermits and stylites who still bewitch our imagination. The Catholic bishops were suspicious of these wilful, independent-minded holy men, but the creation of settled communities of ascetics, governed by rules and a spiritual director, gradually calmed their fears.
However all the worst fears of the bishops were encapsulated by the circumcelliones, the indigenous popular ascetic movement of Numidia, which found a natural ally in the Donatist Church. As early as 340 there are reports of bands of itinerant ascetics who congregated round the tombs of martyrs. They were given their name because they walked circum cellas , circled around the rural shrines in prayer. They had their own organization, their own dress (the rough Numidian woolen cloak that likens them in more than one way to the Franciscans), held vows of poverty, avoided marriage and had a sister organization for women known as sanctimoniales . Their spiritual practice was based on an almost continuous series of long pilgrimages, which allowed them to attend the festivals at distant shrines across the breadth of the country, fed by gifts of food from the villages they passed. They earned fierce loyalty from the peasantry by mocking the pretensions of the landlords, chastising debt collectors and burning down palatial villas, although they were seldom armed with anything more offensive than a stave. In times of hardship, their numbers were swelled by landless labourers and impoverished farmers, while during an official persecution they could melt back away into the humble huts of the peasant hamlets. Their militancy made them notorious, at times an embarassment, even to the Donatist bishops. The movement survived until it was swept away - or perhaps incorporated into the traditions of Islam.
It is interesting to reflect that the background to strict monastic regulation, like the rule established by St Benedict in 529, was a reaction to the dangers that wandering ascetics presented to the Church. There were Catholic monasteries established in Algeria but these are only known through literary sources, such as the communities founded by St Augustine (354-430) at Thagaste and Hippo.
The persecution of the Donatists
A decade after Constantine's death in 337, there were over 200 Donatist bishops in North Africa. Donatus, aware that the emperors were having difficulties with the Catholic majority, decided it was time for a renewed appeal. It backfired horribly. The imperial officials sent to investigate sided so strongly with the Catholic Church that a whole cycle of riots, massacre and counter terror was unleashed across the region. In 347 the Emperor Constans (337-50) sent Macarius, bishop of Aelia Capitolina, to lead a military campaign against the schismatic Donatists and to hunt out the circumcelliones . This brutal repression, the tempora Macariana , served only to rekindle Donatist fervour which survived the death of their revered leader in 355. Julian, the last pagan emperor (361-3), had no particular love for the Donatists, but was interested in encouraging discord between Christians. In 361 he gave permission for all exiled bishops to return home, restored Donatist property that had been confiscated in 347 and ended official support for the Catholics. The Donatists seized their chance and unleashed a terror campaign that forced many humiliated Catholics into a second baptism. Valentinian (364-75) was the last ruler to promote a policy of religious tolerance which happily coincided with the gentle leadership of the Donatist Church by the theologian Parmenian, from 363-93. Valentinian's reign was otherwise a decade of barely controlled disasters. In the year 365 a series of earthquakes toppled most of the coastal cities of the Mediterranean while a decade later the first barbarian tribes began to pour across the Rhine. It was not the only frontier where the Romans suffered, for rebellion was also rife amongst the tribes within and outside the Saharan frontier.
Internal frontiers within the Empire
For side by side with the story of a deeply assimilated Romano-Berber elite, there was a parallel tale that needs to be told. For some of the more innaccessible mountain regions within Algeria were never effectively incorporated into the imperial administration. These areas and their warlike free tribes, in exchange for peace, were effectively given their autonomy with just a prefect, a young soldier, given an administrative role to watch over the ruling council of elders. These prefects may also have been in charge of recruiting auxiliary cavalry regiments, which would make sense of the inscription raised to a Roman prefect of Mazices tribe who doubled up as a prefect of a cavalry ala. As well as that found to Lucius Calpurnius Fabatus, prefect of the ‘six nations of the Gaetuli in Numidia” (a nomadic Berber tribal confederation on the desert fringes of Algeria). On other occasions the Roman presence is restricted to something even lighter, a mere laison officer communicating a series of colloquie (peace agreements) with a recognized principes of the tribe. Which in times of weakened authority could evolve into the formal recognition of a tribal sovereign, who the Romans would anoint with gifts of a silver crown, a white toga, a silver-gilt sceptre and golden shoes. This sort of administrative grey area could make for easy and cheap peace-keeping but in the hands of an exploitative governor, or an assertive tribal chieftain, it could also lead to unexpected flash points.
Revolt of Firmus and Gildo
This is the likely background to the complex swirl of events underwriting the revolt of Firmus at the end of the 4th century. Firmus was one of the sons of Flavius Nubel, the recognized Princeps of the Kabyle mountain district, a man of considerable wealth and influence within the Empire whose granddaughter - for instance was married to the nephew of the ruling Emperor. Firmus's rebellion would be opposed by his much more Romanized brother, Gildo who would acquire leadership of the tribal lands after the defeat of his brother. But Gildo in his turn would lead his own revolt, in 396, which would be opposed by his brother, Mascazel, working closely with the Romans to become the new principes. These revolts can be seen as no more than dynastic squabbles over a rich inheritance, but both Firmus and Gildo were able to manipulate the mood of their tims, and use both the Donatist Church and the circumcelliones to spread the rebellion far beyond the cockpit of their tribal inheritance. So at times both brothers, whatever their own personal motivation, were on the cusp of becoming leaders of a genuine patriotic rebellion against oppressive state authority.
Algeria's great figure from these times, was not however a proto-nationalist rebel but a Christian. Whether he is thought of as a philosopher, theologian, politician, churchman or writer, St Augustine has had a towering influence over western Christendom, even though he is sidelined in his native land. His seminal works, City of God, Of the Trinity and Confessions are intellectual milestones in human thought. The former two are more quoted from than read, although the latter with its vivid psychological insights has a renewed appeal to twentieth-century taste. His theological teaching, which was largely concerned with the correct balance between free will and predestination, original sin and divine grace, proved a direct inspiration to the Reformation 1,000 years later, although his position as one of the ‘four doctors of the Latin church' remains unassailable. His life also provides a fascinating insight into fifth-century Algeria . Augustine was Numidian through and through, born in the overwhelmingly Donatist town of Thagaste (Souk Ahras), one of the children of Patricius, a pagan minor landowner, and St Monica, a devoted christian. He was sent to Madauros, Apuleius' home town, to get a better schooling and although he loathed it and never learned Greek (reading the classics only through Latin translations) he was a promising enough student for it to be worth sending him on to higher education. His father struggled for a year to raise the money for university and once there Augustine enjoyed himself enormously, making friends, finding lovers, discovering theatre, the circus and the baths, but also winning academic prizes. He returned home to teach rhetoric at Thagaste and, having cut his teeth, moved back to Carthage where he took a concubine and taught for seven years. During this period he was a Manichean hearer, a professed believer in the eternal opposition of a dark god of earthly power opposed to the god of light. It drew on elements of Buddhism, Christianity and Persian Zoroastrianism.
Feeling stuck in a rut he took the bold step of moving to Italy, but had a difficult first year in Rome looking after his concubine and their son. The next year, at the age of 30, his luck changed. Augustine was appointed professor of rhetoric at Milan and was converted to mainstream Christianity by the city's princely bishop, St Ambrose. Before he returned to Algeria there was a tragic domestic scene when his possessive mother dismissed his concubine, who was the mother of his son and his companion for 15 years, so that she could find a more suitable heiress. In 388 St Monica died at the port of Ostia just as they were about to embark for home. Augustine returned to Thagaste and established a monastic community composed of like-minded male Catholic intellectuals. In 391, despite his express wishes, he was made auxiliary bishop for the city of Hippo Regius but proved himself an exemplary choice. Four years later he was made bishop and became the principal Catholic activist in North Africa, pursuing the vendetta against the Donatists with annual councils, missions and a stream of closely argued pamphlets. He founded a new Monastic community at Hippo and launched the political campaign that in 405 finally persuaded Emperor Honorius (395-423) to declare that the Donatists heretical. Quoting the gospels, ‘compel them to come in', St Augustine justified the use of force including torture, but drew the line at execution. In 411 he achieved his patiently orchestrated Catholic-Donatist summit after which he increasingly dedicated himself to his writing, which was specifically designed to answer two contemporary challenges. One was the widespread belief that Rome had fallen (it had been sacked by Goths in 410) because Christianity had weakened the empire. The second came from a humane British monk, Pelagius, who could not believe that we inherited sin from Adam during the act of our conception or that unbaptized babies went to Hell. Pelagius, who had once tried to visit Augustine, stopping off at Hippo on a journey between Rome and Jerusalem, was also spurned by another great doctor of the Latin church. St Jerome called him a corpulent dog weighed down with Scots porridge. He sounds a good and kind man. The City of God was composed in 19 episodic, if not repetitive, chapters written between 413 and 427. Two years later, during the Vandal siege of Hippo, the great bishop died.
The Vandal conquest was a short-lived but dramatic interlude in Algeria's history. The military prowess of a single German tribe allowed it to carve out a great kingdom for itself, despite being completely cut off from contact with its old homeland so that its numbers could not be replenished by new migration. Nor did the Vandals make any attempt to assimilate themselves into Berber society, which they kept at a distance through their alien language, hybrid Arian church and caste-like pride in their military abilities.
As late as 400 the Roman milittary were not familiar with the Vandals, who were still dwelling amongst the swamps, forests and sandy plains that lay between the Oder and Vistula rivers. In 406 they stormed across the frozen Rhine, in order to escape the Huns to their east and to pillage Gaul. By 409 they had crossed the Pyrenees and settled in southern Spain. In 426 Genseric, their vigorous new leader, took the city of Cartagena and created the Vandal fleet which soon proved itself with the capture of the Balearic islands. Three years later a rift between the Dowager-Empress Placidia and Boniface, the last military commander of Africa, provided a pretext for the invasion of North Africa. In 429 Genseric led 80,000 of his Vandal people across the straits of Gibraltar from where they marched rapidly east along the coast of Algeria, closely supported by their fleet. Count Boniface tried to block their advance, but his small field army was forced back behind the walls of Hippo Regius, which resisted siege for 14 months only to be stormed in 430. St Augustine had already died, but he had discussed with his clergy what should be done in the event of defeat. They had decided to draw lots: half were to share the fate of their parishioners, half to leave in order to keep the faith alive. Genseric established his capital at Hippo and in 433 made an opportunistic treaty with the empire, which legally established the Vandals as foederatii, allies in charge of the defence of Numidia. By 439 he had recovered his strength and returned to the offensive. He marched quickly on Carthage, which had only recently been enclosed with defensive walls. The citizens of Carthage proved remarkably uninterested in the fate of the empire and flatly refused to leave their seats at the race track just because the Vandals had attacked. There could not have been greater contrast between the siege of Punic and Roman Carthage. In 444 the emperor officially surrendered his sovereignty over North Africa to the Vandals.
Genseric expelled all the Roman landlords and their estates given to Vandal warriors, who became an exclusive ruling class. There was no dispossession of the peasantry, who were required to continue working the land for their new masters, nor of the conductores, the middle-class leaseholders, who continued to manage rural affairs. The Vandals took quickly to the aristocratic lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and hunting, and went to surprising lengths to ape their predecessors. Inscriptions at Cuicul (near Theveste) and Ammaedara reveal the continuation of the imperial cult, conducted by Vandal flamines (priests of the cult). Having rewarded his people, Genseric's second policy was to cut out completely the expense and inconvenience of guarding the frontier, controlling the mountain tribes and ruling the steppe. Instead Genseric invested the various Romanized-Berber chiefs as local kings, strengthening an old policy of the Roma Empire. His third policy, state piracy, held the political balance of his new kingdom together. For every spring the Vandal fleet sailed from the harbour of Carthage and Hippo to pillage the islands and coastline of the Mediterranean. The coasts of Sicily, Sardinia, Greece, Italy, Spain and Yugoslavia were methodically plundered and in the gloriously successful year of 455, Rome itself was occupied for a profitable fortnight. Material wealth and slaves poured into the kingdom, keeping the Vandal warriors happy and willing to accept royal commands. The recently elevated Berber kings were also invited to participate, along with their Numidian cavalry, in these exciting and rewarding annual expeditions. When the eastern emperor struck back at this scourge of civilization, dispatching two fleets from Constantinople against Vandal Carthage during the 460s, Genseric destroyed them both.
Huneric and Hilderic
During his long and successful career Genseric transformed himself from an elected war leader to a hereditary king. In a move appropriate to this new standing his son Huneric married Eudoxia, the daughter of Emperor Valentinian. His first wife, a Visigothic princess, was divorced and sent home having been mutilated on a trumped up treason charge. When Genseric died, he was succeeded by Huneric (477-84) who knew well that a proper east German king should have been elected at Thing (the general assembly of the army) from the most talented men of royal blood. To make sure of his hereditary succession, therefore, he began a methodical purge of his kin. This blood-letting was succeeded by the persecution of the Catholic Church after a Vandal church council held at Carthage in 484 had upheld Arian theology. Five thousand Catholic clergy are reported to have fled Huneric's persecution and escaped west to take refuge with the Berber kings of the interior. Huneric died later that year and was succeeded by two nephews, who amicably divided the royal authority between them. Gunthamund concerned himself with military matters while Thrasamund presided over the Vandal court, a place of not inconsiderable learning. Amongst the surviving works from this period are Dracontius' tragedy on the theme of Oresteia , a collection of classical myths reworked into verse, three books of hexameters entitled De Laudibus Dei (which were much admired by Milton) and an Apologia . In 523 the throne passed to Hilderic, an elderly cultivated homosexual, who was possibly more proud of being a grandson of Emperor Valentian III (425-55) than of Genseric. Hilderic halted the persecution of the Catholic Church, welcomed back the exiled bishops, opened friendly relations with the eastern empire and started a row with the hitherto friendly Ostrogoths in Italy. The defeat of a Vandal army by Antalas (who had created a Berber kingdom in eastern Algeria and central Tunisia) finally broke Hilderic's dwindling authority. In 530 he was deposed by Gelimer, his more militant cousin, although if we are to believe the Byzantine historian Procopius, the fine German manhood of the Vandals had already gone to seed in the sun. Procopius' description, not unlike the moral warnings of a headmaster, should be enjoyed for its own sake rather than for any particular insight:
“Of all the nations I know the most effeminate is that of the Vandals. They spent all their days in the baths and enjoyed a table abounding in all things, the sweetest and best that the earth and sea produce. And they wore gold very generally, and clothed themselves in garments of silk, and passed their time, thus dressed in theatres and hippodromes and in other pleasurable pursuits, and above all else in hunting. And they had dancers and mimes and all other things to hear and see which are of a musical nature or otherwise merit
attention among men. And most of them dwelt in parks, which were well supplied with water and trees, and they had great number of banquets. Finally, being lovers of the earth, they delivered themselves without reservation to all manner of sexual pleasures.”
The Albertini Tablets
While the Vandals were pleasuring themselves on alien soil, the rest of North Africa had been returned to its indigenous rulers, whose authority had remained dormant under the Roman policy of co-opting the native ruling class into that of Rome. The quick emergence of these Romano-Berber successor states testifies to the enduring resilience of traditional structures within the fabric of imperial administration, and they continued to dominate the interior for 250 years. In 1928 the discovery of a sealed jar, hidden in a remote stone wall about 60 miles south of Tebessa, has allowed an intimate view of this Romano-Berber society. The jar contained 56 wooden tablets that related to a dismantled estate, the Fundus Tuletianos, in the 490s. From this sub-Saharan village on the border between the Aurès and the Vandal kingdom one might have expected a cry of woe such as that recorded by Gildas, a contemporary British writer. Instead the documents are distinguished by their complete parochial ordinariness: the sale of a slave, a leasehold, a dowry list and various legal and financial statements. The emotional heart of the tablets centres on the marriage of Juliana to Geminia, a modest heiress worth several hundred olive trees. Geminia, in addition to her orchards, was a descendant of Falvius Geminius Catullinus who had once owned the whole fundus as well as other properties. The Geminius family had come down in the world, but they were by no means beaten. Most of the tablets concern their patient acquisition of odd parcels of land, although their largest single purchase is only a matter of 37 olive trees. A careful analysis of the tablets by Eugene Albertini (after whom they are named, in preference to their authors) has revealed a high degree of Latin literacy, knowledge of Roman law and respect for female property rights in this small village. The fundus is otherwise an entirely Berber zone in matters of dress, jewellery, consumption and the patient intricacies of dry farming the desert fringe. On the other edge of Algeria the royal tombs at Djedar (near Tiaret) are an architectural testimony to a similar society. The tombs fuse Roman motifs with the traditional monumental royal tombs of Numidia, and emphatically suggest the existence of as stable Romano-Berber dynasty on the edge of the desert.
Meanwhile on the coast the cycle of foreign invasion continued. In 533 Emperor Justinian (527-65) dispatched General Belisarius with a fleet of 500 ships and an army of 16,000 from Constantinople to land on the coast of Africa. The Vandal army, weakened by the distraction of a raid on Sardinia and a frontier war with the Berbers was destroyed outside the walls of Carthage. The Romano-Berber kings, who had remained aloof from this conflict, now sent loyal delegations asking for imperial recognition of their titles. After a century without Roman military overlords or tax officials during which, according to one Berber inscription, they had ‘never forsworn, nor broken faith, either with the Romans or the Moors' their request was hardly out of order. Belisarius officially recognized their position, although most of his successors proved entirely faithless in their dealings with the Berber kings. Procopius, the official ( and unofficial) chronicler of Justinians reign gives us a useful and lighlty prejudiced description of the Berber foe (Book IV, 11;26)
For most of them have no armour at all and those who have shields to hold before themselves have only small ones which are not well made and are not able to turn aside what strikes against them. And after they have thrown those two small spears, if they do not accomplish anything, they turn of their own accord to flight.
Belisarius left behind an Armenian general, Solomon, as governor of North Africa. He offered back the land to descendants of the landowners dispossessed by the Vandals, disbanded the Arian Church, re-established the imperial tribute of corn, to Constantinople rather than Rome, reintroduced the tax man and restored the Catholic Church to its accustomed position beside the hierarchy of secular administration. Having survived a military mutiny and exile, this remorcelessly effecient imperial official advanced into the Aurès mountains and pushed the frontier ever west. Over the next five years Solomon devoted the energies of the state to an enormous building programme that fortified the new Byzantine province of Africa. The open cities and villa-dotted countryside of the past was transformed into a medieval landscape of walled towns surrounded by fortified manor houses. His engineers energetically and ruthlessly quarried their way through the glorious old civic edifices of the High Empire (many of which had already been subdivided and partly quarried by later occupants) in order to use the ready-dressed stones and columns in the construction of curtain walls. Precious marble veneers and pagan statuary were smashed and burned in kilns to produce copious quantities of lime mortar. Other structures from the past (temples, forums, triumphal arches, theatres, amphitheatres and baths) were immaculately preserved if they were by chance found useful, and incorporated within a fort. At the same time sewer systems were overhauled, aqueducts reconnected, harbours cleared and grandiose churches erected to dominate the new urban centres. It was a truly massive programme of public works, which was only achieved with the Emperor Justinian's continual support. There was also a renewed energy for a single definition of religious faith, which led to the persecution of all who deviated from Catholic Orthodoxy: Donatists, Jews, Arians or pagans. It is a customary mistake to dismiss the Byzantine period as a fragile interregnum between the Roman and Islamic periods. But there is nothing ephemeral about the three great rectangular military fortresses, which were constructed on the south-western frontier zone at Tebessa, Thelepte and Ammaedara, and would alone have required over a million labouring days in their construction. These defences were soon to be tested and found wanting, for in 543 the whole Berber southern frontier erupted (against the arrogance and cruelty of the Byzantine deputy-governor). It was not until a second Byzantine army has been shipped out and destroyed that the Emperor sent out a man of the region who could treat the Berber kings with respect. John Troglita, the eponymous hero of Corippus' epic poem, the Johannides had long experience of the kind of warfare and diplomacy that was required. His struggle against the Berber kings was resolved as much by the honourable treaties he concluded, as by the actual fighting. He was of course the exception and for the rest of the century the Berber mountains and the Byzantine garrisons lurched from one border war into another.
Birth of a new Era
It was this fractured society that in the 7th century would be attacked by a series of Arab armies riding out of Egypt. It would take fifty years (647-710) for two generations of Arab armies to conquer Numidia and Mauretania. The gifts that these conquerors brought in their baggage, Islam and the Arabic language, would transform Numidia. Indeed in 743 the Arab conquerors were thrown out by Berber soldiers who proved themselves to be rather better Muslims that their old masters. But that is another story.
TEXTS - although Herodotus, in Book IV, is only describing the Berber tribes along the coast of Libya and southern Tunisia, this text is of great interest in understanding the likely culture of the Berber tribes of Numidia and Mauretania.
168. “I will now provide a description of the Libyan tribes: starting from Egypt, first are the Adyrmachides who have much in common with the Egyptians but they are dressing like the rest of the Libyans. Their women wear a bronze bracelet on each leg and they keep their hair long. (…) It's the only Libyan tribe (…) which forces all the girls who are about to get married to visit the king. When the king is fond of any of these girls, she leaves the palace without her virginity.”
170. “Next tribe to the west are the Asbystes. (…) They are distinguished among the Libyans, for they use four horse chariots.”
172. “Advancing westward, we meet the Nasamonians. (…) Every man of this tribe has plenty of women, and shares them with other men. (…) Regarding vows, they tend to swear by the most renowned for their integrity and value of their compatriots, and place hands over their graves. Regarding again the oracles, they pray and then sleep over the graves of their ancestors and analyze what dreams they saw. If two men want to make a serious agreement, they drink from each other's hand and, if no liquid is available, get some sand and lick it.”
174. “Further inland and to the south, in the Libyan territory that is full of wild beasts, live the Garamantes who avoid any contact with people; they do not possess arms and they do not know how to defend themselves.”
175. “Along the coast to the west, neighbouring the Nasamones, are the Macae. These people cut their hair in the shape of a crest by shaving the sides of the head and leaving the hair in the middle untouched. In battle, they use shields of ostrich leather.”
176. “Next to them live the Gindanes. Their women tie leather straps around their ankles, equal to the exact number of their lovers so far. (…) She who has the most straps around her ankle is considered the most desirable among men.”
180. “The people next to the Machlyans are the Auseans, both tribes living on the shores of Lake Tritonis and the River Triton defines their region's borders. The Machlyans let their hair grow long at the back of their head, the Auseans at the front. Every year they perform a ceremony to honour the goddess Athena [Plato states in his Dialogues that the prototype of the Greek goddess Athena was the Libyan godess Neith] and during the ceremony girls divided in two groups attack each other using clubs and stones. They say that this is a ceremony established from ancient times and by performing it they honour the local goddess who is the equivalent of the Greek Athena. If some girl during the battle is injured and dies, this simply proves to them that she was not a virgin.”
190. “The nomadic Libyans, except the Nasamones, bury their dead just like the Greeks, but the Nasamones bury them in a sitting position, ensuring that the dead die seated, not lying down. Their homes are portable, made of dried reeds and daffodil, twisted together with strong ropes.”
191. “West of the River Triton and beyond the Auseans' land, Libya is populated by people who live in regular houses and cultivate the land. First are the Maxyans, who let their hair grow long on the right side of the head and completely shave the left. They paint their bodies red and they claim that they are the descendants of the Trojans.”
193. “Leaving the land of the Maxyans, we meet the Zauekes, among whom the war chariots are driven by women.”
194. “Next to them are the Gyzantes, in whose country there is plenty of honey, a great part of which is produced by bees, but the most is created by a method invented by the locals. They usually paint their bodies red and they eat monkeys, which are numerous on the hills.”
Then there is Strabo's (64BC-AD 24) description of the Berbers of Mauretania in his Geography, Book XVII.7, which as neighbours of the famous Masaesyli of Numidia should be placed in western Algeria-eastern Morocco
“Although the most of the country inhabited by the Maurusians is so fertile, yet even to this time most of the people persist in living a nomadic life. But nevertheless they beautify their appearance by braiding their hair, growing beards, wearing golden ornaments, and also by cleaning their teeth and paring their nails. And only rarely can you see them touch one another in walking, for fear that the adornment of their hair may not remain intact. Their horsemen fight mostly with a javelin, using bridles made of rush, and riding bareback; but they also carry daggers. The foot-soldiers hold before them as shields the skins of elephants, and clothe themselves with the skins of lions, leopards, and bears, and sleep in them. I might almost say that these people, and the Masaesylians, who live next after them, and the Libyans in general, dress alike and are similar in all other respects, using horses that are small but swift, and so ready to obey that they are governed with a small rod. The horses wear collars made of wood or of hair, to which the rein is fastened, though some follow even without being led, like dogs. These people have small shields made of raw-hide, small spears with broad heads, wear ungirded tunics with wide borders, and, as I have said, use skins as mantles and shields. The Pharusians and Nigretes who live above these people near the western Aethiopians also use bows, like the Aethiopians; and they also use scythe-bearing chariots. The Pharusians mingle only rarely even with the Maurusians when passing through the desert, since they carry skins of water fastened beneath the bellies of their horses. Sometimes, however, they come even to Cirta, passing through certain marshy regions and over lakes. Some of them are said to live like Troglodytes, digging homes in the earth. And it is said that here too the summer rains are prevalent, but that in winter there is a drought, and that some of the barbarians in this part of the world use also the skins of snakes and fish both as wraps and as bed-covers. And the Maurusians are said by some to be the Indians who came thither with Heracles. Now a little before my time the kings of the house of Bogus and of Bocchus, who were friends of the Romans, possessed the country, but when these died Juba succeeded to the throne, Augustus Caesar having given him this in addition to his father's empire. He was the son of the Juba who with Scipio waged war against the deified Caesar. Now Juba died lately, but his son Ptolemy, whose mother was the daughter of Antony and Cleopatra, has succeeded to the throne.”
Back to Articles page
by Barnaby Rogerson