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Roman Africa

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

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The Romans gave the name of Africa to that part of the world which the Greeks called Libya (At131)n). It comprised the whole of the portion of the African continent known to the ancients, except Egypt and Ethiopia. But besides this general sense, which occurs in Pliny (iii. 3), Pomponius Mela (i. 8) and other authors, the official and administrative language used the word Africa in a narrower sense, which is noticed below. The term was certainly borrowed by the Romans from the language of the natives. In Latin literature it was employed for the first time by the poet Ennius, who wrote in the interval between the First and Second Punic Wars (Ann. vi.; Sat. iii.). By him the term was confined to the territory of Carthage and the regions composing the eastern group of the Atlas. Among the numerous conjectures which have been made as to the etymology of the term Africa (' Acppucii ) may be quoted that which derives it from the Semitic radical. vi (" separate "), Africa being considered, in this connexion, as a Phoenician settlement " separated " from the mother country, Asiatic Phoenicia. It has also been held that the word Africa comes from friqi, farikia (the country of fruit). The best hypothesis in the writer's opinion is that maintained by Charles Tissot, who sees in the word " Africa " the name of the great Berber tribe, the Aourigha (whose name would have been pronounced Afarika), the modern Aouraghen, now driven back into the Sahara, but in ancient times the principal indigenous element of the African empire of Carthage (Tissot, Geogr. comp. i. 389). Thus Africa was originally, in the eyes of the Romans and Carthaginians alike, the country inhabited by the great tribe of Berbers or Numidians called Afarik. Cyrenaica, on the east, attached to Egypt, was then excluded from it, and, similarly, Mauretania, on the west.

At the time of the Third Punic War the Africa of the Carthaginians was but a fragment of their ancient native empire. It comprised the territory bounded by a vague line running from the mouth of the Tusca (Wad el Kebir), opposite the island of Tabraca (Tabarca), as far as the town of Thenae (Tina), at the mouth of the Gulf of Gabes. The rest of Africa had passed into the hands of the kings of Numidia, who were allies of the Romans.

After the capture of Carthage by Scipio (146 B.C.) this territory was erected into a Roman province, and a trench, the fossa regia, was dug to mark the boundary of the Roman province of Africa and the dominions of the Numidian princes. There have been discovered (1907) the remains of this ditch protected by a low wall or a stone dyke; some of the boundary stones which marked its course, and inscriptions mentioning it, have also been found. From Testur on the Mejerda the fossa regia can be followed by these indications for several miles along the Jebel esh-Sheid. The ditch ran northward to Tabarca and southward to Tina. The importance of the discoveries lies in the fact that the ditch which in later times divided the provinces of Africa vetus and Africa nova was at the time of the Third Punic War the boundary of Carthaginian territory (R. Cagnat, " Le fosse des frontieres romaines " in Melanges Boissier, 1905, p. 227; L. Poinssot in Comptes rendus de l'Acad. des Inscript. et Belles Lettres, 1907, P. 466; Classical Review, 1907, December, p. 255). The government of the Roman province thus delimited was entrusted to a praetor or pro praetor, of whom several are now known, e.g. P. Sextilius, pro praetor Africae, according to coins of Hadrumetum of the year 94 B.C. The towns which had fought on the side of the Romans during the Third Punic War were declared civitates liberae, and became exceedingly prosperous. They were Utica (Bu Shatir), Hadrumetum (Susa), Thapsus (Dimas), Leptis Minor (Lemta), Achulla (Badria), Uzalis (about 11 m. from Utica) and Theudalis. Those towns, however, which had remained faithful to Carthage were destroyed, like Carthage itself.

After the Jugurthine war in 106, the whole of the regio Tripolitana, comprising Leptis Magna (Lebda), Oea (Tripoli), Sabrata, and the other towns on the littoral of the two Syrtes, appears to have been annexed to the Roman province in a more or less regular manner (Tissot ii. 21). The battle of Thapsus in 46 made the Romans definitely masters of Numidia, and the spheres of administration were clearly marked out. Numidia was converted into a new province called " Africa Nova," and of this province the historian Sallust was appointed proconsul and invested with the imperium. From that time the old province of Africa was known as " Africa Vetus " or " Africa Propria." This state of affairs, however, lasted but a short time. In 31 B.C. Octavius gave up Numidia, or Africa Nova, to King Juba II. Five years later Augustus gave Mauretania and some Gaetulian districts to Juba, and received in exchange Numidia, which thus reverted to direct Roman control. Numidia, however, no longer formed a distinct government, but was attached to the old province of Africa. From 25 B.C. the Roman province of Africa comprised the whole of the region between the mouth of the Ampsaga (Wad Rummel, Wad el Kebir) on the west, and the two tumuli called the altars of the Philaeni, the immutable boundary between Tripolitana and Cyrenaica, on the east (Tissot ii. 261). In the partition of the government of the provinces of the Roman empire between the senate and the emperor, Africa fell to the senate, and was henceforth administered by a proconsul. Subordinate to him were the legati pro consule, who were placed at the head of districts called dioceses. At first there were only three dioceses: Carthaginiensis, Hipponiensis (headquarters Hippo Diarrhytus, now Bizerta), and Numidica (headquarters Cirta, now Constantine). At a later date the diocesis Hadrumetina was formed, and perhaps at some date unknown the diocesis Tripolitana. The province of Africa was the only senatorial province whose governor had originally been invested with military powers. The proconsul of Africa, in fact, had command of the legio III. Augusta and the auxiliary corps. But in A.D. 37 Caligula deprived the proconsul of his military powers and gave them to the imperial legate ( legatus Augusti pro praetore provinciae Africae ), who was nominated directly by the emperor, and whose special duty it was to guard the frontier zone (Tacitus, Hist. iv. 48; Dio Cass. lix. 20). The headquarters of the imperial legate were originally at Cirta and afterwards at Lambaesa (Lambessa). The military posts were drawn up in echelon along the frontier of the desert, especially along the southern slopes of the Aures, as far as Ad Majores (Besseriani), and on the Tripolitan frontier as far as Cydamus (Ghadames), forming an immense arc extending from Cyrenaica to Mauretania. A network of military routes, constructed and kept in repair by the soldiers, led from Lambaesa in all directions, and stretched along the frontier as far as Leptis Magna, passing Theveste (Tebessa), Thenae and Tacape (Gabes). The powers of the proconsul, however, extended scarcely beyond the ancient Africa Vetus and the towns on the littoral. Towards 194 Septimius Severus completed the reform of Caligula by detaching from the province of Africa the greater part of Numidia to constitute a special province governed by a procurator, subordinate to the imperial legate and resident at Cirta (Tissot ii. 34). This province was called Numidia Cirtensis, as opposed to Numidia Inferior or proconsular Numidia.

In Diocletian's great reform of the administrative system of the empire, the whole of Roman Africa, with the exception of Mauretania Tingitana (which was attached to the province of Spain), constituted a single diocese subdivided into six provinces: Zeugitana (Carthage), Byzacium (Hadrumetum, now Susa), Numidia Cirtensis (Cirta, Constantine), Tripolitana (Tripolis), Mauretania Sitifensis (Sitifis, Setif), and Mauretania Caesariensis (Caesarea, now Cherchel). These provinces were administered, according to circumstances, by a praeses of senatorial rank, a legatus pro praetore, or a vir clarissimus consularis. Some changes were eventually necessitated by the wars with the Moors and the Vandals. By a treaty concluded in 476, the emperor Zeno recognized Genseric as master of all Africa. Reconquered by Belisarius in 534, Africa formed, under the name of praefectura Africae, one of the great administrative districts of the Byzantine empire. It was subdivided into six provinces, which were placed under the authority of the praetorian prefect of Africa. These provinces were Zeugitana (the former Proconsularis), Carthage, Byzacium, Tripolitana, Numidia and 1Vlauretania. The civil government was carried on by consulares or praesides, while the military government was in the hands of four duces militum, who made strenuous efforts to drive out the barbarians. The country was studded thickly with burgi(small forts) and clausurae (long walls), the ruins of which still subsist. In 647 the Arabs penetrated into Ifrikia, which was destined to fall for ever out of the grasp of the Romans. In 697 Carthage was taken.

The bulk of the population of Roman Africa was invariably composed of three chief elements: the indigenous Berber tribes, the ancient Carthaginians of Phoenician origin and the Roman colonists. The Berber tribes, whose racial unity is attested by their common spoken language and by the comparatively numerous Berber inscriptions that have come down to us, bore in ancient times the generic names of Numidians, Gaetulians and Moors or Maurusiani. Herodotus mentions a great number of these tribes. During the Roman period, according to Pliny, there were settlements of 26 indigenous tribes extending from the Ampsaga as far as Cyrenaica. The much more detailed list of Ptolemy enumerates 39 indigenous tribes in the province of Africa and 25 in Mauretania Caesariensis. Ammianus Marcellinus, Procopius and Flavius Cresconius Corippus give still further names. Besides the Afri (Aourigha) of the territory of Carthage, the principal tribes that took part in the wars against the Romans were the Lotophagi, the Garamantes, the Maces, the Nasamones in the regions of the S.E., the Misulani or Musulamii (whence the name Mussulman), the Massyli and the Massaesyli in the E., who were neighbours of the Moors. The non-nomads of these Libyan tribes dwelt in huts made of stakes supporting plaited mats of rush or asphodel. These dwellings, which were called mapalia, are the modern gourbis. African epigraphy has revealed the names of some of their deities: deus invictus Aulisva; the god Motmanius, associated with Mercury; the god Lilleus; Baldir Augustus; Kautus pater; the goddess Gilva, identified with Tellus, and Ifru Augustus (Tissot i. 486). The Johannis of Corippus mentions three native divinities: Sinifere, Mastiman and Gurzil. There were also local divinities in all the principal districts. The rock bas-reliefs and other monuments showing native divinities are rare, and give only very summary representations. Dolmens, however, occur in great numbers in Tunisia and the province of Constantine. Tumuli, too, are found throughout northern Africa, the"most celebrated being that near Cherchel, the Kubr-er-Rumia (" tomb of the Christian lady "), which was regarded by Pomponius Mela as the royal burying-place of the kings of Numidia.

During the Roman period the ancient Carthaginians of Phoenician origin and the bastard population termed by ancient authors Libyo-Phoenicians, like the modern Maltese, invariably formed the predominant population of the towns on the littoral, and retained the Punic language until the 6th century of the Christian era. The municipal magistrates took the title of sufetes in place of that of duumvirs, and in certain towns the Christian bishops were obliged to know the lingua Punica, since it was the only language that the people understood. Nevertheless, the Roman functionaries, the army and the colonists from Italy soon brought the Latin element into Africa, where it flourished with such vigour that, in the 3rd century, Carthage became the centre of a Romano-African civilization of extraordinary literary brilliancy, which numbered among its leaders such men as Apuleius, Tertullian, Arnobius, Cyprian, Augustine and many others.

Carthage regained its rank of capital of Africa under Augustus, when thousands of Roman colonists flocked to the town. Utica became a Roman colony under Hadrian, and the civitates liberae, municipia, castella, pagi and turres were peopled with Latins. The towns of the ancient province of Africa which received coloniae were very numerous: Abitensis ( civitas Avittensis Bibba ), Bisica Lucana (Tastour), Byzacium, Capsa (Gafsa), Carthage, Cuina, Curubis (Kurba), Hadrumetum (Susa), Hippo Diarrhytus or Zarytus (Bizerta), Leptis Magna (Lebda), Maxula (Ghades, Rades or Gades),Neapolis(Nabel, Nebeul), Oea (Tripoli), Sabrata (Zoara), colonic Scillitana (Ghasrin), Sufes (Sbiba), Tacape (Gabes),Thaenae or Thenae (Tina), Thelepte (Medinet Kedima), Thugga (Dugga), Thuburbo maius (Kasbat), Thysdrus (El Jem), Uthina (Wadna) and Vallis (Median). Of the municipia may be mentioned Gigthis or Gigthi (Bu Grara), Thibussicensium Bure (Tebursuk), Zita and the turris Tamalleni (Telmin).

The province of Numidia was at first colonized principally by the military settlements of the Romans. Cirta (Constantine) and Bulla Regia (Hammam Darraj), its chief towns, received coloniae of soldiers and veterans, as well as Theveste (Tebessa) and Thamugas (Timgad). The fine ruins which have been discovered at the last-mentioned place have earned for it the surname of the African. Pompeii (see below).


Roman Africa has been the subject of innumerable historical and archaeological researches, especially since the conquest of Algeria and Tunisia by the French. The country is covered with Roman and Byzantine remains. Each of these ruins has been visited by archaeologists who have copied inscriptions, described the temples, triumphal arches, porticos, mausoleums and the other monuments which are still standing, collected statues or other antiquities; and in many cases they have actually excavated. The results of all these labours have been published, from about 1850 onwards, annually, and, indeed, almost from day to day, in various scientific periodicals. Among the principal of these are: - Memoires de la Societe archeologique de Constantine, Bulletin de la Societe geographique et archeologique d'Oran, Revue africaine of Algiers, to which we should add the Revue archeologique of Paris, the Archives des missions scientifiques and the Bulletin archeologique du Comite des travaux historiques and the Melanges of the French School at Rome. In all the towns of Algeria and Tunisia museums have been founded for storing the antiquities of the region; the most important of these are the museums of St Louis, Carthage and the palace of Bardo (musee Alaoui) near Tunis, those of Susa, Constantine, Lambessa, Timgad, Tebessa, Philippeville, Cherchel and Oran. Under the title of Musees et collections archeologiques de l'Algerie et de la Tunisie, the Ministry of Public Instruction publishes from time to time illustrated descriptions of all these archaeological treasures. In this collection have already appeared descriptions of the museums of Algiers by G. Doublet; of Constantine by G. Doublet and P. Gauckler; of Oran by R. de La Blanchere; of Cherchel by P. Gauckler; of Lambessa by R. Cagnat; of Philippeville by S. Gsell and Bertrand; of the Bardo by R. de La Blanchbre and P. Gauckler; of Carthage by R. P. Delattre; of Tebessa by S. Gsell; of Susa by P. Gauckler; of Timgad by R. Cagnat and A. Ballu.

The archaeological exploration of Algeria has kept pace with the expansion of French dominion. From 1846 to 1854 Delamarre published his Exploration archeologique de l'Algerie, in collaboration with the French officers. In 1850 Leon Renier was officially instructed to collect all the inscriptions in Algeria which should be found by the military expeditionary columns. This scholar examined first the ruins of Lambessa, an account of which he published in 1854 in his Melanges d'epigraphie; subsequently he made his important collection of Inscriptions romaines de l'Algerie (1855-1858) which formed the groundwork of the volume of the Corpus Inscr. Lat. of the Academy of Berlin, devoted to Roman Africa. A little later General Faidherbe published his Collection complete des inscriptions numidiques (1870). Apart from the province of Constantine, Algeria is less rich in Roman remains than Tunisia; mention must, however, be made of the excavations of Victor Waille at Cherchel, where were found fine statues in the Greek style of the time of King Juba II.; of P. Gavault at Tigzirt (Rusuccuru), and finally of those of Stephane Gsell at Tipasa (basilica of St Salsa) and throughout the district of Setif and at Khamissa (Thuburticum Numidarum). In the department of Constantine, which is peculiarly rich in Roman remains, Tebessa has been most carefully explored by M. Heron de Villefosse, who has laid bare a beautiful temple of Jupiter, a triumphal arch of Caracalla, a Byzantine basilica and the gate of the Byzantine general Solomon. But all these ruins fade into insignificance in comparison with the majestic grandeur of those of Timgad which are almost entirely laid bare; they are described in Timgad, une cite africaine sous l'empire romann, by R. Cagnat, G. Boeswillwald and A. Ballu.

In Tunisia, Carthage early became the object of archaeological investigation. Major Humbert was sent there by Napoleon in 1808 and his notes are still preserved in the museum of Leiden. Chateaubriand visited and described the ruins; the Dane Falbe, the Englishman Nathan Davis, Beule, P. de Sainte-Marie and others also have carried out researches; for more than twenty years Pere Delattre has explored the ruins of Carthage (q.v.) with extraordinary success. For the rest of Tunisia, the first explorer interested in archaeology was Victor Guerin in 1860; his results are contained in his remarkable Voyage archeologique dans la Regence de Tunis (1862, 2 vols.).

A. Daux, in the years preceding 1869, explored the sites of the ancient harbours of Utica, Hadrumetum, Thapsus (Dimas). But it was the occupation of Tunisia by the French in 1881 which really gave the impetus to modern investigations in this district of ruined cities. They were put on a solid foundation by the publication of the Geographic comparee of Charles Tissot (1884). Trained scholars were sent there annually by the French government: Cagnat, Saladin, Poinssot, La Blanchere, S. Reinach, E. Babelon, Carton, Audollent, Steph. Gsell, J. Toutain, Esperandieu, Gauckler, Merlin, Homo and many others, to say nothing of German scholars, such as Willmans and Schulten, and especially of a great number of enthusiastic officers of the army of occupation, who explored all the ancient sites, and in many cases excavated with great success (for their results see the works quoted above). It would be impossible to enumerate here all the monographs describing, for example, the ruins of Carthage, those of the temple of the waters at Mount Zaghuan, the amphitheatre of El Jem (Thysdrus), the temple of Saturn, the royal tomb and the theatre of Dugga (Thugga), the bridge of Chemtu (Simitthu), the ruins and cemeteries of Tebursuk and Medeina ( Althiburus ), the rich villa of the Laberii at Wadna (Uthina ), the sanctuary of Saturn Balcaranensis on the hill called Bu-KornaIn, the ruins of the district of Enfida (Aphrodisium, Uppenna, Segermes), those of Leptis minor (Lemta), of Thenae (near Sfax), those of the island of Meninx (Jerba), of the peninsula of Zarzis, of Mactar, Sbeitla (Sufetula), Gigthis (Bu-Grara), Gafsa (Capsa), Kef (Sicca Veneria), Bulla Regia, &c.

From this accumulation of results most valuable evidence as to the history and more especially the internal administration of Africa under the Romans has been derived. In particular we know how rural life was there developed, and with what care the water necessary for the growing of cereals was everywhere provided. Sculpture throughout the district is very provincial and of minor importance; the only exceptions are certain statues found at Carthage and Cherchel, the capital of the Mauretanian kings.

Authorities. - Among general works on the subject may be mentioned: Morcelli, Africa christiana (1816); Gustave Boissiere, L'Algerie romaine (2nd ed., 1883); E. Mercier, Histoire de l'Afrique septentrionale (1888); Charles Tissot, Geographic comparee de la province romaine d'Afrique (1884-1888), with atlas; Vivien de SaintMartin, LeNord de l'Afrique dans l'antiquite grecque et romaine (1883); Gaston Boissier, L'Afrique romaine (1895); Cl. Pallu de Lessert, Fastes des provinces africaines (Proconsulaire, Numidie, Mauretanie) sous la domination romaine (1896-1901); R. Cagnat, L'Armee romaine d'Afrigue (1892); A. Daux, Les Emporia pheniciens dans le Zeugis et le Byzacium (1869); Ludwig Muller, Numismatique de l'ancienne Afrique (1860-1862; Supplement, 1874); Ch. Diehl, L'Afrique byzantine (1896); Stephane Gsell, Recherches archeologiques en Afrique (1893); Paul Monceaux, Histoire litteraire de l'Afrique chretienne (1901-1905); J. Toutain, Les Cites romaines de la Tunisie (1895); Atlas archeologique de la Tunisie, published by the Ministry of Public Instruction (1895 foll.); Atlas archeologique de l'Algerie, published by Stephane Gsell (1900 foil.); Toulotte, Geographic de l'Afrique chretienne (1892-1894); Corpus inscriptionum latinarum, vol. viii. and Supplement (1881). Cf. also articles CARTHAGE,NUMIDIA, &C., JUGURTHA, and articles relating to Roman History. (E. B.*)

Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Roman Africa'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​bri/​r/roman-africa.html. 1910.
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