The Arab historians and geographers who accompanied the Muslim invaders of northwestern Africa in the middle of the seventh century C.E. said it was like a large island—surrounded on the north and east by the Mediterranean Sea, on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by a sea of sand, the Sahara Desert.
This island, simply a narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast—is often referred to today by its Arabic name Maghreb, meaning “west.” The Maghreb covers portions of modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, and is about 250 miles wide and 750 miles long. It is ideally located—close to the Iberian peninsula on the west, Italy on the north and Egypt on the east. This location guaranteed it a strong relationship with these important centers of culture.
Both the Phoenicians and the Greeks sought to establish settlements here as early as the eighth century B.C.E., and both left many inscriptions and texts—the Greeks in Greek and the Phoenicians in their Semitic tongue, which they brought with them from the east. Later, the language of the Roman conquerors, Latin, was added. The wealth of inscriptions, works of ancient historians and abundance of archaeological materials provide a rich trove from which to reconstruct the history of the cities of the ancient Maghreb.
Despite the fact that the Mediterranean coast of the Maghreb is hardly conducive to port-building—it has few natural harbors—the ancient settlers nevertheless managed to establish a number of coastal cities that functioned as ports. They also built cities on the northern edge of the Sahara Desert to 046serve as caravan stations. These cities formed a bridge between the Mediterranean Sea to the north and the Dark Continent to the south.
After Carthage, the largest and most impressive of these cities was Leptis Magna. The remnants of Leptis have been unusually well preserved. The archaeologists only had to remove the piles of sand that had covered it over the course of 1,500 years, revealing one of the most beautiful and enchanting cities of the ancient world. The Italians (Libya was an Italian colony from 1911 to 1942) began excavating the site in 1920 and continued, with brief interludes, until World War II.
The excavators uncovered more than half the area of Leptis Magna, and many structures were restored. Today we have before us one of the world’s most extraordinary archaeological sites.
The history of Leptis can be divided into three distinct periods. At first, Phoenician, or Punic, Leptis was a small city, the remnants of which lie buried beneath later buildings and under the adjacent headland. At the end of the first century B.C.E. came the early Roman city, which was of modest proportions but beautiful and well planned, much like other Roman cities. Then, during the reign of the Severi, a new city was built adding to the earlier Roman one.
The earliest city, really a trading station, was established by seafaring Phoenicians who sailed from Tyre and colonized North Africa as early as 840 B.C.E. The first city they established was Carthage.a They bestowed on their city the rather prosaic name of
The Phoenicians also expanded in Africa itself. One of their early trading stations (emporia) was Leptis at the eastern end of the Maghreb. Two others in the same area were Oea (later known as Tripoli) and Sabratha. These three cities gave the name Tripolitania, Greek for “three cities,” to the entire region. Despite the nomenclature, however, the Greeks never managed to gain a foothold in North Africa. Every Greek attempt to colonize the North African coast was forcibly foiled by the Phoenicians.
Phoenician prosperity and growth in North Africa aroused the apprehension of the Romans, who had expanded south to Sicily in the first half of the third century B.C.E. Armed conflict between Rome and Carthage broke out in 264 B.C.E., and the dispute over the island of Sicily quickly assumed major proportions in the struggle for control of the western Mediterranean basin.
The war between the two powers on land 047and sea, which continued for 23 years, is called the “First Punic War”—“Puni” is the word the Romans used to refer to the Phoenicians of Carthage.
The First Punic War ended in 241 B.C.E. with the parties signing a peace treaty that gave all the Punic colonies in Sicily to Rome. Although the Romans clearly emerged as victors, the combatants knew that the struggle had not been finally decided. Immediately upon concluding the peace treaty, both sides began to strengthen their military forces. Rome, the land power, began building maritime bases, training crews and preparing large fleets. Carthage, in turn, began strengthening its land forces.
The Second Punic War erupted in 218 B.C.E. in Spain, where the Carthaginians had begun to exploit the silver mines and to establish colonies, ports and cities. Many Spaniards were also enlisted in Carthage’s expanding army. The Second Punic War was ultimately waged, however, on three fronts— Spain, Italy and Africa. Thanks to the famous Carthaginian general Hannibal, it was conducted in an unexpected manner. Indeed, the story of the Second Punic War is almost entirely an account of his military genius and fascinating personality. When Hannibal failed to conquer Roman Italy by crossing the Alps with elephants, the war was finally decided on African soil. Despite Hannibal’s initial victories. Rome’s manpower pool was inexhaustible, ultimately 048overwhelming the Punic forces in 202 B.C.E. This time Carthage lost all of its settlements in Spain—and with them, the income from the silver mines. She was forbidden to wage any war whatever without the consent of Rome, and severe indemnities were imposed upon her.
Carthage nevertheless continued to exist for another few decades, although she never regained her former place as a maritime economic power. It is therefore difficult to understand the Third Punic War (149–146 B.C.E.), which was a war of outright destruction. Rome had no need to fight since Carthage no longer had the strength to threaten Rome’s position in the western Mediterranean. In this ruthless campaign, Carthage was simply wiped off the map. Cato’s refrain, Carthago delenda est (Carthage must be destroyed), became a reality, bringing an end to North Africa’s Punic period.
The Roman period then began. New settlers came to North Africa, especially administrators and traders (consisting mostly of discharged legionnaires), and a new reality began to grow upon the ruins. The areas that had been held by Carthage became a Roman province called Africa (which eventually gave its name to the entire continent) with its provincial capital at Utica.
In the first century B.C.E., civil wars in Rome led to the decline of the Republic and the birth of the Principate under Augustus (27 B.C.E.–14 C.E.). The residents of North Africa found themselves involved in these internal struggles, and it was only the rise of Augustus and his lengthy reign that finally brought peace—and later, growth and prosperity—to the tormented citizens of the province of Africa. Trade between Italy and North Africa was renewed. Augustus decided to settle some of his discharged legionnaires in new cities. For the first time after years of 049economic freeze, splendid public buildings were erected, including temples and theaters; roads were paved and aqueducts were built.
In the first centuries C.E., most of the population in North African cities was still of Punic origin. The Punic language was dominant, especially in daily life. Yet the stream of Roman settlers gradually grew, bringing their language (Latin), gods, traditions and material culture. The theater, the amphitheater and the circus began to reshape the landscape of the ancient Punic cities.
To strengthen the bond between the residents of North Africa and Rome, Punic natives were encouraged to worship the emperors, symbolizing the province’s loyalty to Rome. From the time of Augustus onward, this proved to be an important means of controlling the local population. According to inscriptions found in North African cities, Augustus was worshiped as a god even while he was still alive. From the year 8 B.C.E., a group of priests was housed in Leptis with the purpose of seeing to the emperor’s worship.
The earliest substantial visible remains at Leptis date from the Augustan period. It was then that the city’s first Roman forum was built, now called the Old Forum (Forum Vetus). Compared to the later forum of the Severi it is small and modest, but it had all of the structures and institutions that characterize a typical Roman forum.
On the northern side of the central plaza is the Temple of Roma and Augustus. It is a single building dedicated to both Rome and Augustus; thus it was meant to demonstrate that indeed Augustus and Rome were one and the same. It was built of the silvery gray limestone that was to remain characteristic of the city for over a century.
Various other temples, some of later date, line the northern and western sides of the Old Forum. One of them, between the 050temple of Antoninus and the temple of Cybele, was later converted to a church in the Byzantine period. On the south side of the forum is the basilica, which served as city courts and for some commercial purposes. On the southeast side stands the city council structure, the Curia.
Inscriptions from these buildings honoring the donors bear Punic names like Iddibal and Bodmelqart. These names include what scholars call theophoric elements; that is, part of the name is the name of a deity—here, Baal and Melqart, both worshiped by the Phoenicians. This indicates the extent to which the old Punic mercantile artistocracy was incorporated into the new Roman social structure.
Southwest of the Old Forum is the Standing Market (the Macellum), where the residents of Leptis bought food, clothing and household items. It is rectangularly shaped with a high wall and porticos that supported a roof and provided shaded passageways around the open plaza. In the central area of the market are two pavilions surrounded by columns that create an octagon. (One of the two was later rebuilt on a circular plan.) The columns supported a canopy. Stone tables were set in the spaces between the columns and used to display the merchants’ wares. Additional stands were provided along the length of the shaded passageways, between the walls of the market and the porticos.
Near the Standing Market was the Bourse (Chalcidicum ), which served the international trade. The plan of the Bourse was similar to that of the market: an open rectangular plaza paved with stone slabs and surrounded by porticos.
Here coins were exchanged and large commercial transactions were made for wheat, oil, ivory and the other wares of North African merchants.
Among the remains of the Bourse was a statue of an elephant. Thanks to the city’s connections with southern Africa, Leptis procured elephants for Hannibal before he set out on his astounding journey through the Alps to Italy. In the Roman period, Leptis would provide elephants to be slaughtered in the amphitheaters of Rome.
The Augustan city also boasted a wonderful theater, west of the Bourse. From an inscription we know that it was built in the years 1 and 2 C.E. Although it is a typical Roman theater, the beautifully engraved inscription is written in both Latin and Punic, another sign of the persistence of Punic culture in the Roman period.
The theater’s semi-circular auditorium (cavea) was joined to the stage structure (scaena), forming a single unit. The semi-circular exterior wall of the auditorium, which rose to a height of three stories, was decorated externally with pilasters. The auditorium could be entered through large vaults (vomitoria). At both ends of the auditorium were vaulted passageways (aditus maximi) leading directly into the orchestra.
On its circular side, around the orchestra, were six low steps one above the other 052(bisellia), where couches were placed for honored guests. The straight side of the orchestra was bounded by a low decorative wall (proscaenium), with small niches for statues.
The stage (pulpitum) was made of wooden panels, with a hollow space underneath (hyposcaenium) used for storing scenery and as dressing rooms.
The stage structure’s facade (scaenae frons) was a decorative wall that rose behind the stage to a height of three stories. In the center of the wall was a semi-circular niche in which a wide entrance (valvae regiae) was built, with a smaller entrance (hospitalium) on each side. Marble columns with Corinthian capitals bearing an entablature were set in the wall’s facade. Statues were placed in the small niches and between the columns.
Many inscriptions uncovered in the theater confirm that it was refurbished a few times by contributions of the Punic city’s citizenry. The last time was in the middle of the second century C.E., during the reign of Antoninus Pius, when the stone columns of the stage structure’s facade were replaced by marble columns.
Behind the stage structure, outside the theater, there is a small plaza surrounded by porticos (postscaenium) that provided the theatergoers a place to relax between one event and another, which, in Roman practice, went on all day.
Gradually, other monumental structures were added to this early Roman city. One of these was the city’s largest bathhouse, erected in 126 and 127 C.E. during the rule of the emperor Hadrian. In its size, magnificence and wealth of ornamentation, the bathhouse of Leptis takes second place to none, not even to the bathhouses of Rome. One of Hadrian’s innovations was to use 053marble from Greece, Asia Minor and even Italy, instead of the local gray limestone. After Hadrian, all important new buildings in Leptis used marble and many of the existing buildings were remodeled with marble.
The palaestra, the northern part of the Hadrianic bathhouse, is a broad, open rectangular area, both of whose short ends are designed as semi-circular vestibules. The area has a marble-columned portico all around it, which provided protection from the rain and sun.
The palaestra was set aside for sports and exercise for the bathers. In case of inclement weather, two small pavilions provided shelter in addition to the roofed portico. South of the palaestra was a large water pool (natatio), which was in fact an open swimming pool. From there, through four arched passageways, one passed to the first of the bathhouse halls, the cold water hall (frigidarium). Eight gigantic pillars supported its roof, which was made of intersecting barrel-vaults. The walls of this impressive hall are covered with wall paintings and colored marble slabs. Statues stood in the semicircular niches. From the cold water hall, a broad passageway leads to the warm water room (tepidarium), which contains a pool encircled by a colonnaded portico. From there, through another arched passageway, one moves into the hot water room (caldarium). Five large alcoves contained small swimming pools, or large bathtubs, for anyone who preferred more privacy. From the caldarium one could move to two steam rooms (laconia).
These were the main rooms, but they were surrounded by others—dressing rooms (apodyteria), exercise rooms and even clubrooms and a library.
In addition, the early Roman city had at least a half-dozen lesser temples, numerous honorary arches, an amphitheater, a circus, fountains and lavish public toilets.
If what has been described seems magnificent, it was in fact of modest proportions for a Roman city. The city’s floruit came only in the third century C.E., with the Severan dynasty. Septimius Severus (193–211 C.E.), the founder of this short-lived African dynasty, was born in Leptis. To a large extent he rebuilt the city and extended it to the south and west (it could not be extended eastward because of the adjacent wadi, which carried rainwater to the sea). Much of what we see today dates from the Severan period. It was in the time of Severus that the city became known not simply as Leptis, but as Leptis Magna. The emperor even conferred upon the city the ius Italicum, or “rights of Roman citizens.”
Parenthetically, it is worth noting that Septimius Severus, a son of one of the city’s great provincial families, spoke Latin with a heavy Punic accent, and his sister spoke Latin so poorly that she returned permanently to Leptis from Rome. In short, despite the architectural overlay, the locals retained their language and culture as late as the third century C.E.
One of the more ornate monuments at the site is a four-way arch called a quadrifrons (also referred to as a tetrapylon), with scenes depicting Septimius’s state visit to his native town. It was erected at the intersection of two main streets of the city. The quadrifrons consists of four pillars connected to one another by arches bearing a dome. The structure is rich with architectural ornamentation. Near the pillars are columns with Corinthian capitals erected on high bases. Broken gables surmounted the capitals. The frieze and sections of the pillars are decorated with floral reliefs. The walls were also ornamented with reliefs portraying the winged victory goddess Nike bearing a wreath. The structure also was built with a square “crown”; along the four sides of this crown was a marble frieze sculpted with scenes of a victory procession, with Septimius Severus offering sacrifices, and of his wife and two sons. The heads of the onlookers and even of the horses are turned toward the viewer with frozen, grave miens. Everything bespeaks power and glory; naturalness and grace are absent.
Septimius also constructed an additional 054forum, much larger than the Old Forum (the new forum was about 330 feet long and 200 feet wide). On three sides were arch-bearing porticos. At the narrow western end of the forum, on a high stone podium, rose the Gens Septimia Temple in honor of Emperor Septimius Severus. The impressive flaring stairway in front of the stone podium rose up from the forum floor to the temple, whose rear wall adjoined the wall enclosing the forum, as did most Roman temples. The columns in front of the temple are made of red granite. On the other three sides, the columns are of green marble with gleaming white bases and Corinthian capitals.
East of the new forum, parallel to its west wall, is a huge basilica, completed by Septimius Severus’s son Caracalla and containing a rectangular hall with semi-circular apses covered by half-domes at each of its narrow ends. Two rows of two-story-high columns divided the hall into a central hall with side aisles. The basilica floor was paved with marble slabs. Even the interior walls of the main hall were paneled with colored marble slabs. The precise craftsmanship of the architectural items, the capitals of the columns, the reliefs that decorated the pillars and the remains of the statues—which probably stood along the walls and in the small niches—suggest how magnificent this basilica must once have been.
The new forum and the basilica were meant to be the city’s new center and to demonstrate the wealth and status of its citizens. But even in the days of the Severi, the old forum filled most of the administrative and commercial functions of the city. It is clear that the new forum and basilica were intended simply to glorify the city. The Christian emperor Justinian turned the ruined basilica into a church in the sixth century C.E.
A port for the city was also built at the end of the second and the beginning of the third century C.E. Nature had to a great extent already prepared the site for this: Where the Wadi Lebda (which means “the white stream”) runs into the sea, a small bay had formed, bounded at the north and east by large cliffs some dozens of yards from the shore.
It was this bay that was probably used as a port until the Severan construction project. The Severan builders filled the spaces between the cliffs at both the northern and eastern sides with large boulders, thus forming two breakwaters to provide protection from the sometimes turbulent Mediterranean. The banks of the Wadi Lebda were strengthened by strong supporting walls to prevent erosion and destruction in the flood season. Docks were installed at the inner sides of the two breakwaters and the banks of the wadi to insure a safe anchorage. Ships anchored at a lower level, and stairways provided easy ascent to the upper level, where warehouses and various port installations were located.
Today the port area is full of silt, but its 055overall plan is clear and easily seen. The port’s most impressive structure was a several-stories-high lighthouse that stood at the tip of the northern breakwater at the harbor’s entrance. Waves and winds have long-since destroyed it, but its huge stone base, along with other structural remains, are still resting on the sea floor. At the top of the lighthouse, torches no doubt burned—as at the famed lighthouse of Alexandria—to assist ships into port at night.
A 40-foot-wide colonnaded street with walkways on either side provided an impressive traffic artery that led from south of Leptis Magna directly to the city’s port. This boulevard served the caravans that were thereby able to reach the port quickly without disrupting the daily affairs of the Leptis residents. The southern part of the Colonnaded Street is still covered with sand dunes and awaits the excavator’s shovel. The northern end of the street follows the Wadi Lebda as it flows into the Mediterranean during winter rains.
At one point, however, the Colonnaded Street turns eastward, following the wadi to the harbor. This deviation was masked by the building of a nymphaeum, or decorative public fountain. The nymphaeum consisted of an ornamented facade that rose to a height of two stories, decorated with columns and pillars supporting an entablature and gables. Inserted in the wall were semi-circular niches in which statues were set. Opposite the facade was a large pool into which running water flowed through lead pipes concealed in the mouths of animal statues.
This is enough to indicate the splendor of Leptis Magna in the third century C.E. By the Byzantine period, however, native tribes had begun to encroach on the city, whose walls at that time enclosed only a fraction of the huge ancient Roman site. Then, with the Arab conquest in the seventh century, Leptis Magna was abandoned to the sands.
This article was translated by Asher Goldstein
The Arab historians and geographers who accompanied the Muslim invaders of northwestern Africa in the middle of the seventh century C.E. said it was like a large island—surrounded on the north and east by the Mediterranean Sea, on the west by the Atlantic Ocean, and on the south by a sea of sand, the Sahara Desert. This island, simply a narrow strip along the Mediterranean coast—is often referred to today by its Arabic name Maghreb, meaning “west.” The Maghreb covers portions of modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya, and is about 250 miles wide and 750 miles long. It […]