Splendour and Beauty in North Africa


The coastal district which skirts the Lower Syrtis is called Emporia. It is very fertile country and just one city alone there – Leptis – paid Carthage tribute to the sum of a talent a day.


Leptis, or Lepcis, Magna in Libya was established as a Phoenician colony in the 7th century BC, but reached its peak as part of the Roman region of Tripolitania. In Roman antiquity it was known both as Leptis and Lepcis in Latin, the latter being the usual form used in the city itself, reflecting the pre-Roman name Lpqy. Magna, ‘Great’, distinguished it from the smaller town of Leptiminus in Tunisia. Deriving its wealth from the olive oil produced in its hinterland, Leptis Magna’s prosperity was already reflected in its splendid public buildings of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. However, in AD 193, Lucius Septimius Severus, a Roman senator whose family originated there, seized the imperial throne in a civil war. Severus’ patronage further increased the city’s status, and enhanced its appearance with a building programme worthy of an emperor’s birthplace.

The earliest evidence from the site dates to the mid- to late 7th century BC, probably reflecting the establishment of a Phoenician trading post at the mouth of the Wadi Lebda. We know little about the archaeology of the pre-Roman city as it lies buried and unexplored beneath later levels. However, Livy presents Leptis as subject to Carthage during the Second Punic War, and the main centre of a region called Emporia, ‘The Trading Posts’. Tripolitania is a later name, reflecting the Tripolis (‘Three Cities’) in the vicinity – Leptis, Sabratha and Oea (modern Tripoli). ‘Emporia’ emphasizes its trading nature, but Livy also mentions the fertility of the area and claims it paid a Talent in tribute daily to Carthage, a huge amount, but perhaps plausible in view of the city’s later wealth. Its population seems to have been a culturally integrated mix of the descendants of Phoenician colonists and indigenous Libyans, known as ‘Libyphoenicians’ to Greeks and Romans. The public language into the Roman period was Neo-Punic, a late version of Phoenician.

From the reign of the first Roman emperor, Augustus, Leptis lay in the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis, although Tripolitania was far from the province’s political and military core in Tunisia and Algeria. It became a municipium in around AD 74, and a colonia in AD 109, which in this case entailed its existing citizens receiving Roman citizenship rather than outside settlers or soldiers as was usual.

This view from the southwest shows the colonnaded main street of Leptis Magna through the Severan arch, with another arch, dedicated to the emperor Trajan, in the background.

© Stefan Auth/Imagebroker RF/agefotostock.com.

Leptis Magna rapidly developed into one of the finest and most Romanized cities of North Africa, with a full range of public buildings donated by its wealthy local elite. The Old Forum was expanded and enhanced in the Julio-Claudian period with the construction of a temple dedicated to Rome and Augustus himself. A theatre was completed in AD 1–2; its dedicatory inscription, like other contemporary building inscriptions from the site, sheds a great deal of light on the city’s mixed culture and institutions. It is bilingual, in Latin and Neo-Punic, reflecting the continued public use of the local language into the 1st century AD. The dedicator, who paid for the theatre at his own expense, was Annobal Rufus, son of Himilcho Tapapius, whose name is a mixture of Latin and Punic elements. The titles he held included flamen, a Roman priesthood overseeing the cult of the emperor in the city, and sufete, a Punic term for the city’s senior magistracy, retained until the city became a colonia and adopted a version of Rome’s constitution.

Relief from the Severan quadrifrons (four-way) arch depicting Septimius Severus and his sons Caracalla and Geta in a triumphal chariot. Caracalla later murdered his brother Geta when Severus’ death brought them to the throne as joint emperors.

Gilles Mermet/akg-images.

Other typically Roman public buildings were added through the 1st and 2nd centuries, with increasing use of expensive imported marble alongside the fine limestone quarried locally. An amphitheatre was built on the eastern limits of the city in AD 56. In the reign of Hadrian (AD 117–138), an aqueduct was constructed that provided water to a magnificent public bath building, one of the largest outside Rome itself at that time; the same was true of the circus, a venue for chariot races, completed in AD 162. By this time, Leptis Magna was a substantial city, with a defensive circuit enclosing an area of around 425 ha (1,050 acres).

The basilica of the Severan forum. A colonnaded hall with a central nave and flanking aisles for administrative and judicial activities, the basilica dominated one end of the forum, with a temple at the other. Its lavish use of imported stone emphasized its connection with the emperor.

© Nico Tondini/Robert Harding Picture Library/agefotostock.com.

How did Leptis Magna come to be so prosperous – wealthy enough that its ruling elite could equip it with such splendid buildings, rivalling those in almost any city of the empire? Certainly its role as a trading centre was important, and the rather limited shelter provided by the mouth of the Wadi Lebda was developed into a fine harbour protected by artificial moles. However, perhaps surprisingly given its marginal climate, agriculture was its main source of wealth. In particular, its large hinterland, while dry, was suited to olive cultivation, which intensified dramatically in the Roman period. Archaeological survey there has revealed the remains of huge numbers of olive presses on relatively utilitarian farm sites, probably owned by the ruling elite of Leptis but occupied and operated by tenants and slaves. This olive oil was exported to the wider Mediterranean world through the city’s harbour, particularly to Rome. Olive oil was not only a staple source of fat in the Roman world, but was also used for soap and as fuel for lighting.

Perhaps because of their wealth and close connections with Rome, the local elite of Leptis Magna worked their way into the ruling class of the empire, becoming members of the senate and equestrian order and magistrates in Rome itself. They thus joined a cosmopolitan imperial elite whose members typically owned landed property throughout the empire while undertaking political careers in the capital. This trajectory culminated in AD 193, when Lucius Septimius Severus overthrew Didius Julianus to become emperor, subsequently defeating two other rivals in civil war to secure his position. Severus was born into the local ruling class of Leptis, and had exploited family connections in Rome and imperial favour to rise through the ranks of the senate, eventually serving as governor and military commander in the Danubian province of Upper Pannonia. It was the backing of his legions there that enabled Severus to become emperor. He was the first truly provincial emperor. All his predecessors had been born in Italy, except for Trajan, born in Spain but the descendant of Italian settlers. It is unclear to what extent Severus was perceived as culturally distinctive compared to other members of the imperial ruling class. His Historia Augusta biography states that he had an African accent, for example, but this late work is full of plausible though unreliable detail. It also describes Severus as a very big man, while Cassius Dio, a Roman historian who actually knew him, says he was quite short. Plautianus, appointed as Severus’ praetorian prefect, was also from Leptis.

Detail of an elaborately decorated pilaster forming part of the Severan basilica at Leptis, depicting figures and scenes associated with Hercules and Bacchus surrounded by vegetal motifs. Such scenes have parallels in Hellenistic and Roman decorative sculpture elsewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, notably at Aphrodisias (in modern Turkey).

Wolfgang Kaehler/SuperStock.

Severus showed favour to his birthplace by further enhancing its status and beauty. He gave it the Ius Italicum or ‘Italian Privilege’, an honour that meant it was treated as an Italian city and so (for example) was spared from direct taxation. He also commissioned a spectacular building programme at Leptis, which was only completed in AD 216, under his son and imperial successor Caracalla (AD 198–217). The harbour was remodelled and linked to an existing main street by a broad avenue, colonnaded with some 400 columns of cipollino (‘onion-skin’) marble imported from the Greek island of Euboea. Severus also built a quadrifrons arch decorated with sculptural depictions of the Severan family on the city’s main crossroads, and a grand forum-basilica complex headed by a temple. For this, he employed 112 tall red Aswan granite columns imported from Egypt. It is uncertain to which deities the temples were dedicated, but they were perhaps Hercules and Liber Pater (Bacchus), long equated with the old Phoenician patron gods of the city.

While the pace of public building at Leptis slackened dramatically after Severus’ project, the city remained important and prosperous into the 4th century AD, and it became the seat of a Christian bishop. However, it suffered severely in the 360s from earthquake damage (probably in AD 365) and raiding by the nomadic peoples of the interior that led to a short siege of the city itself in AD 366 and the subsequent installation of a Roman garrison. Leptis Magna’s incorporation into the Vandal kingdom in AD 455 may not have had a major impact on the city and the area was recovered for the Eastern (Byzantine) Roman empire by Belisarius in AD 533. But by this time Leptis Magna was little more than a fortified harbour (which subsequently silted up), and the area enclosed by the Byzantine fortifications had shrunk to only 18 ha (44 acres) compared to the much greater expanse of the earlier Roman city.

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