Rome in Africa

Perhaps because Rome is in now Italy, and we associate the Roman Empire most closely with the Italian peninsula and Rome’s other European possessions (e.g., Caesar in Gaul, the German frontier, Hadrian’s Wall), we are often tempted to think of the Roman Empire as a sort of European power, an empire whose relevance is limited to its significance in “Western” history. But of course the Roman Empire well exceeded the bounds of geographical Europe, well into Asian Anatolia and the Levant, and the North African coast, and its successor, the Byzantine Empire is as much as part of Middle Eastern history as European history. Bottom line, thinking about history in exclusively “Western,” “Eastern” or “African” compartments is a simplification that cannot give a full picture, even for those ancient periods in which communication and transportation were extremely primitive compared to what we have today. In almost all historical periods, there was usually more interregional cultural and economic exchange than we usually credit, some of the most consequential events in world history are precisely those in which powers transcended easy geography (whether Alexander in Asia or the Mongols in the Near East), and it is at the fringes and borders or different world spheres, such as the Levant, where some of the most interesting historical events or trends have taken place.

I have already written several posts on the Roman presence in the Levant and Near East, the eastern limits of the Roman world (see posts of 08.11.16, 08.11.10, 08.10.29, 08.10.03, 08.05.11, 08.05.02), and so I thought that this complementary post on the Southwestern limits of Roman rule was in order. At its height, the Roman Empire controlled the entire North African coast from the Suez to beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. Roman Egypt, of Marc Antony and Cleopatra, is somewhat familiar to us, but the Roman presence in the rest of North Africa feels somewhat more distant, largely because those regions have become less significant to us in comparison to the former parts of the Roman Empire that are north of the Mediterranean Sea (perhaps in part due to climate change and a resulting economic and population decline in the region). But, back in their day, Cyrene in now Libya was an ancient and significant Greek port not far from Alexandria and Crete, Leptis Magna in now Libya home to some of the most magnificent architecture in the Empire and, of course, Carthage at one point Rome’s greatest foe. North African Romans (generally Berber in ethnicity, see post of 09.01.13) included the founders of the Donatist and Arian religious controversies, St. Augustine and an Emperor (Septimius Severus).

The Southwestern limit of the Roman Empire is in now Morocco, and the greatest Roman ruins are that of Volubilis, located near the Moroccan imperial cities of Meknes and Fez. Above and below, some photographs from Volubilis.

Waterworks, including baths and fountains, are common features of any Roman city, but I wondered if the especially elaborate fountains of Volubilis were a result of a fondness for indoor water still evidenced by Morocco’s living hammam culture.

Some of the decorative motifs in Volubilis reminded me not much of classical Roman patterns but of the stylized natural designs found in Egypt or even what would be considered geometric “Arabesques”.

The Arch of Caracalla and a detail of publicly featured bust, not unlike those found in Palmyra thousands of miles away (see post of 08.05.02).

Dacamanus Maximus, or Main Street

3 thoughts on “Rome in Africa

  1. Thank you for sharing such an informative blog. My wife and I have such a love and passion for all things Africa now, thanks again for sharing this post!

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