Travel: Africa Vetus

7 mins read

Caitlin McCall explores Roman remains in the land of Dido, Hannibal, and Caesar.

Carthage’s magnificent 2nd-century AD Antonine Baths, overlooking the Bay of Tunis.

Tunisia, with its glorious sandy beaches wedged between Algeria and Libya on the north coast of Africa, covers an area roughly two-thirds the size of the UK, but with just one-sixth its population. Such a ratio of land to people means that, while the cluttered souks are a cheerful confusion of crowds and goods, the great rolling plains and tree-coated mountains are tranquil in their emptiness, creating a deceptive impression of space. The timeless landscape still provides a prosperous farming economy, and it is not hard to imagine the Romans arriving a couple of millennia ago, looking across the open countryside rich in grain and olive groves, and thinking to themselves: ‘We’ll have that.’

Africa Proconsularis was Rome’s first African province and one of its wealthiest. It was seized at the end of the long and bitter First Punic War in 146 BC, which saw the powerful Carthaginians usurped by the upstart Romans. Carthage was razed, and Rome began its inexorable rise as a superpower.

Carthage remained abandoned for a century, until, in 46 BC, Julius Caesar revived its fortunes. He defeated Juba I, ally of Caesar’s rival Pompey in Rome’s vicious Civil War, and took his land, extending Africanus Proconsularis westward across the Fossa regia, the original Roman frontier. This new territory was called Africa Nova – to distinguish it from the original province Africa Vetus (or ‘Old Africa’). Carthage was reinstated as capital, and blossomed to become the second largest city in the western half of the Empire, probably reaching, at its peak, a population half a million strong.

Home of Dido

There is something both romantic and magical about Carthage: its origins are shrouded in myth, and its tumultuous history has provided inspiration for storytellers through the ages. Walking through its mash of Punic and Roman ruins is to walk in the footsteps of history. But be aware, these ancient remains are scattered across about 2.5km2 on the outskirts of modern Tunis. We had the luxury of a driver and guide to ferry us swiftly from one location to another. But if you have more time and enough energy, it is easy enough to explore on foot with the aid of a good map, public transport, and adequate supplies of bottled water.

Founded in the 9th century BC by Phoenician traders, Carthage rose to dominance in the 4th century BC, taking advantage of its favourable location on the Gulf of Tunis to become a thriving commercial hub and strategic naval base.

You can still see the remains of the two great harbours of Carthage, established during its late Punic period, and enhanced under Roman occupation. A narrow channel links a large outer commercial port to an inner circular naval dockyard. Dry docks fringing the walls of the naval harbour and the perimeter of its central island serviced about 220 warships, away from the prying eyes of anyone in the commercial port. Today, a build-up of silt has diminished the size of the outer harbour, and the sea has forced an opening into the military dockyard, its round central island now a haven for wildlife. In the fading light at the end of the day, we watched local boys fishing along the banks of this peaceful backwater.

The Hannibal District, the Punic Quarter, set into the hill, overlooks the ancient harbours below, and across the Bay of Tunis to the mountains beyond.

On the slopes of Byrsa Hill, overlooking the two harbours, is the 2nd century AD Roman theatre, set within an archaeological park. There the Numidian-born philosopher and scholar Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass, performed before audiences up to 10,000 strong, seated in the cavea built along the natural contours of the hillside. Nearby are the remains of Roman villas – homes of the wealthy, with prime views across the bay – and an older, Punic, burial ground.

The entrance to the Carthage Archaeological Park sits at the top of Byrsa Hill, beside the glorious 19th-century Cathedral of St Louis. The cathedral was built on the remains of a Punic temple of Asclepius (god of medicine), and was dedicated to the saintly 13th-century French king Louis IX. Today, however, it is referred to as the Acropolium, and is used primarily as a venue for concerts.

Just inside the gate of the park is an easily overlooked opening to a late 6th century BC Punic shaft tomb. The clear acrylic covering is so scratched that it is hard to make out any features in the dark void below, but it is compelling nonetheless. Beyond is the Hannibal District. This is the Punic quarter made up of multistorey houses and shops built in the early 2nd century BC. The properties, linked by steep steps and nestled into the sloping hillside, look out onto the Bay of Tunis and towards the mountains on the opposite side, where the quarries yielded the stone from which they are made.

On the uppermost levels of the park, adjacent to the outline of the Forum, we walked across the foundations of a once magnificent basilica – surpassed in size only by the basilicas Ulpia and Julia in Rome – to the archaeological museum. This is a must: though a modest museum, its eclectic collection of artefacts recovered during excavation at Carthage provides a unique and very personal connection to the people who lived here during the city’s long periods of occupation.

Pool with a view

We hopped back into the car to travel the short distance down the hill to possibly the most spectacular baths you will ever visit. The Antonine Baths, set within a 4ha archaeological park, are not only a staggering feat of 2nd century AD Roman architectural engineering, they are also set against the most majestic scenic backdrop, courtesy of the glistening bay.

The cathedral-like vaults of the lower floor housed stores and heating furnaces for the lavish baths and public areas above.

The Imperial bath complex was constructed during the reign of the emperor Antoninus Pius (r.AD 138-161), and, like much of Roman Carthage, was built on a massive scale: it is the largest set of baths in Africa, and the third largest in the Roman world. Because its location is so close to the sea, the builders were not able to excavate cellars. Instead, they built upwards. Most of what remains today are the huge vaults of the ground-level basements, where the stores, furnaces, and hypocaust system were installed. The hot and cold baths, changing rooms, and recreation areas that stood on the floor above are long gone.

The vast complex was made up of two identical halves, mirror images of each other, set on a central axis – one side for men, the other for women – with several indoor and outdoor pools. At the heart of the complex, taking centre stage directly over the central axis, was a huge frigidarium. Behind it on the landward side was the caldarium, and on the other, in the most dramatic setting overlooking the sea, was an enormous natatio (outdoor pool) – a sort of 2nd century AD equivalent of a luxury, Olympic-size infinity pool. What remains of the cathedral-high vaults of the below-stairs chambers are impressive indicators of just how sumptuous these baths once were. Little remains of the upper levels: they collapsed through the floors after the baths fell into disuse at the end of Byzantine rule in the 6th century AD, and the building material was taken away for reuse elsewhere. However, a reconstructed granite column, 15m high and topped with an ornate marble capital, hints at the scale and grandeur of these luxurious public facilities.

The huge cisterns above Carthage supplied water to the Antonine Baths at the bottom of the hill.

The baths were supplied with water that arrived at Carthage via one of the longest aqueducts of the Roman Empire. It extends more than 130km from a natural spring at Zaghouan to the gigantic Cisterns of Malga on Byrsa Hill. As befits such a mighty aqueduct, the destination cisterns – the largest set servicing Carthage – are also a breathtaking sight. First glimpsed through clumps of curbside oleander growing along a road just off the main Route La Goulette, these sleeping giants are an awesome sight. Their sturdy brick-built barrel-vaulted tunnels – most now clogged with silt – are yet another reminder of the mind-boggling brilliance of the engineers who designed and built such a remarkable system. Across a rectangular area 127m by 102m, 15 cisterns lie in long parallel lines, fed by a distribution chamber set along the perpendicular at one end. During the medieval period, the robust tunnels were repurposed as ready-made dwellings and barns, and remained as such until the 20th century, when the site was cleared in advance of archaeological investigation. Today, sadly, these vast vestiges of sophisticated urban-living remain largely unexcavated and threatened by neglect, but are a ‘must-see’ for any enthusiast of civil engineering in general, and of Roman ingenuity in particular.

Colossal gem

Another marvel of Roman ingenuity and a spectacular legacy of Africanus Proconsularis is the monumental Amphitheatre of El Jem (sometimes El Djem). This awe-inspiring behemoth, visible from afar on the very long, very straight road that approaches from Kairouan, rises slowly from between and behind its surrounding low-storey buildings. It sits like a fat spider at the centre of a web of roads that radiate from the middle, showing vistas of the golden edifice from all directions around the town.

The Amphitheatre of El Jem was built in the Roman town Thysdrus in the 3rd century AD, during a turbulent time of political intrigue that saw six emperors in the space of just one year: AD 238. It was commissioned that same year by one of the ill-fated six, Gordion I, a native of Thysdrus, who was governor of Africanus Proconsularis before reluctantly agreeing to become emperor. His rule lasted a mere 20 days.

El Jem is a colossus, one of the largest freestanding amphitheatres in the Roman world.

The towering giant is not only one of the best-preserved amphitheatres of the Roman world, it is also the largest outside Italy. Indeed, it is surpassed in size only by the amphitheatre at Capua and, the daddy of them all, the Colosseum in Rome. Its enormous size and its grandiose style of architecture reflect the great wealth of this region, thanks in no small part to prodigious oil production from the acres of olive groves that still cloak the landscape – Tunisia remains one of the world’s top producers of olive oil, though it is often unrecognised, as much of the oil is sold in bulk to other countries, who bottle it and sell it on as their own.

While Thysdrus gradually dwindled in size, Gordion’s amphitheatre stood the test of time, and even served as a fortress for the local townsfolk during the Arab invasions of the 7th century AD. The mighty walls have since been breached: by cannon in 1695, on the orders of the Ottoman Bey; and in the Second World War during a British attack on German soldiers sheltering within. Nonetheless, much of the existing three-storey-high facade of arcades is remarkably well preserved, attracting curious travellers through the ages, as attested by the graffiti gouged in the dressed stone of its gallery walls.

This article appeared in issue 87 of Current World Archaeology. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

All images: C McCall

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