Pre-Roman North Africa II


The Romans completely destroyed Carthage in 146 BCE and a century later built a new city on the site, so that little is known of the physical appearance of the Phoenician city. The ancient artificial harbour—the Cothon—is represented today by two lagoons north of the bay of Al-Karm (El-Kram). In the 3rd century BCE it had two parts, the outer rectangular part being for merchant shipping, with the interior, circular division reserved for warships; sheds and quays were available for 220 warships. The harbour’s small size probably means that it was used chiefly in winter when navigation almost ceased. The city walls were of great strength and were 22 miles (35 km) in length; the most vulnerable section, across the isthmus, was more than 40 feet (12 metres) high and 30 feet (9 metres) thick. The citadel on the hill called Byrsa was also fortified. Between Byrsa and the port was the heart of the city: its marketplace, council house, and temples. In appearance it may have been not dissimilar to towns in the eastern Mediterranean or Persian Gulf before the impact of modern civilization, with narrow winding streets and houses up to six stories high. The exterior walls were blank except for a solitary street door, but they enclosed courtyards. A figure of 700,000 for the city population is given by the geographer Strabo, but this probably included the population of the Sharīk Peninsula. A more reasonable figure could be about 400,000, including slaves, a size similar to that of Athens.


The Carthaginians were notorious in antiquity for the intensity of their religious beliefs, which they retained to the end of their independence and which in turn influenced the religion of the Libyans. The chief deity was Baal Hammon, the community’s divine lord and protector, who was identified by the Greeks with Cronus and by the Romans with Saturn. During the 5th century BCE a goddess named Tanit came to be widely worshiped and represented in art. It is possible that her name is Libyan and that her popularity was connected with land acquisition in the interior, as she is associated with symbols of fertility. These two overshadow other deities such as Melqart, principal deity of Tyre, identified with Heracles, and Eshmoun, identified with Asclepius. Human sacrifice was the element in Carthaginian religion most criticized; it persisted in Africa much longer than in Phoenicia, probably into the 3rd century BCE. The child victims were sacrificed to Baal (not to Moloch, an interpretation based on a misunderstanding of the texts) and the burned bones buried in urns under stone markers, or stelae. At Carthage thousands of such urns have been found in the Sanctuary of Tanit, and similar burials have been discovered at Hadrumetum, Cirta (Constantine, Alg.), Motya, Caralis (modern Cagliari, Italy), Nora, and Sulcis. Carthaginian religion appears to have taught that human beings are weak in the face of the overwhelming and capricious power of the gods. The great majority of Carthaginian personal names, unlike those of Greece and Rome, were of religious significance—e.g., Hannibal, “Favoured by Baal,” or Hamilcar, “Favoured by Melqart.”

In comparison with the extent of its power and influence, the artistic and intellectual achievements of Carthage are small. What limited remains of buildings survive—mostly in North Africa and Sardinia—are utilitarian and uninspired. In the decorative arts—pottery, jewelry, metalwork, terra-cotta, and the thousands of carvings on stelae—a similar lack of inspiration may be felt. The influence of Phoenician, Egyptian, and Greek artistic traditions can be observed, but they failed to stimulate as they did, for example, in Etruria. There is no evidence that Greek philosophy and literature made much impact, though certainly many Carthaginians in the city’s later history knew Greek and there were libraries in the city. One written work is known, a treatise on agriculture by a certain Mago, but this may have been based on Hellenistic models. On the whole, the Carthaginians adhered to traditional modes of thought, which no doubt gave them a sense of solidarity amid more numerous and hostile peoples. Their fanatical patriotism enabled them to offer a more prolonged resistance to Rome than any other power. Their influence on North African history was, in the first place, to bring it into the mainstream of the advancing civilization of the Mediterranean world; more particularly, it introduced into North Africa advanced techniques leading to agricultural progress, which implied, in turn, a change by many Libyans from a seminomadic to a stable way of life and the possibilities of urbanization, which were fully realized in the Roman period.


In the 3rd and 2nd centuries BCE Carthage was weakened and finally destroyed by Rome in the three Punic Wars. Treaties between Carthage and Rome had been made in 508, 348, and 279, and for a long period the two powers had no conflicting interests. But by the 3rd century Rome dominated all of southern Italy and thus approached the Carthaginian sphere in Sicily. In 264 Rome accepted the submission of Messana (Messina), though this state had previously had a Carthaginian garrison, partly because it had exaggerated fears of a possible Carthaginian threat to Italy and partly because it hoped to gain a foothold in Sicily. For Carthage a Roman presence in Sicily would upset the traditional balance of power on the island. The ensuing First Punic War, which lasted until 241, was highly costly in human life, with losses of tens of thousands being recorded in some naval engagements. Contrary to expectation, the Carthaginian fleet was worsted on several occasions by the newly built Roman navy; on land the Romans failed to drive the Carthaginians out of Sicily, and a Roman invasion of Tunisia ended in catastrophe. Carthage made peace after a final naval defeat off the Aegates (Egadi) Islands, surrendering its hold on Sicily. Sardinia and Corsica fell to Rome in 238.


The offering of the life of a human being to a deity is referred to as human sacrifice. The occurrence of human sacrifice can usually be related to the recognition of human blood as the sacred life force. Bloodless forms of killing, however, such as strangulation and drowning, have been used in some cultures. The killing of a human being, or the substitution of an animal for a person, has often been part of an attempt to commune with a god and to participate in divine life. Human life, as the most valuable material for sacrifice, has also been offered in an attempt at expiation.

There are two primary types of human sacrifice: the offering of a human being to a god and the entombment or slaughter of servants or slaves intended to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. The latter practice was more common. In various places in Africa, where human sacrifice was connected with ancestor worship, some of the slaves of the deceased were buried alive with him, or they were killed and laid beneath him in his grave. The Dahomey of western Africa instituted especially elaborate sacrifices at yearly ceremonies related to the cult of deceased kings. Excavations in Egypt and elsewhere in the ancient Middle East have revealed that numerous servants were at times interred with the funerary equipment of a member of the royal family in order to provide that person with a retinue in the next life. The Chinese practice of burying the emperor’s retinue with him continued intermittently until the 17th century.

The Barcid Family

In response to the defeat, Carthage, under the leadership of Hamilcar Barca and his successors (usually described as the Barcid family), set about establishing a new empire in Spain. The object appears to have been to exploit the mineral wealth directly rather than through intermediaries and to mobilize the manpower of much of Spain into an army that could match that of Rome. Hamilcar and his son-in-law Hasdrubal built up an army of more than 50,000 Spanish infantry and occupied half of the Iberian Peninsula. Finally, in 219, Hannibal, Hamilcar’s son, ignored Roman threats designed to prevent the consolidation or extension of the new empire. His invasion of Italy and the crushing defeats he inflicted on the Romans at Lake Trasimene (217) and the Battle of Cannae (216) were the gravest danger Rome had ever faced. The majority of Rome’s allies and subjects in Italy remained loyal, however, and Hannibal found it increasingly difficult to get supplies and reinforcements. After clearing Spain of the Carthaginians (209–206), Scipio Africanus the Elder landed near Utica in 204 with a Roman army. In 203 Hannibal was recalled from Italy, but he was defeated by Scipio at the Battle of Zama (in the vicinity of present-day Sakiet Siddi Youssef, Tun.) in 202. Carthage made peace soon afterward, surrendering its fleet, its overseas possessions, and some of its African territory, thus bringing an end to the Second Punic War (218–201). During the next 50 years it retained some measure of prosperity, although frequently under pressure from the Numidians under King Masinissa. From 155 irrational fears of a Carthaginian revival were stimulated at Rome by Cato the Elder, and in 149, on flimsy pretexts, the Carthaginians were forced to choose between evacuating their city and settling inland or a doomed resistance. They chose the latter, and, after a three-year siege, termed the Third Punic War (149–146), the city was destroyed and its site ceremonially cursed by Scipio Africanus the Younger.


The natural contacts of Cyrenaica were northward with Crete and the Aegean world. In the late 12th century BCE Sea Peoples landing in Cyrenaica armed the Libyans and with them attempted unsuccessfully an invasion of Egypt. Cyrenaica’s coast was visited by Cretan fishermen in the 7th century, and the Greeks became aware that it was the only area in North Africa still available for colonization. Severe overpopulation on the small Cyclades island of Thera (Thíra Santorini) led to Cyrene being founded (c. 630) on a site within easy reach of the sea, well watered, and in the fertile foothills of the Akhḍar Mountains. The founder’s name was, or was changed to, Battus, a Libyan word meaning king. For some time friendly relations existed with the local peoples, and there was more intermarriage between Greek men and non-Greek women than was usual in Greek colonies. Later, when more colonists were attracted by Cyrene’s increasing prosperity, hostilities broke out in which the settlers were successful. Cyrene also repulsed an invasion by the Egyptians (570) but in 525 submitted to Persia. Meanwhile, Cyrene had established other Greek cities in the area of modern Libya—Barce (Al-Marj), Taucheira (Al-‘Aqūriyyah), and Euhesperides (Banghāzī), all of which were independent of their founding city. During the 6th century Cyrene rivaled the majority of other Greek cities in its wealth, manifested in part by substantial temple building. Prosperity was based on grain, fruit, horses, and, above all, a medicinal plant called silphium (apparently an extinct species of the genus Ferula).

The dynasty of Battus ended about 440 BCE with the establishment of a democratic constitution like that of Athens, and the general prosperity of Cyrenaica continued through the 4th century in spite of some political troubles. Cyrenaica submitted to Alexander the Great in the late 4th century and subsequently became subject to the Ptolemies of Egypt. The cities, nevertheless, enjoyed a good deal of freedom in running their own affairs. The constitution of Cyrene elaborated a fairly liberal oligarchy, with a citizen body of 10,000 and two councils. During the 3rd century a federal constitution for all the Cyrenaican cities was introduced. Apollonia, the port of Cyrene, became a city in its own right; Euhesperides was refounded as Berenice, and a new city, Ptolemais (Ṭulmaythah), was founded, while Barce declined; the term Pentapolis came to be used for the five cities Apollonia, Cyrene, Ptolemais, Taucheira, and Berenice.

In 96 BCE Ptolemy Apion bequeathed Cyrenaica to Rome, which annexed the royal estates but left the cities free. Disorders led Rome to create a regular province out of Cyrenaica in 74 BCE, to which Crete was added seven years later. After the Roman general Mark Antony temporarily granted the province to his daughter (by the Egyptian queen Cleopatra) Cleopatra Selene, the emperor Augustus reestablished it, together with Crete, as a senatorial province.


Between the destruction of Carthage and the establishment of effective Roman control over the Maghrib, there was a brief period in which native kingdoms flourished. Amid the shifting tribal nomenclature used in the sources of various periods, two main groups of relatively sedentary tribes may be distinguished: the Mauri, living between the Atlantic Ocean and the Moulouya or perhaps the Chelif River, who gave their name to Mauretania; and the Numidae, for whom Numidia was named, in the area to the west of that formerly controlled by Carthage. A third group, the Gaetuli, was a largely nomadic people of the desert and its fringe. The various tribes first emerge into history in the late 3rd century BCE, after a period of social evolution resulting from contact with Carthaginian civilization. This is difficult to trace, as Carthaginian products were scarce in the interior of the Maghrib before the 2nd century BCE, but the large tumuli at Mzora, Sīdī Sulaymān, Souk el-Gour, and the Medracen, apparently royal tombs of the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, testify to a developing economy and society. No doubt service in the Carthaginian mercenary armies was a major stimulus to change.

This was most noticeable in Numidia and reached a high point under Masinissa. The son of a chief of the Massyli, a tribe dominating the area between Carthaginian territory and the Ampsaga River (Wadi al-Kabīr), he had been brought up at Carthage and was 20 years old at the outbreak of the Second Punic War. At first his tribe was at variance with Carthage, but in 213 BCE it became reconciled when its powerful western neighbours, the Masaesyli, under Syphax, deserted Carthage. From 213 to 207 BCE Masinissa commanded Numidian cavalry in Spain for the Carthaginians against Rome. On Rome’s victory at the Battle of Ilipa in 206, he returned to Africa where Syphax, now reconciled with Carthage, had occupied some of his tribal territory, including Cirta, and his own claims to succession to the chieftainship were disputed. When the Romans landed in Africa in 204, Masinissa rendered them invaluable assistance. Recognized by the Romans as king, he annexed the eastern part of Syphax’s kingdom and reigned with success until 148 BCE. The Greek geographer Strabo said that Masinissa “turned the nomads into a nation of farmers.” This is exaggerated, since cereal culture had long been established in parts of Numidia, yet there is no doubt that the area of grain production was much enlarged. This was achieved by deliberately encouraging Carthaginian civilization. Along with new techniques, Carthaginian language, religion, and art penetrated rapidly inland, and Masinissa’s capital, Cirta, took on the aspects of a Carthaginian city; incipient urbanization of a number of Libyan villages is also possible. Masinissa issued copper, bronze, and lead coinage for local use, as did some of the Carthaginian coastal towns under his rule.

On Masinissa’s death in 148, his kingdom was divided among his three sons, possibly on the insistence of the Romans, who did not, however, prevent it from reunifying under Micipsa (148–118 BCE). The progress begun under Masinissa continued as refugees from the destruction of Carthage fled to Numidia. Meanwhile, the Romans had formed a province in the area of Tunisia northeast of a line from Thabraca (Tabarka) to Thaenae but showed little interest in exploiting its wealth. The attempt by the Roman reformer Gaius Gracchus in 122 BCE to found a colony on the site of Carthage failed, though individual colonists who had taken up allotments remained. When Micipsa died, another division of Numidia among three rulers took place, in which Jugurtha (118–105) emerged supreme. He might have been recognized by Rome, but he provoked war when he killed some Italian merchants who were helping a rival defend Cirta. After some successes caused by the incompetence of Roman generals, Jugurtha was surrendered by Bocchus I, king of Mauretania. The kingdom was again reconstituted under other descendants of Masinissa. The boundaries of the Roman province were slightly enlarged in the area of the upper Majardah valley, where veterans of the army of Gaius Marius received lands. During the next 50 years individual Roman settlers and merchants continued to immigrate to the region, but there was no deliberate attempt to establish a state. The last relatively formidable king of Numidia was Juba I (c. 60–46 BCE), who supported the Pompeian side in the Roman civil war between Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. The kingdom fell in 46 BCE at the Battle of Thapsus. A new province, Africa Nova, was formed from the most developed part of the old Numidian kingdom east of the Ampsaga; it was subsequently (before 27 BCE) amalgamated with the original province of Africa by Augustus. In 33 BCE Bocchus II of Mauretania died, bequeathing his kingdom to Rome, but Augustus was unwilling to accept responsibility for so large and relatively backward an area. In 25 BCE he installed Juba II, son of Juba I, as king; he ruled until his death about 24 CE. He was married to Cleopatra Selene, and under them Iol, renamed Caesarea (Cherchell), and also Volubilis, near Fez (Fès, Mor.), a secondary capital of the rulers of Mauretania, became centres of late Hellenistic culture. Juba himself was a prolific writer in Greek on a number of subjects, including history and geography. His son Ptolemy succeeded as king but, for reasons unknown today, was executed by the Roman emperor Caligula in 40 CE. A brief revolt followed but was easily suppressed, and the kingdom was divided into two provinces, Mauretania Caesariensis, with its capital at Caesarea, and Mauretania Tingitana, with its capital at Tingis (Tangier, Mor.).

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