Roman Northern Africa

Roman Dromedarii. Dromedarii are auxilliary troops recruited in the desert provinces of the Eastern Empire to take the place of light cavalry in scorching desert conditions.
As light troops these men are most useful as screening and scouting forces, although they can be surprisingly effective against other cavalry especially when the enemy horses are unused to the repulsive (to horses) smell of camels. Recruited from among the local desert tribesmen, dromedarii are peculiar to the Eastern Roman Empire and a specific answer to the problem of fielding light cavalry along the frontier.

All of northern Africa eventually fell under Roman control. After the demise of Carthage and its annexation as the province of Africa in 146 BCE, the next to capitulate in 46 BCE was the Berber kingdom of Numidia, further west along the coast, which the Romans named Africa Nova (eastern Algeria). A decade later, they took possession of Mauretania, a Berber kingdom west of Numidia, which stretched as far as the Atlantic coast. From east to west, by the end of the first century BCE, Rome’s empire reached along the coastal plains for 3,000 miles, from Egypt to Morocco. Along the edge of the Saharan steppes, Rome established a continuous military frontier, stone barriers known as the limes, patrolled by mobile units based in forts and watchtowers, that were supposed to keep out inland ‘barbarians’.

Under Roman occupation, the region became increasingly prosperous. Rome’s principal objective was to ensure that Africa continued to provide vital shipments of grain supplies needed to feed its own population at home. In north-west Africa, large numbers of army veterans and other immigrants were settled on land confiscated from Carthaginian and Numidian landowners and from Berber pastoralists, with the aim of boosting agricultural production. Roman senators and speculators acquired vast landholdings, leasing out sections to tenants and sub-tenants in return for one-third of their produce, making fortunes from the high price of grain exports. New areas suitable for cultivation were put under the plough. By the first century CE, Africa was providing the bulk of Rome’s grain requirements – more than 60 per cent. Egypt alone supplied 100,000 tons of corn a year. But other territories in North Africa had become even more important: their shipments amounted to 200,000 tons a year. For a period of more than 300 years, Africa exported to Rome about half a million tons of corn a year.

A second agrarian boom came from olive production, spreading wealth within north Africa more widely. Peasant farmers were given official encouragement to plant olive groves on hillside terraces and in drier regions of the interior not suitable for the cultivation of other crops. Olive oil was an essential commodity in classical times, used not just for cooking, but as a soap, a fuel for lighting and a base to fix perfume. As with grain, Italy did not produce enough olive oil for its own needs, creating a demand for imports. Vast olive groves were planted all over the dry country of southern Tunisia and southern Numidia and as far west as the Aurès mountains.

Along with the development of agriculture, Rome transformed its provinces in north-west Africa with the construction of model towns, aqueducts, ports and roads. By the third century, the number of towns and cities had reached about 600 and the road network extended for some 12,000 miles, marked by milestones. Carthage was rebuilt as a colonia with a rectangular grid-plan of streets covering the old Punic ruins and a 50-mile-long aqueduct linking it to Mount Zaghouan. With a population reaching perhaps as high as 400,000, Carthage ranked as the third city of the empire, after Rome and Alexandria.

Rome presided over its African provinces with a light touch. In Egypt, Roman governors relied on the old bureaucracy to maintain control and raise taxes, much as before. A small elite of Roman citizens sat at the top of the social hierarchy, enjoying a monopoly of power. Beneath them a large Greek community continued to thrive in urban centres. Greek influence remained strong. Greek, rather than Latin, was preferred as the language of commerce with other parts of the eastern Mediterranean. Further down the social ladder, there was a substantial Jewish community, initially enjoying imperial protection. On the lowest rung, despised by their rulers, was the vast mass of Coptic-speaking peasants who bore the brunt of taxation. The Delta region became increasingly important as an agricultural centre, producing higher yields from improved irrigation techniques. But otherwise the culture of the countryside remained unchanged.

In the provinces of north-west Africa, Rome also permitted a wide measure of autonomy. The local Punic-speaking ruling class remained largely in place. Punic speech was still widely used. Towns were left to run their own affairs. Local councils competed to embellish their home towns with public facilities such as markets, fountains, amphitheatres and circus-tracks for chariot racing, a popular entertainment. With local funds, streets were decorated with statues and monumental arches. Wealthy citizens paid for the building of temples, theatres and charity schools. Public baths formed a central feature of urban life, a rendezvous for gossip and politics, enjoyed by all and sundry. Some were built in a palatial style, with vaulted ceilings, intricate mosaics, marble facings and central-heating ducts. North-west Africa ended up with more great baths than any comparable part of the empire.

In the countryside, Roman villas and estates were interspersed with Berber villages. Some Berber families gained wealth and status alongside the elite. But many others also managed to improve their circumstances, as the testimony on the tombstone of a Berber of humble origins, living in Mactar in the second century, records:

I was born of poor parents; my father had neither an income nor his own house. From the day of my birth I always cultivated my field; neither my land nor I ever had any rest . . . When the harvest-gangs arrived to hire themselves out in the countryside round Cirta, capital of Numidia, or in the plains of the mountain of Jupiter, I was the first to harvest my field. Then, leaving my neighbourhood, for twelve years I reaped the harvest of another man, under a fiery sun; for eleven years I was chief of a harvest-gang and scythed the corn in the fields of Numidia. Thanks to my labours, and being content with very little, I finally became master of a house and a property: today I live at ease. I have even achieved honours: I was called on to sit in the senate of my city, and, though once a modest peasant, I became censor. I have watched my children and grandchildren grow up round me; my life has been occupied, peaceful and honoured by all.

From their base in Egypt, the Romans also began to promote trade with regions further up the Nile Valley in the African interior. After a series of clashes with the kingdom of Kush, they signed a peace treaty with its rulers in 20 BCE, establishing an agreed frontier at the southern edge of Egypt. Rome henceforth regarded Kush as a ‘client kingdom’, lying outside its direct control, an arrangement that lasted for 300 years.

With the help of the Kushites, the Romans endeavoured to discover the source of the Nile. In 66 CE, the Emperor Nero, a keen geographer, sent two centurions upriver. According to the Roman scribe Seneca, they reached the Bahr al-Ghazal, a tributary of the White Nile, but found their way southwards blocked by ‘immense swamps, the end of which neither the natives know, nor is it possible for anyone to hope to know’. Not until the nineteenth century was a route found through the swamps – a hundred-mile maze of floating papyrus and reed islands known as the Sudd.

Since their expulsion from Egypt by the Assyrians in the seventh century BCE, the rulers of Kush had moved their capital southwards to Meroe, a Middle Nile location between the Fifth and Sixth Cataracts, on the fringe of the summer rainfall belt. A distinctive culture emerged at Meroe, combining aspects of Egyptian religion with indigenous practices. The rulers of Kush constructed royal pyramids and elaborate cult monuments. The Kushites also devised their own extensive script – Meroitic – borrowing twenty-three Egyptian symbols to create a syllabic alphabet. Classified as a Nilo-Saharan language rather than an Afro-Asiatic language like Egyptian, the Meroitic language remains unintelligible to modern linguists.

The mainstay of the Kushite economy was sorghum, cattle and cotton. But what interested the Romans more was their trade in gold, ivory and slaves. The Kushites were also renowned for their manufacture of iron products, a technology they acquired from the Assyrians. The land surrounding Meroe was rich in both iron ore and hardwood timber needed to produce charcoal for iron-smelting. Iron was used to make improved weapons of defence, spears for hunting and tools for agriculture. But the extent of charcoal production had a devastating impact on the land. The Kushites stripped the Butana plain of its forests, leaving behind an arid landscape and huge piles of slag which can still be seen today. According to modern calculations, the size of the slag heaps at Meroe meant that the furnaces there consumed at least 56,000 cubic feet of timber every year for 300 years.

As well as trade with the African interior, Roman Egypt saw a dramatic increase in maritime trade with the Red Sea ports and the northern regions of the Indian Ocean beyond. Mariners from Arabia and India had long exploited the monsoon winds of the western Indian Ocean which blew from the south-west from May to September and from the north-east from November to April, allowing a favourable voyage in both directions. Egyptian-based merchants now sought a greater share of the trade.

To assist their endeavours, an enterprising Egyptian Greek merchant in the mid-first century CE compiled a guide to the region’s trade called the Periplus Maris Erythraei. The name of the author is not known, but he wrote from personal experience of voyages to eastern Africa, southern Arabia and India, the area covered by the Periplus. His objective was to pass on trading information, about products that could be bought and sold in each port, rather than tips for mariners.

His starting point was Egypt’s two main ports on the Red Sea coast, Myos Hormos and Berenice. The African route from Egypt, he explained, ran down the Red Sea, through the Straits of Bab el Mandeb, along the African coast of the Gulf of Aden and the Arabian Sea and then along the eastern coast of Africa to Rhapta, a port somewhere in the vicinity of modern Dar es Salaam. Because of dangerous shoals in the Red Sea, ships following the coastline sailed only during the day, putting in towards nightfall at the nearest available anchorage. The first major stop was Adulis, a small port at the time, linked to an inland territory known as Aksum, but already renowned for its trade in ivory, rhinoceros horn and tortoiseshell. ‘The mass of elephants and rhinoceroses that are slaughtered all inhabit the upland regions, although on rare occasions they are also seen along the shore around Adulis itself.’ Further south were the incense ports of northern Somalia where the principal items for trade were frankincense and myrrh.

Ships heading along the African route tended to leave Egypt in July, taking about two months to reach Cape Guardafui on the point of the Horn of Africa, travelling southwards with the north-east monsoon winds behind them and reaching Rhapta in November or December. They were obliged to remain there for eight months, waiting for the last winds of the south-west monsoon before leaving, returning to Guardafui not before October in order to catch the early north-east monsoon that would provide favourable winds for traversing the Gulf of Aden. A round trip to Rhapta therefore took about eighteen months.

The Periplus makes few observations about Rhapta, other than to note that ‘great quantities of ivory and tortoiseshell’ were to be found there, that the inhabitants were ‘very big-bodied men’, and that the area was under Arab rule. Rhapta was described as ‘the very last port of trade on the coast of Azania’, a Greek name for eastern Africa.

Nor was there any information available about the African interior. The only glimpse of this vast hinterland for centuries came from a Greek merchant named Diogenes, who claimed that as he was returning home from a visit to India in the middle of the first century CE he had landed on the African mainland at Rhapta and then travelled for twenty-five days inland. He arrived, he said, ‘in the vicinity of two great lakes, and the snowy range of mountains whence the Nile draws its twin sources’. A century later, the Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy incorporated this information into his map of the world, and named the source of the Nile as Lunae Montes, the Mountains of the Moon. For 1,700 years, Ptolemy’s map remained the only guide to the mystery of the Nile’s sources.

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