Roman-era sites dot Tunisian landscape
Tunis - The Roman Empire made Tunisia the core province of its rule in Africa and created thousands of sites and monuments — temples, bathhouses, theatres and amphitheatres — that provide interesting studies 2,000 years later.
Tunisia in the 21st century provides excellent study cases for students and lovers of Roman art and architecture. Carthage, a UN World Heritage site, is a treasure trove of sites from various ruling civilisations, beginning with the Phoenicians, who founded the city through the Roman era to modern times.
There are several examples of temples in Dougga, Sufetula, Thuburbo Majus, Uthina and underground houses — a style embraced from Berber troglodytes — of Bulla Regia. Other Roman-era sites include the 130-kilometre aqueduct of Zaghouan and Carthage’s Antonine baths. The ruins are varied and an important part of study of Roman times.
Roman forces conquered the area in campaigns 100 years apart — in 146BC after the destruction of Carthage, now a suburb of Tunis, and in 46BC after Julius Caesar’s victory over Pompey’s allies in Thapsus on the central coast of modern-day Tunisia. The Romans controlled the area, known as Africa Province, for about 600 years.
The province, which enveloped former Carthaginian and Numidian territories, was huge, even by modern standards. It reached well into modern Libya to the east and Algeria to the west. Carthage, rebuilt by Augustus, was the provincial capital and had a population estimated at 300,000. That Rome installed a proconsul as governor shows the importance the empire put on the region.
The Roman influence led to urbanisation of the region. The new leaders drew together various settlements into what archaeologists estimate are about 23,000 sites in northern and central Tunisia. This includes approximately 200 cities, some of which are preserved in good condition.
Africa Province was considered the breadbasket of Rome, using technology from Punic times to develop agriculture and seafaring. The area provided two-thirds of the wheat imported by Rome and sent the central empire olive oil, garum, salted fish and other foodstuffs. The region also exported purple dyes, textile and Numidian yellow marble in demand in Rome.
As much as Rome desired goods from the Africa Province, residents of the region wanted to be considered full citizens of the empire. As such they adopted many Roman ways, including lifestyles, religion and culture. There are signs that, to curry favour, the well-to-do of Africa Province ordered costly construction programmes to reflect Roman styles.
Given that the structures came relatively late in the Roman Empire period, many Roman-influenced technical innovations are apparent at the archaeological sites. However, the locals included some of the region’s history, binding the Carthaginian and Roman cultures into an “Afro-Roman” civilisation.
One key way Rome extended its influence was to strongly support Roman-style construction. The buildings cemented the population and standardised their way of life. Amenities of the structures included flowing water, baths, paved streets and roads and entertainment, niceties meant to keep the public diverted from politics.
The grid planning was adopted systematically for new cities such as Carthage, Uthina and Sufetula, and partially in the extension of old ones, including Bulla Regia, Thuburbo Majus and Mactaris.
Bulla Regia is the only city in the empire that had underground houses, using an idea from the Berbers who built below ground to escape the heat of summer. The Zaghouan aqueduct was the longest in the Roman Empire and supplied Carthage with 17 million litres of water a day.
The Antonine baths in Carthage rank third after Caracalla’s and Diocletian’s in Rome. Its frigidarium had grey granite monoliths — 17 metres tall imported from Egypt and crowned with Corinthian capitals in Peloponnese marble, weighing 4 tons each.
The amphitheatre of El Jem, another World Heritage site, is the largest Roman monument in North Africa. Built to accommodate 27,000 spectators, it is one of the latest big amphitheatres in the empire and the only one known to be built in ashlar blocks.
One cannot omit the splendid mosaics conserved in situ and in museums. Bardo, Sousse and El Jem museums include examples of the colourful floors that decorated houses and public buildings and show off the daily life, generosity, superstition, religion and ideology of the Roman-era inhabitants.
The loss of Roman influence in the region coincided with the general decline in the Roman Empire. The rise of Christianity led to the closure of Roman temples and entertainment buildings and the destruction of many statues. Roman sites were gradually abandoned and often used as stone quarries.
Archaeologists in the late 19th century saw the value of the region to their field with finds in Carthage and, even more than 100 years later, discoveries continue.
In 1999 an extraordinary complex of Christian catacombs and an underground chapel paved with tomb mosaics was discovered in Lamta, a Roman port city on the east coast. In 2014, a Christian basilica paved with tomb mosaic was discovered in the construction of a highway west of Medjez-El Bab, in northern Tunisia. In 2015, a Roman bathhouse, kilns and metallurgy works were discovered at a site on the southern Tunisian coast, near Zarzis. Such finds assure the region will provide new insights into Roman Empire life and interesting stops for all tourists.