North Africa Part 2 | Roman Architecture | Second edition

North Africa Part 2 | Roman Architecture | Second edition

North Africa Part 2 | Roman Architecture | Second edition


It is no surprise that a few years later the Antonine Baths (ad 145–162) were built, the most notable building of that period. Its main bathing block measures 212 × 106 meters, very nearly as big as the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The complex was magnificently sited along

Figure 9.10  Zaghouan to Carthage aqueduct (Tunisia), Hadrianic or later.

the seashore, with the frigidarium nearest the sea. This side of the building was joined to the perimeter wall in the manner of the baths of Trajan in Rome. The layout of the nation, frigidarium, and flanking palaestrae is fairly conventional, but the five interlocking octagonal hot rooms which swell out from the main block in a gentle curve are reminiscent of the contemporary Forum Baths at Ostia. Once lavishly decorated with marble and mosaic, the Baths reflect the size and prosperity that Carthage had achieved by the second-century ad. Carthage was also amply endowed with buildings for entertainment. Remains of one of the largest amphitheaters in the Roman world, measuring 156 × 128 meters, have been found there. Its theatre, 104 meters in diameter, was the largest in North Africa after Oxyrhynkos in Egypt, and back to back with it an enormous odeum was built in the third century ad. With a cavea 96 meters in diameter, it was almost as large as the gigantic Odeum of Domitian in Rome. For a people known to have had a passion for chariot racing, a suitably large Circus was built in the early second-century ad. At least 496 meters long and with a capacity of 40–45,000, it is one of the largest known.

Just over 50 kilometers south of Carthage was Thuburbu Maius, situated in the middle of a rich agricultural district. Many of its fine buildings date to the second-century ad, including the Forum, measuring 49 × 49 meters and dominated by a Capitolium on a high podium. The Temple of Peace faced its NE side and a circular Temple of Mercury its SW. South of this was the Market, two large bath buildings, and a palaestra donated to the city in ad 225 by Petronius Felix. South of these was a sanctuary, said to be of Baal, with a tetrastyle temple on a high podium dominating a horseshoe-shaped peristyle courtyard. Several peristyle houses decorated with mosaic pavements were also found. East of Thuburbo Maius is the Gulf of Hammamet, at the south end of which lies Hadrumetum (Sousse), which became very prosperous during the empire because of its access to Mediterranean trade and its agricultural hinterland. Several peristyle houses were found there, decorated with fine mosaics, including the famous Vergil mosaic. Between the Gulf of Hammamet and the Gulf of Gabes is a dry, but fertile coastal area nowadays called the Sahel, well suited to olive production.


One of the main Roman cities in this region is Thysdrus (El Djem), which attained considerable wealth in the third century and from its position at the center of a vast olive-growing district. It was also well-placed as a trading center on the routes between the coast and the hinterland. It boasts one of the largest and best-preserved amphitheaters in the Roman world, 148 × 122 meters, built between ad 230–236 in the proconsulship of the extremely wealthy M. Antonius Gordianus (Figure 9.11). The lowest three stories of the façade, with round-headed openings flanked by half-columns, still stand. Originally there was probably a blind fourth story above, like that of the Colosseum. It would have carried the masts for the vela to protect the spectators from the sun, bringing the total height of the building to 38.5 meters.6 The seating, raised on well-preserved concrete substructures, faced an arena measuring 65 × 39 meters. West of Thysdrus, where the Tell mountains fall away to the dry and hot central plateau of Tunisia, the home of nomadic herders, is Sufetula (Sbeitla), situated at the intersection of a number of important roads. Its finest and best-preserved monument, the forum, has a monumental entrance, a triple arched gateway built-in ad 139, which opens onto a rectangular paved area surrounded by columnar porticoes. Opposite the gateway is the Capitolium which consists of three separate temples, side by the side, each with a tetrastyle porch.

Tripolitania came under Roman protection when Carthage was destroyed in the Third Punic War (146 bc), becoming part of the province of Africa Proconsularis more than a hundred years later. The indigenous inhabitants of Tripolitania were the Libyans, a Hamitic people, and alongside them lived the Phoenicians, who had established emporia (trading

Figure 9.11  Thysdrus (El Djem, Tunisia), amphitheatre, c. ad 238.

posts) on the coast. These settlements depended partly upon the Saharan caravan trade, and partly on the fact that the Phoenicians were skilled agriculturalists, intensively cultivated the olive, and probably introduced fruit trees and vines. The Gebel, the precipitous edge of the Sahara plateau, encloses the great coastal plain of the Guevara. This coastal strip, because of its high rainfall, was the only area able to support an urban civilization, and that is where the three great emporia, Sabratha, Oea (Tripoli), and Lepcis Magna, were built (Sallust, Jug. 78.1). The climate must have been milder in antiquity because farms are frequently found in the semi-desert interior of the country, places where nothing would grow today. Horses, cattle, and elephants once lived in Tripolitania, and the countryside produced wheat, barley, and wine. Olive oil was produced in prodigious quantities and as a result, olive presses are frequently found. There were woodlands on the promontory of Cape Misurata and there were trees in the coastal regions. Soil erosion was slower than today, and the Romans were adept at building dams and barrages to conserve what little water there was. The precious water was then stored in underground cisterns which are such a feature of Roman houses in North Africa. However, an ever-present menace was the shifting sand dunes and it is to the dunes, which eventually engulfed Lepcis Magna and Sabratha, that we owe the remarkable preservation of these cities.


Lepcis Magna, which became one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire, seems to have fared well under the rule of Augustus. During the late first century bc and the first half of the first-century ad substantial additions were made to the old forum which lay near the sea to the west of the harbor (Figure 9.12).

The forum was laid out on strictly rectangular lines except for the NE side which remained oblique, perhaps because of the alignment of an earlier building. The three temples which dominated the NW side of the square were all built at this time. They had the high podium characteristic of Italian buildings; the emphasis was frontal and the columns ran around three

Figure 9.12  Lepcis Magna (Libya): general plan.

sides only. The central temple, the Temple of Rome and Augustus (dedicated between ad 14 and 19) had a rostrum in front of it, approached by a pair of narrow staircases, one on each side, an arrangement reminiscent of the Temple of Deified Julius Caesar in the Roman Forum. Before ad 53 a basilica was added opposite and in the second-century ad a curia or senate house NE of it, built on the lines of a temple. Lepcis Magna grew rapidly in size during the first-century ad. From the old forum the cardo bent slightly to the west, presumably to follow the line of the Wadi Lebda and a block of insulae, each 20 metres wide, was laid out on each side of it. Then the angle of the grid changed again, to align itself with the main road to the SW and another block of insulae, this time 26 metres wide, was laid out.

A number of important public buildings were built in the Augustan period precisely at the point of intersection between the two blocks of insulae. They were paid for by wealthy benefactors as if inspired by the building activities of Augustus in Rome. The earliest addition was an extremely elegant provisions market (macellum), financed by Annobal Tapapius Rufus and completed in 8 bc. It has a pair of circular kiosks inside a rectangular porticoed courtyard measuring 40 × 70 metres. Rufus went on to build a large theatre, 90 metres in diameter, which was inaugurated in ad 1 or 2.7 Building it was a considerable achievement considering its size and the problems of building on a flat site. However, it is clear that the builders had not yet mastered the technology of raising a cavea on hollow substructures. Some of the lowest parts of the cavea were cut into the rock, and much of the rest was supported on an Augustus (earth fill), contained within a massive outer wall of solid masonry articulated externally by pilasters. The result is a very solid-looking building which dominates its surroundings. The aggestus was divided into six wedges by five pairs of radial walls containing staircases that gave access to the upper parts of the cavea. The summa cavea rested on massive radial vaults of masonry and concrete, some of which have been restored to their original position by the excavators. The stage front was decorated with a row of niches and contained the slot into which the curtain was lowered before each performance. Behind rose the magnificent back wall of the stage (scaenae frons) with its three stories of marble columns. The columns to be seen today are Antonine replacements of the original Augustan ones, which were of grey limestone, and the wall with its three semicircular recesses is of the same date. To the SE of the theatre was a chalcidicum (monumental portico) built at the expense of Iddibal Caphada Aemilius in ad 11–12. The fact that, according to inscriptions, all three buildings were financed by private citizens seems to indicate general prosperity in the region.

Two factors were to change the whole appearance of Lepcis Magna at the beginning of the second-century ad. Until then Lepcis had relied on springs and wells for its water supply. This was to change thanks to the efforts of another wealthy private citizen, Quintus Servilius Candidus, who began searching for a source of water that could serve the city all year round. He is credited with building an underground pipeline that brought water to the city from the Wadi Cam, about 20 kilometers east of the city (ad 120). Fountains started to be built and soon Lepcis was to have its first large public bath. Secondly, the Arch of Trajan (ad 109–110), a four-sided arch standing over a crossroads, was one of the last buildings in the city to be built entirely of limestone, until then the standard building material at Lepcis. During the reign of Hadrian, the marble trade expanded greatly, which was to have tremendous consequences for the buildings of Lepcis. From that time onwards few buildings did not make extensive use of marbles from Greece and Asia Minor.

The most important building of the period was the Hadrianic Baths (ad 126–127). Situated to the south of the main grid of the city, it had to take into account both the Wadi Lebda, which turns sharply south at this point, and also the fact that Roman baths were oriented so that the cold rooms were on the north side and the hot rooms on the south. This meant that it had to be built at an angle to the pre-existing grid plan of the city, a fact which caused problems later on. The layout of the baths was somewhat unusual in that there was a single palaestra to the north of the main bathing block instead of two smaller ones at the sides of the frigidarium, a feature which had by this time become standard in Rome. The palaestra was very large, almost 120 meters long, and terminated in two curved exedras. The first component of the main bathing block, the big open-air swimming pool (natation), measured 27.80 × 14.55 meters and was 1.75 meters deep, with three steps leading down to the water on all sides. Covered colonnades provided shade on three sides, and along the fourth was a row of deep round-headed arches, their soffits gleaming with brightly colored glass mosaic. There were changing rooms (apodyterium) on each side and beyond these a pair of latrines. The cold room (frigidarium) was the largest room of all, and in common with many others in North Africa, it had two large, marble-lined pools, one at each end. Because of its position at the center of the complex with rooms on all sides the frigidarium had to be lit by means of a clerestory, which meant that it was also higher than the surrounding rooms. The vault of the frigidarium was once covered with mosaic, as is shown by three large surviving fragments with scrolls, vine tendrils and foliage patterns picked out in bright green and yellow glass which probably belonged to this vault. The warm room (tepidarium) originally had a single large plunge in the middle, but later on, two small plunges were added. The last room, facing south, was the caldarium, a large rectangular room with five plunges, all built at the time of Commodus. There were further hot rooms at the sides and many of the original installations of the sweating rooms (sudatorium) have survived. Hot air heated not only the floor through a hypocaust, but also the walls through rows of terracotta tubes, and then escaped via chimneys.

The splendors of the Hadrianic Baths were a prelude to the magnificence to come. At the end of the second-century ad, Lepcis Magna was one of the wealthiest cities in the Roman world. It was also the birthplace of Septimius Severus who was emperor from ad 193–211. During his reign, he was immensely liberal towards the city of his birth. He endowed it with an entirely new quarter, consisting of a new forum and a basilica, flanked by a broad colonnaded street linking the Baths of Hadrian with an enlarged harbor. The Severan monuments of Lepcis are of more than purely local interest. They would scarcely have been out of place in the capital itself and are more complete as a group than any contemporary monuments in Rome.8 It is as a group they should be discussed because that was the way they were conceived. Before starting to build the forum/basilica complex it would have been necessary to curtail the flow of the Wadi Lebda, which ran close to where the colonnaded street runs. A huge dam was built 2 kilometers upstream diverting the water into an artificial channel to prevent it from silting up the harbor. Then the harbor, which may have existed on a smaller scale at the time of Nero, was greatly enlarged in the Severan period by joining up a number of small islands off the coast to create a basin measuring 390 × 419 meters. This means it was three-fifths the size of that at Carthage, and a third of the size of Trajan’s harbor at Rome but was larger than that at Iol-Caesarea. Warehouses were built around the basin and the steps and mooring posts are still visible. The mouth of the harbor was marked by a great lighthouse of which only the foot of the tower and its substructure survive. The base is 21.20 meters square, which suggests that it was a tall structure.

Once the threat of seasonal floods had been removed, work began on the colonnaded street. The surviving part is about 450 meters long and more than 40 meters broad, including the flanking arcades supported on columns with Pergamene capitals. The street had to change direction abruptly near the palaestra of the Hadrianic Baths, which were aligned on a strict N/S axis that ran diagonal to the rest of the grid, while the new forum was aligned to the existing grid. The solution was to build a monumental nymphaeum at this point to draw attention away from the bend in the road, a device well known to Hellenistic architects. The nymphaeum was spectacular with a big semicircular fountain basin that poured its waters down into a trapezoidal basin a little lower. Behind was a high semicircular back wall of concrete faced with masonry, and elaborately decorated with niches and two stories of red granite columns. On the opposite side of the street was a curved columnar portico that flanked the street leading to the theatre.

Along the NW side of the colonnaded street stood the forum (Figure 9.13), a big rectangular enclosure, measuring some 100 × 60 meters, surrounded by a high masonry wall of a severe, almost military character. When Justinian’s forces occupied Lepcis in ad 533 they found the city mostly covered with sand because the Vandals had demolished the Late Roman Wall allowing the sand dunes to take over. The Byzantine walls enclosed only a small part of the town but took advantage of the massive walls of the Severan forum and basilica, one reason why they are so well preserved. The forum was surrounded by a two-story portico, the columns of the bottom story carrying arches with alternate Medusa and Nereid heads in the spandrels (Figure 9.14). Against the west wall stood a large temple, perhaps of the Severan family, raised on a lofty vaulted podium and approached by a monumental staircase. Tripteral in front, it had columns around three sides only like the Temple of Mars Ultor in the Forum Augustum in Rome. Across the east side of the forum, separating it from the basilica, was a row of tabernacles that diminished in size from north to south. This was to conceal the fact that the site was not perfectly rectangular, and that the basilica was at an angle to the forum. The position of the basilica is reminiscent of Trajan’s Forum in Rome and, like the Basilica Ulpia, it had an apse at each end. Two stories of Corinthian columns with red granite shafts divided the basilica into nave and aisles

Figure 9.13  Lepcis Magna (Libya), Severan Forum and basilica: plan.

Figure 9.14  Lepcis Magna (Libya), Severan Forum, part of the south arcade, c. ad 216.

Figure 9.15  Lepcis Magna (Libya), Severan basilica, c. ad 216

and there was probably a clerestory above (Figure 9.15). The nave was covered with a wooden roof spanning 19 meters. The interior decoration was of exceptional richness, the colonnades each terminating in a square white-marble pier with the second pier of a similar type standing next to it at the edge of the apse. The piers, decorated with deeply undercut vine scrolls inhabited by mythological figures, were probably the work of artists from Aphrodisias in Asia Minor. There were two stories of round-headed niches running around the apse, framed by red-granite columns supporting projecting entablatures. The central pair were in giant order, while the six side ones were smaller and had a second order above.

In gratitude for his favors, the citizens of Lepcis Magna erected a triumphal arch in honor of the emperor (Figure 9.12). It was a four-sided arch standing at the crossroads between the cardo and the decumanus Maximus on the line of the coast road from Alexandria to Carthage. It also marked the start of the Gebel road built by L. Aelius Lamia in ads 15–16, which ran 44 Roman miles into the interior. The arch seems to have been hastily built, perhaps so that it could be finished in time for the emperor’s visit to his birthplace in ad 203. The fact that the floor is raised indicates that it was not for wheeled traffic. Corinthian columns stood on each side of the main passageway supporting steeply raking half pediments and at the corners of the arch were pilasters richly decorated with vine scrolls inhabited by cupids and birds. They were probably the work of the same sculptors from Aphrodisias who worked on the Severan basilica. In the attic were reliefs commemorating the triumph of Septimius Severus and his sons.

Just over a kilometer east of the harbor was the amphitheater, which nestled in a hollow or former quarry and was joined to the circus immediately north of it by tunnels. It may well have been finished in ad 161–162, at the same time as the circus. The circus was almost on the seashore and had a track or arena almost exactly 450 meters long (Figure 2.9).9 A podium wall, 2.20–2.30 meters high, ran around the arena. Above were 11 rows of seats for the spectators, capped by a gallery of Tuscan columns, with a capacity of 20,000–23,000. The 12 starting gates (careers) were set out, as usual, on a curve to allow the chariots an equal chance of getting past the meta Secunda (the turning post nearest to the careers) at the crucial start of the race. The careers were joined together, leaving a gap of 20 meters between the last gate and the seating on the north side of the circus. Between each pair of gates was a herm, one complete with the phallus, but lacking its head. A lead curse tablet was found buried under one of the careers, a rare discovery.10 The spina was angled, a sophisticated feature, and as it was always in full view of the audience there was ranged along it a sumptuous array of statuary, columns, water basins, and of course a shrine to Consus, protector of grain. There was perhaps a statue of Victory in the middle of the spine, directly opposite the judges’ box which also marked the finishing line. On the spina there would also have been the seven eggs or dolphins which enabled the spectators to follow the progress of the race. At the far end of the spina was the meta prima which marked the first turn. On each of the two metal stood three massive cones visible from a distance, to give the charioteer advance notice of the turn. These cones are frequently shown on reliefs and mosaics, but the only one ever to be found is at Lepcis. It is incomplete but its height can be calculated as 4.75 meters.

West of the town, outside the city walls, was a small bathing establishment known as the Hunting Baths. Starting at the end of the second-century ad and later enlarged and altered, it is of exceptional interest in the history of Roman concrete (Figure 9.16). The complex consisted of a compact set of rooms: Preceding the main bathing rooms were a richly decorated

Figure 9.16  Lepcis Magna (Libya), Hunting Baths, late second-century ad, from the south: (foreground) the caldaria, covered with a single barrel-vault; (behind) the two octagonal domes over the tepidarium and the anteroom to the caldarium; (behind) the frigidarium, one apse visible; (behind) the cross-vaulted cold plunge.

hall, the apodyterium and a small latrine. A passage led into the first bathing room, a long barrel-vaulted frigidarium with an apse at each end and a cross-vaulted plunge bath on its NE side. The barrel-vault was decorated with frescoes of a hunt (venatio) in an amphitheater, which give the baths its name. Octagonal domes covered the tepidarium with its warm plunge and the anteroom to the caldaria. The two caldaria each contained a hot plunge, and both were covered by a single barrel vault. Behind the caldaria were the furnaces and the water cisterns. The building seems to have been designed as a series of interiors with the result that externally there was no attempt to conceal the array of barrel vaults, domes, and apses. Its excellent state of preservation both inside and out makes it tolerably certain that the exterior was designed to look much as it does today. It was definitely not treated with the whole apparatus of applied orders and pediments, and thus it provides an important insight into the external appearance of late Roman buildings.

Oea, modern Tripoli, has been continuously occupied since Roman times. Like Lepcis it was established as a Phoenician trading post and there are remains of a Punic cemetery near the NW harbour mole. The Roman walled city has almost totally disappeared under the old city of Tripoli, although here and there traces of Roman houses with mosaic floors and painted walls have come to light. The main surviving monument is a four-sided archway, built by a local citizen, Gaius Calpurnius Celsus, in ad 163 and dedicated to Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus (Figure 9.17). On two of the four sides the archway was flanked by detached Corinthian columns standing on tall plinths. The niches contained imperial statues and there were portrait busts above. The piers of the other two sides were decorated with reliefs of captive barbarian families and in the spandrels were reliefs of Apollo and Minerva. The arch was covered by an octagonal dome formed of three rings of stone voussoirs with an

Figure 9.17  Oea (Tripoli, Libya), Arch of Marcus Aurelius, dedicated in ad 163.

octagonal keystone at the top, an indication that techniques for covering a square with a dome existed long before Byzantine times.



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