North Africa Part 3 | Roman Architecture | Second edition

North Africa Part 3 | Roman Architecture | Second edition

North Africa Part 3 | Roman Architecture | Second edition

One of the most conspicuous Phoenician survivals at Sabratha is a second-century bc tower tomb in the Hellenistic style. It is triangular in plan, with a central stage adorned with three Ionic columns on each side supporting a plain concave stage guarded by lions. Its slender pyramidical termination links it stylistically to the obelisk tombs found near the inland wadis. In Roman times Sabratha did not enjoy the same imperial favours as Lepcis, with the result that its growth was slower but more sustained. Its building stone was a friable honey-coloured limestone which required a stucco coating. Its buildings needed constant maintenance and marble was only slowly introduced. In the Augustan period, a rectangular Forum was laid out, which in the course of a century acquired a curia, basilica and several frontally planned temples. To the prosperous Antonine period belong the paving of the Forum, the porticoes of Corinthian columns with granite shafts, and the extensive marbling of most of the temples, except that of Liber Pater which dominates the east side. At the same time, a new quarter of the town was laid out further to the east. This area was dominated by the large, 92.60-metre-wide Severan theatre, arguably the best preserved in North Africa. Unlike the theatre, at Lepcis it was raised entirely on hollow substructures and its outer wall, with arched openings flanked by Corinthian pilasters, has been partly recomposed. It is chiefly remarkable for its three-tier scaenae frons which were completely rebuilt by the Italian Archaeological service in 1937 (Figure 9.18). Sabratha is also important for the large number of domestic and commercial buildings which have been excavated. The former had lower storeys of squared stone masonry and upper ones of mud brick. The roofs were flat and large underground cisterns were used to store water.

Figure 9.18  Sabratha (Libya), theatre, scaenae frons, late second-century ad (rebuilt 1937).

Cyrenaica, the eastern part of modern Libya, was settled by the Greeks. It is separated from the west by the Syrtic gulf, which is hazardous to shipping (Strabo, Geo. 17.3.20), and the Syrtic desert, which extends up to the coast. At the east end of the gulf, the coastline turns sharply north and then east to form a sweeping 210-kilometre-long coastline dominated by the Green Mountain (Gebel Akhtar), a high limestone plateau. The mountain is named for the cypress, juniper and pine trees which grow in abundance there. Between it and the sea is a coastal strip on which were situated the five towns which gave the area the name of Pentapolis: Berenice, Tauchira (Tocra), Ptolemais (Tolmeita), Cyrene (Shahat) and its port, Apollonia. Cyrenaica became a Roman possession in 96 bc, ruled from Gortyn in Crete, the two forming a single administrative unit.

Cyrene was founded by Greek immigrants from the island of Thera in 630 bc and is situated 18 kilometres from the sea, 620 metres above sea level on the highest point of the Gebel Akhtar. It soon became a flourishing city and its monuments were as splendid as those of any major city on the Greek mainland. However, in Roman times it became something of a backwater and often had to make do by adapting existing monuments instead of building new ones. At the end of the Augustan period an inscription records that M. Sufenas Proculus rebuilt the old Hellenistic gymnasium, and in the later first-century ad a large basilica took the place of its north side. From then on it was known as the Caesareum and a small temple, perhaps of Hadrian, was installed in the middle.11 Trajan built a bath building in the NE corner of the Sanctuary of Apollo where it could be assured of a good water supply. After the Jewish revolt (ad 115–117), which caused a great deal of damage, Hadrian brought in new settlers to rebuild Cyrene. The Temple of Apollo was restored, but with unfluted columns, while the columns of the Temple of Zeus were too badly damaged to be restored at all. In ad 134 Cyrene was raised to the status of Metropolis and by the end of the century seems largely to have recovered, but it never attained the prosperity of other North African cities and old buildings continued to be recycled. Later in the second-century ad, the Greek theatre was transformed into an arena, an unusual transformation in that the stage buildings of the theatre were swept away and extra banks of seats were built in their place, making it a true amphitheatre. However, as the theatre was built on a steeply sloping hillside the seats have long since collapsed into the gorge below. In the Severan period the House of Jason Magnus, a large peristyle house, was created by amalgamating two earlier houses with fine mosaic and opus sectile pavements.

Apollonia, the port of Cyrene, had an inner and outer harbour which, along with much of the northern part of the city, are now under the sea. There was little new building of note until Christian times. The main pagan survivals are parts of the towers and gates of the Hellenistic city wall, a Roman bath building, and a Hellenistic theatre dating to the late fourth/early third-century bc. Its scene building was altered at the time of Domitian, and a century later its orchestra was converted into an arena for gladiatorial games and animal hunts, a common procedure in that part of the Roman world. The most outstanding buildings of Apollonia are the four Christian basilicas and the palace of the Byzantine dux, all dating to the sixth century ad. Columns were taken from pagan buildings and sent in consignments around the empire. When there were not enough original columns rougher ones were made up using local stone, as happened here.

Ptolemais, probably founded in the reign of Ptolemy III Euergetes I (246–221 bc), was a grand walled city of some 200 hectares which retained much of its importance into Roman times. It had a natural harbour to the north and its buildings extended the whole width of a fertile, 2-kilometre-wide coastal plain, bounded to the south by the foothills of the Gebel akhdar and to east and west by wadis. The Hellenistic grid plan had at least five transverse streets (document) intersected by two main longitudinal ones (cardines), enclosing blocks measuring 180 × 36 metres, arranged per strings (the N/S axis longer than the E/W). The principal thoroughfare was 14.80 metres wide, compared to 8.80 metres for most of the major streets. The city walls, as so often, unrelated to the street plan were punctuated by square towers and extended from the sea to the Gebel where they enclosed a commanding triangle of high ground. There were probably seven gates in the circuit, of which the best preserved is the Tauchira gate flanked by two massive square towers with finely drafted masonry. In the southern part of the town is a complex of vaulted cisterns, enclosed within a platform measuring 65.85 × 70.60 metres and framed by Doric colonnades on three sides. Traces of a Hadrianic aqueduct have been found to the east of the city. The prosperity of Ptolemais is attested by many new buildings, including a circus, an amphitheatre, two theatres and an odeum. This prosperity continued into the Late Empire when under Diocletian it became the capital of Libya Pentapolis. The central part of the main street was collonaded with an early fourth-century ad triple arch at the west end and a Byzantine tetrakionia (a monument at a crossroads with four sets of four columns) at the east. A former odeum or bouleuterion (council-chamber) was transformed into an aquatic theatre, probably in the fourth-century ad, and at the same time, the public baths were rebuilt. An audience hall (the Triconchos) was added to an old peristyle house, perhaps when it became the residence of the Dux of Libya Pentapolis in the fifth-century ad.

The best-known monument to survive at Ptolemais is the ‘Palazzo Delle Colonne’. Built at the end of the second-century bc it was a magnificent house sited in the centre of the town at the intersection of the two main streets (Figure 9.19). The main rooms were grouped around a peristyle with heart-shaped angle piers. To the north was a large Egyptian oecus, a room with an internal colonnade, paved in fine mosaic (Vitruvius, de Arch. 6.3.9). The columns had acanthus leaves around the lowest part of the shaft, a feature of some Alexandrian buildings, and the leaves had wide oval holes between the touching segments. The upper border of the north side of the peristyle court had a decorative arrangement of small Corinthian columns

Figure 9.19  Ptolemais (Libya), Palazzo Delle Colonne, late second or first-century bc: plan.

and pilasters forming three highly ornate aedicules, features of the so-called ‘Hellenistic baroque’ (Figure 9.20). The central aedicule had a round-headed niche set between two pairs of pilasters supporting a hollow pediment. Flanking the aedicules were single columns supporting steeply raking quarter pediments. The Palazzo is often regarded as reflecting the grand domestic architecture of Alexandria, but the dating of the building has given rise to much controversy. Parts of it, like the colonnade of the oecus, appear to be late Hellenistic, while the upper order of the peristyle may be Augustan, which would make it one of the earliest examples of the type of fantastic architectural composition which was to enjoy such vogue in the eastern provinces during the next three centuries.

Egypt has been described as a ‘gift of the Nile’. Life would scarcely exist there except for that extraordinary river more than 6,000 kilometres long. The narrow band of black, fertile soil on the banks of the river, which abruptly meets the red sand of the desert, was the source of Egypt’s prosperity. All of the major cities of Egypt were built along the Nile, but none had the commercial advantages of its most famous city, Alexandria, which was built at the mouth of the Delta, giving it both access to the interior of Africa and all the advantages of a Mediterranean port. Alexandria became one of the great cities of the ancient world and throughout the Roman Republican and imperial periods one of the greatest influences on Roman art and architecture. Perhaps the best-known monument of this famous city is the lighthouse, built by Ptolemy Philadelphus in the third-century bc (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 36.18.83) and described by the Arab traveller El-Andalusi in 1166 as 96.99 metres high, capped by a statue of Zeus, giving it an overall height to 117 metres. After its foundation in 331 bc, Alexandria looked to the Hellenistic world, in particular its neighbour, Cyrenaica, for architectural inspiration.12 For example tomb 1 of the necropolis of Moustapha Pasha (third-century bc) has three doorways of Cyrenaican type with inclined jambs and capitals similar to those found in the late fourth century bc Cyrene and Berenice (Benghazi).

Figure 9.20  Ptolemais (Libya), Palazzo Delle Colonne, upper order of the north side of the peristyle court, perhaps Augustan: reconstruction.

Greek influence remained an important factor under the Ptolemies, who were themselves Greek. It was in Greece that much of the development of the Corinthian capital took place, the first example of which, dating to the third quarter of the fifth-century bc, was found at Bassae in Greece. The Corinthian capitals at Epidaurus, probably designed by Polycleitos the Younger and dated anywhere between 360 and 330 bc, are remarkably beautiful and in many ways anticipate the fully Orthodox Corinthian capitals of the Romans (Figure 9.21a). The first example of the so-called ‘Normal Corinthian capital’13 was found in the Propylon of Ptolemy II at Samothrace and is dated between 285 and 240 bc (Figure 9.21b). The lower part of the bell is decorated with 16 acanthus leaves, alternately high and low. Out of the same cauliculus grow the volutes which support the corners of the concave abacus and the helices which meet immediately under the flower on the abacus. Lyttelton argued that the seeds of the ‘baroque’ style can be traced to the fourth century bc Greece,14 but recent studies of the architectural fragments in the storerooms of the Graeco-Roman Museum in Alexandria confirm that some of the earliest surviving examples of ‘baroque’ architecture come from Alexandria.15  Buildings influenced by Alexandria are found at sites with strong political and trading links to it, notably Ptolemais and Petra, and are depicted in several Second Style Pompeian wall paintings. Alexandria was also a major centre for the development of the Corinthian order, although there was no distinctive Corinthian entablature at first and a Doric or Ionic one was often used. Even in the early Augustan period, Vitruvius was still prescribing either a Doric or Ionic entablature for the Corinthian order (de Arch. 4.1.2). The base normally used for the Corinthian column was the Attic base, as seen in the Erechtheum at

Figure 9.21  (a) Corinthian capital from tholos at Epidaurus (Greece), between 360 and 330 bc; (b) Capital from Propylon of Ptolemy II at Samothrace (Greece), between 285 and 240 bc; (c) flat, grooved modillion; (d) hollow modillion: drawings.

Athens. Consoles or modillions appear on Alexandrian buildings from the second-century bc; both the narrow flat grooved type and the square hollow type were used (Figure 9.21c and d). The narrow, flat type appears in a wall painting in room 4 of the House of the Griffins in Rome and in Roman stucco of the early first-century bc. The architects of the emperor Augustus gradually modified it until it evolved into the scrolled modillion found in countless Roman Corinthian buildings throughout the Roman Empire (Figures 3.13 and 3.14).


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