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The Marvels of North Africa During Roman Times: A Historian‘s Perspective


The Roman provinces of North Africa were some of the wealthiest and most important regions in the entire empire. Encompassing parts of modern-day Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, Roman Africa was a land of great cities, magnificent monuments, and bountiful agriculture that served as the "breadbasket" of the Mediterranean world. This article will explore the history of Roman North Africa from the perspective of a historian, delving into the region‘s pre-Roman past, the process of Roman conquest and colonization, the economic and social impact of Roman rule, and the enduring legacy of this fascinating period in world history.

North Africa Before the Romans

Before the arrival of the Romans, North Africa was home to a diverse array of peoples and cultures. In the west, the Berber tribes of the Numidians and Mauretanians dominated the interior, forming powerful kingdoms that often came into conflict with the great city-state of Carthage on the coast. Founded by Phoenician colonists in the 9th century BCE, Carthage grew to be one of the most powerful states in the Mediterranean, with a thriving commercial empire that stretched from Spain to Sicily.

As the historian Polybius wrote in his account of the Punic Wars:

"The Carthaginians, both in Africa and in many other places, had acquired great wealth and reputation, and their city was in a most flourishing condition. They were in possession of all Africa, and many parts of Spain, and had also obtained dominion over all the islands in the Mediterranean Sea" (Polybius, The Histories, 1.7).

However, Carthage‘s power and prosperity would ultimately bring it into conflict with the rising might of Rome. In a series of wars spanning more than a century (the Punic Wars, 264-146 BCE), Rome and Carthage battled for supremacy in the western Mediterranean. The final defeat of Carthage in 146 BCE marked a turning point in the history of North Africa, as the region fell under the sway of a new imperial power.

To the east, the influence of the Greeks and Persians held sway in the centuries before Roman rule. Egypt, the oldest and most powerful state in the region, had been conquered by the Persians in 525 BCE, only to be taken by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. After Alexander‘s death, the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty would rule Egypt for the next three centuries, presiding over a period of great prosperity and cultural achievement.

Roman Conquest and Colonization

Rome‘s involvement in North Africa began with the First Punic War (264-241 BCE), a conflict with Carthage over control of Sicily. Although Rome emerged victorious, Carthage remained a formidable rival, and tensions between the two powers continued to simmer. In 149 BCE, Rome launched a final war against Carthage, which ended with the complete destruction of the city in 146 BCE. On the ruins of Carthage, the Romans established their first African province, known simply as "Africa."

Over the next century, Roman control expanded eastward to include the provinces of Numidia, Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), and Egypt, as well as westward into Mauretania (Morocco and western Algeria). The process of conquest was often brutal, as the Romans faced stiff resistance from local rulers like Jugurtha of Numidia (113-106 BCE) and Juba I of Mauretania (55-46 BCE). However, by the time of Julius Caesar‘s campaigns in Africa (47-46 BCE), most of North Africa had been brought under Roman sway.

To consolidate their hold on the region, the Romans established a network of colonies along the North African coast. Cities like Carthage, Leptis Magna, Oea (Tripoli), Sabratha, Cirta (Constantine), Caesarea (Cherchell), Tingis (Tangier), and Alexandria became thriving centers of trade and Roman culture. At the same time, the native peoples of North Africa, particularly the Berbers, were gradually Romanized, adopting Latin language and customs.

As the historian David Mattingly notes in his book "Tripolitania":

"The speed and apparent ease with which Tripolitania was incorporated into the Roman Empire is remarkable. In little more than a century, a region which had previously been on the periphery of Mediterranean civilization became one of the most prosperous and Romanized areas in the entire empire" (Mattingly, Tripolitania, p. 37).

The Breadbasket of the Empire

One of North Africa‘s most important roles in the Roman Empire was as an agricultural powerhouse. The region‘s fertile soil and Mediterranean climate made it ideally suited for growing wheat, olives, grapes, and other crops. During the height of the empire, North Africa supplied up to two-thirds of the grain consumed in Rome itself, earning it the nickname "the breadbasket of the empire."

The importance of North African agriculture to the Roman economy cannot be overstated. As the historian Paul Erdkamp writes in his book "The Grain Market in the Roman Empire":

"The province of Africa was the most important source of grain for the city of Rome in the first and second centuries AD. It has been estimated that Africa supplied 60 percent of the grain consumed in Rome during this period" (Erdkamp, The Grain Market in the Roman Empire, p. 243).

To meet this enormous demand, North African farmers developed sophisticated agricultural techniques, including crop rotation, irrigation, and the use of fertilizers. Large estates known as latifundia emerged, owned by wealthy landowners and worked by slaves and tenant farmers. The profits from these estates flowed back to Rome, enriching the imperial elite and funding grand building projects across the empire.

The agricultural wealth of North Africa also had a profound impact on the region‘s cities and infrastructure. To transport the immense quantities of grain and other goods to Rome and other parts of the empire, the Romans built an extensive network of roads, ports, and warehouses across North Africa. Cities like Leptis Magna and Carthage became major hubs of trade, with grand public buildings, luxurious villas, and bustling markets.

The Cities and Monuments of Roman Africa

The prosperity of Roman North Africa was reflected in the grandeur of its cities and monuments. From the shores of the Atlantic to the banks of the Nile, the region was dotted with magnificent temples, theaters, amphitheaters, baths, and other public buildings that rivaled those of Rome itself.

One of the most spectacular examples of Roman architecture in North Africa is the city of Leptis Magna, located on the coast of modern-day Libya. Founded by Phoenician colonists in the 7th century BCE, Leptis Magna reached its peak of prosperity under Roman rule, particularly during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 CE), who was born in the city.

Septimius lavished his hometown with imperial patronage, funding the construction of a magnificent new forum, basilica, and marketplace. The ruins of these buildings, which include towering columns, intricate mosaics, and colossal statues, still inspire awe today. As the historian Paul MacKendrick writes in his book "The North African Stones Speak":

"Leptis Magna is one of the most spectacular Roman sites in the Mediterranean. Its buildings, particularly those of the Severan period, are among the finest examples of Roman architecture to survive anywhere in the empire" (MacKendrick, The North African Stones Speak, p. 124).

Other cities in Roman North Africa boasted similarly impressive monuments. The amphitheater of El Jem in Tunisia, built in the 3rd century CE, could seat up to 35,000 spectators and rivaled the Colosseum in Rome for size and grandeur. The city of Caesarea in Mauretania (modern-day Algeria) was home to a magnificent theater, baths, and a royal palace built by King Juba II, a client ruler of Rome.

In Egypt, the Romans continued the building traditions of the Pharaohs and Ptolemies, constructing temples, palaces, and other monuments that blended Greco-Roman and Egyptian styles. The Temple of Horus at Edfu, built during the reign of Ptolemy III (246-222 BCE) and completed under the Romans, is one of the best-preserved ancient Egyptian temples, with towering pylons, intricate reliefs, and a majestic hypostyle hall.

The Severan Dynasty

The ultimate testament to North Africa‘s importance within the Roman Empire came in 193 CE with the accession of Septimius Severus, a native of Leptis Magna, to the imperial throne. Septimius and his descendants – the Severan Dynasty – would rule Rome for the next four decades, overseeing the empire at its height.

Septimius Severus was a skilled military commander who rose through the ranks of the army to become governor of Upper Pannonia (modern-day Hungary and parts of Austria and Croatia). In 193 CE, after the assassination of the emperor Pertinax, Septimius was proclaimed emperor by his troops and marched on Rome, defeating his rival claimants in a series of bloody civil wars.

As emperor, Septimius worked to strengthen the power of the military and centralize control over the empire. He also showered favor on his native North Africa, particularly Leptis Magna, which received a magnificent new forum, basilica, and marketplace during his reign.

Septimius was succeeded by his sons, Caracalla and Geta, who initially ruled as co-emperors before Caracalla had Geta murdered in 211 CE. Caracalla is best known for his edict of 212 CE, which granted Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire, a move that had a profound impact on the social and legal fabric of the Roman world.

After Caracalla‘s assassination in 217 CE, the Severan Dynasty continued with the reigns of Elagabalus (218-222 CE) and Alexander Severus (222-235 CE), both of whom were also of North African origin. However, their reigns were marked by increasing instability and military unrest, which would ultimately lead to the end of the dynasty and a period of crisis for the Roman Empire.

The End of Roman Africa

Tragically, the golden age of North Africa under Roman rule came to an end in the upheavals of the 5th century CE. In 429 CE, the Germanic Vandals crossed over from Spain and conquered the province of Africa, severing the region‘s ties to the Roman world. The Vandals established a kingdom centered on Carthage, which became a major maritime power in the Mediterranean.

The rest of North Africa would remain part of the Roman Empire (and later the Byzantine Empire) for another century, but the Vandal conquest marked the beginning of the end of Roman power in the region. In the 6th century CE, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I launched a series of campaigns to reconquer North Africa from the Vandals, but these gains were short-lived.

In the 7th century CE, North Africa was swept by the Arab Islamic conquests, which brought an end to centuries of Roman and Byzantine rule in the region. The new Arab rulers introduced Islam and the Arabic language to North Africa, which would have a profound impact on the region‘s culture and society in the centuries to come.


The story of Roman North Africa is one of the most fascinating and complex chapters in the history of the ancient world. From the destruction of Carthage to the rise of the Severan Dynasty, the region played a crucial role in the political, economic, and cultural life of the Roman Empire.

Through its bountiful agriculture, thriving cities, and magnificent monuments, Roman North Africa attained a level of prosperity and sophistication that rivaled any other part of the empire. The region‘s enduring legacy can still be seen today in the ruins of cities like Leptis Magna, Carthage, and Caesarea, which offer a glimpse into the splendor and complexity of this vanished world.

At the same time, the history of Roman North Africa is also a story of conquest, colonization, and cultural change, as the region was transformed by centuries of Roman rule. The gradual Romanization of North Africa‘s native peoples, particularly the Berbers, had a profound impact on the region‘s language, religion, and way of life, which would continue to shape North African society long after the fall of Rome.

As we study the history of Roman North Africa today, we are reminded of the enduring power of empires to shape the world around them, for better or for worse. Through the lens of this fascinating period, we can gain a deeper understanding of the complex forces that have shaped the modern world, and the ways in which the legacies of the past continue to resonate in the present.

Works Cited

  • Erdkamp, Paul. "The Grain Market in the Roman Empire." Cambridge University Press, 2005.
  • MacKendrick, Paul. "The North African Stones Speak." University of North Carolina Press, 1980.
  • Mattingly, David. "Tripolitania." University of Michigan Press, 1994.
  • Polybius. "The Histories." Translated by Robin Waterfield. Oxford University Press, 2010.