Rome in Africa: Africa in Rome – Fun and games

Even a cursory glance through this blog will tell you that I’ve been working on a project to digitize the Roman gaming equipment held at the Museum of London’s archaeological archive, the LAARC. Recently I’ve been caught up in a Twitter convo all about Roman gaming boards. You know how these things start; person 1 posts a photo of a gaming board they’ve seen somewhere; person 2 tweets that person 3 is interested in those; person 3 says thanks, and here’s another one; person 4 posts a photo of another one they saw when they were on holiday, etc etc.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the various entertainments available to Roman North Africans. Some of these will be well known, as they leave big showy monuments all over the place. Some of them perhaps a little less so.

Let’s start with something big and showy


We’ve all heard about Roman amphitheatres, this one at El Djem, and the shenanigans that went on in them. People killing people, people killing animals, animals killing people, animals killing animals, animals and people kill…you get the picture.

St.Augustine, in Book 6 of his Confessions, tells of a pious man turned on to a rabid bloodlust by his, initially unwilling, attendence at the amphitheatre.  And Seneca describes the particularly gruesome display of criminal executions and the brutalising influence of this form of entertainment on the spectators:

“In the morning, men are thrown to lions and bears. At mid-day they are thrown to the spectators themselves. No sooner has a man killed, than they shout for him to kill another, or to be killed. The final victor is kept for some other slaughter. In the end, every fighter dies. And all this goes on while the arena is half empty.
You may object that the victims committed robbery or were murderers. So what? Even if they deserved to suffer, what’s your compulsion to watch their sufferings? ‘Kill him’, they shout, ‘Beat him, burn him’. Why is he too timid to fight? Why is he so frightened to kill? Why so reluctant to die? They have to whip him to make him accept his wounds”*

One of the Roman things we always hear about in popular culture is ‘Christians being thrown to the Lions’. Well, it’s true that some Christians were thrown to some animals or other, but most of the executions that took place in the amphitheatre were of criminals who had, in some way, threatened the state, you know, murderers, deserters and prisoners-of-war, people making hookie money, and also lower-class criminals.
I think that I’ll just get all that slaughter out of the way early on. Here, from El Djem Museum, is an example of ‘animals and people killing people’. Ouch!


This scene (similar in theme to the one above) from the National Museum in Tripoli (formerly the Jamahiriya Museum) purports to show a Garamantian rebel being executed by being torn to pieces by wild beasts.


And, from the Bardo, Tunis, ‘animals killing animals’.


This mosaic, again from the Bardo, gives a flavour of how all those animals got to the amphitheatre.


Exotic wild beasts were rounded up en mass, many from areas in North Africa and shipped to amphitheatres around the Mediterranean for the entertainment of the masses and the promotion of the sponsors. These beast hunts drove some animal species to the brink of extinction in North Africa, so voracious was the appetite for this kind of entertainment. Even ostriches were rounded up and transported to the amphitheatre.


Some of the animals, as well as the gladiators, seem to have become quite well known. This mosaic from the excellent museum at Sousse (Roman Hadrumentum) reads like an advertisement for the top beasts and bestarii (animal fighters).


And, of course, no look at amphitheatres would be complete without a quick look at gladiators, so here are a couple of views of the stunning ‘Fallen Gladiator’ mosaic from the Villa Lebda in Libya (now housed at Lepcis Magna). Here we see the victorious gladiator, sitting in a state of exhaustion, beside his defeated opponent.



While the Roman citizens (and others) enjoyed all this amphitheatrical fun, it wasn’t the most popular public entertainment. The award for that must go to the gee-gees.


Chariot racing was what really got the populace going, with people following their favourite teams in the same way that they might with Formula 1 racing today.


(above) From the Bardo, Tunis

It’s this mass popularity, and the political advantage that could be leveraged from it, that inspired Juvenal’s famous ‘bread and circuses’ phrase. Passions ran so high that in Constantinople, modern Istanbul, a dispute between rival fans resulted in a week-long riot that wrecked nearly half the city and left thousands of people dead! They really knew how to enjoy themselves, those Romans.

A visit to the circus at Lepcis Magna in Libya, provides an opportunity to see the scale of the track and to view some features which still exist in situ.


It’s huge! And that’s without the stands and all the other horse-racey paraphernalia.


Here are the starting gates


Here is the view along central reservation, the spina.


At Lepcis there is still some of the seating in place, but it’s even clearer at the circus at Cyrene, in eastern Libya.


Images of racing were popular in mosaics and frescos.

Here, from the Villa Sileen, Libya.

Sileen 1 (1)

And from the Bardo, some champion horses


But Romans enjoyed other entertainments too. This is the theatre at Sabratha, Libya. I should say that there is quite a lot of 1930s Italian concrete involved in this reconstructed structure, but it’s still great.



And here is the theatre at Lepcis. Sitting in the top tier today, we’d have a beautiful view out over the Mediterranean, but when the theatre was in use in the Roman period, the theatre buildings behind the stage would have obscured that view.


Aside from all this bombastic public entertainment, people in Roman North Africa amused themselves in a range of ways, most of which we would be familiar with today.

There’s drinking.


Raving it up (with Bacchus).




Hanging out with their mates.



And fighting.

Sileen 1 (2)

But going back to my starting point, Roman board games.


Tucked away in the various museums associated with sites are little gems of evidence about board games and games of chance played at home or in the street. The various blog posts headed “Roman counter culture” give a flavour of the counters and dice found in London, but here are three from Sitifis, modern Setif, in Algeria. The two to the right are made from the vertebrae of fishes.

And gaming boards; here from Timgad, Algeria


And a couple from Dougga in Tunisia.



Obviously, now I’m going to be looking for these everywhere I go. If I see any that are particularly special, I’ll add them to this post.

More on Roman North Africa next time.



Roman Counter Culture: Game over

Well, we’ve come to the last week of our Roman gaming counters project (for now anyway), and this week has been filled with frothy frivolity.

Obviously what might be considered ‘frothy frivolity’ is relative. In this case, I refer to a day spent digitising a number of dice made from a range of materials, not just the animal bone we’ve been working on so far. This gave us an opportunity to ascertain which materials are most suited to this process and how the different materials  show up in the digital scans.

Guy was still working on this sad specimen


But he did actually get it looking respectable. Good work Guy.

I started off with this copper die.


It doesn’t really look like copper, neither in the scan nor in the flesh, but I am assured (by the label) that copper it is.


Guy also had a die that looked pretty similar


The difference in weight is telling though. My die weighed about 1.5 grams whereas Guy’s was over 4 grams. Why? Guy’s is made from lead (it’s ok, we’re wearing gloves).


Lead on the left, copper on the right.

I also had this gorgeous (possibly) jet die. It’s a stunner.


I say ‘possibly’ because there are a number of materials that are very like jet, and look like jet, and are often used in the same ways as jet, but aren’t actually jet. Without carrying out destructive tests on the die, we can’t really tell which this is. The die is in very good condition and (I believe) it was found in a funerary context so it’s possible that there may be some cultural, ritual or other significance in the use of the material*.

I tried and tried to scan this die, but it just didn’t work very well. Not only is the the black too dark on the background, it’s also, somehow, too dense. It’s ended up looking like the Borg cube. This die will have to be photographed on a lighter background.


During this project we’ve been recording each die according its numbering arrangement. For a solid (1 piece) six-sided die with ‘Standard’ numbering (i.e. with the values of opposing sides equaling 7) there are 16 possible variants in the exact layout and orientation of the pips.


For a last little experiment, Glynn gave us an assembledge of tiny dice which were found together with bone-working waste, and which are thought to be evidence of a production centre. They’re not Roman. They’re medieval.


They’ve been registered as a single find, but Glynn wanted us to have a look at each die individually. Specifically to look at the pip-arrangement. Pretty quickly it became obvious that these all have the same, Type 16′ arrangement which, together with the observations about the find spot including the presence of bone-working waste, starts to raise questions about modes of production.

Looking very closely, we could see the tool marks from the tool (awl?) for making the pips. It appears that the production of dice had, by this time, become more standardised, including the standardisation of the pip layout and orientations. Apparently, at this workshop, there was only one way to (make a) die.


Several of the dice are burnt. You can see the differences in colour in the image above. The white one on the right is fully burnt, the dark one on the left is somewhat singed and the one at the top is undamaged.

We’ll be investigating all of this a bit further, as we will be revisiting this project next year (probably February/March). We’ve digitised about half the dice in the LAARC collection and we’re keen to produce a complete set of digital records.

Finally from me, during the day we also had a super-special, very mysterious secret object. It’s so mysterious that I’m not even going to tell you what it is. You may consider me a little naughty for tantalising you with the unfulfilled promise of something very special, but if you’re really that interested I’d suggest that you get yourself along to the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (TRAC 2015) at the University of Leicester on 27th-29th March 2015. Glynn will be giving a talk on the object. I’m not sure of the specific slant yet, but it’s bound to be good (TRAC is really good in any case, so do go).

Alla prossima


* Finds specialist Lindsay Allason-Jones has produced this short paper on jet and shale and there are some references to follow up if you’re interested in jet and jet-like materials:

Rome in Africa: Africa in Rome – Do you know where you’re going to?

 First things first. I should fess up straight away that the title of this new occasional-if-I-can-be-bothered series has been shamelessly plagiarised from a study day I attended at UCL recently. My excuse is that the study day got me thinking about a possible new blog series and it sums up perfectly the relationship between the Empire and its southern provinces.

So for my first post of this if-I-can-be-bothered series, I turn my gaze on the roads and routes of Roman North Africa. I might also bung in a  gateway for good measure. So, where and why did the people of Roman North Africa travel? How did people get from here to there? And how do we know what we know?

Let’s start with the last question. How do we know? Well, amongst others things, we have the late Roman equivalent of the AA Route Planner, the Tabula Peutingeriana, the Peutinger Map (this is just a bit of North Africa, but the map covers the whole empire).


This is a late Roman work, preserved in a single medieval copy, now housed in the Austrian National Library in Vienna.

Looking at the map, you can see that it isn’t really what we would recognise as a map. It doesn’t purport to be a realistic depiction of space and it doesn’t really show the geographical relationships between places. Rather, it’s a sort of schematic showing how to get to places. A network, if you like. It shows road networks, rivers and mountain ranges. Towns and cities are named and some are indicated by pictorial symbols, incuding images of ramparts, fortifications and turreted buildings. And, crucially, distances between them.

Here’s the section showing the city of Bulla Regia, in Roman Numidia, now in modern Tunisia, and the east-west road running through it.


And here’s the road.


It might look a bit rough and ready now, but this was a major road running from Carthage to Hippo Regius (in modern Algeria), and was a good quality paved road. It even had high bevelled curbs to protect buildings from getting bashed by passing carts.


The site has several well-made roads making up its grid plan.


Travelling on a  road like this was a significant step up from a dirt track and, with North Africa being such an important region in early Christianity, roads like these made it possible for important figures in the early Christian church to travel around relatively quickly and easily, spreading their word. St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius, for example, passed through Bulla Regia in the late 4th century and had a go at the locals for going to the theatre (and for other naughty things too).

And when St. Augustine went home to Hippo Regius,


he would have walked on this beautifully paved road.


The Roman city, an expansion of the earlier Phoenician city, had all the usual mod-Rom-cons, including drainage, a public water supply and properly constructed roads. You can still see the ruts made by countless cart-wheels.


Roads in the Roman world created the possibility of inter-connectedness. Even a place on the other side of the empire was, theoretically, within reach.

In the ancient world, a significant proportion of long-distance travel was by water; river or sea. This was how the vast quantities of commodities, wheat, olive oil, slaves, etc, were exported from production and distribution sites in North Africa  to other places around the Mediterranean. Another aspect of the connected empire.

The harbour at Apollonia, in the east of modern Libya, was the port of the great Greek, and later Roman city of Cyrene.


The site is slowly disappearing under the water, the victim of rising sea levels and erosion. Even so, it is still possible to see the remains of the busy harbour. These include harbour-front facilities like storage vats, shops, quays etc,



and also the major works like moles and sea walls.



Cyrene, via Apollonia had strong trade links with Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, but also served points along the southern Mediterranean and as far as Rome itself. A key export from this region was Silphium, a now-(probably)-extinct member of the fennel family, which was highly prized in the ancient world.

Before I finish, here’s that gateway.


This is the Tocra Gate at Ptolemais, also in eastern Libya (western Cyrenaica).


This was the entrance into the city from the roads to the east and here we can evidence of comings and going. And also of hangings around.

The inner wall of the gateway is covered with etched graffiti,


some of it not so old, but some very old indeed. Although I frown on vandalism, I still love the idea that we have here the marks of people coming and going over a millennium and a half. Traders and travellers passing though; bored squaddies supposed to be on guard, whittling their names into the walls for posterity to see.


Markos woz ‘ere.


If you’re interested in mapping the ancient world, there’s a good round up of resources here – . You can also have a look at the Ancient World Mapping Center.

Roman Counter Culture: Live and Let Die (pl. ~ce)

Algeria was marvellous and I even managed to spot some gaming equipment while I was there, but now I’m back :D and back at the LAARC.

So, dice.

John and Guy have kindly saved some dice for me to digitize, although they (accidentally) saved the dodgy ones ;)

Getting back into the swing of the project was fun, and I deliberately chose a little challenge for myself this week. Did I say ‘little challenge’? I mean teeny tiny challenge.

This is my first die. It’s really small.


Here it is next to an ordinary staple remover so you can see just how really small it is.


Jokes abounded about travel Ludo and the like but, in all seriousness,  I can’t help but wonder what game this was used for. It’s barely visible to the naked eye!

Still, I like a challenge…

While I fiddled about with the smallest die in all the land, John was looking a bit green.


His die, which is also made from animal bone, must have been next to some object or substance that has turned it completed green (perhaps something made from copper).

However, it was Guy’s die that gave us all the best laugh this week.


The maker seems to have a little problem with pip-placement. Was this the first effort of a hopelessly incompetant apprentice? The result of a little too worshiping Bacchus at lunchtime ? Or just Dies Veneris (Friday).

The 5 face is just the most obvious train-wreck, but all the faces are wobbly.


Still, it has six-sides, albeit is a wide range of shapes and sizes, and all the numbers are there so, despite it’s cock-eyed-ness, it is actually a standard die.

This, however, is not.


Hmm. Looks a bit stone-like, doesn’t it? Here’s another couple of images.

Yes. Definitely stone-like.

It’s a stone.

Anyone who has ever dug an archaeological site will know how this happens in the field. You’re down a hole in the ground, up to your knees in mud, you can’t feel your fingers and it looks like rain. What’s this? Something vaguely cuboid. Just put it in the tray and we’ll look at in later, in the site hut.

Mind you, I think that I’m going to have to have another look at it. Having this larger image has made me wonder whether I can see the hint of a single pip in this face.


This might just be the ‘eye of faith’, but it ‘s better to check. Magnifying glass at the ready.

Next week is the last week scheduled for this pilot project so I’ll probably have a few frivolities to share.


Hail, Fellow Travellers

To anyone reading this, this blog post is basically aimed at about 6 people (you know who you are). Anyone else, these are a few pictures from my little jaunt to Algeria. You’re very welcome to have a look at the pretty pictures, so please don’t feel left out :D .

 First things first. Cats!



Algeria seems to be the perfect holiday destination for Crazy Cat People. It’s full of cats and people who love cats :D .





Awww, look at the lovely puddy-tats :D



Oh yeah, and humans!


Here’s Kamar in relaxed mode.



The one and only Mozabite who actually wanted his photo taken. He’s a peach :D


Immortalising the new BFFs.


This lovely Algerian family were visiting Timgad at the same time as us :D




At school


Food (nom, nom).




Preparing our delicious (vegetarian!) lunch in Ouargla.




A lovely cuppa tea at Hammam Meskoutine


and freshly boiled aggs too.


These look nice, but a bit wasp-y.


And this abomination from Air France.


Shops, and shopkeepers.



The most beautiful greengrocer’s shop in all the land.


The Naughty Shop




The old world…



A brilliant olive oil press from Madauros. There are a few bits missing, but loads of it is there.



P1310977. P1310938.



The Mithraeum at Khemissa (Thubursicum Numidarum).


…and the new.





And a camel for luck.


Roman counter culture: Gaming on the go

I haven’t been at the LAARC this week due to being on my travels but don’t think that I’ve forgotten the marvellous digitisation project.

At all the Roman sites I’ve visited I’ve been on the lookout for any gaming equipment. I thought that Glynn, Guy and John might be interested in having a look at it.

Unfortunately, although I have seen some very nice and interesting gaming counters, in Algeria photography is not allowed in most of the museums. I say ‘most’ because today I struck lucky. At the small but perfectly-formed museum at Setif it was possible to purchase a ticket that allowed photography :D . I managed to find just three counters in the museum (in a case full of Roman bone hairpins!) so here they are.

This one is a convex bone counter with a dot-and-ring design.


These next two are made from the vertebrae of fish!



After leaving Setif we visited the Roman city at Timgad, Thamugadi. Founded in the first century CE under the Emperor Trajan, this was a prosperous site housing veterans and civilians, with a large theatre, baths, temples and a library.
But of particular interest in the context of this post is this…


It’s a gaming board!

We had a go at playing, which involved selecting a hole as a target and then trying to pitch a small stone into it from behind the line. Obviously I was rubbish at it, but it was good fun.

I’ll post any more gaming equipment that I can but for now, “marsalama”.