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.


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