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.




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.

The land of the Libu

As with my last post, on Syria, these are, essentially holiday snaps. In November 2008 I was fortunate enough to  be in a position to visit Libya for the first time. I hope not the last.

Libya may not seem to be the most obvious holiday destination, but sites in the country are, or should be, on every ‘see before you die’ list. I was travelling with a group, as independent travel was very difficult, if not impossible, due to visa restrictions and the various other regulations then in force. Prior to travelling, I had to have my passport translated into Arabic and the prohibition on any alcoholic substances was very strictly enforced.

My travel primarily focussed on the coastal zones in both Tripolitania and Cyrenaica, part of the Green Mountain area and the Gulf of Sirt. This took a  number of important Phoenician, Greek and Roman sites, including the famous birthplace of the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, Lepcis Magna. We were also fortunate enough to stop off at a lesser known Facsist-era site, Medinat Sultan and the mysterious indigenous Libyan site of Aslonta (AKA Slonta). I’m very hopeful that I’ll be able to visit again in the future. I’d love  to get to Fezzan, Ghadames, Ubari, Garama, Ghirza,and maybe even Ghat.

Lepcis Magna

Arch of Septimius Severus Market Theatre Severan Forum

Leptis Magna 2 View through to Sevean Basilica (2) Nymphaeum Leptis Magna Severan Basilica

Scilla Severan Basilica (2)


View to Temple of Isis, Sabratha

Mausoleum of Bes, Sabratha CIMG0732


The Red Castle Museum in Tripoli (formerly called the Jamahiriya Museum)

Antinuous as Apollo

Antinuous as Apollo


The Four Seasons from The Villa Sileen

Athene (detail)

Athene noctua

Medusa Head The Four Seasons from The Villa Sileen (detail)



View of the Sanctuary of Apollo  CIMG1956 Sarcophogi

The Temple of Zeus


Fortified Church

House of Pillars 4 CIMG1400 House of Pillars 1 (2)




CIMG2634  CIMG2614

The harbour front is gradually being taken by the sea.



Slonta (2)

Qasr Libya

'A duck perched on a crocodile' (detail)

'The River Tigris' and 'A duck perched on a crocodile' 'Horseman' and 'Church'

Medinat Sultan


CIMG2738 CIMG2730 CIMG2739