It has often been said that Romans had, and inspired, ‘the epigraphic habit‘. Put (very) simply, they liked to write stuff down. They wrote on scrolls and books, on buildings, in mosaics, on memorials and dedications, on personal objects and on public monuments.
It’s debatable how many people would have been able to read all of this writing but things like personal and place name, and simple phrases of the ‘this is mine’ and ‘I made this’ variety may have been recognizable to many people who may otherwise be considered illiterate*.
To be in a place and see its name inscribed is great. Spending time in North Africa with, often, Arabic overtones to everyday culture, it can be a bit too easy to forget that you are not, in fact, in the Middle East (I’ve heard North African countries referred to as ‘Middle Eastern’ on a surprising number of occasions). So, just to remind us all of where we are…
This is Africa. OK?
And this one names one of the specific Roman provinces of Africa,
‘PROVINCIAE NUMIDIAE’. Numidia.
Now that we’ve got the straight, let’s get a bit more specific. Many of the North African cities enjoyed high status. Some were veteran colonies or trade hubs which prospered because of the many trading opportunities available, and several were treated to visits from one Emperor or another. Never known for their reticence when it came to blowing their own trumpets, the Roman citizens of these cities loved to commemorate any big occasion, visit, achievement or fancy new building with an inscription, and these inscriptions have provided us with the names and statuses of the towns and cities during the Roman period.
Timgad, in modern Algeria, was founded by the Emperor Trajan around 100CE as a veteran colony for Parthian veterans. Its full name, ‘COLONIA MARCIANA ULPIA TRAIANA THAMUGADI.
And these inscriptions from modern Djemila, confirms its status, ‘COLONIA’, and the Roman name ‘CUICUL’.
Here, this arched architectural element from a public fountain at Simitthus (Chemtou ) in Tunisia, with a dedication to the emperor Marcus Aurelius from the people of the city – ‘POPVLO SIMITTVENSI’.
And there is this dedication set up on behalf of the people of the ‘COL[ONIA] SABRAT[A]’ (Sabratha) in Libya, to thank L. AEMILIUS QUINTUS, for his good works on behalf of the city.
Spot the city name?
It looks to me like this monument has been reused, as the inscribed panel looks like an earlier inscription has been chipped away. Perhaps L. Aemilius Quintus had outdone an earlier good citizen.
Other commemorations include this beautifully intact (hopefully still intact) and in-situ dedication to the Emperor Augustus from the theatre at Lepcis Magna, Libya.
This reads, in full:
IMP(ERATORE) CAESARE DIVI F(ILIO) AUG(USTO) PONT(IFICE) MAX(IMO) TR(IBUNICIA) POT(ESTATE) XXIV
CO(N)S(ULE) XIII PATRE PATR(IAE)
ANNOBAL ORNATOR PATRIAE AMATOR CONCORDIAE
FLAMEN SUFES PRAEF(ECTUS) SACR(ORUM) HIMILCHONIS TAPAPI F(ILIUS) RUFUS
D(E)S(UA) P(ECUNIA) FAC(IENDUM) COER(AVIT) IDEMQ(UE) DEDICAVIT
When Emperor Caesar Augustus, son of the deified (Caesar), chief priest, was ()holding tribunician power for the twenty-fourth time, consul for the thirteenth, father of the country, Annobal, adorner of his country, lover of concord, flamen, sufete, in charge of sacred things, son of Himilcho Tapapius Rufus, saw to the construction at his own expense and also dedicated it.
So the building has been, quite properly, dedicated to the Emperor, but Annobal, the man who stumped up the cash, also gets his big-up, “adorner of his country, lover of concord, flamen, sufete, in charge of sacred things, son of Himilcho Tapapius Rufus”. And just to emphasize that ‘lover of concord’ bit,
As the Roman administration established new, and extended existing trade and communications networks across Africa, road signs and distance markers increasingly became a feature. Here are three examples, the first from near Simithus (Chemtou) in Tunisia, and the second found on the road from Oea (Tripoli) to Fezzan, but currently in the National Museum of Antiquities, Tripoli, Libya, and the third from Cuicul (Djemila) in Algeria.
The other thing that Romans liked to commemorate was themselves. Grave markers are an important source of information about individuals living, especially, in the towns and cities. There are loads of these at various sites (I was going to say ‘hundreds’ but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s ‘thousands’). We have to be a little bit careful with these because, in the first place, the wording on grave markers can be quite formulaic. We still see “rest in peace”, “went to sleep” on many gravestones now and these kinds of standard phrases were also common in the past. Secondly, the wording on gravestones is not necessarily decided by the deceased person themselves (although it sometimes does seem to be). Gravestones are, for obvious reasons, set up by those people surviving the deceased; family members, friends, etc., and they can sometimes say as much about those people as about the deceased person.
With that in mind, here’s a “rest in peace” inscription from Hadrumentum (Sousse in Tunisia), dedicated to the Christians, ‘CHRISTIANI CIVES HADRUMENTINI FRATRIBUS‘ interred in one of the four large catacombs of the city. Can you pick out ‘DORMIUNT IN PACE’?
Inside the catacombs each burial niche could have had its own personal dedication with some being more formal than others. This fragment of a scratched dedication survives in-situ.
While this complete, and much smarter, inscription has been removed to the Sousse Museum.
The presence of the group inscription seems to suggest a strong shared identity as Christians alongside their individual and familial identities.
My other favourite memorial is this carved and inscribed, in Greek, tombstone from Ptolemias, in eastern Libya.
This is the memorial to the gladiator, Hermes, ‘ЕΡМНϹ‘. He is shown in his ‘stage’ costume as a Retiarius; a lightly-armed gladiator who carried a trident and net. The ‘net-fighter’ made up for his lack of armour and heavy weaponry by being quick and agile, so our ЕΡМНϹ reflects some of the attributes of the divine Hermes – fast, lithe and cunning. Protector of athletes and as tricky as you like. The inscription tells us that he won eight of his bouts but he seems to have died in the ninth. Still, he must have made a few bob otherwise he wouldn’t have been able to pay of this lovely tombstone.
Many military roles survive, but in the case of this one you can see that some references have been erased.
These are references pertaining to the Third Legion Augusta, which was stationed at Lambaesis in modern Algeria. Its name has been erased because it backed the losing side in one of the many succession squabbles that went on during the Empire (the side they backed was, arguably, the ‘right’ side, but the winners get to write the histories, eh?).
With Roman culture came an increase in urban living. That’s not to say that North Africa didn’t already have its own cities before the Romans. It did. Many of the cities we may now think of as Roman had their origins much earlier, either as Pheonician or Numidian towns and cities. However, Roman culture did push an idea of urbanization which meant that more and more people lived in closer and closer proximity. This lifestyle necessitated a greater emphasis on personal security and one manifestation of this was the practice of people writing their names on their personal possessions. Here are two pot-sherds from the museum at Timgad, Algeria.
We see examples of this on military sites in Britain, where large numbers of men (it is usually men) find themselves living in close proximity and want to prevent their stuff from getting nicked. The inscriptions are usually of the ‘ This bowl belongs to…’ type, but they do vary.
Most of these inscriptions we’ve seen so far have been in Latin, with a little bit of Greek thrown in, but here are a few bilingual inscriptions and inscriptions in scripts which I can even begin to decipher.
To start, I’ll go back to that dedication at the theatre at Lepcis. Here’s a closer look at some of the text. The bottom 2 lines are written in Neo-Punic and are a literal translation of the Latin above.
Here’s some more Neo-Punic. This is a building dedication of the Forum at Lepcis Magna, Libya, to the Emperor Claudius.
Look down at the bottom of the stela.
These few lines of Neo-Punic basically repeat what the Latin says (you can see the transcriptions and translations in the IRT site). This shows just how compact a script Neo-Punic is compared to Latin. It’s a semitic language and the inscribed form has no vowels.
This stone, now in the Archaeological Museum in Algiers, is written in a local script, Numidian? Berber Tifinagh? Anyway, I have no idea what it says.
There is also this stone from Chemtou in Tunisia, written in Libyco-Berber. The museum has a handy guide to the script which, to be honest, hasn’t made me any wiser.
And so, to bring the epigraphic habit up to date…
(or almost up to date. Obviously this sort of thing is no longer de rigeur in Libya)
The Colonel. Pre-2011, Libyan towns, cities and highways were peppered with billboard posters like this one, commemorating the revolution of 1969, which brought Colonel Ghaddafi to power.
Some more recent political sloganeering in Tunisia.
And a final word from football-mad Algeria.
* I must confess that I am one of those near-illiterates who can pick out names and the ‘this is mine’ and ‘I did this’ stuff, but I’ve had help for this post from the brilliant ‘The Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania‘ website created by King’s College, and also the scarily extensive Epigraphic Database Heidelberg.
NB. I’ve been a bit rubbish at putting all the references in for these inscriptions (with links to the appropriate website) as I’ve been going along, but I’m working on it so if you’re particularly interested in one of them, do check back, as I’ll add in as many of them as I can find as quickly as I can.