The Country of the Algerines commonly called the Kingdom of Algiers, hath, since it became subject to the Turks, been one of the most considerable districts of that part of Africa which the later Ages have known by the
Name of Barbary. (..) In Barbary I rarely carried along with me more than three
Spahees, and a Servant; all of us well armed though
we were Sometimes obliged to augment our Numbers, particularly when we travelled among the independent Arabs,
upon the Frontiers of the neighbouring Kingdoms, or where
two contiguous Clans were at Variance. (..)
However, to prevent as much as possible the falling into
their Hands, the greatest Safety for a Traveller, at all Times,
is to be disguised in the Habit of the Country, or dressed like
one of his Spahees. For the Arabs are very jealous and
inquisitive; suspecting all Strangers to be Spies, and sent
to take a Survey of those Lands, which, at one Time or
other, (as they have been taught to fear), are to be restored
to the Christians.
Thomas Shaw - Travels, or, observations relating to several parts of Barbary and the Levant - 1738
This section is based on a June 2017 guided tour of some ancient Roman towns of Algeria. Because of the political situation of the country and of terrorism threats, travels to many archaeological sites were escorted by police and agreed itineraries had to be complied with. Visits to some locations, e.g. Theveste (Tebessa), were not included in the tour because of security concerns; notwithstanding these restrictions we managed to see a sizeable sample of ancient Roman monuments and works of art in Central and Eastern Algeria.
Detail from the 1851 Longman's Map of Ancient Northern Africa. Blue dots indicate the sites covered in this section. Red dots indicate towns which are covered in another section, namely Bulla, Sicca, Carthage and Sufetula. Pink indicates the Province of Mauretania, green that of Numidia and yellow that of Africa
The word Africa was at first applied by the Romans to that portion of it
with which they were best acquainted, the Africa Propria, or Africa Provincia,
corresponding roughly to the Carthaginian territory erected into a Roman
province after the third Punic war, B.C. 146. (..) Next followed Numidia, corresponding to part of the French province of
From Numidia to the Atlantic the country was known generally as Mauretania. (..) Subsequently, about A.D. 297 it was divided into Mauretania
Setifensis, from Numidia to Icosium (Algiers); Mauretania Cesariensis,
thence to the Molochath River, and Mauretania Tingitana; corresponding roughly
to the French provinces of Algiers and Oran, and the Empire of Morocco.
John Murray - Handbook for Travellers in Algeria and Tunis - 1878
Archaeological Museum of Algiers: (left) very ancient desert rock carvings; (right) carvings by Tuareg people
The Southern Atlas, a range of mountains parallel to the Mediterranean Sea shore, but at a distance of some eighty miles, protects the coastal regions of Algeria from the Sahara Desert. Rock carvings indicate that in prehistoric times the ecosystem of the latter was that of savannahs which today can be found at very much lower latitudes; it was marked by extended grasslands with small woods and it housed very large mammals such as rhinoceroses and elephants. Similar carvings were found also in sections of Sahara inside the Republic of Libya. More recent carvings were made by the Tuaregs, a nomadic people who controlled trade across the desert until the XIXth century; they developed their own alphabet.
500 Dinars Algerian note: (left) Tomb of Massinissa near Constantine (ancient Cirta); (right) Hannibal routing the Romans at Cannae
The Romans came into contact with Algeria during the Punic Wars when they looked for allies in their fight against the Carthaginians who had founded a series of ports of calls for their ships along the coast of the country. In general their settlements had only trading purposes and were very small from a territorial point of view. The rulers of the indigenous tribes were usually in good terms with the Carthaginians and they fought at their side against the Romans, but they were split into two main rival groups. In 204 BC Massinissa, the ambitious leader of one of these groups, joined forces with Roman Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio in order to expand his territories. In return for his help, in particular that of his cavalrymen, the Romans supported him in establishing the Kingdom of Numidia with Cirta as its capital. During his long reign Massinissa expanded his possessions to the detriment of Carthage. In 149 BC his raids led to the Carthaginian reaction and eventually to the Third Punic War. His tomb near Cirta perhaps had the aspect of a reconstructed mausoleum at Thugga, at the time a Numidian possession. The image used as background for this page is based on a coin showing Massinissa (Museum of Constantine).
Mausoleum of the Mauretanian Kings near Tipasa
The Roman conquest of Algeria began as a reaction to the initiatives of Jugurtha, a grandson of Massinissa who waged war against his cousins to acquire full control of the Kingdom of Numidia. In doing so he harmed Roman merchants and a war erupted during which Jugurtha initially managed to check the Roman advance; he was eventually forced to flee and sought refuge with Bocchus, his father-in-law and chief of the Mauri, tribes living in western Algeria. Bocchus instead handed Jugurtha to the Romans and was rewarded by them with a part of Numidia and by being recognized as King of Mauretania.
In 46 BC Julius Caesar defeated at Thapsus, near today's Monastir, an army of supporters of Pompey with whom Juba I, King of Numidia, had sided. He then annexed that kingdom to the Roman Empire.
In 33 BC the heir of Bocchus donated Mauretania to Octavian, but in 25 BC the first Roman Emperor chose to assign it to Juba II, son of Juba I, who had been brought up in Rome. The capital of the kingdom was set at Caesarea Mauretaniae (to distinguish it from other towns by the same name, e.g. those in Israel and Turkey), today's Cherchell.
A large round mausoleum on a commanding position near the coast is believed to have been built for the Kings of Mauretania.
Museum of Cherchell: Kings of Mauretania: (left) Juba II; (centre) Cleopatra Selene, daughter of the Egyptian Queen and Antony and wife of Juba II; (right) Juba II
Ptolemy, son of Juba II, succeeded his father in 23 AD. He was a relative of Emperor Caligula through his mother, but according to Suetonius in 40 AD: After inviting Ptolemy to come from his kingdom and receiving him with honour, Caligula suddenly had him executed for no other reason than that when giving a gladiatorial show, he noticed that Ptolemy on entering the theatre attracted general attention by the splendour of his purple cloak. (The Twelve Caesars - Loeb Classical Library).
This was the end of the Kingdom of Mauretania which Emperor Claudius annexed to the Empire and split into the provinces of Mauretania Caesariensis with capital at Caesarea and Mauretania Tingitana with capital at Tingit, today's Tangiers, in Morocco.
Cuicul (today's Djemila): Arch across Cardo Maximus, the main south-north street of the town
The Romans had a firm control over coastal towns, less so over inland territories. The Atlas range formed a barrier against the advance of the desert sands, but it did not prevent nomadic tribes, similar to the Libyan Garamantes to raid the plains between the mountains and the coast. The Roman Empire was confronted with a similar issue in Syria and Palestine. Emperor Trajan developed an overall strategy to protect these Roman territories. It was based on increasing farming through distribution of land to veterans and on building a series of fortifications at the edge of the desert. He relocated Legio III Augusta at Lambaesis, a fortress at the southernmost point of the mountains. He promoted the foundation and development of towns such as Thamugadi and Cuicul and the construction of roads to favour trade and make military deployments more rapid.
Museum of Cherchell: detail of the Mosaic of Farming Activities
(Some) men delight in steeping themselves
in their brothers' blood, changing sweet home and hearth for exile,
and seeking a country that lies under an alien sun.
The farmer has been ploughing the soil with curving blade:
it's his year's work, it's sustenance for his little grandsons,
and his country, his herds of cattle and his faithful oxen.
There's no rest, but the season is rich in fruit
or his herds produce, or Ceres's wheat sheaves
burden the furrows with their load, and fill the barns.
Virgil - Georgics - Book II - Translated by A. S. Kline.
Agriculture was paramount to the ancient Romans. It was not just a matter of economic activity: being a farmer was regarded as the more appropriate occupation for a free man. A number of treatises provided advice on good agricultural practices, including the appropriate size of an economically viable farm. Numidia and Mauretania were successful in becoming main providers of agricultural surpluses to other parts of the Empire, and this achievement was depicted in many very fine floor mosaics.
The frictions between the inhabitants of Numidia and Mauretania of local origin and those who came from Rome were reduced in 212 when Emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all the freemen of the Empire. His father Septimius Severus was born at Leptis Magna in today's Libya and his mother at Emesa, today's Homs, in Syria. They represented the new emerging provincial classes who had little ties with Rome and because of this they were particularly popular in Numidia and Mauretania.
Museum of Annaba (ancient Hippo Regius): detail of the Mosaic of the Four Nereids
The farmer chanted by Virgil and idealized by other Roman writers was the owner of an estate of 65 acres/25 hectares which according to Cato the Elder would employ a total manpower of sixteen. Over time these small farms were unable to compete in the marketplace and their owners went bankrupt. They were bought by rich landowners and sometimes the farmer sold himself and his family too. This development led to the creation of large estates where the residence of the landlord was decorated with marbles and mosaics. The best known example of these countryside mansions is Villa Romana del Casale in Sicily; its floor mosaics were made by craftsmen from the province of Africa. Numidia and Mauretania too had highly skilled mosaic makers.
Museum of Timgad (ancient Thamugadi): (left/centre) stelae portraying at the top Saturn/Baal between Sun and Moon/Tanit; (right) stela portraying Mercury
Although the Carthaginians limited themselves to commercial settlements along the coast their gods were assimilated by the local tribes to their own deities. In particular Baal and Tanit were worshipped in many towns of Numidia (this occurred at Thugga and Thuburbo Majus too). Eventually Baal was Romanized into Saturn and the Sun was added to the initial couple. The reliefs at Thamugadi call to mind that of Bel (Baal) between Aglibol (Moon) and Malakbel (Sun) which was found near Palmyra.
The depiction of Mercury/Hermes on a stela is a reference to the role the god had in escorting the souls to the Underworld as shown in the Euphronios Krater found at Cerveteri.
Archaeological Museum of Algiers: (above) Sarcophagus of the Miracles from Dellys; (below-left) window of a confessional (Vth century); (below-centre) relief portraying Moses striking water from the stone; (below-right) relief portraying Daniel in the lions' den
are also two sarcophagi of the early
days of Christianity, discovered at
Dellys. One has sculptured representations of Daniel in the lions' den, and
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in
the furnace (see this biblical account in a sarcophagus found at S. Sebastiano fuori le Mura in Rome). The second is much finer,
and contains representations of several
scenes in New Testament history, such
as the miracle of Cana in Galilee, of
the loaves and fishes, etc. Each
scene is placed between two Corinthian
twisted columns. Murray
The early Christian presence in this part of northern Africa is attested by the writings of Tertullian, a Christian author who was born at Carthage in ca 155. At the beginning of the IVth century many Christians embraced Donatism, a local church supporting a rigorous vision of religion values and criticising the bishops who had looked for an appeasement with state authorities during the persecution decreed by Emperor Diocletian in 303. Donatism, named after one of its first bishops, probably had some ethnic/social roots as it was more popular in inland/poorer towns than in coastal/richer ones.
Tipasa - Baptistery of the Great Christian Basilica
Baptism was a key sacrament for the early Christians and (St.) Augustine, Bishop of Hippo Regius, wrote a treatise to prove that the Donatist position on baptism was wrong. In particular he condemned the practice of baptizing a second time those who returned to the Church after having abandoned it. In 411 Emperor Honorius issued decrees punishing the members of the sect, which however is believed to have survived until the Arab invasion in the late VIIth century. By 709 Numidia and Mauretania were in full Arab control. The page on Algiers provides some more information on the country after the Arab conquest.
Lol or Caesarea Mauretaniae (Cherchell)
Cirta or Constantina
Castellum Tidditanorum (Tiddis)
Hippo Regius (Annaba)
Archaeological Museum of Algiers