Rome’s shared history with North Africa goes back to the time of the Republic when it was involved in a series of wars with the city of Carthage. The Phoenician city lost out to Rome during the First Punic Wars (264-241 BC). But its dominance saw a brief resurgence in the Second Punic Wars which was led by one of the greatest military commander in history, Hannibal Barca. He led the Carthaginian army and their war elephants across the rugged terrain of the Italian Alps in 218 AD. The series of wars he started against Rome resulted only in a stalemate. More than 60 years later, the Third Punic War flared up between Rome and Carthage and resulted in the total destruction of Carthage in 149 AD. Many of the Carthaginians were sold into slavery, while a great portion of the population starved or fought to death during the siege. The Romans took over Carthage in the same year, and its merchants now had full access (as well as control) to the profitable Mediterranean trade routes. Moreover, the Roman politician and military leader Pompey added many portions of North Africa during his campaigns in the region in the time of the Republic. Rome conquered North Africa between the dates of 300 – 600 AD according to the Biblical Timeline with World History.
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The Republic was on its way out during the political and military domination of Julius Caesar. His affair with the Egyptian princess Cleopatra further cemented Roman rule over Egypt and North Africa and declared himself dictator for life upon his return to Rome. Political strife hounded Julius Caesar in his homeland, and he died in 44 BC after he was assassinated in the Roman Senate.
Under the Roman Empire
By 30 BC, the Roman Empire had dominated most of North Africa, as well the major cities that dotted the Mediterranean coast. The province became Africa Proconsularis which was governed by a proconsul that represented the Roman government. Numidia became Rome’s client kingdom, while African cities such as Hadrumetum, Byzacena, Hippo Regius, and Utica become thoroughly Romanized. Mauretania was added in 41 AD and at its peak, Rome’s African territory spanned from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Libya in the east (Egypt was a separate province).
The Roman era in North Africa was relatively peaceful and prosperous—a golden age which historians called Pax Romana. The Roman-style architecture and arts dotted the North African landscape while Jupiter, Saturn, Minerva, and a whole slew of Roman gods replaced the ancient Phoenician pantheon. The Romans also built magnificent temples all over the cities of the province while their lifelike sculptures of the gods were worshiped by the native peoples. Some of Rome’s greatest legacies in North Africa were the network of roads built throughout the province which allowed the troops to easily come in and out of a city, as well as enabled the merchants to transport their goods across the land. In addition, remains of Roman-style villas can still be seen in Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya—silent remnants of a long-gone golden age.
Rome also resettled many of its citizens (especially its veterans) in the fertile farmlands across the province. These resettled peoples became farmers who cultivated wheat and olive trees, as well as raised livestock. The province became Rome’s primary source of grain which made farmers and merchants very rich. Meanwhile, native North Africans also rose and became senators, military commanders, and eventually, emperors of Rome. A fine example of social mobility in Roman North Africa was Septimius Severus who was born in the city of Leptis Magna (modern Libya) and became the first Roman emperor of native North African descent. He was followed by his sons Caracalla and Geta, as well as other emperors who were born in North Africa.
Christianity spread from Palestine to Rome and finally to North Africa in the second century. Converts to the new religion were targeted for persecution, and many died in the magnificent El Djem amphitheater for not renouncing their faith. The repressions and the killings stopped when Emperor Constantine the Great adopted Christianity as his religion. Christianity later became a state religion in 380 AD under Emperor Theodosius I and the population of Christians in the province increased during the next 200 years. Saint Augustine, one of the faith’s leading theologians, was born in the African city of Thagaste and became bishop of the city of Hippo.
Decline of Roman Rule and Muslim Conquest of North Africa
During the last years of the empire, various barbarians sacked Rome and even spilled over to North Africa. Some of the most ferocious of these barbarians were the Vandals who managed to cross from Hispania to North Africa and besieged Carthage. They successfully captured the city, but the Byzantine general Belisarius took it back for Constantinople in 533 AD and henceforth was under the control of the Byzantine Empire. Its hold on North Africa would not last long as in 642 AD; Muslim Arabs captured the North African cities from the Byzantine Empire after their conquest of Egypt.
Picture By Jean-Léon Gérôme – http://www.mezzo-mondo.com/arts/mm/orientalist/european/gerome/index_b.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1399233
Bauer, S. Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010.
Fields, Nic. Roman Conquests: North Africa. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2010.
Naylor, Phillip Chiviges. North Africa: A History from Antiquity to the Present. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2009.
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