A Perspective on the Rise and Fall of Roman North Africa, 2nd-4th Century AD

Prof. Louise Cilliers
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In this paper the reasons for the exceptional prosperity of the Roman province of North Africa (± modern Tunisia) from the 2nd to the 4th century - a time when the rest of the Roman Empire was already in decline - will be discussed. Aspects such as export products thanks to a thriving agriculture played a role, made possible by a good climate and the peace and stability in the province. Progressive enfranchisement of the indigenous population and their gradual integration with the Roman settlers also had a positive influence, leading to a vigorous local patriotism and investment in the form of many building projects.

In the light of this prosperity it is puzzling why North Africa, the most Romanized of all the Roman provinces at the time, shows no trace of any Roman influence on its culture and language. Apart from the physical remains of building structures, it is as if the Romans had never been there. The Vandal conquest in the 5th century played a role in the decline but they were not as destructive as their name denotes. It was the next wave of invaders in the 6th century, the Byzantine army of the emperor Justinian, who caused the most physical damage by using Roman buildings as a quarry to rebuild defensive town walls demolished by the Vandals. However, the main reason for the demise of Roman influence in North Africa is to my mind the exodus of the wealthy Romanized élite who fled the country after the Vandal invasion and again after the Arab conquest in the late 7th century, leaving a vastly outnumbered nucleus of Roman settlers’ descendants who could not, isolated as they were in Africa, maintain Roman values and culture. Furthermore, when Christianity, which became inextricably connected with the Roman state after being declared the official religion, was replaced by Islam, the last civic structures vanished together with the culture of the Romans and their language, Latin. North Africa would later flourish again, but not in a Roman way.

Keywords: History, Classics
Stream: History, Historiography
Presentation Type: Paper Presentation in English
Paper: A Perspective on the Rise and Fall of Roman North Africa, 2nd-4th Century AD

Prof. Louise Cilliers

Head of section Latin and Greek, Dept. of English and Classical Languages, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein
South Africa

After a Ph.D. in Greek tragedy and various publications on Greek and Roman drama I became interested in Ancient Medicine in Graeco-Roman times. At present I am doing research on medical writers in the late Roman Empire, attempting to determine their contribution and preparing textual editions of their as yet unpublished Latin manuscripts Coming from Africa myself, it is particularly authors from North Africa who interest me, whose texts I believe will be better understood when one knows more about their background and the history of their country. Many years of university teaching in Greek and Latin literature and history in South Africa and study at Leiden University in the Netherlands have proved to be useful for this project.

Ref: H06P0231