BMCR 2009.12.21

Cartagine romana e tardoantica. Studia erudita 10

, Cartagine romana e tardoantica. Studia erudita 10. Pisa/Roma: Fabrizio Serra Editore, 2009. 92. ISBN 9788862271585. €28.00 (pb).

The ancient city of Carthage (Phoenician qrt-hdst“new town”) was traditionally founded in 814/813 B.C. by colonists from Tyre under the leadership of the legendary Queen Dido, also known as Elissa, on the northeastern coast of modern Tunisia. (Archaeology has yet to render a final verdict on the accuracy of this date.) The city quickly emerged as a major center for trade and commerce, bringing Carthage into contact and, often, conflict with other regional powers, including Syracuse and Rome. In 146 B.C., at the conclusion of the Third Punic War (149-146), Scipio Aemilianus captured Carthage, plundered the city, and ordered its complete destruction. This destruction did not, however, mark the end of the city’s history. Rather, it was the Romans themselves who later colonized the site and restored Carthage to a position of prominence and influence in the western Mediterranean basin. Over time, the city became a center for education, rhetoric, and, perhaps most of all, Christianity, until its final fall to Muslim invaders in A.D. 698.

In the book under review, Di Stefano offers a succinct but helpful overview of the history and archaeology of Carthage during this era. Following a brief and somewhat abrupt survey of the topography of the region around the city (“Topografia del territorio di Cartagine” pp. 9-14), Di Stefano recounts the two stages of Roman colonization and describes the general layout of the site (“L’infrastruttura della città romana” pp. 15-25). Less than twenty-five years after the fall of the city in 146, C. Sempronius Gracchus attempted to refound Carthage, unsuccessfully, as a Roman colony (Colonia Iunonia K/Cart(h)ago).1 Less than a century after that, Octavian realized the ambition of his adoptive father, Julius Caesar, when he established the settlement of Colonia Iulia Concordia Cart(h)ago on the site. The colony was a model of urban planning: the cardo maximus (running from north to south) and the decumanus maximus (running from east to west) intersected on the Byrsa (the citadel) and, in a regular grid pattern, divided the city into four centuriae, which were further subdivided into insulae of a uniform shape and size. Over the centuries, several Roman emperors undertook building projects as a part of the continued growth and expansion of the colony. In short, after its fall in 146 and its refoundation under Octavian, Carthage recovered to become “una delle più grandi città dell’impero” (p. 25).

Having sketched the history of Roman Carthage, Di Stefano continues with a more detailed survey of the city’s archaeology and topography during this period (“Gli edifici pubblici” pp. 27-45). From the outset of the establishment of a colony on the site, the Romans embarked on an ambitious and unprecedented expansion of the Byrsa: eventually, the three levels of the expanded citadel, including a forum, a basilica, and other monumental buildings with administrative, political, and religious functions, spanned an area of just under seven insulae. The city had two harbors along the southern coast of the Gulf of Tunis: the outer, rectangular, harbor was for trade and commerce, while the inner, circular, harbor was for the navy. In addition to the expansion of the Byrsa, a theater, an amphitheater, and a circus were constructed along the inland outskirts of the city as a part of the colony’s robust urban development, while an extensive bath complex, begun under Hadrian but not completed until the reign of Antoninus Pius, was constructed along the northern coast of the gulf. The cisterns at La Malga, once perhaps the largest water reservoir in the ancient world, supplied Carthage with the water carried along the Zaghouan aqueduct, once perhaps the longest aqueduct in the ancient world. Between city and surrounding countryside, to the north there may have been a campus for the conduct of commercial transactions (cf. CIL 8.12573); to the south, there was a small fountain dedicated to Neptune. During the four hundred fifty years of its existence, the settlement of Colonia Iulia Concordia Cart(h)ago transformed the former site of the city of Carthage into nothing less than an altera Roma.

This process of restoration and recovery, however, came to an end in A.D. 439. This is the year, the famous anno Karthaginis, when the Vandals took control of the city away from the Romans after easily breaching the wall which Theodosius II had recently erected for the express purpose of repelling such an incursion. Di Stefano concisely recounts this changing of the guard and, in particular, explains how the transition from Roman Carthage to Vandal Carthage manifested itself in the ever changing urban environment (“La città dei Vandali” pp. 47-51). Thereafter, Di Stefano somewhat confusingly retraces his steps in order to assess the situation in Carthage, before the Vandal sack, during the fourth century (“La città tardoantica” pp. 53-56). He identifies the years 310, when Maxentius dispatched a punitive expedition to Carthage in order to quell the rebellion led by the vicarius Domitius Alexander, and 365, when a great earthquake centered on Crete rocked the eastern Mediterranean, as the pivotal moments in the life of the city during that turbulent century. In comparison with the chapter on Roman Carthage, these chapters on Vandal Carthage and the transition from the former to the latter are far less successful, largely because Di Stefano covers too much material in too little space. Nevertheless, he does succeed in illustrating how the nature of the urban landscape adapted to the realities of the unstable political environment.

Having sketched the history of Vandal Carthage, Di Stefano continues with a detailed survey of both the temples and the churches, as well as of the private homes, built in the city during this period. At this point in its history, Carthage stood poised between paganism and Christianity, and Di Stefano explores the tension between these two paths through a review of the various pagan temples and Christian churches located throughout the city (“I templi pagani. Le chiese cristiane” pp. 57-68). The major pagan sites included a temple of Cybele and Attis located on the northeast corner of the Byrsa; a temple of Juno Caelestis (~ Tanit) located perhaps near the Tophet or atop the Borj Jedid hill; a temple of Venus, Jupiter, and Bacchus located near the basilica; a temple dedicated to Hercules located on the island in the middle of the circular harbor; perhaps a temple of Saturn located near the Tophet; and a temple of Apollo located near the circular harbor. Conversely, the major Christian sites included the Basilica Maiorum, the Basilica Celerinae vel Scillitanorum, the Basilica Novarum, the basilica known as the Memoria (dedicated to Saint Cyprian and Saint Monica), the Basilica Fausti, the basilica known as the Restituta, the Basilica Honoriana, the Ecclesia Theoprepia, and the Basilica Tricliarum, as well as five other basilicas located outside the walls of the city. Carthage was the epicenter for the Donatist controversy during the fourth and fifth centuries: nevertheless, despite the challenges posed by this schism within the church, it was Christianity which ultimately triumphed over paganism by the time of the Vandal sack. Di Stefano complements this discussion about sacred architecture with a comparable discussion in the final chapter about some of the most important private homes from this period, including the Casa della Voliera, the Casa del Criptoportico, the Casa di ‘Bassilica’, and the Casa del nascondiglio delle statue, among others discussed or mentioned in passing (“Vivere in privato” pp. 69-83).

This is a somewhat odd book. The absence of either an introduction or a conclusion leaves the reader in doubt as to the intended purpose and the intended audience. The extreme brevity of the approximately 25-page narrative balanced against 60 plates (all simply reproduced from other publications) renders the book unsuitable as either an introduction to the topic or a monograph on some specific aspect(s) of the subject. The “Bibliografia” (pp. 85-92) directs the interested reader to much if not most of the significant scholarship: in general, however, the book does not sufficiently illustrate how much work is currently being done on the city or how much remains to be done. Larger issues such as the complex relationship between urbanization and Romanization, the intersections between literature and history or between history and archaeology, and the role of geography and topography in the evolution of the city—all of these topics, and more, receive little to no discussion. Carthage is a fascinating topos, especially in its special capacity as a mirror of Rome. If nothing else, this book highlights the importance of this unique relationship between the two cities and helps to remind us that Carthage lived on well after 146 B.C.


1. Di Stefano gives the adjective incorrectly as “Iuniona” instead of “Iunonia” (p. 15 bis).