BMCR 2013.08.18

Die Römer in Tunesien und Libyen: Nordafrika in römischer Zeit. Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie

, Die Römer in Tunesien und Libyen: Nordafrika in römischer Zeit. Zaberns Bildbände zur Archäologie. Darmstadt: Verlag Philipp von Zabern, 2012. 144. ISBN 9783805344593 €29.99.

A colorful, sumptuously illustrated feast for the eyes, François Baratte’s coffee-table introduction to the art and archaeology of Africa Proconsularis serves a “greatest hits” tour of events, sites, and monuments from the Roman imperial-period Maghreb. Issued alongside a French-language version as part of the collaborative venture between von Zabern and Editions Picard to offer Bildbände that focus on particular provinces,1 the volume is a welcome addition to the host of other recent historical introductions to the region that often skirt explicit engagement with (and very rarely even illustrate!) material culture.2 If there is little here that will surprise those steeped in current work the Roman Maghreb, for those who want an entry point into the province, or a historiographic snapshot of how the past fifty years of Francophone scholarship on the art and epigraphy of North Africa has come to see the material and its problems, Baratte offers a lively description and synthesis of major sites, monuments, and bodies of artistic and archaeological material.

Throughout, Baratte’s unifying and guiding question seems to revolve around permutations of, “What makes X distinctive to Africa under the Roman Empire?,” whether in terms of urban design (ch. 2), the package of phenomena bundled as “culture” (ch. 3), production and economy (ch. 4), or church architecture (ch. 5). If Baratte explicitly chooses not to be bogged down in the (primarily) Anglophone “Romanization” debate over terminology (71), throughout the work he maintains an implicit sense of what, for him, can be tallied as a Roman or “not-Roman,” or as distinct to North Africa. And his categorizations are generally conceived in largely formal terms, instantiated in the lists of examples and more detailed accounts of particular monuments that Baratte provides. By focusing on description of what he takes to be characteristic forms of North African material culture in a largely synchronic manner, Baratte often leaves in the background the types of behaviours and of social structuration implied by these forms, a sense of agency, a narrative of diachronic changes beyond early empire/high empire/late antiquity, and a fleshed-out explanatory apparatus for understanding similarity/difference.. Yet throughout, Baratte, aided by a narrative history of the province and the volume’s rich photography, uses his near-encyclopedic knowledge of North African archaeology to revel in the objects and sites themselves.

After an introductory chapter covering North Africa prior to 146 BC, the diverse landscapes and climatic conditions of the land, and the political/military history of the province, Baratte’s first substantive chapter focuses upon the most distinctive feature of the central Maghreb under the empire: its dense network of cities, “der Ort der Kultur schlechthin” (24). For Baratte, despite a common function as center of administration and prestige-display, and status as “in gewisser Hinsicht Abbild von Rom,” the city in Roman Africa is marked by variety in form, a variety born from different origins, topographies, and pre-Roman settlements. To demonstrate this, Baratte embarks on concise and useful description of the urban development of Sabratha, Leptis Magna, and Carthage, with shorter stops to discuss the forum-areas of other Tunisian cities. His quest to find formal similarities in the design of civic centers leads Baratte to postulate that the closest thing to a norm in the development of North African urbanism is the presence of a Capitolium on the forum: a common claim, but one which, when tested against the evidence, falls somewhat shorter than often imagined.3

From there, Baratte pivots to survey other types of urban buildings: the very high numbers of amphitheaters and theaters of the province, alongside the social place of their entertainments as attested by mosaics and texts; baths; houses and villas; and tombs. If Baratte is unable to find anything specifically “African” in the shapes and layouts of domestic buildings, save a penchant for peristyles (part of a Mediterranean koine), his discussion of the social consequences of formal changes in late antique housing (built on Y. Thébert’s work)4—an uptick in private bath-suites, new reception and dining rooms—is one of the few places where the material and architectural record is interrogated on its own terms, rather than used to illustrate themes and issues established from the textual record. Likewise, in highlighting the disconnect between the representation of lavish villas on fourth-fifth century Tunisian mosaics, and the relative paucity of such richly-appointed buildings attested from survey data, Baratte draws welcome attention to an important problem in interpretation of the North African archaeological record. Rather than proposing and testing a hypothesis to explain this discrepancy, Baratte unfortunately turns to the villas of coastal Tripolitania to sidestep the issue: a problematic move, given the seemingly very different land-holding patterns and “villa habits” in Tripolitania and central/northern Tunisia.5

Turning then to “culture” to ask, “Ein romanisierte Gesellschaft?”, Baratte examines language (briefly), religion, and art. In the realm of religion, Baratte suggests—following, in general terms, the standard line most strongly articulated by Marcel Le Glay6—that despite Latin names and new figure-types borrowed from a Classical repertoire, the gods of Roman Africa were often pre-Roman, non-Graeco-Roman divinities masquerading as their Classical counterparts. Even so, Baratte rightly draws attention to the varieties of religious experience, diverse ways of characterizing gods bearing the same name, and suggests that the development of a more civically-oriented religion was the most important change wrought by Roman rule, still allowing (in a rather Protestant-sounding manner) that “jeder konnte besonders bei religiösen Veranstaltungen Gelegenheit finden, seine persönlichen Gefühle auszudrücken” (82). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given his focus on providing a formal account of monuments, he does not wade into the archaeology of ritual practice, nor into the mine-field of child sacrifice, preferring to focus on the “personalities” of gods, sculpture and epigraphy. As for architecture and sculpture, Baratte signals particularly common African techniques (terracotta vaulting tubes), sees some of the origins of the late antique fluorescence of Bianchi Bandinelli’s “plebeian style” in the Arch of Septimius Severus at Leptis Magna (“ein nordafrikanisches Merkmal”: 86), bemoans the difficulty in identifying truly “African” characteristics in marble sculpture due to craftsmen imported from other regions, and surveys the less Classical-looking limestone stelae. Finally, Baratte turns to mosaics to highlight their immense popularity in North Africa, as well as the preferences for colorful scenes and representations of spectacula.

After art, Baratte directs his attention to the productivity of the North African landscape that made the province a bread-basket for the empire and provided the wealth that made the urban facies of the province possible. Here, he offers a quick summary of the archaeological indices for this productivity—field divisions, oil- and wine-presses, iconography, the lex Manciana, and late fifth-century Albertini Tablets—before turning to the manufacture of salted fish products, African red-slip wares, and the quarries of Chemtou.

The final two chapters examine the rise of Christianity and Late Antique Africa. After obligatory introductions to the persecutions and the Donatist schism, Baratte poses his question about the unique features of North African material culture through the archaeology of church buildings and cemeteries: not only do Tunisia/western Libya offer a huge number of churches—which Baratte attributes to the number of bishops, landholders’ involvement in organizing church communities for tenants on their estates, and the presence of competing Catholic/Donatist congregations—but a number of formal features that distinguish the fourth-sixth century churches from those of other provinces. Atria are rare, altars are set far forward of the apse in the nave, and the apse is often raised, allowing many African churches to forego a separate ambo. And of course, there is the cult of martyrs, long seen as particularly fervent in Africa: here, Baratte surveys some of the martyria and reliquaries converted into monumental spaces of spectacle—from the small church at Dougga, with two stairways down to its crypt and a window in the apse to allow viewing from the nave, to the mosaicked and inscribed enclosure in the Candidus basilica at Ammaedara—as well as the more usual practice of burying reliquaries under altars. Then, Baratte gives a quick historical summary of the Vandal, Byzantine, and Arab conquests, emphasizing that the Vandal period represented less of a rupture with the past than often assumed.

If Baratte’s work offers a solid introduction to many of the traditional classifications and narratives told of the material and visual culture(s) of Roman Africa, like other books in this series, it raises questions about the intended audiences.7 It is at once too general to permit critical engagement with the material (with the exceptions highlighted above, often lacking indications of where the interpretive problems and debates might lie in its quest to offer a master-account, without footnotes, and with a somewhat haphazard further-reading list)—and too specific for the casual reader with no background in Roman art, archaeology, or history (witness its name-checking of sites and scholars, not all of whom appear in the bibliography). Still, the volume serves, as it was seemingly intended, as a beautiful point of departure for further interrogating the hundred-plus monuments it illustrates.


1. F. Baratte, L’Afrique romaine. Tripolitaine et Tunisie (Paris: Picard, 2012).

2. Including, most notably, C. Briand-Ponsart and C. Hugoniot, L’Afrique antique de l’Atlantique à la Tripolitaine (Paris: Armand Colin); A. Ibba, L’Africa mediterranea in età romana (Rome: Carocci, 2012).

3. J.C. Quinn and A.I. Wilson, “Capitolia,” JRS 103 (2013): 1-57.

4. Y. Thébert, “Vie privée et architecture domestique en Afrique romaine,” in Histoire de la vie privée I, ed. P. Veyne (Paris: Le Seuil, 1987), 301-415.

5. D.J. Mattingly, Tripolitania (London: Batsford, 1995).

6. M. Le Glay, Saturne africain : histoire (Paris: de Boccard, 1966); more recently, A. Cadotte, La romanisation des dieux (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

7. See, for example, C. Downing, rev. of P. Gros, La Gaule narbonnaise, AJA 114 (2010), DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline114.1.Downing.