Ancient History & Civilisation

Carthage

The picture of late Roman Carthage is also unbalanced by the preponderance of Christian source material. This includes the dossier of information relating to the conflict between African Christianity and imperial Catholicism, cul­minating in the verbatim records of the Council of Carthage in AD 411 (see pp. 303–4), and the Confessions of Augustine, the most prolific and important figure in the development of the western church. However, the city of Carthage itself, which lies under the sprawling suburbs of the modern city of Tunis, has remained largely unknown, at least until recent excavations carried out by international teams under the patronage of UNESCO.

Carthage possessed the largest sheltered harbor on the North African coast and occupied a crucial position in the layout of the western Mediterranean. The coastline westwards towards the Atlantic is a barricade of cliffs and mountains, exposed to northerly winds. Procopius observed that there were no harbors at all here (Bell. Vand. 3.15). Carthage itself, however, not only provided an anchorage, but was at the southern end of the shortest traverse to Europe, opposite Sicily, which was closer to Carthage than to Rome.41 The city was linked by land routes to the hinterland of Numidia, one of which led up the valley of the Bagradas river. It drew most of its wealth in the form of agricultural produce, particularly grain and olives from the plains and hill slopes of Africa Proconsularis and Byzacena. The region was a network of small and medium-sized cities, interspersed with large rural estates, that had developed a civic culture which flourished into the fifth century. Like Alexandria, Carthage and its hinterland enjoyed a remarkable level of security from external threats. Few of the cities of Numidia and Africa Proconsularis possessed walls in the third and fourth centuries, and Carthage's own defenses were only built in 425, ironically just fourteen years before the city fell to the Vandals.42

The city was dominated by an acropolis, the Byrsa, and had a grid of planned streets, elaborate urban villas with mosaics, and the full repertoire of buildings for public entertainment – hippodrome, amphitheater, theaters and odeia, basilica churches, and bath houses, including the enormous Thermae of Antoninus.43 Life in late-fourth-century Carthage is known to us, primarily and unforgettably, through the distorting lens of Augustine's Confessions. The Confessions focus on two aspects: the rowdy and bohemian lives of students, and the compulsive excitements of the public entertainment on offer in the arenas and the theaters, where the lewdness and the bloodletting posed moral challenges which were a source of obsession and repulsion to Augustine and his friends. The young man's confessions do not present a wider picture of the social and economic life of the city that might have emerged from Augustine's writings had he ever become its bishop.

Carthage fell to the Vandals in 439, and their kings occupied the former proconsular seat of government on the Byrsa. Gaiseric took control of the best land in Africa Proconsularis, Carthage's hinterland, and distributed it by lot to his warriors, who were to form a new hereditary landowning class.44 The chief victims were the Catholic Church, which suffered confiscation and organized persecution at the hands of the Arian Vandals, and Carthage's senators, including members of the local city council and Roman senators with African properties. Some of these fled to Syria, others to Italy.45 Those who remained are described as being enslaved to the barbarians. The Vandal presence, which was almost exclusively confined to the province of Proconsularis, is confirmed by the distribution of inscriptions and archaeological finds.46 After the reconquest of Africa in 533, Justinian undertook measures to restore territory respectively to private landowners, to the state, and to the church. Procopius praises him for rebuilding the Theodosian defenses of Carthage and refurbishing the harbor front with new stoas and a public bath named the Theodoriane, after his wife. He built a monastery inside the sea wall, and churches of the Theotokos and of the local St Prima. Archaeological work in the city has located four substantial churches built at this period, confirming that the reconstruction of Carthage after the Vandals was mainly through religious foundations. It appears that the church buildings were maintained through the seventh century but like the rest of the city fell into decline, and the occupied area had shrunk significantly before it fell to the Arabs in 698.47

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