Arriving in Carthage
The faces of the sailors and passengers are hit by a blast of hot African wind. It carries the smell of land, a land different from the one they have just left. This smell doesn’t have the aromatic edge of the European coasts. Here you smell the dry, dusty scent of the desert.
Carthage earned its place in history by its rise to power and its spectacular demise. Founded by the Phoenicians and transformed into a Mediterranean superpower by their descendants the Carthaginians, it was demolished during the Punic Wars by the Romans, who in 146 BC razed it down to the last stone and poured salt over it so that nothing of the ancient Carthaginian civilization would survive.
The city that the Romans rebuilt was completely new, even in its urban plan, and had nothing in common with the Punic city. It was a drastic and irreversible turn of the page, among the most memorable in history. One thing, however, has remained: the port, which the ship Europa is now entering. The Romans kept it and reused it.
The first section is a large rectangle with a surface area of seventeen and a half acres. We are now moving slowly inside it pulled by a tugboat, consisting of a rowboat powered by six large black men. Like a tracking shot in a film our gaze moves across a line of ships tied up at the docks, unloading their cargos. All around them are images of daily life in the harbor: a line of stevedores carrying sacks on their shoulders; the proprietor of a small navigation company scolding one of his employees; two friends, one of whom has just disembarked, hugging each other affectionately. A man chewing his fingernails, sitting on some sacks tied together with a rope; two slaves, one behind the other, carrying a long pole with an amphora dangling in the middle, looking like hunters carrying a big-game animal. The faces are particularly intriguing. Although Carthage is certainly an international port, there is a predominance of dark skin and curly hair. We are on another continent.
The ship moves past the rectangular basin and enters another area with an unusual configuration: it’s perfectly round, with a circular island in the center. All around its perimeter are bays from which the Carthaginian war ships used to emerge. A big round roof concealed the dens of these seagoing predators. Gleaming white, it looked like a structure designed by some modern architect. As many as 220 galleys ready to attack would come swarming out of this marine beehive. In the middle, on the island, was the naval command center.
The Romans kept the structure, but they changed its use from military to commercial. A temple had been built on the island, while the long, narrow bays of the warships have disappeared to make room for warehouses to store goods. All around, an imposing colonnade of African marble surrounds the circular basin of the harbor. It’s a magnificent sight; imagine arriving on a sailboat at Saint Peter’s Square in Rome, filled with water and surrounded by Bernini’s famous colonnade. That’s the sensation one has on entering the harbor in Carthage.
We tie up at the dock between two ships, one from Alexandria and the other from Crete. The helmsman and sailors are all assembled on the stern where they’re performing a thanksgiving ritual for the ship’s safe arrival. The helmsman minces some food over the fire and recites some holy words. This is done on all ships both before departure and upon arrival. Later on, he’ll go to a temple to make a votive offering for the ship’s escape from the storm. And he won’t be the only one to do so.
A Star of the Roman Music Scene
The faces of those on board are tired but happy. The question now is what to do with the woman they fished out of the sea; she’s alone and has no money. So a collection is taken up on board. It doesn’t amount to all that much, but it’s enough to pay for a place to stay, some food, and maybe a new tunic. Then she’ll have to make do on her own.
The last one to give the woman something is our sailor. The helmsman gives him a pat on the back to encourage him. He hands her a few coins. The helmsman knows full well that the coins are not his … that’s why he’s forced him to give them up for a good cause. So, partly out of superstition, partly because of peer pressure, and partly to give thanks for the escape from danger, he offers the woman the stolen coins. Among them is our sestertius. The woman is embarrassed and thanks him timidly. She’s still in shock.
The news that she is the only survivor of a shipwreck spreads quickly through the city. The woman, Aelia Sabina, is an uncommon person. She’s a musician and a very talented singer, highly regarded in Aquincum (Budapest), the city where she lives. Her long blond hair, light blue eyes, and impressive stature betray her Nordic origins at first glance.
Her gravestone will be found by archaeologists in Aquincum. Reading it, they will discover many details about her life. She started out playing a string instrument (pulsabat pollice chordas), perhaps the zither or the ancestor of our guitar. And as she plucked the strings she sang with a lovely voice (vox ei grata fuit). She was so talented that she very quickly moved on to another instrument, the water organ, with great success. This instrument was the Roman equivalent of the piano, present at any kind of musical event. It was played in chamber concerts, in the domus, for a small group of listeners, as well as in amphitheaters when the gladiators fought, so as to create a sort of soundtrack for the most dramatic moments.
We know something else about Aelia Sabina: she is a former slave, a liberta, who will go on to marry her music teacher (but at this time she is still single). It is a nice love story, with a curious note: her future husband, also an organ player, is a legionnaire from the II Adiutrix legion, previously deployed in Britain, then transferred to Aquincum by Trajan, with a small contingent sent to Africa. She was on her way to join him when she was shipwrecked.
Now Aelia Sabina is all alone, in a strange city, in a province she’s never been to before, and on a continent that she has only heard talked about. Her fiancé is far away and knows nothing of her plight. What does she do now?
How to Become a Divinity
Fortunately, the news of her shipwreck also reaches the ears of a rather important woman named Sextia. She’s tall, slender, with a luminous, charming smile. Her dark complexion and long curly hair reveal her distant Punic origins.
She’s a priestess, or more precisely a flaminica, a religious devoted exclusively to the cult of a single divinity, as archaeologists learned from her gravestone. Her divinity is somewhat unusual: Augustus. During the imperial age traditional gods like Jove, Mars, and Quirinus were joined by cults devoted to the emperors and their relatives, transformed into gods after their deaths. Imagine a modern head of state, a president or prime minister, being beatified at the moment of death and venerated for generations, replete with his or her own temple and priests, incense, offerings, requests for intervention, and holy days like Christmas and Easter.
In the Roman era, the first emperor, Augustus, and his wife, Livia, considered the “perfect couple” who had ushered in the imperial age, were two such divinities. For decades now they have had temples dedicated just to them in every city of the empire, withflamines and flaminicae officiating at their ceremonies.
Being a priest or priestess has its advantages. It’s an office aspired to by all the members of the local elite because it occupies a position of prestige. It’s especially advantageous for women because in an openly male-dominated society it offers them an opportunity to exercise an important public function otherwise reserved to men.
As soon as Sextia learns of Aelia Sabina’s plight, she sends her slaves to look for her. It doesn’t take them long to find her. When the two women meet face-to-face, all the social barriers between a priestess and a liberta are swept away, and they immediately connect.
Sabina is a guest in Sexta’s home for a few days, observing her daily routine. Sexta is a very energetic woman engaged in various civic activities, in addition to her religious duties. Most of all, she promotes a lot of initiatives for the benefit of Carthage.
Here we have the chance to discover an important aspect of Roman society: the philanthropy of the rich toward the city and its inhabitants. The priestess uses her family’s money to make gifts to Carthage. Other wealthy families do the same by, for example, financing the restoration of important monuments or donating statues, distributing large amounts of money to the collectivity, organizing quadriga races or gladiator fights, etc.
All of this is part of a precise strategy of self-promotion conducted by the most prestigious families in the city. At times the families even compete to see who can give the most important donation. It’s a way of building consensus and acquiring fame in the eyes of the community, and it still happens today.
But unlike today, when there is almost always some economic return for the sponsor, in Roman times the donations were officially grants rather than investments and were only partially intended to add luster to the donor’s name. In reality, all wealthy Romans have the ethical duty to invest in the city where they live because it is an important part of everybody’s lives, the center of gravity around which all of Roman society orbits. It is not unlike noblesse oblige, the social obligation of the nobility to their local community.
Today it is much more rare, and we call it philanthropy. But in Roman times it is so widespread that most of the great monuments, statues, theaters, and amphitheaters scattered throughout the empire are the fruit of donations made by the wealthy, their names often engraved clearly in the marble. If it hadn’t been for this ethical obligation of the wealthy, archaeological sites today would be much more bare.
That showing oneself to be generous was a social duty is also evident in a surprising initiative of Trajan’s: he created a system for helping poor children in Italy, especially in rural areas, by ensuring regular donations of money to buy food. It was a form of assistance directed primarily to illegitimate children with little or no means of support, who must have somehow made a big impression on Trajan. Naturally, the program only benefited the children of Roman citizens, not slaves. Nevertheless, it is striking to see such a sensitive and modern attitude toward children in such an ancient society.
Trajan’s program is called the Institutio Alimentaria. We know about it thanks to the famous Tabula Alimentaria Trajana, one of the longest inscriptions in bronze that has come down to us from the Roman era, discovered by archaeologists in the little town of Velleia in the province of Piacenza.
Trajan personally withdrew funds from his own holdings and lent them to agricultural landowners in the various municipalities of Italy, charging 5 percent interest to increase the fund and guarantees in the form of mortgages on their lands. The money from the interest was used to buy food for needy children, ensuring a continuous supply over the years.
The Emperor’s Color
After several days, the news finally arrives that Aelia Sabina’s fiancé has been contacted. The priestess arranges for a wagon to take Aelia to her fiancé, and she will accompany her part of the way. In fact for some time now she has been planning a journey to visit her brother, who lives in Bulla Regia, a city located along the route that Aelia Sabina will be taking.
The next day, the two women and a small accompanying procession leave Carthage early in the morning. They’re traveling on a carruca similar to the one that we saw in Provence, but lighter, given the climate, and with elegant cushions and colored veils on the inside—a feminine touch by its owner.
After setting out, Aelia Sabina notices something on the road and leans out the window for a better look. Seashells are scattered all along the road, at first just a few, then more and more, until there are piles of them, broken and blanched by the blistering hot sun. The fields along the side of the road look like dump sites for these shells. They are, in fact, the waste from an immense processing plant for the production of purple dye, the color of the Roman Empire.
The purple pigment used to dye prized fabrics is derived from mollusks in the Muricidae family, and particularly from the common murex, Haustellum brandaris. The pigment is found in a small sack inside the body. Each mollusk contains no more than a drop of the pigment, hence the necessity of gathering huge quantities of these gastropods, with underwater nets distributed along the coast.
It’s a laborious procedure: the body of the mollusk must be removed from the shell by hand and left out in the sun for a few days; if it’s too small to open by hand, the shell must be broken into pieces with a grindstone. The mollusks are then boiled in a lead pot. Impurities are eliminated, and what’s left is the dye that Pliny the Elder described as “that precious pink color that tends toward black and shines.”
Behind every ounce of that pigment lies a massacre of mollusks. That explains why it is so costly and why it is considered a luxury, like the very silk that it colors. More than just a dye, it is a status symbol in itself, as Pliny the Elder explains: “It distinguishes the senator from the man of equestrian rank, it’s used to propitiate the gods and lends all garments luster: on triumphal vestments it is mingled with gold. Let us be prepared, then, to forgive this frantic passion for purple.”
Calling it a “frantic passion” is not inappropriate because, although the Romans did not discover or invent the system for obtaining the purple dye, it was they who took it to such an industrial level as to eliminate the murex mollusks from entire areas of the Mediterranean. In this way the environmental impact of Roman globalization bears a striking resemblance to our own.
The wagon passes by the front of the processing plant, and the odor of tens of thousands of mollusks left out in the sun to dry is unbearable. The smell of rotten seawater goes on for miles. Perfectly logical, then, that these processing plants are always located downwind from towns and cities.
A Journey in the Economic “Strongbox” of the Empire
During the journey, the procession travels through a North Africa much different from the one we know today. Everything is much greener, reminding us of Spain or southern Italy. But we are in the province of Africa Proconsularis, which includes present-day Tunisia and parts of Algeria and Libya.
Aelia Sabina, rocked by the bumpy ride of the wagon, discovers a whole new world, and so do we. We look out onto dozens of rural farms and villas, expanses of cultivated fields, what amounts to a real granary for the empire, just like Egypt. But it’s more than grain. There is also an abundance of fruit trees, figs, vineyards, bean fields, and olive groves.
The journey continues, and just as we would on our own highways, we encounter “tractor trailers,” cargo wagons loaded with goods headed toward Rome and the rest of the empire. So we discover that North Africa exports much more than it imports: fabrics, wool, ceramics, plus the timber and marble that are extracted near the coast. Africa is a real cornucopia of riches for the imperial economy.
Our convoy encounters a cargo wagon traveling slowly in the opposite direction. It has wheels without spokes, similar to the tops of round tables, which creak on every turn. We notice some big wooden crates onboard; the base of one of them is stained with blood. All of these crates contain wild animals bound for the Colosseum. It’s incredible to think of the tremendous effort required to capture a ferocious beast and transport it to another continent, only to kill it in an instant, in front of a crowd in an amphitheater. Just as suddenly as they appeared, the wagons disappear again around a bend in the road, accompanied by the ear-piercing creaking of its spokeless wheels.
A little later we run into some more “live” cargo: slaves. They are black Africans, undoubtedly captured in a raid in some unknown part of the continent. Each one has his own story about how he got here, but the same destiny is waiting for all of them: the total loss of liberty, perhaps a violent death in some amphitheater or a slower death on a farm. Within a very few years most of those we’re seeing now, bound with chains and rings around their necks, will be dead.
Building a City in the Desert
The convoy’s arrival in the city of Bulla Regia marks the separation of the two women; the next day Aelia Sabina bids farewell to the priestess. She’ll continue on her own, with another wagon at her disposal, to meet her fiancé. She’ll have a small escort: here, too, there is a risk of being kidnapped, especially in the less inhabited lands that she’ll be crossing. But where is her fiancé, the legionnaire? He’s at work on one of the most ambitious projects of the Roman era: building Thamugadi (today’s Timgad), a brand-new city in the interior of North Africa.
All of the principal cities of the Mediterranean are located near the coast, if not directly on the shore. So why go to a high plateau, at an altitude of three thousand feet and five days’ journey from Carthage, to build this one? There is nothing beyond it; we’re on the border of the empire. We might compare it to the founding of Las Vegas, built from nothing in the middle of nowhere. If the objective there was profit, in the case of Thamugadi the goal is different: to conquer foreign populations. But not with arms, as we’re about to discover.
Aelia Sabina travels for a long time through an environment scorched by the sun. It’s a sun that seems to flatten everything, even sounds. The semidesert landscape is immense but silent. All you can hear is the sound of horses’ hooves and wagon wheels, screeching against the road surface of packed earth and gravel. Along the way Aelia Sabina is accompanied by the smell of plants scorched in the heat, an unusual aroma for her, one that makes her lightheaded.
Then one morning she sees something incredible: a city appears out of nowhere, right before her eyes. It’s at the center of a slightly undulating high plateau, dominated by the mountain of Aurarius (today, the Aurès mountains). After days of open plains and desert, her eyes suddenly take in markets, a forum, temples, baths, a theater. It looks like a mirage.…
Even the men of her escort are visibly excited, and they quicken their pace, arriving at the edge of the city at a gallop. Before they enter, a man steps into the middle of the road to stop them. He’s well built, muscular, with short black hair. It’s Aelia Sabina’s fiancé, who has been waiting for her at the entrance to the city. The wagon stops, and the loving couple reunite in a long and intense embrace, made all the more intense by the thought of what might have happened if our Europa hadn’t happened upon those few wooden boards, which were Aelia Sabina’s last hope for survival.
Let’s let them go. They have a lot of things to tell each other. She’ll be here for a long time. Her fiancé’s unit has been sent to this place to complete the construction of the city, the fruit of the work of other legionnaires, veterans of the Augusta III legion.
As tradition dictates, when legionnaires retire after twenty-five years’ service, they receive a “diploma,” as well as a piece of land where they can raise a family and live out their old age. The lands are almost always in border areas (sometimes only recently conquered) that are to be colonized, like the land on this high plateau.
These veterans have even been asked to build Thamugadi, and over the course of these long years they’ve done a magnificent job. The city was begun in 100 CE, and by now it has already acquired its general shape, even if a lot of things are still missing. It occupies a surface area of thirty-six acres and has been built with typical Roman precision. One hundred and twenty city blocks have been laid out in a perfect plan, with main streets (cardo maximus and decumanus maximus), side streets, public buildings, religious temples—in sum all the principal features of a Roman city. Conceptually, it’s a miniature version of Rome. But why all this effort?
An Oasis in the Void
Rome was accustomed to conquering populations with arms and force, which as we have seen were frightfully effective. Here it decided to use a different strategy. Thamugadi is perfect as a city because it is a showcase of the Roman way of life: its aim is to subjugate the populations of the region not with the force of arms but with the attractions of the Roman civilization. Starting with its control over water. In a geographical area where water is scarce, there suddenly appears a city with baths—twenty-seven of them—as well as cisterns and sewer canals that keep disease at bay. Archaeologists have discovered that the entire city can be considered a sort of cistern that gathers in the water from the vicinity, filters it and purifies it with decantation basins, and then sends it on to the baths, houses, and drinking fountains on the corners of the streets. In Thamugadi water is not only present, it flows like a torrent, and all of this is thanks to the hydraulic engineering expertise of the Romans, who dig wells, identify springs, channel their waters with aqueducts, and so on. In Thamugadi, in other words, the Romans have created a vast oasis.
But that is only the first step. Thamugadi is supposed to act as a magnet for the surrounding region, attracting people and integrating them rather than forcing them into submission. It will be the quality of everyday life—good cuisine (with previously unknown and refined foods), baths, and culture—that “conquers” the people.
There is also the economic aspect, the opportunity to become rich, or at least improve one’s standard of living. Thamugadi offers everyone, without discrimination, the chance to enter into the Roman orbit, to participate in the life of the empire—something that will not happen in later centuries, when there will almost always be a clear-cut distinction between the conquerors and the conquered.
Integration, then, is the magic word for understanding the thinking behind this city. It is a vision very much ahead of its time.
The Romans had faith in its success, too. Consider the theater. Archaeologists have remarked, in fact, that the theater has 3,500 to 4,000 seats—too many, considering that there were 8,000 to 10,000 inhabitants of the city at the time it was built. So, from the start, the city’s designers must have believed that the project was bound to work.
And they were right: the city spread very quickly beyond its boundaries and began to develop suburban neighborhoods, arranged chaotically around the core, expanding from an area of 18 to 125 acres. Now, fifty years after founding the city, the Roman inhabitants are few. Almost the entire population is made up of Numidians from the surrounding area. Everything is in their hands: commerce, the city administration, daily life … but they no longer think like Numidians. By now, they think like Romans.
Archaeologists have discovered a graffito in Thamugadi that reveals a lot about the city: Venari, lavari, ludere, ridere. Hoc est vivere: Hunt, bathe, play, laugh. That’s life. This is certainly one of the benefits of living in Thamugadi. But it would be simplistic to think that it was only amusement that won the consensus of the local people.
When Trajan gave the order to build Thamugadi he also launched a campaign to promote the cultivation of olives in North Africa, a campaign that would be carried on by Hadrian. Those who planted the olive trees knew that, if they also obtained Roman citizenship, they would be eligible for significant tax benefits and would have the opportunity to sell their products throughout the empire. This also helps explain why so many Numidians and inhabitants of Mauritania were open to embracing the Roman way of life.
The result is that many areas of North Africa became covered with olive trees, and olive oil became a major commodity of the area. Beginning in the era of Trajan, oil production intensifies to the point of becoming seriously competitive with that of Italy and the Iberian peninsula, as is demonstrated by the amphoras that archaeologists have found onsite and in shipwrecks from this period. African oils will gradually go on to outperform those produced on the Italian peninsula.
The Power of Knowledge
Aelia Sabina’s fiancé is sitting at a table, writing a letter to her. She’s still asleep, after the long journey and the long night spent with him He wants to leave her a short note that she’ll find when she wakes up. Not too far away, at this break of dawn on the African plateau, a colleague of his is waiting for him, leaning against a column of the portico. Both of them have to be present at the morning muster.
A young man approaches, observing him in the act of writing.
“What are you doing?” he asks, pointing at the page.
The legionnaire raises his head and looks him straight in the eye. He sees a husky Numidian with curly hair, looking at him with curiosity.
The legionnaire thinks for a minute and then says, “Tell me something that you know that no one else does.”
The young man looks off to the side and then turns back to look at him: “My woman is expecting a baby.”
The legionnaire writes this information on a sheet of papyrus. He folds it and says to him, “Go to my colleague over there, and ask him to open this and read it.”
The young man takes the papyrus. The comrade-in-arms opens it, reads it, then looks at the young Numdian and says, “Congratulations, so you’re going to be a father.”
The young man looks at him as if he has just performed magic.
For those who aren’t able to, writing must indeed seem like a kind of magic. Scenes like this one were repeated countless times throughout history, in all of those border areas where a literate civilization encounters populations without any form of writing. But in the case of the Roman Empire there’s a difference: all you have to do is look at the writings on the walls of Pompeii or displayed on amphoras or, better yet, the words etched on the monuments of Roman cities, to realize that in the empire almost everyone, at least in the cities, knows how to read and write. This had never been the case before, and would not be the case again for many centuries after the fall of the empire. During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, for example, illiteracy was widespread. In the West, not until the twentieth century would literacy return to Roman levels and beyond.
Leptis Magna, City of Marble
Aelia Sabina found lodging not far from the quarters where her fiancé lives. The first purchases she makes in the city are of makeup; she wants to be able to make herself beautiful for her man. She’s bought various powders, small spatulas, and oils, and our sestertius is now in the hands of the shopkeeper who sold them to her.
He’s a short man, bald, with kind-looking eyes, always ready to smile and make his customers feel at ease. The day after he sells the makeup to Aelia Sabina, he starts on a journey to Leptis Magna, where he is due to receive a delivery of some perfumes and oriental essences arriving from Alexandria. Our sestertius is back on the sun-scorched road.
The perfumer arrives in Leptis Magna after spending a night in an inn. The city appeals to him; it’s very different from Thamugadi, much bigger and more populous, and the air is cool. Leptis Magna is right on the sea, on the coast of present-day Libya, away from the quarries and the sun-parched mountains.
It is also appealing because it is a city of marble, full of masterworks of art. It won’t reach its maximum splendor for another century or so, when Septimius Severus, the African emperor who was born right here, will adorn it with new monuments. But it’s already a lively city, its white marble streets full of people.
Two boys chase each other through the crowd and knock over a basket on display outside a grocery shop. The owner comes out and tries to run after them, but they’re too fast, vanishing in the crowd, darting this way and that like squirrels. We close our eyes, sniffing the air. The perfumes of the women passing by are different from those that we smelled in Germany or Provence. They’re more exotic and penetrating, perhaps because we’re closer to Alexandria, where the fragrances and oriental essences come from.
The people on the streets of Leptis Magna are shorter than we have seen previously, and they tend to have thick, black, curly hair. Three matrons pass by on the street wrapped in brightly colored tunics in various shades of yellow, pink, red. They have full forms and make no effort to conceal them as is the custom in modern times; on the contrary, they seem satisfied to display them in flashy colors. In this era, the ideal female figure is curvaceous and abundant, especially around the hips.
The perfume seller is walking through the market in Leptis. It’s a large square with two buildings at either end that look like round temples. Here, too, we are surrounded by marble. Even the fishmonger stands are outfitted with gleaming white marble tables, their feet elegantly sculpted in the form of dolphins. Their counters are piled with fish for sale. The contrast between the snow-white marble and the rivulets of deep red blood dripping from the fish is striking. Making our way through the crowd we approach a stone pillar, engraved with the various units of measure: the Roman foot, the Egyptian royal cubit, and the Punic cubit. On it we also notice an inscription: Annobal Tapapius Rufus, a name that’s half Roman and half Carthaginian. This market, the inscription tells us, was donated to the city by the Tapapi family over a hundred years ago, in 9 CE. They have erected the pillar in accordance with the traditional social obligation to donate monuments (but also, let’s face it, to leave something of themselves to history).
The same is true of the Leptis Magna theater. There is an inscription left by a certain Tiberius Claudius Sestius a few years ago (91–92 CE), from which we discover that he, like the Carthaginian priestess Sextia, also serves a cult dedicated to a dead emperor (Vespasian, in this case), who donated to the people the altar and the stage of the theater, because “he loves his homeland, loves to make it more beautiful, loves his fellow citizens, loves social harmony.”
The perfume seller is a passionate theatergoer. He could easily have sent his slave to make this long journey, but his love for the theatrical art is so intense that he travels here from the mountains whenever he can, and he never misses a production staged by the leading theater companies.
The theater in Leptis Magna is magnificent. The semicircular arc of its ramped seats looks like the curve of a clam shell, and from the uppermost row of seats you can see the expanse of the Mediterranean. This open-air Roman theater is a perfect union of extremes: the white of the marble with the deep blue of the sea, the hard surface of the seats with the soft texture of the waves. It’s a unique place, especially in the late afternoon, when the sun becomes a red disk. Even those who sit here today, two thousand years later, feel the pleasures of the mind combined with the pleasures of the eye.
The theater is rapidly filling up with spectators. They arrive a few at a time. The women are made up and well dressed because, as we discovered with Ovid, in the age of empire the theater is one of the main meeting places in the city. The scent of their oriental essences quickly fills the air. Our perfume salesman is able to tell the social status of the women from the perfume they use. The ones at the top are not always the most tasteful. Now, for example, two rows below us a woman is walking by with an enormous hairdo, in the style of the time. Embedded in her hair, amid fake curls and rolled braids, are jewels that hang and dangle like Christmas tree decorations. She doesn’t realize how ridiculous she looks. But nobody would dare tell her: the wealth she inherited when her husband died has made her one of the richest women in the city and one of the most desired and revered. Needless to say, her perfume is excessively strong and pungent. Even our perfumer wrinkles his nose.
We take a look around. The people coming in and gradually taking their seats are quite diverse. Leptis is a port city, and you can see people here from every shore of the Mediterranean. But those here in the theater are not sailors, tourists, or merchants passing through; they’re the inhabitants of the city, and they are all Roman.
An Empire Open to All
Those faces help us discover a fundamental mechanism behind the success and the longevity of Rome on three continents: integration.
The short speech below, about the integration of different ethnic groups, in society and in politics, was delivered almost two thousand years ago by Emperor Claudius, but it could have been read in any parliament today.
In 48 CE, Emperor Claudius made prominent Gauls eligible to sit in the Senate together with their Roman colleagues. The Roman senators were opposed to the idea, prompting the emperor’s response:
To what cause must we attribute the downfall of the Spartans and the Athenians, as strong as they were militarily, if not to the fact that they spurned as aliens those whom they had conquered? Foreigners have ruled over us.…
By now the Galls have become assimilated to us by custom, culture, blood relations: they also bring us their gold and their wealth, rather than keep them for themselves! Senators, everything that we now consider to be of the oldest antiquity was once new; plebeian magistrates came after patrician, Latin magistrates after plebeian; magistrates from still other Italic peoples after Latin.
In these words we can read not only tolerance but even the desire to welcome and integrate diversity into one’s own society. It is truly surprising.
Throughout the Mediterranean, Rome opened its doors to the peoples it conquered, thus creating a multiethnic society. Multiethnic, yes, but with just one official culture: Roman law and Roman administration must not be questioned. Those who do not make sacrifices for the emperor, recognizing his authority and therefore automatically that of the whole Roman world, place themselves against the system and are considered enemies. In his own home, any Roman citizen is free to speak whatever language he wants and practice his religion. But the basic laws and rules of Rome must be accepted; they are the same and undisputable for all. Even the Gauls who became senators no longer paid allegiance to their own tribal laws but to Roman laws. This is a fundamental point for understanding how Rome succeeded in becoming the melting pot of antiquity.
In the field of religion, on the other hand, the Roman attitude is very cautious and respectful, mindful that religious conflict can have serious consequences. In this case too, North Africa offers us an interesting example. The Romans don’t impose religion, but they have an intelligent approach that allows local religions, with their preexisting rituals and ceremonies, to continue to exist. All they have to do is make them appear to be Roman. A local deity might take a Roman name, for example. The Punic god Baal takes the name Saturn and the goddess Tanit acquires the name Celestial Juno. The religion itself doesn’t change; it just undergoes a “restyling” to seem more Roman.
A Black Emperor
Is there discrimination in the Roman Empire? Looking at the racial diversity represented among the people sitting elbow to elbow in the theater in Leptis Magna the answer appears to be no. From the point of view of ethnicity the Roman era may have brought about the greatest integration in history. (People may not be discriminated against on the basis of the color of their skin, but discrimination based on social status or wealth is widespread. And it is fierce. In order to become a senator, for example, one had to possess at least 1 million sesterces and own property.)
Roman society is multiethnic because it integrates, rather than marginalizes, the conquered. Not only are the Romans not racist; they consider ethnic diversity a resource because it is the consequence of social and economic mechanisms that ensure a future for Roman civilization. This is an interesting point.
Since we are here in Leptis, let’s take North Africa as an example. The Romans allow the Africans access to wealth, success, and the highest public offices. Obviously, the basic eligibility requirement is that they have become Roman citizens in the meantime.
The chances of becoming emperor are the same for an African as they are for an Italian or a Gaul. And an African actually did. If you ever happen to see a famous painting on wood depicting Septimius Severus with his whole family, you might be surprised by his very dark skin. No one raised an objection about it, nor about the fact that he spoke Latin with a strong African accent. Septimius Severus was one of the greatest emperors of Rome, who defended its frontiers and managed the empire much better than some of his European colleagues.
So, the Roman Empire had the capacity to put an African in its highest office precisely because it was a system that opened its doors to the incorporated and conquered peoples who embraced its culture. The mechanism of integration was so effective that at the end of the century that we are now exploring fully one-third of the members of the Senate of Rome will be of African origin, perhaps thanks to the prosperity and wealth of the region. This is one of Rome’s most distinctive qualities compared to empires of recent history, such as the English, French, or Spanish, which did not allow people of conquered lands access to high office. In the Roman Empire, however, something similar happened more than once. Trajan, for example, was the first non-Italic emperor in the history of the empire: he was born in Spain.
Our Sestertius Changes Hands
The perfumer hangs on every line of the theatrical production, revels in the special effects, and applauds along with the thousands of other spectators when the curtain falls. Or rather, when it rises: in the Roman era theater curtains rise out in front of the stage, rolling upward like a screen, thanks to an underground apparatus.
The next day, he goes to the harbor and accepts delivery of his goods. He has no trouble recognizing the ship of his Egyptian counterpart. It has an orange sail and the blue eyes painted on the bow to scare off evil spirits are much bigger than the ones on other ships. But more than anything else it’s the Egyptian himself who is easily recognizable. He’s as thin as a rail with long curly hair and deep black eyes. His only clothing is a white skirt that leaves in clear view the muscles of his torso, contracting with each step.
When the perfumer pays for the goods our sestertius changes hands, and we are about to set sail once again. Destination: Alexandria.