Tripolitania and the Phoenicians

Libya Table of Contents

Enterprising Phoenician traders were active throughout the Mediterranean area before the twelfth century B.C. The depots that they set up at safe harbors on the African coast to service, supply, and shelter their ships were the links in a maritime chain reaching from the Levant to Spain. Many North African cities and towns originated as Phoenician trading posts, where the merchants of Tyre (in present-day Lebanon) eventually developed commercial relations with the Berber tribes and made treaties with them to ensure their cooperation in the exploitation of raw materials. By the fifth century B.C., Carthage, the greatest of the overseas Phoenician colonies, had extended its hegemony across much of North Africa, where a distinctive civilization, known as Punic, came into being. Punic settlements on the Libyan coast included Oea (Tripoli), Labdah (later Leptis Magna), and Sabratah, in an area that came to be known collectively as Tripolis, or "Three Cities".

Governed by a mercantile oligarchy, Carthage and its dependencies cultivated good relations with the Berber tribes in the hinterland, but the city-state was essentially a maritime power whose expansion along the western Mediterranean coast drew it into a confrontation with Rome in the third century B.C. Defeated in the long Punic Wars (264-241 and 218-201 B.C.), Carthage was reduced by Rome to the status of a small and vulnerable African state at the mercy of the Berbers. Fear of a Carthaginian revival, however, led Rome to renew the war, and Carthage was destroyed in 146 B.C. Tripolitania was assigned to Rome's ally, the Berber king of Numidia. A century later, Julius Caesar deposed the reigning Numidian king, who had sided with Pompey (Roman general and statesman, rival of Julius Caesar) in the Roman civil wars, and annexed his extensive territory to Rome, organizing Tripolitania as a Roman province.

The influence of Punic civilization on North Africa remained deep-seated. The Berbers displayed a remarkable gift for cultural assimilation, readily synthesizing Punic cults with their folk religion. The Punic language was still spoken in the towns of Tripolitania and by Berber farmers in the coastal countryside in the late Roman period.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress