Libya and the Romans

Libya Table of Contents

For more than 400 years, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were prosperous Roman provinces and part of a cosmopolitan state whose citizens shared a common language, legal system, and Roman identity. Roman ruins like those of Leptis Magna, extant in present-day Libya, attest to the vitality of the region, where populous cities and even smaller towns enjoyed the amenities of urban life--the forum, markets, public entertainments, and baths-- found in every corner of the Roman Empire. Merchants and artisans from many parts of the Roman world established themselves in North Africa, but the character of the cities of Tripolitania remained decidedly Punic and, in Cyrenaica, Greek. Tripolitania was a major exporter of olive oil, as well as being the entrepôt for the gold and slaves conveyed to the coast by the Garamentes, while Cyrenaica remained an important source of wines, drugs, and horses. The bulk of the population in the countryside consisted of Berber farmers, who in the west were thoroughly "Punicized" in language and customs.

Although the African provinces profited as much as any part of the empire from the imposition of the Pax Romana, the region was not without strife and threat of war. Only near the end of the first century A.D. did the army complete the pacification of the Sirtica, a desert refuge for the barbarian tribes that had impeded overland communications between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. But for more than two centuries thereafter commerce flowed safely between markets and ports along a well-maintained road system and sea lanes policed by Roman forces who also guaranteed the security of settled areas against incursions by desert nomads. The vast territory was defended by one locally recruited legion (5,500 men) in Cyrenaica and the elements of another in Tripolitania, reinforced by tribal auxiliaries on the frontier. Although expeditions penetrated deep into Fezzan, in general Rome sought to control only those areas in the African provinces that were economically useful or could be garrisoned with the manpower available.

Under the Ptolemies, Cyrenaica had become the home of a large Jewish community, whose numbers were substantially increased by tens of thousands of Jews deported there after the failure of the rebellion against Roman rule in Palestine and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Some of the refugees made their way into the desert, where they became nomads and nurtured their fierce hatred of Rome. They converted to Judaism many of the Berbers with whom they mingled, and in some cases whole tribes were identified as Jewish. In 115 the Jews raised a major revolt in Cyrenaica that quickly spread through Egypt back to Palestine. The uprising was put down by 118, but only after Jewish insurgents had laid waste to Cyrenaica and sacked the city of Cyrene. Contemporary observers counted the loss of life during those years at more than 200,000, and at least a century was required to restore Cyrenaica to the order and prosperity that had meanwhile prevailed in Tripolitania.

As part of his reorganization of the empire in 300, the Emperor Diocletian separated the administration of Crete from Cyrenaica and in the latter formed the new provinces of Upper Libya and Lower Libya, using the term Libya for the first time as an administrative designation. With the definitive partition of the empire in 395, the Libyans were assigned to the eastern empire; Tripolitania was attached to the western empire.

By the beginning of the second century, Christianity had been introduced among the Jewish community, and it soon gained converts in the towns and among slaves. Rome's African provinces were thoroughly Christianized by the end of the fourth century, and inroads had been made as well among the Berber tribes in the hinterland. From an early date, however, the churches in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica developed distinct characteristics that reflected their differing cultural orientations. The former came under the jurisdiction of the Latin patriarch, the bishop of Rome, and the latter under that of the Coptic (Egyptian) patriarch of Alexandria. In both areas, religious dissent became a vehicle for social revolt at a time of political deterioration and economic depression.

Invited to North Africa by a rebellious Roman official, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe, crossed from Spain in 429. They seized power and, under their leader, Gaiseric, established a kingdom that made its capital at Carthage. Although the Roman Empire eventually recognized their overlordship in much of North Africa, including Tripolitania, the Vandals confined their rule to the most economically profitable areas. There they constituted an isolated warrior caste, concerned with collecting taxes and exploiting the land but leaving civil administration in Roman hands. From their African base they conquered Sardinia and Corsica and launched raids on Italy, sacking the city of Rome in 455. In time, however, the Vandals lost much of their warlike spirit, and their kingdom fell to the armies of Belisarius, the Byzantine general who in 533 began the reconquest of North Africa for the Roman Empire.

Effective Byzantine control in Tripolitania was restricted to the coast, and even there the newly walled towns, strongholds, fortified farms, and watchtowers called attention to its tenuous nature. The region's prosperity had shrunk under Vandal domination, and the old Roman political and social order, disrupted by the Vandals, could not be restored. In outlying areas neglected by the Vandals, the inhabitants had sought the protection of tribal chieftains and, having grown accustomed to their autonomy, resisted reassimilation into the imperial system. Cyrenaica, which had remained an outpost of the Byzantine Empire during the Vandal period, also took on the characteristics of an armed camp. Unpopular Byzantine governors imposed burdensome taxation to meet military costs, but towns and public services--including the water system--were left to decay. Byzantine rule in Africa did prolong the Roman ideal of imperial unity there for another century and a half, however, and prevented the ascendancy of the Berber nomads in the coastal region.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress