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De Africa Romaque: Merging Cultures Across North Africa

De Africa Romaque: Merging Cultures Across North Africa

Edited by Niccolò Mugnai, Julia Nikolaus, and Nick Ray (Society for Libyan Studies Conference Volume 1). Society for Libyan Studies, London 2016. £30. ISBN 978-1-900971-33-1 (paper).

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This book, which derives from a conference held in 2013 in Leicester, reflects the recent development in North African studies of focusing on the region’s pre-Roman phase and its many local afterlives throughout the Imperial period. As the editors put it, their main goal is to concentrate on North Africa’s “local peoples” (3). The integration of papers dealing with material from Egypt (Morkot, Bigi, Carpentiero) and eastern Libya (Oldjira and Walker, Morkot, Gasparini), frequently excluded in conferences on ancient North Africa, marks important progress in this field, even if it reconfirms that cultures there differ significantly from those in northwestern Africa. Although there is even balance between young scholars and well-known specialists, the composition of nationalities publishing papers could be criticized: out of 19 papers, 11 were written by U.K.- or U.S.-based scholars and seven by Italian authors, while only Jerray and Oldjira represent North Africa itself. Given the recent internationalization of North African studies, especially among younger scholars, the limited participation is somewhat disappointing.

Most of the contributing authors seem to perceive “indigenous” and “Roman” cultures as potentially clearly definable entities, so further theoretical discussion is widely lacking (exceptions being Mattingly and Stone). Even if most of the authors avoid contrasting these poles and instead show their intermingling (esp. Hitchner in his summary), the overall theoretical approach still navigates the waters of established, but problematic, binary models: external powers on the one hand and indigenous groups on the other. One should ask, however, if cultural intermingling or “politically (more) correct” terms such as “Romano-African” (5) are really better approaches than the long-propagated “vulgar” cultural dichotomy, since the cultural terms almost all authors operate with remain exactly the same. In spite of this criticism, the book contains many important contributions presenting new material and interesting hypotheses. Being a specialist on northwestern Africa, I concentrate on articles from this region.

Mattingly’s excellent paper is very useful because it summarizes concisely how much the urban and agricultural landscapes of imperial Africa depended on pre-Roman achievements. His thoughts on the recently proven “success” of early first-millennium B.C.E. communities go far beyond traditional urban-centered views, although for some of his examples, such as Mididi and Bagat, we lack reliable chronological and material evidence. Stone analyzes burial mounds of the first millennium B.C.E. through an account of the volumes and the efforts to construct such tombs. His innovative approach, successfully applied in prehistoric archaeology elsewhere, sheds new light on the social practices behind such mounds. Although Stone argues with some probability for a linking of these tombs with the first state formations in the Maghreb, the big problem remains reliable dating. For most of the mounds, we do not know whether they were constructed before, during, or after the constitution of the known African states. Recent work by Sanmartí and others (“Roman Dolmens? The Megalithic Necropolises of Eastern Maghreb Revisited,” in M. Díaz-Guardamino et al., eds., The Lives of Prehistoric Monuments in Iron Age, Roman and Medieval Europe [Oxford 2015] 298, 302–3) has shown that remarkable efforts on burial mounds were undertaken as late as the fourth or fifth century C.E. Camporeale discusses the origin and diffusion of opus quadratum and opus africanum in Africa. His fieldwork-based analyses in Morocco provide much new information, including precise typologies. The most important result is to free the building techniques from their cultural dimensions and to focus instead on regional variability, symbolic value, advantages in static flexibility, and adaptation to differing materials.

Hobson reassesses “Roman imperialism” in Africa from 146 to 46 B.C.E. Based on centuriation, literary evidence, and circulation of coins and ceramics, he argues against the old assumption that Rome initially showed no interest in its newly conquered African territory. I agree with the general message of his paper, although some problems remain. His diffusion schemes present lacunae both in quantities and chronological precision since most of the quoted material circulated notably longer than the period considered. Second, he does not provide any new hard evidence for the dating of Tunisia’s centuriation systems. Third, much of his evidence comes from areas (Mauretania, Thugga’s environs) annexed by Rome only after 46 B.C.E. Merrills provides an interesting reading of Pliny’s report on the last “classical” triumph of Balbus ex Africa. He suggests that Pliny’s intention was to present a throng of defeated cities to highlight the magnitude of the imperial victory rather than to impart any geographic information. The town list should also be considered as an authentic source for ancient writers, worth reproducing in its entirety. By closely examining three Late Antique religious texts, Sears argues against the widely accepted hypothesis of a Catholic stronghold in Tipasa. In the author’s view, no text provides clear references to Tipasa’s religious identity in late antiquity.

Jerray presents significant new material from recently detected ceramic kilns in Zitha, which produced Tripolitana I/II, Dressel 2–4, and Africana II amphora types during the first century and ca. 250 C.E. This relatively early chronology and the link to recent ceramic kiln studies in Tripolitania make this study particularly valuable. Russell reminds us to take imported brick, tiles, and stone seriously as desirable building material. They were an important part of the trade between Italy and Africa and not simply ballast on returning grain ships. Russell provides multiple convincing arguments for the existence of a market for them.

Nikolaus deals with the mausoleum culture in imperial Tripolitania. Her study is based on the architectural and sculptural decoration of more than 140 tombs, where agricultural practices, trade, combat, and hunts were depicted. However, the social implications of such depictions remain unclear. This reviewer would have liked to see discussion of questions such as why these themes appeared in this region and whether they represented realistic scenes or reflected local visual conventions highlighting the builder’s social status and wealth. Similar depictions in other Roman provinces provide useful parallels for what could have been attempted (see, e.g., S. Ritter, “Zur Bildsprache römischer ‘Alltagsszenen’: Die Mahl- und Küchenreliefs am Pfeilergrabmal von Igel,” BJb 202–203 [2002–2003], 149–70). Mugnai’s paper on Mauretania Tingitana’s architectural decoration is of great interest, since it presents much unpublished material (mainly from Sala) and carefully discussed dating proposals. Several late Mauretanian features, such as double-torus bases without plinths and Egyptian gorges, were maintained in the Imperial period. Local studies of this kind are essential for revising the outdated handbooks on North African architecture.

Pensabene takes on the renaissance of Hellenistic forms in Africa’s (and other regions’) Late Antique architecture. Unfortunately, there is little chronological discussion and almost no citation of previous scholarship on the works he discusses, which leads to some surprising dating. The capitals of Bulla Regia and Thugga have been dated to the second to first centuries B.C.E. by Aounallah and colleagues (S. Aounallah and J.-C. Golvin, eds., Dougga: Etudes d’architecture religieuse. Vol. 2, Les sanctuaires du forum, du centre de l’agglomération et de la Grande rue courbe [Bordeaux 2016] 29, 40), not to the first to second centuries C.E. as Pensabene states (242). Mustis’ capitals do not belong to a gate of the Temple of Apollo, nor is their Julio-Claudian stratigraphic dating by Ferchiou (“L'arc double à trois baies de Mustis,” Africa 10–11 [1992–1993] 277–363) to be challenged. Pensabene’s conclusion that most references to Hellenistic forms appeared only in the third century C.E. is therefore unconvincing. As Mugnai’s and Nikolaus’ papers and the bulk of the evidence quoted by Pensabene himself prove, there was constant and uninterrupted reference to the pre-Roman decorative elements in Africa. Leone deals with statues of the emperor in Late Antique Africa—their reuse and the possible shift in their functions. She credibly argues for the existence of a market for the reuse of such statues in Africa, as several storage contexts attest. Therefore, statues of emperors might have gained an aesthetic value in late antiquity beyond their cultic implication.

In conclusion, De Africa Romaque—as is the case with most conference publications—casts both light and shadows. Its quick publication demonstrates that “local peoples” have finally found their legitimate place in North African studies and are perceived as a fruitful field of research today, even for young scholars. However, we need more local studies and theoretical and terminological reflection on the multilingual material evidence if we are to intelligently judge the larger cultural developments.

Stefan Ardeleanu
Deutsches Archäologisches Institut

Book Review of De Africa Romaque: Merging Cultures Across North Africa, edited by Niccolò Mugnai, Julia Nikolaus, and Nick Ray

Reviewed by Stefan Ardeleanu

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 121, No. 4 (October 2017)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1214.Ardeleanu

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