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Border between Rome and Garamantes – Limes Tripolitanus

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ruins of the Roman fort Tisavar, belonging to Limes Tripolitanus
Ruins of the Roman fort Tisavar, belonging to Limes Tripolitanus

The most famous Roman fortifications are the border fortifications in Europe, such as Hadrian’s wall and Antoninus in Britain, Upper Germanic-Rhaetian limes in southern Germany, Lower Germanic-Rhaetian limes on the Rhine in today’s Germany and the Netherlands. There was Limes Sarmaticus on the Danube, border fortifications were also built in Dacia and the Crimea.

On its southern border, the Empire protected its property with less known lines of fortifications, such as the so-called fossatum Africae (now in Tunisia and Algeria), where the main element of the fortifications was a deep moat, and Limes Tripolitanus in today’s eastern Tunisia and in Libya, about which we know a little more today. The main purpose of the fortifications in Libya was to protect the Roman port cities of Africa Proconsularis, such as Leptis Magna, Sabratha and Oea from the threat of site of the Garamant Berber tribe. They lived south of the Roman borders, having their capital in the city of Garama, in the land called by the Romans Phazania – Latin. Phazania (today Fezzan in Arabic) – the southwestern region of Libya (one of the three main regions of Libya apart from Tripolitania and Cyrenaica).

Relations between Garamats and the Romans in the 1st century BCE and 1st century CE

Although the areas of Tripolitania within the province of Africa Proconsularis were subordinate to the Romans from 146 BCE and the capture of Carthage, is the first major hostilities on the border, according to Pliny the Elder took place in 19 BCE, when Lucius Cornelius Balbus undertook an expedition deep into Africa, departing from Sabrathy. He conquered the capital of Garamants – Garama and their 15 other settlements. Balbus probably reached the Niger River in Africa and around the city of Timbuktu. Then the Berbers of today’s Libya militarily supported the Takfarinas uprising in Numidia and Mauritania (CE 17-24). Later during the first century CE relations between Rome and the Garamantes were friendlier. Probably both were satisfied with the trade, and the Garamantes, understanding the military superiority of the Romans, did not undertake significant plundering expeditions. The Imperial military probably learned to use camels in desert hostilities, depriving the Berbers of their only military advantage. However, single attacks by nomads on the cities of the Roman coast certainly happened: around 50 CE. the expedition of Septimius Flaccus took place, which, according to Ptolemy, was to be carried out in retaliation for the Berber attack on Leptis Magna. This expedition reached Lake Chad, in ancient times much larger than today, called by the Romans “the lake of hippos”. According to some sources, the Flakkus expedition took place with the assistance and help of Garamants, with whom the Romans developed friendly relations. In 69 CE The Berbers participated in the conflict between the cities of Leptis Magna and Oea on the other side, and only the quick intervention of Roman troops saved the second city from being plundered. However, it was the last major expedition of Garamants to Roman lands. Another Roman research expedition deep into Africa also passed through their lands – around 90 CE. led by Julius Maternus. It started off the coast of Cyrenaica and also reached Lake Chad. Ptolemy relates that the expedition was accompanied by the King of Garamants for 4 months.

Construction of Limes Tripolitanus

Despite friendship and trade with Sahrawi nomads, in order to defend themselves against the occasional attacks on the fertile lands of the Tripolitania coast and the wealthy port cities of Leptis Magna, Oea and Sabratha, the Romans began to build fortifications. In 75 CE the first defensive fort in Thiges was built. Further fortifications were built during the reign of Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE), who in 123 CE visited Tripolitania. Such Roman fortified camps were established: Tillibari, Tisavar, Thenadassa and Bezereos. During the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211 CE), the province of Proconsular Africa became 198 CE. divided into the provinces of Africa and Numidia. During the reign of the emperor, who also came from Leptis Magna, Limes Tripolitanus reached its maximum range. The Roman Army established about 300 km south of the 2nd century CE border, the Cidamus military camp (today the Ghadames oasis) reaching the border of the Sahara desert and the rocky desert of Hamadah al Hamra. Other fortified camps (castellum) were also established, such as Garbia, Gholaia and Gaerisa. The commander-in-chief of the 197-201 campaign was the legate of Legio III Augustus Quintus Anicius Faustus. His army in 203 CE It took the capital of Garamants – Garama, located about 600 km from Leptis Magna. The capital of the neighbouring country was captured only temporarily, but the Romans maintained numerous permanent posts there, controlling trade routes about 400 km away from the Empire’s border from the 2nd century CE.

Roman conquests in Africa at the beginning of the 3rd century during the reign of Septimius Severus, colour dark – border from the 2nd century, medium colour – areas conquered by legate Quintus Anicius Faustus (location of Cydamus), the brightest colour – areas conquered temporarily or where the Romans held temporary posts.

Veterans were settled in the newly conquered areas, and the areas were artificially irrigated so that agriculture could be cultivated there. The Garamant family was forced to sign a hard treaty under the terms of a peace treaty, essentially reducing it to a satellite state of the Empire. During the veterans’ settlement, fortified villages, the so-called centenarium. The name probably came from the number of a hundred, for that number worked on such a farm under the direction of a veteran, a former centurion. In Tripolitania, around 2,000 such fortified villages were created during the Empire. The system of defensive farms founded by the Romans survived until the 7th century, and partly even until the 11th century.

Remains of the Suq al Awty centenary in today’s Libya

During the reign of Philip Arab (244–249 CE), Limes Tripolitanus was divided into several smaller sections, and this organization survived for several more centuries. Emperor Gordian III in 239 CE after a successful defence campaign, he disbanded some of the legions defending the limes, which significantly worsened the defence situation in the region. Then Valerian in the years 253-254 CE, reformed them due to a war with the so-called coalition. five Berber tribes (Quinquagentiani). The tension and defeats of the Empire on other borders resulted in the gradual abandonment of the fortified military camps and outposts captured by Septimius Severus. Probably under the emperor Gaul (260 – 268 CE) there was a return to borders similar to those in the 2nd century CE, referred to as “more favourable defensive positions”.

In the 4th century CE Limes Tripolitanus had very few regular troops, which made it difficult to defend against nomadic attacks. In view of this state of affairs, the importance of local magnate families and local tribal leaders grew. The combination of the following factors also caused impoverishment and economic crisis in the province.

In 429 CE the diocese of Africa was conquered by the Vandals in the years 430 – 440 CE. Western Roman troops eventually left the Limes Tripolitanus, previously defended by the Empire for several hundred years. In 534 CE the former Africa Porconsularis province for the Byzantine Empire was conquered by the troops of Justinian the Great.

Author: Eligiusz Idczak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Graeme Barker, Farming the desert. The UNESCO Libyan Valleys Archaeological Survey Paryż, Trypolis 1996.
  • Margot Klee, Grenzen des Imperiums. Leben am römischen Limes, Stuttgart 2006.
  • David Mattingly, Roman Tripolitania, Londyn 1995.
  • Erwin Ruprechtsberger, Die römische Limeszone in Tripolitanien und der Kyrenaika, Tunesien – Libyen, Aalen 1993.
  • Egon Schallmayer Der Limes. Geschichte einer Grenze, Monachium 2011.

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