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Getulia – Rome’s African neighbor

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

African warriors. From the left: Numidian aristocrat, Moorish horseman, light Moorish infantry
African warriors. From left: Numidian aristocrat, Moorish horseman, light Moorish infantry

The European and Asian borders of the Roman Empire were the area of ​​constant battles. The former was constantly attacked by barbarians of Germanic and Sarmatian origin, and at the end of the Hun Empire. The latter, in turn, is an area of ​​constant rivalry, first between the Roman and Parthia, and from the 20s of the 3rd century, Roman and Persia.

Hence, the lands and countries adjacent to Rome in Asia and Europe were quite well known and described thanks to the accounts of chroniclers about military operations and political events. However, the Empire still had a long border on its third continent – Africa. After all, the African provinces were very important to Rome because of the supply of grain to the capital. The land south of the Roman provinces of Mauritania Tingitana, Mauretania Caesariensis and Numidia was called by the Romans Gaetulia, and their Berber inhabitants were referred to as Gaetuli.

Map locating Gaetulia south of the Roman provinces of Mauritania and Numidia


Gaetulia is a land in northern Africa in today’s Morocco and Algeria, and in a small part of Tunisia, its northern border was the Empire’s border on the southern slope of the Atlas Mountains. In the west, it extended as far as the Atlantic coast, in the south the oases of the northern Sahara, and in the east to the city of Gigthis in today’s south-eastern Tunisia. Eastern neighbours of Gaetuli were the Berber people known as Musulamii (which was sometimes referred to as the constituent tribe of Gaetuli), and even more eastwards the Garamants – living to the south Libyan provinces of the Empire. In pre-Roman times (Mauritania officially became a Roman province in the 40s of the 1st century CE), the northern coastal slopes of the Atlas were also called Gaetulia, but the inhabitants of this country, although related to Gaetuli, were a separate people – they were in the so-called Moorish tribes (Latin Mauri).


The inhabitants of Gaetulia, like all Berbers, are nomadic people, living in the difficult mountain-desert terrain and climatic conditions on the outskirts of the Sahara. Such conditions meant that the soldiers from here were tough and resistant to the hardships of military campaigns. The inhabitants led a nomadic life, but in the central part of the mountainous part of the land they built huts, and in the coastal areas they lived in the hulls of upside-down ships. In antiquity (according to Strabo’s account), Gaetuli were known for breeding horses. Despite their nomadic lifestyle, they grew crops such as asparagus. Other goods supplied by the inhabitants of Gaetulia were the shellfish Murex brandaris, used to make the purple dye and wild animals such as lions and gazelles. Lions from Gaetulia were famous in Rome for their large size and became a luxury product, eagerly purchased by the richest citizens of the Empire for show purposes.

Roman chroniclers on Gaetuli

Ancient authors from the first century BCE and the beginning of the first century CE due to the cultural and linguistic barrier identified the Berber tribes of Africa as a unified state body. Sallust describes them generally as “Libyans and Gaetuli ” and speaks of them unflatteringly as “rude and uncivilized people” not knowing their name Rome (ignarum nominis Romani), and also those who “were not subject to institutions or law, or to anyone.” These quotations come from the work of Salustius entitled War with Jugurta (Bellum Iugurthinum). In the first century CE Pliny the Elder notices linguistic differences between the inhabitants of Gaetulia and other Numidian and Moorish tribes, which is consistent with the position of contemporary historians. An outstanding Roman writer of the 2nd century CE was of half Numidian and half Gaetul origin. – Apuleius.

Politics and the military

The troops from Gaetulia first appear in the Roman context during Rome’s war against Yugurtha (111 – 105 BCE). The horse troops of Gaetuli were a difficult opponent to the Roman legions. As a result of the victories of Gaius Marius at Cyrta (where large troops of the Berber cavalry were defeated), the war ended and the troops from Gaetulia were disbanded.

Jugurth in chains before Sulla.

During the civil war of Marius with Lucius Cornelius Sulla (88-87 BCE), the former, being forced to flee Rome, took refuge in Africa. During this stay, he formed an army that was supported by auxiliary troops from Gaetulia. Probably, they could have contributed to the victory of Marius and the expulsion of the supporter of Sulla Gnaeus Octavius ​​from Rome.

After ninety years of peace, in the years 3-6 CE was the so-called Gaetuli War. The causes of the war are not fully known, but it is known that the attackers were the Gaetuli, who attacked the territory of Mauritania under Roman sovereignty. Perhaps the Romans had previously tried to treat or treated this Berber tribe as their subjects. In 6 CE the final victorious campaign against the Gaetulas was led by Cossus Cornelius Lentulus, proconsul of Africa, who was nicknamed Gaetulicus for this victory.

In the years 15-24 CE the greatest war broke out during Roman rule in present-day Algeria. A defector from the Roman auxiliaries Takfarinas, a member of the Musulamii tribe, part of the Gaetuli tribe, started an uprising against Roman rule. Probably all the Berber peoples of North Africa participated: Gaetuli with Musulamii, Garamants and Moors (Mauri). The immediate cause was the occupation by the Romans of lands traditionally considered as grazing cattle and goats by nomads. The Berbers waged a guerrilla war, losing direct battles to the Romans, but for 10 years they were not finally defeated. They managed to partially disrupt the grain supplies to Rome, and considerable forces were drawn to defeat them, the Legio III Augustus traditionally stationed in Africa was not enough. In 24 CE Takfarinas was eventually defeated by the Roman commander Publius Cornelius Dolabella. The consequence of the failure of the uprising was the retreat of the Berber tribes to more inaccessible and difficult to survive regions of the Atlas and Sahara mountains. The Romans, on the other hand, having vast meadows at their disposal, created the Empire’s granary here for the next several centuries, transforming large swathes of Mauritania, Numidia and Proconsular Africa into wheat fields. The Gaetuli in the following years joined the Roman army, creating auxiliary units, and trade in wild animals and dyes flourished between the provinces and Berber tribes located to the south.


After the rise of Takfarinas, Gaetuli did not appear in Roman chronicles as an independent military force. The African provinces, however, were at times torn by unrest aroused mainly by the Moors themselves, some of which remained outside the Roman rule and the Garamants in what is today Libya. In the following centuries, Gaetuli adopted Christianity or its popular heresy – Donatism, and later Islam, becoming one of the peoples of the land of Maghreb. Today, the descendants of the ancient Gaethulas are the Berber tribe of Godala, living on the border of Morocco, Mauritania and Western Sahara.

Author: Eligiusz Idczak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Elisabeth W. B.Fentress, Tribe an Faction : the Case of the Gaetuli, w:Mélanges de l'école française de Rome, Rzym 1982, 94-1, pp. 325-334.
  •, Encyclopædia Britannica, data publikacji: 7.06.2017., data dostępu: 16.11.2020.

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