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Mauritania in Roman times

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Ruins of the Arch of Caracalia in the Mauritanian capital of Tingitana Volubilis
Ruins of the Arch of Caracalia in the Mauritanian capital of Tingitana Volubilis

Currently, Mauritania is a country in northwest Africa, on the Atlantic Ocean. It has a land border with Senegal, Mali, Algeria and Western Sahara, and most of its territory is occupied by the Sahara Desert. In antiquity, however, Mauritania was called the land on the Mediterranean coast in what is now the northern part of Morocco and the northwest of Algeria.

From the east, it bordered Numidia, and from the south, it was bordered by the Atlas mountain ranges (mainly the Tell Atlas in the east and the Rif mountains in the west). The area finally came under Roman rule in 40 CE, and in 42-43 CE, two provinces were established on its territory: Mauritania Tingitana (western part) and MauritaniaCaesariensis (eastern part). The inhabitants were nomadic Berbers, the largest of which were called Moors (Latin Mauri), from which the name came. Ancient Mauritania geographically had nothing to do with the modern country of that name.

Before Roman rule

The African coastlines of ancient Mauritania were colonized by Phoenicians and Carthaginians in pre-Roman times. The Romans made their first contact with the Kingdom of Mauritania, which existed as a Berber state from the 2nd century BCE, during the war with Yugurta. Initially, the King of Mauritania, Bocchus I, was allied with the Numidians (through family ties with Jugurtha, who was his brother-in-law) against the Romans, but later – in 105 BCE he betrayed his ally by giving him away Sulla, which deserved the friendly attitude of the Republic. Probably already then, as a reward for help, Mauritania received part of Numidia.

After the death of Bocchus I in 80 BCE, his kingdom was divided among his sons into a western and an eastern part. During the Roman civil war between Caesar and Pompey (49-45 BCE), the rulers of both parts of Mauritania supported Julius Caesar. At that time, the eastern part was ruled by Bocchus II and the western part by Bogud. By opting for the victorious side, Bocchus was given another area of ​​Numidia for Mauritania, to the Amsagi River (today Rhumel in Algeria), which became a long-standing border between Mauritania and Numidia. In another civil war between Octavian Augustus and Mark Antony the rulers of both parts of Mauritania took different positions. on the sides: Bocchus II on the first side, and Bogud on the second. Soon, in 38 BCE, after the rise of the population of the city of Tingis (now Tangier in Morocco), Bogud’s rule in western Mauritania was overthrown, and the whole kingdom was united by Bocchus II.

After his death in 33 BCE, Mauritania was governed directly by Octavian Augustus, until 25 BCE, when he handed it over to Juba II, son of the last king of Numidia, Juba I, creating a unified satellite state of Rome from Numidia and Mauritania. Under the direct management of Mauritania, Emperor Augustus established thirteen veteran colonies there – most of them on the present Algerian coast, three inland, and three on the present Moroccan coast. After the establishment of the Moorish-Numidian satellite state in 25 BCE, these colonies became enclaves and were incorporated into the southern Spanish province of Betica. Juba II was a staunch Roman ally during his long reign until 24 CE. The capital of Mauritania was Caesarea Mauretaniae (today the city of Cherchell in Algeria) – Caesarea Moorish, named after Octavian.

In 6 CE, with the help of the Roman proconsul of Africa, Cossus Cornelius Lentulus, the rebellion of the Moorish tribes against Juba II was suppressed. In the following years, Moorish troops assisted the Romans in suppressing the Takfarinas uprising in neighbouring Numidia. After the death of Juba II in 24 CE, his son with Cleopatra Selene (daughter of Marcus Antony and Cleopatra) took the throne, Ptolemy. Although like his father, he was a staunch ally of the Romans, he was murdered on the orders of Caligula during his visit to Rome, in CE 40. At the same time, Caligula gave the order to annex Mauritania and turning it into a province.

Unfortunately, the very brutal and unfair treatment of allies was not something unique for the Romans. After the murder of the ruler in Mauritania, an anti-Roman uprising broke out under the leadership of Aedemon, a slave freed by Ptolemy. The war in Mauritania lasted until 42 CE, when the insurgents were finally defeated, thanks to a military action led by senators Gaius Suetonius Paulinus and Gnaeus Hosidius Geta, which was already under the reign of the next Emperor Claudius. In early 43 CE, two Roman provinces were organized in Mauritania: Mauritania Tingitana and Mauritania Caesariensis.

Mauritania in the 1st century BCE
Photo: Arienne King/Ancient.eu

Mauritania Tingitana

Mauritania Tingitana is a province that included the western part of the ancient Kingdom of Mauritania, it is today’s northern Morocco. The name of the province comes from the city of Tingis. The border between the two provinces of Mauritania was the Molochat River (today Vadi Muluia in the east of Morocco). In the south, the province extended to the cities of Sala Colonia on the Atlantic coast and Volubilis. The southern border of the province, apart from the fortifications at the ocean coast, was very irregular and was based on a system of bases and towers in which Roman troops were stationed. Roman troops stationed in the province were auxiliary troops. The seat of the Roman governor of the province in the years 43-280 CE was Volubilis, which was then in its heyday, including: the forum basilica, the capitol, the arch of Caracalla. After the loss of Volubilis at the end of the reign of Emperor Probus, the coastal capital of Tingis (now Tangier) on a peninsula opposite Gibraltar became the provincial capital. Other important towns in the province were Iulia Valentia Banasa, Septem (today’s Spanish Ceuta), Rusadir and Lixus. During the reign of Juba II, the following colonies were established on the Atlantic coast: Iulia Constantia Zilil, Iulia Valentia Banasa and Iulia Campestris Babba.

The province, despite long periods of peace on the part of the desert Berber tribes, there were periods of wars and uprisings. In 118 and 122 CE, Hadrian suppressed the uprisings of the Berber people. Under Antoninus Pius, another Moorish uprising broke out in 150 CE, which had to be suppressed by troops also brought from Europe. In 171 CE, an expedition of the Moors even crossed Gibraltar and plundered southern Spain. Emperor Marcus Aurelius managed to restore peace for about a century through military and diplomatic methods.

During the empire’s crisis, between the reigns of Valerian (253-260 CE) and Probus (until 280 CE), there were periods of regular wars between Roman troops and the coalition of Moorish tribes. These wars reduced the province almost to the Mediterranean coast and the peninsula opposite Gibraltar.

In terms of economy, Tingitana Mauritania’s main exports were purple dyes, wood, agricultural products and animals such as lions and leopards. The Moors of the provinces were valued as soldiers making up the perfect cavalry troops. As a result of the administrative reform of Diocletian, the province was incorporated into the diocese of Spain and the prefecture of Gaul, separating it from the rest of Mauritania. Roman rule in Mauritania Tingitan ends in 429 CE, when the Vandals, at the request of the last prefect of Africa, Bonifatius, crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. Theoretically, they were to help him in the conflict with Valentinian III, and in fact they did not submit to the Romans and created their own country in Africa, including Mauritania.

Ruins of the amphitheatre in Tipasa, Mauretania Caesariensis

Mauritania Caesariensis

Mauretania Caesariensis is a province that covers the eastern part of the ancient Kingdom of Mauritania, it is nowadays northwestern Algeria. The capital of the country was Caesarea Moorish. The province had eight Roman colonies founded by Emperor Augustus: Cartennas, Gunugu, Igilgili, Rusguniae, Rusazu, Saldae, Zuccabar and Tubusuctu, two colonies founded by Claudius: Caesarea and Oppidum Novum, one founded by Nerva: Sitifis, as a colony of veterans on the border with Numidia, later established the following colonies: Arsenaria, Bida, Siga, Aquae Calidae, Quiza Xenitana, Rusucurru, Auzia, Gilva, Icosium and Tipasa.

As in the case of the other part of Mauritania, purple, wood and grain were exported from here to Rome. For a long time, not much attention was paid to the African provinces, the rising of the Moors here, as in neighbouring Mauritania, Tingitana. Originally from Libya, Emperor Septimius Sever by commissioning military expeditions to Garama and against the Berber tribes significantly shifted the borders of Mauretania Caesariensis to the south. A number of fortified Roman camps were built on the southern border of the province, creating a fortified border, the so-called limes, including it in the defence system of the province of Africa.

The growing pressure of the Berbers in the 3rd century CE caused the province to gradually return to the pre-Septimius Severus borders. As a result of the administrative reform of Diocletian in the eastern part of Mauretania Caesariensis the new province of Mauritania Sitifensis was created with its capital in Sitifis (today Setif in Algeria). Around 430 CE, the province was conquered by the Vandals, like Tingitana before it, and fell away from the Western Roman Empire. The province was Christianized in the 4th and 5th centuries CE, but previously the capital, Caesarea of ​​Moorishness, was the largest centre of Judaism in the Empire, and in Sitifis it was the site of the military cult of Mithras. It should also be recalled that from Mauritania Caesariensis was one of the best generals of Trajan Lusius Quietus and one emperor Macrinus.

Summary

Although the modern state of Mauritania has the same name as the ancient kingdom and Roman province, geographically it has nothing to do with them. The name was adopted because of the Berber people living in this country, previously also known as Moors. Geographically and also demographically, ancient Mauritania should be equated with Morocco and Algeria.

Author: Eligiusz Idczak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
Sources
  • Andreas Gutsfeld, Römische Herrschaft und einheimischer Widerstand in Nordafrika. Militärische Auseinandersetzungen Roms mit den Nomaden, Stuttgart 1989.
  • Claude Lepelley, Afrika. W: Rom und das Reich 44 v. Chr. – 260 n. Chr. Bd. 2: Die Regionen des Reiches. Monachium, Lipsk 2001.
  • Christian Witschel, Zur Situation des römischen Africa während des 3. Jahrhunderts, Stuttgart 2006.
  • Maria Radnoti-Alföldi, Die Geschichte des numidischen Königreiches und seiner Nachfolger, Bonn 1979.

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