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Lepcis Magna: History


Statue of Venus, from the Hadrianic Baths. National Archaeological Museum, Tripoli (Libya). Photo Marco Prins.
Statue of Venus, from the Hadrianic Baths. National Archaeological Museum, Tripoli
Lepcis Magna: Phoenician colony, later part of the Carthaginian empire, the kingdom of Massinissa, and the Roman empire. Its most famous son was the emperor Septimius Severus (193-211).  
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Golden Age

In one aspect, Vespasian was the not the successor of Nero, but of Claudius: he was just as generous with grants of Roman citizenship. It has been argued that between 71 and 78, the Lepcitanians were awarded the rank of municipium (cf. IRT 346). Several scholars have believed that this meant that all citizens received the Latin citizenship, and all magistrates the Roman citizenship. It is true that this package of rights existed, and there is no doubt that Vespasian granted it lavishly, but it is unlikely that this grant was given to a city together with the rank of municipium, because a municipium was by definition a town that had kept its ancestral constitution (Gellius, Attic Nights, 16.13), and the idea that a Roman government could award an ancestral constitution together with Latin rights is something like squaring a circle.

What is certain, is that during the reign of Vespasian, Lepcis became a fully Roman town. Iddibal, son of Balsillec, grandson of Annobal, great-grandson of Asmun, who in 72 dedicated a temple to the Great Mother on the Old Forum, is the last Lepcitanian who is recorded with only Punic names (IRT 300). Combinations like Iuttaph Domitius (IRT 599) were more common.

The Great Mother was soon accompanied by another eastern god: the Egyptian Serapis received a shrine. Another monument was an arch dedicated to Vespasian, which survives as a gate in the Byzantine wall; its original function can be deduced from the inscription (IRT 342). The Lepcitanians had every reason to be grateful: the emperor had sent a commissioner, Quintus Julius Cordinus Rutilius Gallicus, to adjust the contested boundary between Oea and Lepcis - no doubt to the advantage of the last-mentioned. Another reason to be grateful was that Lepcis was becoming an increasingly important center of the transsaharan trade after an official named Septimius Flaccus and a Lepcitanian named Julius Maternus had traveled all the way to Lake Chad (Ptolemy, Geography, 1.8.4).
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Dedication to Domitian in the theater (IRT 318)

We would like to know more about this Septimius Flaccus, because it was probably he who awarded the Roman citizenship to the family of the above mentioned boy Phelyssam in whose honor a portico on the Old Forum had been erected. It is likely that his son Septimius Macer, and is identical to the man who is mentioned as ancestor of the emperor Lucius Septimius Severus (Historia Augusta, Severus, 1.2.) The son of the adopted man has plausibly been identified to the young barrister Septimius Severus who was enrolled into the equestrian order at the end of the reign of Vespasian's son Domitian (81-96) and to whom the poet Statius dedicated an ode (Silvae, 4.5). It appears, however, that the man from Lepcis abandoned his career in Italy after the dynasty of Vespasian and Domitian had come to an end. Still, it was a sign of the times that a Lepcitanian could think about a career in Italy, and Septimius Severus was not the only one. A man named Tiberius Claudius Sestius even entered the Senate (IRT 318)

The Hadrianic Baths, Lepcis Magna. Photo Marco Prins.
The Hadrianic Baths

The emperor Trajan (98-117) recognized the Romanness of Lepcis by granting it the rank of colonia, which means that the city was regarded as a little Rome. All inhabitants now received the full citizenship, and the suffetes were from now on called duoviri. (One of the first pair was Septimius Severus: IRT 412.) Inscription IRT 353, written on the Arch of Trajan that was erected in 109 or 110, marks the terminus ante quem. The emperor also spent money for the building of a basilica in Lepcis, but this Basilica Ulpa (mentioned in IRT 543), has not yet been identified.

It may have been a splendid building, because in these years, the Lepcitanians started to use marble. The Curia (town hall) was the first of these buildings, immediately followed by the temple of Augustus and Roma, the temple of Liber Pater, and elements of the theater (IRT 534) and the Chalcidicum. The Villa Nile, with its splendid mosaics, and the second building phase of the Villa Selene are other examples of the splendor of the first half of the second century.

The city was now expanding rapidly, and it comes as no surprise that in 120, an aqueduct was built that brought water from the Wadi Qaam to the city. The sponsor of this project, Quintus Servilius Candidus, also spent money to build a water basin in and a fountain near the theater (IRT 357-359). The water supply was also useful for the new, marble bathhouse, which is usually called "Hadrianic Baths" (IRT 361). It was finished in 137, a decade after the emperor Hadrian (117-138) visited the city.

Statue of Marcus Aurelius as a young man. Museum of Lepcis Magna. Photo Marco Prins.
Statue of Marcus Aurelius as a young man (Museum of Lepcis Magna)

During the reign of the next emperor, Antoninus Pius, the Lepcitanians reached the summit of what was under normal circumstances possible. A cousin of Septimius Severus, Publius Septimius Aper, reached the consulship, the highest possible office in the Mediterranean world (153). He had traveled widely and had served as governor of Lycia-Pamphylia, as commander of the Sixteenth legion Favia Firma (based on the banks of the Upper Euphrates) and as governor of Germania Inferior. He was not the only African to make a career in Rome: his brother Gaius Septimius Severus was consul in 160, and in fact, we can discern a true wave of Africans finding their way into the emperor's service.

An interesting reference to Lepcis Magna, dating from these years, can be found in the Geography by Ptolemy of Alexandria. The great scientist refers to the city as "New City or Lepcis Magna" (4.3). There is no explanation why Lepcis was called a "new city". However, we know that Ptolemy based his work on the studies of a Phoenician named Marinus of Tyre, and it is possible that he had inserted an antiquarian reference to the name given to Lepcis -a Libyan name- by the original settlers, Kart hadašt ("new city"). However, this is mere speculation.

This was the golden age of the Roman world, and the citizens knew that they were blessed with a series of capable rulers. The Lepcitanians honored Antoninus with a statue on the Old Forum, an altar in the theater (IRT 376), and an Arch over the Decumanus. Another monument from this age is the expensive silver statue that was dedicated to Septimia Polla, a daughter of Septimius Severus, a niece of consul Septimius Aper, and the aunt of the future emperor Lucius Septimius Severus. The amount of silver, 15719/20 pounds (51¾ kg), is carefully recorded on the pedestal (IRT 607).

Perhaps the success of the Lepcitanians in Italy explains the decline in urban projects at home. A senator had to invest money in the Italian cities to create a network of clients; as a corrolary, this money could not be spend at home. Only two minor monuments can be dated to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161-180): the starting boxes of the circus and an arch. During the reign of his son Commodus (180-192), the Palaestra was redecorated. Another explanation for the decline in urban projects is that the monuments of this age were built in the quarters southwest of the Decumanus, which have not been excavated yet.

Bust of the emperor Septimius Severus. Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki (Greece). Photo Marco Prins.
Bust of the emperor Septimius Severus (Archaeological Museum of Thessaloniki)

The Arch of Marcus Aurelius was dedicated in 173 by the governor of Africa, the Gaius Septimius Severus who had been consul in 160 (above). The inscription, published in L' année épigraphique (1967, 536), is interesting because it also mentions the governor's deputy, his cousin Lucius Septimius Severus. Born in Lepcis Magna in 145 or 146, this man had a normal career that brought him to many parts of the Roman world: quaestor in 170 and 171; deputy of the proconsul of Africa in 173; tribune in 174; praetor in 178; iuridicus in northern Spain in c.180; commander of the Fourth legion Scythica in Syria in c.182; propraetor of Gallia Lugdunensis in 186-189; proconsul of Sicily in 189-190; and finally consul in 190 - the third in his family to achieve this position.

A relief of a peasant with a dromedary. Museum of Bani Walid (Libya). Photo Marco Prins.
A peasant on a relief from the Bani Walid museum

The next step was the governorship of Pannonia Superior, where he was commander of two legions (I Adiutrix and the XIV Gemina). He was probably aware of the conspiracy against Commodus that was to bring Pertinax on the throne, and may have been chosen by the conspirators for the Pannonian governorship because he was a capable soldier who might deter challengers of the new emperor. As it happened, however, Pertinax was killed by angry soldiers, and civil war broke out. Severus, who commanded the army closest to Italy, immediately marched on Rome, where he was recognized as emperor.

His reign was marked by military expansion in almost every direction, but his most impressive project was the conquest of the semi-desert south of Lepcis. It had probably been the wish of the commanders of III Augusta to occupy the oases of Bu Njem, Gheriat el-Garbia, and Ghadames, because control of the wells was imperative to keep aggressive Garamantes away from Tripolitana. However, the oases were too small to support hundreds of soldiers. Severus solved the problem by offering money to build dams and sluices in the wadis: the entire zone was developed and changed into a fertile landscape, full of farms. Many peasants saw their lives improved. Their products not only made it possible to feed the new garrisons of the Limes Tripolitanus, but also boosted the economy of the nearby cities of Tripolitana. In advance of this development, Severus added free olive oil to the system of food supply of Rome (annona).


The arch of Severus

In 203, Severus visited Lepcis Magna. The population had built an arch for their famous son and one man, Marcus Junius Punicus, had erected four statues in the theater, probably hoping that the emperor would notice it and help his career (IRT 392, 403, 422, 434). Whether Severus did so, is not recorded, but he did help his city. In the first place, he presented his fellow-citizens with the right not to pay tribute (Digests, 50.15.8.11). In the second place, public utilities were improved. The aqueduct was expanded - Lepcis is believed to have had about 100,000 inhabitants - and the port was renovated (for example, a lighthouse was built). The Hadrianic Baths witnessed repairs (IRT 393, 396) and the Macellum received a new entrance.

But the most spectacular gift to the city was the restructuring of the road that connected the Hadrianic Baths to the port, and is now known as the Colonnaded Street. At the beginning was a square with a nymphaeum, and along the Colonnaded Street a rather unimaginative new Forum was built, known as the Severan Forum. On one side was a temple for Septimius family, on the opposite end was a large basilica, which has survived remarkably well.

However, not everybody was convinced of the wisdom of Severus' lavish spendings. The historian Cassius Dio, who was the provincial governor of Africa in 223, believed that money had been wasted (Roman History, 77.16.3). He may have been right: in the year in which the basilica was finished, 216, Rome was preparing for a war against the Parthians, which did not end with a Roman victory. Defeats against the Sasanian Persians and Alamanni were next, and Dio believed that the money ought to have been spent to the army. But he had the benefit of hindsight. Severus, who believed he had brought peace to the Empire, can be forgiven for trying to emulate his ancestors: he had wanted to be one of the many benefactors of his city - and he had succeeded.

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Literature

  • A.R. Birley, Septimius Severus. The African Emperor (1999³ London)
  • Oriana Dal Bosco & Maria Teresa Grassi, Libia mediterranea e romana (20054; Firenze)
  • Antonino Di Vita e.a., La Libye antique. Cités perdues de l'empire romain (1998 Paris)
  • K.D. Matthews, Cities in the Sand (1957 Philadelphia)
  • Fergus Millar, The Emperor in the Roman World (1977)
  • Erwin Ruprechtsberger, Die römische Limeszone in Tripolitanien und der Kyrenaika, Tunesien - Libyen (1993 Aalen; Limes Museum)
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© Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2007
Revision: 1 March 2008
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