Monday, October 1, 2012


Lepcis Magna reconstructed. 


Lepcis Magna in Tripolitania belongs firmly to western North Africa, separated from Cyrene and Cyrenaica by the desert and the Gulf of Syrte.  It was, therefore, within the area settled by the Phoenicians rather than the Greeks, and under the domination of Carthage. Since its origins differ from those of the Greek cities, whatever the dependence of Greek urbanism on Near Eastern antecedents, there was no continuing Greek tradition to influence its later architectural appearance, in Roman times, as at Cyrene. Instead, the architecture is Roman in form. Traces of the Punic town are scanty (whatever form it took, Punic architecture was less substantial and durable than Greek), despite the fact that a Punic element remained an important part of the population at least until the late second century AD, when the Emperor Septimius Severus, who was born there, was embarrassed at Rome by his sister, who spoke Latin with a heavy Punic accent. Some Punic graves have been excavated, but nothing more, though probably more of the early settlement remains to be discovered in the vicinity of the harbour, where changes in the shore line may have washed away part of the early town.

The visible remains of Lepcis are solidly Roman, evidence of a wealth which depended not only on its Imperial connections through Septimius, but also even at an earlier date on the trans-Sahara trade route, whereby it was a principal source of the exotic or wild animals needed for the games in the amphitheatre at Rome, as well as other commodities. The Roman town was developed near the harbour, of which there are remains of extensive harbour works, including a substantial lighthouse. Central to this Roman town is the original forum, with paving dating back in part to the time of Augustus, though much of it is Claudian in date, part of the improvements paid for by Gaius son of Hanno, a member of the well-to-do Punic population, who commemorated his benefaction in a bilingual inscription in Latin and Punic. The forum had the usual buildings associated with it. There was a basilica on the south-east side, built before AD 53 and completely rebuilt in 312, when Corinthian granite columns replaced the original limestone ones.

On the other side of the forum, facing the basilica, is the temple of Rome and Augustus, built immediately after Augustus' death in AD 14, a conventional Roman podium temple, without a front stair approach but with small staircases at the side, in the manner of the temple of Venus Genetrix at Rome, or the temple of Castor. It had colonnades at the front and sides only, again in the Roman manner, and was built of limestone, the façade being embellished with marble in the second century AD. Despite its pure Roman appearance, its origin is again Punic. An inscription in Punic over the cella door states that it was completed when Balyathon and Bodmelqart were suffetes, the Punic title still being used for the city's magistrates. On the south side, immediately to the west of the temple of Rome and Augustus was another podium temple, also Augustan in date, and also built of limestone, dedicated to Liber Pater. Again, this was rebuilt in marble in the second century. Facing the basilica, on the south side is a building which in plan resembles another temple, but is in fact the curia, the meeting place of the local magistrates and senate, part of the second-century improvements of the area, its Corinthian columns made from cipollino. Finally, on the west side of the forum was another temple, Trajanic in date, whose podium was later incorporated into a church which replaced it.

The main street of the Roman town leads south-westwards out of the forum by the side of the temple/church. It changes alignment after some 50 m or so, at which point it passes through the gateway of the walls constructed to defend the reduced city of the Byzantine period, and continues on this alignment for another 250 m, when it changes again. This second change of alignment is marked by an arch, constructed in the time of Tiberius, which was erected to commemorate the paving of the streets of the city under the proconsul C. Rubellius Blandus in AD 35-36, the cost being met out of the income raised from agricultural land which had been recovered for the city.

Just before this arch is the market, again the work of a Punic inhabitant, Annobal Rufus, and dated to 9 BC. It was not perfectly aligned to the streets, which largely developed after it was constructed. The street it faced, to the south-west, was out of alignment both with the streets running up to the arch of Tiberius and those beyond. Within the colonnaded courtyard are two octagonal buildings, corresponding to the single structure in the market at Pompeii. These buildings (found in markets and agorai elsewhere, for example at Side in Pamphylia) seem to have served as stalls. The market, originally built in limestone, was largely rebuilt in the Severan period, using marble for the southern octagon, though the other remained limestone. The columns of the porticos were renewed in grey granite, with Corinthian capitals, and at the same time a new entrance passage was made through from the main street.

Shortly after the arch of Tiberius, on the new alignment of the street, a four-sided arch was dedicated in AD 110, at the time when the Emperor Trajan elevated the town to the status of a colonia. Beside the arch, on the northern side of the road, as is the market, is a courtyard building of AD 12, built by Iddibal Caphada Aemilius, containing shops and a shrine. North of it is the theatre, a typical Roman semicircle, with a western-type stage building.

This, like the market, was given to the city by Annobal Rufus, who recorded his gift in an inscription in Latin and Punic over the passages leading from the orchestra. Other donors improved or added to the theatre subsequently, the names they recorded including Sophaniba daughter of Annobal Pusa in AD 36, and Tiberius Claudius Sestius in 92. More improvements, especially to the stage building, were carried out in the reign of Antoninus Pius, when the scaenae frons was given marble columns.

Beyond the arch of Trajan is a substantial area with its own distinctive grid alignment, the latest discernible regular addition to the layout of the city. Since it is either parallel or at right-angles to the section of the main street where Trajan's arch is placed, presumably this area represents an enlargement of the city coincidental with its new status, though the alignment of the theatre may indicate an earlier date. (More likely, the existing position of the theatre helped determine the street plan.) How far this extended is not clear. There are no firm indications of city walls to enclose it, only an outer ring of defensive earthworks. There are, however, the remains of a city wall of late Roman date, distinguishable from the still later and reduced Byzantine walls, which suggest that the area to be defended was very considerable indeed. There are many public buildings, known to exist from inscriptions, which have yet to be revealed. The final grid pattern includes a main cross road, now almost at the edge of the ancient remains, which may well be within the final developed street plan. Its junction with the main east-west street is marked by yet another arch, again a tetrapylon, built in honour of Septimius Severus himself, who visited the town of his birth in AD 203. It formed an island, so that traffic would have had to pass round rather than through it. It was built of limestone, but faced in marble. The style of the sculptural decoration on it has been identified as characteristic of craftsmen working at Aphrodisias in Caria, where there is another splendid tetrapylon, while other parts seem more to reflect Syrian taste and form, indicating that workmen were brought to Lepcis to carry out the work, rather than that the various parts of it were imported in a prefabricated state.

Before the arch was built, however, two other structures were already in existence which reveal an alignment totally different to that of the street grid. They lie to the east of the arch, between the street blocks south-east of the longitudinal road and the riverbed, the Wadi Lebda which flows into the harbour. These are the great baths of Hadrian and the related exercise ground, the palaestra. If the street plan in the extension area is coincidental with the Trajanic elevation of the city to colony status, then presumably it did not include this area, which was left open for the construction of the baths. This is more or less proved by still later developments between the baths and the Wadi.

The palaestra is an extensive open space, with a portico round it of Corinthian columns with cipollino shafts. There are large apsidal sections at each end. The bath building is an important and, at this date, very rare example of a symmetrical, organised structure, thermae, of the type evolved by Nero and Trajan at Rome itself, and as far as we know from the surviving instances, the first example of the type outside Rome. The sequence and arrangement are identical to the Roman antecedents: an open-air swimming pool on the north side, in front of the main cold room, the largest roofed room in the complex, with cold plunge pools at either end. Beyond this is a central warm room, followed by the hot room which projects to the south to get the full benefit of the exposure to the sun. In summer it must have been very hot indeed. The whole complex is flanked by the usual ancillary rooms, changing rooms and splendid marble-seated latrines. No exercise grounds are incorporated into this section, since with the palaestra to the north of it, they were not necessary. The interior was embellished appropriately. The main frigidarium was paved in marble, and its roof appeared supported on cipollino columns. All this, however, was a restoration, carried out in the time of Commodus, whose name was deleted from the inscription recording it following his downfall and death.

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