Exploring a Romano-African city: Thugga
Exploring a Romano-African city: Thugga

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Exploring a Romano-African city: Thugga

2 Investigating Roman and indigenous cultural elements in the archaeology of Africa

2.1 Looking in detail at Thugga

In this section you will be looking in more detail at the city of Thugga and working with the video and further evidence. This study of a city will then broaden out to consider other forms of material and visual evidence from different parts of Africa; you will also watch more video sequences. This section focuses upon one aspect of Romano-African culture: the interplay between Roman culture and indigenous African culture. This theme is one of a range of ‘binary oppositions’ which may be set up as a vehicle for investigating this part of the Roman empire. Other approaches could take the opposition of ‘soldier’ and ‘civilian’, or ‘emperor’ and ‘subject’, or ‘pastoralist’ and ‘agriculturalist’, or ‘desert’ and ‘sown’ areas, using these as avenues of approach to the study of Africa. Here you will be investigating a meeting of cultures: African and Roman. African culture has left none of its own literature, and its achievements have not been as highly valued as other cultures, such as the Greek culture, in the subsequent centuries. Because of this your study will start with material remains and monuments.

The first task is to try to tease out what can be seen as African characteristics in Roman Africa. To do this you will now be working in more detail on the city of Thugga. Thugga lies near the eastern boundaries of Numidia, which was an independent kingdom until 46 BC when it was annexed and became part of the Roman provinces of Africa and Numidia. The kingdom had urban centres such as Thugga, Bulla Regia and Simitthus, and was open to influences from the wider Mediterranean world. There was also a developed culture which had been exposed to Hellenistic influences. A good example of this is the Punic royal funerary monument at Thugga, which combines Punic and Hellenistic features (see Figures 1 and 2). When Numidia became a part of the Roman empire, we might assume that Roman cultural influence would have become more pronounced and that perhaps a Roman identity might begin to emerge. But how might this be identified, and what kinds of things should we look for? Is it possible to see a distinct Roman culture and identity which might be compared and contrasted with a Numidian, or more generally an African, culture and identity?

Figure 1
Figure 1 Tomb of Ateban, son of Ypmatat (Punic mausoleum), early second century BC, Thugga. (Photo: P. Perkins)
Figure 2
Figure 2 The Punic mausoleum in Thugga before reconstruction in 1908–10. The reconstruction (as seen in Figure 1) was based on drawings made before partial demolition in 1842. DAI neg. no. 55.1314. (Photo: Mosdoni/German Archaeological Institute, Rome)

Activity 1

Using your knowledge of parts of the Roman world, and what you have seen in the ‘Exploring Thugga’ video, in the following list of features mark those which you think can be described as Roman in inspiration and which African or at least non-Roman. Also write a few words giving reasons for your choice. In some cases you may come to the opinion that some elements are both Roman and African; if so mark both boxes. You may like to watch ‘Exploring Thugga’ again to help you answer the questions, pausing the video at suitable points.

Exploring Thugga (part 1, 8 minutes)

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This is the city of Thugga, in the ancient kingdom and Roman Province of Numidia. It lies on the slopes of the valley of the Oued Khalled, in a fertile landscape of olives and grain.
The city is well preserved and extensively excavated. We’ll be exploring the remains to investigate how the town developed and what impact Roman occupation had on the city. Thugga was already a flourishing city the 4th century BC. Well before the kingdom of Numidia was added to the Roman Empire, it was a centre of Numidian power.
This is the royal mausoleum of Ateban son of Ypmatat son of Palu, constructed around the beginning of the 2nd century BC by his son Zumar, with Abaris son of Abdastart and Mangi son of Warsacan and the inscription naming them which was torn from the building in 1842 and now lies in the British Museum was written in two languages, Libycan and Punic.
The mausoleum stands on five steps and the lower part is like a house with a window on each side. And pilasters at the corners with lotus flower scrolled capitals.
Above this three further steps rise to a central section with a series of embedded ionic columns around it and surmounted with an Egyptian style moulding.
The upper section, like the lower has lotus flower pilasters at the corners. Above the pilasters is another Egyptian moulding and a pyramid to crown the building.
At each of the four corners stood a winged female figure. And at the top sat a lion. Similar monuments have been found in other parts of North Africa but its details illustrate a fusion of Greek and Egyptian cultural elements which came together in Africa and influenced local expressions of culture.
Clearly Numidia was participating in the culture of the Eastern Mediterranean well before the Roman conquest of Carthage.
Other parts of the city also reveal glimpses of the pre-Roman town - the city walls built of roughly squared blocks with square towers probably date to the late 2nd century BC.
Outside the city walls lay the pre-Roman cemeteries - where bodies were placed, with pottery, in rough stone block chambers, covered by earth mounds.
Within the city itself the irregular plan of the streets goes back to the Numidian city.
Even the Roman period shows no signs of the formal grid layout typical of so many Roman cities. These then are the clearest remains of pre-Roman Thugga. However the city did not suddenly change when the Romans took over Numidia and we can trace the gradual development of the Roman city by studying the surviving buildings and also a remarkable collection / of inscriptions which have been found here.
These inscriptions help us to both identify and date the buildings of the city.
So here we have the Temple of Mercury, which was built in the late second century AD. A long inscription identifies the temple, with its rooms, portico and statues - built by Quintius Pacuvius Saturus, a leading citizen, and his wife Nahania Victoria, an important priestess, according to the will of their son Marcus Pacuvius Felix
Victorianus, at a total cost of 145,000 sestertii. This small temple, dedicated to Augustan Piety, was erected in the first half of the second century AD by Pompeius Rogatus, at a cost of 30,000 sestertii.
These temples surround a square. Engraved on the paving is a wind rose, which marks the points of the compass and the names of the winds, so for example we have the south south – east wind Leuconotus, the south wind, Auster and the south west wind Africus.
The Augustan author Vitruvius describes how to accurately lay out a wind rose and suggests that ideally streets and buildings should be set out to avoid directly facing the North, South, East or West winds.
The wind rose at Thugga matches the description but the layout of the city does not follow the instructions. For example, on the fourth side of the square, the Capitol is aligned to face the south wind.
The Temple is dedicated to the protectors of Rome: Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. In the back wall of the cella are three niches, one for each of the divinities. Above the cella doorway an inscription tells us that Lucius Marcius Simplex Regillianus built the temple.
In the pediment is a mutilated relief of the apotheosis of the emperor Antoninus Pius: he is shown being taken aloft by an eagle.
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Exploring Thugga (part 2, 8 minutes)

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The temple decoration is very Roman - a well preserved example of the Corinthian order. However, the style of stonework is typically North African -with large vertical blocks supporting smaller horizontals forming a framework infilled with smaller stones.
The Capitol towers above the forum to which it is directly connected by two flights of steps. But here it lies across the end of the forum rather than the usual arrangement with the temple facing the forum, as at Ostia or Pompeii.
The porticoes around the forum were given to the city by another of the leading families of Thugga - the Gabinii.
Macellum The macellum or market buildings, around the square to the side of the forum, were built in AD54 by Marcus Licinius Rufus. Little remains of this, and the basilica and other buildings of the forum have not survived because they were demolished and their stones re-used to build a Byzantine fortress over the forum in the sixth and seventh centuries AD.
On the east side of the city lies the heavily restored theatre of Thugga. It gives a good impression of a theatre building, both the stage and the seating. The seating was divided into different areas by barriers and stairways and could be entered from the top or the sides.
The stage was separated from the seating by a low wall with alternating semi-circular and square niches and two sets of stairs.
The stage had the traditional five entrances, one on either side and three in the back wall.
It was richly decorated with marble columns and articulated with a deep central semi-circular niche and square niches to either side.
Written across the frieze of the stage building a long inscription commemorates the donation of the theatre by Publius Marcius Quadratus in 168-9 AD. A member of the same family who gave the city its Capitol temple.
The inscription tells that he built the theatre with curtains and decorations on the occasion of his becoming Flamen for life, one of the most important city priest hoods.
He paid for these with his own money. He also arranged theatrical games and provided gifts and celebrations for the people.
Overall the inscription above the stage celebrates Publius Marcius’ status and honours and records his generosity towards the city. The theatre has his identity stamped upon it and it serves as an indication of his wealth and power.
Not only was the theatre a place for dramatic productions and spectacles but it was also a venue for display by the elite of Thugga for the theatre itself was used as a setting for statues of prominent citizens.
The statues would have been placed within the seating of the theatre, as this surviving fragment of statue base shows. This base has been repositioned to the side of the stage. It honours Marcus Paccius Silvanus. And again we find a reference to the family Gabini - responsible for building the forum portico.
Amongst other things such inscriptions also tell us about the social and political organisation - here we have a ‘pagus’ of Roman citizens and a native ‘civitas’, in the city of Thugga.
These two groups lived together in the city but had different legal rights and forms of local government with the traditions of the Civitas persisting from the pre-Roman period.
These two communities were united in AD205 when the city was granted the title of municipium. They set up this arch to honour the Emperor Septimius Severus.
Later in the same century another arch was set up on the other side of the city to thank the Emperor Severus Alexander for granting tax privileges. In 261 AD the city received the status of colony.
Beyond the arch is a large temple complex dedicated to Caelestis, the Roman goddess who had the attributes and powers of the pre-Roman Punic goddess Tanit.
At the entrance to the temple complex is a bath for ritual purification before entering.
The temple sits on a high podium and has plain columns with Corinthian Capitals running around all four sides and originally enclosing the cella of the temple.
It’s a common design but the semi-circular enclosure is unique, perhaps connected with the symbol of Caelestis, a crescent moon.
Inscription Around this enclosure ran a colonnade, upon which was an inscription commemorating the dedication of the temple to the goddess Caelistis.
It cost 30,000 sestertii, and was paid for by Quintius Gabinius Felix Beatianus.
There are numerous other temples in the city. This ruined temple on a high podium, set in a rectangular colonnaded enclosure, was dedicated to the goddess Minerva.
And this temple - dedicated to the Roman god Saturn, has a similar enclosure with three cult rooms set across a short side.
Set on the hillside at the outer limits of the city, it’s built over the African temple of Baal and is an example of Roman cults taking over the features of original African religions.
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Exploring Thugga (part 3, 8 minutes)

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This collection of votive stones from near Thugga, provide further evidence of this process. At the top of this stone is the figure of Baal, the punic god of the sun, surrounded by sun, moon and stars. But he’s also holding a thunder bolt - the symbol of Jupiter, the Roman god of the heavens. Below him is African Tanit.
Below her are Dionysus and Venus. So overall we have a thorough mixing of Roman and African motifs. In the centre is a representation of a temple with the dedicant - who’s named in the inscription below as Bellicus son of Maximus.
So far we’ve seen mainly religious and civic buildings but there were also other public buildings. Outside the city walls on this plateau, was Thugga’s circus. Little remains now but the building type is well known from other cities and / mosaic representations.
/ From Thugga itself we have this mosaic of the victorious charioteer Eros, who has just left the starting gate. The writing says he’ll do his best for you along with his horses ‘Amiable’ and ‘Jovial’.
/ The chariot races in the circus were particularly popular in North African cities and were a focus of spectacle, gambling and rivalry. Prizes were awarded in a bronze trophy.
/ An amphitheatre has not yet been located in Thugga, and so the Circus remains the only public building for entertainment apart from the Theatre.
Thugga appears to have had at least three public bath buildings.
A small suite of baths in the lower part of the city include a typical small latrine.
Although small, the baths were highly decorated - / including this mosaic of three cyclopes making the thunderbolts of Jupiter in the cave of Vulcan - as described by Virgil in The Aeniad - when the shield of Aeneas is being made.
The baths needed a constant water supply, brought to the city via aqueducts and stored in cisterns. These cisterns also served this bath complex, built in the AD 260s.
This large complex is a symmetrical building with two matching sets of bath rooms arranged around a large cold bath room. This form of bath building allows two separate, but simultaneous routes through the bathing process, one for men and another for women. The plan was modelled on earlier buildings in the city of Rome, such as the baths of Trajan, near the Colosseum.
The complex at Thugga was built by the Licinii family. Tucked down the side of the Punic mausoleum is a tombstone of this once great family of Thugga.
Such families would have lived in houses like this one - the House of the Trifolium.
Many houses were decorated with mosaics, / showing hospitality scenes. / /
This was a means of creating an / image of status and prestige. / So guests would be surrounded by abundance / and luxury. /
/ Here servants pour wine from two amphorae - labelled in Greek PIE - drink! And ZHCHC – good health!
/ In this mosaic Dionysus, the god of wine and fruitfulness - is surrounded by the four seasons - representing the creative energy of nature and its cyclical renewal throughout the year.
/ Here the young Dionysus rides a tiger surrounded by his satyrs and baccantes in a circular procession. Around these is a border composed of scallop shells, tridents and dolphins.
/ Sea motifs are also abundant in this series of mosaics - showing scenes from Homer. For example the legend of Ulysses and the Sirens. From the same floor, another panel shows a scene from the seventh Homeric Hymn, where the young Dionysus drives away Tyrhennian pirates, turned into dolphins as they were cast into the sea. These mosaics come from the centre of the peristyle of a house in Thugga - the House of Ulysses, and illustrate the fusion of cultural elements, which we’ve seen in the development of the city as a whole.
Although some buildings remained distinctly African, while others developed as typically Roman, and some aspects of city life remained separate, such as administration, the overall picture is a rich combination of both African and Roman.
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Feature Roman? African? Reason
City walls
Street plan
Temple of Mercury
Temple of Augustan Piety
Political organisation
Arch of Alexander Severus
Temple of Caelestis
Temple of Saturn
Saturn the god
Construction techniques


To answer the questions thoroughly would require detailed definitions of what was African and what was Roman, but even with such definitions the questions would not be easy to answer definitively and there is some subjectivity involved in the identifications. My answers (below) may differ slightly from yours. If they do, have a look at the reasons you and I have given and see if they explain why our opinions differ.

Feature Roman? African? Reason
City walls These don't surround the whole Roman city and they pre-date most of it, so they are African, even if their construction is not very different to Roman walls.
Street plan The street plan is not like a regular Roman city grid as, for example, in Aosta or parts of Pompeii.
Temple of Mercury The god is Roman but the building doesn't look much like a typical Roman temple.
Temple of Augustan Piety The temple is to a Roman imperial cult, even if the building doesn't look like a typical Roman temple.
Capitol It is typical of Roman cities, e.g. Pompeii or Ostia, and mimics the temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline hill in Rome, even if it has a different relationship to the forum.
Forum It is the typical centre of a Roman city, an open square with columns around it.
Theatre The theatre is Roman in style, similar to those at Pompeii, Ostia and elsewhere.
Political organisation The city seems to be divided into a pagus and a tivitas: these are both Roman terms (and so it is a Roman element) but it is not typical of a Roman city where the ordo of decurions was the governing body (and so it may be African).
Arch of Alexander Severus The arch is a typical Roman monument to commemorate a triumph or other honour.
Temple of Caelestis The goddess is not originally Roman and the whole building doesn't look much like a typical Roman temple enclosure; nevertheless the actual temple has a podium and columns much like a Roman temple.
Temple of Saturn The form of the temple is not like a typical Roman temple so perhaps it is African, even though there was a Roman Saturn.
Saturn the god He (and his name) is originally Roman, but he took over the attributes of the pre-Roman god Baal in Africa, so he can be called African.
Circus This is Roman because it repeats the form of the Circus Maximus race-track in Rome and other chariot race-tracks elsewhere.
Baths The baths are similar to bath buildings in Rome and elsewhere.
Construction techniques Most of the walls are not built in typical Roman styles of masonry.
People They have both Roman and non-Roman names.
Language Latin seems to be the language used in inscriptions, but we don't know what was spoken in everyday conversations.

The point of this activity is to make you focus upon what can be conceived of as Roman and to think about whether or not some of the things you have met so far in Africa are familiar because you have already encountered similar things in Rome or elsewhere in the empire. Some of the cases above are fairly clear cut. Something like a capitol is obviously typical of Roman cities. Its precise form may vary (indeed, at Thugga the temple is set side-on rather than end-on to the forum), but the configuration of a high temple with steps up the front and classical columns supporting a pediment with a cella behind dominating a forum fits the typical Roman model, as at Ostia or Pompeii. And we can get this far even before reading the dedication to the Capitoline Triad in the inscription above the door. Similar means can be used to suggest that the forum, theatre, circus, baths, and arch display features that we can recognise as distinctively Roman.

Other features, such as the temples of Saturn or Mercury, are harder to define as Roman: they may well use the same kinds of architecture but the ground plan is different, being like a rectangular courtyard or peristyle with three chambers set across a short end (see Plate 2). This is unlike the typical Roman temple: a building in an enclosure on a high podium with steps up the front and columns and a pediment on the facade. This style of temple has only ever been found in Africa, Mauretania and in the previously Punic Sardinia, and it does seem to be typical of African temples.

Please click to view Plate 2: Plan of the temple of Saturn, Thugga [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] . (Adapted from Poinssot, C. (1983) Les Ruines de Dougga, Tunis, Ministere des Affaires Culturelles, Institut National d'Archelogie et d'Arts) (PDF, 1 page, 0.4 MB).

We can see that the construction techniques are different; they employ a style known as opus Africanum (literally ‘African work’) that is characteristic of North Africa with origins that pre-date the Roman conquest. With this construction technique the wall is built incorporating vertical blocks of squared stones (orthostats), and the spaces between are filled with smaller blocks. Buildings you have seen elsewhere are built using different masonry techniques: brick-faced concrete (common in Ostia), small diamonds (common in Pompeii), small blocks of stone or larger squared blocks, for example.

We can also observe that the political organisation and some of the names of the people are different to those you may have encountered (see Figure 3). We can begin to suspect that these differences may be related to something we might be able to identify as an African cultural identity and cultural expression, which we might contrast with a Roman identity and culture.

Figure 3
Figure 3 Inscription from the temple of Mercury naming the donors, Q. Pacuvius Saturus F.L. and Nahania Victoria, mid second century AD, Thugga. (Photo: P. Perkins)

If, then, we can perceive different influences that we may call African and Roman (we must remember these terms are a shorthand for complex cultures that are not monolithic or clearly defined), we may also consider what may have happened when these two ‘cultures’ met in Africa following the political conquest of the region.


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