Roman Africa (-146 to +439) was the African part of the Western Roman Empire. The continent was named after it, not the other way round.
- When: the years -146 to +439
- Where: the northern coast of the present-day countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and western Libya.
- Population: 3 to 4 million.
- Major cities: Carthage, Hippo Regius.
- Languages: Latin, Punic (Carthaginian), Berber languages.
- Religions: Berber, Punic, Roman and, especially after +200, Christian (Catholic, Donatist).
- Exports: mainly wheat and olive oil. Also wine, pottery, fish sauce, dyes, citrus wood (for furniture) and, till they died out, elephants. From the across the desert: slaves, ostrich feathers, jewels and wild animals, like lions and leopards.
- Famous sons and daughters: Augustine, Terence, Suetonius, Apuleius, Septimius Severus (emperor), Pope Victor I, Tertullian, Cyprian, Sts Perpetua and Felicity.
Roman Africa was the breadbasket of Rome, feeding it eight months out of the year. Rome became even more dependent in the 300s with the rise of Constantinople, which took the lion’s share of the grain from Egypt.
For hundreds of years Africa was one of the more peaceful and prosperous corners of the empire. But then in 429 came German barbarians, the Vandals. Roman Africa had only one legion, which was itself largely German. Even worse, its forts were strung out along the south to deal with Berber raids, not along the north to defend against an invasion from the sea. In 439 Carthage fell.
In 533, the Byzantine Empire made short work of the Vandals and took back much of Roman Africa, but Byzantine taxes proved to be crushing. By 705 all of Roman Africa had fallen to the Moors (Arab and Berber Muslims), who then went on to take over Spain. In the 700s, Latin and Christianity began to die out.
Roman African culture was created by three waves of people: the Berbers, who were there by -8,000, the Phoenicians (Punics) after -814, bringing elements of Greek and Egyptian culture, and the Romans, who came after -146. Their cultures and peoples mixed together, but not thoroughly. By +400, in Augustine’s time, the cities were largely Roman, the countryside still noticeably Punic and the grasslands and desert to the south were heavily Berber: the Mauri, Gaetuli, Musulamii and Garamantes. Augustine himself had a Berber mother and a Roman father.
Land: After Rome won the Punic Wars in -146 it destroyed Carthage (later to be rebuilt) and took land from those who had fought against it. Some Punic towns had fought on the side of Rome. Rome left those alone. Then, over the next 200 years, Rome took over the rest of African coast, pushing Berbers off their land. All of that land – from the Punic Wars and the Berber wars – went to Romans. Some went to colonists, but much of it went to the emperor and the Roman aristocracy. They held their land in the form of vast estates, worked by colonists and slaves.
Colonists were free men, mostly retired soldiers who were given land for their military service and to act as a military reserve.
– Abagond, 2016.
Sources: “The UNESCO General History of Africa”, Volume II (Abridged, 1990); “The Penguin Atlas of African History” (1995) by Colin McEvedy; “Selected Letters” (429) by Augustine; “Augustine” (2005) by James J. O’Donnell; “428 AD” (2009) by Giusto Traina; “The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization” (1998) edited by Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth.
- Roman Empire
- Byzantine Empire
- Afro-Asiatic languages