Libyan Bits and Pieces

11 November 2009
Photo Marco Prins

Mausoleum F from Ghirza; museum of Bani Walid

Over the years, my friend Marco and I made some 40,000 photos, which we have arranged geographically: there’s a directory for country X, which is subdivided into directories for towns A, B, and C. The names of the photos are usually sufficient to find back what we were looking for. That is to say, over the past two years, I have made it a habit to give them names immediately: usually, that means that during a foreign trip, when we are at our hotel, I spend some time transferring the photos to my laptop computer, and renaming them.

There used to be a time when I renamed the photos after our return to Amsterdam. Sometimes, I was unable to remember what I had seen, or was too occupied with other things. That meant that the photos got names like “toponym_01”, “toponym_02”, and so on. This was less than perfect, and over the past months I have used the late hours of the evening to check the photos again and see if I could be more precise.

Often, I could, and I made some nice discoveries. I now know that we own a photo of a bust of the Greek philosopher Carneades from Munich, plus a photo of its original pedestal, in the Agora Museum in Athens. I like that; maybe, I will put it online, when I feel like it.

Today I put online photos of this funeral monument from Ghirza, which is in the museum of Bani Walid. I had not realized what it was, and I am glad that the photos are now available, next to the photos of the other mausoleums of Ghirza. I also put online the text and translations of three inscriptions from Bu Njem -nothing special. Finally, one photo of the temple of Dolichenus in Lepcis Magna. Not terribly important, but a reminder to myself that I should continue with putting online the Lepcis stuff.

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Common Errors (24): Trajan

1 July 2009
Trajan (Glyptothek, München)

Trajan (Glyptothek, München)

It is often said that the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent in the final years of Trajan, who was emperor from 98 to 117. As far as I know, the French philosopher Montesquieu already said so at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Two centuries later, Mussolini ordered maps of several stages of the Roman expansion to be made (the last one being the Fascist Empire); the map of the empire’s greatest extent under Trajan is still visible at the Via dei fori imperiali. In 2007, a Dutch schoolbook repeated that under Trajan, the Roman Empire reached its greatest extent. Everybody seems to know this – but it’s not the full truth.

What is true, is that Trajan added Dacia (modern Rumania) and Arabia Petraea (modern Jordan) to the Roman Empire. He also invaded Iraq, in 114. At first, the Roman armies were successful and reached the Persian Gulf, and in 115, victory was declared. Armenia and Mesopotamia were added to the empire, which at this moment indeed reached its greatest extent at this moment. However, almost immediately, revolts broke out, and 116 saw several rounds of inconclusive fighting. Trajan himself headed back toward Rome, but died on the way, and his successor Hadrian abandoned all conquests east of the Euphrates.

Septimius Severus (Archaeological Museum, Thessaloniki)

Septimius Severus (Archaeological Museum, Thessaloniki)

For about twenty-five months, the Romans claimed to control Armenia and Mesopotamia. It is misleading to say that this was the moment of the greatest extent of the Roman Empire. We must be looking for something more solid, more lasting. We can find it during the reign of Septimius Severus (198-211), who conquered much land between the Euphrates and Tigris, which the Romans never gave up, until they lost it to the Muslims, more than four centuries later.

In 201-202, Severus added several oases in the Libyan desert to the Roman Empire; several forts were built to ensure that Roman presence would be lasting. The desert between these forts was irrigated and developed. This project is called the Limes Tripolitanus. This was to remain loyal to Rome until the Vandals took over, more than two centuries later.

Septimius Severus added even more to the Empire. There was a small correction of the border near the Danube, and in 208, he tried to conquer Scotland. At some stage, he could rightfully boast to have expanded the empire in all directions. But to be honest, the occupation of Scotland is identical to the conquest of Iraq: it was Roman in name only. Severus’ son and successor Caracalla recalled the troops from Scotland. So 208-211 does not really count as the moment of Rome’s greatest territorial extent. 202 is a better candidate.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Fort Gholaia (Bu Njem)

16 May 2009
The Roman fort at Bu Njem; oasis in the distance

The Roman fort at Bu Njem; oasis in the distance

My favorite site in Libya is Bu Njem, ancient Gholaia: a well-preserved fort of the Limes Tripolitanus. Today, this area is arid, but it has not always been that way. By building all kinds of dams, the emperor Septimius Severus changed the entire ecosystem and converted this area into a fertile zone, where sufficient food was produced to feed the soldiers in the fort.

The French archaeologists who excavated the site, first had to remove all the sand, but the rewards were great: besides the remains of the ancient buildings, there were several interesting inscriptions and dozens of ostraca, which document daily life in Gholaia.

My photos have been online since 2006, but I revisited the site last year. The new photos and an improved text are now available here. The satellite photo is also worth looking at: here.