Saturday, March 31, 2012

The World of Children of Apollo - Part II - Roman North Africa

In this second instalment of The World of Children of Apollo, we are going to take a brief tour of some of the settlements of Roman North Africa.

When I say ‘Roman’ I mean located within the Roman Empire, such as it was at the beginning of the 3rd century A.D., when Children of Apollo takes place. In actuality, most of the ‘Roman’ settlements in North Africa were either of Phoenician or Greek origin, with the exception perhaps of the legionary base at Lambaesis and the nearby colonia of Thamugadi, the latter established for veterans of the III Augustan Legion.


Severan Basilica
Leptis Magna
The southern Mediterranean coast was dotted with rich trading cities, settlements such as Apollonia, Cyrene, Leptis Magna, Sabratha and the once proud Punic capital of Carthage. Then there were the inland settlements of Thysdrus, Thugga, Thurburbo Maius and others. Where Egypt had long been the grain basket of Rome, the rise and wealth of these other settlements made them the new cornucopia of Empire. They were the leading producers of grain, oil, olives and garum (a highly popular fish sauce). The fact that Septimius Severus and his kinsman, the Praetorian Prefect Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, were from Leptis Magna ensured that the city and the region received imperial favour and capital investment.

The Forum in Sabratha
Children of Apollo begins in the desert of Cyrenaica province, near settlements of Apollonia and the splendid city of Cyrene, both across the water from Crete. I was not able to travel to these two sites in modern Libya but from my research, they seem splendidly sited in the fertile lands near the Mediterranean. Apollonia served as a port for Cyrene which was surrounded by olive groves and fields of wheat and barley. Cyrene itself rivalled Carthage in size and prosperity.

Arch of Trajan
Colonia of Thamugadi, Numidia
Moving west, one comes to the great city of Leptis Magna, the home town of Emperor Septimius Severus. Lucius does not visit this city in Children of Apollo, but rather in the next book, Killing the Hydra (out in the coming months!). Leptis Magna garnered much wealth from its fertile lands with cereal crops and olives. Emperors Trajan and Hadrian had building projects there but with Severus, the city received much favour with a large new forum, a colonnaded street, a unique four-sided triumphal arch, a basilica, added warehouses and a lighthouse. Our main character, Lucius Metellus Anguis, gets his first real taste of politics in the town of Sabratha where he must make a very difficult decision that impacts later perceptions of himself.

Amphitheater of Thysdrus
When it comes to Tunisia, there are several Roman settlements. Lucius and his men end up attached to the III Augustan Legion at Lambaesis, on the rocky, Numidian plain of what is now Algeria. A unique feature of the base was its massive, enclosed parade ground which featured a viewing platform with an equestrian statue of Emperor Hadrian in the centre, a commemoration of that emperor’s visit to the base. Lucius meets up with some old friends at the colonia of Thamugadi which was founded by Trajan and featured high walls, a library and fourteen public baths.

Cells beneath the Amphitheater floor
Thysdrus ('El Jem')
In northern Tunisia, we traded our 4x4 for an aged Toyota minibus driven by a silent but mad driver we affectionately dubbed ‘Sebulba’. His driving was like pod racing in Star Wars and our ‘Sebulba’ seemed just as reckless, his chosen vehicle eating up the road with a very loud chug-chugging sound. We passed through many different villages along the way, the most disturbing one being the ‘village of butchers’, so called by us for all the cow and goat heads that hung bleeding along the very side of the road, glossy eyed and lifeless.

One of the most interesting sites I visited during our Tunisian safari was Roman Thysdrus (modern El Jem). This settlement today is pretty unassuming except for the massive, extremely well-preserved amphitheatre in the centre. It was a real treat to sit in the seats of the amphitheatre, looking down on the scene of an imagined combat. I could not visit this site and not include a tense scene of gladiatorial combat, as seen by the legionaries on leave. Walking beneath the floor, along the cells where the animals and gladiators were kept, the sounds of those bygone days of barbarism and brutality echoed in my ears. The place definitely has memory. If you ever get the chance to visit El Jem, I would highly recommend it. It must have held some spectacular games in its day.

Roman Thugga
Another settlement that bears mentioning here, though it figures more largely in book II of the Eagles and Dragons series, is Thugga. This is a sprawling settlement surrounded by olive groves and green plains. It featured a large theatre, a massive capitol, public baths, a hippodrome and a network of paved streets that you can still walk today. This was a place where I could see my characters walking, interacting with others. It was helped by the fact that we were the only group there the entire time. It was deserted, a Roman ghost town. The mosaics that decorated homes, baths, taverns and brothels are still there, intact and open to the sky. The public latrine is there too, where men and women feeling nature’s call would sit cheek to cheek, literally. I wonder what odd bits of conversation happened there? Would Romans sit there and chat away while they did their business or would they stare at the ground and try not to make eye contact as they made  offerings to the Roman infrastructure. Maybe the public latrine was just a place to be avoided, a place where one entered at one’s own risk for fear of robbery or worse. It was just down the street from the brothel (named 'The House of the Cyclops'), so perhaps those patrons were regular users. The imagination ran wild in Thugga!

Public Latrine
Thugga
The final city we visited was Tunis, the ancient city of Carthage. Sadly, there was no sign of Dido, Aeneas, Hamilcar or Hannibal. When Rome razed Carthage to the ground after the Punic wars and salted its once-fertile earth, they built anew. And today, much of Tunis covers what the Romans built. There are however, some bits that are well worth the visit. One particular spot is the massive Antonine Bath complex which overlooks the sea. This was a quiet, sad site, surrounded by city but, it was still possible to glimpse the grandeur that it once exposited. Sadly, I was not able to see the great double harbour of ancient Carthage. If you happen to be in Tunis, a must see is the Bardo Museum which contains much of the mosaics and statuary from all of the settlements of that part of the Roman Empire. This is a world class collection with some of the finest mosaics I have ever seen. It was there that the faces of Septimius Severus, Plautianus, Julia Domna and others stared back at me.

Antonine Baths
Carthage
Leaving Tunisia behind was bitter sweet for I knew that it may be a long while before I would be able to visit such ancient sites on a truly intimate basis again. Haggling in French in the bazaars was fun, as was the experience of seeing camel traders dressed in cloaks that looked a lot like Jawa outfits. I could have done without the bout of fever brought on by my poor choice of soup in Douz, but eating dates from a branch right off the tree was great. Such are the contrasts of travelling but it all adds to the experiences required by writing.

In the next part of The World of Children of Apollo, we will meet the imperial family of the time, the Severans.
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