Peoples of Roman North Africa


The western region of North Africa was home to Berber-speaking groups whom the Greeks and later Romans identified as Mauri, or Moors. The term probably comes from a generic designation of Numidian tribes operating in the Atlas Mountains and West Africa in modern-day Morocco. The Romans took over the region and made it into the provinces of Mauretania Caesariensis, in the east in modern-day Algeria, and Mauretania Tingitana, in the west in modern-day Morocco. The region before had existed as a kingdom, with the legendary founder being King Atlas. They had ties with Carthage, and their first historically recorded king was Baga. Their king Bocchus was the father-in-law to Jugurtha, who would rebel against Rome and for over a decade (116-104 BCE) challenged Rome in Numidia (modern-day northern Algeria). During his rebellion he encouraged anti-Roman sentiment, leading to a massacre of Italians in the city of Cirta (Algeria). Rome’s conduct in the war was far from stellar, with charges of Roman commanders being bribed by Jugurtha. After his death the kingdom was calm for a half century. His rule showed many that local native power was strong and that Rome could be challenged, especially if using guerrilla warfare. During the chaos of the Roman civil war of 44-31 BCE, Mauretania became a client kingdom in 29, with Juba II of Numidia installed as its king by the Romans. Juba II was the son of Juba I, who had sided with Pompey and was defeated by Julius Caesar. Raised in Rome, Juba II became friends with Octavian (Augustus) and fought with him at Actium, where Octavian defeated Marc Antony in 31 BCE. Juba was rewarded with the kingdom of Mauretania probably in 29 BCE. He married Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Cleopatra, Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt, and Marc Antony. Under their rule Mauretania flourished; they encouraged the arts, science, and agriculture, leading to extensive trade partners.

Their son Ptolemy coruled with his father from about 9 CE and then became king with Juba’s death in 23 CE. During Ptolemy’s reign with his father, in 17 CE the Berber tribes rebelled against him under the Numidian Tacfarinas and the Garamantes tribe. Juba and his son were not able to defeat them. Ptolemy was forced to call upon the Roman governor of Africa, and the rebellion finally ended in 24 but with considerable casualties. Ptolemy ruled in peace after this, and the kingdom prospered. In 40 CE Caligula invited him to Rome, where he was confirmed as king but then was assassinated on Caligula’s orders. Ptolemy’s household slave Aedemon was outraged and started a violent rebellion, which was not put down until 44 CE.

With Roman annexation, the region of Mauretania now promoted Rome. Local soldiers, notably cavalry, became known throughout the empire. The easternmost province, Mauretania Caesariensis, had its capital at Caesarea Mauretaniae in honor of Augustus. The city was rebuilt by Juba and Cleopatra and ultimately had a hippodrome, a basilica, an amphitheater, Greek temples, and numerous civic buildings. The city became the center for trade with the rest of the Roman world. It formed part of the frontier of the diocese of Africa in the late empire. In the west the other province was Mauretania Tingitana, with the Mulucha River as the boundary. The southern towns had defensive walls and ditches to protect them from marauders, and there was no continuous line of fortifications such as Hadrian’s Wall and the limes in Germany. The province was in the diocese of Spain in the late empire.

These western defenses were not able to prevent the raids by the local tribes of Mauri, which began during the reign of Nero, from crossing the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain. A century later under Commodus they again raided the region of Baetica. The raids during the third century required the tetrarch Maximian to lead an invasion through Spain, across into Tingitana, through the Atlas Mountains, and then through Caesariensis into Carthage. The descendants of the Berber tribes were called Moors during the early Christian period.

Desert Tribes

In the east, Rome faced desert marauders in Syria, Arabia, Egypt, and North Africa. Although occasionally disrupting provinces, these tribes never constituted a major threat to the empire because of their disconnected geographical regions. Their disruptions usually occurred in the agricultural regions, around watering holes. The major tribes that Rome faced were the Saracens and the Blemmyes.

In Arabia, the Saracens constantly raided the region east of the Jordan River. Ptolemy (100-170 CE) in his geography used the term to describe the region in the northern Sinai Peninsula as well as a tribal group living nearby in Arabia (Ptolemy et al. 1932, Book 5). The two being so close together probably had a common origin, one being the tribe, the other being the area they were originally inhabiting in the Roman Empire. Other authors also mention the Saracens as living in the mountains and enslaving people, which was probably a reference to their marauding behavior. Several ancient authors mention the Saracens in relation to the region around Arabia and the Sinai Peninsula. By the late third century they were noted for their military prowess and attacks on the Roman Empire (Retsö 2003, 505-506). They seem to have used heavy cavalry and were incorporated at times in the Roman military, although the term may have applied to the style of cavalry and not actual tribesmen. During the fourth century they were used by both Romans and Persians in their armies and may have been allies or, more likely, mercenaries. Although never presenting a serious threat to the empire, their rapid strikes forced Rome to place mobile and therefore more expensive troops in the region. Control of roads and oases thus dictated Rome’s defensive policy.

Known since the fourth century BCE, the Blemmyes lived in the south of Egypt in the region that Rome called Nubia and Kush. In the early empire Strabo, the geographer, described them as living in the Eastern Desert around Meroe and as peaceful people (Strabo and Roller 2014, 17.1). They apparently began to enlarge their sphere of influence during the third century CE, when Rome was weakened by internal strife. By 250 they were attacking Egypt, forcing Emperor Decius to personally strike against them and push them back. Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, nominally an ally of Rome, in 272 used the Blemmyes to help her in her bid to become dominant in the east. Although they took the Thebais in Egypt, they were ultimately defeated in 279-280 when the Romans crushed them. Diocletian gave up southern Egyptian land to the allied nomadic tribes, the Nobatae, in order to create a buffer zone against the Blemmyes around the Nile at the first cataracts in 298. The Nobatae most likely also came from the Eastern Desert and probably were the traditional enemies of the Blemmyes. With the movement of the borders north, Diocletian created a secure defensible site while using the traditional warlike character of the tribes to maintain distractions and dissension among them outside of the empire’s territory.

When Rome conquered North Africa from Carthage and its successors, they attempted to control the coastal areas and rich agricultural lands in the interior near the foothills. The Romans attempted to incorporate the local population, especially the mountain tribes, the Berbers, into their society. Since Rome did not attempt to display a racial distinction, it was easy for the tribes to become assimilated. Outside of Africa to the south lay the nomadic tribes that interacted with Rome. One group Rome came into contact with was the Gaetuli, who fought for Jugurtha in North Africa (modern day Tunisia) in his struggle against Rome during 112-106 BCE, as related by Sallust. Although Sallust believed that all the tribes were one great nation, it is now known that they actually were separate tribes living in and south of the Atlas Mountains. Some of the tribes during the first century BCE were loyal to Marius, the Roman general who defeated Jugurtha in 106 BCE. In 3 CE the Gaetuli rebelled, possibly due to Roman attempts to stop their migration; this “war,” concluded in 6 CE, was followed by a general uprising in 17 CE by several tribes. Another group, the Garamantes, was a Berber tribe living in the Sahara in the Fezzan from 200 BCE to 200 CE. They continually raided Roman territory, and in 19 BCE Augustus sent his general Cornelius Balbus on an expedition, during which he captured 15 of their settlements; for his accomplishment he was granted a triumph, which was usually reserved for the imperial family.

In 17 CE, Tacfarinas led a general uprising of Gaetuli and Garamantes tribes against the Roman Third Augustan Legion. Tacfarinas was a Roman auxiliary commander who deserted and led his people, the Musulamii, a subgroup of the Gaetuli, against Rome during the reign of Emperor Tiberius. While the war was probably more of tribal incursions and raids, it lasted nearly a decade. What made the situation worse was that Tacfarinas gained support from the Mauri, who were rebelling against the Kingdom of Mauretania, clients of Rome. This increased Roman concerns, since now the whole region could be altered. While never able to take fortified Roman camps, Tacfarinas could rely on large numbers of desert tribesmen and continual raids. Finally, in 24 CE the governor Dolabella attacked and pursued Tacfarinas, knowing that only with his death could peace be restored. In a surprise morning attack, Tacfarinas was defeated and died charging the Roman troops. Finally, Septimius Severus was able to capture the Garamantes’s capital city, Gamara, and effectively end their power. The Garamantes were successful because of Rome’s desire not to incorporate large tracts of desert into their empire.

The native tribes occupying the deserts acted both as hostile marauders who gave Rome trouble and as buffer states between Rome and other organized groups that may have wanted to encroach upon Roman territory. The Roman Army often incorporated some of these tribes as auxiliaries. Rome often used these tribes to create divisions among other groups and powers, just as they in return did the same to Rome. Since the regions were not open to conquest and control, Rome attempted to show force when needed and control vital spots such as passes and watering holes. Although never a major problem, the tribes were often a nuisance.

Further Reading Richardson, John. 1996. The Romans in Spain. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell. Roller, Duane W. 2003. The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene: Royal Scholarship on Rome’s African Frontier. New York: Routledge. Law, R. C. C. 1967. “The Garamantes and Trans-Saharan Enterprise in Classical Times.” Journal of African History 8(2): 181-200. Ptolemy et al. 1932. Geography of Claudius Ptolemy. Translated by Edward Luther Stevenson. New York: New York Public Library. Retsö, Jan. 2003. The Arabs in Antiquity: Their History from the Assyrians to the Umayyads. Oxford, UK: Routledge. Strabo and Duane W. Roller. 2014. The Geography of Strabo. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.