Romans and Christians

For more than a century the Romans were content to keep a foothold on the Tunisian coast and allow the Numidians to hold sway inland, creating a buffer between the hostile Berber tribes. Then in 44 BC, during the Roman civil war, Julius Caesar came to Africa in pursuit of his enemy Pompey. He had the inspiration to rebuilt Carthage, but was assassinated before he could begin. His successor, Augustus, created a magnificent city with temples, baths, palaces, a forum and a 145-km aqueduct, parts of which still stand around Tunis.

Peace reigned for 200 years. Agriculture flourished, with half a million tonnes of grain exported annually. The amphitheatre at El Djem, the theatre at Dougga, and the mosaics on display in the Bardo museum all date from this time of prosperity. Septimius Severus, an African, even became Roman emperor in AD 193.

After the Severan dynasty fell in AD 235, Rome’s fortunes declined and so did those of North Africa. Conflicts were fought on Tunisian soil, and in 429 the Vandals, a Germanic tribe, swarmed across from Spain, destroying aqueducts and looting anything in their path. They set up a base in Carthage from which they ruled for nearly a century.

Meanwhile, Christianity had taken root in Roman times. The great theologian, St Augustine (354-430) whose writings had a profound effect on Western thought, was born in North Africa, educated in Carthage and established a monastic community at Hippo, in modern-day Algeria. It was a Christian king, the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who routed the Vandals under his general Belisarius in 533. In the ensuing peace, Byzantine art and building flourished, leaving a legacy of churches, villas, fortresses and magnificent mosaics.