El Djem

Thurburbo Maius



The city of Carthage dates back to 814 BC when a number of Phoenicians settled there from the city of Tyre in Lebanon. They began to form colonies along the coast of Africa and by 350 BC Carthage was the leading force in the area, although this was to be challenged by the emerging power of Rome and led to war breaking out between the two powers over Sicily in 264 BC, this became known as the first Punic War. Two other wars were to follow one of which was to produce one of the greatest generals in history the Carthaginian Hannibal who took his army with 37 elephants across the Alps to inflict a number of defeats on the Roman army. Hannibal’s victorious spree was only curtailed when the Romans took the war to Carthage resulting in him being recalled to protect Carthage, something that he wasn't able to do as he was defeated by the Roman Scipio in 202 to end the Second Punic War.  Between 202-150 Carthage prospered through its’ trade with North Africa and Greece, making Rome very uneasy.


In 150 BC Rome found an excuse to mount an attack on Carthage and sent 80,000 men. This resulted in a three year siege and in 146 BC Carthage fell to Scipio the Younger, the grandson of Scipio who defeated Hannibal 50 years before. The City was burnt to the ground and remained in ruins until Julius Caesar rebuild it and made it the capital of the Roman province of Africa.

Carthage is not a single site but consists of a number of sites: the harbour, the main source of Punic power was its navy which had a fortified and secure harbour. Bursa Hill which is the location of the ex-cathedral, the Roman forum and the residential quarter from Punic times, and the museum with numerous exhibits including Punic statues, steles and urns. To be seen at other sites are villas, the theatre, the remains of the Amphitheatre, large pipes for the conveyance of water and the Antonine Baths. These were the largest baths in North Africa and third largest in the Roman world covering an area of 35 000 square metres. As well as the normal cold, warm and hot rooms it incorporated outdoor pools, a sun terrace and a series of steps leading down to the sea  Construction began on them under the Emperor Hadrian in AD 146 AD though were not completed until 162 AD in the reign of Antoninus Pius, hence the name of Antonine Baths. Carthage became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.


Addition information can be seen on Encyclopaedia Britannica

El Djem

The city of El Djem (also spelt El Jem) is situated inland from the east coast of Tunisia 60 km south of Sousse. Built on a former Punic settlement it was one of the main Roman cities of North Africa and was known as Thysdrus, an important centre of olive oil manufacture and export.


El Djem is most famous for its amphitheatre, which was the largest in North Africa; it was constructed between 230 and 238 AD by Marcus Antonius Gordianus Sempronianus the proconsul of North Africa. He was to be proclaimed emperor Gordian I in 238 to lead a rebellion against the unpopular Maximinus I, a rebellion that was short lived and led to Gordian’s defeat and subsequent suicide. On his death construction work on the amphitheatre ceased so it was never fully completed although it was still used.


Until the 17th century the amphitheatre remained fairly intact although from then many of its stones were removed to be used in the construction of the Great Mosque in Kairouan and also for building the nearby village of El Djem. Damaged was also caused in 1695 and 1850 by cannon fire when troops under the Ottomans’ put down rebel forces holding out in the amphitheatre.


Built on level terrain, with stones quarried at Salakta 30 km away, it was supported by a complex vaulting system which can still be seen today. The amphitheatre is 148 metres long by 122 metres wide, rising to a height of 35 metres with the arena of 65 metres long and 39 metres wide. It is believed to have been able to accommodate 30,000 spectators, although some estimates place this figure at 45,000.


Although built to impress the decorations are rather crude, which is due to the stone used being too soft for fine sculptures. The upper part of the tiers contained covered rooms which provided shelter from the sun. Underneath the amphitheatre ran two passageways, and it was there that animals, prisoners and gladiators were kept until they were required. Looking across the amphitheatre the surviving main entrance into the arena and some of the smaller service doors, which were on each side, can be seen. An amount of reconstruction has been carried out on the amphitheatre and on one side the seating has been reconstructed.


In 1979 the ruins of the amphitheatre were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Aerial photography indicates more ruins have still to be uncovered and another smaller amphitheatre can be seen around a kilometre away. 

Situated to the south of the amphitheatre on the outskirts of El Djem is the museum of El Djem. Housed in one of Tunisia’s best-preserved Roman villas, the museum is built on the traditional plan with a colonnaded around a central garden courtyard. It includes three large exhibition rooms and a reception area, surrounding a central courtyard with a garden and peristyle (a columned porch or open colonnade). Within the museum are a collection of objects from Thysdrus such as sculptures, ceramics, terra cotta statuettes, and metal objects and a number of exquisite mosaics with geometric, plant and animal decoration. In the grounds of the museum is an area which has been excavated showing the Roman road and a series of villas with their mosaic floors which have be left in their original location.


Thurburbo Maius

The ruins of Thurburbo Maius are located in northern Tunisia near the city of El Fah about 50 km southwest of Tunis and 60 km from Tunisia’s most famous archaeological site of Carthage.


The origins of Thurburbo Maius date back to 27 BC during the reign of the Roman emperor Augustus (27 BC – 14 AD) when it was founded on the site of a Punic settlement as a place for Roman military veterans on their retirement from the Legion. It was customary to grant land to the army personnel on their retirement in order for them to maintain a presence in the area as much as to reward them for their service.  The location of Thurburbo Maius was chosen due to its strategic position and access to trade routes, something that ensured its economic success. Thurburbo Maius or Colonia Julia Aurelia Commoda, as it was known as during Roman times, continued to develop during the Roman period with significant expansion occurring between 150 - 200 AD due to its grain, olives, and fruit production, making it a thriving town of up to 10,000 people. Under the Emperor Hadrian (117 – 138 AD) it became a municipium (the second-highest rank of Roman city) while under the Emperor Commodus (177 – 180 AD) it was made a  colonia, the highest rank of Roman city that would grant its’ citizens Roman citizenship.  It did undergo a decline during the 3rd century but underwent a resurgence in the 4th century.


The ruins themselves are located away from the proximity of any other buildings or conurbation and therefore lay undisturbed for many centuries. The excavation of the site started in the early 20th century and is on on-going process, although with limited resources for the work priority is going to some of the more prominent sites in Tunisia resulting in only a fraction of the remains having been excavated.


On entry to the site visitors see the Capitolium, the temple dedicated to the three main Roman gods of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. All that survives of the Capitolium are the steps up to the main platform, four restored Corinthian columns of the front façade and the remains of the side columns.


To the side of the Capitoliun are a number of houses with their walls rising about a metre, which is sufficient to enable the size of the dwellings and floor plans to be discerned. In fact the excavations at the site does not show any restored buildings. Overlooked by the Capitolium is the forum and a number of other Temples including that of the Temple of Saturn with the remains of an arch and several gates in the vicinity; the Temple of Caelestis (Carthaginian moon goddess) and the Temple of Baalat (Carthaginian Goddess) with its’ two columns rising from the corners of its platform. One building which does have columns topped by lintels is the Palaestra (gymnasium); this is situated next to one of the two public bath houses with its twenty rooms and mosaic floors.


A short walk away from these buildings is the Amphitheatre, as was common in antiquity this was constructed by excavating a suitable hill, which reduced the amount of masonry construction work. The Amphitheatre has still to be excavated; as does the water cistern which is located adjacent to the Amphitheatre.


The layout of the streets is not the normal grid system used in Roman towns but of an irregular system which bears witness to its development from Punic to Roman. Confirmation of its industry is confirmed in several locations where large blocks of masonry used in the process of olive pressing and storage tanks can be seen. A number of finds at the site have provided additional evidence as to life in the Roman Empire during its occupation.


The journey to the site also is of archaeological interest as the road runs along the aqueduct which transferred the water from a steam in the hills to Carthage in the days of Roman rule. This is currently undergoing renovation so in places it enables it to be seen as it was in Roman times, showing how it was constructed. It would have been covered to prevent the water evaporating and being polluted and would have access provided periodically along the aqueduct.


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