Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Monday, August 7, 2017

Roman Fortress of Taucheira, Libya

Old entrance of Taucheira (Torca) from a later period.

Roman Libya

After the final conquest and destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, northwestern Africa went under Roman rule and, shortly thereafter, the coastal area of what is now western Libya was established as a province under the name of Tripolitania with Leptis Magna capital and the major trading port in the region.

In 96 BC Rome peacefully obtained Cyrenaica formed by the cities of Cyrene, its port of ApolloniaArsinoe (Taucheira - Tocra), Berenice (near modern Benghazi) and Barce. 

In 74 BC was established the new province, governed by a legate of praetorian rank (Legatus pro praetor) and accompanied by a quaestor (quaestor pro praetor). But in 20 BC Cyrenaica was united to the island of Crete in the new province of Creta et Cyrenaica, because of the common Greek heritage.

During the first two centuries nomadic raids from the desert were a regular occurrence.

The first desert fort on the limes was built at Thiges, to protect from nomad attacks in 75 AD. The limes was expanded under emperors Hadrian and Septimius Severus, in particular under the legatus Quintus Anicius Faustus in 197-201 AD.

Anicius Faustus was appointed legatus of the Legio III Augusta and built several defensive forts of the Limes Tripolitanus in Tripolitania in order to protect the province from the raids of nomadic tribes. 

Former soldiers were settled in this area, and the arid land was developed. Dams and cisterns were built in the Wadi Ghirza to regulate the flash floods.  

The farmers produced cereals, figs, vines, olives, pulses, almonds, dates, and perhaps melons. Ghirza consisted of some forty buildings, including six fortified farms (Centenaria).

But Jewish revolts were a far greater concern to the central government. A serious Jewish revolt was in the time of Trajan (in 115-116 AD).

The 4th century Christian historian Paulus Orosius records that the violence so depopulated the province of Cyrenaica that new colonies had to be established by Hadrian:
"The Jews ... waged war on the inhabitants throughout Libya in the most savage fashion, and to such an extent was the country wasted that, its cultivators having been slain, its land would have remained utterly depopulated, had not the Emperor Hadrian gathered settlers from other places and sent them thither, for the inhabitants had been wiped out."
By 203 the entire southern frontier of Roman Africa had been dramatically expanded and re-fortified. Desert nomads could no longer safely raid the region's interior and escape back into the Sahara. 

Roman Libya slowly declined in importance and became something of a backwater area to both Rome and Constantinople. 

Cyrenaica was split into two provinces: "Libya Superior" and "Libya Inferior".  Each was under a governor of the modest rank of praeses. Both belonged to the Diocese of Egypt, within the Praetorian prefecture of Oriens.

In April 534 AD, the old Roman provincial system along with the full apparatus of Roman administration was restored, under a praetorian prefect.  Roman rule in Libya was strengthened, but the fighting continued against the Berber tribes of the Sahara.

The province entered an era of relative stability and prosperity, and was organized as a separate exarchate in 584 AD. Eventually, under Heraclius, Libia and Africa would come to the rescue of the Empire itself, deposing the tyrant Phocas and beating back the Sassanids and the Avars.

But that was the last Roman achievement: in 642 AD Moslem Arabs started to conquer Libya. In 670 AD all Libya was in the hands of the Arabs. Roman Libya was no more.

The coastal Fortress of Taucheira was in the province of Libya Superior. For administration it was part of the Diocese of Egypt until 539 AD. Then it came under the Diocese of the East.
The entire area was occupied by invading Persian armies in the 610s and 620s, during the Byzantine–Sassanid War of 602–628

Plan of early medieval Taucheira (Torca). 
Supplied by sea, the fortress held out for years against invading Muslim armies.

Defending Roman North Africa

The Roman Fortress of Taucheira in Libya has almost totally vanished, but in its time it was a major military project of the Emperor Justinian (r. 527 - 565).

With the Roman Re-Conquest of North Africa the Emperor went on an African building spree from the Pillars of Hercules to eastern Libya.  Fortifications were being built from scratch or re-built on top of existing structures.  Justinian also created the new Limes Tripolitanus system of forts to protect the Roman coastal zone from invasion by desert tribes.

Justinian's fortifications were a clear signal to the world that Rome was back in Africa to stay.

The Fortress of Taucheira is a good example of that we here to stay spirit.

Of course, Taucheira always had city walls. They were renewed on several occasions. An inscription in the little museum of Taucheira commemorates a man named Aleximachus son of Sostratus, who had provided the money to improve the walls of the city somewhere in the first century BC.

But Justinian wanted something impressive.

Except for the stretch along the shore, the lower parts of it have survived. It must have have had about thirty towers, of which twenty-three have been excavated. Older stones were reused, like the one with an inscription on which the words Autokrator Kaisar can still be read, the Greek translation of the Latin titles Imperator and Caesar.

The massive walls of Taucheira/Arsinoe enabled the Byzantine commander Apollonius, when besieged by the Muslim forces who had invaded the Cyrenaica in 641, to hold out until 645.

This siege, of which we know next to zero, is yet another untold story of the Eastern Roman military. Obviously there were enough troops there to man the rather considerable city walls. Was the garrison re-supplied by sea from Constantinople or Italy? We do not know.

Excavations at Taucheira provide a glimpse of a coastal Cyrenaican town after the Arab conquests.  Digs have found buildings centered on two courtyards, and a bath complex.

The baths had the two plunge baths either side of the furnace and the use of stone uprights instead of the usual Roman brick pilae.  The street-plan is somewhat irregular, with winding streets and alleys that lead into the houses.

Byzantine fortress inside the city

Taucheira, main road, to the northeast

North Africa
From Alexandria to the Pillars of Hercules

By Procopius of Caesarea
500 - 554 AD

The Buildings

But inasmuch as our account has now led us to Egypt, the close neighbour of Libya, let us now set forth how many things were done by him there also, since this Emperor found all Libya too lying under the power of barbarians and joined it to the remainder of the Roman Empire.

And the land on the left of the Nile bears the name of Libya as far as the Ocean, which on the west marks the boundary between the two continents by sending out a certain arm which opens out into this sea of ours.  All the rest of Libya has received several different names, each region being designated, presumably, by the name of the people who dwell there.  

However, the territory extending from the confines of Alexandria as far as the cities of Cyrenê, comprising the Pentapolis, is now the only region which is called by the name of Libya.  In that territory is a city one day's journey distant from Alexandria, Taphosiris by name, where they say that the god of the Egyptians, Osiris, was buried.  In this city the Emperor Justinian built many things, and in particular the residences of the magistrates and baths.

The greatest part of this land of Libya chances to have been desert, which was in general neglected.  Yet our Emperor takes thought for this land also with watchful care, so that it might not have the ill fortune to suffer anything from inroads of the Moors who inhabit the adjoining country; and to this end he established there two strongholds with garrisons, one of which they call Paratonium, while the other,   which lies not far from the Pentapolis, has received the name Antipyrgum.  

Port facilities of Taucheira

And the Pentapolis is removed from Alexandria by a twenty days' journey for an unencumbered traveller. In this region of Pentapolis the Emperor Justinian surrounded the city of Teuchira with very strong fortifications.  The circuit-wall of Bernicê he rebuilt from its lowest foundations.  In that city he also built a bath for the use of the people.  Furthermore, on the extreme boundary of the Pentapolis which faces the south, he constructed fortresses in two monasteries which bear the names Agriolodê and Dinarthisum;  and these stand as bulwarks against the barbarians of that region, so that they may not come down stealthily into Roman territory and suddenly fall upon it.

There is a certain city there, Ptolemaïs by name, which in ancient times had been prosperous and populous, but as time went on it had come to be almost deserted owing to extreme scarcity of water.  For the great majority of the population, driven by thirst, had moved from there long ago and gone wherever each one could.  

Now, however, this Emperor has restored the city's aqueduct and thus brought back to it its former measure of prosperity. The last city of Pentapolis towards the west is named Boreium. Here the mountains press close upon one another, and thus forming a barrier by their crowding, effectively close the entrance to the enemy.  This city, which had been without a wall, the Emperor enclosed with very strong defences, thus making it 
as safe as possible for the future, together with the whole country round about it.

And there are two cities which are known by the same name, each of them being called Augila. These are distant from Boreium about four days' journey for an unencumbered traveller, and to the south of it; and they are both ancient cities whose inhabitants have preserved the practices of antiquity, for they all were suffering from the disease of polytheism even up to my day.  There from ancient times there have been shrines dedicated to Ammon and to Alexander the Macedonian.  The natives actually used to make sacrifices to them even up to the reign of Justinian.  In this place there was a great throng of those called temple-slaves. 

Taucheira Church mosaic

But now the Emperor has made provision, not alone for the safety of the persons of his subjects, but he has also made it his concern to save their souls, be thus he has cared in every way for the people living there.  Indeed he by no means neglected to take thought for their material interests in an exceptional way, and also he has taught them the doctrine of the true faith, making the whole population Christians and bringing about a transformation of their polluted ancestral customs.  Moreover he built for them a Church of the Mother of God to be a guardian of the safety of the cities and of the true faith. So much, then, for this.

The city of Boreium, which lies near the barbarian Moors, has never been subject to tribute up to the present time, nor have any collectors of tribute or   taxes come to it since the creation of man.  The Jews had lived close by from ancient times, and they had an ancient temple there also, which they revered and honoured especially, since it was built, as they say, by Solomon, while he was ruling over the Hebrew nation.  But the Emperor Justinian brought it about that all these too changed their ancestral worship and have become Christians, and he transformed their temple into a church.

Next after this comes the city of Leptis Magna, which in ancient times was large and populous, though at a later time it came to be deserted for the most part, being through neglect largely buried in sand.  Our Emperor built up the circuit-wall of this city from the foundations, not however on as large a scale as it was formerly, but much smaller, in order  that the city might not again be weak because of its very size, and liable to capture by the enemy, and also be exposed to the sand.  

At present, indeed, he has left the buried portion of the city just as it was, covered by the sand heaped up in mounds, but the rest of the city he has surrounded with a very strongly built wall.  Here he dedicated to the Mother of God a very notable shrine, and built four other churches.  Furthermore, he rebuilt the palace, which had been built here in early times and now lay in ruins, the work of the ancient Emperor Severus, who was born in this place and so left this palace as a memorial of his good fortune.

In this city the Emperor Justinian also built public baths, and he erected the circuit-wall of the city from its lowest foundations, and by means both of the baths and of all the other improvements gave it the character of a city.

The east wall of the Taucheira fortress

Southwest gate

Taucheira, East Basilica

(Procopius)      (Medieval North Africa 650-800)      (Taucheira)

(Livius)      (Tocra)      (Crete and Cyrenaica)      (Cyrenaica)      (Tocra)