Roman Africa Part 4: Art And Archaeology

(Ruins of the Carthaginian Harbour, called the ‘Cothon’)


There is one more way to see Africa’s importance to Rome: with your eyes! Many buildings built by Romans are still standing. Where they are built and the way they look can help us to understand Africa’s significance to Roman culture. 


Important symbols of ancient Africa

One of the most important symbols of ancient Africa are, of course, the pyramids. Egyptian pyramids are the most well-known across the world. The Great Pyramid at Giza is the largest of them all. It is 139m tall. It was built around 2560 BCE, around 1750 years before Rome was founded. Millions of people visit the Giza pyramid complex each year today, but it was a tourist attraction even in the ancient world. The Greek historian Herodotus wrote about the Great Pyramid in the 400s BCE. He described its structure and how it was built. Another Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, listed the pyramids among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World between 60 and 30 BCE. The whole of the ancient Mediterranean knew about the pyramids.


Egyptian pyramids are not the only ones. The ancient Nubians, from modern-day Sudan, built more pyramids than the Egyptians! There are 220 still standing today. They were built from around 300 BCE to 200 CE. What is remarkable, is that the Romans seem to have copied this design – for a pyramid in Rome! The so-called Pyramid of Cestius was built in 12 BCE as a tomb for a man called Gaius Cestius. When Egypt became Roman in 30 BCE, Rome and Nubia fought several battles until they signed a peace treaty in 22 BCE. Perhaps Gaius Cestius wanted to commemorate this.

Whatever the reason, this Nubian pyramid in the heart of Rome shows that Romans were fascinated by African culture. There was also another pyramid in Rome, called the Pyramid of Romulus. It was named after the founder of Rome. However, it does not survive. In the 1600s, Pope Alexander VI ordered the pyramid to be dismantled. Its marble was used for the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world. 


Other important archaeological sites in Africa

There are other important archaeological sites in Africa. The ruins of Carthage still survive. They are located near Tunis. Perhaps the most remarkable site is the ancient port of Carthage. This was one of the largest ports in the world. There were two harbours, one for military ships, and one for commercial ships. The military harbour was circular in shape and around 325 metres in diameter. The Roman historian Appian, who lived from 95-165 CE, wrote that this harbour had space for 220 ships. 


Other Roman ruins in Africa

Other Roman ruins in Africa include the cities of Volubilis (in modern-day Morocco), Djémila (Algeria), Dougga (Tunisia) and Leptis Magna (Libya). These were all important administrative centres. Volubilis is especially interesting. It was the ancient capital of the kingdom of Mauretania, established before 200 BCE. When it became part of the Roman Empire, the city expanded and contained a mix of local and Roman cultures. There was also another significant city – Alexandria. It was founded by the Greek conqueror Alexander the Great in 332 BCE.

It became Egypt’s capital and remained so until the Muslim conquest in 641 CE. Its lighthouse was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and its Great Library was one of the biggest at the time. People from across Africa, Asia, and Europe lived and traded together in this ancient metropolis. Marc Antony, the Roman general who married Cleopatra VII, even wanted to make Alexandria the capital of the Roman Empire. 

Nik Nicheperovich


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