Gaddafi's Roman home -- or not?
One strange thing for me over weeks of the Libyan War has been the all the bells of ancient North Africa that it has rung. I have never been to Libya (though my old Director of Studies -- who is getting better after the hospital stay, by the way -- has spent many years studying its Roman inscriptions), and so I have found myself matching up all the places of conflict to the ancient map in my head.
Some of this was easy enough. Tripoli has a good old ancient name: "Tri -- polis" = "three cities", and the name goes back to the Roman name given to the region under the empire, "Tripolitania" -- the three cities being Oea (on the site of what we call Tripoli), Lepcis (or Leptis) Magna and Sabratha.
There is not very much Roman to see (I'm told) in Tripoli. But Sabratha has a tremendous theatre, and Lepcis was the original home of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (whose rise to, and tenure of, power was not all that much less bloody than Gaddafi's). It's the ancient Roman site that I feel most guilty not to have actually seen, because Septimius poured money into the place -- and it has what are (as you see above) some of the best preserved Roman buildings anywhere (though rather more helped by the restorers of Mussolini -- another dictator who was elbows deep in Libya -- than we like to imagine).
So far, so good. But I have got terribly mixed up with Gaddafi's home town of Sirte.
Most of the week I have been going round claiming another bit of Roman geneaology for the Colonel. I assumed (not unreasonably, I think) that what the radio was calling "Sirte" was what I called "Cirta".This was one of the places where Scipio defeated the allies of Carthage (led by Syphax) in the Second Punic War in 203 BC, but I thought I knew it better as the place where an early Christian House-Church was ransacked during the Persecutions of Diocletian in the early fourth century CE -- described in detail in an early Christian text (Gesta apud Zenophilum... which if you want to know comes as an appendix to Optatus of Mileve). It's particularly interesting for the information it gives us about the early Christian organisation in these North African towns, and the material the churches owned:
Felix the priest of the imperial cult turns up and says to the bishop, "Bring out the texts of the law and whatever else you have here . . "
Paul the bishop said "The readers have our texts but we will give you what we have here"
Felix: "Point out the readers or send for them"
Paul: "You know them all"
Felix: "We do not know them"
Paul: "The municipal office knows them"
Felix: "Leaving aside the matters of the readers . . .give us what you have"...
And at that point the "priests", "deacons", "under-deacons" and "diggers" bring out a whole heap of church stuff...2 gold cups, 6 silver cups, 6 silver jugs, a silver vessel, 7 silver lamps . . . 82 women's tunics, 38 cloaks, 16 men's tunics, 13 pairs of men's shoes, 47 pairs of women's shoes . . .
"And that is everything" the Christians say.
Except they had forgotten a silver lamp and vase behind a chest. "You would have been dead if you had not found them" says one of the pagan officials.
But still there is the question of the books, and two of the under-deacons will not cough up the information about who the "readers" are; and so they are arrested.
I had been musing about the parallels between searching out Gaddafi and searching out early Christians almost 2 millennia earlier; about how the methods of house to house searching didn't actually change much over the centuries. . .
. . . until I decided to take a close look at the map. OK there are some overlaps, but ancient Cirta turns out NOT to be Sirte at all. It isn't even in Libya, but in Algeria, 100s of miles to the West . . .
You have to be careful with those classical parallels.