Friday, January 21, 2011

Roman Tunisia

After whetting our appetite for all things ancient at Carthage, Alix and I set off to explore the rest of Tunisia. Part of our journey was to explore some of the Roman historical sites in Tunisia, of which there are quite a few scattered throughout the country.

We visited four sites, in order of our visits, we went to Dougga, Bulla Regia, El Jem and Sufetula. To provide an overview and context for these visits we first visited the Bardo Museum in Tunis, home to a great number of the mosaics found excavated and painstakingly moved from sites across Tunisia to this central location.

Unfortunately for us, the Bardo Museum was being renovated at the time we visited, so we only got to see a small number of the artifacts that are usually on display there. The enterprising security guards at the museum encouraged us to lean on the statues and let them take photos of us with the busts in order to extort small change from us in return for their services. This is us hanging out with one of my favourite Roman Emperors, Septimius Severus. Only in Tunisia!

Roman mosaics hang impressively from the walls of the museum, giving the impression that this is how they were displayed in Roman times as well. The truth is that mosaics were used as flooring, not displayed on walls. When ancient Romans ate dinner, they didn’t sit at tables as we do, rather they reclined on couches. These couches would be positioned on unadorned sections of flooring around the edges of the dining room, which was known as the Triclinium, after the Roman word for a three seater couch. In the centre of the room was the floor mosaic, positioned so the diners could admire it while they ate.

Mosaics were quite popular amongst the Romans, some had religious significance but many were purely decorative as well. The basic themes of the Triclinium mosaics are anything to do with food, drink and social life, and they reflect admiration for the gods and the passage of the seasons.

Mosaics depicting oceanic themes are particularly common, often they include tritons, nymphs and other mythological sea creatures. This one is particularly impressive, it depicts Neptune, god of the sea, riding a chariot of seahorses.

Being a place of social life and leisure, the goddess Venus was also a popular feature of triclinium mosaics. Here she is being attended by centaur handmaidens. Diana, goddess of the hunt, is also featured.

This mosaic, while overly patchy in places, was one of my favourites. It shows the labours of Hercules, with one of the monsters he vanquished depicted in each of the medallions. Here Hercules personifies the stoic Roman virtue of reason over emotion. As Hercules defeats imaginary monsters, he is a metaphor for the human mind's triumph over passion and fear.

After our visit to the museum it was time to head out and visit some of the sites where these artifacts originated. Our first destination was Dougga, 110 km southwest of Tunis. Dougga is probably Tunisia’s overall best preserved Roman town, with many intact buildings having been dug out of the surrounding hillside. The theatre, with seating for around 3000, is particularly impressive.

Dougga was built by the Romans on top of an old Berber town, and its paved streets followed the unplanned existing roads. Unlike most Roman towns which followed a strict grid, Dougga’s streets wind organically from here to there, inspiring the imagination of the visitor.

The Licinian baths at Dougga, while not as large as the Antonine baths of Carthage, are much better preserved. You can see here how the ancient roman thermal system worked, with tunnels and corridors where slaves would work to continuously stoke the fires that provided heat and steam to the bathers in the baths above, and the remains of an impressive network of hollow terracotta pipes that were inserted between the internal marble façade of the bath house and the outer stone walls. The terracotta pipes absorbed excess moisture from steam in the hot baths, preventing mould and dampness on the marble and serving as insulation to keep the hot rooms hot.

There are some remarkably well preserved communal toilets;

and statues of emperors without the heads: because the emperors turned over pretty quickly, they made the statues with removable heads so entire statues needn't be carved at succession time. This one is emperor Jacius Stupidius.

The other notable thing about Dougga is that the surrounding countryside is beautiful. The rolling hills surrounding the tour site are home to plenty more archaeological treasure, including what has been identified by archaeologists as a (hopefully) intact hippodrome.

Another easy day trip from Tunis was the site of Bulla Regia, 170 kilometres from Tunis and linked in Roman times by the same road that runs through the middle of Dougga. The city was Numidian before it was Roman, and when Rome defeated Carthage the allied Numidians petitioned for and received full Roman citizenship, becoming thoroughly Romanised. Unique in the Roman world, the people of Bulla Regia capitalised on local Berber knowledge to build nifty underground villas.

For centuries, the local Berbers had dug their homes into the ground in order to provide superb insulation from both the summer heat and the chilly winters. Figuring that the Berbers were on to something the Romans followed suit, and while their homes were internally Roman in style, complete with pillars and mosaics, they were dug into the ground as the Berber houses were. Now that archaeologists have unearthed these villas, the visitor has a rare opportunity to go inside what was once an actual Roman home.

While we were at Bulla Regia it rained. Our guide said we were lucky, because the rain would wet the mosaics and we would see them in full colour- usually the floor mosaics are covered with a thin layer of sandy dirt, hence the dusty appearance. You can see in the photographs below that where the underground courtyard opened directly to the sky above, the rain has wet the mosaic causing it to burst into sudden colour.

The Romans were pretty serious about their planning in all respects. The town planners even knew where they were going to house the courtesans- this is the foundation stone of one such establishment in Bulla Regia.

Our third stop on our tour of ancient Roman sites was El Jem, a fairly small and pretty typical Tunisian town, except for the fact that it has a massive Roman amphitheatre slap bang in its centre.

Oddly incongruous amongst the dusty streets and pavement cafes, the amphitheatre at El Jem seated 35000 spectators, it was the third largest in the Roman world after the Colosseum in Rome and the amphitheatre at Capua. A section of the seating has been restored to showcase its former glory, the seating originally spanned three vertical tiers that towered above the arena. It was great fun running around inside the tunnels under the seating tiers and striding out onto the Arena pretending to be Jacius Maximus.

The museum at El Jem was pretty good too, with another impressive collection of mosaics. In keeping with the gladiatorial theme of the amphitheatre, some of the mosaic depictions are fairly grisly.

On our way back to Tunis from southern Tunisia we stopped at the town of Sbeitla, modern home to the Roman ruins of Sufetula. To be perfectly honest, there wasn’t a great deal to see at Sufetula that had not already been showcased for us at the other sites we had visited, so by this time I think a bit of ancient Roman fatigue had set in. The main attraction at Sufetula was a very impressive and well preserved Forum with three standing temples; the Temple of Jupiter, flanked by temples to his wife, Juno at his right shoulder and his daughter Minerva on his left, together they form the holy trinity of the ancient Roman world.

Unlike Dougga and Bulla Regia, no archaeologist guides presented themselves at Sufetula, making us wonder if there was a whole lot of significance to the ruins that was sailing over our heads. On the other hand, Alix’ parents, Ursula and Martin, had joined us earlier in Tozeur, so Alix had fun playing ‘amateur-hour’ tour guide for them, trying to recall to memory as much of what we had learnt at the other sites we had been to.

Wandering the Roman ruin sites in Tunisia was a rich and rewarding experience. Largely off the tourist trail, we virtually had the sites to ourselves- one tour bus arrived while we were at El Jem, and a dozen or so others wandered the ruins at Sufetula; at Dougga and Bulla Regia we caught glimpses only of the few other visitors there. The sites themselves are very cheap to enter, with a standard entry fee set by the Tunisian tourism board of 5 dinars for a single entry ticket, which is about $3.40 in our money. Tour guides at Dougga and Bulla Regia were archaeology graduates; friendly, professional, knowledgeable and inexpensive. I hope they continue to do their good work long into the future.


  1. wow amazing read and pictures. seeing these pictures makes me very thankful for you guys thanks! lol

  2. I love your blog! (mine has the same template too, lol) I am both happy and jealous to see your photos. We went to Tunisia not too long ago and only spent a day there, as it was part of a cruise. So we only made it to a few stops including Carthage. I love your photos, it 'continued the tour' for me and enable me to see more... Thanks... I am looking forward to read more of your travels.

    Maya -