Section of the ruins of the city of Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia.

The History and Photogenic Ruins of the Forgotten City of Thuburbo Maius


Carthage was at one point of time Rome’s greatest rival in the Mediterranean. This great civilization was first founded as a Phoenician colony in modern day Tunisia and extended its influence in time over much of coastal North Africa, coastal Iberia, and the islands of the Western Mediterranean.

Some Carthaginian cities, such as Carthage itself, Leptis Magna (in modern day Libya), and Tingis (now known as Tangier and located in present day Morocco) are quite well-known. There are, however, other Carthaginian settlements which have received much less attention from people today. One of these forgotten cities is Thuburbo Maius (also known as Thuburbo Majus) in Tunisia.

Location and Origins of Thuburbo Maius

Thuburbo Maius is located around 60 km (37.3 miles) to the southwest of Tunis, the capital of Tunisia, and 30 km (18.6 miles) from the town of Zaghouan and the Djebel Zaghouan, where an aqueduct once carried water from the mountain to the city of Carthage.

The Zaghouan aqueduct, near Tunis, Tunisia.

The Zaghouan aqueduct, near Tunis, Tunisia. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Unfortunately, the origins of Thuburbo Maius have not been well-documented by ancient writers. The ruins of this settlement, however, are extensive, and have been extremely well-preserved, and it is from these remains that archaeologists have been able to learn a little about the story of Thuburbo Maius.

According to the archaeological evidence, the settlement of Thuburbo Maius was first established as a Punic settlement. This is based on the archaeological remains found in the town that have been dated to several centuries prior to the destruction of Carthage by Rome in 146 BC. With the fall of Carthage, Thuburbo Maius became part of the Roman Republic. Once again, this settlement slipped into obscurity, and little is known about the early days when Thuburbo Maius was under Roman control.

Mosaic of two boxers, (373 AD). Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia

Mosaic of two boxers, (373 AD). Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia (CC BY 3.0)

Periods of Prosperity and Ruin for Thuburbo Maius

It was only during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian that clear references to Thuburbo Maius were made in the literary sources. During this period, this settlement was elevated to the status of a city, and was renamed as Municipium Aelium Hadrianum Augustum. As a result, the city experienced a period of development.

During the reign of the Emperor Commodus, the city was promoted again and became a colonia. Additionally, it was renamed as Colonia Julia Aurelia Commoda Thuburbo Maius. Further expansions and constructions took place thanks to the Thuburbo Maius’ elevated status.

Ruins of a Roman home, Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia.

Ruins of a Roman home, Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia. (CC BY SA 2.5)

Over the centuries, Thuburbo Maius experienced both periods of prosperity and ruin, depending on the fortunes of the Roman Empire. Once, Thuburbo Maius was renamed as Res Publica Felix Thuburbo Maius (meaning ‘Successful Place under Public Domain’) following a particularly prosperous period.

       Panoramic view of the expansive ruins of the city of Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia. The city experienced several periods of prosperity and ruin, depending on the fortunes of the Roman Empire at the time.

Panoramic view of the expansive ruins of the city of Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia. The city experienced several periods of prosperity and ruin, depending on the fortunes of the Roman Empire at the time. (Public Domain)

Christian Figures at Thuburbo Maius

Thuburbo Maius is also associated with several Christian figures. For instance, the martyr St. Servus is said to have originated from this place. This saint supposedly suffered for the Christian faith under the Vandal kings, Genseric and Huneric.

Additionally, four bishops from Thuburbo Maius are known – Sedatus, who was present at the Council of Carthage (256 AD), Faustus, who attended the Council of Arles (314 AD), Cyprianus, who was present at the Conference of Carthage (411 AD), and Benetatus, who was exiled by Huneric in 484 AD. Nevertheless, it has also been pointed out that Thuburbo Maius was not a Christian city despite the presence of such figures.

The Abandonment of Thuburbo Maius

Desertions began at Thuburbo Maius around 400 AD and the Vandal conquest of North Africa had little impact on the city. Around three centuries later, Thuburbo Maius was almost completely deserted. No Islamic remains have been found yet, thus suggesting that Thuburbo Maius was not inhabited following the Islamic conquest either.

The abandoned and ruined Temple of Juno Caelestis, Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia.

The abandoned and ruined Temple of Juno Caelestis, Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia. (CC BY SA 2.5)

Excavations at the Farm with Ruins

During the 19th century, the area was called Henchir al-Kasbat, meaning ‘farm with ruins’. A French diplomat who visited the ruins in 1857 came to the conclusion that this was the site of Thuburbo Maius.

The first excavations of the site were carried out during the early 20th century. These excavations have provided some fascinating insights about the city. For instance, unlike most Roman cities, Thuburbo Maius lacked straight streets.

Plan of the ruins at Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia

Plan of the ruins at Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia. (CC BY SA 3.0) Note that Thuburbo Maius did not have straight streets despite years of Roman ruling.

It is commonly believed that this was due to the fact that the existing Punic town was retained, rather than demolished to make way for the new Roman settlement. The excavations also revealed features such as the Forum, the Capitolium, and several large houses which were decorated with mosaics. Thus, the forgotten city of Thuburbo Maius has maintained many interesting features from history over the years.

The ruins of the Capitolium in Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia.

The ruins of the Capitolium in Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia. (CC BY SA 2.5)

Featured image: Section of the ruins of the city of Thuburbo Maius, Tunisia. (CC BY SA 2.5)

By: Ḏḥwty

References

Davies, E., 2009. North Africa: The Roman Coast. Buckinghamshire: Bradt Travel Guides Ltd.

Kjeilen, T., 2015. Thuburbo Majus. [Online]
Available at: http://lexicorient.com/tunisia/thuburbo_majus.htm

Lendering, J., 2015. Carthage. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livius.org/articles/place/carthage/

Mark, J. J., 2011. Carthage. [Online]
Available at: http://www.ancient.eu/carthage/

Pétridès, S., 1912. Thuburbo Minus. [Online]
Available at: http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/14709b.htm

Piperno, R., 2012. Thuburbo Majus. [Online]
Available at: http://romeartlover.tripod.com/Thuburbo.html

Stillwell, R., MacDonald, W. L. & McAlister, M. H., 1976. The Princeton Encyclopedia of Classical Sites: Thuburbo Maius (Henchir Kasbat) Tunisia.. [Online]
Available at: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus:text:1999.04.0006:entry=thuburbo-maius

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