Sufetula, A Once Affluent Roman City Fit for the Gods
Unexpectedly perhaps, North Africa has a great many historic sites and Tunisia, with its long and illustrious history, is a country with particularly notable archaeological wonders. The archaeological site of Sbeitla, better known as Sufetula, has well preserved Roman and Byzantine ruins since the city played a major role in the history of North Africa.
Roman and Byzantine Sufetula
The town of Sufetula is thought to have been founded by the Romans in the 1 st century AD during the reign of Emperor Vespasian. Because of the discovery of a number of stelae written in Punic, it appears that it was built upon an even older Carthaginian settlement.
As is the case with most of the Roman settlements in Africa, Sufetula was originally a military settlement, but it quickly became very wealthy thanks to its rich agricultural hinterland. In the classical era the climate of north Africa was wetter than now, and it was known as the granary of Rome. Judging by the large number of olive presses found in the vicinity, their fortunes were founded on the olive oil industry.
The Roman cities across North Africa ( Public Domain)
Sufetula’s ruling elite maintained close ties with Rome and they built lavishly to win the favor of successive emperors. It became a major Christian center and eventually a Diocese with a resident bishop. The city, unlike its neighbors, did not decline during the 3 rd century crisis, but it was occupied by the Vandals when the Western Empire collapsed in the 5 th century AD.
Justinian the Great, the Byzantine Emperor, ordered the invasion of north Africa in the 540s. The Vandals who had established a kingdom in the former Roman province were conquered and the area became part of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines fortified the town against Berber tribes and as a result, Sufetula became the capital of the province.
In the mid-7 th century AD, the Muslim Arabs had occupied Egypt and were threatening the Byzantine province of north Africa. By the 640s the Byzantine Empire was weakened by a series of civil wars and this allowed the Arabs to invade.
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Roman mosaics of Sufetula (Public Domain)
A Byzantine official known as Prefect Gregory declared himself independent, which was most likely a result of religious differences with the court of Constantinople. The Caliph’s army invaded and defeated the Prefect outside of the town in 674 AD and in the aftermath destroyed most of the settlement. It never recovered.
The modern town of Sbeitla was later built near the site and today it has a population of 20,000.
The Ruins of Sufetula
Many magnificent ruins on the site are enclosed by a wall that was built by the Byzantines. The triple-arched Antonine Gate, built in AD 139, leads to the forum - the chief public space in Roman Sufetula, one of the best preserved in the Mediterranean region. South of the site stands another impressive arch which was built during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.
The three temples to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva (Asram / CC BY SA 3.0)
The city was big enough to boast an amphitheater as well as a Roman-era bath complex which had some fine mosaics. Not to be outdone, the homes were also lavishly decorated and one in particular, a villa known as the House of the Four Season, had exquisite mosaics work.
The Byzantines too built extensively at the site and there are a number of Christian Churches. It appears that they rebuilt the Basilica of Bellator, and shortly after the conquest of the town, they built the Basilica of St. Vitalis with many baptismal fonts and beautiful Byzantine mosaics.
The Basilica of Bellator (Asram / CC BY SA 3.0)
Although much of the site is still unexcavated, some of the ruins have been rebuilt in recent years, such as the gymnasium in the baths complex.
Getting to Sbeitla
The archaeological site of Sufetula is not far from the modern town of Sbeitla in central Tunisia, close to the border of Algeria. The archaeological site is next to a museum where many of the historic artifacts excavated from the archaeological site are on display to those who pay the entrance fee.
The green spaces at the site are great for picnics and once a year a cultural and heritage festival is held in the old Roman forum.
Most visitors find the pre-arranged tours to be more convenient, although there is plenty of accommodation near Sbeitla/Sufetula.
Top image: Arch of Diocletian Source: Gagnon, B / CC BY-SA 3.0
By Ed Whelan
Akacha, W. B. (2015). J uridical Status, Urbanization and Urbanism in Sufetula during the High Empire. Dialogues d’histoire ancienne, 41(2), 117-150
Morton, T. J. (2013). Sufetula (Sbeitla). The Encyclopedia of Ancient History
Seethal, C. (2016). Historical Settlement: Africa. International Encyclopedia of Geography: People, the Earth, Environment and Technology: 1-11