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Classical Tripolitania

Enterprising Phoenician traders were active throughout the Mediterranean area before the twelfth century B.C. The depots that they set up at safe harbors on the African coast to service, supply, and shelter their ships were the links in a maritime chain reaching from the Levant to Spain. Many North African cities and towns originated as Phoenician trading posts, where the merchants of Tyre (in present-day Lebanon) eventually developed commercial relations with the Berber tribes and made treaties with them to ensure their cooperation in the exploitation of raw materials. By the fifth century B.C., Carthage, the greatest of the overseas Phoenician colonies, had extended its hegemony across much of North Africa, where a distinctive civilization, known as Punic, came into being. Punic settlements on the Libyan coast included Oea (Tripoli), Labdah (later Leptis Magna), and Sabratah, in an area that came to be known collectively as Tripolis, or "Three Cities".

Governed by a mercantile oligarchy, Carthage and its dependencies cultivated good relations with the Berber tribes in the hinterland, but the city-state was essentially a maritime power whose expansion along the western Mediterranean coast drew it into a confrontation with Rome in the third century B.C. Defeated in the long Punic Wars (264-241 and 218-201 B.C.), Carthage was reduced by Rome to the status of a small and vulnerable African state at the mercy of the Berbers. Fear of a Carthaginian revival, however, led Rome to renew the war, and Carthage was destroyed in 146 B.C. Tripolitania was assigned to Rome's ally, the Berber king of Numidia. A century later, Julius Caesar deposed the reigning Numidian king, who had sided with Pompey (Roman general and statesman, rival of Julius Caesar) in the Roman civil wars, and annexed his extensive territory to Rome, organizing Tripolitania as a Roman province.

The influence of Punic civilization on North Africa remained deep-seated. The Berbers displayed a remarkable gift for cultural assimilation, readily synthesizing Punic cults with their folk religion. The Punic language was still spoken in the towns of Tripolitania and by Berber farmers in the coastal countryside in the late Roman period.

For more than 400 years, Tripolitania and Cyrenaica were prosperous Roman provinces and part of a cosmopolitan state whose citizens shared a common language, legal system, and Roman identity. Roman ruins like those of Leptis Magna, extant in present-day Libya, attest to the vitality of the region, where populous cities and even smaller towns enjoyed the amenities of urban life--the forum, markets, public entertainments, and baths-- found in every corner of the Roman Empire. Merchants and artisans from many parts of the Roman world established themselves in North Africa, but the character of the cities of Tripolitania remained decidedly Punic and, in Cyrenaica, Greek. Tripolitania was a major exporter of olive oil, as well as being the entrept for the gold and slaves conveyed to the coast by the Garamentes, while Cyrenaica remained an important source of wines, drugs, and horses. The bulk of the population in the countryside consisted of Berber farmers, who in the west were thoroughly "Punicized" in language and customs.

Although the African provinces profited as much as any part of the empire from the imposition of the Pax Romana, the region was not without strife and threat of war. Only near the end of the first century A.D. did the army complete the pacification of the Sirtica, a desert refuge for the barbarian tribes that had impeded overland communications between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica. But for more than two centuries thereafter commerce flowed safely between markets and ports along a well-maintained road system and sea lanes policed by Roman forces who also guaranteed the security of settled areas against incursions by desert nomads. The vast territory was defended by one locally recruited legion (5,500 men) in Cyrenaica and the elements of another in Tripolitania, reinforced by tribal auxiliaries on the frontier. Although expeditions penetrated deep into Fezzan, in general Rome sought to control only those areas in the African provinces that were economically useful or could be garrisoned with the manpower available.

With the definitive partition of the empire in 395, the Libyans were assigned to the eastern empire; Tripolitania was attached to the western empire. From an early date, however, the churches in Tripolitania and Cyrenaica developed distinct characteristics that reflected their differing cultural orientations. The former came under the jurisdiction of the Latin patriarch, the bishop of Rome, and the latter under that of the Coptic (Egyptian) patriarch of Alexandria.

Invited to North Africa by a rebellious Roman official, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe, crossed from Spain in 429. They seized power and, under their leader, Gaiseric, established a kingdom that made its capital at Carthage. Although the Roman Empire eventually recognized their overlordship in much of North Africa, including Tripolitania, the Vandals confined their rule to the most economically profitable areas.

Effective Byzantine control in Tripolitania was restricted to the coast, and even there the newly walled towns, strongholds, fortified farms, and watchtowers called attention to its tenuous nature. The region's prosperity had shrunk under Vandal domination, and the old Roman political and social order, disrupted by the Vandals, could not be restored. In outlying areas neglected by the Vandals, the inhabitants had sought the protection of tribal chieftains and, having grown accustomed to their autonomy, resisted reassimilation into the imperial system.




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