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Tunisia - Roman Africa

Rome dictated a hard peace to Carthage after the battle of Zama, imposing a stiff indemnity and prohibiting Carthage from making war without Roman consent. When Carthage succeeded in paying the indemnity levied against it, voices were raised in the Roman Senate warning against a revival of Carthaginian might and urging that Carthage be destroyed. Masinissa had in the meantime taken advantage of the restrictions placed on Carthage's warmaking powers to invade its territory. When Carthage chose to defend itself, Rome declared war, charging a breach of the peace agreement.

Carthage surrendered to a besieging Roman army in 146 B.C. Its population was dispersed, the city razed to the ground, and its earth sown with salt. Carthaginian territory was annexed by Rome and eventually organized as the province of Proconsular Africa, governed by a civilian official (proconsul) appointed annually by the Senate. Julius Caesar subsequently ordered the rebuilding of Carthage as a Roman city and the capital of the province. The royal house of Masinissa continued to rule Numidia as a Roman protectorate until 46 BC, when Caesar deposed its king, who had sided with Pompey in the civil wars, and attached a part of it to Proconsular Africa. For 400 years the province was peaceful and prosperous, part of a cosmopolitian world state whose citizens shared a common language, legal system, and Roman identity.

The Roman ruins seen in present-day Tunisia attest to the civic vitality of Proconsular Africa, where populous cities and even the smaller towns, their streets laid out in characteristic grid design, enjoyed the amenities of urban life - the forum, markets, public entertainments, baths, and fountains - found in every corner of the Roman Empire. Merchants and craftsmen from many parts of the Roman world established themselves in the cities and towns, while army veterans and migrants from Italy settled in the coastal countryside: but the bulk of the population of Proconsular Africa consisted of punicized Berber farmers.

Called the "granary of the empire," Roman Africa was valued for its agricultural exports, which were Italy's principal source of food. Slave labor was common, but on the vast imperial domains and estates acquired by Roman aristocrats, land was leased to tenants who paid taxes and rent with grain that went to feed the army and provide free bread for the dole in Rome.

Roman Africa also had a substantial Jewish population. Many Jews were deported there after the rebellions against Roman rule in Palestine in the first and second centuries A.D., but others had come with earlier Punic settlers. Converts were made among the Berbers, and in some cases whole tribes may have been Judaized.

By the beginning of the second century, Christianity had been introduced among the Jewish community and soon gained converts in the towns and among slaves. Carthage became the center of Latin Christianity in Africa, and Tertullian, a convert born there in about 150, was the first Christian theologian writing in Latin and one of the most important. By the end of the fourth century Rome's African provinces had been thoroughly Christianized, and inroads had been made in the hinterland among the Berber tribes.

The tribes sometimes converted en masse, but schismatic and heretical movements also developed, often as forms of political protest. Donatism, a heresy within the puritanical tradition, won adherents during periods of severe Roman persecution and flourished again after Christianity was officially recognized in the fourth century by the empire, in opposition to bishops accused of collaborating with the state. The sect became a vehicle for social revolt at a time of political deterioration and economic depression, and it was an example of the religious enthusiasm that would be seen again in the history of the Berbers.

It was against the threat of Donatism to the African church that Saint Augustine (354-430), bishop of Hippo Regius (Annaba in present-day Algeria), directed many of the sermons and books, including his autobiographical Confessions, whose influence on Christian thought has continued undiminished through the centuries. Born in Thegaste (Souk Ahras in present-day Algeria), Saint Augustine is recognized as one of the Latin Fathers of the Church. In The City of God he sought to demonstrate that the future of the church was not dependent on the survival of the Roman state (or, by extension, on any secular authority), as many contemporary Christians feared it was, and thereby to prepare his people for the onslaught of the Vandals.

Invited to North Africa by a rebellious Roman official, the Vandals, a Germanic tribe, crossed from Spain in 429, seized power, and under their war leader, Gaiseric, established a kingdom that made its capital at Carthage.



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