Roman Africa

The possessions of the Carthaginians were formed into a Roman province which was called Africa. The governor resided at Utica, which with the other old Phoenician towns received municipal rights, but paid a fixed stipend to the state exchequer. The territory of Carthage itself became Roman domain land, and was let on lease. Italian merchants flocked to Utica in great numbers and reopened the inland trade, but the famous sea trade was not revived. The Britons of Cornwall might in vain gather on high places and strain their eyes towards the west. The ships which had brought them beads and purple cloth would come again no more.

A descendant of Masinissa, who inherited his genius, defied the Roman power in a long war. He was finally conquered by Sylla and Marius, caught, and carried off to Rome. Apparelled in barbaric splendour, he was paraded through the streets. But when the triumph was over his guards rushed upon him and struggled for the finery in which he had been dressed. They tore the rings from his ears with such force that the flesh came away; they cast him naked into a dungeon under ground. "O Romans, you give me a cold bath!" were the last words of the valiant Jugurtha.

The next Numidian prince who appeared at a triumph was the young Juba, who had taken the side of Pompey against Caesar. "It proved to be a happy captivity for him," says Plutarch, "for from a barbarous and unlettered Numidian he became an historian worthy to be numbered amongst the learned men of Greece."

When the empire became established the kingdoms of Numidia, of Cyrene, and of Egypt were swept away. Africa was divided into seven fruitful provinces ranging along the coast from Tripoli to Tangiers. Egypt was made a province, with the tropical line for its southern frontier. The oasis of Cyrene, with its fields of asafoetida, was a middle station between the two. But still the history of Northern Africa and the history of Egypt remain distinct. The Roman empire, though held together for a time by strong and skilful hands, was divided by customs and modes of thought arising out of language into the Greek and Latin worlds. In the countries which had been civilised by the Romans Latin had been introduced. In the countries which before the Roman conquest had been conquered by Alexander, the Greek language maintained its ground. Greece, Macedonia, Asia Minor, Syria, Egypt, and Cyrene belonged to the Greek world; Italy Gaul, Spain, and Africa belonged to the Latin world. Greek was never spoken in Roman Carthage except by a few merchants and learned men. Latin was never spoken in Alexandria except in the law courts and at Government House. Whenever there was a partition of the empire Egypt was assigned to one emperor, Carthage to the other. In the Church history of Africa the same phenomenon may be observed. The Church of Africa was the daughter of the Church of Rome, and was chiefly occupied with questions of discipline and law. The Church of Egypt was essentially a Greek church; it was occupied entirely with definitions of the undefinable and solutions of problems in theology.

In one respect, however, the histories of Egypt and Africa are the same. They were both of them cornfields, and both of them were ruined by the Romans. In the early days of the empire there was a noble reform in provincial affairs resembling that which Clive accomplished in British India when he visited that country for the last time. There was then an end to that tyrant of prey who under the republic had contrived in a few years to extort an enormous fortune from his proconsulate, and who was often accompanied by a wife more rapacious than himself; who returned to Rome with herds of slaves and cargoes of bullion and of works of art. Governors were appointed with fixed salaries; the Roman law was everywhere introduced; vast sums of money were expended on the public works.

Unhappily this did not last. Rome was devoured by a population of mean whites, the result of foreign slavery, which invariably degrades labour. This vast rabble was maintained by the state; rations of bread and oil were served out to it every day. When the evil time came and the exchequer was exhausted, the governors of Africa and Egypt were required to send the usual quantity of grain all the same, and to obtain their percentage as best they could. They were transformed into satraps or pashas. The great landowners were accused of conspiracy, and their estates escheated to the crown. The agriculturists were reduced to serfdom. There might be a scarcity of food in Africa, but there must be none in Rome. Every year were to be seen the huge ships lying in the harbours of Alexandria and Carthage, and the mountains of corn piled high upon the quays. When the seat of empire was transferred to the Bosphorus the evil became greater still. Each province was forced to do double work. There was now a populace in Constantinople which was fed entirely by Egypt, and Africa supported the populace of Rome. While the Egyptian fellah and the Moorish peasant were labouring in the fields, the sturdy beggars of Byzantium and Rome were amusing themselves at the circus or basking on marble in the sun.

But Africa was not only a plantation of corn and oil for their imperial majesties the Italian lazzaroni. It also contained the preserves of Rome. The lion was a royal beast; it was licensed to feed upon the flock of the shepherds, and upon the shepherd himself if it preferred him. The unfortunate Moor could not defend his life without a violation of the game laws, which were quite as ferocious as the lion. It will easily be imagined that the Roman rule was not agreeable to the native population. They had fallen beneath a power compared with which that of the Carthaginians was feeble and kind; which possessed the strength of civilisation without its mercy. But when that power began to decline they lifted up their heads and joined the foreign invaders as soon as they appeared, as their fathers had joined the Romans in the ancient days.

These invaders were the Vandals, a tribe of Germans from the North who had conquered Spain and who, now pouring over the Gibraltar Straits, took Carthage and ruled there a hundred years. The Romans struggled hard to regain their cornfileds, and the old duel of Rome and Carthage was resumed. This time it was Carthage that was triumphant. It repelled the Romans when they invaded Africa. It became a naval power, scoured the Mediterranean, re-conquered Sicily and Sardinia, plundered the shores of Italy, and encamped beneath the mouldering walls of Rome. The gates of the city were opened, and the bishop of Rome, attended by his clergy, came forth in solemn procession to offer the submission of Rome, and to pray for mercy to the churches and their captives. Doubtless in that army of Germans and Moors by whom they were received there were men of Phoenician descent who had read in history of a similar scene. Rome was more fortunate than ancient Carthage: the city was sacked, but it was not destroyed. Not long afterwards it was taken by the Goths. Kings dressed in furs sat opposite each other on the thrones of Carthage and of Rome.

The Emperor of the East sent the celebrated Belisarius against the Carthaginian Vandals, who had become corrupted by luxury and whom he speedily subdued. Thus Africa was restored to Rome, but it was a Greek speaking Rome, and the citizens of Carthage still felt themselves to be under foreign rule. Besides, the war had reduced the country to a wilderness. One might travel for days without meeting a human being in those fair coast lands which had once been filled with olive groves, and vineyards, and fields of waving corn. The savage Berber tribes pressed more and more fiercely on the cultivated territory which still remained. It is probable that if the Arabs had not come the Moors would have driven the Byzantines out of the land, or at least have forced them to remain as prisoners behind their walls.

With the invasion of the Arabs the proper history of Africa begins. It is now that we are able for the first time to leave the coasts of the Mediterranean and the banks of the Nile, and to penetrate into that vast and mysterious world of which the ancient geographers had but a faint and incorrect idea.

It is evident enough from the facts which have been adduced in the foregoing sketch that Egypt and Carthage contributed much to human progress—Egypt by instructing Greece, Carthage by drawing forth Rome to the conquest of the world.

But these countries did little for Africa itself. The ambition of Egypt was with good reason turned towards Asia, that of Carthage towards Europe. The influence of Carthage on the regions of the Niger was similar to that of Egypt on the negro regions of the Nile. In each case it became the fashion for the native chiefs to wear Egyptian linen or the Tyrian purple, and to decorate their wives with beads which are often discovered by the negroes of the present day in ancient and forgotten graves. Elephants were hunted and gold pits were dug in Central Africa, that these luxuries might be procured; but the chief article of export was the slave, and this commodity was obtained by means of war. The negroes have often been accused of rejecting the civilisation of the Egyptians and Carthaginians, but they were never brought into contact with those people. The intercourse between them was conducted by the intermediate Berber tribes.

Those Berber tribes who inhabited the regions adjoining Egypt and Cyrene appear to have been in some degree improved. But they were a roving people, and civilisation can never ripen under tents. Something, however, was accomplished among those who were settled in cities or the regions of the coast. That the Berber race possesses a remarkable capacity for culture has been amply proved. It is probable that Terence was a Moor. It is certain that Juba, whose works have been unfortunately lost, was of unmixed Berber blood. Reading and writing were common among them, and they used a character of their own. When the Romans took Carthage they gave the public library and archives to the Berber chiefs. At one time it seemed as if Barbary was destined to become a civilised province after the pattern of Spain and Gaul. Numidian princes adopted the culture of the Greeks, and Juba was placed on his ancestral throne that he might tame his wild subjects into Roman citizens. But this movement soon perished, and the Moorish chiefs fell back into their bandit life.

The African Church has obtained imperishable fame. In the days of suffering it brought forth martyrs whose fiery ardour and serene endurance have never been surpassed. In the days of victory it brought forth minds by whose imperial writings thousands of cultivated men have been enslaved. But this church was for the most part confined to the walled cities on the coast, to the farming villages in which the Punic speech was still preserved, and to a few Moorish tribes who lived under Roman rule. In the days of St. Augustine Christianity was in its zenith, and St. Augustine complains that there were hundreds of Berber chiefs who had never heard the name of Christ. Even in Roman Africa the triumph of Christianity was not complete. In Carthage itself Astarte and Moloch were still adored, and a bare-footed monk could not show himself in the streets without being pelted by the populace. At a later date the Moorish tribes became an heretical and hostile sect; the religious persecutions of the Arian Vandals were succeeded by the persecutions of the Byzantine Greeks. Christianity was divided and almost dead when the Arabs appeared, and the Church which had withstood ten imperial persecutions succumbed to the tax which the conquerors imposed on "the people of the book."

The failure of Christianity in Africa was owing to the imperfection of the Roman conquest. Their occupation was of a purely military kind, and it did not embrace an extensive area. The Romans were entirely distinct from the natives in manners and ideas. It was natural that the Berbers should reject the religion of a people whose language they did not understand, whose tyranny they detested, and whose power most of them defied. But the Arabs were accustomed to deserts; they did not settle, like the Romans and the Carthaginians, on the coast; they covered the whole land; they penetrated into the recesses of the Atlas; they pursued their enemies into the depths of the Sahara. But they also mingled persuasion with force. They believed that the Berbers were Arabs like themselves, and invited them as kinsmen to accept the mission of the prophet. They married the daughters of the land; they gathered round their standards the warriors whom they had defeated, and led them to the glorious conquest of Spain. The two peoples became one; the language and religion of the Arabs were accepted by the Moors.

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