The Roman Era
Roman ruins at Djemila, west of Constantine
Courtesy Bechtel Corporation
Arch to Emperor Trajan (r. A.D. 98-117) at Timgad, southwest
Increases in urbanization and in the area under cultivation during
Roman rule caused wholesale dislocations of Berber society. Nomadic
tribes were forced to settle or move from traditional rangelands.
Sedentary tribes lost their autonomy and connection with the land.
Berber opposition to the Roman presence was nearly constant. The
Roman emperor Trajan (r. A.D. 98-117) established a frontier in
the south by encircling the Aurès and Nemencha mountains and building
a line of forts from Vescera (modern Biskra) to Ad Majores (Hennchir
Besseriani, southeast of Biskra). The defensive line extended
at least as far as Castellum Dimmidi (modern Messaad, southwest
of Biskra), Roman Algeria's southernmost fort. Romans settled
and developed the area around Sitifis (modern Sétif) in the second
century, but farther west the influence of Rome did not extend
beyond the coast and principal military roads until much later.
The Roman military presence in North Africa was relatively small,
consisting of about 28,000 troops and auxiliaries in Numidia and
the two Mauretanian provinces. Starting in the second century
A.D., these garrisons were manned mostly by local inhabitants.
Aside from Carthage, urbanization in North Africa came in part
with the establishment of settlements of veterans under the Roman
emperors Claudius (r. A.D. 41-54), Nerva (r. A.D. 96-98), and
Trajan. In Algeria such settlements included Tipasa, Cuicul (modern
Djemila, northeast of Sétif), Thamugadi (modern Timgad, southeast
of Sétif), and Sitifis. The prosperity of most towns depended
on agriculture. Called the "granary of the empire," North Africa,
according to one estimate, produced 1 million tons of cereals
each year, one-quarter of which was exported. Other crops included
fruit, figs, grapes, and beans. By the second century A.D., olive
oil rivaled cereals as an export item.
The beginnings of the decline of the Roman Empire were less serious
in North Africa than elsewhere. There were uprisings, however.
In A.D. 238, landowners rebelled unsuccessfully against the emperor's
fiscal policies. Sporadic tribal revolts in the Mauretanian mountains
followed from 253 to 288. The towns also suffered economic difficulties,
and building activity almost ceased.
The towns of Roman North Africa had a substantial Jewish population.
Some Jews were deported from Palestine in the first and second
centuries A.D. for rebelling against Roman rule; others had come
earlier with Punic settlers. In addition, a number of Berber tribes
had converted to Judaism.
Christianity arrived in the second century and soon gained converts
in the towns and among slaves. More than eighty bishops, some
from distant frontier regions of Numidia, attended the Council
of Carthage in 256. By the end of the fourth century, the settled
areas had become Christianized, and some Berber tribes had converted
A division in the church that came to be known as the Donatist
controversy began in 313 among Christians in North Africa. The
Donatists stressed the holiness of the church and refused to accept
the authority to administer the sacraments of those who had surrendered
the scriptures when they were forbidden under the Emperor Diocletaian
(r. 284-305). The Donatists also opposed the involvement of Emperor
Constantine (r. 306-37) in church affairs in contrast to the majority
of Christians who welcomed official imperial recognition.
The occasionally violent controversy has been characterized as
a struggle between opponents and supporters of the Roman system.
The most articulate North African critic of the Donatist position,
which came to be called a heresy, was Augustine, bishop of Hippo
Regius. Augustine (354-430) maintained that the unworthiness of
a minister did not affect the validity of the sacraments because
their true minister was Christ. In his sermons and books Augustine,
who is considered a leading exponent of Christian truths, evolved
a theory of the right of orthodox Christian rulers to use force
against schismatics and heretics. Although the dispute was resolved
by a decision of an imperial commission in Carthage in 411, Donatist
communities continued to exist through the sixth century.
Data as of December 1993