From the fall of Carthage in 146 BC to the arrival of Christianity at the end of the 2nd Century nothing much happened in the Roman province of Africa. But although it was uneventful it was far from unimportant. The Romans used Africa as the name for the area around Carthage, modern day Tunisia, and the southern shore of the Mediterranean to its east – the northern part of modern day Libya. At that time it was highly productive and fertile. The bread dole that formed part of the bread and circuses that kept the population of Rome fed and entertained was largely from this region.
The absence of this area from the history of the early period of the empire is simply because the Romans had it under control. The population were busy producing the food that Rome needed and weren’t allowed to do anything else. History starts again with the arrival of the ‘Good News’ and the resulting warfare between different Christian factions. Why were the Christians so violent? It is tempting to blame it on a sort of cosa nostra style battle between competing gangs of religious syndicates. To get control of the spiritual revenues they needed to wipe out their rivals. But maybe there was something a bit deeper behind it?
Recently evidence has come to light that during the late empire Western Europe and the Mediterranean were subject to severe episodes of climate change. Analysis of tree ring data indicates some severely dry weather, coupled with a tendency for the climate to become more variable. Analysis of calcite in stalagmites in the eastern end of the Mediterranean confirms this. We can be certain that the climate of the northern coastal regions of Africa today is much hotter and drier than it must have been in Classical times. So we know that it has changed at some point.
Unfortunately the data available so far don’t really allow any firm conclusions to be drawn, and in any case the science behind climate change is for us as contentious as the nature of the divinity of Christ was in the Fourth Century.
We can’t really get much beyond speculation, but speculation is fun and this is only an amateur podcast after all, so let’s indulge ourselves. It is quite possible that climate change led to either declining crop yields, or migrations of barbarians beyond the border. Or conceivably both. Being attacked by barbarians while you are hungry is the sort of thing that makes you question things.
Were the changes in religious practices part of a response to living in hard times? The Romans still demanded their bread, even though the failure of the rain in Africa meant that less grain was growing. Might this have discredited the local priests who would no doubt have sided with the authorities – this being standard operating procedure for that class of person. The sharpness of the religious conflicts could well have been due to a desperate struggle for resources in a hungry province.
Tripoli is Attacked
As I say this is all pure guesswork, but it would have made a very understandable backdrop to the political problems of the reign of Valentinian. There were three cities; Oea, Leptis, and Sobrata, which had grown large enough that they had joined up to form a single settlement known as Tripoli (tri polis – three cities, you can see where the name comes from). It came under attack from a group of tribesman from a region near the Atlas mountains.
The citizens, not unreasonably, requested support from Romanus the local governor. What after all did they pay their taxes for if it weren’t for protection from barbarians. He, completely unreasonably, demanded a substantial payment in return for military support. They didn’t have the cash and so were left to fend for themselves. They sent a delegation to Valentinian to make what must have seemed a very justified complaint.
But Romanus was one step ahead and had bribed an official at the court and so managed to cast doubt of the accusers. Nonetheless, suspicions were aroused and Valentinian dispatched a trusted notary called Paladius to investigate. On his arrival, Romanus bribed him as well. They also stole the wages he had carried with him. As most scoundrels do, they accused others as a cover for their own wrongdoing. The delegates from the city who had made the complaint ended up getting killed as troublemakers. This was the Valentinian style – resolve conflict by killing people. We have seen that Valentinian did a pretty good job of effectively managing the defences on the Rhine. He was certainly able to maintain his authority and get things done.
Theodosius to the Rescue
There is a problem with this approach. It does make it hard to talk things over. And it works extremely badly when it comes to delegating authority. The provincials were no longer willing to talk to either Valentinian or to Romanus, and ended up going over to the enemy. A Moorish chieftain called Firmus became first the leader of a rebellion against the central government and soon took over the entire region.
It was understandable that in this crisis the best general should have been needed. Britain was important, but losing a big chunk of territory in the Mediterranean that supplied a large proportion of the food supply of Italy, that was really serious. Theodosius left as soon as he could to get down to action.
The talent of Theodosius is evident in how the next act in the drama played out. He rapidly built up his forces around the Rhone. From there he crossed the Mediterranean and was in North Africa before any of the combattants had even heard he was on his way. The arrival of crack troops led by a determined commander transformed the situation. Firmus himself fled. His supporters were killed or mutilated. Theodosius did not risk letting Firmus get back to his home in the Atlas mountains where he could have become a thorn in the empire’s side. He threatened a tribal leader who he suspected of harbouring him. The leader agreed to hand him over, but Firmus hanged himself first. The rebellion was over.
You have to wonder why things ever got so far if it was so straight forward to put them right. I think it shows a highly dysfunctional elite. And what happened next only confirms my opinion. Romanus obviously had some questions to answer now, and was relieved of his duties while a post mortem on the rebellion was held. Romanus was allowed to defend himself, and did so. He managed to spin out the proceedings. In the meantime, Valetinian died. His successors pardoned Romanus. Theodosius on the other hand was beheaded. His crime was to have shown enough ability to make him a threat.
Well that is the way autocratic government works. But it is intriguing to think what the Romans could have achieved. Let us suppose that the problems they were facing were down to climate change. They were far from lacking resources to deal with the issue. They could have built aqueducts and set up irrigation. They had good transport, so food could have been moved around. With such a wide range of environments, they could have experimented with different plant varieties.
Ultimately the fall of Rome must have come down to a failure of leadership in a system that had everything else it needed to thrive except that one vital ingredient, a way of picking good leaders.