THE intrepid explorer could not believe his eyes. There, partly buried in the sands of the Algerian desert, stood a Roman triumphal arch! When Scotsman James Bruce made this discovery in 1765, he did not realize that he was actually standing above the ruins of the largest Roman settlement ever built in North Africa
Over a century later, in 1881, French archaeologists began uncovering Timgad’s well-preserved remains. They concluded that in spite of the barren and harsh surroundings, its inhabitants enjoyed a very comfortable and luxurious lifestyle. But what moved the Romans to build a prosperous colony in such a place? And what lessons can we learn from this ancient city and its inhabitants?
A HIDDEN POLITICAL PURPOSE
When the Romans extended their rule over North Africa in the first century B.C.E., they encountered fierce opposition from some nomadic tribes. How would the Romans establish peace with the local people? At first, soldiers from the Third Augustan Legion built many fortified camps and guard posts in the vast mountainous region of what is today northern Algeria. Later, they built the city of Timgad, but for a very different purpose.
Officially, the Romans founded Timgad for retired veterans, but they really built the city with a view to weakening the resistance of the local tribes. Their plan was successful. The comfortable way of life in Timgad soon began to appeal to the local people who came to town to sell their products. Hoping to be accepted in Timgad, where only Roman citizens were allowed to live, many natives willingly joined the Roman Legion for a 25-year term in order to obtain Roman citizenship for themselves and their sons.
Not content with merely having Roman citizenship, some Africans eventually even achieved prominent positions in Timgad or other colonial cities. The subtle scheme of the Romans to assimilate the locals was so successful that only half a century after its founding, Timgad was inhabited mostly by North Africans.
HOW ROME SEDUCED HEARTS
How did the Romans succeed in seducing the hearts of the indigenous people so quickly? For one thing, they promoted equality among citizens
As in many Roman cities, inhabitants could meet at the forum on busy market days to hear the latest news or to play games. Natives from the nearby arid mountains could no doubt imagine themselves walking under shaded colonnades on a hot and dry day or relaxing in one of the many free public baths to the sound of trickling water. They could probably see themselves seated around refreshing water fountains, chatting with friends. All of this must have seemed like a dream to them.
The open-air theater also played a key role in seducing the hearts of the people. With a seating capacity of over 3,500, it accommodated the boisterous crowds from Timgad and neighboring towns. On stage, actors introduced the audience to Rome’s taste for salacious entertainment through plays that often featured immorality or violence.
Roman religion also played its part. The floors and walls of bathhouses were richly decorated with colorful mosaics showing scenes from pagan mythology. Since bathing was an important part of daily life, the inhabitants gradually became acquainted with Roman gods and religion. The attempt to assimilate the Africans into Roman culture was so effective that funerary steles were often adorned with triads of both the local and the Roman deities.
THE BEAUTIFUL CITY SINKS INTO OBLIVION
After Emperor Trajan founded the city in 100 C.E., the Romans encouraged the production of grain, olive oil, and wine throughout North Africa. The region soon became a granary for Rome, supplying the empire with these essential commodities. Like other colonial cities, Timgad prospered under Roman rule. In time, the population of Timgad grew, and the city expanded far beyond its fortified walls.
The city dwellers and landowners prospered from the trade with Rome, but little benefit trickled down to the local farmers. In the third century C.E., social injustice and excessive taxes gave rise to revolts among small farmers. Some of them, who had adopted the Catholic faith, joined the Donatists
After centuries of religious conflicts, civil wars, and barbarian invasions, Roman civilization lost its grip on North Africa. By the sixth century C.E., Timgad was burned to the ground by local Arab tribes and eventually sank into oblivion for over 1,000 years.
Archaeologists who unearthed Timgad’s remains were amused by a Latin inscription found at the forum. It reads: “Hunting, bathing, playing, laughing
Actually, the Romans had been pursuing such a way of life for some time. The first-century Christian apostle Paul mentioned people whose philosophy of life was “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we are to die.” Though they were religious, the Romans lived for the pleasure of the moment, with little thought of the ultimate meaning and purpose of life. Paul warned his fellow Christians to guard against such people when he said: “Do not be misled. Bad associations spoil useful habits.”
Though the people of Timgad lived some 1,500 years ago, views on life have not changed very much. Many people today live with only the present in mind. To them, the Romans’ view of life makes perfect sense, whatever the consequences. The Bible, however, offers a succinct and realistic assessment when it says: “The scene of this world is changing.” It therefore urges us ‘not to be making use of the world to the full.’
The ruins of Timgad bear witness to the fact that the secret of a happy and meaningful life does not lie in heeding that inscription long-buried in the sands of North Africa. Rather, it lies in heeding the Bible’s reminder: “The world is passing away and so is its desire, but the one who does the will of God remains forever.”