Carlos Norena


The text which we now possess of Apuleius' Apologia is a document which represents the written version of a speech delivered in the year A.D. 158 in the town of Sabratha. Although many of the themes in the Apologia are indeed timeless and universal, the nature of Apuleius' defense is in many ways shaped by the time and place of its composition. The time is the middle of the second century A.D., that period during which Gibbon imagined "the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous;" the place is the region known as Tripolitania, at that time part of the Roman province of Africa Proconsularis. We can think of the Apologia as a window to this time and this place -- a blueprint which allows us to map Apuleius' rhetoric against Gibbon's. But before we can press the text into this type of service, we must have some basic sense of its historical and geographical context. This context will, hopefully, give us a better understanding of the atmosphere in Sabratha on that day in 158 when Apuleius defended himself against the charge of magic.

Tripolitania is a region within the borders of modern Libya. The climate of this region is primarily Saharan, but the long coastal strip is typically Mediterranean. The three cities which gave the area its name in antiquity were Lepcis Magna (home of L. Septimius Severus, Roman emperor 193-211 A.D.), Oea (modern Tripoli, capital of Libya), and Sabratha. The coastal towns of Tripolitania began as Phoenician trading settlements. Archeological data indicate that the area was settled between the period from the late seventh century to the fifth century B.C. The growth and commercial development of these towns evidently occurred under Carthaginian domination in the fourth and third centuries B.C. In 202 B.C., however, the Carthaginians under Hannibal suffered a massive defeat at the hands of P. Cornelius Scipio (the later Africanus), and in 146 B.C. Carthage itself was destroyed. This destruction of Carthage at the end of the Third Punic War (149-146 B.C.) eliminated the principal trading rival of the coastal towns of Tripolitania. In addition to agriculture and trans-Saharan trade, the economy of these towns was based to a large degree on maritime commerce, so the elimination of a commercial giant like Carthage certainly will have improved the economic situation of a town like Sabratha.

The war with the Numidian king Jugurtha (112-105 B.C.) and the civil war between Caesar and Pompey (49-46 B.C.) insured a continued Roman presence in North Africa. The province of Africa Proconsularis, a consolidation of the already existing provinces Africa Vetus (146 B.C.) and Africa Nova (46 B.C.), was created no later than 27 B.C. This was a senatorial province, which meant that it was governed by a proconsul (a senatorial nominee, such as Claudius Maximus) and not by an imperial representative (a legatus pro praetore), as was the case in imperial provinces such as Egypt. In the early Principate, Tripolitania enjoyed virtual independence. Most importantly, the towns of the area were not compelled to surrender land to Roman settlers. Only o ne legion was permanently stationed in the province. In A.D. 40 control of that legion was transferred from the proconsul to an imperial legate, and from that moment Tripolitania became subject to two branches of Roman government: the civil bureaucracy which was centered at Carthage (which had been recolonized by Augustus), and the military division which had its headquarters at Lambaesis in Numidia.

During the first and second centuries A.D. the towns of Tripolitania became increasingly incorporated into the Roman system of provincial government. Lepcis Magna was granted municipal status sometime during the Flavian period (69-96 A.D.). Both Oea and Sabratha became municipia during the reign of Antoninus Pius (138-161 A.D.), probably sometime in the late 150s. Citizens of municipia enjoyed the ius Latii, or Latin rights, which allowed them not only to enter into valid contracts with Roman citizens (commercium), but also to contract legal marriages with Romans (conubium). In addition, the magistrates of municipia became full Roman citizens after their tenure of office. By the end of the second century Tripolitania was sending a significant number of senators to Rome. This process of Romanization came to its natural zenith in 193 when L. Septimius Severus of Lepcis Magna rose to imperial eminence.

The history of Sabratha itself is known to us primarily from archeological and epigraphical sources. The existence of an offshore reef at Sabratha certainly explains the location of the town. The coast of Tripolitania is notoriously lacking in suitable harbors, but the reef at Sabratha, later supplemented by an artificial breakwater, created a natural harbor. The first stone buildings at the site date to the second half of the fourth century B.C. The first major phase of expansion took place in the first century B.C., and this development probably reflects the destruction of Carthage by Rome in 146 B.C. The town continued to grow in the first century A.D., but it is the late Antonine period, precisely the time when Apuleius delivered the Apologia, which marks the height of the town's prosperity. By this period Sabratha was graced with all of those physical structures which marked it out unmistakably as a Roman settlement: a forum, a basilica, baths, a theater, and an amphitheater. Excavation s at the site of Sabratha have given us a very good idea of what the town looked like in antiquity.

So Sabratha in the year A.D. 158 was, in contemporary terms, a "happening place." Along with the building program which evidently was thriving at this time, the visit of the Roman proconsul Claudius Maximus and the trial of Apuleius in a Roman court of law certainly contributed to the increasingly "Roman" atmosphere of the town. But Sabratha was not Rome. We must remember that whatever Romanization took place in Tripolitania came only after the thorough Punicization of the area. The buildings, the temples, the official titles, the ostensibly Roman cultural practices -- the elements which constituted the periphery's simulation of the center -- may represent nothing more than a veneer which had been methodically laid over earlier, Punic foundations. There was indeed a multiplicity of cultures in Roman Tripolitania, and Apuleius' speech is clearly directed at a multiplicity of audiences. The intended audience of a certain passage, or a certain phrase, or even of a certain word, is often transparent. Apuleius' rhetorical prowess is largely a measure of his ability to appeal to a sense of Roman justice in a distinctly Roman setting while simultaneously administering a biting invective against his local opponents in terms which will have had a particular resonance in a town like Sabratha. And it is in this context that we can begin to understand the nature of Apuleius' defense.


For a one volume introduction to the Roman Empire, see Colin Wells' The Roman Empire (Harvard, 1992). For a more detailed narrative of Roman history, Cary and Scullard's A History of Rome: Down to the Reign of Constantine (London, 19 79) is quite practical. The best introduction to Roman Africa is Susan Raven's Rome in Africa (London, 1993). For the history and geography of Tripolitania, D.J. Mattingly's Tripolitania (Ann Arbor, 1994) is fundamental. This book provides ample bibliography. Town and Country in Roman Tripolitania, a series of essays edited by Buck and Mattingly (Oxford, 1985), is slightly more specialized and covers a wide range of topics. Essay titles include "Frontier Processes i n Roman Tripolitania" and "Climate and Social Dynamics: the Tripolitanian Example, 300 B.C. - A.D. 300." For provincial administration see The Roman System of Provincial Administration to the Accession of Constantine the Great (Rome, 1968) by W.T. Arnold. For the process of Romanization in Tripolitania, see T.R.S. Broughton's The Romanization of Africa Proconsularis (New York, 1968). On language and culture in Tripolitania see Fergus Millar's "Local cultures in the Roman Empire: Libyan, Punic, and Latin in North Africa," JRS lviii (1968) pp. 126-34. For the archeology of Sabratha, see Kenrick's Excavations at Sabratha: 1948-51 (London, 1986). Finally, the epigraphic evidence for Sabratha can be found in The Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania (IRT) (Rome, 1952), and in the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum (CIL), vol. 8.