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LEPTIS MAGNA, or Lepcis Libya.

On the coast 120 km E of Tripoli (Oea), the farthest E of the three cities (treis poleis) that gave the region its name. Originally a Punic settlement, established not later than 500 B.C. beside a small natural harbor at the mouth of the wadi Lebda, the city flourished and rapidly expanded under Augustus and his successors, reaching a peak of prosperity in the reign of Septimius Severus, who was himself a native of Leptis. The subsequent decline, accelerated by the growing strength of the tribes of the interior and by the Vandal conquest of ca. A.D. 455, was compounded by disastrous winter floods and by the incursion of the mobile sand dunes which finally covered (and in so doing preserved) the site. After Justinian's reconquest in A.D. 533, a relatively small area around the port was refortified. The Arab conquest of A.D. 643 put an end to effective urban life.

The excavations of the 1920s and 1930s uncovered large stretches of the street plan and many of the principal public monuments, but relatively little of the domestic and commercial quarters. The Punic settlement lay on the W side of the mouth of the wadi and still awaits systematic examination. The Roman town grew outwards from this nucleus, its growth shaped largely by the lines of two pre-existing roads: the road that linked the harbor with the rich olive-growing country in the hills to the S, curving gently up the low watershed to the N and W of the wadi, and the main coastal road, which at this point passed some 800 m to the S of the early settlement.

The initial development took the form of a series of orthogonally gridded quarters laid out in rapid succession along the first of these roads (the so-called Via Trionfale) which thus became the main axial street of the imperial town: the first, including the Forum Vetus, immediately adjoining the Punic settlement (ca. 30-20 B.C.?); next, an extension S to the market (last decade of the 1st c. B.C.); and subsequently (late Augustan-Tiberian), a further extension S towards, and orthogonal to, the coast road, which thus became the main transverse street (the “Decumanus”) of the later imperial town. The area to the S of this street awaits excavation, as does also most of the area to the E of the wadi, which seems largely to have retained a residential, semisuburban character. The main attested urban development in the later 1st and 2d c. lay to the W, where the formal grid of streets extended at least as far as the Hunting Baths.

The Forum Vetus, stripped of its Byzantine accretions, presents an unusually complete picture of an early imperial forum complex. The 1st c. buildings were all built of the fine local limestone in a provincial style that incorporated many pre-Roman details. The irregular alignment of the NE side reflects the orientation of the pre-existing settlement. Along the NW side are three temples: one, dedicated to Liber Pater, an early Augustan building standing on a lofty podium; next to it, and linked with it at podium level to form a single platform, a temple of Rome and Augustus (Tiberian), the find spot of a large group of Julio-Claudian statuary now in the Tripoli Museum; and at the N corner, a smaller temple of unknown dedication, dated between 5 B.C. and A.D. 2. The opposite, SE side was occupied by the Basilica Vetus (Tiberian or Claudian), and in A.D. 53 the whole open area was paved and enclosed on three sides by porticos. Three more temples occupied the SW side: one to Magna Mater (A.D. 72); one of Trajanic date, later converted into a church; and, at the W corner, a small courtyard-shrine in honor of Antoninus Pius (A.D. 153). The curia, obliquely opposite the entrance to the basilica, was added in the early 2d c., during the course of which most of the earlier buildings, both here and elsewhere in the city, were partly rebuilt in marble.

The market, built in 9-8 B.C. on what was then the outskirts of the growing city, was an enclosed, porticoed structure with two octagonal pavilions, one original and one rebuilt in the early 3d c. The many surviving fittings include the market benches and the official tables of weights and measures. Nearby, on the site of a Punic cemetery, is the theater (A.D. 1-2). At the head of the magnificent limestone cavea stood a small Temple of Ceres (A.D. 35-36) and a (later) portico. The pavement of the orchestra replaces an earlier floor of elaborately painted stucco, and the marble scaenae frons is of Antonine date. Beyond it is a well-preserved, quadrangular porticus post scaenam enclosing a central temple of the Di Augusti (A.D. 43). Between the theater and the main street, much altered by later structures, lay a large porticoed enclosure, along the frontage of which ran a monumental chalcidicum (A.D. 11-12) containing offices and a small Shrine of Venus Chalcidica. Two honorary arches masked the change of alignment of the main street, one recording the paving of the streets in A.D. 35-36, the other a quadrifrons erected in honor of Trajan in A.D. 110. Yet another, in honor of Vespasian (A.D. 77-78), was demolished to make way for the Byzantine Gate.

Continuing S down the main street, one arrives at the crossing of the Decumanus, the center of the expanded city where, shortly after 200, an ornate quadrifrons arch was erected in honor of Septimius Severus. The sculpture from this arch is now in the Tripoli Museum. It includes four large relief panels from the attic, two portraying triumphal processions, one a sacrlficial scene, and one symbolic of the solidarity of the imperial family. A second set of eight figured panels adorned the inner face of the arch. The carving throughout is the work of sculptors from Asia Minor and their local pupils.

To the W of this point recent excavations have uncovered a courtyard building with two apses, thought to be a schola, a small late bath, and a 2d c. temple. Beyond this the west gate of the 4th c. walls incorporates a monumental arch (perhaps of Antoninus Pius; the inscription is lost) and beyond this again are the remains of a fine quadrifrons arch in honor of M. Aurelius (A.D. 173).

In the opposite direction, E of the Severan Arch, one passes through a quarter of which the blocked doorways attest a period in late antiquity when only the main streets were kept open. Beyond it, angled in beside the wadi, lie the Hadrianic baths, a huge symmetrical building, completed in A.D. 127 on the model of the great imperial baths of Rome and later several times remodeled, notably under Commodus. The monumental porticoed palaestra in front is an Antonine addition.

The accession of Septimius Severus was predictably the signal for an outburst of building activity. In addition to the quadrifrons arch, a possible enlargement of the circus, and the construction of new cisterns and of an underground aqueduct from the wadi Caam, 20 km to the E, the next three decades saw the completion of a vast building program, comprising a new, enclosed harbor, a colonnaded street leading up from it to a monumental piazza beside the Hadrianic baths and, beside the street, a grandiose new forum and basilica. Much of the land for the program was reclaimed from the former wadi bed.

Before Severus the harbor seems to have consisted largely of quays and warehouses alongside the sheltered natural anchorage afforded by the wadi mouth, mainly along the W bank. The new scheme saw the creation of an artificial basin, some 21 ha in extent, with a narrow entrance between two projecting, artificial moles. Along the W mole there were warehouses (unexcavated) and at the seaward extremity a lighthouse; along the E mole, a signal tower, a small temple, and a row of warehouses fronted by a portico with an upper gallery. Facing out across the harbor, on a high, stepped podium, was a Temple of Jupiter Dolichenus. The arrangements for berthing the individual ships, with steps down and mooring rings, are unusually well preserved.

The colonnaded street was 366 m long, with a central carriageway about 21 m wide. The flanking porticos were raised on tall pedestals, with columns of green Karystos marble, carrying arches instead of the usual architraves. Off the NW side opened the basilica and forum, ingeniously sited so as to minimize the differences of alignment imposed by the irregularities of the site available. The basilica itself was a grandiose rectangular hall, measuring about 30.48 m from floor to ceiling and flanked by lateral aisles with galleries over them; at either end of the central nave was a large, concretevaulted apse, incorporating a pair of engaged columnar orders, and beside each apse stood a pair of pilasters carved with scenes from the stories of the city's patron divinities, Herakles (the Punic Melqarth) and Dionysos (Shadrap or Liber Pater). The forum was a huge open space, nearly 60 m wide, enclosed on three sides by tall, arcaded porticos, similar to those of the colonnaded street; and on the fourth side, facing the basilica from the head of a lofty podium and fronted by a spreading flight of steps, was an octastyle temple in honor of the Severan family. The columns of this, which stood on sculptured pedestals of Pentelic marble, were of red Assuan granite, as also were those of the basilica. A feature of both forum and basilica is the large number of marble workers' signatures, all in Greek. In the 6th c. the basilica was converted into a church and the forum into a barracks.

At the head of the colonnaded street, where it met, at a variety of angles, the Hadrianic baths and palaestra, the main street from the theater, and a second colonnaded street running up the wadi behind the baths, the original design envisaged a circular piazza enclosed within a portico. This axially neutral scheme was, however, dropped in favor of the establishment of a new dominating axis by the construction on the E side, symmetrically between the two colonnaded streets, of a huge scenographic fountain building. Half of the central hemicycle has fallen outwards, but the rest of it is still standing to its full height, together with considerable remains of the engaged marble orders that decorated it. The Severan complex was originally planned to include other buildings beside the colonnaded street, but though the ground was cleared the only one to be built was a hemicyclical exedra on the N side of the piazza. The adjoining church dates from the 6th c., when a section of the Byzantine city wall was built across the piazza itself.

The many outlying buildings include, near the NE corner of the town, a large amphitheater (A.D. 56) built into a disused quarry and, between it and the sea, a circus. To the W of the Old Forum are the “new excavations” (1955-60), of which the most conspicuous monument is a late, unfinished bath of “imperial” type, with a hexagonal caldarium. Beyond this lie the 4th c. walls, and beyond these the Hunting Baths, a 3d c. concrete-vaulted building of which the structure, paintings, and mosaics were found almost intact beneath the sand dunes. To the S, up the wadi Lebda, are two large cisterns and a massive dam built to divert the flood waters of the wadi round the city. The suburban villas include the rich Villa del Nib (mosaics in Tripoli Museum). The cemeteries have not been systematically explored. The small museum is primarily a lapidary collection. All the finer sculpture is in Tripoli.


P. Romanelli, Leptis Magna (1924); “Leptis Magna,” EAA IV (1961) 572-94; R. Bartoccini, Le Terme di Lepcis (1929); “L'arco quadrifronte dei Severi a Lepcis,” Africa Italiana, 4 (1931) 32-152; “Il Porto Romano di Leptis Magna,” Bollettino del Centro Studi per la Storia dell'Archiettura 13 (Suppl. to 1958) (1960); J. B. Ward-Perkins, “Severan Art and Architecture at Leptis Magna,” JRS 38 (1948) 59-80; idem & J.M.C. Toynbee, “The Hunting Baths at Leptis Magna,” Archaeologia 93 (1949) 165-95; N. Degrassi, “Il mercato romano di Leptis Magna,” Quaderni di Archeologia della Libia 2 (1951) 27-70; DEL. Haynes, An Archaeological and Historical Guide to the pre-Islamic Antiquities of Tripolitania (1955) 71-106; R. Bianchi Bandinelli, E. Vergara Caffarelli and G. Caputo, Leptis Magna (1964); M. F. Squarciapino, Leptis Magna (1966).


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