The very extensive site occupies a plateau which rises 900 m above
the valley of the wadi Saboun in the central massif
of the Haut Tell. The capital of a vast agricultural zone,
it was on an important route of passage between the
region of dry steppes to the S and the region of vast
grain-producing plains to the N.
A city of the kingdom of the Massylii, not conquered
by Carthage but profoundly influenced by it, it fell
under Roman domination. This transformed and developed it still more but without entirely destroying its
strong Punic-Numidian character. Political, artistic, and
religious elements of this Romanization are found
throughout the remains scattered over the site. It was
elevated to the rank of colony under Marcus Aurelius.
From this period date the largest and grandest of its
monuments, which bear witness to its prosperity.
After the crisis of the 3d c., the effort at restoration
begun by the emperors was followed by the Christian
ferment; the restored monuments which have been converted in the cult areas are numerous. With the Byzantines, life revolved around the several improvised fortresses in the midst of the ruins of the city. With the
arrival of the Hillalians, life contracted markedly because of insecurity.
Since there is no mention of the site in ancient sources,
only the study of the archaeological remains permits the
retracing of the history of the city. Abandoned since the
11th c., the site was pointed out and visited by the great
travelers: Temple, Pelissier, Guerin, Tissot, Cagnat,
and Saladin. It was excavated only intermittently in
1893-94, in 1902 and 1912, but more intensively between
1944 and 1956. Several excavations were undertaken
towards 1960, and the conservation of several monuments is now in progress.
The pre-Roman remains that have been discovered
include the tophet and sanctuary consecrated to Baal
Hammon, erected near the ravine of Bab el Aïn and
overturned either during the construction of the arch of
that name or simply by natural erosion; many stelae
engraved with Libyan and Punic inscriptions were found
there. Several megalithic necropoleis were scattered in
various places on the site.
Along the periphery of the site, but at a distance
from one another, are a pyramidal mausoleum and the
mausoleum of the Julii, both built on a grand scale.
Between them is an important necropolis which extends
to the foot of the arch of Bal el Aïn, a triumphal gate
with one bay marking the N entrance of the town and
dominating the wooded ravine of a stream. It is presently in process of restoration. Next to the arch is an
amphitheater of moderate size, recently excavated, next
to the so-called Church of Rutilius, which has almost
entirely disappeared. Within the town two forums were
excavated between 1947 and 1956: the first an old
square, vast and without porticos, limited on two sides
by streets, one of which led to the second forum 100 m
E. Paved, surrounded by a portico, it was dominated
by a monumental arch dedicated to Trajan. This arch
gives access on the S side to another small area, said
to be of the Severan era, which marks the bounds of
the quarter of houses contiguous to the basilica of Hildeguns, from the name engraved on an epitaph found on
the ground of the central nave.
The Temple of Liber Pater faces the old forum, which
it dominates. An irregular trapezoid in plan, it was built
on an earlier edifice, and on it was erected a Christian
church. It is known to have been elevated on a podium
which shielded a double superimposed crypt, the one
hollowed out of the rock, the other built in a cradle-vault. The sanctuary was probably prostyle. A frieze on
the architrave, on which were sculptured some illustrated scrolls of an episode of the Bacchic cycle and
of statues of Dionysos, identified the temple.
The neo-Punic sanctuary of Hathor Miskar, identified
by several long inscriptions which commemorated the
dedication of the temple by an association of citizens
called Mizrakh, was excavated in 1893. To the NE of
the forum of Trajan this sanctuary rose on a podium
with a crypt, and consisted of a cella preceded by a
pronaos and surrounded by a portico built in grand
style. It was ultimately converted into a Christian
The Temple of Apollo and Diana at the W periphery
of the site, N of the pyramidal mausoleum, was excavated in 1947. In the midst of a vast precinct surrounded by a rectangular portico, this peripteral temple
stood facing E; constructed before the reign of Marcus
Aurelius, it no longer exists except for the sub-foundations.
The existence of temples and cults of other divinities
is attested by inscriptions or sculptures, such as those
of Magna Mater, Neptune, Rome and Augustus, and
Ceres, whose documents have been found in divers locations on the site.
The quarter called the School for Youths, excavated
in 1946-55, is an ensemble of structures that are complicated by numerous transformations. A large paved vestibule gives access to a court surrounded by a portico of
the Corinthian order carrying an inscribed frieze. On the
sides and to the N open areas with mosaics. On the W
side is a basilica-shaped hall with three naves and an apse,
also paved with mosaic, next to a group of structures
among which are small baths. To the S a narrow passage
opens on a quatrefoil building with troughs, and a mausoleum of Julia Bennata, which is preceded by a mosaic
court and surrounded by a small Christian cemetery. The
School for Youths, an association aristocratic and military in character, having Mars as patron but distinct
from the army, was influential in the Romanization of
Several public baths have not been completely excavated; the great baths to the SE including a palaestra
in the process of restoration and the baths to the N.
Apart from these edifices of known function, several
other monuments of unidentified use have been uncovered. One “with apses and arcades” was investigated
in 1909-10 and mistakenly described as a water-tower in
connection with the huge aqueduct which rises to the W.
Another vast structure of three well-preserved rooms
paved with geometric mosaics, including troughs in two
semicircular walls, was probably a market.
An archaeological museum recently built at the approaches to the site houses numerous objects (mosaics, sculptures, inscriptions, and ceramics) found in
the course of the excavations.
G. C. Picard, Civitas Mactaritana
8; of 1957, but pub. 1958).