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PORTUS MAGNUS (Bettioua or St.-Leu) Algeria.

Forty km E of Oran, the site is, in spite of its name, perched on a cliff that is separated from the coast by a plain 600 to 800 m wide. There were buildings on the slope, and perhaps at the foot of the cliff, though the evidence is slight; also, archaeologists dispute the site of the port, which was known however to Pomponius Mela and Pliny. Some favor Port-aux-Poules, a little farther E, but the classical name of that site—Portus Puellarum—is known from inscriptions. Gsell assumed that the name Portus Magnus stood for the whole of the Gulf of Arzew even though, properly speaking, the port of Arzew is several km to the W.

The site was certainly occupied before the Romans got there. A Punic vase and some Iberian potsherds have been found in a tomb, and Campanian and Arretine pottery abounds. But it is a Roman city that has been excavated in part: even the neo-Carthaginian inscriptions date from Roman times.

Described by el Bekri, mentioned by Shaw in 1743, Portus Magnus was more often referred to than explored, or even described, until the excavations of 1950 to 1963. Digging is limited because of the modern village, which has covered part of the ruins; and the perimeter of the ancient city is far from being completely excavated. No doubt there was an enclosing wall, as evidenced in places by an embankment and a few blocks of stone. Edging the cliff are some retaining walls that connect with some cisterns lower down; they give the impression of a surrounding wall and towers.

The city forum was located long ago and has been completely excavated. It is roughly 50 x 40 m including porticos and lies almost at the middle of the E-W axis of the uncovered remains. It was only partly paved, the rock having been hewn to the required level. Leveling of the surface created a shift with the E section of the city; so the forum appears to have been added to a city that was already there, and the leveling work was done only where it was absolutely essential. The portico along the W half of the S side and all along the W side was paved. The N portico was aligned with the edge of the cliff. At each corner were huge cisterns set under the lateral porticos of the forum to catch rainwater. A few elements of the columns have been uncovered; they were of limestone, stuccoed, with engraved fluting. In the S part of the axis of the forum was a building facing N—perhaps a small sanctuary.

Given the site of the forum, the buildings attached to it could only be behind the W portico. Chief of these is an oblong hall, its larger axis parallel to the portico, with a little apse in the middle of the long W side. In the apse is a pedestal, decorated with moldings, that once supported a statue. Measuring about 20 x 8 m, the hall is too small to be a basilica and most probably was the curia. It was paved with mosaics and its walls were faced with marble. Another hall, at right angles to it, gave onto the portico farther S; it had buildings attached to it, all now very badly damaged.

Behind the curia is another, square hall. It is laid out along a different axis, so that a small triangle is formed between the two monuments. This hall had four interior pillars, and there is a recess in the axis of the W wall. To the E the facade was fronted by a portico, probably distyle in antis. This was very likely a sanctuary, oriented in accordance with ritual.

Some 120 m W of the forum, and laid out along the same axis, is a temple courtyard. It has been unevenly preserved and is somewhat abnormal in arrangement. On three sides the courtyard was lined with porticos; the plinths and several bases of the columns are still standing. The facade wall, on the other hand, has gone. The courtyard is 23 m wide, but the temple does not occupy the whole of the rear. The temple was approached by stairways that started against the S wall, skirted the seventh column of the portico and swept out over an area 12 m wide, perhaps up to a retaining wall. On the platform, which is of concrete, the walls have almost completely disappeared; there were probably three cellae.

To the SW, behind the temple, are the remains of some elements of walls with box-tile jacketing: this must be the site of the baths pointed out by Gsell. To the E of the forum a street 80 m long has been uncovered. It is separated from the forum by the difference in ground level, and no connecting stair or ramp has been found. Doorsteps have been found on both sides of this street, along its entire length, but only one house has been investigated. It seems to have been a sizable complex, its rooms frequently joined by steps because of the sloping ground. The street door is flanked by columns. Just inside, a wide stairway leads to a vestibule that opens, through a triple-columned entrance, onto a courtyard. This has two porticos, and a cistern at one side. Two small rooms are located to the W and S. To the N are stepped corridors that give onto another courtyard. Farther to the W is a group of three cisterns, joined together, and beyond them, farther down, a large room with pillars, flanked by some tiny baths whose largest room covers only 9 sq. m; some are heated.

Beyond it, toward the SE, more houses stretched to the lowest edge of the cliff. There, other cisterns were joined by retaining walls. It looks as if these cisterns—numerous, large, and strongly built—served not only to supply abundant water to the houses but also to help irrigate the coastal plain. Lower down on the slope two terraces are edged by long walls, some of which at least belonged to monumental buildings.

The rest of the city has been excavated only here and there. The late 3d c. mosaic now in the Oran Museum was found near the enclosing wall, close to a gate, since disappeared. This mosaic was the floor of a triclinium measuring 8 x 12 m. The central area has a border decorated with medallions of geometric designs alternating with animated Bacchic groups. In the middle are four bands, one on top of the other, of unequal depth, depicting mythological scenes; the composition is complicated rather than harmonious because of the profusion of secondary figures. Herakles is shown slaying the centaur Chiron, Latona is carried off to Delos by Aquilo amidst gods and sea nymphs, and then comes a narrow band representing Apollo's victory over Marsyas. In the center is one of the Kabeiroi, surrounded by figures from their myth. Another wealthy villa had a mosaic of the Triumph of Bacchus.

The decline of the site is confirmed by the sudden rarity of inscriptions; after referring to the Antonines, the Seven, and the Gordians, they abruptly disappear. Only one Christian epitaph has been found, and there is no reference to bishops. All this may seem to support the hypothesis that Diocletian abandoned the W section of Mauretania. In contrast, other sites like Altava seem to show how the influence of the Caesars persisted in the region.

In the course of digging, many pieces of sculpture, of mediocre quality, have been found, but some very fine capitals. These have flowing acanthus designs, showing a broad, original treatment. One of them consists of just one row of leaves; between them and above them are very prominent calyxes, whose curves support the corners of the abacus. To these should be added the fine collection of terra sigillata of high quality, found in the tombs.


El Bekri, Description de l'Afrique septentrionale, tr.; Demaeght, Bull. des Antiquités Africaines 2 (1884) 113; Bull. d'Oran (1899) 485; S. Gsell, Monuments antiques de l'Algérie I 128; Atlas archéologique de l'Algérie (1911) 21, no. 6; M. M. Vincent, in Libyca (1953) 1; M. Leglay, in Libyca (1955) 182; J. Lassus, “Le site de Saint-Leu à Portus Magnus,” CRAI (1956) 285; id. in Libyca (1956) 163; (1959) 225.


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