plain is a corridor between the high plains of the Constantinois and the Tunisian steppe. To the S the Merdja plain is bounded by a mountain chain which rises to
more than 1,500 m. The urban center of Thevestis was
situated at its foot on an ancient alluvial cone. The
only irregularity in the terrain is provided by the very
narrow bed which the wadi Zarour cuts into the gravel.
Human occupation of the region around Tebessa began at a very early date. The Acheulian locality of El ma el Abiod, the Aterian site of Bir el Ater, and numerous Capsian remains attest to the antiquity of human settlement. Texts of Diodorus and Jerome seem to suggest
the existence of a pre-Roman town. This is often identified with the Hecatompylus of Polybios and Diodorus, which is supposed to have given 3,000 hostages to Hanno.
At the beginning of the 1st c. A.D., the Third Augustan Legion, which was charged with pacifying the S part
of the province of Africa, had its camp at Ammaedara
(Haïdra in Tunisia, a short distance from the frontier).
This town became a colony in the Flavian period. It
is thought that Thevestis then became the residence of
the legate and his legion. This would explain the presence of many inscriptions about soldiers and the administrative role which Thevestis retained after the
legion set up its camp farther W at Lambaesis, either
in the reign of Titus or at the beginning of the 2d c.
After the legion left, the town was raised to the rank
of colony. It was also the capital of an administrative
and estate district, for numerous imperial domains existed in the area. They were connected either with the
domains in the countryside around Hippo or with those
near Hadrumetum, and were run by a procurator. A
whole bureaucracy of freedmen and imperial slaves, as
well as augustales, appears in the funerary inscriptions of
From the time of the synod of Carthage in 256, Thevestis had a Christian community and a bishop. The acts of the martyrs Maximilian and Crispina attest to persecutions there at the beginning of the 4th c. Possibly, the great Christian basilica in the N necropolis was built in honor of Crispina and her colleagues.
The Vandal presence is indicated by various funerary
inscriptions and also by wooden tablets and the ostraca
found in the region, both to the SE and in the Nementcha hills.
Like the nearby center of Ammaedara, Thevestis seems
to have recovered military importance with the Byzantine reconquest. A very large enclosure was built by
the general, Solomon. Under its ramparts he engaged
the natives of the region in combat and emerged victorious. The town preserved a certain importance after the reconquest. Arab geographers from the 11th to the 14th c. mention it many times.
The extent and plan of the ancient town are poorly
known. Certain monuments have been restored or excavated and can help us establish an impression of the
colony. The modern town has, in effect, occupied both
the interior of the Byzantine fortress and the built-up
area of the 1st to the 5th c. The forum seems to have
been in the middle of what became the fortress; a theater
had been built not far away. Over the last few years an
amphitheater on the left bank of the wadi Zarour has
been uncovered. It was enlarged and remodeled several
times. The original building could well go back either
to the beginning of the colony or to the time of the
presence of the Third Augustan Legion. The oval construction (about 86 x 80 m) was made of seats placed directly on the ground by means of cut and fills. The
monument was greatly altered either at the end of the
3d c. or during the 4th c. The wall of the podium dates
to this period; on it ran a balustrade on which one can
read the names of the leading families of the town.
During the 5th c., or later, after the reconquest, the
amphitheater was used for habitation.
A temple, mistakenly attributed to Minerva, is almost
perfectly preserved within the Byzantine walls. The cella
has preserved its exterior decoration: pilasters, frieze,
and an attic decorated with marble columns. Not far
away stands a four-sided arch built under Caracalla in 214.
Farther N stands the great Christian basilica, excavated and restored in the last century. It is placed within a large rectangular enclosure reinforced by towers on the inside. A large garden preceded a monumental staircase. This went up to an atrium which led to the church proper, a three-aisled structure with galleries. Paving of geometrical mosaics has been preserved. To the right a staircase led down to a large
trefoiled room, apparently a martyrium: excavations
have uncovered an inscription about a group of martyrs.
In the vicinity of the basilica within the enclosure, there
were other buildings: a baptistery, a smaller basilica, and
a huge stable above which, on the second floor, there
may have been an inn. Recent work permits one to affirm
that the date of this group of buildings must be the beginning of the 5th c.
As for the Byzantine fortress, it has the shape of a
rectangle, 320 x 280 m. It is built of large-scale ashlar
and is reinforced with rectangular towers at the corners
and upon the fortified curtains. One of these towers
included the Arch of Caracalla. The whole is relatively
well preserved and restored. Mosaics, inscriptions, and
various artifacts are in the Temple of Minerva. Other
inscriptions are collected either in an epigraphical garden or in the gardens of the Christian basilica, which
with its associated structures belongs to a uniform program conceived and executed about A.D. 400. It was intended primarily as a shrine for pilgrims and secondarily as a monastery.
Near the town is another large site, which has been
partially excavated: Tebessa Khalia. It consists of a
complicated group of buildings: large trefoiled rooms,
an oil works, a round temple, public baths; to these is
added a huge rectangular enclosure. The monuments
and pieces of decoration discovered apparently belong
to the end of antiquity.
A. Ballu, Le monastère byzantin de Tebessa
(1897); S. Gsell, Les monuments antiques de l'Algérie
(1901) esp. I 133-37, 179-85; II 265-91, 354-57; Le musée de Tebessa
(1902); Atlas archéologique de l'Algérie
(1911) 29, no. 101; L. Leschi, Etudes d'épigraphie, d'archéologie et d'histoire africaines
(1957) 117-31; R. Lequément, “Fouilles à l'amphithéâtre de Tebessa,”
Bulletin d'archéologie algérienne
2 (1967) 105-22; P.-A.
Février, “Nouvelles recherches dans la salle tréflée de Tebessa,” Bulletin d'archéologie algérienne
3 (1968) 167-91; J. Christern, “Il complesso cristiano di Tebessa, architettura e decorazione,” Corsi di cultura sull'arte rav. e biz
. (1970) 103-17.