(El Djem) Tunisia.
of this ancient site spread below and around the modest
modern village. Situated on the great axis of the communication routes linking north and south, it is 200 km SE of Tunis, midway between the towns of Sousse and Sfax.
The origins of Thysdrus remain obscure. The recent
discoveries cast little light on the pre-Roman period.
Traces of occupation before the 3d c. B.C. are rare. From
its name the city seems to have Berber rather than
Punic origins. The name appeared for the first time in
the period of Caesar's African campaign when the city,
although closely involved with the events which shook
the country, seems to have been no more than a small
town. Towards the end of the 2d c. it became a municipium, competing with Hadrumetum for the second place in the province.
In A.D. 238, its opulence, almost isolated in the midst
of the empire in crisis, attracted the covetousness of the
Emperor Maximianus. Under severe pressure, Thysdrus
initiated a revolt which led to the assassination of a
procurator of the treasury and the proclamation of the
proconsul of Africa, Gordian, as emperor. However,
Maximianus triumphed over Gordian, and the town
of Thysdrus was severely punished. Numerous traces of
fire have been found in certain strata of the site. The
combined effects of this punishment and the economic
crisis which resulted from it brought an end to the
city's importance. It sank into anonymity and is barely
mentioned by the Catholic bishops, in 393, 411, 641,
and by a Donatist in 411.
Thysdrus owed its fortune in ancient times to commerce. Its situation made it a market town at a crossroads of the communication routes of Central Tunisia. It served as intermediary between the ports and the hinterland as much for imports as for exports. The merchants
of Thysdrus were active as far as the distant regions
of the Orient. Yet Thysdrus owed the great part of its
fortune to the spread, from the end of the 2d c., of its
olive plantations and its trade in oil, for which it became
a sort of capital like Sufetula in the 6th c. or Sfax in
our time. Today with its remains spread over 150 to 200
ha, it is classed among the most extensive sites in Tunisia.
Although an important part of its remains is yet to be
explored and other parts are covered over again by modern structures, there are existing or recently excavated monuments in a good state of preservation. Among the most remarkable for their scientific interest or for their
high architectural and artistic value are the following:
The large amphitheater (148 x 122 m) is the most
celebrated and the best preserved of all the Roman
monuments in this category in Africa. The dimensions
of the arena are 65 x 39 m. The rows of seats rise 36 m
in height. With a capacity of 45,000 spectators, it is
classed among the largest amphitheaters of antiquity. In
the absence of an inscription, the exact date of the
construction of the building is not known. Some attribute it to Gordian III who, towards the middle of the 3d c., might have built it for the glorification of the
town which had brought his grandfather Gordian I to
the throne. On the basis of style, others prefer the end
of the 2d c. However, the most tempting hypothesis,
founded on architectural and historic arguments, puts the
date of construction between A.D. 230 and 238 and attributes the monument to Gordian I.
The small amphitheater is situated some 7.20 m to the
S of the large one. It has been partially uncovered and
seems to have undergone a curious evolution: originally
worked in tufa, it was reconstructed in a second phase,
then redone and enlarged in the course of a third.
The circus is scarcely visible on the terrain. Its existence was revealed with remarkable clarity by aerial photography. While it is not yet uncovered, one can tell it is as large as the Circus Maximus at Rome, measuring
nearly 550 x 95 m, and capable of accommodating about
The baths, covering a surface of 2400 sq. m, have
revealed fine mosaics.
A large capital, measuring 1.82 m, is the largest found
up until now in Tunisia. The height of the column to
which it must have belonged can be estimated at 15 m.
Similar supports suggest that it belonged either to a
temple of the dimensions of the great sanctuaries of
Rome, or to imposing baths. This capital was uncovered
by chance in an unexcavated sector that is probably the
Elsewhere, mosaics that number among the most
beautiful and the most numerous of Tunisia continue
to be uncovered. The mosaics are for the most part on
exhibit in the museums of Tunis (the Bardo), Sousse,
and El Djem. The houses to which they belonged have
been filled up, but during the last 15 years an attempt
has been made to preserve the mosaics in situ.
About 250 m to the W of the small amphitheater,
behind the museum, it is possible to see a district of
houses bounded on the S by a necropolis and to the E
by a fine street with well-preserved ancient flagstones.
Each house, planned according to the classic plan of
Romano-African architecture, has a garden surrounded
by a peristyle around which are found rooms richly
decorated with mosaic representing very diverse scenes:
the Four Seasons, the Abduction of Ganymede, Leda
and the Swan, Diana the Huntress, the Nereids, scenes of
the amphitheater, and Dionysiac themes. These houses
are noteworthy for their dimensions and for walls of
masonry or unbaked brick lying on a shallow foundation of stone. Nearby is the House of the Dionysiac Procession of which the plan and decorative details suggest that it was the center of a band of revelers.
About 600 m to the W of the large amphitheater,
some recent excavations not yet finished have revealed
remains of an immense house with beautiful and restrained decoration. At the side of this veritable palace, two temples, one of which seems to have been dedicated to the imperial cult, have been likewise excavated.
Behind this sector was found a new quarter that is strikingly original in its plan and in the appearance of the
houses, which seem to recall certain Punic traditions. In
the middle of the same sector were found remains of
workshops, where are preserved traces of activities of
various artisans: potters, molders, founders, and even
makers of hairpins.
A. Lézine, H. Slim, J. Salomonson in
; L. Foucher, La maison de la
procession dionysiaque à El Jem