A city in the great
N-S corridor that cuts through the Dorsale chain, with
Le Kef and Sbeitla at either end—both important meeting points of the N Tell and the great S steppes. Sbiba,
which lies midway between the two cities, is also a crossroads between E and W, with the road leading to Thala
and Algeria on one side and, on the other, the road leading to Mactar and the coast over the mountain passes.
With this commanding position on an inland route, ancient Sufes stood on a hillside overlooking the plain
ringed by the distant Jebel Mhirla and the plateaus of
Rohia which flows into the wadi Hatob. Owing to the
city's strategic position and its fertile soil, its prosperity
survived to the early Middle Ages.
In the Roman period it evidently served the same purpose as a link between Sicca Veneria through Assuras
and Suffetula; these connected it with the great route
from Carthage to Theveste to the N and the emporia
route to the S, as well as the road from Thala and
Ammaedara on one side, from Mactaris to Hadrumetum
through Aquae Regiae.
A castellum in the early days of the Empire, Sufes became a colonia probably under Marcus Aurelius, and its
principal monuments date from this period: the baths,
the square reservoir, and especially a great semicircular
nymphaeum which obtained its water from an aqueduct
that brought water from the wadi Sbiba 9 km away.
The incident of the massacre of 60 Christians in 399
after the smashing of a statue of Hercules is described
by St. Augustine, and this enables us to identify that
god with the Genius of the city. Various other references
to Catholic and Donatist bishops from 256 and 484 up
to 883 show that Christianity penetrated Sbiba, and the
fact that it triumphed is proved by two basilicas, one
with three naves and apse, the other larger (21.6 x 25 m)
and with 10 rows of columns; this monument later became the Jemma Sidi Okba mosque.
In the unstable days of the Late Empire the region
was one of the great areas of confrontation and Sufes
again came into its own as a stronghold on the inland
route. Two ramparts erected by the Byzantines and used
in the Arabian period are still standing, though now considerably demolished. Hurriedly built, they surround a
series of earlier monuments. At one corner is a fortress
45 x 40 m with four corner towers; better preserved than
the rest, it seems to have been erected by Salomon, the
prefect of the praetoriurn of Justinian (see both CIL
259 and 11429, which presumably refer to it), to defend
the city—still an open city at this time—before it was
swallowed up in the great rectangular wall (190 x 110
m) that was put up later.
There are more, and more widespread, ruins at Sbiba
than this brief listing of the most easily recognized of
them indicates. However, they have never been officially
excavated and the rebuilding of the modern village has
often been done at the expense of the ruins.
C. Diehl, L'Afrique byzantin
196; P. Gauckler, Basiliques chrétiennes de Tunisie
(1913) pls. VIII & IX.