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THYSDRUS (El Djem) Tunisia.

The vestiges 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 30,000 spectators.

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 forum.

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 CahTun (1960) 29-61PI; L. Foucher, La maison de la procession dionysiaque à El Jem (1963)PI.


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