Last year, we talked about how some conscientious Libyan citizens had taken up arms to protect their country’s Roman heritage. Well this time around, we are once again witness to the magnificence of ancient Roman legacy on Libyan soil, by virtue of the unearthing (by researchers at Warsaw University) of an impressive villa at Ptolemais, which was once a major trading hub of Cyrenaica. This Roman villa in question is archaeologically complemented by a plethora of features, including impressive sculptures, intricate mosaics and opulent treasures.
Now historically, Ptolemais, named after one of the rulers of Ptolemaic Egypt, probably Ptolemy III Euergetes (246–221 BC), originally started out as a small Greek trading post in 7th century BC. By late 3rd century BC, the tiny settlement was transformed into a walled city that enclosed a formidable area of 280 hectares, and as such possibly served as the headquarters of the Ptolemaic governor of the region. By 1st century BC, Ptolemais was occupied by the Romans, and it formed one of the cities of the Pentapolis of Cyrenaica, a province denoting the eastern coast of Libya.
However in spite of the city’s strategic location, the urban area deteriorated under the rule of the Roman Republic, so much so that it was used as a safe harbor by the pirates operating in the region. But the reemergence of the power of the Roman Empire in 1st century AD halted the dilapidation of the earlier century, and thus Ptolemais was once again restored, this time with a flurry of Romanized buildings and facilities. The unearthed Roman villa in question here mirrors this renewed urban characteristics of the Libyan settlement, which suggests that Ptolemais was a fairly important trading city circa 4th century AD. In fact, historical events also allude to such a civic progression, especially since this city survived the calamitous earthquake of 365 AD that managed to destroy many of the other nearby urban areas of Cyrenaica.
Reverting to the fascinating find of the Roman villa, the archaeologists were pleasantly surprised by the ritzy treasure hoard that comprised a whopping 553 sestercii silver and bronze coins, possibly dating from 3rd century AD. Most of these monetary specimens were found from a particular room inside the villa that was also used for manufacturing terracotta lamps, thus suggesting how the coins pertained to the earnings of a local craftsman.
But beyond treasures, it is the flurry of incredible mosaics boasted by the Roman villa (around its courtyard in classic peristyle arrangement) that really notches it up on the artistic as well as architectural level. To that end, one of the splendid specimens depicts a sleeping Dionysus and Ariadne (daughter of the fabled Minoan king Minos who kept the Minotaur in his labyrinth). Yet another mosaic portrays the Achillean cycle, which entails the compilation of epic poems about Achilles’ adventures. These artworks are accompanied by separate mosaics in both the courtyard and the dining room, keeping in line with the ostentatious tastes of the Roman owners of the domus.
The Libyan Roman villa also showcases its fair share of wall frescoes that complemented the floor-based mosaics. Some of them represent intricate geometrical patterns, while others portray figure-oriented paintings, mainly depicting various species of birds. Unfortunately, the flurry of artistic endeavors was probably halted by the occurrence of the aforementioned earthquake in 365 AD. Anyhow, the city of Ptolemais itself survived till 5th century AD, but the thriving trading hub was ‘vandalized’ by the Vandals in 428 AD during their invasion of North Africa. And while Justinian I rebuilt parts of the African settlement (circa 6th century), Ptolemais was finally razed by the Arabs in 7th century AD.
Via: Haaretz / All Images Credit: Miron Bogacki