Djemila, ancient Cuicul, is one of the most beautiful of all the Roman cities. It lies in a valley between two mountain chains at the border between ancient Numidia and Mauretania, and enjoyed great prosperity in the early centuries of the Roman Empire as a trading-post and gateway, Cuicul’s first great flush of prosperity took place under the Severan Dynasty in the late second century.
The city is built of yellow and blue limestone, and dozens of stone inscriptions survive commememorating the men and women of the city’s great families, who paid for the monumental buildings which made the city so glorious. It was a competitive business: in more than one case, one can see that a new temple or other building has been built to compete with another, similar building not far away.
Many of the inscriptions at Cuicul bear a curious characteristic:one or more lines have been chiselled away, to erase the name of the individual or family who was commemorated. This practice, known as damnatio memoriae, was a rare but standard practice across the empire. When an individual was condemned, one of the ways he could be punished was by a retrospective retraction of any public honours that had been granted. This often happened in a context of regime change; where there was conflict between rivals to the purple, the supporters of the losing faction could easily find themselves among the damned.
Why do so many damnationes occur at Cuicul? The short answer is that we don’t know. A conversation with Yousef Aibeche, Professor of History in the nearby University of Setif, raised an interesting possibility: we know that some families in Cuicul enjoyed a favoured status in the eyes of the Emperor Caracalla, to whom a monumental arch was dedicated in the year 216. But five years earlier, in 211, Caracalla murdered his brother Geta, in order to establish his own position as unchallenged after their father’s death. (Caracalla himself would be murdered – by one of his own guards – in 217.)
In Rome, the death of Geta caused a period of turbulence, with up to 20,000 people dying as a result. Professor Aibeche suggests that even in remote Cuicul, a similar purge may have taken place, with men who had established themselves as supporters of one of the short-lived emperors being side-lined or eliminated by the representatives of the new regime.
If it seems far-fetched to imagine that events in the imperial family would have been reflected so intimately in a distant provincial outpost, I should mention that I discovered an old acquiaintance while I was in Cuicul: Publilius Ceionius Caecina Albinus. As I was walking into the garden of the Djemila Museum, my eye was struck by a cornice inscibred with attractive letters some eight inches tall: ALBINUS VC. Knowing that a VC (vir clarissimus) was a rare animal in the late Roman senate, I suspected that this might be an Albinus I knew from Rome: the great uncle of St Melania the Younger, and father of Laeta, the sister-in-law of the celebrated virgin Eustochium. On working my way through the city, this proved indeed to be the case: A judicial basilica just south of the Arch of Caracalla bears an inscription identifying ‘my’ Albinus, who was Governor of Numidia from 364-67, as having paid for the building. Somehow, this was both pleasant and disturbing. A discovery like this makes you see that the rich and powerful did not remain that way by standing still: they were everywhere.
And despite the very limited means of travel and communication in the ancient world, even a remote community like Cuicul was bound tightly into the pyramid of power relationshipsthat governed the Roman Empire. Or, to put it another way: All roads lead to Rome.