We have spent two days at Timgad, a city in Southern Numidia just north of the Aures mountains, built in the late first century by the third Augustan Legion, who were stationed at nearby Lambaesis.
In later antiquity, Timgad was the seat of the Count of Africa, and its Donatist bishop, Optatus, was fiercely criticized by Saint Augustine for being a supporter of Gildo, the Count of Africa who spear-headed an unsuccessful revolt – viewed by some as an African war of independence – in 397-98.
An impressive Donatist basilica to the west of the city still survives, and the mosaic from Optatus’ burial can be found in the Timgad Museum.
But what captured my imagination in Timgad was an earlier generation of the city’s denizens, thanks to a marvelous article by Elizabeth Fentress, ‘Frontier Culture and Politics at Timgad’, published in 1984.
‘Rome and its culture acted as a powerful psychological weapon on the frontiers,’ Fentress argued. ‘If for the metropolitan his Romanness was something he could take for granted, for the frontiiersman it was a vital psychological support, something that distinguished him from the barbarians and provided a sense of security and rectitude. It is not surprising, therefore, that the frontiersman appears in some ways more Roman than the Roman.’
Yet there were very different ways of showcasing one’s Romanness. ‘Frontier Culture’ follows the story of two families of the Severan period: on the one hand, Publius Flavius Pudens Pomponianus, known to his friends as Vocontius, who seems to have come from an established senatorial family. On the other, M. Plotius Faustus – known as Sertius – and his wife Sertia came from a family on the rise: they seem to have made their money in property during the Severan boom of the late second century.
Fentress finds a fascinating contrast between the civic and cultural profiles of Vocontius and Sertius. Here is Fentress on Vocontius: ‘His gifts to the city, relatively modest in contrast to those of Sertius, take the form of statues and curiosities.’ Vocontius was one of the society of ‘brotherly love’ who met in the Bath-house of the Philadelphi in the North-West corner of the city.
The inscriptions associated with Vocontius are well-known, because their letter-forms are virtually unparalleled in the epigraphic record: instead of Roman or Rustic capitals, they are in uncials, a letter-form which Fentress suggests may be borrowed from the manuscript culture of the day. (There is actually a debate to be had about where the origins of uncial, but Fentress’s point about Vocontius holds in any case.) Vocontius is an accomplished man in civic and military terms, but he is also a maven of cultural literacy.
Sertius, by contrast, was concerned to consolidate his comparatively vulnerable position by benefactions on a grander scale. Second-century development along the west wall of the city included a triumphal arch, new houses (including the house of Sertius), and two major benefactions by Sertius and Sertia: a new market by the West Gate and a massive temple to the Capitoline gods. Fentress makes the fascinating point that it is the man ‘with farther to come’, Sertius, who proposes himself as the hinge-man of the gods of the Capitol. Vocontius, by contrast, doesn’t need tall columns or powerful gods: he has the self-confidence of someone who has already ‘arrived’.
What to make of all this? Vocontius and Sertius had different ways of being super-Romans, and they show that being Roman itself can’t be captured in any one idea. In fact – and here it is me not Fentress speaking – Romanness itself was a kind of grand re-cycling scheme, with the frontier culture of remote areas such as Africa or Britain measuring themselves not only against Rome but against Rome’s other prizes, such as the command of Greek, for example.
But the last word should go to Noor Elhouda, a lively student from Timgad who is writing her university thesis on the Capitoline Temple. ‘The Romans are part of our history; they came from far away and left us amazing gifts.’