Tomorrow we return to Britain, and the time has come to reflect on this inspiring encounter with Roman Numidia. Though I hope to post further thoughts after the trip home, I thought this would be an appropriate moment to post a handful of photos of some of the lovely people I have met – and a few whom I have spied on – while I have been here. (I know for a fact that at least as many Algerians have sneaked a photo of me as I have of them!)
I had a lovely conversation yesterday with a lively student from Timgad, which has got me thinking. I asked her, as I have asked almost everyone I have met here, ‘What do you think of the Romans? Are they important to you? Do you think of them as “us”?’ Her answer was deceptively simple: the Romans came to live in Timgad, so we have something important in common.
There is a profound wisdom in this answer’s simplicity. Still, it surprised me: I had somehow imagined that the question of the Romans in Algeria, to a lively young historian, would be a question about colonialism. The French occupation of Algeria from 1830 to 1962 has left painful scars, and Marcel Benabou’s La resistance africaine a la romanisation (Paris, 1976) showed how the question of Algerian independence could shape an analysis of Roman rule as a colonial occupation.
Or, I thought, there might be a question of religious difference: in a country where Islam has been the main faith for over a millennium, the pagans and Christians of the Roman period might seem to be distinctly ‘other’.
But everyone I have met, and most of the people I have seen, have reacted with delight to the cities of Roman Numidia. Even the very first person I met in Algeria, the bride with whom I spoke on the bus to the airport terminal – was crazy about archaeology: she and her fiancé were planning to wear their wedding clothes for a photo session in Timgad this week, and I kept an eye open for her huge white dress both days, in hope of catching a glimpse of them in their finery.
It is true that the sites are stunningly beautiful, and it is possible that this, rather than historical curiosity, accounts for the numerous visitors – all of them Algerian with the exception of our own group. But the sense of wonder is also a starting-point for something deeper.
As I reflected, I realized that my student friend and I have more in common, when it comes to the Romans, than one might imagine at first. We are both residents of cities close to the Roman frontier – Timgad and Manchester are both Roman establishments, and both were – in Roman eyes – in the deepest barbarian wilds. The fact that the Romans once occupied our homes is one of the things we have in common.
There is an eighth- or ninth-century Old English poem, The Ruin, that speaks of the sense of wonder which the Anglo-Saxons – themselves an invader people in Britain – felt on visiting the ruins which the Romans had left behind. The anonymous poet remarks that the Roman buildings were ‘the work of giants’. In modern Britain, there is an idea that we have a special connection to the Romans: from the eighteenth to the twentieth century Britain justified its own claim to empire by aspiring to imitate the empire of the Romans. It is only in recent years that the diversity of the regions which were gathered under umbrella of Roman conquest has begun to be recognized, and the point of view of the conquered – including the Britons – has begun to seem central to the story.
But the fact remains that the Roman Empire was – somehow or other – the work of giants. Whatever its failings, the Empire which they built united Manchester and Timgad – along with Athens and Jerusalem – in a way that has not been achieved either before or after, and this is something worth writing home about.