Life on the Edge

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Praetorian Headquarters at Lamabesis, Southern Numidia

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The Praetorium seen from the East, along the Via Principalis

On our last day of travelling In Numidia, we visited Lambaesis, which was establihed in the early second century as the administrative centre of the third Augustan Legion, which had previously been established first at Ammaedara (modern Haidra) and then at Theveste (modern Tebessa).

Scholars have debated the strategy of locating Roman military centres in North Africa. Inscriptional evidence suggests that Lambaesis was strategic not so much as a location from which to battle the barbarians as a ‘control point’ from which to monitor the lively trade moving into and out of Roman territory across the mountain passes between the winter pastures south of the Aurès Mountains and the grain-growing regions to the north.

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Stele with the name of the Third Augustan Legion erased, and later re-inscribed, reflecting the Legion’s suppression from 238-53, from the Lambaesis Museum.

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Stone re-used as a blank for a trainee stone-carver – note the AABBCC carved upside down in the lower right-hand corner (Lambaesis Museum)

Lambaesis is also fascinating because it gives a vivid illustration of how the politics of memory were reflected in commemorative inscriptions.  We know that the fate of the Third Legion in the second and early third centuries was closely allied to that of the Severan dynasty, and that the legion was disbanded in 238 by the Emperor Gordian III. In the chaos surrounding the end of the Severan dynasty, the legion swung behind the short-lived emperor Maximinus Thrax (235-38), and against Gordian I, the grandfather of the Gordian who disbanded them.  However, in 253, they were reconstituted by the Emperor Valerian.

These conflicts are reflected not only in the erasures of damnatio memoriae, but even in a kind of restorative re-inscription of the erasures, which must have happened around the time the emperor Valerian re-instated the legion.

Another delightful illustration of the fluidity of memory in stone is a monumental inscription from the Lambaesis Museum which was put to re-use as a stone-carver’s training-block. The letters of the initial inscription are beautifully formed, but the inscription may well have been left unfinished, given the large open space beneath the surviving line of writing.  We the commission cancelled? Did the person who was paying for it change his mind? Fall out of favour? Die? Whatever the case, properly dressed stone was a rare commodity and deserved to be put to good use. So the stone was not allowed to languish. Instead, the side-lined commission became a testing-block for the next generation to try its hand. Life goes on.

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