Libya, Land of Myths & Demons: David Winter Visits a Land Beset for Millennia by the Fantasies of Outsiders

By Winter, David | History Today, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Libya, Land of Myths & Demons: David Winter Visits a Land Beset for Millennia by the Fantasies of Outsiders


Winter, David, History Today


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From antiquity to the present day, few countries have been so profoundly mythologized as Libya. According to the ancient Greeks, it was on Libyan soil that the giant Antaeus was cut down to size by Hercules, and it was near the Libyan town of Silene that England's very own St George is supposed to have slain the dragon and secured the damsel. The fifth-century BC historian Herodotus claimed that 'dog-faced creatures and creatures without heads, their eyes in their breasts' stalked the land that we know as Libya.

In the modern era, few countries have been so relentlessly demonized as the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, a 'rogue state' that lies 'beyond the axis of evil' according to American analysis. For nearly four decades the Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi has been painted as a 'mad dog' to rival any Herodotean beast.

But this tale-telling, ancient and modern, obscures an equally extravagant reality. Today's visitor to the southern reaches of Libya can mingle with exotic animals or, a world away on the country's Mediterranean fringe, tread in the footsteps of the Libyan who secured command of one of history's most formidable superpowers.

When Lucius Septimius Severus (AD 145-211) wrested control of the Roman empire from Didius Julianus in 193, he became Rome's first African emperor--and the last native-born Libyan to rule over his homeland until Gaddafi seized power in 1969. Leptis Magna, his birthplace, is alive with his memory.

Leptis, or more accurately, Lepcis Magna, lies 130km east of the modern Libyan capital of Tripoli. The settlement probably began in the sixth century BC as a Phoenician trading post, its prosperity derived from the cultivation of olives. Roman expansion into Africa took off after the defeat of Carthage in 146 BC and gained impetus following Caesar's victory over Pompey one hundred years later. Leptis itself remained a free state before emerging as a Roman colonia under Trajan in AD 110.

Already Leptis enjoyed the trappings of a thriving city: a theatre built under Augustus, a large Neronian amphitheatre, a circus dating from the time of Marcus Aurelius, and a richly adorned complex of baths--itself one of the highlights of any visit to Roman North Africa--commissioned by Hadrian. As Septimius' star rose, so the wealthy African elite began to embellish Leptis with statues of Severus,--'defender of the world', and his family. In time the city's inhabitants would even style themselves Septimiani in honour of their native son.

But it was direct imperial intervention that propelled Leptis to greatness as Septimius embarked on one of the grandest building projects of antiquity. By the time Caracalla--his son and successor--had finished the ambitious scheme, the former Phoenician port was transformed. The heart of the city was monumentalized with colossal public structures: a new forum and basilica together with a resplendent nymphaeum and an ornate colonnaded street leading to a remodelled harbour complete with pharos. Though Leptis, like Septimius, was never entirely to lose its Punic accent, it had now assumed the appearance of a strategically planned, highly urbanized--Romanized--imperial city.

In its heyday Leptis held a population of around 80,000; one of its great pleasures today is its tranquility. It is quite possible to wander the entire length of the via colonnata, once lined with a double portico of 125 columns, in splendid solitude. An even greater treat is to spend an hour entirely alone, contemplating the majestic devastation of the Severan forum. Measuring 60x100m, the immense floor is carpeted with chunks of fallen masonry and slabs of superstructure. Strewn around one's feet lie marble capitals from Greece and red granite columns from Egypt. Remnants of limestone arcading and blocks of white marble pavimentum vie for attention under the steely gaze of a giant, serpent-infested Medusa. …

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