The location of some of the world’s finest Roman remains, Leptis Magna attests to the prosperity and status of the Roman Empire in North Africa. Leptis Magna benefited greatly when Septimius Severus, a native of the city, became Roman emperor in AD 193. During his reign, the population grew to some 70,000 people, and buildings were raised to glorify his name. In the 6th century, attacks by nomadic tribes eventually led to the city’s abandonment, at which point sand dunes engulfed it, presenting the site that is still being excavated today.
THE CITY’S PORT
A promontory protects the harbor at the mouth of the Wadi Lebdah at Leptis Magna, and it is here that the Phoenicians settled in the 7th century BC. They exploited the fertile hinterland and traded olive oil, ivory, and animal skins throughout the Carthaginian empire and around the Mediterranean. During the early 3rd century AD, under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, the harbor was rebuilt and enlarged. New quays, half-a-mile (1 km) long, were constructed, with warehouses, a temple, and a watchtower, and a lighthouse was built on the promontory. The mooring blocks on the quay, which were covered in sand soon after completion, have been well preserved.
EMPEROR SEPTIMIUS SEVERUS
The Roman ruler Lucius Septimius Severus was born in Leptis Magna in Roman North Africa in AD 146. Regarded as an outstanding soldier, Severus rose to the rank of consul and by 190 he was in command of the legions in Pannonia. Soon after the murder of Emperor Pertinax in 193, Severus was proclaimed emperor, but he had to fight off two rivals to secure his position. He was a strong but popular ruler, who was known for his lavish entertaining. His final campaign was to England in 208 to secure the Roman Empire’s northern border at Hadrian’s Wall. Severus died in York in 211, while preparing to invade Scotland.
THE EMPEROR’S NEW BUILDINGS
Leptis Magna prospered under Roman rule as a major commercial center, but at the beginning of the 3rd century, after the appointment of Septirnius Severus as Roman emperor, the city underwent a transformation. Marble was imported from Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy, granite columns from Egypt, and the limestone buildings took on a grand appearance. In AD 200, Severus built a fine new Severan Forum. At the northeastern end, he constructed the three-aisled Severan Basilica. Its marble pilasters were carved with scenes from the lives of Hercules and Dionysus, his family’s patron gods. The mighty four-sided Arch of Septimius Severus, constructed in white marble, was raised for his visit to the city.
like the market, this vast structure was given to the city by Annobal Rufus. The lower, wider stone steps would have held chairs for distinguished visitors. From the top, the panoramic view of the ancient city is magnificent
This massive double-apsed building, begun during the reign of Severus to house the law courts, was converted into a church by Justinian I in the 6th century, although part of it appears to have served as a synagogue from the 5th century.
A series of vast reliefs of the mythological Greek Gorgon Medusa once adorned the arcade of the Severan Forum.
Once surrounded by arcades and centered on two beautiful kiosks, this grand trading place was endowed by one wealthy citizen, Annobal Rufus, in 9-8 BC.
This baths complex includes an outdoor sports ground (palaestra), hot and warm baths (caldarium and tepidarium), once heated by underfloor fires, and a huge cold bath (frigidarium) with two plunge pools, one still containing water.
RECONSTRUCTION OF LEPTIS MAGNA
This shows the many magnificent buildings erected during the reigns of successive emperors, up to and including Septimius Severus.
To the west of the city lies a group of well-preserved, small domed buildings. Wall paintings indicate they belonged to the hunters who supplied the amphitheaters of the Roman Empire with wild animals.
600 BC: A Phoenician trading post is founded on the site of Leptis Magna.
23 BC: Leptis Magna forms part of the new Roman province of Africa.
523: The city is sacked by Berber Arabs, and by 650 it has been abandoned.
1982: Leptis Magna becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
1994: A new archeological program begins at Leptis Magna.