Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Libya: Antiquity (15,000 BCE – 430 CE)

Libya Antiquity
Rupestrian carvings in Wadi Mathendous
GUIZIOU Franck / / Hemis via AFP


For several millennia, what is now Libya has been dry land. Between two outcrops of better-watered high ground, Cyrenaica in the east and Tripolitania in the west, lies 800 miles of desert that reaches down to the sea. Another 600 miles of desert divides Cyrenaica from the Nile valley. To the south, the Fezzan is so dry that only desert oases are populated.

Libya also guards the southern end of the Sicilian channel, the link between the western and eastern Mediterranean, one of the most important sea routes of history. Surrounded by oceans of sea and sand, most of Libya’s recorded history has been one of scattered centres of population, a land that people crossed by camel, and left by sea. Yet this unpromising environment has important remains of great civilisations, such as Leptis Magna, a vast Roman city in Tripolitania, and the Greek city of Ptolomeis (Tolmeitha) in Cyrenaica.

The earliest inhabitants

Libya has not always been dry. Until around 5,000 BCE, the Sahara was much better watered. The Neolithic people who migrated there between 15,000 and 10,000 BCE, were nomadic herdsmen, who occasionally cultivated land and hunted. As the last Ice Age ended, around 10,000 BCE, and the climate warmed up, these people adapted, first to fishing and then (between circa 6000 and 3000 BCE) to settled farming, growing cereals and pulses, and herding animals. Our main source of knowledge about this period are the petroglyphs (images carved or incised into rock) in Libya – in the Acacus Mountains (near Ghat), Wadi Mathandous (in the Mesak Settafet escarpment south-west of Sebha). They show a much wetter environment where giraffes and elephants thrived.

Libya Antiquity
Map of the Sahara showing the positions of Zuwila and Fazzan in relation to the main Saharan routes. Source: David Mattingly and Martin Sterry, ‘Zuwila and Fazzan in the Seventh to Tenth centuries: The emergence of a new trading center’, in: Glaire D. Anderson e.a. 2018′ The Aghlabids and their Neighbors’, Leiden, Brill, pp. 551-572.

Apart from their art, we know little about the early inhabitants, not even how they called themselves. Outsiders gave them names. The Greeks called them ‘Libyans,’ after the Lebu people on the border of Egypt. The Romans called them Africans, Numidians and Moors (Mauri), and later the Arabs talked of ‘Barbari’ or Berbers. Berber is a term that now is falling out of use, in favour of Amazigh,” (singular of ‘Imazighen’ meaning ‘free’ or ‘noble’ people.) That is what people speaking a group of related languages in North Africa call themselves today.

There does seem to be a cultural connection between modern Amazigh and the very early inhabitants, some of whom used an alphabet with a script – Tifinagh – that has now been adopted by Amazigh nationalists. Varieties of that script may originate around the beginning of the first millennium BCE. There are examples of a more developed script dating back to about the third century BC.

Phoenicians and Greeks

Around the beginning of the first millennium BCE, trade began to develop across the Mediterranean. Greeks founded fishing and trading colonies in the Eastern Mediterranean. In 640 BCE they established settlements at Cyrene. A second wave of Greek settlements followed – Ptolemais (modern Tolmeitha) around 320 BCE, for example. These independent city states soon began to compete with another wave of settlers from the east, the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians, international traders from what is now Lebanon, criss-crossed the Mediterranean, expanding trade in gold, silver, ivory, and raw materials. Their early settlements were rest and repair stations, lining both coasts of the Mediterranean and through into the Atlantic. These bases protected their sea-routes from their Greek competitors. In Libya these included Lebda (Leptis Magna), Oea (Tripoli), and Sabratha. The Phoenicians, maritime traders, did not try to control territory far inland, except around Carthage, which they founded sometime around 810-820 BCE. What is now Tunisia was one of the most fertile corners of North Africa, and they built a great agricultural and trading economy, spreading settled agriculture into its hinterland.

By about 400 BCE, Carthage dominated the North African coast between Tripolitania and the Atlantic. Rivalry with the Greeks led to several wars and at the end of the fourth century BCE, a Greek army attacked and devastated the area around Carthage. Carthage recovered and once again became extremely prosperous trading with the east and exporting grain and textiles.

Libya Antiquity
Phoenician and Greek Colonies ca. 700 BCE. Source: Fanack

The Romans

War between Phoenicians and Greeks helped a new power to emerge in North Africa: Rome. By the beginning of the third century BCE, Rome and Carthage had split the trade of the central Mediterranean between them.

In 146 BCE, Roman armies destroyed Carthage at the end of the last of the three wars between the two states. Ancient accounts say they laid the city waste and scattered salt over it. Roman rule over North Africa required local allies – Phoenician cities that changed sides and local kingdoms. It was an unstable system, but despite Julius Caesar’s attempts to abolish native kingdoms and settle Africa, for four hundred years the mighty Third Augustan Legion was the only Roman legion garrisoned permanently in north-west Africa.

Africa Proconsularis, the coastal strip of Tripolitania, was a peripheral province connected by an extensive road system to the more important part of the Roman Empire in what is now Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. The most important city was Lepcis (or Leptis) Magna, once a Phoenician port. It exported huge quantities of locally-grown olives and products of the interior. Cultivation spread southwards and the farms, settlements and villages, along with the canals and waterworks supporting them, were protected by forts, and ditch-and-dyke earthworks. These fortifications on the southern edge of the Roman empire were called in Latin the limes, the origin of the English word ‘limit.’

The Local Kingdoms

Beyond the limes were native kingdoms much older than the Romans. The Garamantes were a substantial nation in Fezzan between 500 BCE and 500 CE. We know more about them than about other desert peoples because Roman and Greek sources refer to them more frequently. Their capital, the modern settlement of Germa, has remnants of a large city with impressive stone-footed buildings using Mediterranean styles of architecture, and tombs containing Roman goods. There was a developed desert trade in horses, dates, salt, ivory and slaves. Transport over long distances was by caravan, probably by donkeys at first. The earlier periods of Saharan rock art do not show camels, which the Garamantes apparently only adopted slowly.

The Greek historian Herodotus (5th century BCE) described people in Fezzan using wagons with four horses; rock paintings depict these famous chariots of the Garamantes. There was often tension between the Garamantes and the Romans, and there were probably at least three Roman military expeditions into Garamantian territory in the first century CE. But Ghadames was too far to bring permanently under Roman rule. Despite intermittent fighting, the Garamantes developed a close trading relationship with the Romans from the first century BCE on. Sometimes the Garamantes joined an alliance against the Romans and sometimes they joined in the fighting between Roman cities on one side or another.

Leptis Magna (Lepcis)

Originally a Phoenician port, the hinterland of Leptis was well-suited to cultivating olives. In 46 BCE Caesar could levy an annual tribute of three million pounds of oil. The city quickly became one of the largest provincial cities of the Empire. It had perhaps 80,000 inhabitants. Under Emperor Trajan (reigned 98–117 CE) it became a full-fledged colonia, giving Roman citizenship to its free inhabitants.

One family that benefited was that of Septimius Severus. He was born in Leptis in 145 CE, but family connections in Rome led him to become a senator. He became a military commander in Syria and later governor of northern France. In 190 CE he became a consul of Rome and in 193 CE, the first African to become Emperor of Rome. In 202–203 Septimius Severus began a huge construction programme at Leptis with many splendid official buildings, including a forum and rich sculptures. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1982.

Libya Antiquity
People visit the ancient Roman city of Leptis Magna, in the coastal Libyan city of Al-Khums, some 120 km east of the capital Tripoli, on February 4, 2022. Pictured is the Arch of Septimius Severus, as reconstructed by archaeologists beginning in 1928. It was built to celebrate Septimius’s triumph over the Parthians in 194-195 and 197–199. Mahmud TURKIA / AFP

Christianity and the decline of Roman power

Septimius Severus vigorously repressed dissent. He executed members of the Senate who opposed him and crushed the desert tribes in Tripolitania. Septimius treated the new religion of Christianity very fiercely, because unlike Judaism, or local cults, it down-valued the kingdoms of this world and rejected the worship of the Emperor. He died in 211 CE fighting Scottish highlanders on the northern imperial frontier in Britain.

Under Diocletian (reigned 284-305 CE) the repression was even more severe. Even after Christianity grew and Emperor Constantine (reigned 306-337 CE) formally converted to Christianity, schisms between Christians produced more persecutions. In 429 CE the Vandals, a Germanic people on the Danube frontier adopted a version of Christianity, Arianism, that the Empires’ rulers declared heretical. The Vandals rebelled, conquered Spain, and invaded North Africa. In 442 CE the Romans ceded much of North Africa to them including Tripolitania. Vandal rule faced attack by the Amazigh kingdoms of the interior, and in 527 CE the Emperor Justinian took the throne in Byzantium and was able to rebuild the Empire in North Africa.

Despite this political uncertainty, the economy did not collapse. Agricultural production continued and older buildings were re-purposed for agricultural functions. In Leptis Magna, for instance, there was an olive press in the old forum and another in the public baths. Even so there was considerable despoliation of earlier structures so that their stones could be reused in new buildings. Both trends continued when a new religion, Islam, began its own expansion into the Maghreb.