Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Morocco: Antiquity

Morocco: Antiquity
Ruins of the Roman city of Volubilis (from 40 AD to the 3rd century AD). Mazin Rosine / Aurimages via AFP


Morocco has a long history of human habitation, but the earliest periods are very obscure. There were tool-using cultures in the temperate and semitropical era before the last ice age, but even their name is quite unknown to us.

There is archaeological evidence showing a human presence in the Early Pleistocene era (2.6 million to 781,000 years ago), evident in the drawings on the stone walls of caves and on stones across the Sahara. It is not as rich as the well-dated sites of East Africa, but the Casablanca region became well known for its prehistoric heritage when discoveries of very early human presence were made there in 1907, during the construction of a railway that led to a short war and the first permanent occupation of Morocco by the French.

The earliest remains were of fauna such as equids, carnivores (such as hyenas) and rodents. Humanoid remains and implements (quartzite and flint choppers, cleavers, and flakes), typical of the Acheulean industry, and the associated fauna (including hippo, zebra, gazelles, and micromammals) were later discovered at the Thomas-1 quarry cave site. They dated back to the late Early Pleistocene with a suggested age of around 1 to 1.3 million years.

At Sidi Abderrahman, also near Casablanca, archaeologists found extensive material around 3,500 years old. The Sahara began to dry up in about 5000 BCE, and by the third millennium BCE, it had expanded, splitting the Maghreb off from sub-Saharan Africa, and anchoring it more firmly in the Mediterranean basin. By the end of the first millennium BCE, the climatic conditions in Morocco were roughly those of today.

The Carthaginians

By the second millennium BCE, the Mediterranean was an arena of trade and civilisation. By the end of the eighth century BCE, Phoenicians, maritime traders from Tyre, in modern southern Lebanon, sailed westwards towards the Iberian peninsula, seeking silver and tin. They settled on the coasts, but did not try to control the hinterland, except around Carthage, in modern Tunisia.

There, they founded a great agricultural trading city in the ninth century BCE. In Morocco, they settled at Rusaddir (now Melilla) and set up smaller trading posts at Tamuda, near Tétouan, and Tingis (Tangier), on the Strait of Gibraltar. Then they spread southwards along the Atlantic coast, past Ksar es-Seghir (al-Qasr al-Saghir) and Lixus, near present-day Larache, and, in the 7th century BCE, as far as modern Essaouira.

Morocco: Antiquity
Prehistoric, Carthaginian and Roman Morocco. Source: C.R. Pennell

Indigenous kingdoms

The Carthaginians had two competitors.

Inland were the people earlier scholars called Numidians. In the 4th century BCE, they included the Mauri tribal federation in modern northern Morocco and northwest Algeria. The term “Mauri” was adapted into Latin and Greek, but they were often described as ‘Berbers.’ ‘Berber,’ is being replaced today, as a linguistic and ethnographic description, by “Amazigh,” (singular of ‘Imazighen’ meaning ‘free’ or ‘noble’ people.) Their script – commonly called Tifinagh – was not used for writing or commerce. It was epigraphic and there are examples dating back to about the third century BC. Modern Amazigh nationalists have adopted it as the basis of an alphabet.

The Romans

Semi-nomadic pastoralists surrounded the great city of Carthage, whose rulers found it hard to control the tribal confederations of northern Algeria, southern Tunisia and the deserts of the Fezzan region.

Morocco: Antiquity
North Africa and the Roman Empire. Source: C.R. Pennell

On the northern Mediterranean shore was a more potent threat. In the mid-third century BCE, Rome fought Carthage for Sicily and three successive Punic wars ended in the defeat of the Phoenician city. In the Third Punic War, (149-146 BCE) the Romans destroyed Carthage and laid it to waste.

In the North African hinterland, the Romans relied on local rulers who were not always trustworthy. It took them six years (112-106 BCE) to crush Jugurtha in Numidia. The Roman emperor Julius Caesar abolished other native kingdoms that backed Pompeii in the civil war. In 44 BCE, Caesar was murdered and the Romans tried ruling Mauritania (roughly northern Morocco) directly. They soon resorted to local surrogates again. In 25 BCE Augustus handed Mauritania to Juba II (48BCE-23CE), ruler of Iol Caesarea (Cherchell, Algeria). His second city, Volubilis (near Meknès) became a great metropolis. After Juba’s death, rebellion followed and in 40 CE, the Roman Empire annexed Mauritania.

The towns of the far west remained pro-Roman and Volubilis became the capital of a new Roman province, Mauritania Tingitana . Eventually, the Empire annexed all Mauritania and divided it into two provinces, and later three. Roman rule did not extend far inland. Military camps with ditches, ramparts and watchtowers ringed Roman territory. These limits, the limes, from the Atlantic to the deserts south of Tripoli, divided areas of direct Roman rule, with trade and settled agriculture, from nomads and transhumants.

The far west was never as rich as the east. El Djem (Tunisia) and Leptis Magna (Libya) were great cities but Volubilis was a backwater. It had perhaps 20,000 inhabitants, most of them locals. However, it was wealthy: it produced a huge agricultural surplus (olives and grain) and minerals (lead, silver, iron, and copper.) The comfortable villas of the richer inhabitants were decorated with Greek-inspired designs and floor mosaics which sometimes resembled Amazigh patterns.

Monotheism – Judaism and Christianity

Morocco: Antiquity
Looking toward Moulay Idris – connection between the Roman city with the early Islamic city of Moulay Idris. Photo: C.R. Pennell

The Roman Empire had many gods, but its wide geographical reach allowed monotheism to spread into northwestern Africa.

First came Judaism, probably from the east, reaching Carthage in the second century AD. Not much is known about the move westward, because there are only scattered Jewish inscriptions that give a clue.

Christianity may also have arrived from the east, or from Rome itself, and quickly took root in Tunisia in the third century. The Roman emperors tried to destroy it, but the vicious persecution radicalised the Christians rather than silenced them. The great Christian centres were in what is now Algeria and Tunisia. After Constantine I converted to Christianity in 306 CE, some Christians compromised with Rome and a great schism resulted between Donatist radicals, led by Donatus, the Bishop of Carthage, and Christian allies of Rome. Emperor Honorius crushed them at the beginning of the fifth century CE.

Vandals and Byzantines

In the late fourth century, there was another schism. The Vandals, a Germanic people with an interpretation of Christianity, Arianism, that the Roman Empire thought heretical, invaded western Europe and conquered Spain. In 429 they crossed the Strait of Gibraltar, invaded North Africa, and quickly moved on into Algeria and Tunisia. In 442 CE the Romans ceded North Africa to them. The Vandals largely ignored the far northwest, which was not rich enough to be attractive to them. They left little trace there, and Vandal rule was short-lived everywhere.

In 527 CE Justinian rebuilt the Roman Empire in Byzantium (modern Istanbul). In Morocco, Byzantine occupation was limited to Ceuta and Tangier, although Byzantine remains have been found at Salé, and Volubilis was still populated. Tribal chiefs used the Byzantine presence to strengthen their own rule, and there were several local kingdoms, of which we know little.

Further Reading