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Roman Dams in Tripolitania

  • Claudio Vita-Finzi

There are many Roman dams in the Tripolitanian province of Libya; only a few of them have received the attention they deserve. This article attempts to explain the variety of purposes served by some of the numerous barrages to be found in a small part of northern Tripolitania.

The earliest thorough study of ancient hydraulic works in north Africa was made by La Blanchère in the Enfida of Tunisia. More ambitious surveys have been organized by Gsell in Algeria and Gauckler in Tunisia; they were based on somewhat superficial observations made by local officials and soldiers. Air photography has made the objective recording and presentation of intricate irrigation systems easier, especially when it is in the hands of experienced and patient observers in low-flying aircraft; and this helps us to work out the function of barrages associated with the canals and ditches.

The ancients built dams in other parts of the dry zone lying south and east of the Mediterranean, in conjunction with schemes of irrigation or town water supply. A few of them are very old; while in places the Romans took over a perfected system of soil and water conservation, complete with dams that merely needed repair and maintenance.

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1 Dams are mentioned briefly in the works of Barth and other early travellers in Libya; for summary explanatory accounts, see A. Merighi, La Tripolitania Antica (Verbania, 1940), 11, 71-8 and bibliography; and references below to works by Oates, Goodchild and Haynes.

2 M.-R. du Coudray la Blanchère, L’aménagement de l’eau et l’installation rurale dans l’Afrique ancienne, Nouv. Archiv. des Miss. Scient., t. vii (Paris, 1897). He cites earlier works, including that by L. Carton (1888) in Southern Tunisia.

3 Stéphane Gsell, Enquête administrative sur les travaux hydrauliques anciens en Algérie, ibid (1902).

4 Paul Gauckler, Enquête sur les installations romanes en Tunise, I: La Byzacène Orientale (1897); for a recent account, J. Poncet, ‘Les anciennes méthodes d’hydraulique agricole … en Tunisie’, in Terre de Tunisie (Tunis, 1958).

5 For instance Jean Baradez, Vue Aérienne de l’organisation Romaine dans le Sud Algérien (1949) and ‘Réseau routier … d’exploitation de la zone arrière du limes de Numidie’, Actes, Études des Frontières Romaines (Bâle-Rheinfelden 1957); and also A. Poidebard, La Trace de Rome dans le désert de Syrie (Paris, 1934).

6 G. W. Murray describes one of the oldest in ‘Water from the Desert: Some Ancient Egyptian Achieve ments’, Geog. Four., CXXI (1955), 171-81. See also Robert Brittain, Rivers and Man (Longmans, 1958); H. St John Philby, The Land of Midian (1957), etc., passim.

7 The achievements of the Nabateans in the Negev are described by Nelson Glueck, Rivers in the Desert (1959), especially 92 et seq. Strabo may have been referring to an early dam on Wadi Caam when he wrote (Geography, 17, 3, 18) about ‘a kind of cross-wall which the Carthaginians built, wishing to bridge over some gorges …’

8 Auguste Choisy, L’art de bâtir chez les Romains (Paris, 1873), 204-5; T. R. S. Broughton, The Romanization of Africa Proconsularis (London, 1929); etc. Nerva (A.D. 96-8) is reputed to have instigated huge irrigation schemes in North Africa.

9 The citizens of Saldae (Algeria) asked for Nonus Datus, Expert from the Third Legion, to go out and help them make both ends of a tunnel they were digging meet in the middle (recounted by Clemens Herschel, Frontimts and the Water Supply of the City of Rome (Boston, 1899), 179).

10 R. G. Goodchild, ‘Roman Tripolitania: Reconnaissance in the Desert Frontier Zone’, Geog. your., CXV (1950), 161-78. Romanelli (see note 12) gives many of the classical sources.

11 D. E. L. Haynes, The Antiquities of Tripolitania (Tripoli, 1956), 52.

12 P. Romanelli, Leptis Magna (Rome, 1925), 72.

13 S. Franchi, in La Tripolitania Settentrionale (Rome, 1913), I, 63.

14 R. G. Goodchild and J. P. Ward Perkins, ‘The Roman and Byzantine Defences of Lepcis Magna’, Papers of the British School at Rome, XXI (1953), 45.

15 One of these has been blocked up by what appears to be Roman opus signinum.

16 It is this lower part, fed by the springs and sometimes by flood- or even sea-water, that gave Wadi Caam the undeserved reputation of being a perennial stream. Haynes too (op. cit., 99) suggests that it was made into some kind of reservoir. A thorough investigation of the site by Sra. B. Crova is to be published shortly in Quaderni della Libia.

17 Cf. an inscription from the Baths at Lepcis which reads ‘Q(uintus) Serui(I)ius Candidus sua inpensa aquam quaesit(a)m et eleuatam in coloniam perduxit’ (The Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania, J. M. Reynolds and J. B. Ward Perkins (Rome 1952), No. 357), dated to A.D. 119.

18 David Oates, ‘The Tripolitanian Gebel: settlement of the Roman period around Gasr ed-Dauun’, PBSR, XXI (1953), 81-117. See also F. Stroppa, ‘L’idrografia della Tripolitania e la politica idraulica romana’, Riv. Col, XVI (1919), 489-96.

19 Mr John Stewart, lately of U.S. Operations Mission to Libya, was the first to draw the author’s attention to the spillways.

20 R. G. Goodchild, ‘Farming in Roman Libya’, Geog. Mag., XXV (1952), 76.

21 C. Vita-Finzi, ‘Post-Roman Changes in the Wadi Lebda’, in Field Studies in Libya (Durham University, 1960).

22 M. Bradfield and A. Wells recorded eight large dams in the Gsea and twenty in its narrow upper part (Udei el Me). I am indebted to Mrs Olwen Brogan for this information, and for unstinted help at all stages of this study.

23 P. Gauckler, op. cit., p. 125, points this out.

24 e.g. R. G. Goodchild, (1950) op. cit., 165.

The author of this article is engaged in research on post-classical geological changes in Tripolitania. It is hoped to publish shortly a further article on the Roman dams of the Wadi Megenin by Mr Vita-Finzi in collaboration with Mrs Olwen Brogan.

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  • EISSN: 1745-1744
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