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Thapsus 35.623350, 11.043267 Thapsus

Historical background

By N. Carayon

Thapsus seems to have been founded in the seventh century BC by the Phoenicians, with the first mention of city perhaps dating to the fourth century BC in the Pseudo-Scylax (§ 110). The city was part of Carthaginian territory until the Third Punic war, even though it was taken by Agathocles of Syracuse in 310 BC (Diodorus Siculus, 20, 17, 6). In 146 BC, the city helped Rome against Carthage and in 111 BC, Thapsus is mentioned as a civitas libera in the Lex agraria of Spurius Thorius. During the Civil Wars in 46 BC, the city of Thapsus supported the Pompeian faction, and was the site of a famous battle between Julius Caesar and Pompey (Pseudo-Caesar, Bellum Africanum, 28, 1; 79, 1-2; 80, 1-4; 85-1; 97, 2; Livy, 33, 48; Strabo, 17, 3, 12 and 16). After Caesar’s victory Thapsus was punished with the imposition of a heavy fine. We know nothing about the juridical status of Thapsus between 46 BC and the reign of Augustus; however Pliny the Elder (5, 3), who copies Augustan sources, says that it was an oppidum liberum. A funerary inscription discovered in Picenum and dated to between the end of the first and third centuries AD, suggests that the city was a colony (CIL IX 5087 [= 6184]), a status that it may have achieved under the Flavians. The city remained under Roman control until the Vandal conquest of North Africa in the earlier 5th c AD. From the first part of the sixth until the first part of the seventh century AD, Thapsus was under Byzantine administration and became an Arab city during the eighth or the ninth century AD (Gsell, 1920; Younes, 1999a, 1999b).

Archaeological background

By N. Carayon

Even though some ancient buildings are partially preserved, e.g. the triple fortification, cisterns, fortress, amphitheatre and port, and stonework from the ancient monuments of ancient Thapsus was reused in the buildings of Ras-Dimass, few nineteenth and twentieth century scholars took much interest in the site. The exception was Daux who investigated archaeological remains in the city centre at the end of the nineteenth century, and whose results are still a reference point for archaeologists (Daux 1869). During the twentieth century, archaeologists excavated the Punic cemetery and worked in the town in order to enhance the information provided by nineteenth century authors (Carton 1904; Fantar 1978; Gsell 1920; Lachaux 1979; Lezine 1961). During the sixties, an underwater archaeological survey of submerged structures along the coast of Tunisia and Libya focused on the remains of a breakwater seen by nineteenth century authors and brought to light what was one of the biggest breakwaters of Roman antiquity (Dallas and Yorke 1968; Yorke 1967; Yorke et al. 1966). Recently, this structure has been dated to the third century AD and reinterpreted as the manifestation of the megalomania of the young emperor Gordianus (Davidson and Yorke 2014), who acceded to the throne in AD 238.

Finally, during studying for his PhD in the nineties, Ameur Younes systematically prospected the area of ancient Thapsus and recorded all visible remains of ancient buildings. This work, published in 1999, also focused on the ancient port system and suggests that it was organized in two principal parts: the area of water naturally protected by the island to the west and the artificial port protected by breakwaters to the southeast (Younes 1999a; Younes 1999b).

Geomorphological background

By N. Carayon

Ancient Thapsus, now Dimass on the east coast of Tunisia, between Sousse and Sfax, occupies a sandy cape and a coastal plain limited by low hills at the west, the sea to the north and the east and by the Moknine’s sebkha, a closed depression, to the south-west. North of the promontory, a sandy ridge abutted a low island forming an area of water protected from the open sea which could be used as natural harbour during antiquity. South of the cape, the coast is formed by a prograding sandy beach, the formation of which could be the result of the building of a massive breakwater during Roman period. This southern stretch of coast was the second part of the ancient harbour of Thapsus. Today a small fishing port is partially built on the ancient breakwater (Slim et al. 2004; Trousset, Slim, and Paskoff 1991). A recent geo-archaeological study, documented glacio-eustatic sea-level rise near Thapsus in the range of 0.50–0.75 m (Anzidei et al. 2011).

Importance in the Roman harbour network

By N. Carayon

Thapsus is a minor site within the Roman harbour network principally devoted to processing the exploitation of the agricultural resources and especially olives. It is noteworthy, however, that its harbour infrastructure was on such a massive scale, and raises the possibility that it could be explained by Imperial megalomania as much as by economic rationality.


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  • Carton, Dr. 1904. “Excursion À Thapsus.” Bulletin de la Société archéologique de Sousse 3: 47–50.
  • Dallas, M.F., and R. A. Yorke. 1968. “Underwater Surveys of North Africa, Jugoslavia and Italy.” Underwater Association Report, 21–34.
  • Daux, A. 1869. Recherches sur l’origine et l’emplacement des “emporia” phéniciens dans le Zeugis et le Byzacium (Afrique septentrionale). Paris: Imprimerie impériale.
  • Davidson, D. P., and R. A. Yorke. 2014. “The Enigma of the Great Thapsus Harbour Mole.” International Journal of Nautical Archaeology 43 (1): 35–40.
  • Fantar, M.H. 1978. “La Cité Punique de Thapsus.” In Actes du IIe Congrès International sur l’étude des cultures de la Méditerranée occidentale, 59–70. Alger.
  • Gsell, S. 1920. Histoire ancienne de l’Afrique du Nord. Tome II. L’état carthaginois. Paris: Hachette.
  • Lachaux, J.C. 1979. Théâtres et amphithéâtres d’Afrique proconsulaire. Paris: Édisud.
  • Lezine, A. 1961. Architecture romaine d’Afrique. Recherches et mises au point. Tunis: Presses Universitaires de France.
  • Slim, H., P. Trousset, R. Paskoff, and A. Oueslati. 2004. Le littoral de la Tunisie : étude géoarchéologique et historique. Etudes d’Antiquités Africaines. CNRS éditions. Paris.
  • Trousset, P., H. Slim, and R. Paskoff. 1991. “Le littoral de la Tunisie dans l’Antiquité : cinq ans de recherches géo- archéologiques.” Comptes Rendus des Séances de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres 135 (3): 515–46.
  • Yorke, R. A. 1967. “Les ports engloutis de Tripolitaine et de Tunisie.” Archeologia 17: 18–24.
  • Yorke, R. A., D. P. Davidson, J.C.W. Ward, and M.F. Dallas. 1966. Cambridge Expedition to Sabratha. 1966 Report. Cambridge.
  • Younes, A. 1999a. Recherches sur la ville portuaire de Thapsus et son territoire en Byzacène dans l’Antiquité. 2 vols. Cahier Du CERES, Série Histoire 10. Tunis.
  • ———. 1999b. “L’installation portuaire à Thapsus: mise au point à partir des textes anciens et de la documentation archéologique” In La Méditerranée : l’homme et la mer, dans le cadre du Projet National Mobilisateur : les villes-ports en Tunisie, 181–93. Cahiers du CERES., Série Géographique 21. Tunis.