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Greek & Roman Geography (ed. William Smith)

Leptis Magna

  Leptis Magna (he Leptis megale, Leptimagna, Procop. B. V. ii. 21 ; also Leptis, simply; aft. Neapolis; Leptimagnensis Civitas, Cod. Just. i. 27. 2: Eth. and Adj. Leptitanos, Leptitanus: Lebda, large Ru.), the chief of the three cities which formed the African Tripolis, in the district between the Syrtes (Regio Syrtica, aft. Tripolitana), on the N. coast of Africa; the other two being Oea and Sabrata. Leptis was one of the most ancient Phoenician colonies on this coast, having been founded by the Sidonians (Sall. Jug. 19, 78); and its site was one of the most favourable that can be imagined for a city of the first class. It stood at one of those parts of the coast where the table-land of the Great Desert falls off to the sea by a succession of mountain ridges, enclosing valleys which are thus sheltered from those encroachments of sand that cover the shore where no such protection exists, while they lie open to the breezes of the Mediterranean. The country, in fact, resembles, on a small scale, the terraces of the Cyrenaic coast; and its great beauty and fertility have excited the admiration alike of ancient and modern writers. (Ammian. Marc. xxviii. 6 ; Della Cella ; Beechy; Barth, &c.) Each of these valleys is watered by its streamlet, generally very insignificant and even intermittent, but sometimes worthy of being styled a river, as in the case of the Cinyps and of the smaller stream, further to the west, upon which Leptis stood. The excellence of the site was much enhanced by the shelter afforded by the promontory Hermaeum (Ras-al-Ashan), W. of the city, to the roadstead in its front. The ruins of Leptis are of vast extent, of which a great portion is buried under the sand which has drifted over them from the sea. From what can be traced, however, it is clear that these remains contain the ruins of three different cities.
  (1.) The original city, or Old Leptis, still exhibits in its ruins the characteristics of an ancient Phoenician settlement; and, in its site, its sea-walls and quays, its harbour, and its defences on the land side, it bears a striking general resemblance to Carthage. It was built on an elevated tongue of land, jutting out from the W. bank of the little river, the mouth of which formed its port, having been artificially enlarged for that purpose. The banks of the river, as well as the seaward face of the promontory, are lined with walls of massive masonry, serving as sea-walls as well as quays, and containing some curious vaulted chambers, which are supposed to have been docks for ships which were kept (as at Carthage) for a last resource, in case the citadel should be taken by an enemy. These structures are of a harder stone than the other buildings of the city; the latter being of a light sandstone, which gave the place a glittering whiteness to the voyager approaching it from the sea. (Stadiasm. Mar. Mag. p. 453, G., p. 297, H.). On the land side the isthmus was defended by three lines of massive stone walls, the position of each being admirably adapted to the nature of the ground; and, in a depression of the ground between the outmost and middle line, there seems to have been a canal, connecting the harbour in the mouth of the river with the roadstead W. of the city. Opposite to this tongue of land, on the E. side of the river, is a much lower, less projecting, and more rounded promontory, which could not have been left out of the system of external works, although no part of the city was built upon it. Accordingly we find here, besides the quays along the river side, and vaults in them, which served for warehouses, a remarkable building, which seems to have been a fort. Its superstructure is of brick, and certainly not of Phoenician work; but it probably stood on foundations coeval with the city. This is the only example of the use of brick in the ruins of Leptis, with the exception of the walls which surmount the sea-defences already described. From this eastern, as well as from the western point of land, an artificial mole was built out, to give additional shelter to the port on either side; but, through not permitting a free egress to the sand which is washed up on that coast in vast quantities with every tide, these moles have been the chief cause of the destruction, first of the port, and afterwards of the city. The former event had already happened at the date of the Stadiasmus, which describes Leptis as having no harbour (alimenos). The harbour still existed, however, at the time of the restoration of the city by Septimius Severus, and small vessels could even ascend to some distance above the city, as is proved by a quay of Roman work on the W. bank, at a spot where the river is still deep, though its mouth is now lost in the sand-hills.
  2. The Old City (polis) thus described became gradually, like the Byrsa of Carthage, the citadel of a much more extensive New City (Neapolis), which grew up beyond its limits, on the W. bank of the river, where its magnificent buildings now lie hidden beneath the sand. This New City, as in the case of Carthage and several other Phoenician cities of like growth, gave its name to the place, which was hence called Neapolis not, however, as at Carthage, to the disuse of the old name, Leptis which was never entirely lost, and which became the prevailing name in the later times of the ancient world, and is the name which the ruins still retain (Lebda). Under the early emperors both names are found almost indifferently; but with a slight indication of the preference given to Neapolis and it seems probable that the name Leptis, with the epithet Magna to distinguish it from Leptis Parva, prevailed at last for the sake of avoiding any confusion with Neapolis in Zeugitana. (Strab. xvii. p. 835, Neapolis, hen kai Leptin kalousin: Mela, however, i. 7. § 5, has Leptis only, with the epithet altera: Pliny, v. 4. s. 4, misled, as usual, by the abundance of his authorities, makes Leptis and Neapolis different cities, and he distinguishes this from the other Leptis as Leptis altera, quae cognominatur magna: Ptolemy, iv. 3. § 13, has Neapolis he kai Leptis megale: Jtin. Ant. p. 63, and Tab. Peut. Lepti Magna Colonia; Scyl. pp. 111, 112, 113, Gronov. Nea Polis; Stadiasm. p. 435, Leptis, vulg. Leptes, the coins all have the name Leptis simply, with the addition, on some of them, of the epithet Colonia Victrix Julia; but it is very uncertain to which of the two cities of the name these coins belong; Eckhel, vol. iv. pp. 130, 131; Rasche, s. v.) We learn from Sallust that the commercial intercourse of Leptis with the native tribes had led to a sharing of the connubium, and hence to an admixture of the language of the city with the Libyan dialects (Jug. 78). In fact, Leptis, like the neighbouring Tripoly, which, with a vastly inferior site, has succeeded to its position, was the great emporium for the trade with the Garamantes and Phazania and the eastern part of Inner Libya. But the remains of the New City seem to belong almost entirely to the period of the Roman Empire, and especially to the reign of Septimius Severus, who restored and beautified this his native city. (Spart. Sev. 1; Aurel. Vict. Ep. 20.) It had already before acquired considerable importance under the Romans, whose cause it espoused in the war with Jugurtha (Sall. Jug. 77 - 79: as to its later condition see Tac. Hist. iv. 50); and if, as Eckhel inclines to believe, the coins with the epigraph COL. VIC. IUL. LEP. belong mostly, if not entirely, to Leptis Magna, it must have been made a colony in the earliest period of the empire. It was still a flourishing and populous fortified city in the 4th century, when it was greatly injured by an assault of a Libyan tribe, called the AURUSIANI (Ammian. xxviii. 6); and it never recovered from the blow.
  3. Justinian is said to have enclosed a portion of it with a new wall; but the city itself was already too far buried in the sand to be restored; and, as far as we can make out, the little that Justinian attempted seems to have amounted only to the enclosure of a suburb, or old Libyan camp, some distance to the E. of the river, on the W. bank of which the city itself had stood. (Procop. de Aed. vi. 4; comp. Barth.) Its ruin was completed during the Arab conquest (Leo, Afr. p. 435); and, though we find it, in the middle ages, the seat of populous Arab camps, no attempt has been made to make use of the splendid site, which is now occupied by the insignificant village of Legatah, and the hamlet of El-Hush, which consists of only four houses.

This text is from: Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography (1854) (ed. William Smith, LLD). Cited August 2004 from The Perseus Project URL below, which contains interesting hyperlinks

Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities


Leptis Magna or Neapolis, a city on the coast of North Africa, between the Syrtes, east of Abrotonum, was a Phoenician colony, with a flourishing commerce, though it possessed no harbour. With Abrotonum and Oea it formed the African Tripolis. It was the birthplace of the emperor Septimius Severus.


The Catholic Encyclopedia

Leptis Magna

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