“And though the world’s population keeps expanding, the number of individuals who know the stories of their own lands diminishes every year.”
Barnaby Rogerson in the introduction to In Search of Ancient North Africa
This is a book about forgotten origins and outcomes. Through six lives it shows us legends, families, survival, and the importance of memory. It gives the north of Africa a fresh polish.
Barnaby Rogerson escorts us around the landscapes and sea-edges of North Africa. He guides us, via pauses and picnics, to ancient footprints and then delivers whole worlds to watch. Nothing is dull or dusty – it is all served with relish, and plenty of sides.
The six lives he chooses, in order of appearance, are: a refugee – Queen Dido, founder of Carthage; two generals – Hannibal, and Masinissa; an African king – Juba II; an emperor of Rome – Septimius Severus; and a Christian saint – Augustine.
They hold our focus as Barnaby Rogerson swirls us across the top of Africa and into Europe, in the company of politicians, warriors, revellers and worshippers. There are murders, mothers, martyrs and intrigue … and plenty who sweep in from the wings including Scipio, Octavian, and Pythagoras.
Hannibal, “the greatest general of all time”, is undoubtedly one of the heavyweights. He gets a large chunk of the second chapter, and brings with him his childhood and family. Together we advance through the divisions in his career, and follow the links out to the Berber general Masinissa, and on to Scipio. By the end we have seen the whole, and it doesn’t end well for any of them…nor for North Africa.
The second half of the book, after the adventures of King Juba II, takes us to Leptis Magna. It is in this city, some three hundred years after the death of Hannibal, that Septimius Severus is born:
“…arguably one of the greatest lawmakers, statesmen and architects in the history of Rome, a man worthy to stand in line and clasp the hands of both Augustus and Justinian.”
He, another African, has a profound influence on the region he grew up in.
“It was not just his home town of Leptis Magna that prospered, for there is hardly a Roman city in North Africa that did not grow more beautiful, more useful and more holy during the reign of the Emperor Septimius Severus.”
His grand tale of magnificence and murder begins in Africa and returns to Africa, although the emperor himself dies in York, England.
Close to the end of the book we meet Saint Augustine, a man who chooses religion over politics and the military. Bishop, writer, thinker, and one of the Church’s greatest early Christians he leaves us plenty to ponder, much of it still quoted. Barnaby Rogerson shows us all that, but he also provides the context to Saint Augustine’s learning.
He begins the search for Aurelius Augustinus, Son of Patricius, over coffee in the Saint’s home town:
“I have never found the face of Augustine in this throng of male faces at Thagaste, but I have often identified his father.”
From Thagaste he moves us on to explore the complex, dangerous world that surrounds Augustine’s early Christian church. Again it is another chapter that might have been a book in itself … but it’s not. Instead, in a close-knit sixty pages, Barnaby Rogerson uses his extensive knowledge to give us enough detailed theological and political background to immerse us in the insecurities of the time.
The book concludes at the Oasis of Ghadames in the Libyan Sahara, where we brush shoulders with the impact of the Arab conquest of North Africa. It is another of Barnaby Rogerson’s:
“…threads of connections that often go against the imagined grain of history, linking together different ages, peoples and beliefs.”
And, like the other strands in this generous book, it leaves us thinking.
That is the pleasure of In Search of Ancient North Africa – it is packed with discoveries. There is treasure on every page, and each find stretches on to others, part of a chain to which we’re all attached.
Barnaby Rogerson has written a feast for anyone interested in ancient Africa, or the classical world. It’s ignited a new fascination for me.
In Search of Ancient North Africa (A History in Six Lives) by Barnaby Rogerson
with photographs by Don McCullin
First published in 2017 by Haus Publishing Ltd
70 Cadogan Place, London, SW1X 9AH
£20/$29.95 – Hardback
(The book was free; the review unpaid, and my own.)
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018