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Phoenicians, Carthaginians and the Romans in Morocco

1100 BC- Phoenician Settlements in Morocco

Phoenicians in North Africa

Phoenician traders arrived on the North African coast around 1100 BC. The Phoenicians were not looking to conquer or settle, but simply for places to anchor their ships along the trading route towards Spain, which was a big source of silver and tin. Because of lack of manpower, the Phoenicians didn't hope to establish large colonies. Most of their settlements were small islands off the coast or easily defensible spots along the coast.

The main Phoenician settlement in Morocco was in Larache. The Phoenicians added other settlements in Tangier, Rabat, Asilah and Essaouira.1 The Phoenicians did not settle the interior of North Africa, mainly they inhabited port cities.2

500 BC- Carthaginians Settlements

 Carthaginian Empire in North Africa

The Carthaginians took over the existing Phoenician settlements and expand them to other cities including Tamuda (near Tetuan), and at Ksar es-Seghir (Al-Qasr al-Saghir). The Carthaginian empire was, like the Phoenicians, more commercially oriented than territorial focused. Thus, Carthage never excised political control except along the coastal port cities.

Carthage's political plan was thus: assimilate the sedentary people who lived in these colonial cities into society and try and push the nomadic people who dwelt nearby beyond the borders of the colonies. Because things didn't go according to plan, three situations resulted. First was the chora, the nodal territories that Carthaginian land owners farmed by using Berber slaves which had been acquired by trade or conquest. The second situation was the dependent territories which were farmed by tax-paying Berber slaves, who often revolted against the Carthaginians. And third, there was the frontier, the independent territories where resistant nomads gathered, settled and began to imitate the Carthaginians ways in their farming, weapons, literacy, religious ideas, political ideas and making alliances with the imperial rivals.

146 BC- Carthage Falls to Rome  

Map of Roman Empire in North Africa

In the Third Punic War, Carthage fell to the Romans. At that point the only place in the Maghreb (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia) that was ruled directly by Rome was a 13,000 km2 plot of land in Tunisia. The rest of the Maghreb was in the hands of local rulers.

Over the next century, Roman settlers began to expand beyond the controlled land. These settlers carried with them Roman ideals and values, and began to lay a foundation for a direct extension of the Roman Empire into North Africa. By the reign of Claudius, major portions of the Maghreb were under Roman control, parts ruled from Roman Spain, parts from Roman Carthage.

The Romans saw potential in the Maghreb as a major supplier of grain. They began to call the African province "New Africa" and began shipping 50,000 tons of grain a year from the region, within 100 years they were shipping 500,000 tons of grain to Rome, 2/3rd the need of the city.

For the first three centuries of the "New Africa" things were relatively peaceful. New Africa required one legion and a range of military forces to make for peace. Britain, at the same time, needed four legions. Roman troops spent much of their time managing nomads, not fighting them.

The Romans built 19,000 kilometers of roads in the Maghreb to facilitate the transfer of trade and for military purposes. Harbors were built and a shipping class was instituted. The Romans leased out large portions of land to private landowners, only requiring the payment of taxes in return. The local economies were booming and agriculture began to focus on the development of grapes for wine and olives for olive oil.3

238 AD- Begin of Roman Decline in Morocco

In 238 AD, Gordian III withdrew Roman Legions from Morocco. Rome sought to govern by a series of peace treaties with Berber tribes. Within a few decades a Berber chief named Iulius Matif was given the title of king over the area, and are referred to as allies, not subjects of Rome. By the end of the third century the Romans had withdrawn from the area, and left the province to be governed by semi-romanized Berber chiefs.

429 AD- The Vandals

In 429 the Vandals crossed the Straight of Gibralter into North Africa with intent to plunder. They entered through Tangier and did not remain long in Morocco, choosing to move east in search of plunder. The Roman Emperor Valentinian III made a treaty with the Vandals for much of North Africa. Since Morocco was less wealthy and fertile than other areas of North Africa it was excluded from the treaty. Vandal rule did not last long in North Africa. Berber kingdoms began to invade and attack and the ruling family fell apart. 

527- The Return of the Byzantines 

When Justinian took the throne in Byzantium he made efforts to rebuild the Roman Empire, including that in North Africa. But by this time the Berber tribes had grown very strong and the Byzantines were able to only establish small landholdings in North Africa.  In order to protect themselves against the Berbers, they rebuilt and refortified many Roman ruins. In some ways it seems the Berbers used acquaintances with the Byzantines to elevate their own social status.4

Sources and Resources

1- Morocco From Independence to Empire

2- The Cambridge history of Africa - By J. D. Fage, Roland Anthony Oliver, A. D. Roberts 

3- Africa in the Iron Age, c500 B.C. to A.D. 1400 By Roland Anthony Oliver, Brian M. Fagan

4- The fall of the Roman Empire By Peter J. Heather

The Maps come from

Phoenicia Map

Carthage Map

Roman Map

Besides the above sources, the following are good places of information about early Moroccan history

A Traveller's History of North Africa, Barnaby Rogerson (available on Amazon).

Rome in Africa, Susan Ranen (available on Amazon).

The Berbers:The People of North Africa, Michael Brett and Elizabeth Fentress (available on Amazon)

The North African Stones Speak, Paul MacKendrick (available on Amazon)