Introduction to the XXI Convention of Roman Africa

<< The Epigraphy of North Africa: news, re-readings, new synthesis >>

7 December 2018, Tunis (Hotel Africa)

Paola Ruggeri

Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on the Roman Provinces of the University of Sassari

Mister Minister Mohamed Zinelabidine, Your Excellency the Ambassador of Italy, dear General Managers, dear Colleagues, dear Students.

It is with a mixture of emotion and enthusiasm that today I have the honor to bring you the greetings of the Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on the Roman Provinces at the beginning of the XXI (twenty-first) Study Conference on “Roman Africa”. The long journey of Roman Africa has brought us back home, in our beloved Tunisia, among friends and dear colleagues, some of whom we have not seen for some time. In recent years we have followed first with concern and at the same time with admiration the transition towards a free and democratic Tunisia, a country we love and which has become a model for the countries of the southern shores of the Mediterranean and for the Western countries as well. A young nation – the average age of the population is around 30 – striving for development and innovation without hiding the problems of economic and social order, which are clearly concerning the whole southern Mediterranean area and many European countries, which are often sealed from the inside and unable to welcome others. We were very impressed by a statement of Prime Minister Yūssef al-Shāhed, who said the following: “The development of Tunisia is the condition that maintains a western society. Tunisia is indeed one of the key elements for the development of the enormous potentials of Africa”. It is true that Tunisia together with the entire Maghreb area stand as a bridge between Africa and Europe by their geographical position, culture and perspective of development and this does not go unnoticed in the European international politics. Furthermore we still remember in our hearts the brilliant work carried out in these years by the élite of the Maghreb intellectuals. This is confirmed by the Nobel Peace Prize given to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet al-Ḥiwār al-Waṭanī al-Tūnusī (Union Générale Tunisie du Travail “, UGTT,” Union Tunisie de l’Industrie, du Commerce et de l ‘ Artisanat “, UTICA,” Ligue Tunisenne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme “, LTDH,” Ordre National des Avocats de Tunisie “, ONAT.) in 2015. Our Sardinia has been honored by the presence of two of the quartet’s members various times: the lawyer Abdelaziz Essid – now also an honorary Sardinian citizen of Macomer and Orgosolo – and Houcine Abassi, former general secretary of the UGTT, welcomed in Cagliari by Fondazione di Sardegna for the ForMed project which involved the exchange of hundreds of students.

We still remember with great affection the extraordinary success of women and the whole of Tunisian society obtained in gender equality which culminated on the 13 (thirteenth) of August this year on the National Day of Women in Tunisia, with the announcement of President Beji Caid Essebsi to introduce a proposal drawn up by the Commission des libertés individuelles et de l’égalité (COLIBE) in the Parliament, regarding the topic of inheritance between men and women and between legitimate and natural children. This is a revolutionary and democratic development with essential steps such as the one taken in July 2017 with the vote in favor of the law against violence and mistreatment of women and for complete gender equality.

The Maghreb project of our Conference began almost forty years ago in Sardinia to arrive in Carthago – the lady of the Mediterranean – in 1994, on the occasion of the 11th (eleventh) conference held at Hotel Amilcar, in the land of Agostino di Thagaste and his mother Monica, where we discussed topics of antiquity which at the time seemed to be really avant-garde and that concerned scientific knowledge and the development of technology in the Mediterranean area (Science and techniques in the Roman provinces of North Africa and the Mediterranean, 15-18 December, 1994); four years later, with the XIII (thirteenth) convention held in Djerba, we headed south east towards Sirti and towards the splendid and peaceful island of Meninx, from which we struggled to leave, enchanted by its beauty, just as – we like to think – the pioneers of the Maghreb archeology did, driven by the desire for knowledge (Geographers, travelers, soldiers in the Maghreb: the origins of archeology in North Africa, 10-13 December 1998). And then, there we were, in 2002 at the XV (fifteenth) conference, in the deep Tunisian south at the green oasis of Tozeur to talk about a now even more pressing issue concerning borders. We confronted this topic – we believe – in our way, with openness and curiosity towards ancient cultures and peoples, talking about the conflicts that inevitably arise in the course of history but trying to look in perspective at the openings, contacts, overcoming the barriers built by men, without ever raising walls, with respect and devotion (At the boundaries of the empire: contacts, exchanges, conflicts, 11-15 December 2002). While at the XVI (sixteenth) convention in 2004, in the beautiful Rabat in Morocco, once again we tried to construct a different historical and anthropological perspective, confronting certain topics that may have lasted in time and contributed, at times to create a new language of ancient history. Our scientific committee chose to undertake a thorough study on the mobility of people and peoples, on migratory movements, on emigration and immigration in the western provinces of the Roman Empire (Mobility of people and peoples, migratory movements, emigration and immigration in the provinces of the Western Roman Empire, 15-19 December 2004). Two years later we arrived in Seville, the ancient Hispalis with its medieval Andalusian flavors and aromas, and with Morocco projecting and mirroring itself over the columns in Spain to talk about the richness of Africa. (The richness of Africa, 14-17 December 2006).

Today the XXI (twenty – first) Convention in Tunisia is dedicated to <<The Epigraphy of North Africa: news, re-reading, new synthesis >> represents a kind of return to the origins for us, to something essential, to ancient scriptures, to official and non-official communication, to those epigraphic documents, whose reading and interpretation have a decisive impact on the historical reconstruction, in an interdisciplinary, global, direct, modern and not dividing vision without any intermediaries. Allow me to have little personal consideration: the epigraphic surveys at Thignica (Ain Tounga) this September represented fresh air to me and made me think aging of the strength of the document, the possibility of getting directly in touch with the ancient world through the reading of an epigraphic text and above all through field research that responds to true curiosities, to passion, to cultural stimuli, in the context of an archaeological site, with the possibility of understanding the relationship between that particular document and topography, the architecture of monuments, landscape, geography in history, with the help of new technical tools: drones, laser scanners etc.

Dear friends, in these years, right from the beginning in 1983, we have tried, sometimes more other times certainly less effectively to propose a non-stereotypical vision of history, especially the Roman-African history, and Latin epigraphy. We will never grow tire of saying that a perspective that prefers the “center to the periphery” seems outdated, contradicted by history and does not fully respect people and cultures.

Therefore it is necessary to find a new kind of respect, a balance that is certainly difficult to reach among the different components of that ancient Mediterranean world, so complex, distinct and permeable yet the expression of a koiné summerized like “Us Mediterranean“, no longer a possessor of the Roman Mare Nostrum or the par’emìn Thalàsses of Plato, with reference to the “Greek sea”. Then we look at an “Etruscan sea”, a “Phoenician sea”, a “Carthaginian sea”, a “Roman sea”, even an “Illyrian sea”, all interconnected. We do not intend to divide the Mediterranean in various sectors but to seize the range of possibilities and contacts that a structured and civilized Mediterranean offered to the peoples who sailed across it and who lived on its shores. This idea, moreover, a constitutive root of the historiography of the ancient world. It is an idea that has never been never set aside by masters such as Santo Mazzarino who at the age of thirty wrote in the immediate post-war period (1947) the beautiful Fra Oriente e Occidente. Ricerche di storia greca arcaica, in which even in relation to the Greek historical context, he perceived a more profound sense, less superficial of the Mediterranean and Eastern Greek koiné, speaking of the << route of the alphabet >> with reference to the routes of the Phoenician navigators towards West and the Greek islands. Once again we can observe the return of recurring topics such as writing and the power of documents, epigraphy and above all the epigraphy of North Africa that keeps on amazing us, arousing our intellectual curiosity and stimulating the spirit of research. It unveils juridical conditions, family relationships, political relations within cities, intertwined networks among men, confronts us with the reconstructive rigor of documents that are utterly complex at times, in a constant dialectic between the single archaeological or epigraphic relic and the contexts of its discovery.

Dear friends, we are about to embark on this new journey filled with emotion here at the XXI (twenty – first) Congress of Roman Africa, only a short distance from Carthage, the city founded by Elyssa, Didone, the Phoenician queen-traveler, the wanderer on the sea: even if the Greek and Latin sources trace a different profile of her describing features such us: lightness, resourcefulness, freedom, hope for the future and sensitivity opposed to the romantic and dramatic description of Virgilio that has now come to prevail. The recent study on mitochondrial DNA (published by the journal Plos One) although referring to the population exchanges between Lebanon and Sardinia, dispels the stereotype indicating exclusively male crews of the Phoenician ships that sailed the Mediterranean from East to West: women were part of the migrant groups, acting as founders of the society, the economy and the ordinary family life of the new settlements, as demonstrated by the new research. Today we remember proudly that less than a year ago, in January 2018, the brilliant volume of Carthage. Maitresse de la Méditerranée. Capitale de l’Afrique edited by Samir Aounallah and Attilio Mastino was published, which starting by analyzing the relationship between Dido and Aeneas, a combination of hospes welcomed with love and cruel hostis, once again brought out the feminine spirit of our Tunisia.

I too would like to express my affectionate greetings, full of harmony and warmth hoping that this XXI (twenty-first) Convention will lead us to renew our friendship among scholars of any origin and formation in the name of our common passion: the study and research of ancient Africa.

All of this has been made possible also and above all thanks to our Angela Donati, who followed our meetings since 1983 and even recently encouraged our project in Ain Tounga from Bologna, with the publication almost in real time of our first works on the last issue of Epigraphica. It was she who supported this “return to epigraphy” of our convention. My dearest thoughts go to her, we all really miss her, but we like to think that today she is with us, with her strict severity and at the same time with her sweetness.