Next Stop: Madauros

Madauros (M’Daourouch, Algeria) is 25 km south of Thagaste. The road between the two adds an extra 10 km to avoid some hills.

Hills in the Numidian highlands between Thagaste and Madauros

Flatlands on the road south from Thagaste as one approaches Madauros

Though not a big city, Madauros was an important intellectual center during Roman colonial rule. Apuleius, philosopher and renowned author of the Golden Ass, was born here around 125 CE. Augustine went to school here in the 360s. It was home to notable grammarians like Nonius Marcellus, who may have originally been from Thubursicum Numidarum, and Maximus of Madauros.

Angelo di Berardino suggests that Maximus was just “a little local grammarian who adopted the airs of a cultured person” (“Maximus of Madauros” in Augustine Throughout the Ages, Eerdmans 2009, p. 550). Even if Maximus wasn’t a first-rate scholar, and while Madauros surely didn’t attract students from far afield in the Roman Empire, it was an important educational center in Numidia that took pride in the authors it helped produce. There was a statue of Apuleius in the forum. The picture below (a plaster cast of a statue found at Madauros) depicts a school boy thought to be Augustine.

There’s no reason to suppose that this statue is in fact of Augustine. The identification is suggested solely on the grounds that he went to school here. If it is Augustine, memorializing his early years as a student at Madauros instead of, say, the height of his theological prowess at Hippo Regius shows that Madauros was proud of the education it offered. If it’s not Augustine, the point remains: depicting a school boy in marble again suggests pride in being an educational center.

Apuleius had been charged with practicing magic and gave a defense before the proconsul, Claudius Maximus (the emperor Marcus Aurelius’ teacher), at Sabratha (modern Sabratah, Libya). The text of his defense, called the Apology, offers a number of valuable insights into life in 2nd century Africa. Here are two.

Apuleius says this of his background (Apology 24, trans. Bulter):

“As to my birthplace, you assert that my writings prove it to lie right on the marches of Numidia and Gaetulia, for I publicly described myself as half Numidian, half Gaetulian in a discourse delivered in the presence of that most distinguished citizen Lollianus Avitus. I do not see that I have any more reason to be ashamed of that than had the elder Cyrus for being of mixed descent, half Mede, half Persian. A man’s birthplace is of no importance, it is his character that matters.”

The Gaetulians were an indigenous group that lived not far south of Madauros around the southern slopes of the Aurès Mountains. Apuleius felt it necessary to distance himself from this background because his Roman audience held negative stereotypes of native Africans in the region. Perhaps he was actually embarrassed about his Numidian-Gaetulian heritage and thus says “a man’s birthplace is of no importance.” Either way, Roman perspectives on indigenous groups were generally negative.

Apuleius also says this (Apology 41):

“They say that I acquired my wife with magic arts—charms from the sea—at the time I said that I lived in the Mediterranean mountains of Gaetulia, where fish are discovered thanks to Deucalion’s flood!”

The accusation betrays an outsider’s ignorance of the region’s topography. Madauros is just 125 km or so from the Mediterranean, but mountains inhibited interaction between the coastal valley around Hippo Regius and the highlands of Numidia. So the presumption that Apuleius had an obvious connection to the sea while living at Madauros is laughable. Or at least that’s his defense.

As for the city itself, the most notable structure now is a Byzantine Greek fortress built by the general Solomon in the latter 530s. About a century earlier, a Germanic group called the Vandals invaded North Africa as the Roman Empire steadily lost control of the western Mediterranean. Constantinople, the capital of the Empire since 330 CE, only imperfectly recaptured the area. Numerous fortifications were built throughout North Africa like this one—evidence that Constantinople couldn’t really regain a hold on the region. Native communities had for a long time now established their own control.

Madauros (M'Daourouch, Algeria)

Solomon’s fortress incorporated the relatively small theater of Madauros:

Madauros (M'Daourouch, Algeria)

It was also built over part of the forum:

Madauros (M'Daourouch, Algeria)

There are numerous other prominent remains at Madauros—separate baths for different seasons, an oilery, a mausoleum, and more. One site is easy to miss, but it’s fascinating: a 5th century church so inconveniently long (roughly 21 m x 6 m) that it was divided into two smaller churches. Here’s a view looking south from the northern entrance. You can see the apse in the background, beyond the wall separating the two churches.

Madauros (M'Daourouch, Algeria)

A closer view of the apse:

Madauros (M'Daourouch, Algeria)

Altars were usually set in the center of African churches. They were often wooden and movable so that the space could be used for different things.

Slots to insert the altar are visible in both churches. Here’s an image of the church complex looking north from the apse. Note the four slots in which the altar was inserted.

Madauros (M'Daourouch, Algeria)

The dimensions of the slots in the two churches are similar but not exact. So the altar used in the north church could not be used in the south church, and vice versa. In other words, while altars were movable, they were not interchangeable. Nor were they to be set up just anywhere. They were made for particular spots within particular churches.

There’s a 4th century story about how Numidian Christians broke off from the church at Carthage. They were called “Donatists.” More on them later, but in the climactic scene of the story, the Numidians set up an altar outside the church at Carthage—perhaps in the street—and ordained their own bishop on it (see Optatus 1.19). The story was told (or invented) by opponents of this Numidian church, and knowing now that altars were set in particular places might reveal some intentional comedy in their story. As the legs of a wooden altar weren’t the same dimensions, the Numidians would have ordained their bishop on a wobbly altar awkwardly placed somewhere it’s not supposed to go. There is hardly a better way to undermine an opposing church’s legitimacy than by showing how they can’t even set up an altar correctly.

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