Situation and characteristicsThuburbo Majus is the fifth of the great Roman sites in Tunisia, after Bulla Regia, Dougga, Maktar and Sbeitla. Thanks to its situation at the intersection of important trade routes from the interior to the cities of Hadrumetum (Sousse) and Carthage and to the fertile surrounding country the town prospered, and this prosperity found expression in much building activity, producing a series of splendid public buildings in the second and early third centuries. An excursion to Thuburbo Majus, which lies in beautiful country, can be combined with visits to other places of interest on the way, such as La Mohammedia or Zaghouan.Easter processionThere is an annual procession here at Easter in honor of St Perpetua - though the saint is now believed to have been born not at Thuburbo Majus but at Thuburbo Minus (Tébourba, west of Tunis).HistoryThere was a Punic town on this site, but there may well have been an earlier Berber settlement, since the name Thuburbo seems to be of Berber origin. In 27 B.C., during the reign of Augustus, a Roman settlement (pagus) was established alongside the Punic one (civitas). In A.D. 128 Hadrian promoted the town to the status of municipium, involving the grant of Roman citizenship. This marked the beginning of intensive Romanisation and the town's rise to prosperity. In 188 Commodus granted it the status of a colonia under the style of Colonia Julia Aurelia Commoda. Subsequent decades saw the erection of most of the town's splendid mosaic- decorated public buildings and private houses. Decline set in towards the end of the third century, interrupted by a brief upswing in the fourth century. During this period several buildings were restored and enlarged, and the town changed its name to Res Publica Felix Thuburbo Majus. Vandal raids, conflicts between Catholics and Donatists and finally the Arab invasion led to the final ruin of the town. One of the last signs of prosperity was a hoard of gold buried in the mid seventh century to save it from the Arabs. The site was rediscovered in 1857, and since 1912 about a fifth of the total area has been excavated. It is estimated that the city, covering an area of some 40 hectares/99 acres, had a population of between 7,000 and 12,000.AccessThuburbo Majus lies 1km/0.75mi west of GP 3 (Tunis-Kairouan), 63km/39mi south of Tunis and 91km/57mi north of Kairouan. Approach from Tunis: 62km/39mi south of Tunis, 2km/1.25mi before the village of El Fahs, turn off GP 3 into MC 28 (signposted to Medjez el Bab); 1km/.75mi along this road is the entrance to the site (parking lot).
Thuburbo Majus had two sets of baths, the Winter Baths (Thermes d'Hiver) and the Summer Baths (Thermes d'Eté). The Winter Baths, to the east of the Palaestra, were apparently much altered and rebuilt, and their layout is more difficult to follow. The Summer Baths, southwest of the Palaestra, covered an area of 2,800sq.m/30,000sq.ft and - as the statues of Aesculapius, Hercules, Mercury and Venus and the fine mosaics now to be seen in the Bardo National Museum demonstrate - were sumptuously furnished. The entrance, on the side facing the Palaestra led into the apodyterium (changing room), frigidarium (cold bath, with three basins), tepidarium (warm room), sudatorium (sweat bath) and caldarium (hot room). On a stele is carved the town's coat of arms: an ear of corn, a bunch of grapes and a pine-cone. On the northwest side of the baths is a semicircular latrine 11m/36ft in diameter.
At the southwest corner of the Forum in Thuburbo Majus, separated from the Temple of Mercury by a narrow street, is the Market, which consisted of two pillared courtyards and a third courtyard surrounded on three sides by shops. It was probably built in the late second or early third century.West of the Temple of Mercury is a residential quarter which was occupied in turn by Romans, Vandals and finally Byzantines. The town is not laid out on the usual Roman regular plan but is highly irregular, presumably following an earlier Punic layout. In the neighborhood of the west gate the streets are much more regular, probably because this area had not previously been built on.Thuburbo Majus had an extensive water supply and drainage system serving both public buildings and private houses.
The northwest side of the Forum in Thuburbo Majus is occupied by the Capitol, built in 168, which stands on a podium consisting of three courses of massive blocks of dressed stone. A broad flight of fifteen steps leads up to four (originally six) re-erected Corinthian columns of Carrara marble, 8.5m/28ft high. There is no trace of the cella which contained the cult statues of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, but the excavators found the head of a statue of Jupiter which originally stood 7m/23ft high; it can now be seen in the Bardo Museum in Tunis.The podium originally housed the temple treasury and was later occupied by an oil-press. From the Capitol there is a fine view over the ancient city.
Palaestra of the Petronii
The Palaestra of the Petronii in Thuburbo Majus, with a square courtyard surrounded by a Corinthian portico, was built in 225 at the expense of Petronius Felix and his sons. Part of the architrave, decorated with palmette and flower ornament, has been preserved. Letters carved in the paving at the south corner of the courtyard represent the "board" for the popular Roman game of the "36 letters". Here too was found a relief of three dancing Maenads which is now in the Bardo National Museum in Tunis.Adjoining the Palaestra is the Temple of Aesculapius, the god of healing and protector of all places where sports were practiced.
42km/26mi south of Thuburbo Majus is the Byzantine fortress of Ksar Lemsa, built between 560 and 600 on the site of an earlier Roman settlement. Square in plan, with four corner towers, it is the best preserved fortress of the period in Tunisia.AccessLeave Thuburbo Majus on GP 3, going south, and at El Fahs take GP 4, which runs southwest towards Maktar; then, just beyond the artificial lake of Oued Kebir, turn left (south) into MC 46, the road to Ousseltia and Kairouan.
Thuburbo Majus had three gates but no walls, perhaps because of the absence of any suitable quarries in the area. This was certainly the reason for the type of masonry used in the buildings, the technique known as opus africanum, a method of constructing walls already practiced by the Phoenicians in which monolithic slabs of stone were set up at intervals from one another and the gaps filled in with undressed stone, gravel or other material.
The Forum of Thuburbo Majus is square, measuring 49m/161ft each way - contrary to the views of the Roman architectural theorist Vitruvius, who held that a forum should be rectangular. The paved area was surrounded on three sides by a Corinthian portico, recorded by an inscription as having been built between 161 and 192 and restored in 376.
Temple of Mercury
On the southwest side of the Forum, diagonally opposite the Temple of Peace in Thuburbo Majus, is the Temple of Mercury (built in 211), which has a similar plan. The square pillared courtyard has semicircular niches in the corners.On the southeast side of the Forum, opposite the Capitol, was a smaller temple, on the right of which was the Curia, the administrative center of the ancient city.
200m/220yds south of the Temple of Ceres in Thuburbo Majus, at the foot of a hill, are the remains of a huge cistern which supplied the town with water, and beyond this the badly ruined amphitheater. From the hill there is a good view of the whole site.
Temple of Baal
On the south side of Thuburbo Majus is the Temple of Baal (Temple de la Baalat), the plan of which shows both Roman and Oriental influence. A semicircular porticoed courtyard of rather angular outline precedes a small prostyle temple standing on a podium.
Temple of Ceres
East of the Temple of Baal in Thuburbo Majus is the Temple of Ceres, later converted into a three-aisled church, the cella becoming the baptistery and the forecourt a cemetery.
Temple of Peace
At the northeast corner of the Forum in Thuburbo Majus is the Temple of Peace. This has a large square pillared courtyard preceding a smaller cella on the same level - a pattern commonly found in Africa.
El Fahs, Tunisia
2km/1.25mi south of Thuburbo Majus on GP 3 is the little farming town of El Fahs (pop. 10,000), set in a fertile agricultural area.