It’s the year 698 AD, you are a Late Roman militiaman on guard duty in the massive port of Carthage, powerless in front of a great Arab army gathered outside the monumental late roman city walls of Theodosius II and guided by the great Emir Hassan ibn al-Nu’man. The Roman fleet has managed to recapture the harbor of the city, but Carthage is now surrounded and under defended. Everyone rushes to the walls, and you are left alone to fight for your city.
This was the state of Roman Africa in the 7th century AD. An enormously rich land dotted by walled cities and massive harbors. Fertile, yet weakened by the state of civil war and foreign invasion which originated in the first years of the 5th century. A land besieged by enemies on all sides.
Although we have very few sources on this fascinating period, we are going to explore the history of the little-known Roman Exarchate of Africa, created after the success of the “Renovatio Imperii” (imperial restoration) program launched by Justinian I.
With the capture of Hippo Regius in 431 AD (the city where Saint Augustine was bishop and where the army of Comes Bonifacius, Roman governor of Africa, was defeated) and the rich city of Carthage and its merchant fleet in 439 AD, the Vandals effectively controlled Late Roman North Africa.
The Vandal kingdom of North Africa, capable of sacking Rome in 455 AD and of launching piratical raids into the western Mediterranean, capturing the islands of Mallorca, Sardinia and Corsica, was reconquered by the Eastern Romans under general Belisarius in the 6th century (Vandalic War) after a brilliant campaign begun thanks to the initiative of Justinian I.
The now reconquered North Africa was reorganized by Emperor Maurice into a military Exarchate, a division of the Eastern Empire led by a military governor, the Exarch, aided by Strategoi/Duces (local military commanders/“castellans” of strategic military citadels), civilian secretaries and chancellors and local bishops (particularly the Archbishop of Carthage).
The Exarch, based in the port city of Carthage (possibly in the citadel on top of the Byrsa hill), was a military officer who exercised both the functions of a Magister Militum and those of a praetorian prefect, mirroring the increasing militarization of the administration and of the landscape of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) provinces, particularly those in western volatile regions such as Italy and Africa.
The first Exarch of Africa, Gennadius, was installed in 591 AD in Carthage, with the last, Comes Julian, active until 709 AD. With the old Roman land-owning class mostly gone, the Roman Exarchate of Africa was mostly governed by military elites coming from Constantinople who acted under the authority of the Eastern emperor while simultaneously becoming increasingly autonomous from the central government.
Late Antique North Africa was a very difficult area to govern because of the presence of volatile Mauritanian/Berber communities, lack of funds and troops from Constantinople and religious turmoil (Orthodox Chalcedonian Christians vs Monothelitism). Despite having restored many military forts at the southern frontiers and built military citadels as a defense against the Berbers, Eastern Romans found it challenging to control them with the very few professional detachments at their disposal consisting of some private Buccellarii/Bodyguards and some Germanic/Berber Foederati.
However, the Exarchs could count on a good number of fortified Late Roman citadels and watch posts, like the one of Haidra (Ammaedra), Pupput, Uppenna, Uzappa, Uzali Sar, Sullechtum and Muzue which functioned both as defensive outposts and as symbols of Roman power over the land. This situation led to able military men like Heraclius the Elder (598-611) being sent to Carthage as Exarchs, but also to the increasing detachment of African Exarchs from the central government, with military revolts and attempted imperial coups (like the ones against emperors Phocas and Constans II) often coming from the Exarchate. A mix of personal ambition, lack of resources and manpower finally led to the Exarchate being initially a client state of the Arabs and then fully conquered by the Umayyad Caliphate after the bloody battle of Carthage in 698 AD.
The Roman Exarchate of Africa is a difficult topic to catalog, the few sources we have tell of us of a land stuck in war and civil strife but also of a region rich in large estates, majestic ports, significant Christian basilicas, pagan temples transformed into churches and monumental defensive walls. Late Antique North Africa can thus be described as something between the traditionalism of the Christian Eastern Romans and a new world completely foreign to the local inhabitants.