Book Review: The Military and Colonial Destruction of the Roman Landscape of North Africa, 1830-1900


by Michael Greenhalgh

Leiden / Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2014. Pp. xvi, 466. Illus., maps, append., notes, biblio., index. $218.00. ISBN: 9004248404

French imperialism and the destruction of North Africa’s classical heritage

The Roman provinces of Africa, Numidia, and Mauretania – now Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – were often described as the “breadbasket of the empire;” fertile, green and forested.  Today much of this land is barren.  Some blame centuries of Turkish misrule. Some blame over-grazing by the goats of nomadic Arab tribes for stripping the native vegetation.  Some blame long, cyclical patterns of climate change. This provocative new study by an Australian art historian blames that ever-popular culprit, the French: “…it was still a Roman and Early Christian landscape when the French arrived.  In the space of two generations, this was destroyed.”

For the invading French Army, and the colonists who followed in its path devastation, the Roman and Byzantine antiquities that covered the landscape were a ready source of free construction material, not just cut stone blocks, but often marble that could be pulverized and roasted in lime-kilns to make quicklime (calcium oxide) – the key ingredient in mortar, cement and concrete.

 Many French officers were educated in the Classics and could read Latin, but countless antiquities and inscriptions were destroyed before they could be documented. French military engineers were trained to make accurate sketches  (a skill our own West Point, strongly influenced by French military practices, continued to teach for decades), and in an age before photography, their drawings are often the only surviving record of ancient monuments.

The French generals who conquered Algeria were veterans of the Napoleonic Wars. They had learned the harsh realities of guerrilla war in Spain, and their methods were not subtle. But for decades French policy vacillated between “Exterminate the brutes” and attempts to conciliate the natives.

At many sites, the ancient fortifications were simply too extensive for the French to defend against attacking Arabs, and they hastily walled off a small corner or manned a citadel of limited size.

The Romans, with their profound mastery of hydraulic engineering, left a complex infrastructure of aqueducts, canals, dams and cisterns. Much of this had fallen into ruin through earthquake or neglect during the Islamic centuries, but a surprising amount was still intact.

The argument of the book, can be summed up in a melancholy quote from page 114, “The French rarely listened to the locals who had lived there for centuries, considering that they knew better.”  The same might well be said of another empire with a more recent series of unfortunate adventures in the Islamic world.

Such an expensive book could have been improved by providing better maps.  The 19th century maps reproduced in the opening pages are too small and dark to be legible. On modern maps, Algerian place names are often quite different from those the French used (Qusant&>99;nah not “Constantine,”  Skikda, not “Philippeville.”) and some of the most important sites discussed in the book are now obscure villages.

For readers, like this reviewer, without reading knowledge of French, this book will be a frustrating, since there are so many long, untranslated quotes from original sources.  The Harper-Collins French Concise Dictionary proved indispensable.  For readers without a good understanding of the tormented political history of 19th century France, it may also be helpful to have a tablet or laptop at hand open to Wikipedia.

A volume in the oustanding Brill series “History of Warfare,” The Military and Colonial Destruction of the Roman Landscape of North Africa is an academic book for specialists, and it is likely to reach only a very limited audience, which is unfortunate.  Algeria has been essentially a “denied area” to American minds for many decades, but it is of immense geostrategic importance and it is worth some effort to understand its environmental history


Note: The Military and Colonial Destruction of the Roman Landscape of North Africa is also available as an e-pub, ISBN 978-9-0042-7163-0.


Our Reviewer:  Mike Markowitz is a D.C. based defense analyst, who writes for several defense related journals and Defense Media Network, including, The Year in Special Operations.  He is the co-designer, with John Gresham, of  Supermarina 1  and Supermarina 2 , both from Clash of Arms.  A collector of ancient coins, he is active in the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington, DC, is the author of a number of articles on ancient coinage, and often lectures on the subject.  His previous reviews for StrategyPage include To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204 Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros BryenniosThe Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), and D-Day Encyclopedia: Everything You Want to Know About the Normandy Invasion.


Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

Buy it at



Help Keep Us Soaring

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling. We need your help in reversing that trend. We would like to add 20 new subscribers this month.

Each month we count on your subscriptions or contributions. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage. A contribution is not a donation that you can deduct at tax time, but a form of crowdfunding. We store none of your information when you contribute..
Subscribe   Contribute   Close