Leptis Magna was enlarged and embellished by Septimius Severus, who was born there and later became emperor. It was one of the most beautiful cities of the Roman Empire, with its imposing public monuments, harbour, market-place, storehouses, shops and residential districts.
Leptis Magna is a unique artistic realization in the domain of urban planning. It played a major role, along with Cyrene, in the movement back to antiquity and in the elaboration of the neoclassical aesthetic.
The Phoenician port of Lpgy was founded at the beginning of the 1st millennium BC and first populated by the Garamantes. The city, which was part of the domain of Carthage, passed under the ephemeral control of Massinissa, King of Numidia. The Romans, who had quartered a garrison there during the war against Jugurtha, integrated it, in 46 BC, into the province of Africa while at the same time allowing it a certain measure of autonomy.
Although Leptis (the latinization of its Phoenician name) was comparable to the other Phoenician trading centres of the Syrtian coast, like Sabratha, after Septimius Severus became emperor in 193, its fortunes improved remarkably. Thanks to him, the renewed Leptis was one of the most beautiful cities of the Roman world. It is still one of the best examples of Severan urban planning.
Thereafter, Leptis felt prey to the same vicissitudes of fortune as the majority of the coastal cities of Africa. Pillaged from the 4th century and reconquered by the Byzantines who transformed it into a stronghold, it definitively succumbed to the second wave of Arab invasion, that of the Hilians in the 11th century. Buried under drifting sands, the city has only been disengaged, piece by piece, over the course of a long archaeological exploration.
The city, which was constructed during the reign of Augustus and Tiberius but which was entirely remodelled along very ambitious lines under the Severan emperors, incorporates major monumental elements of that period. The forum, basilica and Severan arch rank among the foremost examples of a new Roman art, strongly influenced by African and Eastern traditions.
The sculptures of the Severan basilica, which remain in situ, and that of the Severan arch, in the museum at Tripoli, are innovative in their linear definition of forms, the crispness of their contours and the angular delineation of their volumes: a comprehensive aesthetic, conceived as a function of the blinding African sun.
The ancient port, with its artificial basin of some 102,000 m2, still exists with its quays, jetties, fortifications, storage areas and temples. Dug under Nero and organized under Septimius Severus, it is one of the chefs d’oeuvre of Roman technology with its barrage dam and its canal designed to regulate the course of Wadi Lebda, the dangerous torrent that empties into the Mediterranean to the west. The market, an essential element in the everyday life of a large commercial trading centre, with its votive arch, colonnades and shops, has been for the most part preserved. The building, which dates from the Augustan period, was transformed and embellished under Septimius Severus.
Warehouses and workshops also attest to the commercial and industrial activity of a city whose large prestigious monuments, arches and gates, original forum and Severan forum, temples, baths, theatre, circus and amphitheatre, only occupy a very small part of the total area.