Gemellae – Remnant of the Roman Empire

Located on the edge of the Sahara Desert, around five kilometers southwest of the village of M’Lili in the Biskra Province of Algeria, the archeological site of Gemellae is a reminder of the once mighty Roman Empire that wielded power over large parts of the world, including much of North Africa. Historians have established that Gemellae formed part of the southernmost boundary of the Roman Empire, although archeologists have noted that there was already a fortified settlement at the site of Gemellae when the Romans reached that point in their invasion of Africa from the north. In the records of Pliny the Elder, a Roman author and philosopher who lived from 23 to 79 CE, he recounted that at the time Roman consul Lucius Cornelius Balbus was victorious over the Saharan Berber tribe known as the Garamantes in 19 BCE, a fortified settlement referred to as Milgis Gemmella was part of his conquest. It is generally agreed that Milgis Gemmella and the archeological site of Gemellae are one and the same.

Many items of historical value have been retrieved from Gemellae, with the earliest being an inscription for a statue of Roman Emperor Hadrian believed to have been made in 126 CE. As the Roman ruler from 117 to 138 CE, Emperor Hadrian is readily associated with the famous Hadrian’s Wall marking the northern boundary of the Roman Empire in what is now the United Kingdom. With Gemellae forming part of the southernmost boundary of the Roman Empire, it is no surprise that Emperor Hadrian features at the site of Gemellae, and a second dedication is found in the central courtyard dated at 132 CE. One of the theories regarding Gemellae suggests that the Romans began fortifying the original site in 126 CE with the fortress buildings being completed in 132 CE, hence the two inscriptions.

Statues of Antoninus Pius (Roman Emperor from 138 to 161 CE), Pertinax (Roman Emperor for a brief period in 193 CE), and Gordian (Roman Emperor from 238 to 244 CE) have also been discovered in the ruins of Gemellae. The inscriptions for the latter two Emperors included references to the cavalry unit raised by Emperor Gordian, known as the Pannoniorum originating from the area that is modern day Hungary and part of Austria. Located outside the fortress is a small amphitheater, in keeping with Roman ruins found elsewhere, and just northeast of this is the ruins of a temple dedicated to the army gods, referred to as Dii Campestres. Another small temple nearby contains a goddess made out of terracotta standing behind a stone statue of a lion. Various containers have been found with ash and animal bones, suggesting this was a temple devoted to animal sacrifices.

Not much is known about Gemellae after the fall of the Roman Empire, and it appears that it may have been abandoned to the sands of the Sahara. Nevertheless, through the efforts of archeologists and historians Gemellae offers an interesting glimpse into the ancient history of Algeria.