The Rise and Fall of the Self-Governing Village
This chapter traces the fate of North African community structures from the beginning of the Roman period to the fourth century. When the Romans arrived in Africa, there were thousands of preexisting collectives, some of them towns in the Greco-Roman sense, most of them tribes or villages. When Roman restructuring got under way during the early Principate, only a relatively small number of these communities were allowed self-government. Many villages were disbanded altogether, never to return, as a consequence of the Roman encouragement of an estate-based restructuring of the countryside. Things began to change in the Severan period. Hundreds of villages and estates set up inscriptions, chose their own magistrates, and erected buildings. Some achieved full self-government, becoming republics. One might have expected the trend to continue in the fourth and fifth centuries, when North African villages were enjoying an unprecedented prosperity and were more capable of presenting a Roman face to their rulers than ever before. Instead, the opposite happened. The imperial creation of new municipalities came to an end. The reason for this is that the political climate had changed, perhaps partly in reaction to the third-century crisis. Emperors were more interested in restricting the autonomy of cities than in creating new self-governing communities.
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