The New Centurions: French Reliance on the Classical Past During the Conquest of Algeria from 1830 Summary

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The New Centurions:

French Reliance on the Classical Past

During the Conquest of Algeria from 1830


Based on the archives of the Service Historique de l’Armee de Terre (SHAT, Vincennes), the Centre des Archives d’Outre-Mer (CAOM, Aix-en-Provence), and the printed sources of the period, this paper studies the psychological, educational, organisational and structural factors that wedded the French conquest of Algeria to the conquest of the same territory and the same tribes over a millennium beforehand. Although “modern” war would seem much removed from Roman conquest, in fact the French had no experience of fighting mounted tribes in desert conditions, with over-stretched lines of communication far from France. They needed accounts of the Roman conquest as practical intelligence in spite of the time-gap since the “reports” were written by the ancient authors; they saw their conquest as the beneficent gift of civilization, and they found themselves, quite consciously thanks to their classical education, following not just Roman tactics, but re-using Roman materiel and lines of communication.

The paper charts the stages through which the Conquest of Algeria developed, and studies French attitudes to, and reuse of, those ancient monuments which were both reminders of what the Romans had achieved, and a confirmation that the French themselves, their successors, were the new Romans developing a new and equally potent empire.

The topic is of interest because it demonstrates the extent to which the French, like the Italians under Mussolini (or indeed Churchill deciding so foolishly upon the invasion of Greece), were enthralled and misled by a classical education, and judged the magnificent remains of North Africa with a Romantic eye, as monuments to Roman success rather than Roman failure. In North Africa, the French were misled by the extent of the antique monuments and infrastructure into believing they could make the country as fertile as it had been in Antiquity, and by the beauty and utility of Roman Africa into reviving another vision of heroic conquest which had faltered with the subduing of Napoleon.

Introduction: Travellers in an Antique Land

In spite of incursions and trade-wars by Turks, English and Spanish, and the usual diplomatic and trading presences, the French were the first Europeans since Justinian in the sixth century seriously to contemplate the conquest, occupation and colonisation of North Africa1, as an important element in their overseas expansion2. Following Napoleon Bonaparte’s earlier incursion into Egypt, they invaded Algeria3 on the pretext of a ridiculous diplomatic incident in 1830,4 and established a Protectorate in Tunisia in 18615. Unfortunately the whole Algerian affair was badly planned, and in some respects not planned at all, because Paris was unclear about her ultimate strategic objectives, which were only clarified once the troops were on the ground. It would be true to say, states P.M. Holt6, that French conquest and colonization were policies which emerged out of uncertainty and confusion. Lacking any contemporary rationale, it is not unrealistic to argue that the French almost drifted into Algeria and, employing what they had learned from their classical education, used the ancient authors as proof positive that the country could be conquered—no more romantic a stance than Napoleon’s exhibition of the Bayeux Tapestry in Paris, to prove that England could be successfully invaded.

Such recourse to the past would seem whimsical, were we not to remind ourselves of those many generals who kept the works of their illustrious predecessors by them for bedside reading (Patton being apposite here). But the planners needed documentation, and where were they to obtain it, if not from the most reliable sources of whatever date? Studying the antique authors was standard practice both in Headquarters and on campaign. Travellers took Pausanias' Guide to Greece or Homer to Turkey, in the same fashion as civilian travellers prepared the emotional ground for invasion7, and as the French army sent their troops on reconnaissance with the ancient authors in hand, to coordinate what they saw with what they read, which therefore included “military intelligence” well over a millennium old. For example, an Itinerary from Algiers to Boghar in 18428 gives stages on the left-hand page, with sketches of rivers, defences, villages where need be; and, on the right-hand opening, notes on specifics and on the road. Some of the sketches look as if they might be useful to military historians: for example, Doueira (p. 24v), or the blockhaus [sic] (p. 38v) at Belidah (52v), this last described (53r) as "gure en effet qu'une poche d'anciennes constructions."

But such a reliance on the past created problems: from the very beginning, comparisons, usually odious or at least embarrassing, were made with their Roman predecessors. They conveniently ignored the fact that the Roman conquest of North Africa had taken centuries; that Roman colonisation was not a success; and that Justinian’s famed “renewal” of civic life there was more of a literary topos than a fact provable on the ground. Nevertheless, the evident richness of the land, and especially the extensive ruins (and cisterns and water-channels) in areas now desert or semi-desert convinced them that Algeria could revive her antique civilization and support a large population in cities9.

Thus military leaders, unsure of their ultimate objectives, far too thinly spread over an immense and inhospitable country, facing an enemy whom they despised and whose methods of warfare they did not understand, did their work against a barrage of continuing sniping from Paris, but backed by the apparent authority of Antiquity. Whilst the settled Arabs were often friendly, the wild, tribal Kabyles continued to fight, and in a fashion the French had never seen, although their methods were perhaps closest to the guerrilla tactics of the Peninsular War. (The French distinction between Arabs and Kabyle was probably devious, as well as erroneous10.) Again, they had to cope with an extremely difficult climate, lack of water (or too much of it in the wrong places), very poor communications, and many health problems. The expedition therefore consumed enormous resources in men and materiel, at first to no clear purpose.

Antique Civilization in Algeria in 1830

How was it that the French could be the “New Romans” in Algeria? In a nutshell, because the skeleton of the Roman world remained intact in North Africa11, and needed little investment of time and energy to get much of it working again. And as we have seen, the French early decided that they would have to approach the problem in the same fashion as the Romans; so that, in a sense, the Roman occupation of Africa gave them both an ideology and a physical “road map”12, to add to the Roman-derived Tabula Peutingeriana, part of which gave them an actual map of the area. Roman roads were of the essence, and the French army arrived

tout pŽnŽtrŽ d'esprit romain É en matire de routes notamment, les seules traditions dont un conquŽrant europŽen pouvait se prŽvaloir Žtaient des traditions latines. Dans un pays sans communications organisŽes, ou l'oeuvre de voirie devait accompagner pas ˆ pas la marche des annŽes, l'ArchŽologie et les Žcrivains de l'AntiquitŽ devaient tre pour les stratges les premiers tŽmoins ˆ consulter13

- hence the appearance of the Antonine Itinerary and the Tabula Peutingeriana in Etat Major documents. With the Constantine expedition,

on avait voulu rester fidle aux enseignements romains en empruntant, sans y rŽussir toujours, les itinŽraires de l'AntiquitŽ. Ce fut mme un ŽvŽnement mŽmorable lorsque le premier vŽhicule franais, la calche du marŽchal ValŽe, roula sur l'antique chaussŽe romaine au col des Oliviers entre Constantine et Stora. On s'en glorifia ˆ Paris.
This making-good required work, but not too much of it. The Roman road between Constantine and Stora was semi-ruinous, but easily made serviceable:
les dŽgradations que les pluies y ont occasionnŽes pendant une longue durŽe de sicles, l'ont ruinŽe comme toutes les autres voies du mme genre en Barbarie. Mais ˆ l'aide de quelques travaux, on parviendra facilement ˆ en rattacher les parties interrompues et ˆ la rendre praticable ˆ l'artillerie. Il ne faut pas perdre de vue que notre artillerie a acquis aujourd'hui une notabilitŽ qui ne conna”t presque plus d'obstacles14
- so that by 1839 a Memo from General Berthezune could state that the trip between Stora and Constantine takes 4 days, but that Le chemin est assez bon et para”t permettre d'y mener de l'artillerie.
In Europe, on the other hand, whilst remains of Roman occupation were everywhere in evidence and as influential upon civilization as Roman law, literature, agriculture, and planning, they were generally much decayed and had long since been replaced (with the exception of some water, sewage and drainage systems) by more modern equivalents. Over a millennium of population movement and growth had seen to this. In North Africa, on the other hand, urban life – “civilization” in the full antique sense – had not taken a firm hold in spite of the heroic efforts of the Romans. Local attitudes to the ancient monuments varied between indifference and neglect, from using them for shelter, to using them as building materials for new houses, palaces and mosques. The result was a landscape still littered with ruins: thus Capt F.W. Beechey15 tells of the busts and statues, which are scattered about among the tombs, in the cemeteries of Cyrene (Libya).

Above all, the net of communications left by the Romans to succour a flourishing agricultural base – aqueducts, roads, cisterns and fountains, and forts for protection – were not needed by peoples who were not agriculturists, but nomadic tribesmen, with little interest in architecture. Such constructions were simply abandoned and ignored.

We can study North African attitudes to the antique past through the perceptive comments of the fourteenth-century writer Ibn Khaldun. He characterises the Arabs as being not only child-like in their attitudes to the past, but frequently destructive as well. This conclusion can be backed up by plenty of evidence16, and by European opinion17. He berates them as being generally uninterested in monumental building which, as he remarks18, attests to the civilisation of earlier nations. The conclusion is inevitably that, since sedentary culture is the goal of civilisation (IV.17), since the buildings erected in Islam are comparatively few considering her power (IV.7, IV.8), and since those that are built quickly fall into ruins (IV.9), then the Arabs are not civilised in Ibn Khaldun’s sense. He also hints at “supernatural” explanations for the size of antique buildings. His general analysis of the building cycle (IV.10; ed. cit. II. 270f.) is interesting, because it surely proceeds from his own observations. It reads as follows:

It should be known that when cities are first founded, they have few dwellings and few building materials, such as stones and quicklime, or the things that serve as ornamental coverings for walls, such as tiles, marble, mosaic, jet, shells (mother-of-pearl), and glass. Thus, at that time, the buildings are built in Bedouin (style), and the materials used for them are perishable... [civilization grows and reaches its limit] The civilization of the city then recedes, and its inhabitants decrease in number. This entails a decrease in the crafts. As a result, good and solid building and the ornamentation of buildings are no longer practised. ...

A decided factor was one of attitude as well as aspiration, in that the locals felt no need to import their own materials or make their own architecture, preferring rather to leech off the ancient monuments:

Materials such as stone, marble, and other things are now being imported scarcely at all, and (building materials) become unavailable. The materials that are in existing buildings are re-used for building and refinishing. They are transferred from one construction to another, since most of the (large) constructions, castles, and mansions stand empty as the result of the scarcity of civilization [population]. ... (The same materials) continue to be used for one castle after another and for one house after another, until most of it is completely used up. People then return to the Bedouin way of building. They use adobe instead of stone and omit all ornamentation. The architecture of the city reverts to that of villages and hamlets. The mark of the desert shows in it. (The city) then gradually decays and falls into complete ruin, if it is thus destined for it. This is how God proceeds with his creatures.

Gentler is the approach of Leo Africanus, an Arab traveller who wrote a description of Africa in 1526 in Arabic, which was published in Italian in 1560. When Leo saw inscriptions in North Africa (many of them as spolia in city walls), he condemned the Romans for destroying African civilization, and mused on what “lost African writing” would have been like:19

cosi per le citta di mare, come della campagna, cioe di quelle, che sono anticamente edificate, quanti epigraphi si veggono sopra le sepolture, o nei muri di qualunque edificio, tutti sono in latine lettere, e niuno altramente. Ne io per tutto cio crederei, che gli Africani quelle tenessero per proprie lettere, ne che in quelle havessero scritto, percioche non e da dubitar, che quando I Romani, che fur loro nimici, dominarono quei luoghi, essi, come e costume de vincitori, e per maggior lor disprezzo, levassero tutti i lor titoli e le lor lettere, e vi mettessero I loro, per levar infieme con la dignita de gli Africani ogni memoria, e sola vi rimanesse quella del popolo Romano, si come volevano etiandio de gli edifici de Romani fare I Gotti, o come vosero far gli Arabi di quelli d’I Persi, e come alla giornata sogliono, fare I Turchi ne’ luoghi, che prendono di Christiani, guastando non solamente le belle memorie e gli honorati titoli, ma nelle chiese le immagini di santi e sante, che vi trouvano Non e adunque da maravigliarsi c he la lettera Africana si perdutta e da 900 anni in qua gli Africani usano la lettera Araba, cioe se ghi Africani havevano proprie lettere, o no. (this appears in the index as Romani, destruttori delle memorie Africano.).

- this being a particular case of the general thoughts on decline provoked by ruins20.

As these comments indicate, when the French arrived they greeted a full range of monuments in Algeria, because the inhabitants had had little use for most of them. Indeed, Leo was well able to categorise what he found in North Africa by whether the cities were built by the Romans (hence with good walls, which he always admired) or by the Africans (without good walls, hence no admiration). The French could of course have ignored these monuments, or simply bundled a few off to Paris as trophies (which was certainly suggested). Instead, the mind-set deriving from their classical education and especially from the thoroughgoing antiquarianism of the French Enlightenment, ensured that they embraced and used the classical past as their own. They wished to do so for emotional reasons; and they could not avoid doing so—neither in the conquest nor the colonial phase—because they could not have survived without re-using the Roman infrastructure.

The Weight of the Past

Not only was the physical infrastructure still partially in place. Psychological factors also had a role to play. Napoleon’s famous comment at the Pyramids about history looking down on the French sounded grand, but was more than mere rhetoric. It was not simply the Pyramids which viewed his campaign, but the great commanders of the past, especially Alexander the Great. The French of the 18th and 19th centuries lived in continuing dialogue with the past. The busts of famous Romans in the Convention were there as messages, not as decoration. Napoleon took scholars and scientists to Egypt with him21 because Alexander’s biographers say he did this, and the resultant Description de l’Egypte is itself a monument of scholarship in many disciplines. In Algeria, likewise, the Roman looked upon the French wherever they went.

It was but the other day that Marshal St Arnaud, in the French conquest of Algeria, led his troops through a defile of the Aures, and looking down on the great desert stretched at his feet, he said, in the enthusiasm of the moment, "We may flatter ourselves, we are the first soldiers to pass through this region". Strange error! He little knew that where he stood, on the imperishable rock, was an inscription recording how the Sixth Roman Legion under Antonine had made the same journey and possibly under a like illusion, seventeen centuries before...22

There were similar parallels made for Algeria a generation later - which were not only inevitable, but both desirable and invidious. Napoleon, first a Roman Consul then a Roman Emperor (and ably depicted as such by classically-trained artists skilled in the Roman art of applying propaganda values to their work), set a standard of French Imperial expansion which it was difficult and expensive to maintain after the Congress of Vienna. But North Africa, with the exception of Egypt, was open. The French were the new Romans, or so they believed, and fighting the same enemy using much the same tactics in the same strategic and geographical location, and hence using Roman forts, roads, bridges, way-stations. Such parallels were desirable because by the 1850s France, like Rome, was an Empire, and needed room to expand.

Indeed, in order to find a parallel to what the French found in North Africa, we can only conjure up the experience of our mediaeval forbears in Europe before the great population expansions of the later Middle Ages. The “fit”, in terms of attitudes to the ancient monuments, between the Western mediaeval situation and that of the French in Algeria, is not of course ideal, but gives us the best idea we can gain of what might have happened in earlier centuries (much helped by the truly monumental scale of the French 19th century army paperwork). There are three stages: first the military phase, then the campaign for early colonization, and finally the growth of civilian administration. For the French, there were no Middle Ages in North Africa – nothing of interest to them between the Romans and Byzantines on the one hand, and the present day on the other23. They were very impressed by the Roman remains of the country, and they needed them because (unlike the Kabyles24) they fought in a manner that required roads, canals, anchorages and fortresses; the Romans used the same infrastructure so, conveniently, the French could take it over. Plans were made for this by early 1832, when a Memorandum25 on Setif, notes that the ruins have about a league of circumference, and

Il y reste encore une batisse carrŽe trs solide dont les turcs se servaient comme de magasin, ce qui pourrait tre utile comme forteresse ou logement pour 800 hommes. Je dois remarquer que de Mejanah ˆ Setiff et de Setiff ˆ Constantine, toutes les 3 ou 4 lieues, il y a des restes d’antiquitŽs romaines prs desquelles sont gŽnŽralement de grandes fontaines ou des ruisseaux

With such close attention necessarily paid to the landscape and Roman communications, they quickly realised that the spread of ruins meant that the earlier settlement patterns had been much more intense (hence with better communications and water supply) than in the 19th century26, Hence great possibilities for development presented themselves. (Had they studied their own archives, they would have known that the same conclusion had been reached over a century previously27.)They were surprised to find themselves using Roman roads for their transport, but were in fact following in a long tradition: when Musa ibn Nusayr invaded Spain in 711/713, he did so on the Roman roads—and, indeed, there are Roman roads in Spain known to us only from Arab authors28. And the Spanish in North Africa in the 16th century were well aware of such roads, and remarked upon them29. Hence it is not surprising to find in Spain30 the same horizons of reuse as in France or Italy31. Again Leo Africanus identifies such roads from their characteristics, which he recognises from his travels in Italy32.

The Rationale: Why were they there?
For peace, not for war:
Ce n’est donc point la guerre que nous allons chercher dans l’ouest de la province de Constantine: c’est la paix qu’on y veut assurer, c’est le nom franais qu’on y va faire respecter; c’est une marche des lŽgions romaines ˆ travers l’Afrique; c’est la civilisation qui vient policer les barbares33

It was, indeed, “cette croisade de la civilisation contre la barbarie34.
The concept of France's special "mission to civilize" is usually evoked in the context of the later nineteenth century, and more particularly in the context of Christianity and missionary work, but it was present from the start. The French expedition to Algiers had freed the Arabs and the Moors from Turkish domination. Under the terms of the new Constitution of 1848, Algeria became three departments, forming an integral part of France. The bringers of this "civilisation" to Algeria were the military. Between 1830 and 1870, in Ageron's phrase, Algeria "became its parade ground and particular preserve".35

The French were the new Centurions: Rome had, indeed, returned to Africa (as the Italians were to proclaim a century later36); and they invaded Algeria with copies of the ancient historians in their knapsacks, some of these specially produced for the troops, ignoring the fact (later to be admitted) that the Romanisation of North Africa hovered between a myth and a complete failure. The context in which they fought, their paragone, was a Roman context – and the Romans took 240 years to conquer Africa. Ironically, this was clear from the manuals written specially for the troops, which packaged ancient authors and modern commentaries conveniently for the knapsack. For example Dureau de la Malle, in his L’AlgŽrie: Histoire des guerres des Romains, des Byzantins et des Vandales (Paris 1852) and subtitled Manuel AlgŽrien, has an Avertissement which reads:

Ce livre a ŽtŽ rŽservŽ en un trs petit format, pour que le soldat, le sous-officier, l’officier supŽrieur ou infŽrieur qui se sentirait du gožt pour la gŽographie, l’administration ancienne, en un mot, pour l’archŽologie de l’Afrique, pžt le mettre dans son sac, et le parcourir pensant ses loisirs de bivouac ou de garnison.
And it gets straight to the point on the first page, with an examen des moyens employŽs par les Romains pour la conquete et la soumission de l’Afrique Septentrionale”, and then prints Sallust’s Jugurtha.

A strong tint of Romanticism is evident in early accounts of the Conquest, whose officers were alert to the Roman past. One such, upon seeing for the first time the antique baths of Hamaan-el-Berdaa, noted that:

Tout ce pays, au reste, est sillonnŽ de dŽbris antiques. On suit, ˆ partir de lˆ, une route romaine bien reconnaissable; de petites bornes regulirement taillŽes, Žgalement espacŽes, en bordent encore les deux cotes.
Here was a land with something for everyone, from antiquities to commercial possibilities:
Oh! Les belles exclamations de joie que ces lieux excitaient chez les curieux venus en poste de Paris, et qui ne voyaient encore de la guerre que ce qu’elle a de singulirement gai, un voyage armŽ dans un pays remarquable. De cette troupe inutile, non pas ˆ l’en croire, mais tres-affairŽe et gravement pŽtulante, chacun, selon son gožt, trouvait la quelque chose ˆ admirer et ˆ vanter: l’antiquaire, l’industriel, l’homme aux grandes cultures luttaient d’entousiasme. L’un s’emparait de ces prairies, ou dŽfoncait des guerets que celui-la voulait fouiller pour la science É Quels beaux rŽcits on s’apprtait a faire aux gens de Paris, quand on se retrouverait dans les salons, au centre d’un cercle, debout, le dos au feu!37
And on the plateau at Summa (Soma), he day-dreamed of the glories of the past,
ou se’Žlevaient les ruines d’un Ždifice antique attribuŽ ˆ Constantine. Ce monument solitaire est composŽ de puissantes dimensions: au dessus et ˆ chaque angle se tiennent encore debout quatre pilastres que surmontait probablement une pyramide quadrilatre É Quels souvenirs rappelle-t-il? Les vigoureuses aigles romaines ont-elles ici battu des ailes et poussŽ le cri de triomphe38.

We can chart the steps in French exploitation of Algeria and her ancient monuments by considering the process in stages, from the heady days of the invasion, then a period of expansion, and finally colonisation in earnest, from which the ancient monuments suffered badly, and the parallels with Roman glory faded fast.

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