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Recolonizing North Africa: Sallust, French Algeria, and the Maghreb Fantasia

Kyle Khellaf

Yale University

The “Third Continent” has long been a controversial territory for classicists, particularly in the debates following Martin Bernal’s Black Athena monographs (e.g. Bernal 1987-2006, Lefkowitz 1996). However, for all the recent work on colonial classics (e.g. Bradley 2010, Stephens and Vasunia 2010, Vasunia 2013) and classics Africana (e.g. Greenwood 2010, McConnell 2013), the role of antiquity in shaping Maghrebian discourses remains an underexplored topic.

This paper examines the position of classical texts, especially Sallust’s Bellum Iugurthinum, in colonial and postcolonial accounts of French Algeria. It illustrates how Roman ideas about North African nomadism were appropriated by French colonizers to facilitate the conquest of Algeria, and later complicated by Maghrebian writers who reimagined their own postcolonial histories in light of this tradition. Following these observations, I contend that North Africa, as a liminal region in the ancient imaginary that was later reterritorialized in both the colonial and postcolonial periods using these same literary models, is best understood as a hybridized Thirdspace—whose “interstitial intimacy…linked through anin-between’ temporality,” helped to maintain its “borderline existence…at the crossroads of history and literature” (Bhabha 1994, 19).

I begin by illustrating how 19th Century writers interested in Algerian colonization employed Sallust’s African ethnography (Iug. 17-19) to highlight the region’s nomadism. For example, John Reynell Morell, writing of the successive itinerant peoples who inhabited North Africa (per Iug. 18.1-19.2), concludes, “the present Kabyles, or Djebalis (highlanders), of Algeria are to all intents and purposes the same people as the primitive Numidians of the time of Sallust and Polybius,” (1854, 25). The Baron Jean-Jacques Baude even quotes the Latin (ager frugum fertilis, bonus pecori, arbori infecundus; caelo terraque penuria aquarum, Iug. 17.5) to support his vision of an underdeveloped countryside near Constantine: “This is indeed Sallust’s Africa (C’est bien l’Afrique de Salluste), with its wheat fields and pastures, without houses, without trees, and without water” (1841, vol. 2, 92). By reemploying topoi used by ancient historians to emphasize North African primitivism, French colonial narratives perpetuated the idea that the Maghreb, unchanged since Roman times, remained ripe for colonization.

Baude extends this notion in a reflection prompted by his army’s arrival at the site of the Battle of the Muthul where Metellus and Marius defeated Jugurtha (96-100). He writes, “Today, that we are of our own accord passing through the landscapes which echo the footsteps of Scipio, Hannibal, Massinissa, Metellus, Marius, Jugurtha, Caesar, and Belisarius; that such knowledge is widespread throughout the army, it is amidst these soldierly ranks that man must become habituated to holding the pen and the sword (que doit être l’homme habile à tenir la plume et l’épée), which will bring to light, through the reproduction of the ancient geography and the knowledge of military operations, the witnesses to Roman history (qui éclaircira, par la restitution de la géographie antique et l’intelligence des opérations de la guerre, les témoignages de l’histoire romaine)” (99-100)—what Baude later calls, “the ambition of giving a new flavor to the accounts of the ancients, to attach one’s name in the wake of those of Titus Livy, Sallust, Caesar, and Procopius” (L’ambition de donner une saveur nouvelle à la suite de ceux de Tite-Live, de Salluste, de César, de Procope, 100).

These colonial reimaginings of the Roman conquest of Africa led to subsequent reinterpretations by Maghrebian writers, who reinterpreted the region’s long history of colonization through Algerian eyes. Examples include Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma (1956), which invokes the defeat of Jugurtha as a primal moment in the abandonment of nomadic resistance to foreign invasion (175-76); Yamina Méchakra’s La Grotte éclatée (1979), which looks to Tacfarinus and Dido as similar models (32, 115); and Assia Djebar’s L’Amour la fantasia (1985). Such intersectionality—not only of peoples and their various cultural identities, but also of trans-temporal territorializations by a variety of authors—helped to foster a lasting vision of this Thirdspace continent (in tertia parte Africam, Iug. 17.3) from antiquity to the present day.

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Roman Republican Prose and its Afterlife

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