Desert Entanglement: Social Connectivity and Networked Agency in Religious Expression on Rome


Anna Walas, University of Nottingham


The epigraphic and graffiti record of religious expression in the frontier of Tripolitania represents a complex palimpsest of both local and Roman deities, drawn on and merged by different communities in different contexts. This paper contributes to the debate on the movement of social and religious ideas by developing the concept of networked agency to explore the way in which local, itinerant, and displaced communities expressed their religious affiliation. In Tripolitania, vast distances between community centers meant that the processes of transmission and of transformation of religious ideas had to adapt to local geographical circumstances. These adaptations display an interplay of global and local traits, created and drawn on depending on the context, the concerns of communities, and the type of social spaces in which the material was displayed. The study sample will consist of the epigraphic and graffiti records from the Roman military base and extramural settlement at Bu Njem as well as the epigraphic record of Bu Njem’s mother base, situated at Lambaesis, some 1,000 km away. The Severan small site of Bu Njem was one of the most far-flung and remote outposts in Tripolitania, functioning as a forward operating outpost to control trade routes connecting Rome with Saharan civilizations. In contrast, the legionary base at Lambaesis consisted of a far larger community with a metropolitan outlook, which was also situated far closer to the Mediterranean shore and its transmaritime networks. What do these two related sites, with transfer of personnel between them attested in papyri and epigraphic records, tell us about what it meant for how social and religious ideas traveled on African frontiers?