Little is known of the early history of Sbeitla, although it was occupied by Numidians dating back to the 1st millennium BCE. A rich olive growing area, its wealth was soon recognised by the invading Romans, who built the city known as Sufetula.
When the Roman Empire divided in the 4th century CE, with the eastern, Greek speaking, half ruled from Byzantium, renamed Constantinople by Emperor Constantine, Sufetula was part of the Eastern Empire. During the 7th century when Muslim armies were approaching from the east splitting the Byzantine Empire in two, the local governor, Prefect Gregory, declared himself the Emperor of modern Tunisia. He made Sufetula his capital, but his rule however was short lived as he was defeated and killed a year later, one of the last bastions of xtianity in North Africa before Islamic dominance.
The site of the ruined Roman city at Sbeitla is quite large. At its central point is its walled forum, containing triple temples and accessed through an arched gateway. The triple arched gate is the Arch of Antonius Pius, built in 139 CE.
Through the arch is the impressive triple temples dedicated to the Roman trilogy of Jupiter, his wife the Goddess Juno and their daughter Minerva. The largest central temple, dedicated to Jupiter, supreme God of the Roman Pantheon, is in good condition. Unlike the flanking temples it has no staircase for access, admission being solely over bridges from the other two temples. This unusual arrangement for Pagan temples has xtian undertones of access to the supreme God only via intermediaries.
Sbeitla has a Great Baths complex dating back to the 3rd century CE. It consists of the standard Roman design of cold, tepid and warm baths, with hypocaust under-floor heating. Adjoining the baths is a gymnasia and palaestra, boxing and wrestling arena, where much of the mosaics remain intact, along with some renovation.
Sbeitla was one of the main centres of xtianity in North Africa prior to the arrival of Islam, and five churches are recognisable. The Church of St Servus was originally a Numidian temple before conversion into a baptistry with the addition of walls and an apse.
The Basilica of St Vitalis is of different design, as the 6th century circular baptistry, with an unusually shaped attractive mosaic basin, stands behind the apse of the church. Another baptistry basin is in the Basilica of Bellator, which pre dates the Vitalis by two centuries, the surrounding walls being a later addition.
The theatre, like most I have seen, is largely reconstructed, usually to allow use for modern productions.
Triumphal Arch of the Tetrarchy
Gate of Antoninus
The Triple Temples
Church of St Servus
The St Vitalis Baptistry Basin