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Libya, Land of Myths & Demons

David Winter visits a land beset for millennia by the fantasies of outsiders.

From antiquity to the present day, few countries have been so profoundly mythologized as Libya. According to the ancient Greeks, it was on Libyan soil that the giant Antaeus was cut down to size by Hercules, and it was near the Libyan town of Silene that England’s very own St George is supposed to have slain the dragon and secured the damsel. The fifth-century BC historian Herodotus claimed that ‘dog-faced creatures and creatures without heads, their eyes in their breasts’ stalked the land that we know as Libya.

But this tale-telling, ancient and modern, obscures an equally extravagant reality. Today’s visitor to the southern reaches of Libya can mingle with exotic animals or, a world away on the country’s Mediterranean fringe, tread in the footsteps of the Libyan who secured command of one of history’s most formidable superpowers.

When Lucius Septimius Severus (AD 145-211) wrested control of the Roman empire from Didius Julianus in 193, he became Rome’s first African emperor – and the last native-born Libyan to rule over his homeland until Gaddafi seized power in 1969. Leptis Magna, his birthplace, is alive with his memory.

Leptis, or more accurately, Lepcis Magna, lies 130km east of the modern Libyan capital of Tripoli. The settlement probably began in the sixth century BC as a Phoenician trading post, its prosperity derived from the cultivation of olives. Roman expansion into Africa took off after the defeat of Carthage in 146 BC and gained impetus following Caesar’s victory over Pompey one hundred years later. Leptis itself remained a free state before emerging as a Roman colonia under Trajan in AD 110.

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