The Kingdom of Altava was a Berber Kingdom, with the city of Altava as its capital. It existed from the year 578 AD to 708 AD. It was located in Northern Africa, in present-day Algeria. It was called a Berber kingdom as its majority population belonged to the Berber ethnicity, which is an ethnic group which comprises of people from the North Africa. The Kingdom of Altava came to power after the fall of the Mauro-Roman Kingdom, which was in control of a major portion of the ancient Roman Province of Mauretania Caesariensis.
The collapse of the Mauro-Roman Kingdom lead to the establishment of several small and short-lived Berber Kingdoms in this region, one of which was the Kingdom of Altava. This kingdom existed in the Maghreb until the Umayyad Caliphate, from Mecca, went on a conquest of this region in the seventh and eighth centuries. They successfully managed to overthrow the Kingdom of Altava and other sister Berber states, and erased most of the Berber culture along the way.
The Kingdom of Altava was officially a rump state of the Mauro-Roman Kingdom. The Mauro-Roman kingdom was a powerful kingdom that existed in the Maghreb from the 2nd century AD. However, in the 6th century, its power diminished and its realm shrank to the Kingdom of Altava, so named after its capital, the city of Altava. This blow to the Mauro-Romans came after the Battle of Altava in 578 AD. At the time the Mauro-Romans were ruled by a violent and aggressive king by the name of Garmul (reigned 570 – 578 AD). Garmul, in his overzealousness to expand his territory, made designs upon the land of the Byzantines, which is in present day Spain.
The Mauro-Roman Kingdom, with its capital Altava (source)
To this effect he continuously launched raids into the Byzantine territory and managed to kill 3 successive generals. These activities were regarded by the emperor at the time, Tiberius II Constantine, to be too dangerous to be left unchecked. Thus, he elected a new, highly capable general, Gennadius, to launch a campaign to end Garmul’s forces. The preparation for the campaign were extensive, to ensure the absolute end of the Mauro-Roman Kingdom. Finally, in the year 577-578, Garmul’s forces were systematically defeated and his subjects terrorised into submission.
After the collapse of the domain of the Mauro-Romans, many rump states sprung up from its territories. Some examples of these kingdoms are the Kingdom of the Ouarsenis and the Kingdom of the Hodna. However, a Romanized Berber Kingdom was still in power over the Altavan region, though its sphere of influence was much smaller than its predecessor. The Kingdom of Altava subsequently adopted Christianity as its predominant religion around the year 585 AD and stayed in power for around 150 year.
The Kingdom of Altava was a Berber Kingdom. The Berbers, or Amazighs, are an ethnic group of people from several North African nations. Their majority share of the population in the kingdom meant that most of the culture in the kingdom was of Berber source. In that era the Berbers were heavily Romanised, owing to the influence of roman empires in the North African region. This meant that there was a heavy focus on the community aspect of living with public places like baths and forums being some of the most maintained and frequented places in the city of Altava.
The most common languages spoken and written in the kingdom was the Berber language, with most people speaking African Romance Latin as a second language. In the Berber language their people are known as Imaziɣen, ⵉⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖⵏ, ⵎⵣⵗⵏ; with a single individual known as Amaziɣ, ⴰⵎⴰⵣⵉⵖ, ⵎⵣⵗ.
A berberist flag (source)
The most popular religion at the time among the Altavans was Christianity, owing to Christianity being the most popular religion in the Roman Empire. However, as time progressed, the Islamic influences from the Umayyad Caliphate began taking over the Altavan people and by midway through the seventh century, Islam had overshadowed Christianity as the most popular religion in the kingdom.
Governance and Kings
The Kingdom of Altava was ruled by a monarchy, like its predecessor. After the fall of Garmul in the 578 AD, and the subsequent splitting up of the Mauro-Roman Kingdom, there were many powerful tribes that vied for power. The early line of kings for the Kingdom of Altava is very obscure, with no recorded king listed for the year between 578 AD to almost 670s AD. This might be due to either a lack of record keeping to the tumultuous time in the area, or due to destruction of records by subsequent conquests.
The first recorded king of the Altavans was Sekerdid “the Roman”. He came to power sometime around mid-670s and ruled until 680 AD. He was of Eastern Roman descent, and came to power after his predecessor died of unexplained causes. He was a fairly diplomatic ruler, with very little military ambitions. Indeed, when the Umayyad threat grew in the North, he abdicated his throne to the warrior king Caecilius.
Caecilius was the most successful and powerful king of the Kingdom of Altava. Under his rule the kingdom both saw the height of its power and fell to the Umayyad forces.
Caecilius, the Master of North Africa
Caecilius was born in the Tlemcen region in the present-day Algeria. He was from a noble Amazigh family, and was raised into Christianity as a child. When the Muslims were attacking the border regions of the Kingdom of Altava around the year 679 AD, he was captured. He was then made a part of the war party of the Muslims, under the general named Uqba ibn Nafi, and was paraded around North Africa.
In 680 AD he was able to break free and return to the Kingdom of Altava where he plotted his revenge against Uqba. During this time, Sekerdid abdicated his throne to Caecilius and instead entered a more supporting role for his conquest.
Caecilius raised a powerful Amazigh army and waited for the right time. Uqba in the meantime was a on a conquest in the country of Morocco. Upon his return he allowed his armies to break up and return home, leaving on 300 exhausted and vulnerable men.
Seizing this chance Caecilius attacked Uqba with his 5000 strong Amazigh army and crushed Uqba’s forces in the Battle of Bikra, eventually killing Uqba ibn Nafi himself.
Caecilius now held undisputed mastery over North Africa and marched his army to Kairouan, where the remainder of Uqba’s forces had retreated to. After a drawn-out battle, Caecilius managed to annex Kairouan, and towards the end of 683 AD named it his capital. This effectively gave him control over all of North Africa, wherein he proclaimed himself as The Master of North Africa. However, this title and the power associated with it was very short lived.
Fall of Caecilius
After Uqba’s defeat, Caecilius ruled over North Africa with a strong army, forcing the Umayyad Caliphate back. However, this situation could not be allowed to continue as it posed a threat to the Caliphate and their mission of spreading Islam to Africa. To this end the fifth Umayyad Caliph, Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, sent a force of 40,000 men and horses, led by Zuhair ibn Kays to retake North Africa. This force was sent with the primary purpose of retaking Ifriqiya and its capital Kairouan. They arrived somewhere around the middle of 688 AD.
Caecilius managed to take a stronghold in the Aurès Mountains, to try and retreat safely in case of defeat. The Muslim forces under Zuhair camped outside Kairouan near the water resources and sieged Caecilius’s entrenched position. Even though the Muslim forces vastly outnumbered the Amazigh forces, it took them nearly 2 years to finally break through Caecilius’s defences. This was because of the fact the Amazighs were natives to the area and could effectively repel all attacks with minimal losses.
Eventually, after his position was broken, Caecilius summoned support from the Byzantines, and met Zuhair bin Qais Al Balawi in battle in 690 AD. After a massive battle in the valley of Mamma, the Arab invaders eventually managed to defeat the Amazigh-Byzantine troops and killed their legendary king Caecilius.
Fall of the Kingdom of Altava
With the death of Caecilius the Kingdom of Altava started to decline rapidly. Caecilius was succeeded by the War Chief Dihya, who in her own right was a powerful ruler, but could not hold herself up to the stature of the legend. Soon, with the aid of Byzantine reinforcements arriving by ship, Dihya was able to kill Zuhair and defeat his forces.
Her territory was left unmolested for nearly 10 years, wherein she tried to strengthen her borders and forge a lengthy alliance with the Byzantines, but was largely unsuccessful.
Soon another Arab general named Hasan ibn al-Nu’man marched his forces from Egypt and captured the major Byzantine city of Carthage after the Battle of Carthage. After his victory he was sent instructions to march to Numidia and attack Dihya’s forces and end the Berber Kingdom of Altava once and for all. The armies of Dihya and Hasan met near Meskiana in the present-day province of Oum el-Bouaghi, Algeria in 708 AD. Hasan scored a resounding victory over Dihya causing her to flee, and ending the 130-year reign of Kingdom of Altava.
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Modéran, Y. Kusayla, l’Afrique et les Arabes. In “Identités et Cultures dans l’Algérie Antique”, University of Rouen, 2005
Conant, Jonathan (2012). Staying Roman: conquest and identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press.