Have you ever had an experience of déjà vu so strong that you not only see, but also hear, feel, and even smell a scene from an earlier time and place? Michael Hugos tells us that a series of such experiences inspired this book. For him, Leptis Magna, an ancient port city in the Roman province of Tripolitania (present-day Libya), is “a lens through which I see a period in history when one world died and another world emerged.” Leptis rivaled Alexandria and Carthage in its beauty and buildings. It is now considered one of the most grand and unspoiled Roman ruins sites in the Mediterranean.
For historical dates, names, and events, Hugos draws on the legacy of Ammianus Marcellinus. Marcellinus, a Roman soldier and historian (325/330-post-391 A.D.), served several Roman emperors. Some of his records still exist, providing the most comprehensive and accurate historical account of Late Antiquity in existence. The latest edition of Leptis Magna includes maps.
However, Michael Hugos tells us a more intimate story, that of another source for his book. It came in the form of a presence and a voice that he first encountered when he was eight, visiting the ruins of Leptis Magna with his family in 1961. The presence that only Michael Hugos was aware of followed his family through the ruins. Hugos even heard a whispering voice, which seemed to be saying something important, but he could not understand.
The Hugos family visited Leptis several times during their two-year stay in Libya, and each time the presence joined Michael. He came to sense that it was a man who had lived in Leptis a long time ago. After the family returned to the United States, Michael didn’t feel that presence for more than a decade. One autumn day, while walking along the shore of Lake Michigan, the sound of the waves washing up on the beach draws him back to Leptis. He becomes obsessed with discovering who that man was. Once into his research, relevant clues practically throw themselves at him, often invading his unconscious mind.
Michael learns who the man was, what he stood for, and the trajectory of his life, and comes to see him and the ruined city of Leptis as “a bridge to another time.” The story of what happened in Leptis and to the Roman Empire that gave the city reason to exist becomes an allegory for understanding what is happening in the world today.
After letting his knowledge rest for awhile, like the dough for good bread, Hugos gives voice to Septimius Lucius (b. 341 A.D.), descendent of former Roman Emperor Septimius Severus and surviving heir of the leading family in Leptis Magna. In 384 A.D., Lucius begins to write his autobiography—the story of his life and the role of Leptis Magna in the history of the later Roman Empire.
Lucius’s autobiographical narration is replete with stories of his happy young years in the family’s Villa Selene on the Mediterranean Sea, the colorful years of his formal education in the Forum of Severus at Leptis Magna, and his training in the family business exporting olive oil, wheat, slaves, ivory, and gold under the tutelage of his uncle, Jovinus.
The youth’s coming of age, unfortunately, begins during the time of African tribal raids against Leptis, corrupt Roman officials, and the fading of the Roman Empire.
“Any civilization, whether that of the Roman Empire or that of our world today, exists first and foremost to channel the strivings of powerful people into socially constructive ends. When a civilization no longer performs that function, it must, and will die.”
Michael Hugos suggests that this is the important message Lucius sought to give him, as a child and then as a young man: Rome didn’t have to fall, and neither does the world of today, if its citizens can learn the lessons offered by history.
Hugos vividly brings to life the upheaval of those caught in the decline of one of the world’s most powerful empires. This is no dry read of ancient history. Leptis Magna is an account of one family’s history during this time. He reveals how civilization can be altered by deals made with the devil one at a time, one incriminating act a time, one lie at a time, one act of desperation at a time. Hugos draws marvelously intriguing parallels that show patterns that have repeated themselves time and time again in history.
Elegant prose and impressive accumulation of knowledge focused on one thread of history guides the readers through this fast-paced read of imperial Roman history: its cultural fascination with death; the depth and breadth of its bureaucracy; the military machine with its soldier emperors; and the use of force and intimidation to hold the empire together that fueled Rome’s insatiable need for taxation to maintain its bureaucracy and power base.
For those who saw the film Gladiator and want to know more about the Roman Empire after Aurelius Commodus inherited the title of Roman Emperor (at the age of 18 rather than earn the position as his father Marcus Aurelius had), or for those who want understand more about this pivotal time in Western civilization, you will be pleased to discover Leptis Magna, an enlightening work by Michael Hugos.