Volubilis is an exceptionally well-preserved example of a large Roman colonial town on the fringes of the empire. The archaeological remains of several civilizations are to be found there, representing all the phases of its 10 centuries of occupation, from prehistory continuously through to the Islamic period. Volubilis has produced a substantial amount of artistic material, including mosaics, marble and bronze statuary, and hundreds of inscriptions in situ .
The name of Volubilis is known both from ancient texts and from the abundant epigraphic material from the site itself. Its origin is unknown but may be a Latinized version of the Berber name for the oleander oualilt , which grows in profusion on the banks of Wadi Khoumane that runs round part of the site.
Its easily defensible location at the foot of the Jbel Zerhoun and the good soils of the plain, suitable for agriculture and the cultivation of fruit trees (especially olives), attracted settlers to the site of Volubilis at least as early as the 3rd century BC, as shown by a Punic inscription found in the town. By the time of the Mauritanian kingdom, whose capital was here from the 3rd century BC until AD 40, Volubilis already had a defensive wall. The town appears to have been laid out on a regular plan on the Punic-Hellenistic model.
The town developed along Roman lines during the reigns of Juba II and Ptolemy, when it may have been the capital. The Roman annexation of the Mauritanian kingdom in AD 40 led to the creation of two provinces; Volubilis was given the status of a municipium in one of these. It rapidly expanded to its maximum extent, with the construction of many public and private buildings, the latter associated with craft and industrial installations, most notably for the production of olive oil, the main product of the region. Epigraphic evidence points to the fact that the inhabitants of Volubilis during the Roman period were ethnically mixed, with Jews, Syrians and Spaniards living alongside the indigenous African population.
During the reigns of Roman emperors a town wall, with eight monumental gates, and a new monumental centre including a capitol and basilica, were constructed. The triumphal arch of Caracalla, which spans the decumanus maximus , is the point of articulation between the Punic-Hellenistic town and the extension in the Roman period to the north-east. At the beginning of the reign of Diocletian, in 285, the Romans abruptly abandoned southern Tingitana, for reasons that remain obscure, and Volubilis entered its ‘dark age’. The aqueduct that brought water to the town having been broken, the inhabitants moved to the west of the triumphal arch, where they built a new residential area near Wadi Khoumane. This was separated from the upper part of the town by a new defensive wall, which came down to the river bank. The area of the triumphal arch became the cemetery of this community. Four inscriptions dated to between 599 and 655 reveal that this was a Christian community with civic institutions still in place.
Documents and coins show that Volubilis had converted to Islam before the arrival of Idris. His son favoured Fez over Volubilis, but the latter was not completely abandoned, although there must have been substantial movements of its inhabitants to the new town of Moulay Idris nearby. Almoravid raids later in the 11th century spelt the end of many centuries of continuous occupation.
The ruins of Volubilis, which consist of no more than half of the original town, are located on a commanding site at the foot of the Jbel Zerhoun, bordered by the twowadis , Khoumane and Ferdassa. The ancient town is well defined by the remains of its walls. They had about 40 interval towers and were entered through eight gates. The buildings of Volubilis are for the most part constructed using the grey-blue limestone quarried nearby on the Zerhoun massif. They are notable for the large number of mosaic floors still in situ . Although they do not attain the artistic level of other North African mosaics, they are lively and varied in form and subject matter. Thecapitolium abuts on the south end of the basilica. Its cella (sanctuary) is reached by means of a wide flight of steps. Adjoining the capitolium are the contemporary baths, which show evidence of having been reconstructed more than once.