Ancient History & Civilisation

Chapter 2

The Rise of Numidia (206–112BC)

In 112 BC the Senate and People of Rome found themselves having to declare war on an allied African prince. The war that followed dragged on for seven years, confounded all expectations of an easy victory and exposed crucial military and political failings within the Roman Republican system. Yet, as always there is a danger of viewing the war from a one-sided (Roman) perspective. Even the most common name assigned to this conflict, the Bellum Iugurthinum,86 or Jugurthine War can obscure important longer-term factors. From ancient times onwards, many historians have viewed this war as unforeseen and a result of an accidental set of circumstances. Indeed, this is probably how many in the Senate at the time saw it, especially as its immediate causes were to be found in a succession dispute between the princes of an African kingdom. It is perhaps Florus who, writing some 200 years after the event, summed this attitude up best with the phrase ‘Who, after the fall of Carthage could expect another war in Africa?’87

This view sums up many commentators’ attitudes, both ancient and modern, namely, that after the Third Punic War and the Roman annexation of Carthage, Africa itself could be left alone and attention shifted to other theatres of conflict. Yet in many ways the Third Punic War itself obscures the issue. Aside from the fact that it was little more than an extended siege of one city, it overlooks the fact that by 149 BC the chief power in North Africa was the kingdom of Numidia, not the frail state of Carthage. By the time the Romans annexed Carthage in 146 BC it was little more than a coastal strip dwarfed by the entity that was Numidia.

Thus in order to avoid falling into the same mindset that would have us see the war of 112–105 BC as coming out of the blue, and having no wider issues, we need to analyse the preceding century of North African history to gain a clearer understanding of the events that brought Rome and Numidia to war.

North Africa during the Punic Wars

When dealing with North Africa in the third and second centuries BC the image of Carthage looms large. What we must never forget is that Carthage was always more of a Mediterranean power than an African one. As a Phoenician maritime colony Carthage’s focus was always going to be the Mediterranean, in terms of economic and imperial activity, and this is reflected in our surviving sources. It is only during the Second Punic War that we gain our first real glimpse of the peoples and politics of the North African interior.

Carthage itself had only a small portion of the North African continent under its direct control and had little in the way of native population. What it could call upon was the manpower of the African interior, either through a system of hegemony, or via the use of mercenaries. Greg Daly has produced the finest analysis of the Carthaginian army during the Second Punic War, which was mostly made up of allied or mercenary contingents from Spain and North Africa, under Carthaginian command.88

Throughout the Second Punic War, Carthaginian armies fielded contingents of Numidians, as well as a number of other races covered by the terms Libyans, Mauri, Gaetulians and Liby-Phoenicians. This reveals the patchwork nature of North Africa at this time. However, we must remember that we are looking at them through the eyes of the Romans and Greeks, who had little familiarity with these peoples at that time.

This leaves us with the initial question of just who the Numidians were. The name was that given to the region immediately to the west of the coastal region of Carthage. By the time of the Second Punic War, there appears to have been two main tribes of Numidians: the Masaesulii in the west and the Massyli in the east, both of which appeared to be tied to Carthage by alliance. We have no clear details on Carthaginian-Numidian hostilities prior to this period, but we can assume that at some previous date, Carthage had managed to assert their dominance over the tribes of the region, without annexing them. This would have been made all the easier given the hostility between the main Numidian tribes at the time.

The Numidians first come to our attention in 213, when the Masaesulian chieftain, named Syphax, began a revolt against Carthaginian overlordship. In response to this revolt the Carthaginians withdrew their commander in Spain, Hasdrubal, and a portion of their army, to deal with Syphax.89 To the Romans fighting in Spain, under the command of the Scipio brothers (Publius and Cnaeus), the benefits of opening a second front against the Carthaginians in North Africa were immediately obvious. According to Livy the Scipios dispatched three centurions to Syphax to assess his needs and offer Roman friendship. Of the three, one of them, Q. Statorius remained with Syphax in order to raise and train his army in the art of Roman infantry tactics. This Roman-trained Masaesulian army then went on to defeat a Carthaginian force, whose size is not reported, in a set-piece battle.90

Carthage’s response to this Roman-led army was to fall back upon the Masaesulian’s traditional enemy, the Massyli. At the time the Massyli were ruled by a chief named Gala, who sent an army to join forces with the Carthaginian forces, led by his young son Masinissa, who was to figure prominently in later events. In the battle that followed Syphax and his Roman-trained army were comprehensively defeated by the Carthaginians and their Massylian allies. Livy lists Syphax’s casualties at 30,000 dead, a figure which must be treated with the usual caution.91 Appian reports that the Carthaginians were now able to send Hasdrubal back to Spain, along with a larger force than the one which had been withdrawn, along with Masinissa and his Massylians.92 As Polybius reports, this result actually placed the Scipios in a worse position than they originally were before the revolt.93

However, in the longer term the Romans had been introduced to the concept of a strong African counterbalance to the Carthaginians. This concept, however, would not have been lost on the Numidian tribes either, who could now look outside of Africa for allies against Carthage.

Our knowledge of events in Africa following these events is obscured, due to our few surviving sources, but in 210 BC Syphax sent an embassy to Rome reminding them of his enmity to the Carthaginians.94 What he was hoping to gain from this embassy Livy does not relate, but the most logical conclusion is that he was expecting some form of Roman help to regain his chiefdom. All he got in return was a Senatorial embassy which presented him with gifts of a purple toga and tunic, an ivory chair and an amount of gold. Given this turn of events, it is hardly surprising that when we next encounter Syphax, in 206 BC, we find him back in command of the Masaesulians and a firm Carthaginian ally. With Syphax defeated and cowed, the Carthaginians were able to secure their control of North Africa, aided by Roman indifference to the region.

However, following his victories in Spain, P. Cornelius Scipio turned his attention to North Africa. Naturally, any Roman invasion would have been greatly aided by having allies in the region. Thus once again, the Romans turned their attentions to the Numidians and in particular Syphax. After sending his legate C. Laelius to meet with Syphax, Scipio then apparently sailed to Africa himself. This bold move is given a dramatic twist in the sources, as he apparently arrived to meet Syphax at the same time as the Carthaginian commander, Hasdrubal. Livy puts this down to Hasdrubal retreating from Spain whilst Appian has him there seeking to secure Syphax’s allegiance to Carthage. In both sources, this scenario ends with Scipio and Hasdrubal dining together at the same couch in the presence of Syphax, who then secretly pledges his allegiance to Rome.95 Needless to say, we must take this story with a large pinch of salt. Nevertheless, it does demonstrate the importance that the Numidian tribes had taken on in the oncoming battle for Africa.

Given that the balance of the war had shifted considerably in Rome’s favour by 206 BC, it was not surprising that Syphax had apparently agreed to side with Rome. However, with Scipio out of the way, Syphax soon reversed his allegiances and agreed an alliance with the Carthaginians, sealed by his marriage to the daughter of Hasdrubal. Why Syphax chose to ally with the Carthaginians over the Romans in the face of an impending Roman invasion of Africa is an interesting question, and one that was to have far reaching implications for the history of North Africa. It certainly proved to be a fatal miscalculation on the part of Syphax, as into this breach stepped the figure of Masinissa. According to Appian, Masinissa, who had been a loyal Carthaginian ally fighting for their cause in Spain, had been promised Hasdrubal’s daughter in marriage and when he discovered that his enemy Syphax had been granted her, he then defected to the Romans.96

However, Appian’s account of the Punic War is inferior to that of Livy, who presents us with a large digression on Numidian affairs.97 Though he does not give us an exact dating of the events, the detail gives us a clear idea of the clouded world of Numidian affairs at this time. Central to this process was a succession crisis and civil war amongst Masinissa’s tribe the Massyli, sparked off by the death of Masinissa’s father Gala, and his own absence fighting in Spain. During the struggle Masinissa’ main rival, Mazaetullus, sought refuge first with Carthage and then with Syphax, both of which naturally antagonized Masinissa.

Encouraged by Hasdrubal, Syphax declared war on Masinissa and it was probably now that the two agreed a marriage alliance. For Syphax, this war made perfect sense, given Carthaginian backing and a weakened enemy. For the Carthaginians, though, we must question whether African security was best guaranteed by an ongoing war between the tribes. We can only assume that they believed that the security of North Africa would best be served by one strong Numidian kingdom, securely allied to them, rather than the usual near constant state of war between the tribes. Ironically, it was the same policy that Rome was to use so effectively against them.

Syphax and Masinissa met in battle, with Masinissa being defeated and forced to flee to the mountains. Carthage’s policy had appeared to pay off rich dividends, with Syphax easily gaining control of the Massyli and uniting all of Numidia under his rule. Masinissa was reduced to the status of a bandit, being chased by Syphax or the Carthaginians. As is usual in these cases, Livy reports a romanticized narrative involving dramatic chases, escapes and hiding in caves.98Following an undetermined period of time, Masinissa made a fresh attempt to reclaim his tribe, raised a new Massylian army and began attacking both Syphax and Carthaginian targets. Once again Masinissa and Syphax met in battle and once again Masinissa was defeated and forced to flee. This time, however, he fled to the Romans and offered Scipio his allegiance.

Upon the eve of the Roman invasion of Africa, the internal situation very much favoured the Carthaginians. The two main Numidian tribes had been united by Syphax who was now attached to the Carthaginians. How firm this attachment was is a matter of debate, considering that approaches had been made by both sides for Syphax to become a Roman ally once more. In the end though, they came to nought, and the Romans had to content themselves with having only Masinissa, an exiled prince with a small force of cavalry as African allies. Nevertheless, the Romans would have been hoping that he could be used as a figurehead to stir up revolt in the Massylians and undermine Syphax. The wider implications were that the balance of power in North Africa had been irrevocably disrupted. Constantly warring tribes had been replaced by a strong monarch uniting all of Numidia under his rule. In the short term this was ideal for the Carthaginians, in order to present a united force to resist the Roman invasion. In the longer term, it had the potential to backfire on them, overturning a long-standing policy of keeping their North African enemies disunited and thus weakened.

As events turned out, it was Scipio and the Romans who determined the future of North Africa. The Roman invasion of Africa and their subsequent victories fall outside the scope of this work, having been covered in great detail in a number of other works, both on the Punic Wars and Scipio ‘Africanus’.99 For this study, it was the consequences that are far more important. Syphax having attached himself so firmly to the Carthaginian side, his defeat became one of Scipio’s priorities, which was accomplished by a combined Romano-Massylian force led by Masinissa and C. Laelius. By the end of 203 BC Syphax had been defeated and Masinissa had not only retaken command of the Massyli, but also conquered Syphax’s own tribe of the Maesuli, including the capital city of Cirta (modern Constantine). Syphax himself was wounded and taken prisoner and transported to Rome as a trophy, where he soon died, most probably of his injuries.100

It may seem strange to state that the Romans were not the true victors of the Second Punic War in Africa; after all, Scipio had defeated Hannibal at Zama and taken the title of ‘Africanus’. Yet when the dust cleared the new power in North Africa was Masinissa and his newly-united kingdom of Numidia. Just fifteen years earlier, Masinissa’s family had been the rulers of the Massyli tribe, sandwiched between the might of Carthage to the east and their traditional enemies the Masaesulians in the west. Yet the peace treaty that ended the Second Punic War gave Masinissa an unparalleled position. Firstly, Carthage was forced to recognize his annexation of Syphax’s kingdom and the de-facto creation of the kingdom of Numidia. Secondly, and more importantly, the Carthaginians were prevented from making war in Africa without express Roman consent and authorization. Thus for Carthage, not only had a new power been created on their borders, but they were prevented from defending themselves, and Masinissa knew it.

For Rome, the situation seemed ideal. Not only had Masinissa been a loyal ally in the African War, overlooking his earlier fighting against Rome in Spain (above), but a strong Numidia would be the perfect way of keeping Carthage in check in Africa. Following two Punic Wars the Romans had annexed Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and coastal Spain, but had clearly no wish to annex Africa at this point. In truth Spain was probably considered to be a step too far for the Romans at this point, but could clearly not be allowed to fall back into Carthaginian hands. Thus, using the client kingdom of Numidia to keep Carthage in check seemed ideal.

The problem was whether the jailer was more dangerous than the prisoner. The Second Punic War had radically altered the situation in North Africa. Through the interventions of both main protagonists, instead of a patchwork of warring tribes, there was now a united Numidian kingdom, first under Syphax and then Masinissa. On the Carthaginian side, this was a matter of expediency, needing a united front in the face of a Roman invasion. The Romans, however, through their peace treaty, not only confirmed this change as permanent, but altered the balance in favour of Numidia. Blinded by the dangers of Carthage, they had laid the foundations for a potentially stronger North African power, something that they were slow to see.

The Rise of a New Power (Numidia 201–150 BC)

When examining the history of this period, there are few greater figures than that of Masinissa.101 In just a few years he had gone from being a prince in a lesser Numidian tribe, and a Carthaginian vassal, to being the king of a united Numidia. Yet his story did not end there. He ruled Numidia for the next fifty years until his death in c.148 BC (aged over ninety), and spent his reign forging the disparate Numidian tribes into a powerful and united kingdom. By his death Numidia was the strongest kingdom in North Africa by far. We have no clear narrative of the next fifty years, but the fragments we do possess allow us to clearly follow his policies. For the rest of his reign it is clear what Masinissa’s most cherished principal was total loyalty, or apparent total loyalty, to Rome and her interests. His success in following this policy can be seen by the high regard he is always held in when mentioned by the ancient (Roman) sources (see below).

The policies of his reign can be broken down into the duel principles of consolidation and expansion. In terms of consolidation, he was faced with unifying the various tribes which formed Numidia into one people under one king. The two biggest tribes, the Masaesuli and the Massyli had been traditional rivals and enemies. Furthermore, there were a number of smaller tribes and princedoms in the region that had to be brought under his control. Under his leadership, the Numidian economy grew, the few cities, such as his capital Cirta, developed, and trade flourished.

The clearest evidence we do have for Masinissa’s activities stem from his foreign policy and his activities concerning Carthage. Rome clearly had in mind the creation of a strong Numidia to keep Carthage in check. Masinissa clearly had in mind the conquest and elimination of Carthage. From 201 to 151 BC, he pursued a consistently antagonistic policy towards the Carthaginians, yet did so in such a way that he would never incur Rome’s wrath. His policy was one of steady encroachment, as Carthaginian territory was raided, their costal towns harassed and settlers placed upon their territories. In response all Carthage could do was appeal to Rome, as they could take no direct action against Masinissa without being considered in breach of the peace treaty with Rome, all of which Masinissa knew only too well.102 Furthermore, he could be assured that his standing with the Romans, and the Scipios in particular, was high.

From time to time, the Senate was forced to answer Carthage’s appeals and send a commission to investigate. Appian claims that the commissioners were told explicitly to favour Masinissa, but it is unlikely that this would have needed to be stated.103 The first commission arrived as quickly as 193 BC and was headed by P. Cornelius Scipio ‘Africanus’ himself. Needless to say, the commission ruled in favour of the Numidians. Thus the tone was set for the next fifty years. Major border disputes flared up in 182, 174 and 162 BC. Each time a Roman commission ruled in Masinissa’s favour. Slowly and surely therefore, Numidian territory advanced and Carthaginian territory shrunk.

Masinissa further proved his use as a Roman ally by providing them with both military assistance (elephants and cavalry) and grain from Numidia, to support their various wars of this period, both in Spain and Macedon.104 He used his largesse to enter onto the wider Mediterranean stage with donations of grain to the island of Delos in the 160s, for which statues were raised in his honour.105 He further established diplomatic links with Egypt, Bithynia and Rhodes and his son Mastanabal was admitted to the Panathenaean games in Greece.106

By the 150s, it appears that the Numidian raids into Carthaginian territory had increased in frequency, perhaps motivated by Masinissa’s advancing age. Though we cannot know for certain what his ultimate ambitions were, it would be surprising if they did not include the annexation of Carthage itself. This last step would require very careful planning if he was to avoid a breach with Rome. Nevertheless, one clear sign of this ambition was the development amongst the Carthaginian elite of a pro-Numidian faction, alongside pro-Roman and nationalist factions.

Although the chronology of events is confused in our surviving sources, it appears that by the late 150s the Numidians made a push into the Great Plains around Carthage, temporarily occupying a considerable part of them. As usual Roman Senatorial commissions were dispatched to arbitrate, in c.153 and again in 152. Both were particularly noteworthy. The commission of 153 BC included an aged M. Porcius Cato (the Elder) who, holding a traditional Roman prejudice, saw the situation as proof of a dangerous rise of Carthaginian power, rather than a Numidian one. This apparently led to Cato’s now infamous statements whenever he was in the Senate that ‘Carthage must be destroyed’, though the surviving sources do not support the often (mis)quoted ‘cathago delenda est’.107

Obviously, the border raids and disputes continued, as in 152 BC another Senatorial commission arrived, this time including P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica. In a break from both Roman and Scipionic tradition he ruled in favour of Carthage. Furthermore, back in Rome, he attempted to counter Cato’s influence by arguing for Carthage’s preservation. We can only assume that unlike Cato, he saw through the stereotypes of noble ally and Punic villain and saw the real rising power in the region. This was followed in 151 by the final war reparation payment made by Carthage to Rome, which had two possible effects.

Firstly, it may have created the feeling amongst the Carthaginian elite that their obligation to Rome was now clear and that they were free of all ties (which included those of not going to war without Rome’s authorization). Secondly, it may have created a similar feeling in Masinissa’ mind that Carthage was no longer under Rome’s protection, now the debt had been cleared. In any event it is indicative that within a year from the end of Carthage’s war reparations, open warfare broke out between Numidia and Carthage.

The Numidian-Carthaginian War (151–150 BC)

When war did break out, the immediate cause was the pro-Numidian faction amongst the Carthaginian elite. Perhaps buoyed by clearing their obligations to Rome, the nationalist faction expelled the pro-Numidians amongst them from the city, which occurred c.152/151 BC. These men naturally went straight to Masinissa, who saw his chance to exploit the situation and demanded their reinstatement. What happens next is best described by Appian: Masinissa sent two of his sons, Gulassa and Micipsa to Carthage as envoys, who, after being turned away, were attacked by anti-Numidian elements in Carthage.108 Though they survived, it gave Masinissa the perfect excuse for war and he laid siege to the town of Oroscopa. In response, the Carthaginians, having been harassed for decades by Masinissa and being denied the chance to retaliate, and now perhaps thinking themselves free of Rome, raised an army of 25,000 infantry and 400 cavalry and declared war on Masinissa. They were led by another Hasdrubal, who marched towards the Numidian positions, hoping to engage Masinissa in battle. Along the way they received a boost by the addition of 6,000 Numidian cavalry led by two Numidian chiefs, Asasis and Suba, who had fallen out with Masinissa’ sons.

What followed was a battle between the Numidians, led by the aged Masinissa and the Carthaginians led by Hasdrubal. According to Appian, this battle had a special observer, as P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus (grandson of Africanus) had come to Numidia to procure elephants for the war in Spain. Appian states that the forces totalled 110,000 men, which places the Numidian forces at 80,000 men (which is clearly too high). The battle apparently ended with no clear winner and both sides entrenching.109

However, what could not be accomplished on the battlefield was accomplished during the stalemate as hunger and pestilence swept through the Carthaginian camp, destroying their army. Having no other option, Hasdrubal apparently agreed to peace terms. Interestingly, Masinissa’s terms were another fifty years of war reparations (totalling 5,000 talents of silver), this time payable to him, as well as the return of the deserters and most probably the territories around the town of Emporium. With the deal apparently agreed, Hasdrubal then marched his survivors back to Carthage, when Gulassa, one of Masinissa’s sons, attacked them with his cavalry. A massacre ensued, leading to the deaths of Hasdrubal and the survivors of the Carthaginian army. Appian puts the total Carthaginian losses at 58,000, which is surprising given the fact that they left Carthage with 25,400 and gained an additional 6,000.110 Where the additional 27,000 men came from is never explained.

For Masinissa, despite the way it was obtained, his victory was total. Carthage’s army had been destroyed, additional territory had been gained and Carthage was now beholden to him in terms of war reparations. Clearly, Carthage was now firmly in his sphere, not the Romans’. Carthaginian territory was now restricted to a coastal strip (which later became the Roman province of Africa) with Numidia dominating the plains of Libya. However, his victory was short-lived as events at Rome soon overtook him. As was usual in these cases, the majority of the Senate saw this war as proof of Carthage’s renewed threat, not a Numidian one, and despite Scipio Nasica, the clamour to finish Carthage once and for all was too great. Whether the Carthaginian’s had actually broken the 201 peace treaty now that they had paid off the war reparations is an interesting, but ultimately (especially for the Romans) irrelevant point. The Roman declaration of war and the destruction that followed must have been a blow to Masinissa and his plans.111 As it happens he did not live to see the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC, by P. Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus, who took his grandfather’s title of Africanus as reward for the slaughter that ensued. The city was destroyed with the survivors sold into slavery, though no salt was sown amongst the ruins, despite modern reports.112

Whilst the war has frequently been viewed from the Roman perspective, little thought has been given to that of Numidia. For Masinissa, the outcome of the war undid decades of work. The remaining Carthaginian territory was turned into a Roman province, establishing a permanent Roman presence in North Africa, controlling the Mediterranean trade routes. Although he did not live to see this, dying in c.148 BC, we can assume that he foresaw the outcome. In the end, the Romans did block his ultimate aims, but not through deliberate actions, but by the paranoia he had helped to stoke amongst the Roman elite.

Of the surviving obituaries, the following seem to encapsulate the man:

Masinissa, the king of the Numidians in Africa, one of the best and most fortunate men of our time, reigned for over sixty years, enjoying excellent health and attaining great age, for he lived until ninety. He also excelled all his contemporaries in bodily strength, for when it was necessary to stand, he could stand in the same place for a whole day without shifting, and again, if he were seated, he never used to get up. And he could also continue to ride hard by night and day without feeling any the worse.

At the age of ninety, the age at which he died, he left a son of four years old called Sthembanus, subsequently adopted by Micipses, besides nine other sons. Owing to the affectionate terms they were all on he kept his kingdom during his whole life free from all plots and from any taint of domestic discord.

But his greatest and most godlike achievement was this. While Numidia had previously been a barren country thought to be naturally incapable of producing crops, he first and he alone proved that it was as capable as any other country of bearing all kinds of crops, by making for each of his sons a separate property of 10,000 plethra which produced all the crops.113

As Walsh points out this is somewhat of an exaggeration given the longstanding agricultural production that took place in this region.114

Masinissa achieved many brilliant military successes, for which, after the defeat of Carthage and the capture of Syphax, the possessor of a vast and powerful empire in Africa, he was rewarded by the Romans with a gift of all the cities and territories that he had taken in war. Consequently, Masinissa remained a loyal and true friend to Rome until his rule ended with his death.115

He had been a fortunate man in all respects. By divine favour he regained his ancestral kingdom that had been snatched from him by Syphax and the Carthaginian, and extended it greatly from Mauretania on the ocean as far inland as Cyrene. He brought a good deal of land under cultivation where Numidian tribes had lived on herbs for want of agricultural knowledge. He left a great sum of money in his treasury and a large and well disciplined army. Of his enemies he took Syphax prisoner with his own hand, and was a cause of the destruction of Carthage, having left it prey to the Romans, completely deprived of strength.116

The Roman Settlement of North Africa

Although the reasons for the Romans declaring war on Carthage and its subsequent destruction have been much commented on, less thought has been given to the decision to annex the remnants of the Carthaginian territory. Certainly the decision to annex Macedonia in 148 BC gives the action some consistency, but the two cases are different. Macedonia was a highly populated kingdom, with natural resources, which when utilized under an aggressive monarch was a power to be reckoned with. With the destruction of the city, the Carthaginian territory was a small coastal strip centred on the few remaining coastal towns and cities, the greatest of which was now Utica.

However, having reviewed Numidian history to date, we may see another reason in the Roman minds. If the Romans pulled out, the rest of North Africa would be annexed by Numidia, which had proven itself to be a powerful force in the region. Furthermore, Masinissa’s death had removed Rome’s staunchest ally in the region. At the back of Roman minds must have been the first inklings of the monster that they had created. His death had also given them a great opportunity to stop Numidia in its tracks. Upon his death Masinissa had made Scipio the executor of his will. This in itself is not surprising given the strong ties of friendship and clientage that existed between the Scipiones and Masinissa. It seems that there were to be three principal heirs: his sons Micipsa, Gulassa and Mastanabal. Appian states that they were the only legitimate sons, but this is probably working back from the result rather than any notions of what constituted legitimate heirs in Numidian society

What Masinissa’ exact instructions were and how far Scipio followed them is not clear. The Periochae of Livy states that Masinissa left his kingdom undivided upon his death,117 obviously fearing a return to the pre-Second Punic War situation. Both Appian and Zonaras detail Scipio’s division of Numidia.118 What emerges is a tripartite division of power over an apparently-united kingdom. According to Appian, Micipsa, as the eldest received the capital Cirta and the royal palace, Gulussa was placed in charge of Numidia’s armies and Mastanabal was placed in charge of the judiciary.119 Thus Scipio left Numidia with three joint rulers, each with their own sphere of influence: political, military and judicial. Again it is unfortunate that we do not have Polybius’ views on this unusual inheritance.

How accurately Appian reported this division is open to question and we must wonder whether there was any territorial division to accompany it, especially given the events of 118 BC when Numidia was divided equally between three sons. In any event, it is clear that Numidian power was weakened under this tripartite agreement, a situation which suited Rome perfectly. With the creation of the Roman province of North Africa, Numidian power was reduced further.

The Monarch in the Shadows – The Reign of Micipsa (148–118 BC)

The only evidence we have for the triumvirate that ruled Numidia comes from Appian, who states that during the Third Punic War, the brothers were eager to offer material assistance to Rome’s efforts but slow to come through on these promises, waiting to see what would happen.120 It is at this point that Numidia disappears from our sources almost completely. Given the general paucity of our sources for Roman history in general in this period, especially those not centred on events in Rome, this is not surprising. Yet this period proved to be a highly important one for Numidia.

Central to this process is the shadowy figure of Micipsa, the eldest son of Masinissa. Upon his father’s death he received either sole political power in Numidia as a whole, or a region of Numidia centred on Cirta.

What is clear is that either by 142 or 134 BC he was the sole ruler (political military and judicial) of all Numidia. On both occasions we have Roman appeals for military aid for wars in Spain. In 142 it is Appian who reports that the Roman commander, Q. Fabius Maximus Servilianus, requested Numidian elephants for his war in Spain (see Chapter 1) from Micipsa, though whether he did this because Micipsa was sole king or still the brother in charge of Numidian politics is unclear.121 In 134 BC it was Scipio Aemilianus appealing for Numidian military aid, which was again duly dispatched, this time under the command of the Numidian prince Jugurtha, the son of Mastanabal who was dead by this point.122 Thus we can date the deaths of Micipsa’s brothers, who both died supposedly of natural causes, to between 148 and 134 (if not 142 BC).

Given the fratricidal nature of the Numidian royal family in the following period, we must ask ourselves how much of a coincidence it is that Micipsa’ two brothers both conveniently died of disease, leaving him as sole ruler of a united Numidia. Reading between the lines, can we see the hand of fratricide here? In any event, whether by accident or design, the Roman plan of dividing power in Numidia, or dividing Numidia itself, had come to nought and for the next twenty years Micipsa ruled Numidia as its sole monarch. We know next to nothing about his reign, save that he again proved to be a staunch ally of Rome and the Scipiones in particular, sending a contingent of Numidian cavalry to fight for Rome at Numantia. We can assume that trade flourished under his rule, given the number of Italian merchants in Numidia during later events. He will also have benefited from the removal of the city of Carthage and perhaps from the resettlement of refugees from their territories.

The fragments of Diodorus preserve the only detailed character assessment of the man:

Now Micipsa was the most civilised of all the Numidian kings, and lived much in the company of cultivated Greeks whom he had summoned to his court. He took a great interest in culture, especially philosophy, and waxed old both in the exercise of power and in the pursuit of wisdom.123

Towards the end of his life Micipsa was faced with the same problem that had faced his father, namely the succession. In addition to his own two sons, Adherbal and Hiempsal, he had also adopted the illegitimate son of his brother Mastanabal, named Jugurtha. Returning to the earlier Polybius obituary of Masinissa, if the Micipses mentioned is to be identified with Micipsa himself, then we do not know the fate of Sthembanus, as he certainly is not mentioned again. Furthermore, if this is the case, then it provides a precedent for Micipsa adopting other royal princes into his own immediate family (as was to happen with the Julio-Claudian Emperors of Rome). In any event, seeing little alternative, Micipsa made all three of his sons his joint heirs and apparently, as reported by Sallust, made Jugurtha swear to abide by his division and seek no conflict with his step brothers.

Whether he knew if this division would stand is an interesting question, especially given his own accession to the throne. Sallust’s report of Micipsa’s warning to Jugurtha does not necessarily have to be a purely dramatic device, given Jugurtha’s age, undoubted military abilities and Roman contacts. Thus at his deathbed, it is entirely possible that Micipsa knew what lay ahead for his family and his kingdom.


That Numidia was a formidable power in North Africa has now been established. Given Rome’s belligerent attitude towards strong regional powers, a Numidian war has the air of inevitability about it. Yet, the timing and its nature centres upon the figure of Jugurtha and his actions during the Numidian Civil War (118–112 BC), which must be analysed. For these events we have an excellent source in the form of Sallust, writing some seventy years after the events he detailed (seeAppendix V).

For later writers such as Florus, Jugurtha represents a new Hannibal, a stereotypical African prince who launched into a war against the Romans.124 For Sallust, Jugurtha is far from the stereotypical oriental villain, but is entirely a Roman creation. In fact, Sallust wrote the whole Jugurthine War pamphlet to illustrate his point about Roman moral degeneration, and in Jugurtha he found the perfect Roman creation. Jugurtha was the son of Mastanabal, the third eldest son of Masinissa. He was not born a Numidian prince as his mother was a concubine, and as such we are told that he was excluded from Masinissa’s will. We do not have a year of his birth, but given his age, he would have been born in the 150s. In 148 his father was made joint ruler of Numidia, with special responsibility for justice, if we are to believe Appian. However, within the decade, his father was dead, in mysterious circumstances, leaving his uncle Micipsa as sole king.

Nevertheless, Jugurtha remained a part of the extended Numidian royal family and was brought up in the royal court at Cirta along with the other young princes. An interesting anomaly is that Jugurtha appears to have been the eldest of the royal children, which given the fact that his father had two elder brothers seems somewhat odd. King Micipsa’s own children were relatively young by the time of his death, meaning that they were probably not born until Micipsa acceded to the throne. Therefore despite his illegitimate birth and commoner status, he was the eldest royal son of the next generation (that we know of). This accident of birth was backed up by his personal qualities, as described by Sallust:

As soon as Jugurtha grew up, endowed as he was with physical strength, a handsome person, but above all with a vigorous intellect, he did not allow himself to be spoiled by luxury or idleness, but followed the custom of that nation, he rode, he threw the javelin, he contended with his kinsmen in foot-races; and although he surpassed them all in renown, he nevertheless won the love of them all. Besides this, he devoted much time to the chase, he was the first to strike down a lion and other wild beasts, and he distinguished himself greatly, but spoke little of his exploits.125

Thus we can see why Micipsa was so worried, as Jugurtha may not have been a prince by title, but acted like one and was held in high esteem by the Numidians. Although Jugurtha had made no overt moves on his crown, Micipsa was clearly worried about the succession, and acted upon events to remove a potential threat to his crown. As detailed in chapter one, in 135 BC Scipio Aemilianus was elected consul for the second time and placed in charge of Rome’s war against Numantia (see Chapter 1). Given his close ties with Numidia, and his need to raise fresh forces, he naturally requested that the Numidians dispatch a military force to Spain. Micipsa readily agreed to this and chose to send Jugurtha as their commander. On the one hand it was a great honour for the young man, whilst on the other it not only removed him from Numidia, but placed him in what until now had been a hard-fought and at times disastrous war in Spain. Sallust explicitly states that this was Micipsa’s reason for sending him.126 However, as events tuned out, it was to be the making of Jugurtha, not the opposite:

In fact, he was both valiant in war and wise in counsel, a thing most difficult to achieve, for most often wisdom through caution leads to timorousness, and valour through boldness to rashness. Therefore Scipio relied upon Jugurtha for almost all difficult undertakings, treated him as a friend, and grew more and more attached to him every day, since the young Numidian failed neither in judgement nor in any enterprise. He had besides, a generous nature and ready wit, qualities by which he had bound many Romans to him in intimate friendship.127

Thus, it is safe to say that Micipsa’s plan backfired spectacularly. He left Numidia as popular young prince, but returned as a battle-hardened commander, well trained in the Roman art of war and with a significant number of Roman contacts, from Scipio downwards. Upon Jugurtha’s return to Numidia, Scipio apparently sent the following letter to Micipsa:

The valour of your Jugurtha in the Numantine war was most conspicuous; as I am sure you will be glad to learn. To us he is dear because of his services, and we shall use our best efforts to make him beloved also by the Senate and People of Rome. As your friend I congratulate you; in him you have a hero worthy of yourself and his grandfather Masinissa.128

If the letter is to be believed, certainly in tone, if not the actual words, then we have some very interesting evidence. Certainly it is evident that Scipio had befriended the young man, repeating their grandfathers. Nevertheless, it is also clear that the Romans had found someone with whom, to use the casual expression, ‘they could do business’. This is in contrast to the role of Micipsa himself, who had few apparent direct dealings with the Romans and certainly never appeared to have fought with them as Masinissa and Jugurtha had done. If the Romans were worried about Numidia without Masinissa, as it appears they were beginning to, then Jugurtha appeared to be the solution to their problem, a thoroughly Romanized prince, who they knew and trusted.

To Micipsa, the implication was clear. Sallust states that Micipsa soon adopted Jugurtha as a son, though later he contradicts himself and states that this was only done between 121 and 118 BC.129 One way out of this is the possibility that upon his return Micipsa made him a Numidian prince, reversing his commoner status, without formally adopting him as a son. We know little of events between Jugurtha’s return and Micipsa’s death, but Jugurtha’s position can only have increased with Micipsa’s frailty. Sallust reports that for the last five years of his life Micipsa was hardly of sound body or mind.130

By 121 BC, whatever his state of mind, Micipsa was faced with a dilemma. His own sons were of age, but the clear figure to succeed him, both at home, and more importantly in Rome, was Jugurtha. Rome had indicated some twenty years before that Jugurtha was their preferred candidate and although we have no explicit testimony, we must assume that this view was expressed in the intervening years. Faced with no other option, Micipsa formally adopted Jugurtha as a son and made all three his joint heirs. Sallust reports that he held talks with all three sons in an attempt to foster reconciliation and future harmony. In all reality he probably knew that it was a lost cause, given the disparity between birth and standing between Jugurtha and the other two.

The Numidian Civil War (118–112 BC)

Micipsa finally died in 118 BC, with three named heirs: Jugurtha, Adherbal and Hiempsal. It is clear that Hiempsal and Jugurtha clearly did not get along well, with Adherbal playing the peacemaker. Added to this potent mix was the absence of Rome. In 148, Scipio was on hand to act as executor and ensure that the three sons named as heirs cooperated in their inheritance. By 118 BC, Scipio was dead and it appears that the Romans left the Numidian princes to their own devices. Given the recent disturbances at Rome this was understandable, but in hindsight it was an error.

Coming to no comparable understanding, as apparently occurred in 148 BC, the three brothers agreed to physically divide the kingdom between them. Given the nature of the three men and the kingdom they inherited, a breach between them was not unexpected, nor long in coming. Prior to partitioning the kingdom the three agreed to partition the treasury first. En-route to the partition, the youngest brother Hiempsal stopped off in the town of Thirmida. Unfortunately for him, the governor of the town was a follower of Jugurtha. Notified of his arrival, Jugurtha arrived at night along with an armed retinue, gained entry into the house where Hiempsal was staying and murdered him.

This act plunged the country into a full-scale civil war, with cities and nobles lining up behind either Adherbal or Jugurtha, and with both sides raising armies. The two princes met in battle, and despite Adherbal having the larger army, he was defeated by the Roman-trained Jugurtha. Surviving the battle, Adherbal fled to the Roman province of Africa and then to Rome, to plead his case. Even without the close ties between Rome and Numidia it was natural that the Senate would render a judgement on this matter, as throughout the second century BC they had arbitrated on such issues across the Mediterranean, acting as an international court of arbitration and peacekeeper, rolled into one.

The escape of Adherbal placed Jugurtha in a dangerous position, as he must have hoped to have presented the Senate with a fait accompli, with him as the sole surviving ruler. Yet Adherbal was an unknown quantity to the Romans, whilst Jugurtha had many friends amongst the Roman aristocracy. Furthermore, he now had the whole resources of Numidia backing him. Given his contacts, knowledge of the Romans and financial resources, Jugurtha immediately sent envoys to Rome, to ensure that his ambassadors would have a favourable response amongst the Roman Senate, through a mixture of friendship and overt payment. On the day of the hearing in the Senate, Sallust reports that Adherbal gave a long emotional speech appealing to his father and grandfather’s service to Rome. Jugurtha’s envoys pointed out that Jugurtha had acted in the interests of Numidia, and that he himself had proved his loyalty to Rome on the battlefield of Numantia.131

In the end the Senate was split on the matter, but took the logical course, a division of Numidia between the two parties, without pursuing Jugurtha for his step brother’s murder. Such a course suited Rome’s interests in the region and once more divided Numidia, thus reducing her power and threat to Rome. For Jugurtha, this was a setback, but one that he could live with for now. A Senatorial commission was dispatched to divide Numidia, with the western region going to Jugurtha and the eastern to Adherbal. Jugurtha received the bulk of the population and fertile regions, Adherbal the coastal cities. Despite Sallust’s preoccupation with Jugurtha bribing every Roman senator he could, the commission came up with an even-handed division.132 In fact, this division superficially returned Numidia to the situation it had been before Masinissa’s time, with two, potentially antagonistic, regions (east and west). The obvious problem would be how long this settlement would hold. Both kings had met once on the battlefield and both had good cause to continue the war.

On the Roman side, the obvious question was whether they actually expected the settlement to hold. Given the circumstances, it appears to have been a forlorn hope. Yet, throughout the preceding century the Roman Senate had made such settlements before and they had always been honoured, with the threat of Roman armed force always being enough to ensure that whatever person or peoples involved adhered to them. Although Sallust attributed the breakdown of this settlement to Roman decline (moral and imperial), in reality Numidia represented something of a different case to the norm. For a start, Numidia had been a staunch Roman ally for over eighty years and had never been to war with Rome, let alone defeated. Secondly, Jugurtha knew the Roman elites well and this gave him greater confidence, some would say arrogance, when dealing with the Romans.

Once the Roman commission had left, Jugurtha drew up fresh plans for the annexation of Adherbal’s kingdom. To deter Rome’s wrath for breaching the agreement, he apparently planned to provoke Adherbal into declaring war on him, thus making him the victim of aggression. To these ends he sent raiding parties into eastern Numidia, destroying towns and seizing cattle. Adherbal, however, refused to be provoked, well remembering his previous military failure. Thus the situation continued for a number of years, until in 112 BC, the situation was so desperate for Adherbal that he had no option but to raise an army and meet Jugurtha in battle once more.

The two armies met near the city of Cirta, the old capital of a unified Numidia. Given the lateness of the day when the two armies met, battle was postponed until the following morning and both armies retired for the night. Once again Jugurtha proved his military superiority when he attacked Adherbal’s army as they slept. The attack soon ended in the rout and destruction of Adherbal’s army, with Adherbal himself fleeing once more, this time taking refuge in Cirta.133Jugurtha immediately laid siege to the city, which, as the one of the strongest in Numidia, resisted all his attempts to take it by storm. For Jugurtha, it was a question of time, as it soon became clear that Adherbal had once again been able to send envoys to Rome, apparently before the armies met. Thus Jugurtha could soon expect the arrival of another Senatorial commission and it would be better for him if they were presented with a fait accompli of Adherbal’s death and Jugurtha as the ruler of Numidia. A further complication arose for him, however, in the presence of a sizeable population of Italian merchants in Cirta, who aided in the defence of the city. This would give the Romans a more tangible stake in the events.

When the envoys arrived, however, Jugurtha gave them no opportunity to speak to Adherbal, but assured them the fault lay with the other party and that he would soon send envoys to Rome to explain the matter. Apparently, he also promised to end the siege of Cirta. Amazingly the three-man commission accepted his word and left Africa to report the matter to the Senate, without waiting for the siege to be lifted. It is hard to credit their actions without the shadow of bribery being raised. With the commission returning to Rome to make their report, Jugurtha continued his siege of Cirta. Unfortunately for him, Adherbal had two of his men slip through the siege and take a letter to the Senate, which laid out the situation in full, revealing Jugurtha’s duplicity.

Although some advocated sending a military force to aid Adherbal, the Senate could only agree to the sending of a further Senatorial commission to Jugurtha, this time led by M. Aemilius Scaurus, the Princeps Senatus.134 Sallust explains this action by returning to the theme of Jugurtha’ bribery of the Senate, though in reality there can have been little appetite for involving themselves in a Numidian civil war, especially given the situation in Illyria and Macedon (seeChapter 3).

Nevertheless, the urgency with which the Senate viewed the matter can be seen by the fact that the commission left Rome for Africa in just three days and once there immediately summoned Jugurtha to Utica, the de-facto capital city of Rome’s African province.135 Despite Sallust, we do not know exactly what the Commission said, but Sallust states that ‘terrible threats were made in the name of the Senate.’136 From this it must be the case that the commission ordered Jugurtha to end the siege of Cirta, return to his own kingdom and abide by the earlier Roman settlement.

For Jugurtha, this was the moment of truth. Agreeing to the Roman demand would overturn the last year’s successes and leave him with just Western Numidia. To continue the siege would be to directly disobey a command from the Senate. For Jugurtha the crucial calculation must have been whether Rome would go to war with him. With Adherbal dead there was no other clear rival to the Numidian throne, so would Rome replace him? It was at this point that events took an unusual turn. Despite holding off the siege for a number of months (at least four), the inhabitants of Cirta, including Adherbal himself, surrendered to Jugurtha. Sallust attributes this to the Italian community living in Cirta who believed that Jugurtha would adhere to the orders of the Senate.137

Whether this was a spontaneous action or whether Jugurtha made overtures to Adherbal and the Italians is not reported. What followed next sealed the issue. Jugurtha took Adherbal captive and had him tortured to death. Furthermore, an apparent massacre took place in Cirta, with the primary victims being the Italian trading community.138

At first such a provocative act seems difficult to understand. Not only did Jugurtha disobey a direct Senatorial command, but apparently slaughtered the Italians living in Cirta. Yet although Sallust states that this was done on Jugurtha’s command, we have to question this.139 Killing Adherbal made perfect strategic sense. The Senate had never fully supported him anyway and his death created the fait accompli of there being only one Numidian heir of Micipsa left, and one who had himself fought in Rome’s cause. Yet the massacre of the traders seems to be a blatant act of provocation or a very casual attitude to Roman sensibilities.

Here a parallel is useful. In 88 BC when the Pontic King Mithridates VI invaded the Roman province of Asia, he ordered a massacre of the Italian traders, which was enthusiastically undertaken by the locals, despite their inhabiting a Roman province for the past fifty years. Was the massacre undertaken on Jugurtha’s orders or a spontaneous act by the locals? Given that the Italians had been the most belligerent group, thus ensuring a long siege, with all the suffering that must have engendered, added to the natural dislike that such a group of privileged traders must have stirred up in any case, it would not be surprising that they were unpopular. Furthermore, we must question just how popular a group they would have been without the Senators themselves.

In any event, the massacre took place and Jugurtha, now sole king of a unified Numidia had to wait upon Rome’s reaction, which surprisingly was mixed. Sallust reports that despite this massacre, the Senate was still reticent about declaring war on Numidia, which he again assigns to Jugurtha’s bribery.140 In all fairness, the Senate’s options were limited. Jugurtha had been a staunch Roman ally of old and the massacre had taken place during a civil war siege, and frankly Adherbal was less known and had fewer contacts amongst the elites of Rome. Furthermore, Numidia was a vast and wild country about which the Romans knew little and had never operated in militarily since the days of Scipio Africanus. Such a war was not especially attractive and would have required a fresh levy of men for fighting overseas, with all the problems that came with that. Furthermore, it was clear that a barbarian migration was underway in Europe and having an army across the Mediterranean operating in the North African interior was not the best form of defence.

In any event, once again, the crucial decision was taken away from the Senate, and here we must look to the other two constituent elements in Roman politics in this period: the equestrian order and the people. For the equestrian order, recently brought into Roman politics by C. Gracchus, the massacre at Cirta was of men from their own order and struck at their business interests in Africa. Thus they had the two motives of revenge and the opportunity offered by a successful settlement of any war. As for the people, we are told that one of the tribunes, C. Memmius, ran a successful anti-senatorial campaign, demanding revenge on Jugurtha for the massacre and stating that the ‘greedy’ aristocracy were all in the pocket of a corrupt African prince. For an urban populace still smarting from the murder of C. Gracchus and his followers by the Senate, such a view hit home.

Thus the Senate found themselves, ironically like Jugurtha, pushed towards a war they did not want.141 In the end the Senate came to a compromise and allocated the two consular provinces for 111 BC as Italy and Africa.142 From such an inauspicious start came the war which was to determine the dominant power in North Africa.


What are we to make of the outbreak of the Jugurthine War? Taken from a long-term perspective, a clash between Rome and Numidia for dominance of North Africa seems inevitable. Although a unified Numidia had been created by Syphax and the Carthaginians, it was the Romans and Masinissa who ensured its survival and prosperity. As seen above, Numidia had been created to keep Carthage in check and had done such a good job of it that within Masinissa’s lifetime, Numidia had become the dominant power of the North African region. It is clear to us that Rome had created a monster, which after the fall of Carthage had now outlived its original purpose. Furthermore, Numidia now became a powerful kingdom bordering Roman territory. Although this is clear to us, it is unclear how the Romans at the time saw this, though Scipio Aemilianus’ division of Numidia coming so soon after the Roman attack on Carthage perhaps indicates that the Romans realized that they no longer needed a unified and powerful Numidia. Yet on two occasions a divided Numidia inevitably fell into the hands of a single ruler. Thus, taken from this perspective, war between the two powers does seem inevitable at some stage.

On the other had though, this inevitability is contrasted by the strenuous efforts made by both parties (Jugurtha and the Senate) to avoid a war on this occasion. Furthermore, Rome declared war on Jugurtha on a very flimsy set of circumstances, the defiance of their order to settle the civil war by negotiation and the massacre of a number of traders who had gotten themselves entangled in a siege. Many have argued that this was nothing more than a pretext and that the Senate saw their chance to reign in the new sole king of a unified Numidia, others that Jugurtha’s actions were a direct challenge to Roman authority and implied supremacy in the Mediterranean. In point of fact, though, given the other events taking place, both at Rome and in their empire, both of the above points of view seem to flounder on the fact that Rome really had more pressing issues on their mind at the time and could ill afford a war in North Africa against their oldest ally in the region and it’s strongest power.

In many ways the only satisfactory explanation is to discard theories of inevitability or vague challenges to Roman authority and see the war as resulting from events and pressures outside of the main players’ control. It is unlikely that Jugurtha wanted a massacre of the Italian traders or that the Senate would view it as an unforgivable act.

As we have seen, in Rome, the Senate’s once-unassailable grip on issues of foreign policy had been undermined by the tribunes (either on their own initiative or working for others). In this case, whilst the Senate probably did not wish for war with Jugurtha, the matter was taken out of their hands and public outrage (real or whipped-up) ultimately had to be appeased.

However, just because the Senate declared war on Jugurtha did not mean that they intended it to be a war of conquest or even one which would involve large-scale fighting, nor resemble in any form the war that actually took place. In the public eye Jugurtha had challenged Rome’s authority and murdered (however unintentionally) its citizens (though whether they actually had Roman citizenship is another question). Thus the Senate had to act, or at least be seen to act, and be seen to bring Jugurtha back in line. From such an innocuous start came a war that was to determine the future of the North African continent and one that was to have dramatic effects on the shape of Roman politics.