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Numidia — An ancient region and country in Africa founded by Massinissa

Massinissa King of NumidiaNumidia, Ancient country, North Africa, approximately coextensive with present-day Algeria. During the Second Punic War, the tribal chief Massinissa supported the Romans from 206 BC, and he was made king of Numidia after the Roman victory over the Carthaginians in 201 BC. After the destruction of Carthage, thousands fled to Numidia, which became a Roman province in 46 BC. Its capital was Cirta (Constantine), and the chief city was Hippo, which was the see of St. Augustine.

The Punic Wars

The City of Carthage

Carthage, Phoenician Kart-hadasht, Latin Carthago, great city of antiquity on the north coast of Africa, now a residential suburb of the city of Tunis, Tunisia. Built on a promontory on the Tunisian coast, it was placed to influence and control ships passing between Sicily and the North African coast as they traversed the Mediterranean Sea. Rapidly becoming a thriving port and trading centre, it eventually developed into a major Mediterranean power and a rival to Rome. The archaeological site of Carthage was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1979. According to tradition, Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians of Tyre in 814 BCE; its Phoenician name means “new town.”

General Hannibal

Hannibal, (born 247 BC, North Africa—died c.183–181 BC, Libyssa, Bithynia), Carthaginian general, one of the great military leaders of antiquity. Taken to Spain by his father, the Carthaginian general Hamilcar Barca (d. 229/228 BC), he was sworn to eternal enmity with Rome. After the death of his father and brother-in-law, he took charge of Carthage’s army in Spain (221). He secured Spain, then crossed the Ebro River into Roman territory and entered Gaul. He marched over the Alps into Italy; encumbered by elephants and horses, he was beset by Gallic tribes, harsh winter weather, and defection of his Spanish troops. He defeated Gaius Flaminius but was severely harassed by Quintus Fabius Maximus Cunctator. In 216 he won the Battle of Cannae. In 203 he left for northern Africa to help Carthage fend off Scipio Africanus the Elder’s forces. He lost decisively to Scipio’s ally, Massinissa, at the Battle of Zama but escaped. He headed the Carthaginian government (c. 202–195); forced to flee, he sought refuge with Antiochus III, whose fleet he commanded against Rome, with disastrous results. After the Battle of Magnesia (190) the Romans demanded he be handed over; he eluded them until, seeing no escape, he took poison.

Scipio Africanus (the Elder)

Scipio Africanus (the Elder), in full Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, (born 236—died 183 BC, Liternum, Campania), Roman general in the Second Punic War. He was born into a patrician family that had produced several consuls. As a military tribune, he fought at the Battle of Cannae (216), managing to escape from the defeat. While still young, he secured Spain for Rome by 206, driving the Carthaginians out and avenging his father’s death. As consul in 205 he was granted permission to attack the Carthaginians in Africa. In 202 he was victorious over Hannibal at the Battle of Zama, ending the Second Punic War and winning the name Africanus. His political opponents, led by Cato, accused Scipio and his brother Lucius of offering too lenient terms to Macedonia after their engagement there and of not being able to account for money supposedly received in those terms. Though there was no evidence of his guilt, Scipio withdrew from public life and died a virtual exile.

The Three Wars

Punic Wars, or Carthaginian Wars, Three wars (264–241, 218–201, 149–146 BCE) between Rome and Carthage. The first concerned control of Sicily and of the sea lanes in the western Mediterranean; it ended with Rome victorious but with great loss of ships and men on both sides. In 218 Hannibal attacked Roman territory, starting from Spain and marching overland into Italy with troops and elephants. After an initial Carthaginian victory, Fabius Maximus Cunctator harassed Hannibal wherever he went without offering battle. Abandoning that tactic resulted in a major Roman loss at the Battle of Cannae (216); that defeat drew the Romans together, and, though worn down, they managed to rally, eventually defeating Hannibal at the Battle of Zama (202). The Third Punic War was essentially the siege of Carthage; it led to the destruction of Carthage, the enslavement of its people, and Roman hegemony in the western Mediterranean. The Carthaginian territory became the Roman province of Africa.

Numidia and Rome

Numidia, under the Roman Republic and Empire, a part of Africa north of the Sahara, the boundaries of which at times corresponded roughly to those of modern western Tunisia and eastern Algeria. Its earliest inhabitants were divided into tribes and clans. They were physically indistinguishable from the other indigenous inhabitants of early North Africa and, at the end of the Roman Empire, were often categorized as Berbers. From the 6th century BCE points along the coast were occupied by the Carthaginians, who by the 3rd century BCE had expanded into the interior as far as Theveste (Tébessa). Numidian cavalry was frequently found in the Carthaginian armies by that time.

Numidia with Massinissa

The inhabitants remained seminomadic until the reign of Masinissa, the chief of the Massyli tribe, which lived near Cirta (Constantine). During the Second Punic War, he was initially an ally of Carthage, but he went over to the Roman side in 206 BCE and was given further territory, extending as far as the Mulucha (Moulouya) River. The Romans under Scipio Africanus and Numidians under Masinissa burned the camp of the rival Numidian chief Syphax near Utica and then overwhelmed Syphax and his Carthaginian allies at the Battle of Bagrades in 203 BCE. Syphax had been wooed by Rome, but his allegiance to Carthage was cemented when he married Sophonisba, the daughter of the Carthaginian commander Hasdrubal. Syphax was captured and exiled to Rome, where he died at Tibur (modern Tivoli). Masinissa wished to claim Sophonisba as a wife, but when Scipio demanded that she go to Rome as a captive, Masinissa gave her poison so that she might escape the fate of a prisoner. (That tragic event was often depicted in later Western paintings.)

Numidian horsemanship, animal breeding, and cavalry tactics eventually contributed to later developments in Roman cavalry. In his history of Rome, Polybius underscores how important those cavalry advantages were to the outcome of the Second Punic War. Numidian superiority was demonstrated by the cavalry leadership of Maharbal under Hannibal at Trasimene and Cannae and later by Masinissa at Zama under Scipio Africanus. For nearly 50 years Masinissa retained the support of Rome as he tried to turn the Numidian pastoralists into peasant farmers. He also seized much Carthaginian territory and probably hoped to rule all of North Africa.

Numidia without Massinissa

The Numidian On Masinissa’s death in 148 BCE, the Romans prudently divided his kingdom among several chieftains, but the progress of civilization among the Numidians was not seriously interrupted, and, indeed, after 146 BCE it received new impetus as thousands of Carthaginians fled to Numidia after the destruction of Carthage. In 118 Jugurtha, an illegitimate Numidian prince, usurped the throne and forcibly reunified Numidia until the Romans again took control in 105. Rome continued to dominate Numidia through client kings, though Numidian territory was considerably reduced. The third and final attempt by a Numidian to found a powerful state was that of Juba I, between 49 and 46 BCE, ending with his defeat by Julius Caesar at Thapsus.

Caesar formed a new province, Africa Nova, from Numidian territory, and Augustus united Africa Nova (“New Africa”) with Africa Vetus (“Old Africa,” the province surrounding Carthage), but a separate province of Numidia was formally created by Septimius Severus. The Roman army’s Third Legion took up its permanent station at Lambaesis (Lambessa), and, as a result of the increased security, the Numidians’ population and prosperity increased substantially during the first two centuries CE. A few native communities achieved municipal status, but the majority of the population was little touched by Roman civilization.

Christianity spread rapidly in the 3rd century CE, but in the 4th century Numidia became the centre of the Donatist movement. That schismatic Christian group was particularly strong among the Numidian peasantry, to whom it appealed as a focus of protest against deteriorating social conditions. After the Vandal conquest (429 CE), Roman civilization declined rapidly in Numidia, and the native elements revived to outlive in some places even the Arab conquest in the 8th century and to persist until modern times.

The main Berber Kingdoms

Massinissa, king of Numidia

Masinissa, also spelled Massinissa, (born c. 238 BC—died 148 BC), ruler of the North African kingdom of Numidia and an ally of Rome in the last years of the Second Punic War (218–201). His influence was lasting because the economic and political development that took place in Numidia under his rule provided the base for later development of the region by the Romans.

Masinissa was the son of the chieftain of a Numidian tribal group, the Massyli. Brought up in Carthage, of which his father was an ally, he fought for Carthage against the Romans in Spain from 211 to 206. When the Carthaginians were defeated at Ilipa (near modern Sevilla) by Scipio in 206, Masinissa switched sides and promised to assist Scipio in the invasion of Carthaginian territory in Africa. Meanwhile, his father had died; the Romans thereafter supported his claim to the Numidian throne against Syphax, pro-Carthaginian ruler of the Massaesyli tribe. Syphax was successful in driving Masinissa from power until Scipio invaded Africa in 204. Masinissa joined the Roman forces and participated in the victorious Battle of the Great Plains, after which Syphax was captured. His Numidian cavalry were essential in Scipio’s victory at Zama, which ended the Second Punic War and Carthage’s power.

After the defeat of Syphax and the Carthaginians, Masinissa became king of both the Massyli and the Massaesyli. He showed unconditional loyalty to Rome, and his position in Africa was strengthened by a clause in the peace treaty of 201 between Rome and Carthage prohibiting the latter from going to war even in self-defense without Roman permission. This enabled Masinissa to encroach on the remaining Carthaginian territory as long as he judged that Rome wished to see Carthage weakened.

Masinissa’s chief aim was to build a strong and unified state from the seminomadic Numidian tribes. To this end he introduced Carthaginian agricultural techniques and forced many Numidians to settle as peasant farmers. Any hopes he may have had of extending his rule across North Africa were dashed when a Roman commission headed by the elderly Marcus Porcius Cato came to Africa about 155 to decide a territorial dispute between Masinissa and Carthage. Animated probably by an irrational fear of a Carthaginian revival, but possibly by suspicion of Masinissa’s ambitions, Cato thenceforward advocated, finally with success, the destruction of Carthage. Masinissa showed his displeasure when the Roman army arrived in Africa in 149, but he died early in 148 without a breach in the alliance.

Syphax, king of the Masaesyli

Syphax, (died 201 BC, Tibur [now Tivoli, Italy]), king of the Masaesyli, a Numidian tribe (in North Africa). Formerly a Carthaginian dependent, he rebelled in 214 BC in consultation with Publius Cornelius Scipio and his brother Gnaeus, who were fighting Carthaginian forces in Spain at the time. In 206 Syphax expelled his neighbour and rival Massinissa. When Syphax married Sophonisba—daughter of the Carthaginian commander Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo—Syphax returned his allegiance to Carthage. 

When Scipio Africanus (the Elder), the son of Publius, invaded Africa near the end of the Second Punic War, Syphax opposed him at Utica, on the coast of what is now Tunisia. Scipio burned Syphax’s camp there, and Scipio’s friend Gaius Laelius defeated Syphax at the Battle of the Great Plains near Utica (203). Syphax fled to Numidia, where he was defeated and captured by Masinissa. He was handed over to the Romans and deported to Italy, where he died.

Jugurtha, king of Numidia

Jugurtha, (born c. 160 BC—died 104, Rome), king of Numidia from 118 to 105, who struggled to free his North African kingdom from Roman rule.

Jugurtha was the illegitimate grandson of Masinissa (d. 148), under whom Numidia had become a Roman ally, and the nephew of Masinissa’s successor, Micipsa. Jugurtha became so popular among the Numidians that Micipsa tried to eliminate his influence by sending him in 134 to assist the Roman general Scipio Africanus the Younger in the siege of Numantia (Spain). Jugurtha, however, established close relations with Scipio, who was the hereditary patron of Numidia and who probably persuaded Micipsa to adopt Jugurtha in 120.

After Micipsa’s death in 118, Jugurtha shared the rule of Numidia with Micipsa’s two sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal, the first of whom Jugurtha assassinated. When Adherbal was attacked by Jugurtha, he fled to Rome for aid—Rome’s approval being required for any change in the government of Numidia. A senatorial commission divided Numidia, with Jugurtha taking the less-developed western half and Adherbal the richer eastern half. Trusting in his influence at Rome, Jugurtha again attacked Adherbal (112), capturing his capital at Cirta and killing him. During the sack of Cirta, a number of Italian traders were also slain. Popular anger in Rome at this action forced the Senate to declare war on Jugurtha, but in 111 the consul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia made a generous settlement with him. Summoned to Rome to explain how he had managed to obtain the treaty, Jugurtha was silenced by a tribune of the plebs. He then had a potential rival killed in the capital, and even the best of his Roman friends could no longer support him.

When war was renewed, Jugurtha easily maintained himself against incompetent generals. Early in 110 he forced the capitulation of a whole army under Aulus Postumius Albinus and drove the Romans out of Numidia. Antisenatorial feeling caused the terms of this surrender to be disavowed by Rome, and fighting again broke out. One of the consuls for 109, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Numidicus, won several battles but did not drive Jugurtha to surrender. After the arrival of a new consul, Gaius Marius, in 107, Jugurtha continued to achieve successes through guerrilla warfare. Bocchus I of Mauretania, however, encouraged by Marius’ quaestor, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, trapped the Numidian king and turned him over to the Romans early in 105. He was executed the following year.

In vigour and resource he was a worthy grandson of Masinissa but lacked his political insight. Misled by signs of corruption in the Roman governing class, he failed to realize that there were limits beyond which Rome’s satellite rulers could not go without provoking decisive intervention. The Jugurthine War gave Marius the excuse to reform the army by recruiting soldiers who were not property owners. As the Roman historian Sallust's monograph The Jugurthine War makes clear, the Senate’s handling of Jugurtha, characterized by a mixture of corruption and incompetence, led to the loss of public confidence, which was an important factor in the eventual fall of the Roman Republic.

Bocchus I, king of Mauretania

Bocchus I, (flourished late 2nd and early 1st centuries BC—died between 91 and 81 BC), king of Mauretania in North Africa from about 110 to between 91 and 81 BC; probably father-in-law of Jugurtha, king of Numidia, directly to the east of Mauretania.

At the beginning of the war between Jugurtha and the Romans (112–105), Bocchus attempted unsuccessfully to make a treaty with Rome. He later joined Jugurtha, and in 107–106 they fought successfully against Gaius Marius. In 105 Bocchus was persuaded by Marius’s quaestor Sulla to betray Jugurtha and hand him over to Sulla. Bocchus was allowed to keep western Numidia as far as the Mulucha River (present-day Moulouya River in Morocco), which Jugurtha had ceded to him, and he became an ally of Rome. On the Capitoline Hill he dedicated in 91 (with the permission of the Senate) a group of statues depicting Jugurtha’s surrender to Sulla; Marius was furious and almost turned against Sulla in a civil war.

Juba I, king of Numidia

Juba I, Juba also spelled Iuba, (born c. 85 BC—died 46 BC, near Thapsus), king of Numidia who sided with the followers of Pompey and the Roman Senate in their war against Julius Caesar in North Africa (49–45 BC).

Succeeding his father, Hiempsal II, sometime between 63 and 50, Juba became bitterly hostile toward Caesar because of a personal insult (probably in 63). In addition, one of Caesar’s supporters, the tribune Curio, in 50 unsuccessfully proposed the incorporation of Numidia as a Roman province. In 49, Curio landed in Africa to expel Pompey’s forces but was defeated and killed by Juba, who thereupon considered himself the potential master of all North Africa.

Pompey died the following year, but African resistance continued under Metellus Scipio (to whom Juba was allied). In 46, Caesar himself came to subdue them. Juba had to divide his substantial army of infantry, cavalry, and elephants because his kingdom had been invaded from the west by Caesar’s ally Bocchus, king of Mauretania, and an Italian adventurer, Publius Sittius. Juba was defeated with the other adherents of Pompey at Thapsus, and his general in the west was killed by Sittius. Repulsed from Utica by Cato (Uticensis) and expelled from his temporary capital Zama by its inhabitants, Juba committed suicide.

Juba II, king of Numidia and Mauretania

Juba II, (born c. 50 BC—died AD 24), son of Juba I and king of the North African states of Numidia (29–25 BC) and Mauretania (25 BC–AD 24). Juba also was a prolific writer in Greek on a variety of subjects, including history, geography, grammar, and the theatre.

As a child of about five Juba was paraded in Rome in Caesar’s triumphal procession after the death of Juba I but subsequently was given a good education in Italy. Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) befriended Juba when he was a young man and in 29 BC installed him as king of Numidia, which had been a Roman province since the defeat of Juba I in 46. In 25 Juba was made ruler of Mauretania, which he governed until his death. His first wife, Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, exercised great influence on his policies.

Succeeding generations praised his scholarly work, but from the meagre fragments that survive it seems that, though his interests were extremely wide, he had little originality. He was content to excerpt or rearrange material from earlier authors, which he collected in a substantial library at his capital city of Caesarea (formerly Iol, now Cherchel, Algeria).

In the dark

After its conquest by the Vandals in AD 429, Roman civilization there declined rapidly; some pockets of native culture survived, however, and even continued after the Arab conquest in the 8th century. ∎

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