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Syphax

Syphax or Sophax: king of the Masaeisylians in Numidia (last quarter of the third century BCE).

Coin of Syphax, showing an unidentified man and a horse
Coin of Syphax, showing an unidentified man and a horse
When Syphax was born, Numidia (the north of  modern Algeria) was a country on the edge of the urbanized world of the Mediterranean. Although many people were living in large villages that would eventually develop into cities, another part of the Numidian population was still roaming over the plains. Our word "nomad" is derived from "Numidia".

There were two rival tribal federations, both in the process of becoming full-blown kingdoms. In the east lived the Massylians, ruled by king Gala (or Gaïa), and the fertile west was inhabited by the Masaeisylians, who were probably ruled by ancestors of Syphax. (They are already confused in ancient sources.) The eastern kingdom, close to Carthage, was sympathetic to this city, and it is possible that the Carthaginians had actively encouraged the rise of a pro-Carthaginian dynasty that would be a buffer against the western Numidians.

In 218, war broke out between Carthage and Rome. The Carthaginian commander Hannibal was able to invade Italy, where he defeated several Roman armies. But the Romans were not defeated. They decided to attack their enemy's base, Hispania, which was defended by Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal. Their commanders Publius and Gnaeus Cornelius Scipio were successful. Syphax sympathized with them, and in 214, Hasdrubal had been sent out against him. Syphax's kingdom had suffered from this invasion, but he had not been defeated decisively. In 213, he concluded an alliance with the Romans. If the eastern kingdom of Numidia was pro-Carthage, its western rival inevitably supported the main opponent of Carthage. Roman military advisers helped Syphax to train his troops. He was to attack the eastern Numidians of Gala; at the same time, their prince Massinissa supported the Carthaginian army in Hispania.

When Gala died in 206, his sons Massinissa and Oezalces quarreled about the inheritance, and Syphax was able to conquer considerable parts of the eastern kingdom. Meanwhile, Massinissa had concluded that Rome would win the war against Carthage. By now, it had conquered all of Hispania. Therefore, Massinissa decided to switch sides: he would support a Roman invasion in Africa if the Romans would help him beat Syphax. The king of the Masaeisylians now allied himself to Carthage and married Sophoniba, the daughter of a nobleman named Hasdrubal, son of Gesco, who made her husband even more pro-Carthaginian.

After this renversement des alliances, it looked as if Carthage and Syphax dominated Africa, but it turned out that Rome and Massinissa, who had lost almost everything, were stronger. Although Massinissa's power was reduced to 200 cavalry, his knowledge of the terrain enabled the Roman forces to strike where it hurt most. In 204, Syphax and the Carthaginians were still able to force the Roman commander Publius Cornelius Scipio (the son of the man with the same name mentioned above) to raise the siege of Utica, but in 203, the Roman general and his West-Numidian ally defeated the Carthaginians and Syphax at the Great Plains.

Syphax now fled to Cirta, where he and Sophoniba were taken captive by the Roman commander Laelius. Sophoniba married Massinissa but was poisoned, and Syphax was sent to Italy. In 202 Scipio defeated the Carthaginians decisively near Zama, and a peace treaty was concluded. The two Numidian kingdoms were united by Massinissa, and Syphax was shown in the triumph of Scipio as a symbol of his conquests. His life was spared, but he was kept in detention. He died in Tibur, modern Tivoli.

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 27 July 2014.