Jugurtha (160-104): king of Numidia (r.118-104).

Coin, showing the surrender of Jugurtha (right) by Bocchus (left) to Sulla (seated)
Coin, showing the surrender of Jugurtha (right) by Bocchus (left) to Sulla (seated)

Jugurtha was born as the son of Mastanabal, one of the three sons of king Massinissa, the man who had united Numidia, had allied it to Rome, had modernized the country, and was, in spite of his advanced age, still a proud warrior. He had played an important role during the Second Punic War (218-202), in which the Romans had defeated the Carthaginians. During Jugurtha's youth, Massinissa sometimes raided Carthaginian land, or simply claimed that it was his, knowing that Rome would always help him. In fact, it was a policy that could not really be separated from piracy.

In 151, the Carthaginians declared war upon the Numidians. Massinissa, now ninety-two years old, defeated his enemies, who now also incurred a war against the Romans. Massinissa did not live to see the fall of Carthage, because he died in the first phase of the war he had provoked. Loyal to Rome even after his death, he asked the Roman commander Publius Cornelius Scipio Aemilianus to divide his kingdom among his three sons Micipsa, Gulussa, and Mastanabal. The three men continued their father's policy and supported Rome during its war against Carthage, which was sacked in 146, when Jugurtha was fourteen years old.

His father and his uncle Gulussa seem to have died not much later, because Jugurtha is reported to have grown up in the palace of his uncle Micipsa, who gave the young man a military training and treated him as one of his own sons.

By then, he had become a capable commander. Micipsa had sent Numidian troops to Sardinia and and Hispania, where they fought for the Romans. In 134, when Scipio Aemilianus besieged the Spanish city Numantia, Jugurtha commanded a unit of archers, slingers and elephants (more...). The Roman commander was impressed by the Numidian's courage, the two men became friends, Jugurtha learned to speak Latin, and made new friend among the Roman senators. It was Scipio who advised Micipsa to adopt his nephew.

In 118, Micipsa died and Numidia was again divided into three parts, which were to be ruled by Jugurtha and his cousins, Adherbal and Hiempsal. Unlike the division in 148 it did not work out well. Jugurtha was far more dynamic and more popular than Adherbal and Hiempsal, who were also much younger. A civil war broke out: Jugurtha defeated Hiempsal, who was killed, and expelled Adherbal, who fled to Rome and asked support from the Senate.

Jugurtha's friends in the Senate, however, argued that the Numidian who had helped Scipio Aemilianus so well should have the benefit of the doubt. They proposed that a commission of senators, led by former consul Lucius Opimius, should visit Numidia and divide the kingdom between the two men. The settlement was much to the advantage of Jugurtha. He received the western half, inhabited by the Masaeisylian Numidians, whereas Adherbal had to be content with the eastern part of the Massylian Numidians, which was less fertile. Writing seventy years later, the Roman historian Sallust believed that Jugurtha had bribed several senators, and this may or may not be true.

In 112, a new conflict broke out, and Jugurtha laid siege to Cirta, the capital of Adherbal, who surrendered after his cousin had promised to save his life. However, he was killed, and during the capture of the city itself, several Italian merchants met their end too. This time, the Romans were less prepared to give Jugurtha the benefit of the doubt, and they sent troops to Numidia (111). But proconsul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia was incapable, or bribed, or both; in any case, Jugurtha was able to overcome the attack. A treaty was concluded, in which the Numidian king agreed to pay a fine of silver, hand over thirty elephants, and give the Romans several horses.

In Rome, the People's Assembly started to ask questions about the way in which the Senate had dealt with the affair. One of the tribunes of the plebs, Gaius Memmius, demanded that Jugurtha would come to Rome to explain his behavior. Because he was technically no longer an enemy, he received a free conduct. The king did indeed come to Rome, visited a meeting of the Assembly, and was suddenly ordered not to speak by another tribune, Gaius Baebius. Everyone was surprised about this unexplainable order, and again, there were rumors about bribes.

There was another Numidian leader in Rome, Massiva, son of Jugurtha's uncle Gulussa. Jugurtha understood that the Senate could make Massiva king, and made sure that the man was killed by a Numidian nobleman named Bomilcar. The Senate was now forced to make a choice between declaring a second war (and admit that one of its members had not really won the war), or do business with its former ally, who was ruthless but ultimately a man of great military valor. Jugurtha must have supposed that the senators would prefer the second alternative. But instead, war was renewed, showing that the Senate had more principles than he had expected.

Consul Spurius Postumus Albinus invaded Numidia for the second time (110), but it was already late in the season and he had to return to Rome to organize the elections. His brother, praetor Aulus Postumus Albinus, was no match for the experienced Jugurtha, and trapped the Roman army near a town called Suthul. A new treaty was concluded and the Romans were left alive, but the Senate refused to ratify the treaty, and sent a third army, this time commanded by consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus (109).

This time, Rome showed its full strength, and in fact, Jugurtha was chanceless. The new commander started to train the Roman army again, which had become demoralized after the two defeats. After these measures, Metellus attacked. He captured a town called Vaga, defeated Jugurtha in an open battle near the river Muthul, and forced the Numidian king to go to the west.

In 108, negotiations were opened, but Jugurtha refused to surrender; Bomilcar tried to solve the impasse by an attempt to murder the king; the Romans marched further into Numidia, but were unable to control the countryside; and Jugurtha tried to find allies among the nomadic Gaetulians; Metellus sent diplomats to weaken this new coalition. In other words, the war had come to a standstill.

The so-called Marius
The so-called Marius

Not everyone was happy with this situation, and one of Metellus' officers, Gaius Marius, returned to Rome and explained that the Roman general was every inch as incapable as the other senatorial commanders had been. The Roman electorate believed him and when Marius ran for consul, he was elected. In 107, he took over the Numidian command and launched a new campaign, which culminated in the capture of Capsa and fights in the neighborhood of Cirta.

However, Marius was unable to control the Numidian countryside, and found himself in the same position as Metellus. The Romans could capture cities and win battles, but were unable to strike against Jugurtha's cavalry, which could conduct a guerilla. Marius was forced to the same solution as Metellus: negotiations and diplomacy. He had more luck than his predecessor, because the Mauritanian king Bocchus, Jugurtha's father-in-law, was prepared to betray Jugurtha (105). Marius sent his quaestor Lucius Cornelius Sulla to the far west. The surrender is shown on a coin that was later minted by Sulla's son Faustus: Sulla, seated on a tribunal, Bocchus offering branches of a tree as a token of submission, and Jugurtha with his arms tied behind his back.

In 104, Marius returned to Italy and celebrated a triumph, and received a not entirely deserved reputation as Rome's best general; he proceeded to the wars against the Cimbrians and Teutones and was to become the first man in Rome. Jugurtha was executed in the jail. The reputation of the Senate was badly damaged, but was to be restored, many years later, by Sulla.


The most important source is Sallust's War against Jugurtha.

This page was created in 2004; last modified on 16 April 2020.