Berber Kingdoms of Numidia and Mauretania Flourish Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Numidia and Mauretania, in the Mediterranean region of northern Africa, played important roles during the spread of Roman power in this part of the African continent.

Summary of Event

Africa northwest of the Sahara gave rise to several groups of Berber people who were organized into tribes and clans and followed a seminomadic life. Of these Berbers, the Numidians were the most powerful. Their kingdom was part of the Carthaginian empire until Masinissa, the ruler of eastern Numidia, allied himself with Rome in 208 b.c.e. during the Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.e.). Rome’s victory over Carthage, brought about by Publius Cornelius Scipio (d. 211 b.c.e.), enabled Masinissa to extend his rule over all of Numidia, initiating a cultural and political efflorescence. Mauretania, a land west of Numidia, came under Numidian control in the second century b.c.e. under the leadership of Bocchus. Rome involved itself in the internal affairs of Mauretania by placing Juba II on the throne. When the Mauretanians revolted against Rome, they were vanquished and later absorbed into the empire as two provinces—Mauretania Caesariensis and Mauretania Tingitana. Rome’s influence was slight, however, and limited to coastal areas, with local Berber chiefs retaining control over most of the interior. Masinissa Jugurtha Juba I of Numidia Bocchus

Northern Africa during the time of the Roman Republic and Empire was peopled by seminomadic Berbers, a group related by linguistic similarities. In Numidia, roughly comprising the area of present-day Algeria, people lived a seminomadic life herding small flocks of animals from one grazing area to another and cultivating grain and olives in coastal areas and in desert oases. The Numidians lived in the shade of a more powerful north African people, the Carthaginians. By the third century b.c.e., Carthage had become an economic power and a threat to Rome’s dominance in the Mediterranean. In the Punic Wars fought between Carthage and Rome (264-146 b.c.e.), Numidia allied itself with Rome.

Masinissa (top left).

(F. R. Niglutsch)

Numidia’s first king was Masinissa, chief of the Massyli tribe. The Massyli inhabited the area around Cirta, a city near the Mediterranean coast. During the Second Punic War, Masinissa allied himself with Carthage but turned sides and went over to the Roman general Scipio Africanus in 206 b.c.e. In 203, Masinissa helped Scipio defeat the Carthaginian army. One year later, Scipio destroyed the Carthaginians at the Battle of Zama. Under the terms imposed on Carthage by Rome, the Carthaginians gave the kingdom of Syphax, ruler of western Numidia, to Masinissa.

Numidia under Masinissa was supported by Rome for approximately fifty years. In addition, Masinissa retained a close personal alliance with the Scipio family. During his reign, Numidians served in the Roman infantry and cavalry, where their skill with the javelin was noted. At home, Masinissa attempted to encourage settled farming. He also took control over Carthaginian lands with the goal of ruling all of northern Africa. Numidia experienced an influx of Carthaginian refugees when Carthage was destroyed by Rome in 146. In the aftermath of the destruction, the Romans organized the area around Carthage as the province of Africa and left the remainder to the three sons of Masinissa.

Two of Masinissa’s sons died shortly after their father, leaving Micipsa as the sole ruler of Numidia. As king, Micipsa adopted Jugurtha, his illegitimate nephew and a grandson of Masinissa. The line of succession to the throne of Numidia was complicated, however, when Micipsa had two sons of his own, Adherbal and Hiempsal. In 134 b.c.e., Micipsa sent Jugurtha to command Numidian troops serving in the Roman army in the hope that he would be killed. Jugurtha survived and returned to Numidia with praise from his Roman commanders and the loyalty of Numidia’s soldiers.

On the death of Micipsa in 118 b.c.e., Numidia was destined to be divided into three, with each part going to one of Micipsa’s sons. The division never took place. Instead, Jugurtha had Hiempsal killed. Adherbal responded by launching a revolt against Jugurtha. The conflict between the two princes split Numidia as each side sought to convince the Roman senate as the justness of its cause.

Jugurtha then seized control of Numidia and reunited it by force of arms. In 112 b.c.e., Jugurtha sacked the city of Cirta and killed its inhabitants, many of whom were Romans. His action enraged Rome and led to an attack by his former ally. The Jugurthine War (111-105 b.c.e.) lasted six years and ended when Jugurtha was betrayed to the Romans by his father-in-law, King Bocchus of Mauretania. Jugurtha was put to death and his kingdom was reduced in size; the main portion went to Jugurtha’s half brother Gauda and the western part to King Bocchus. Rome then made Numidia a client-state when it replaced Jugurtha with a king of its own choosing.

Numidia’s fate became intertwined with the civil war fought between Julius Caesar (100-44 b.c.e.) and Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey the Great; 106-48 b.c.e.). In 49 b.c.e., Juba I attempted to restore an independent kingdom of Numidia when he launched a revolt against Roman rule. Juba’s attempt ended in his defeat at the hands of Julius Caesar at the Battle of Thapsus one year later. Juba committed suicide, and Numidia was broken into two: One part was added on to the Roman province of Africa, the other part was added to the kingdom of eastern Mauretania. A separate province of Numidia was created by the Roman emperor Septimius Severus (145-211 c.e.) in the second century c.e.

Like its north African neighbor to the east, the kingdom of Mauretania was first inhabited by nomadic Berbers. They were called Mauri by the Romans (a name that, misleadingly, gave rise to the English word “Moor”). As the Mauri adopted a more settled way of life, they cultivated grain and olives and established trading posts along the Mediterranean and Atlantic sea coasts. Mauri rulers established a royal court at Siga. During the Second Punic War, the king of the Mauri, Syphax, fought against the Carthaginians. In 212, Syphax underwent a change of mind (possibly because of the influence of his Carthaginian wife, Saphanbaal) and joined forces with Carthage. Syphax was killed when Scipio and Masinissa of Numidia defeated the Carthaginians in 203.

During the reign of King Bocchus I, Mauretania sided with the Romans against the Numidians and their ruler Jugurtha. During the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, Mauretania’s corulers, Bocchus II in the east and Bogud in the west, supported Caesar. After the deaths of Bocchus and Bogud, Octavian (the future emperor Augustus; 63 b.c.e.-14 c.e.) seized control of all of Mauretania and set up several military colonies there. Under the emperor Claudius I (10 b.c.e.-54 c.e.), Mauretania was made into two provinces of Rome: Tingitana in the west and Caesariensis in the east. Rome was now in complete control of the Roman province of Africa.

Significance

The Berber kingdoms of Numidia and Mauretania were involved in Rome’s struggle to extend its control over northern Africa and, specifically, to destroy Carthage. They sided with one or the other as it suited their political ends. Under Masinissa, Numidia became a client state of Rome and provided skilled soldiers to the Roman army. This special relationship was undone during the reign of Jugurtha, a former friend of Rome. Jugurtha fought a six-year war with Rome that ended with his betrayal by his Mauretanian father-in-law and the breakup of Numidia. During the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Mauretania supported Caesar. Under the first emperors, Mauretania and Numida became absorbed into the empire as provinces.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cherry, David. Frontier and Society in Roman North Africa. New York; Clarendon Press, 1998. Discusses Rome’s presence in Numidia and Mauretania from c. 50 b.c.e. to 250 c.e.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Herodotus. Histories. Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt. New York: Penguin, 2003. The classic work by the ancient Greek historian.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lazenby, J. F. Hannibal’s War: A Military History of the Second Punic War. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. A history of the wars between Carthage and Rome, focusing on the career of the Carthaginian general, Hannibal. Written by a British scholar of ancient warfare.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Moulton, Carroll, ed. Ancient Greece and Rome: An Encyclopedia for Students. 4 vols. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998. A multivolume reference work for students.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Raven, Susan. Rome in Africa. 3d ed. New York: Routledge, 1993. An expansive overview of Rome’s relations with all its African colonies, subject states, and enemies. Uses both archaeological and literary sources.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roller, Duane W. The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene: Royal Scholarship on Rome’s Africa Frontier. New York: Routledge, 2003. A detailed and comprehensive study of the Mauretanian king and his queen, daughter of Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony. Portrays the complex interactions of Roman and North African cultures in the early first century c.e.
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