Berber Warfare Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The term “Berber” was first coined by foreign conquerors in an attempt to classify a large population who resided in the Maghreb region of North Africa.

Political Considerations

The term “Berber” was first coined by foreign conquerors in an attempt to classify a large population who resided in the Maghreb region of North Africa. Some scholars believe that “Imazighen” was the self-referential term. The exact identification of who constituted the Berber people during this period becomes difficult to determine given the wide use of this appellation and the complicated ancestry of those it attempts to describe. In the words of one of the foremost modern Berber scholars, Elizabeth Fentress, “at best we can define Berbers as Mediterranean.” The term Berber language group“Berber” is also used to refer to the Afro-Asiatic language group, with its many variants and dialects. At one point this language group constituted one of the major forms of verbal communication in North Africa.BerbersNorth African peoplesAfrica;BerbersBerbersNorth African peoplesAfrica;Berbers

The Berber population was not contained in one nation and was embroiled in numerous intertribal and international conflicts. Throughout the period from 1000 b.c.e. to 1000 c.e., Berber tribes, kingdoms, and Mercenaries;Berbermercenaries were both allies and enemies of Carthage and Rome, the Muslim invaders, and each other. To confuse the situation further, this duality was common during the major military conflicts. Sorting through this tangle can be daunting, but the task is made easier if it is understood that the term “Berber,” when applied in a historical context, may refer to just a single kingdom, tribe, or mercenary band rather than to an entire population. The varied political situations that erupted into warfare led directly to the Berbers’ identity as warriors.

Military Achievement

The Berbers’ actions on hundreds of battlefields across the ancient world, from the coasts of North Africa to Italy and Spain, earned them a reputation as accomplished and fierce fighters. Both Carthage and Rome courted Berbers during their long feud, drawing them into all three of the Punic Wars. Berbers again were a serious political and military consideration during the Vandal conquest and occupation of North Africa. Berber cavalry and infantry formed the backbone of resistance during the Muslim invasion of North Africa in the seventh century c.e. as well as alternately serving as a conquering force for Islam.

As the Punic War, First (264-241 b.c.e.)Berber population was not contained in one nation and was embroiled in numerous intertribal and international conflicts, only a summation of some of the most important engagements follows. The Berber kingdoms of NumidiaNumidia (present-day Algeria and part of Tunisia) allied with the North African Phoenician city of Carthage;and Berbers[Berbers]Carthage (formed c. 814 b.c.e.). During the Punic War, First (264-241 b.c.e.)First Punic War (264-241 b.c.e.), Numidian soldiers and cavalry were in the ranks of the Carthaginian armies allied against Rome and its forces. Berber soldiers made up a large element of the discontent during the Mercenaries;BerberMercenaries, Revolt of the (241-238 b.c.e.)Revolt of the Mercenaries (241-238 b.c.e.), which was sparked over payment issues stemming from the First Punic War.

During the Punic War, Second (218-201 b.c.e.)Second Punic War (218-201 b.c.e.), Masinissa (Massyli chief)Masinissa, the chief of the Massyli tribe in Numidia, formed an alliance with Carthage against Rome. He commanded cavalry against Rome on a battlefield in Spain. In 206 b.c.e., however, he switched sides, allying with Rome in exchange for larger territory. At the climactic Zama, Battle of (202 b.c.e.)Battle of Zama (202 b.c.e.), Masinissa’s cavalry was a decisive factor in the crushing Carthage defeat. In 151 b.c.e., open warfare broke out between Numidia and Carthage, ending in defeat for Carthage. Sensing weakness, Rome initiated the Punic War, Third (149-146 b.c.e.);Berbers inThird Punic War (149-146 b.c.e.). Once again, Numidian cavalry were part of the army that leveled Carthage in the final year of that war.

A descendant of Masinissa, JugurthaJugurtha (Numidian king)Jugurtha, fought alongside Scipio Africanus the Younger in the Spanish siege of Numantia. In an attempt to consolidate his kingdom, Jugurtha attacked another Numidian king in 118 b.c.e., who sought and was granted Roman aid. The end result was the execution of Jugurtha in 105 b.c.e.

In 429 c.e. the VandalsVandals crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into North Africa on a mission of conquest. Once again, Berbers assisted and repelled this latest foreign incursion, and they weathered the Vandal occupation until that empire’s ultimate decline. Striking out from conquered Egypt, Muslims clashed with Berbers between 642 and 669 c.e. Although there remained pockets of resistance, the majority of the Berber population converted to Islam. It is estimated that eighty thousand Berbers fought on behalf of the Muslims at the Tours, Battle of (732)Battle of Poitiers/Tours in 732 c.e. This would become the foundation for the Islamic empires of the AlmoravidsAlmoravids and AlmohadsAlmohads of the later centuries.

Weapons, Uniforms, and Armor

Perhaps the most effective weapon in the Berber arsenal was the Horses and horse riding;Berbershorse. It is estimated that this living weapon of war was introduced to the Berber homeland around 1200 b.c.e. The Berber warriors quickly evolved into highly skilled horsemen. The Berber Garamantes (Berbers)Garamantes, in the period predating the Roman excursions in North Africa, were noted as using horse Chariots;Berberchariots. These seem to have been used for purposes of shock and awe, as archery platforms, or perhaps as status symbols. Later accounts do not mention these chariots in use.

According to accounts left by their opponents, the Berber horsemen rode bareback (although it is likely they used saddlecloths). There was also amazement that the Berbers seemed to guide their horses without reins; in fact, they utilized the bozal, a rope or leather bridle to which a lead-rein is attached with a metal bit. The ability of the Berbers to marshal massive numbers of mounts was considered extraordinary. According to a report from Greek geographer StraboStrabo (Greek historian) Strabo, “Horse-breeding is followed with such exceptional interest by the [Berber] kings that the number of colts every year amounts to one hundred thousand.”

Of course the horse was simply the conveyance for the warrior, who had to exploit the opportunity provided by his steed. The preferred missile weapon of the Berbers was the broad-bladed Javelins;Berberjavelin, usually cut to a length of five feet. A short sword, often appropriated from a fallen Roman foe, was generally carried as a secondary offensive weapon and a defensive measure against other cavalry blades. Historical documentation also cites Berber horsemen equipped with short spears. Berber infantrymen were similarly armed with spears, swords, javelins, and the occasional bow.

For protection, a small, rounded leather Shields;Berbershield was carried into battle, although in the later medieval period this was replaced with a much larger shield made from the hide of a kind of antelope known as the Lamt (shield)lamt. While larger, the lamt shield remained light. According to tradition, the lamt hide was cured in milk, and the shield was so effective that a saber blow would rebound or become stuck, while arrow holes tended to make only insignificant impressions in the thick surface.

As Berber troops hailed from various tribes rather than a single nation and were often employed as Mercenaries;Berbermercenary auxiliaries, there is no single distinctive Berber uniform from this period. It is probable that Berber warriors simply wore their “civilian” garb in battle, which often consisted of a goat-skin cloak and long, flowing unbelted tunics. Another distinctive article of clothing associated with the Berber is the hooded cloak called theBurnusburnus, which may have been inspired by the Roman legionnaire garment, the Sagum sagum. Berber warriors with exposed heads could be identified on the battlefield through another means: An ancient tribal custom, practiced into the medieval period, was to shave part of the head before going into battle.

Military Organization

Berber gatherings began at the level of the Ikhs (Berber clan)ikhs, a group of extended family headed by the eldest male member. The population of a Berber village often included several of these groups, and a Berber tribe comprised a dozen or more villages in a defined geographic area. The smaller of the tribes remained under the familiar system of elder rule, whereas the larger tribes spawned monarchs, some of which were led by kings with dynastic ambitions.

In times of need, warring Berber tribes would put aside their differences and muster into a coalition called a Leffsleff or soff. Such coalitions had political considerations; members pledged offensive assistance to other members or promised aid in defense against rival leffs.

The two most significant early Berber kingdoms were NumidiaNumidia (present-day Algeria and part of Tunisia) and MauritaniaMauritania (near present-day Algeria and Morocco). The kings of Numidia and Mauritania raised armies of slaves, freemen, and Mercenaries;Berbermercenaries through the time-proven system of taxation. Also in these kingdoms, an aristocratic class developed. Similar to medieval knights, the men of this highborn class became the elite Cavalry;Berbercavalry. The kings could call their tribal subjects to their banners, but the subjects’ availability to serve was hindered by agricultural considerations, such as harvesting and sowing. Ultimately, the kingdoms of Numidia and Mauritania were both destroyed by Roman imperial designs.

During the third century, under Emperor Diocletian’s reforms, the Romans made a concerted effort to assimilate Berber forces into the Roman military machine. Large numbers of Berbers served with the Romans as Foederatifoederati, semiautonomous allies. The Berber cavalrymen were arranged into relatively vaguely defined squadrons rather than into precise unit designations. These squadrons were led by the Berbers’ own leaders, who were then overseen by the Roman generals, who commanded them on the field and on the march. This seems to have been the system typically used when large groups of Berbers were employed as mercenaries.

Doctrine, Strategy, and Tactics

Berber Guerrilla warfare;Berbermilitary doctrine remained fairly consistent during this period. There was a marked preference for ambush and guerrilla-style hit-and-run strikes over complex, large-scale maneuvers or siege warfare. Generally, the Berber troops were lightly armored and equipped and were extremely mobile. Roman opinion of the Berber warriors was that they were fierce and swift, but they were also unreliable and poorly armed.

Berbers were experts in guerrilla warfare against larger, better-equipped foes. The favored stratagem was to lead the enemy forces into an ambush on favorable ground by means of feigned retreat, then, once they arrived at a prearranged fixed position, spring the trap. A reserve, usually mounted, would often be kept at a distance and would then surge forward to envelop the enemy from all directions.

Mounts, such as horses, remained an important element in the Berbers’ military operations. David Nicolle, a scholar of Berber warfare, gives an illuminating example of Berber ingenuity:

In the later centuries, with a greater use ofCamelscamels, the eastern Berber tribes would make these beasts kneel in a big circle as a barrier against cavalry, whose horses tended to fear the camels. Other animals could also be roped together as an inner barrier, while calthrops were scattered outside. Some warriors defended the living perimeter using spears as pikes, while javelin throwers stood between the camels. The best cavalry took up position some way away.

Ancient Sources

Strabo, StraboStrabo (Greek historian)the Greek geographer and historian, wrote of the Berber society in his seventeen-volume Geography (Strabo) Geōgraphica (c. 7 b.c.e. ; Geography, 1917-1933). Book 5 of Natural History (Pliny the Elder) Pliny the ElderPliny the Elder Pliny the Elder’s Naturalis historia (77 c.e. ; The Historie of the World, 1601; better known as Natural History) contains a valuable cache of information about North Africa and Carthage. SallustSallust Sallust, one of the most shameless pillagers of North Africa, wrote the Conspiracy of Catilline (Sallust) Jugurtha War, The (Sallust) monographs I bellum catilinae (c. 42 b.c.e. ; The Conspiracy of Catilline, 1608) and Bellum iugurthinum (c. 40 b.c.e. ; The Jugurtha War, 1608), which shed light on this little-known historical event. AppianAppian (Greek historian) Romaica (Appian) Appian’s Romaica (second century c.e. ; history of Rome) contains information on the Second and Third Punic Wars and an appendix, which has survived only in part, on the Numidian War. Some information on Berber culture is also contained in the fifth century b.c.e. works of the preeminent classical scholar HerodotusHerodotus (Greek historian) Herodotus. A book commonly attributed to Julius Caesar, but likely written by another Roman officer, Commentaries (Caesar) titled De bello Africo (49-45 b.c.e. ; Commentaries of the African War, 1753), deals with the battle between Caesar and Pompey in North Africa and provides details on the role of King Juba of Numidia and the Thapsus, Battle of (46 b.c.e.) Battle of Thapsus in 46 b.c.e. A fifth century bishop, Victor of VitaVictor ofVita Victor of Vita, in the small North African province of Byzacene, left behind his work Memorable and Tragical History, of the Persecution in Africke (Victor of Vita) Historia persecutionis Vandalorum (fifth century c.e. ; The Memorable and Tragical History, of the Persecution in Africke, 1605), a rare eyewitness account.

Medieval Sources

Procopius ProcopiusProcopius (Byzantine historian)Vandall Wars (Procopius of Caesaria) of Caesaria’s two-volume De bello Vandalico (550; Vandall Wars, 1653, in The History of the Warres of the Emperour Justinian) covers the Byzantine general BelisariusBelisarius (Byzantine general) Belisarius’s campaign against the rebuilt and Vandal-held Carthage. Ibn Abd el-HakemIbn Abd el-Hakem History and Conquest of Egypt, North African, and Spain (Ibn Abd el-Hakem) Ibn Abd el-Hakem’s work Kitāb Futūḥ Miṣ wa-al Maghrib wa-akhbārihā (ninth century; The History and Conquest of Egypt, North Africa, and Spain, 1922) book 5, deals with the Muslim conquest of Spain and North Africa in the ninth century c.e. Balādhurī, Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā al-Balādhurī, Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā al-[Baladhuri] Aḥmad ibn Yaḥyā al-Balādhurī’s Origins of the Islamic State, The (Balādhurī) Futūḥ al-buldān, which was translated into English in 1916 as The Origins of the Islamic State, contains a great amount of information on the Berbers, including brief discussion of the Muslim advance into North Africa. Even though it was written centuries after the events, Ibn Idhāri al-Marrākushi, Abū al-Abbas Ahmad ibn MuhammadIbn Idhāri al-Marrākushi, Abū al-Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad[Ibn Idhari] Abū al-ՙAbbās Aḥmad ibn Muḥammad ibn ՙIdhārī al-Marrākushī’s book al-Bayān al-mughrib (eighth or fourteenth century) is also a valuable, if incomplete, resource.BerbersNorth African peoplesAfrica;Berbers

Books and Articles
  • Brett, Michael, and Elizabeth Fentress. The Berbers. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 1997.
  • Falola, Toyin. African History Before 1885. Vol. 1 in Africa. Durham, N.C.: Carolina Academic Press, 2000.
  • Gabriel, Richard A. Empires at War. Vol. 2. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2005.
  • Montagne, Robert. The Berbers: Their Social and Political Organization. London: Frank Cass, 1973.
  • Nicolle, David. The Desert Frontier. Vol. 5 in Rome’s Enemies. New York: Osprey, 1996.
  • Oliver, Roland, and Brian M. Fagan. Africa in the Iron Age, c. 500 B.C. to A.D. 1400. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
  • Santosuosso, Antonio. Barbarians, Marauders, and Infidels: The Ways of Medieval Warfare. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1998.
Films and Other Media
  • The Road Behind, the Road Ahead: A Berber Story. Documentary. Zennia Studio, 2008.
  • Carthage: A Journey Back in Time. Documentary. Cromwell Productions, 2006.
  • The Dark Ages. Documentary. History Channel, 2007.
  • Legions of Rome: Punic Wars. Documentary. Kultur Video, 2007.
  • Maghreb: Back in the Middle Ages. Documentary. Customflix, 2007.
  • The Romans in North Africa: A Journey Back in Time. Documentary. Cromwell Productions, 2006.

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