Masinissa (240 B.C.-148 B.C.) was Prince of the Massylians, who consolidated the fragmented Numidian tribes, creating a kingdom in North Africa which expanded and thrived in the context of the Punic Wars.
Carthage, a port city on the north coast of Africa in the area of present-day Tunisia and Algeria, was established in 814 b.c. by Phoenician settlers who eventually dominated the local North African farmers and nomads. Phoenician merchants along the Mediterranean coast, settled farmers of the watered plains, and the migrating shepherds of the steppe land bordering the Sahara Desert coexisted with the exchange of both trade and culture. The increasing economic and military power of the unified city-state of Carthage resulted in its domination of the fragmented tribes of the Numidians.
Masinissa was born around 240 b.c. at a time of conflict in the long-standing relationship between the Carthaginians and the local African people. The Numidian tribesmen had provided the Carthaginians with swift, skilled cavalry auxiliaries, sharpened through generations of intertribal conflict; but, following the defeat of Carthage in war against Rome, they were not paid for their services. Rebelling against Carthage, the fragmented Numidian tribes were not able to form a united front against the Carthaginians and soon were dominated once more by their powerful neighbor.
Masinissa's father Gala was the chief of the Massylians—a traditionally nomadic tribe that lived southwest of Carthage—who apparently had established treaties of friendship with Carthage and may have sealed those treaties by his marriage to a Carthaginian woman from a prominent family. Egyptian historian Appian reports that Masinissa was brought up and educated in the city of Carthage, making him familiar with the combined Phoenician and Greek ideas that formed Carthage's Punic culture. He also learned the traditional skills and wisdom of the nomadic Massylians, such as horsemanship and survival in the desert, and this combined education would later serve him well.
According to the account of Diodorus Siculus, Masinissa, as the heir of an important ally of Carthage, was engaged to marry Sophoniba, the lovely daughter of Hasdrubal Gisgo, a leading Carthaginian general. Following the outbreak of the Second Punic War in 218 b.c., Masinissa led a contingent of Numidian cavalrymen in supporting Hasdrubal against the Romans in Spain. Livy in his famous history reports that the young Masinissa and his Numidian cavalry played a key role in the 212 b.c. defeat of the Roman legions led by Gnaeus and Publius Scipio. After his first campaign, Masinissa returned to Africa in 210 b.c., where he raised an additional force of 5,000 Numidians to support Hasdrubal in Spain.
In 209 b.c., Publius Scipio drove Hasdrubal's Carthaginian forces, which included Masinissa, to flight. Among those captured was the impetuous Massiva, a young nephew of Masinissa who had joined with the cavalry against his uncle's orders. This boy was allowed to return unharmed to his uncle, an action which caused Masinissa to be grateful to Scipio. While the Carthaginian forces were in retreat, Masinissa and a force of 3,000 Numidian horsemen were assigned the task of harrying the Romans throughout Spain, destroying farms and towns that supported their enemy; in 207 b.c., a new Carthaginian offensive was mounted. One Carthaginian force reached into Italy before it was defeated, while another offensive, led by Hasdrubal and supported by Masinissa, was undertaken in Spain. Confronted in 206 b.c. by Scipio's newly reinforced Roman army, Hasdrubal's and Masinissa's forces were defeated and driven to flight, thus diminishing the Carthaginian threat from Spain. Seeing the Carthaginians' change in fortune, Masinissa opened negotiations with the Romans; he then returned to Africa and conferred with tribal leaders on his decision to switch his allegiance to Rome.
With the Romans eager to subvert Carthaginian allies among the Numidians, Scipio courted and won the support of Syphax, the chief of the Masaesylians away from the Carthaginians. Meanwhile, after his conference, Masinissa returned to Gades in Spain and entered into an alliance with Scipio, promising to support him in Africa against Carthage. But Roman senators like Quintus Fabius Maximus were not supportive of Scipio's strategy, wanting him instead to force Hannibal out of Italy before leading an African campaign; such senators assessed Syphax and Masinissa as selfishly desiring supremacy in Africa with the fall of Carthage. The next two years proved frustrating for Masinissa, who was forced to endure the subsequent delay in Scipio's African invasion.
In Masinissa's absence, the leadership of his tribe was usurped by Mazaetullus, leaving Masinissa struggling from 205-203 b.c. to regain his position. Syphax proved an obstacle as well when—entreated by Hasdrubal—he became an ally of Carthage once more, sealing the treaty by marriage to Hasdrubal's daughter Sophoniba to whom Masinissa had been engaged. With limited resources, Masinissa then had to struggle against the combined opposition of Mazaetullus and his ally Syphax. Some loyal veterans of Gala supported Masinissa, and early successes led to an increase of popular support among the Massylians against the superior forces of his opponent. Masinissa defeated Mazaetullus, only to be threatened by Syphax's forces in 204 b.c. and driven into the desert; many of his subjects then submitted to Syphax. Continuing to lead raids from mountain strongholds, Masinissa plundered the territories of Syphax and the Carthaginians until Syphax's forces retaliated, driving Masinissa from his stronghold and wounding him. Masinissa and a handful of survivors charged into a flood-swollen river; swept downstream, they escaped.
After healing from his wounds, Masinissa recruited a new army from among his tribesmen who were amazed at his survival. He established a new base in the mountains between Syphax's fortress capital at Cirta and the coastal city Hippo Regis. Once again, however, his base of operations was seized and Masinissa narrowly escaped. With his surviving horsemen, he fled eastward to Scipio's beachhead in the Lesser Syrtis, collecting local supporters along the way.
Masinissa's fortune changed as he joined Scipio. His Numidian horsemen contributed to the string of victories won by the Roman forces, especially as they acted as the bait to lure opposing forces out of fortified cities into Roman traps.
Though Scipio courted Syphax's defection from the Carthaginians and failed, he successfully devised a plan to disrupt the camps of the huge armies led by their opponents, Hasdrubal and Syphax. Masinissa and his Numidian supporters initiated the subsequent attack, sneaking at night into the camp and starting fires in the huts. In the smoke and confusion, Masinissa's forces created havoc, distracting the sentries of the nearby Carthaginian camp, making it vulnerable to Scipio's attack. While Syphax and Hasdrubal escaped, Livy reports that 40,000 soldiers were killed, 5,000 captured, and large quantities of supplies were secured. This defeat led Carthage's leaders to recall Hannibal from Italy, as they feared an attack on Carthage. Masinissa, supporting Scipio, defeated the briefly reassembled forces of Hasdrubal and Syphax. The survivors of the battle were pursued by a combined Roman and Numidian force west into Masaesylian territory, while Scipio tightened his hold over the southern part of Carthaginian territory.
With his victories, Masinissa consolidated his position among his own people while his opponent Syphax took the brief respite to raise yet another army from his tribal stronghold around the capital at Cirta, an army defeated by the Roman and Allied forces who captured Syphax. Pressing on to Cirta ahead of the Roman legions, Masinissa exhibited Syphax in chains and convinced the city's leading citizens to surrender. Entering the city, he was met by Sophoniba who begged not to be turned over to the Romans. Though Masinissa easily gave his word, it was a promise he would have trouble keeping. According to Livy, he married Sophoniba that day before the Roman leaders arrived in Cirta. The Roman officers were outraged and disputed Masinissa's decision. Judgment in the case was left to Scipio who was away in the east. Masinissa and the Romans in the west continued to subdue Numidian towns and the forces led by Vermina, a son of Syphax who continued to support Carthage.
Scipio eventually confronted the traitorous Syphax, who blamed his betrayal on the manipulations of Sophoniba and warned that she would likely persuade Masinissa to go over to the Carthaginians. As a result, Scipio later took Masinissa aside, commending his achievements but proclaiming that, charged with subverting an ally, Sophoniba should be sent for trial in Rome. Distraught, Masinissa pleaded unsuccessfully. After agonizing over what to do, he sent a faithful servant with poison to his new wife, with hopes of keeping the promise he had made, that he would not turn her over to the Romans. Sophoniba chose to commit suicide. While upset by Masinissa's action, Scipio was eager to keep Masinissa as a Roman ally and personal friend. In a public ceremony, Scipio proclaimed Masinissa as "King of the Numidians" and gave him gifts symbolic of his new rank.
The Roman Senate's affirmation cemented the relationship and Masinissa loyally threw his efforts behind the Romans. A shrewd politician among his own people, Masinissa requested and secured the release of many Numidians who had been captured. The new king then led a contingent of 6,000 cavalry and 4,000 infantry east to Zama where Scipio faced Hannibal and the forces which Carthage had recalled to Africa. In the ensuing battle, Masinissa led the allied Numidian horsemen on the right side of the battle formation and succeeded in disbursing the opposing cavalry. The collapse of Hannibal's formidable forces led Carthage to seek an armistice. In mopping-up operations, Masinissa defeated Vermina and others who challenged his authority.
Following the battle at Zama, Scipio—nearing the end of his term in office—was eager to complete a treaty with the Carthaginians. The terms of the treaty were nonetheless very demanding, and included provision for Scipio's protégéMasinissa. After the provisions for war reparations and arms limitations came an absolute restriction on the Carthaginian's right to wage war without the consent of Rome, and a demand that they live at peace with Masinissa and the Numidians. In his settlement, Scipio gave Masinissa the city of Cirta and the whole realm of Syphax as well as rule over the Massylians.
Now master of all Numidia and free of Carthaginian interference, Masinissa took advantage of his status as an ally of Rome in the postwar situation. He consolidated his position by promoting the economic well-being of his subjects, which won their loyalty. Over time, he promoted the growth of settled farms whose produce supplied Rome with food and brought money into Numidia, while economic growth was also facilitated by coinage minted bearing Masinissa's image. Numidia's prosperity was benefited by the long peaceful rule of their king.
Increasing his territory and power while gaining a reputation as a consummate ally of Rome, he encroached on the fertile land of the Badradus river valley and prosperous towns of the Carthaginians along the border, claiming them as ancestral lands. Under the provisions of the peace treaty, Carthage was unable to retaliate and so appealed to Rome. In 193 b.c., a Roman commission examined the case of the Carthaginians, but found in favor of Masinissa. Further appeals were made in 182, 174, and 162 b.c. as Masinissa seized more land, territory he was never forced to return. Some have since shown Masinissa as a clever politician making his incursions in times of Roman displeasure with Carthage, which led them to ignore his offenses.
Frustrated by the Roman decisions, the Carthaginians eventually violated the treaty of 201 b.c. and attacked Numidia in 149. Masinissa, though quite aged, directed a successful counteroffensive in a dispute recognized by classical authors as the immediate cause of the Third Punic War. Charging a breach in the peace treaty of 201 b.c., the Romans declared war and Appian reports that the elderly Masinissa was offended that he was not consulted or asked to participate in the formulation of Roman war plans. In 148 b.c., during the early stages of the war, Masinissa died, leaving his successors to support the Roman effort which would destroy Carthage two years later in 146 b.c.
As a client-king, Masinissa achieved a great deal in the shadow of Rome. While our accounts of his life come from sources that focus on the Romans, it is clear that he created a nation in a large geographic region inhabited by nomadic tribesmen and settled farmers. An inspiring general, always willing to ride into battle, and a shrewd politician, who could manipulate diplomatic situations for his nation's benefit, Masinissa was given the title of king by the Romans. Among the Numidians, he had earned it.
Further Reading on Masinissa
Appian. Appian's Roman History. Translated by Horace White (Loeb Classical Library). 4 vols. Harvard University Press, 1964.
Siculus, Diodorus. Diodorus of Sicily. Translated by C. H. Oldfather (Loeb Classical Library). 10 vols. Harvard University Press, 1966.
Livy. Livy. Translated by Frank Gardner Moore (Loeb Classical Library). 14 vols. Harvard University Press, 1971.
Polybius. The Histories. Translated by W. R. Paton (Loeb Classical Library). 6 vols. William Heinemann, 1922.
Law, R. C. C. "North Africa in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods, 325 b.c. to a.d. 305," in The Cambridge History of Africa. Vol. II. Cambridge University Press, 1984.
Mackendrick, Paul. North African Stones Speak. University of North Carolina Press, 1980.
Raven, Susan. Rome in Africa. Routledge, 1992.
Saumagne, Charles. La Numidie et Rome: Masinissa et Jugurtha. Presses Universitaires de France, 1966.
Walsh, P. "Masinissa,"in Journal of Roman Studies. Vol. 55. 1965.
Warmington, J. "The Carthaginian Period," in UNESCO: General History of Africa. Vol. II. Edited by G. Mokhtar, University of California Press, 1981.