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(c. 238 - c. 148 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Masinissa for most of his life was a staunch ally of Rome. Taking advantage of the conflict between Carthage and Rome, he established the united state of Numidia.
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Masinissa (Massinissa) was born around 238 BCE. He was the first king of the Numidians – in the years 202-148 BCE. His state was spread over the lands of what is now eastern Algeria and western Tunisia. The capital of this country was Cirta.

During the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE) he participated initially as an ally of Carthage, then Rome.

Second Punic War

Masinissa was the son of the Numid tribal chief Massyli, Gali (or Gaïi) and was educated in Carthage, where he was de facto a prisoner. With the outbreak of war between Carthage and Rome in 218 BCE came the capital of Carthage to support the Punics. As a 20-year-old man, he fought alongside his father with the King of the West Numidians (Masesilians) – Syphax – who ruled in what is now Algeria and allied with Rome. Masinissa’s and father’s army defeated Syphax, and the young Numidian headed an experienced Numidian cavalry to Spain. There he defeated the Romans at Castulo and Ilorca in 211 BCE.

After Hannibal’s younger brother – Hasdrubal – left for Italy, Masinissa took complete command of the Carthaginian cavalry in Spain. There he successfully led an uphill drive against the Roman leader Publius Cornelius Scipio in 208 and 207 BCE, while at the same time Hasdrubal Giskon and Mago (Hannibal’s brother) gathered troops. In 206 BCE Carthaginian leaders, supported by Masinissa’s cavalry, clashed with Scipio in the Battle of Ilipia. The Roman commander proved his commanding talents, defeated the enemy and ended the Punian rule in Spain once and for all.

Larger battles of the Second Punic War.

In the same year, Gala died. Masinissa (supported by his father’s soldiers) and his brother Oezalces, who died shortly thereafter, competed for his legacy. The throne was taken by Capuss – the elder of Oezalces’ two sons, but he was killed by a representative of the dynasty’s sideline – Mazetullus. He did not take the royal title but ruled as the guardian of the second of Oezalces’ sons – Lakumazes, whom he appointed king. To secure his illegal position, Mazetullus married Hannibal’s niece, the recent wife of Oezalces, and renewed friendly relations with Syphax, the king of West Numidia.

In 205 BCE Masinissa came to Africa with a plan to seize power. Syfax wanted to take advantage of this situation, which after his previous defeats went over to the side of the Carthaginians. The chief of the West Numidians wanted to take part of the land from the east. Masinissa, unable to resist the combined forces of Carthage and Syphax, retreated into the Bellus Mountains and the headwaters of the Bagradas River, where he led guerrilla warfare until 204 BCE.

Sophonisba begging Masinissa for help. The woman was supposed to take part in Scipio’s triumphal march, but Masinissa “took pity” on her and gave her the poison.

Masinissa, noticing that the Romans had gained the upper hand in the Punic War, decided to form an alliance with the “sons of the she-wolf” and promised Scipio to support him in the invasion of North Africa. Scipio strengthened Masinissa’s trust by freeing his nephew Massiva from captivity. Hasdrubal, in turn, formed an alliance with Syphax, giving him his daughter as wife (previously she had been given to Masinissa). From then on, the Romans officially supported Masinissa’s claim for the throne of the Numidia.

In 203 BCE there was a battle on the Bagradas River, where Hasdrubal and Syfax suffered defeat. The latter was soon taken captive after the Roman-Numidian armies led by Gaius Laelius and Masinissa arrived at Cirta. Syfax was then handed over to Scipio into captivity, and his wife, Sophonisba, was “returned” to Masinissa. Scipio, however, fearing for her loyalty, ordered her to take part in his later triumphal march. Masinissa, wanting her to avoid the shameful march through the streets of Rome as a prisoner of war, passed on to her the poison she drank.

In the victorious battle of the Bagradas River, Masinissa proved his loyalty to the Romans, which Scipio appreciated by recognizing his kingdom of Massilia – Scipio in the presence of the army proclaimed Massynis rex socius et amicus populi Romani (“king, ally and friend of the Roman people”). In 202 BCE there was the Battle of Zama (202 BCE), in which Masinissa commanded the Roman right wing cavalry. After defeating the enemy cavalry, Masinissa hit the Carthaginians from behind, forcing them to flee. This clash finally decided the fate of the war.

The victory of the Romans over the Carthaginians brought Masinissa great political success. He defeated his enemy Syphax and united the Numidians in one state. What’s more, he had a strong position even in relation to Carthage, which, under the peace treaty of 201 BCE, it could not carry out military activities, even in the case of defending its borders, without the consent of the Romans. This enabled Masinissa to later plunder the Punian lands.

King of Numidia – reforms

After the Punic War, Masinissa created a united state – Numidia. The country was created largely also because the Romans wanted to limit the forces of the Carthaginians. A strong state on its borders would allow control of the Punics and prevent them from returning to power again.

Masinissa, in creating the state of Numidia, faced the difficult task of uniting the Numidian tribes and transforming them from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one1. He tried to convince the Numidians to cultivate the land and establish farms. Masinissa also adopted several neighbours’ solutions to modernize the state:

  • bronze coins with the image of the king were minted;
  • a standing army was created, additionally of mercenaries;
  • administrative reform was introduced – the prefects henceforth stood at the head of towns and settlements.

Masinissa’s policy of centralization and strengthening royal power, however, aroused resistance from some Numids. One of the manifestations of this was the rebellion of After, which was nevertheless suppressed, and he himself fled abroad.

Fall of Carthage

Massynis, with the support of Rome, gradually enlarged his state at the expense of Carthage. In the years 163 – around 148 BCE it comprised the land from the River Muluchat in the east to Tripolitania and Cyrenaica in the east.

Continuous Numidian raids on Carthaginian territories (Livius reports that 70 Punic cities in the western and southern regions of Carthage were attacked) provoked the Carthaginians to declare war on Numidia, without Rome’s consent. This led to the Punic War III in 149-146 BCE. Reportedly, when Masinissa saw Roman troops off the shores of North Africa he expressed displeasure. However, he did not live to see the fall of Carthage, because in about 148 BCE. He died. According to ancient sources, he was to live for 90 years, and despite his serious age, he was still actively in charge of the army. This is how Appian of Alexandria remembered him:

He was physically tall and strong until old age, so until his death he took part in battles and rode a horse without the help of a stable mate. His great prowess was best evidenced by the fact that he had fathered many children, and though they died, he never had fewer than ten, and left a four-year-old child at the age of ninety. Thus died Masinissa, a man of such physical strength, having come to such an old age.

Appian, Roman History, VIII.106

Scipio the Younger was supposed to be next to Masinissa on his deathbed. There, the king of Numidians asked him to divide the kingdom between his three sons.

After his death, power was divided between three sons:

  • Micypsa got Cyrta and royal administration,
  • Gullus was to lead the army
  • Mastanabal was to exercise jurisdiction.

The executor of the will was Scipio the Younger. Soon Gullus and Mastanabal died under mysterious circumstances. Under the influence of Scipio Micypsa, he was forced to adopt Mastanabala’s son, Yugurta. This one in the future was to gain independent rule in Numidia and fight the Romans, led by Gaius Marius. This in turn ended the independence of Numidia.

Tomb of Masinissa in Algeria.
Author: M.GASMI | Under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Curiosities of Masinissa

  1. Nomads get their name from Numidia.
  • Appian, Roman history
  • Iwaszkiewicz Piotr, Łoś Wiesław, Stępień Marek, Władcy i wodzowie starożytności. Słownik, Warszawa 1998
  • Massinissa, ""
  • Titus Livy, Ab urbe condita
  • Tadeusz Kotula, Massynisa, Warszawa 1976
  • Damian Waszak, Od sojuszu do zdrady. Droga Masynissy do tronu Numidii

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