July 22, 2012


Surrounded by his bodyguards, a man, a king, is riding silently along the empty road. He stops, looks at a first time at the city from which he has been chased away, takes again his way, stops a second time. He looks a long time, always silent and from far, at fora, palaces, temples, houses, as if  he were looking for in that web of walls and history a new detail,  the light which can suddenly put  him  into the midst of a different truth. But nothing changes his conviction. No, everything in that city – including power- is bought and sold. ” City for sale and doomed to quick destruction, if it should find a buyer!” he suddenly talks loud. He touches his horse’s flanks by his heels and takes again his road without looking back and without speaking anymore.

That city is Rome, that man is Jugurtha, King of Numidia.

A dangerous young man.

Jugurtha is born son of a prince and of a concubine. Growing up, he despises idleness and likes to ride, to hunt and to practice with weapons. When he orphaned,  King Micipsa, his uncle, adopts him , and he repents almost immediately: that young man is too ambitious, too intelligent, too impetuous, too popular, he may create unrest. Then Micipsa sends him to fight alongside the Romans in the war against Numantia with the secret hope not to see him returning. Jugurtha, however, comes back, safe and sound, laden with honours,  full of new knowledge (especially about how the Romans fight and how they can.. be bribed) and important friends.  The legendary conqueror of Carthage, the consul Publius Scipio Aemilianus in person, praises him. Micipsa needs to start all over again. Now he tries to soften the fiery nephew  by giving him responsibility and by appointing him his heir, like his sons Hiempsal  and  Adherbal.

He should never have done it. On the death of the King, Jugurtha conceals his true intentions , he seems to play along, but he aspires to something else. He began by demanding the abolition of all laws enacted by Micipsa over the past five years because, according to him, those were laws issued by an half -fuddled King. His is a resounding own goal. Among those laws there is also a “ad personam” law, the one by which the King puts him among his heirs. Cornered, Jugurtha throws the mask, he murders treacherously Hiempsal (Livius will provide a different version) and defeats Adherbal  in battle, forcing him to flee from Numidia and to seek refuge in Rome .

Auri sacra fames.

The Rome’s reaction is in tune with the bad habit of those times: at the beginning it is indignant; then, little by little that the Jugurtha’s gold from Numidia  takes the way to Rome and it  goes into the right pockets , the indignation becomes less strong. The senators, “worked”  by those who have been benefited by Jugurtha’s bribes, convene  in the Senate Adherbal and the ambassadors of Numidia to hear their reasons.

Adherbal speaks having a heart-to-heart : my father died, my brother was murdered, my friends have been crucified or thrown in jail, I have no more allies. Perhaps I have not even dignity. All turn away from me. Will even Rome turn away from me  ?  Rome , to which since the days of my grandfather Masinissa , we Numidians have sworn allegiance, beside which we have fought the common Carthaginian enemy  , to which we are still loyal?

This is not true!  the ambassadors of Jugurtha replay : Hiempsal was killed by the Numidians because of his cruelty and Adherbal is an aggress and was kicked out for this reason. The loyalty to Rome? Our King has distinguished himself in combat alongside the Roman legions. Could he ever betray Rome?

It is time to decide and the Roman senators,  because of the gold of the King, do not see that issue eye to eye: some are in favour of Adherbal and others, instead, support the  Jugurtha reasons. Finally, the Conscript Fathers instead of forming an army, appoint  a  delegation and send it to Numidia to fix things. And what does Jugurtha? He exploits his connections with powerful Roman families, but more importantly, knowing who he is dealing with, he passes substantial bribes along, buys the members of the delegation and, in the division of the kingdom followed by the peace arrangements, makes  assign to himself the best territories. Adherbal bites the bullet: he has got very, very little, but little is still better than nothing. And so he  prefers to keep quiet and to adapt.

But  a couple of years later, Jugurtha tries again. Pressed closely, Adherbal takes refuge in his own capital, Cirta (modern Constantine in Algeria), this time determined to resist. From Rome, for the second time, instead of an army, a delegation arrives. An incorruptible delegation? Yes, that’ll be the day! With their pockets bulging with   coins of the realm, the  Roman delegates in Numidia close more than an eye. Jugurtha takes advantage, conquers Cirta and kills Adherbal . But – fatal mistake- he passes to the sword many Italians and some Roman citizens. At this point the Senate before thinks a little on,  then it takes action and declares war to the impious faithless.

Souk mundi.

The name of the consul who oughts to fix it  is  Lucius Calpurnius Bestia. He is experienced, courageous, intelligent, but also greedy for money and wealth (aeger avaritiae). Sallust writes: Calpurnius was a concentration of excellent qualities, made ​​useless by that abominable vice. As expert soldier , Bestia immediately understand one thing: his army can not compete with Jugurtha’s invincible cavalry, favoured by the terrain and by the knowledge of places; as man who is slave  of avaritia, Bestia can not resist the  auri sacra fames( literally: abominable gold hunger). One of his lieutenants, Emilio Scaurus, is no exception. He  is only  smarter (or more circumspect) than Bestia, he has a lot of ambitions, but he is able to disguise them very well. That being the case, the two, instead of fighting, prefer to deal. And to pocket bribes. Result: a peace is concluded, Jugurtha gets along well also at this juncture and Rome , for the second time, flies into a rage.

Lucius Memmius, tribunus plebis (tribune of the people, plebeian tribune), rides the discontent. In Rome, as on the battlefield, the Republic was offering for sale, he thunders (domi militiaeque res publica venalis fuit). And he insists: let Jugurtha come here, protected by a safe-conduct, in order that he spills the beans. Bestia and Scaurus tremble; the nobility, fearing a dangerous precedent that may  endanger their privileges, closes the ranks around the two. All to no purpose: Memmius succeeds and the praetor Lucius Cassius is sent in Numidia  with a mandate to bring the king to Rome. Jugurtha knows he has a guilty conscience, he does not trust, he fears traps. Cassius insists, he resorts to the usual bullshits (Rome can exert as its force as its mercy, I give you my word, etc.. etc..) and he convinces him.

But meanwhile, in Numidia, corruption does not stop. There are some who resell to Jugurtha the war elephants confiscated as a result of the peace agreements; some who return to the king the deserters on payment; some who make forays into neighbouring countries and some who are guilty of who knows what other atrocities. Exceptional events? Not so. At least according to Memmius. Once, in the Senate, he had noted bitterly: the embezzlement? the extortion against the Allies? They are serious, very serious things, but now they are  of no importance since they are so common ( tamen consuetudine iam pro nihilo habentur).

Then he had continued. Look around. Anywhere you watch, there are cowardly and greedy noble: they have illegally enriched themselves  and are forgetful of the ancient virtues, but they do not shame to flaunt  prestigious positions, to exercise the consulate, and to celebrate undeserved triumphs. Do you not realize, Quirites, that you have been deprived of your authority and your reputation?

Is Jugurtha right when he thinks  that Rome looks  like a souk, more than the centre of the world?

What happens after,  seems to bear him out. The people grumble noisily when the king arrives in the Senate, with an ordinary dress and a humble attitude. This is a move designed to avoid offending the sensibility of those who must listen to him. Jugurtha  does not care  much about the people’s grumbles . He is aware that he is well covered. And not only by the Senate’s  safe-conduct. Because of his military past,  in Rome he  has friends in high places, and especially in Rome he has not arrived empty-handed. And just stepped in the City, he has began to distribute gifts on all sides, gaining to his cause a big shot, a  Memmius’ colleague, the tribune Gaius Bebius. And so, when is asked to spill the beans, Jugurtha, on the advice of Bebius, exercises his right to remain silent.

This move catches all off guard; Scaurus and Bestia heave a big sigh of relief, the nobility  takes hearth again, and the king becomes even more impudent and cheeky. So impudent and cheeky as to make assassinate a possible rival  in exile in Rome, Massiva, to whom, fishing in troubled waters, the consul Spurius Albinus, intended to Numidia, had advised to reclaim the throne. When the news of the assassination of Massiva becomes public domain, as we would say today, Jugurtha is invited to leave Rome. In time to deliver to the history the prophecy of the city waiting for her buyer.

The war resumes between ups and lows, between military operations and political intrigues. That one, in fact, is not a war like any other. On the Numidia’s battlefields lengthen the shadows of the political and social contradictions of Rome in those times. Times when the struggle between the nobles and plebeians, after the tragic death of the Gracchi, had become more critical. Sallust writes: In ancient times, the problems were common and the fear of enemies favoured the concord;  with the disappearance of the enemy, with the increasing wealth and the extension of the Republic, who had less (the plebs) wanted to have more and those who had more (the nobilitas) did not want less. Hence the conflicts, the struggles, the momentary lulls, the claims, the riots, the abuse, the rise of “new men”, optimates vs. populares and vice versa.

With this instability in the background, the consul Spurius Albinus  goes out to Numidia, decided to have Jughurtha for breakfast, but once in Africa he seems  more eager to amass personal benefits than to safeguard the interests of the Republic. More than at Numidia, in short, he looks at Rome,  more than at the Senate’s power , he looks at his own.  And, just he may, he  returns in the City to preside at electoral Comitia Centuriata.  His “inept full of himself” (the definition is by Sallust) brother Aulus Albinus,  remained in Numidia as a pro-praetor, driven by the hurry, by the ambition or by the desire to seize Jugurtha’s treasure, makes a right mess and undergoes, in Suthul,  a resounding defeat. As at the time of the Samnite wars, the Roman legionaries have to pass under the yoke.

Good heavens! In Rome, the indignation, especially among the plebs, rises. What happens? Are we not even able to get the best of a little king of a small kingdom? And what is the Senate for , if we are passing from one defeat to another one? And then, why do the  commanders come back defeated from Africa, but filthy rich? Is established a commission charged with examining the positions of the alleged corrupt. And who was called to take part of it? Emilius Scaurus. Yes, just him, the Calpurnius Bestia’s lieutenant,  in the odour of bribes.

Gaius Marius. Source: Wikipedia

It  is a bad situation, it is necessary to fix it.  This time the Senate  appoints (109 BC)  the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus  to save the Rome’s bacon in Numidia. Metellus,  a honest and incorruptible man, is accepted by all and  is a good general. He finds the Army in pitiful condition and he reorganizes it; he tries to fight Jugurtha by using his weapons, i.e. by turning money and promises in an attempt to gain to his cause the  Numidian dignitaries; he obtains some military sporadic success (near river Methul, for instance ), immediately transformed at Rome into a decisive victory; he comes several times on the verge of  the victory, without ever being able, however, because of  the guerrilla war in which Jugurtha is a master, to bring the final blow. And, moreover, he must hold off an experienced , brave and determined soldier : his lieutenant Gaius Marius.

Marius is a commoner, a  homo novus ( “new man”, i.e without inlustrious ancestors) with ambitions even too secret. He aspires to the consulate and, on paper, he has got all the requirements: he makes of the virtus -a mixture of bravery and personal excellence – his belief; he aspires to glory, he is honest, has gained experience in more than a battle, is frugal, is insensitive to the vices of the time. He lacks the main requirement: blue blood. But to his part he has the prophecy of a seer, met in Utica: nothing will be foreclosed to you, the gods will be favourable, you can do it. So why do not try it?

Metellus is not  of like mind: the consulate? It is not  a thing for you. The consulate is for those who can brag about ancient ancestors and if you go to Rome, it  will be denied to you. As it must be. So you will have to accept to this fact: I will not give you the permission to leave. Why this refusal? Why  a so intransigent  attitude? Is there bad blood between them? Maybe, but the Metellus’ refusal  is in some way the mirror of those times, in which a broader comparison is reflected :  status quo against change, old against new. As we would say today? Policy against anti-politics?

Marius, however, is a tough nut and he does not let go. Eventually Metellus yields and allows him to leave. Back in Rome, Marius rides the tiger of anti- politics and he does not spare anyone : the corrupt and cowardly nobilitas  , covetous of privileges and sinecures, unworthy of her ancestors;   Metellus himself , who is accused by Marius to spin out  the war against Jugurtha to obtain personal benefits. Pure music for the people’s  ears and not only. Marius  gets the consulate and Metellus if he does not falls into depression, is not far off from it. Certainly, he has to yield the command of operations and, if  at home he  is hailed as a winner and rewarded by the title of “Numidicus”, he seethes.

Before leaving to Africa by the will of the people, Marius makes the things clear  with the Senate: I need another army, a differently army . The Republic does not need citizen-soldiers, but  professional soldiers, even destitute, unemployed, underclass. Is it not good for you? Take me out of the office and put in my place one of those noblemen descendants of ancient families, always ready to cram   the glories of their ancestors into their mouth  , but unable to get anything done. For my part, I have no actions of ancestors to show, but I can show the scars of the wounds that I received in battle.

How to say:  the personal bravery , the virtus, not the blood is what makes the difference.

Marius can boast a lot of personal bravery, but Jugurtha is a tough nut: he hits and disappears, he is expert of the places and of the Roman fighting techniques. And, what is  more important, now he  has an ally: Bocchus, king of Mauritania. As already Metellus, Marius has more than a difficulty to obtain now  a victory here, now a narrow success there. Then a Ligurian legionary, seeking  snails,  opens to him, accidentally, the doors of the King’s  treasure room , and his quaestor Lucius Cornelius Sulla ( he, yes,  from an ancient family) persuades the King Bocchus to leave Jugurtha. Without money to pay his troops, without allies,  Jugurtha fights with the strength of despair, but he is doomed. It will be delivered by Bocchus to Sulla and he will die in the city that perhaps he  had hoped to buy (104 BC). On the throne of Mauritania ascends Gauda, Jugurtha’s half brother and weak-minded.


That seemingly “minor” war  was decisive for the fate of the Republic. How did it end? Badly, needless to say. Marius had his triumph, Sulla felt cheated, the conflict between the two soured, and the contrast between optimates and populares became open warfare. The Republic experienced blacklisting, internal uprisings, external attacks, civil war, an unprecedented bloodbath.

And not many years passed before a dictator, called by most,  appeared on the horizon….

Suggested reading:

Sallustius Crispus ( Sallust), The Jugurthine war ( Bellum jugurthinum),
Plutarch, Parallel Lives (Βίοι Παράλληλοι): Μάριος(Life of Marius); Σύλλας (Life of Sulla)

The Roman Empire. Numidia is on the coast of Northern Africa ( 51). Source: