Masinissa was the son of a minor Berber Chieftain around the time of the Punic Wars.
Through his skills as a cavalry commander he became Rome's most important ally, and the first King of Numidia.
By the end of his life his territory had more than quadrupled in size, at the expense of his former patron, Carthage.
Masinissa remains a folk hero for Algerians and Berber people across the globe.
The Ice Giants by Kevin MacLeod
Alexander Gates - for the introduction
It's 206 BC. The fledgling Roman Republic has been locked in a state of total war with
Mediterranean superpower Carthage for over five years in the Second Punic War.
Carthage and her allies are still reeling from a disastrous defeat at Alipa.
As General Hannibal and the Carthaginian Senate try to pick up the pieces, horror grips them,
as they discover their most talented cavalry commander has defected and now fights under the
banner of Rome. This is the story of Masinissa, the first king of Numidia, and his game-changing
Masinissa was born in 238 BC. His birthplace is not recorded, but it's likely somewhere in modern
eastern Algeria, then known as Numidia. The territory that made up Numidia was roughly
split between two kings. King Syphax, who held around 70% of the territory, referred to as
Mathesili, and King Gala, who held the remaining 30% or so, referred to as Mathesli. Masinissa
was one of the sons of King Gala and received quality education in Carthage, something quite
unusual for the time. As was the case with the rest of the kingdom, the Punic Wars played a big
part in Masinissa's early life. The Punic Wars were three separate wars between Rome and her
allies, and Carthage and her allies, for supremacy of the Mediterranean Sea. Rome and Carthage were
by far the two largest players in this time period. Most smaller states found themselves
forced into alliance with one or the other. Carthage was an established power, while Rome
was the new kid on the block. After the slight Roman victory in the first Punic War, Roman
territory was close to the borders of modern Italy today with the addition of most of the islanders
Syracuse, while Carthaginian territory was the coastline from Morocco to Libya with the majority
of the islands except for Syracuse. We've got a photo of the territory split on our website if
you'd like to see. After the inconclusive ending to the first war, both sides knew that there was
another conflict brewing between them. It was just a matter of time, and it was in this time of
uneasy peace that Masinissa grew up in. With a new war around the corner, both sides worked
to secure alliances. Rome, after much convincing, secured an alliance with King Syphax, and to
counter this, the Carthaginian Senate managed to convince King Gala, that's Masinissa's father,
to snatch up King Syphax's territory, as presumably his troops would have been elsewhere.
King Gala elects his son Masinissa to have total command of the invasion force, and at 17 years
of age, Masinissa agrees. Showing his military skills even from this young of an age, Masinissa's
invasion easily defeats Syphax's forces, and follows the routing army all the way through
modern Morocco, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar and into Spain, before finally being pushed back
by Roman troops arriving just in time to stop King Syphax's men being completely annihilated.
As a reward for his outstanding performance, he was given a high-standing Carthaginian wife
by the Carthaginian Senate. For the next seven years, Masinissa continues to support Carthage,
and plays a leading role in several battles around Spain. When the Carthaginian general,
Hasdrubal Barca leaves Spain to return home, Masinissa is given command of all
Carthaginian cavalry within Spain. A huge show of trust. Masinissa puts these troops to good use,
fighting a successful guerrilla war against famous Roman general Publius Scipio. To this day,
Scipio is regarded as one of the most brilliant military strategists of all time,
so for Masinissa to cause him so much havoc really shows just how good this guy was.
The next major battle Masinissa takes part in is the Battle of Ilapa. As this battle was a
turning point in the war, and a virtual death blow for Carthage, I want to spend a bit of time
going through it. So prior to this battle, the last military engagement was 10 years earlier at
Cannae, where an army of around 130,000 Romans was wiped off the map by Carthage. This humungous
force was the largest body of troops ever assembled by Rome, and likely any other empire at this point
in history, and this was Hannibal's most famous victory. It can't be exaggerated how devastating
this loss was for Rome, and it's a testament to the, well, Roman-ness of Rome that they did not
throw in the towel after. Slowly but surely, Rome ramped up their draughts and somehow managed to
recruit around 50,000 more men. With this crushing defeat on the mind of every Roman, there was an
enormous amount of pressure for the next battle to be a victory. Rome had no more men to recruit,
and their allies would likely switch sides after another loss. The Battle of Ilapa took place
sometime in spring 206 BC. The Roman forces led by General Publius Scipio, who would be known as
Scipio the Great after this battle, and the Carthaginian forces led by Mako Barca, that's
the brother of the famous Hannibal Barca. You know, the guy who crossed the Alps with the elephants.
Maga got things started with a surprise attack on the Roman camps led by Masinissa.
However, Scipio had got word of this attack and prepared accordingly. Masinissa and his
cavalry were driven off. After a few days of staring at each other across the battlefield,
Scipio ordered his troops to be fed and ready before dawn and launched a surprise attack on
the Carthaginian camp. This pre-dawn attack forced a speedy deployment on Carthage's side,
the troops were so rushed they didn't even get a chance to eat breakfast.
In the hasty deployment, Carthaginian troops were arranged to counter the Roman troop formation
that Mago had observed over the last few days. However, this was a ruse. Scipio had deliberately
change his troop formation on the day of the attack, knowing that Mago would try and counter
this formation. The result was a disaster. Carthage was decisively defeated, and the army was routed
and pursued by the Romans with around 6,000 of the original 55,000 managing to get away.
Not long after this horrible defeat, Masinissa makes a fateful decision to abandon Carthage
and commences an alliance with Rome, much to the joy of Rome obviously. There are some that think
that even prior to this battle that Masinissa had already betrayed Carthage, even going as far as
to suggest that the initial surprise attack led by Masinissa was only known because he himself
was already in cahoots with Scipio. Historian Barthold Niebuh speculates this hush-hush alliance
went all the way back to the departure of Hasdrubal from Spain, where Masinissa would have
had ample time to correspond with Scipio undisturbed. Niebuh has this to say on the event,
quote, at the time of Scipio's arrival in Africa, we find him, meaning Masinissa, again as the ally
of the Carthaginians and operating together with Hasambal against the Romans. Scipio, however,
renewed his former connections with him and Masinissa promised to desert the Carthaginians,
but that before taking that step openly, he would procure the Romans some material advantages.
This fraudulent conduct allows that in a moral point of view, Masinissa was no better than a
common barbarian. He was a base traitor who deserves the hatred of every honest man.
Personally, I don't think this was the case. Prior to this battle, Carthage well and truly
had the upper hand on Rome. Why would Masinissa switch to the losing side?
Whether or not the Battle of Ilpa was Masinissa's test of loyalty for his new Roman allies,
or was just a lost battle straight and simple, afterwards he quickly confirmed an alliance with
Scipio. Scipio, a veteran of the disaster at Cannae and very aware of the power the
Numidian cavalry had on the battlefield, was only too happy to oblige.
I might pause the story for a moment to go through something.
Both Rome and Carthage were huge powers at this time. Why was there any effort expended
on trying to gain the loyalty of a tiny local power along the coast of Africa?
While Carthage and Rome both excelled in infantry combat, the Roman legions discipline
was what gave them their edge. Pound for pound they could hold their own against any enemy in
a pitched battle. But throw in a few variables. Hilly terrain, forests and all that. This is
where specialist troops like the cavalry were needed. And the Numidian cavalry were the best
of the best. In Livy's history of Rome he even went so far as to describe them as
by far the best horsemen in Africa. So why is this? Well the horses were smaller than
the standard horses, and their stout bodies were equipped to endure long distance travel,
making quick rapid movements. The riders themselves rode bareback, reportedly controlling
their mounts with only a loop of rope around the animal's neck. They rode completely unarmoured,
wearing only a simple tunic, a light shield and perhaps a couple of javelins. Not being weighed
down by armour and supplies made them very nimble, and it was that nimbleness that made
them a wild card, and one that any half-decent general could make use of. Picture this, you're
a legionnaire in the hot sun, shoulder to shoulder with your boys, your armour is heavy,
and maybe, just maybe you missed breakfast that day. A group of half-crazed, half-naked
barbarians bolt out of nowhere, kicking up dust in your eyes and lobbing javelins at
you before disappearing, only to return and do the same thing over and over again over
the course of the battle, usually at the most inopportune times. The best use of the Numidian
cavalry was to harass the enemy at their weakest points or times, and try and weaken the morale
of the legionnaires, or at the very least tie them out. No other roman troops, auxiliary
or otherwise, could do this, and that's what made the Numidian cavalry so ferocious.
Right, so, after swearing an alliance to Rome, there were some internal squabbles at home
Masinissa had to attend to. Masinissa's father had just died of natural causes, so under
Numidian lore the throne was given to his brother and Masinissa's uncle, Æthel Slez.
God, I'm sure I buggered that name up. This was apparently the custom and lore in Numidia,
and it seems Masinissa accepted this until a series of shonky backward passes meant the
crown ended up with an advisor of Masinissa's uncle's second son, which as you can imagine
was not custom. Masinissa ends up in the throne after a few skirmishes, though. His political
opponents flee east and shelter with good old King Syphax in the east of Numidia. In
Carthage, Hasdrubal, aware that he has now lost Masinissa to Rome, sends troops against
Masinissa, in hopes that this attack will force Rome to pull some of the troops away
from Italy, where Carthage's greatest general, Hannibal, was currently running amok. The
reinforcements do the trick, and Masinissa is defeated numerous times concurrently, Carthage
being determined to crush him completely before Rome shows up with reinforcements. In one
engagement Masinissa is badly wounded and retreats to a cave in the mountains awaiting
the help of Rome and Scipio. Scipio arrives in time and relieves Masinissa's beleaguered
troops and together they take back the territory so recently won by Syphax and Carthage. They
then continue the party and push west further and further, eventually taking all of Syphax's
territory. With his back to the wall, King Syphax lined up his outnumbered forces against
the full might of Scipio and Masinissa, and upon seeing his troops beginning to desert,
made a courageous last stand, charging alone into the Roman army in hope of rallying his
troops. Unfortunately, his badly injured horse bucked him off and he was captured by Rome,
dying in prison not long after. The second-largest city in modern Tunisia, Syphax, is supposedly
named after him. To the victor belong the spoils, and Syphax's entire treasury is captured,
but Masinissa is more interested in another treasure. The Carthaginian noblewoman who
was promised for his victory in Spain was revoked after he defected to Carthage. No
real surprises there. Though the marriage itself was never official, Masinissa apparently took
quite an interest in the woman, who was said to be very beautiful. Sophonisba, as she was
called, was re-promised to King Syphax, and when Masinissa and Rome took Syphax's capital,
they found Sophonista somewhere in the palace. Masinissa, clearly wanting to make up for
lost time, quickly marries her in secret. He tries his best to hide the woman from Scipio,
aware that if he finds her, she will be taken as a prisoner of Rome. Try as he might though,
Scipio does find out, and despite Masinissa's pleading, Scipio declares she is to be taken
to Rome and paraded through the streets in his upcoming military triumph. A humiliating
affair for a woman of such high birth. Despairing, Masinissa tells Sophonisba that he cannot
save her from her fate, and encourages her to die by her own hand like a true Carthaginian
princess rather than face the humiliation of her Roman triumph. She agrees, and Masinissa
smuggles a cup of poison to her, which she willingly drinks, apparently maintaining her
regal composure as she faded away. This Shakespearean style event gained a lot of popularity in the
Renaissance, and numerous paintings were created for this. We've put a few of them on our website.
To console Masinissa, I guess there were no hard feelings that he helped her kill himself,
Scipio grants him the newly conquered lands, and Numidia, loosely modern Tunisia,
is for the first time united under one ruler. Meanwhile, Carthage, now badly losing the war,
sends a peace offer to Rome. The peace offer is one Rome will never accept,
but at this point they're just buying time to muster all the troops they can.
Throwing together everything they could, the Carthaginian army now prepares to meet the
Roman juggernaut face on. The battle takes place near the town of Zama, just south of
Carthage's capital. The now renowned Scipio Africanus prepares his forces. While Carthage
forces are more numerous, they also have inferior quality, with large portions made up of mercenaries
and civilian recruits. In this battle, Masinissa is given command of Scipio's entire right wing,
a huge display of trust being placed on him. The battle begins with the usual Carthaginian trump
card, an elephant charge directed straight headfirst into the Roman lines. The Roman
infantry formation is usually three men deep, but in this case, many of the lines only have
the first row of men. As the elephants charge in, the first row of units simply step aside,
creating a sort of highway of least resistance which the elephants instinctively take,
hurting themselves harmlessly off the field of battle. A brilliant move by Scipio,
and a leading example of what made the new Roman manopold system so versatile.
The armies charge forward, the infantry melee in the center quickly developing into a stalemate
where both sides have placed their best troops. However, on the right and left wings, Masinissa
and another commander manage to rout the Carthaginian cavalry, again showing the advantage
of Numidian cavalry even against other African cavalry. After following for a short distance,
both commanders stop their troops from pursuing and turn around in charge of the Carthaginian
lines from behind. The stalemate turns into a slaughter, and Carthage's last gambit fails.
The Second Punic War ends, and Carthage surrenders almost unconditionally to Rome.
I won't go into all the soul-crushing terms Rome imposed on Carthage, and believe me,
they were soul-crushing, but the most glaring of these was Carthage not being allowed to declare
war, even in self-defense without the express permission of the Roman Senate.
Masinissa knew this, and over the next few years, exploited his position as a close ally of Rome,
slowly moving into territory that clearly belonged to Carthage. The once mighty state of Carthage
was now reduced to begging Rome to arbitrate matters in their favour. You can probably see
how this went. Almost every dispute Rome ruled in Masinissa's favour, and each time Numidia grew
a little larger. Cheeky old Masinissa would continue this for the next 50 years or so,
and showed no signs of slowing down despite being in his 80s. Not only this, but still personally
leading his troops into battle and physically training them at the unheard age of 90 years old.
Talk about a firecracker. Despite these blatant land grabs, with Carthage being banned from any
form of military spending, their economy skyrockets as they're free to double down on
administration and trade. The intentionally crippling reparation payments Rome had imposed
were paid off well ahead of time, easily. This was a testament to the ingenuity of Carthage,
exploiting the only advantage they were legally allowed to pursue and excelling in it.
A few years later Cato the Elder, a famous Roman politician, visited Carthage.
Expecting to see a smouldering destitute ruin, he was incredulous to see a thriving city that
still rivalled Rome itself. Upon his return to Rome, clearly fearful of the threat the
neutered Carthaginian state posed to the empire, he would famously finish all of his speeches to
the Senate with, Carthagno dalanda est, or in English, Furthermore, I believe Carthage must be
destroyed. While Carthage had virtually no army, in Rome's eyes they sure had the economy ready to
build one. Eventually, Masinissa kicked the old dog that was Carthage one too many times.
In 149 BC, with the indemnity periods completed early, Carthage considered themselves free of the
treaty they were bound to and declared war on Masinissa and Numidia. Rome, however, saw otherwise
and declared war on Carthage due to a breach of the treaty. Interestingly, this is probably not
what Masinissa wanted, as he knew the introduction of a permanent Roman province was bad news for his
expansionist ambitions. This displeasure actually caused some problems for Rome, as Masinissa
continually delayed sending the requested auxiliaries Rome required to besiege Carthage itself.
Predictably, the third and final Punic war was over quickly, but Masinissa would not see it
through. He finally died at the age of 92. His last act was to request his old friend Scipio to
meet him personally, probably trying to get a slice of the Carthage pie Rome was currently
carving up. But Scipio didn't make it in time and the war soon ended after. The sacking of Carthage
was as efficient as it was total. Almost all infrastructure was destroyed and most of the
city's population sold into slavery. An old myth about the sacking said that the Roman
Senate demanded that all fields around Carthage were to be sown with salt so nothing would ever
grow there again. With its main rival completely and utterly destroyed, a Roman presence had been
established in Africa and it wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. After Masinissa's death,
Scipio would distribute his kingdom between his three sons. I mean legitimate sons, because if
we're talking illegitimate sons, this man you had to procreate, and had as many as 54 kids.
The newly unified state of Numidia would serve Rome faithfully until the end of the republic,
when his king, Arabio, would make the mistake of siding with Pompey Magnus in the famous civil war
against Julius Caesar. After the conclusion of the war, eastern Numidia, followed soon by western
Numidia, would be annexed into the newly created Afrikanova province in around 40 BC.
So, what can we say about Masinissa, apart from him being apparently in better shape at 92 than
I am now? Though some historians have been critical about the man's personal attributes,
it's clear to me above all else that he was an opportunist. When he came to power, his family
owned a minor territorial claim in Numidia, and by the time of his death, his family ruled over
all of Numidia and a good portion of Carthaginian territory also. Through artful development,
he was always able to make sure he was on the winning side, making use of his state's geographic
position and thriving despite being neighbouring by two of the biggest superpowers in the region.
Though not specifically documented, he clearly had a force of personality. We saw he was able to
continually gather troops in his civil war against Syphax, despite being on the losing side. This,
and leading troops into battle personally, always seemed to give the commander an edge with a common
soldier. Lexiconographer William Smith had this to say about Masinissa.
Today, Masinissa is remembered in commemorative coins, music, and statues throughout Northern
Africa, while his Numidian cavalry remained important enough to be depicted on Trajan's
Column, which still exists today in Istanbul. We're lucky enough to still have the tomb of
Masinissa, which sits in modern Tunisia, hilariously close to the old borders of Carthage and Numidia.
Even in death, he still seemed to have pushed the boundaries of his territory.
Masinissa remains an important part of not just Algerian identity, but Berber identity,
as a self-made man who managed to make himself invaluable as a small player in a much larger game.
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