What Role Did the Berbers (Numidians) Play in the Destruction of Carthage?

The Romans called the native peoples of North Africa Numidians, which meant nomads. They were distinct from the Carthaginians who were descended from Phoenician colonists.

The Numidians provided the Carthaginians with mercenaries, and at the start of the Second Punic War in 218 B.C. both major tribes, the Masaesyli under King Syphax and the Massylii under King Gala were aligned with Carthage and provided mercenaries to the Carthaginian armies. These mercenaries were generally skilled horsemen and as part of Hannibal’s armies they played a significant role in his victories at Ticinus, Trebia, Trasimene and Cannae.

At one point during the war, around 212 B.C. King Syphax rebelled against Carthage and Publius Cornelius Scipio and his brother Cneius, the father and uncle of Scipio Africanus attempted to get him to ally with the Romans. Hasdrubal Barca, the brother of Hannibal was forced to go back to Africa from Spain and crush the rebellion.

In 210 B.C. Both Publius and Cneius Scipio were killed in the battles of the Upper Baetis in Spain. Publius’ son, Scipio Africanus, was sent to Spain to take their place. In four years he defeated each of the three Carthaginian armies and imposed Roman rule over the country. Fighting alongside the Carthaginians was a group of Numidian cavalry under Masinissa, the son of the Massyliian King Gala. Seeing that the Romans were getting the upper hand, Masinissa approached Scipio’s Lieutenant Marcus Silanus and offered to switch sides. Scipio readily accepted the offer. King Gala had died and Masinissa went back to Africa to contend for his throne, assuring Scipio that he would fight on the side of the Romans when the time came for the Romans to invade Africa.

Scipio was still intent upon enlisting Syphax to his side, and actually made a dangerous voyage to Syphax’ capital, Cirta to try to make a treaty. He was nearly captured by the navel forces of the Carthaginian general Hasdrubal son of Gisco who was visiting Cirta at the same time, but a strong breeze arose which allowed his ship to enter Syphax’ harbor, and Hasdrubal did not dare attack him for fear of angering Syphax.

Syphax, pleased that two such personages sought his favor at the same time, suggested that the two sides negotiate and make peace, but Scipio declined saying that he was not authorized to do that. Nevertheless, he agreed to attend a banquet where he sat on the same couch with Hasdrubal and had a pleasant conversation with the Carthaginian general whom he had recently defeated in battle. Hasdrubal had this to say about Scipio:

(Scipio) “Appeared to me more to be admired for the qualities he displayed in a personal interview with him than for his exploits in war, and I have no doubt that Syphax and his kingdom are already at the disposal of the Romans, such are the abilities that Scipio possesses for gaining the esteem of others. Therefore it is incumbent upon us, the Carthaginians, not more to inquire by what means we lost Spain, than to consider how we might retain possession of Africa. It was not from a desire to visit foreign countries, or roam about delightful coasts that so great a Roman captain, leaving a recently subdued province, and his armies, has crossed into Africa with only two ships, entering an enemy’s territory, and committed himself to the untried honor of the King, but in pursuance of a hope he has conceived of subduing Africa.” Hasdrubal nailed it!

By the end of the visit, Scipio had, indeed, succeeded in negotiating a treaty with Syphax. Hasdrubal, Son of Gisco, had an ace up his sleeve, however. He married his beautiful daughter Sophonisba to the Numidian King and he returned to the Carthaginian fold.

In 204 B.C. Scipio invaded Africa with a force of perhaps 35,000 and began to wreak havoc. Syphax was now firmly in the Carthaginian camp and both he and Hasdrubal Son of Gisco set up camps not far from Scipio’s forces. After pretending to negotiate over the winter, when the dry season came, Scipio sent his forces on a night expedition and set fire to both camps. This destroyed the majority the armies of both Syphax and Hasdrubal. Both men escaped, however and set about to re-assemble their forces.

Scipio was joined by a small force under Masinissa, who had failed to gain his father’s throne. Scipio promised him that he would be given both his own kingdom to rule and that of Syphax once the Romans defeated the Carthaginians.

Scipio defeated the combined forces of Syphax and Hasdrubal at the battle of the Great Plains. Both Syphax and Hasdrubal escaped, but Scipio sent his lieutenant Gaius Laelius and Masinissa after Syphax. Syphax assembled a poorly trained army to give battle, but was thrown from his horse and captured. As a result Masinissa was give the combined Numidian kingdoms to rule.

Hasdrubal Son of Gisco returned to Carthage, but fearing dire punishment for his failures, he committed suicide. The Carthaginians summoned Hannibal back from Italy to defend them.

Masinissa joined Scipio at the Battle of Zama (202 B.C) with some three thousand Cavalry. This gave Scipio a superiority in Cavalry which may have been decisive in favor of the Romans. The combined Roman and Numidian forces won the battle and forced Carthage into a peace treaty on Roman terms.

The combined Numidian Kingdom prospered under the leadership of Masinissa and the Greek historian Polybius praises his rule, saying that he developed agriculture there. Every decade or so, however, Masinissa encroached upon Carthaginian territory claiming it as ancestral land. When the Carthaginians complained to Rome, the Romans generally took Masinissa’s side. In 150 B.C. the Carthaginians and the Numidian’s went to war over a border dispute. Masinissa was about ninety years old by this time. After the battle the Numidians besieged the Carthaginian camp, allowing no one to enter or leave. Between the battle and the increasingly deadly conditions of thirst, disease and starvation in the camp, the Carthaginians lost over fifty thousand men. This left them much weakened militarily.

The Romans, under the leadership of Marcus Porcius Cato (“Cartago delenda est!”) had decided to destroy Carthage, alleging that the Carthaginians had violated their treaty by going to war without Roman permission. They invaded Africa in 149 B.C. with an army of 80,000. The war did not go well for the Romans until they elected Scipio Amilianus, the adoptive grandson of Scipio Africanus, Consul. He besieged the city and ultimately conquered and destroyed it. Some fifty thousand survivors were sold into slavery.

For more detail about the Second and Third Punic Wars, read my books The Death of Carthage and The Last Carthaginian, historical fiction, both available on Amazon and Kindle.

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