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Numidia of Syphax and Gaïa before the unification

The Numidians were the Berber[1] population of Numidia (present-day Algeria).[2] The Numidians were originally a semi-nomadic people, they migrated frequently as nomads usually do but during certain seasons of the year, they would return to the same camp[3].The Numidians soon became more than pastoralists and started to engage in more urban professions. The Numidians were one of the earliest Berber tribes to trade with Carthaginian settlers. As Carthage grew, the relationship with the Numidians blossomed. Carthage's military used the Numidian cavalry as mercenaries. Numidia provided some of the highest quality cavalry of the Second Punic War, and the Numidian cavalry played a key role in several battles, both early on in support of Hannibal and later in the war after switching allegiance to the Roman Republic. Numidian culture flourished between the end of the Second Punic War and around the Roman conquest, with Massinissa as the first king of a unified Numidia.


Western Old World in 200 BC, showing borders of the Numidian kingdoms after the Second Punic War.

Reign of Massinissa[edit]

During the Punic Wars, Syphax was the king of the largest Numidian kingdom, the Masaesyli. In 213 BC, Syphax ended his alliance with Carthage. In 208 BC, he rejoined after marrying Sophonisba, daughter of Hasdrubal Gisco.

Massinissa was a tribal king of a Numidian tribe, overshadowed by Syphax's own kingdom. His early success could be traced back to the Second Punic War, when the aforementioned Syphax re-joined the side of Carthage, Massinissa allied with Rome hoping to profit from the turning tide against Carthage. After helping the Romans against Carthage in Iberia, he joined the Romans in the Battle of Zama offering a contingent of Numidians which turned out to be fundamental for Rome's victory.[4] Syphax had tried sued for peace between Hannon Barca and Publius Cornelius Scipio after the Romans had landed in Africa. With the help of Masinissa, Publius Scipio's troops set fire to Syphax's camp. The king Masinissa added Syphax's former territory to his eastern kingdom Massylii as a reward gained through military victory against Carthage.

After the Second Punic Wars, the peace treaty between Carthage and Rome prevented Carthage from entering any wars without Rome's permission. Masinissa exploited the treaty by taking Carthaginian land. He used various tricks to get land, including stating that Carthage was rebuilding their navy despite the treaty prohibiting a navy. When Carthage asked for an appeal Cato the Elder was sent with a commission to mediate a settlement. The commission insisted that both sides agree to their final decision. Masinissa agreed, but Carthage refused because of how unfavourable previous Roman decisions had been. Cato, who had served in the Roman Legion during the Second Punic War, was convinced by Carthage's refusal to accept the commission that the Third Punic War was needed. Cato made a series of speeches to the senate, all of which ended with "Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam" (Moreover, I advise that Carthage should be destroyed).[5]

A group of Carthaginian senators supported a peace treaty with the Numidians. This group was in the minority, in part because the populace of Carthage did not want to submit to a people they had traditionally dominated. The pro-Numidians were eventually exiled. Upon exile, they went to Masinissa for help. Masinissa sent two sons to ask for the pro-Numidians to be let back in. Carthalo, who led a democratic group that was against the Numidian encroachment, blocked their entry. Hamilcar, another leader of the same group, sent a party to attack Masinissa's sons.

Masinissa sent a force to siege the Carthaginian city of Oroscopa, but they were repelled by a Carthaginian army led by a Hasdrubal. Among the captured were two of Masinissa's sons. This became the final excuse for Rome to attack Carthage. In 149 BC, Masinissa died of old age. His death occurred during the Third Punic War. Micipsa became the second king of Numidia.

Massinissa's reign were not only military successes however, he combined the Numidian people into a united nation with an agricultural production as the focus. Massinissa's reign was a prosperous one for the most part. The king ruled from Syphax's former capital of Cirta, which may or not have been originally a Punic city. The center of his economic reforms was the development of intensive agriculture, doubling the production of both wheat and barley. Massinissa is also attributed with the introduction of exotic crops such as olives and vineyards to the Numidia.[4]

Culture and society[edit]


The Numidians were not strictly nomadic nor were they strictly sedentary. Numidian communities along the desert and some arid mountainous areas tended to practice pastoralism more frequently, although this does not mean they did not engage in trade. These nomadic communities did trade with their settled brethren and even other societies. No matter how their economic activities function, nomadic societies often find themselves dependent on the goods produced by settled societies, particularly those that are considered to be luxury goods. Those Numidian communities who were sedentary lived along the coast or closer to Carthage, there is evidence of the presence of oil presses in the Numidian capital of Cirta as well as Punic-style architecture [6]


Not unlike many other parts of the world at the time, the Numidian people based their economy on agriculture, although they also developed their own types of pottery. Although we do not have much information on the role economy played in migrating Numidian communities, due to their highly mobile way of life it is likely they faced constraints on food production, and therefore their economic activities were dominated by the acquisition of food, although the elites of these communities could acquire luxury items.[7]

Settled communities relied more on agriculture. They cultivated cereals such as wheat and barley, and legumes such as beans, peas, and lentils. Husbandry also played a key role, especially of cattle and pigs.[8] Their system of agriculture was sophisticated and resembled those found in other parts of the Mediterranean, Pliny noted that the town of Tacape (modern-day Gabès) had a highly-fertile oasis and the land around the city was relatively expensive.[9] As trade developed, artisans became much more common in Numidian urban centers, Banasa, for example, was an important center of the Numidian pottery industry whilst the great tomb of Medracen and the temple of Simithu also show Numidian architecture outside of the Punic sphere. Despite this, grain remain the major source of trade as the region was rather famous for its grain production [10]

However, despite their engagement in the Mediterranean trade network, the Numidian people lacked a standard system of currency. Coins minted depicting the reign of kings and local fauna such as elephants have been found in Numidian sites, but it seems that the usage of coins was fairly limited and they could have very well been used almost exclusively to depict the prestige and power of certain kings [11]

Social organization[edit]

Little is known of the organization of migratory Numidian communities, the online evidence we have of the structure of Numidian society pertains to the monarchy. Although it might be associated with the Carthaginian sphere, the reality is that Numidian kingship was influenced and based on the ideals of Hellenistic monarchies found in other parts of the Mediterranean during this period. Kings were sanctified in death and were deemed responsible for the acculturation of their people.[12]  


Numidians practiced a highly mobile type of warfare, being especially known for their swift cavalry and hit-and-run tactics.[13] Under Roman tutelage, they learned to form and march as infantry, as well as building forts, although they never abandoned their emphasis on ranged attacks and retreats.[14] They also employed war elephants like those of Carthage.[14]

Both their infantry and cavalry were lightly armed, their equipment being often tied to the economic level of the user. They favored the javelin as a ranged weapon, while for close quarters they employed swords and daggers, often supplied by or taken from the Romans. They would wear no armor, only protecting themselves with bucklers or oval shields made of leather.[13][14] At least since the time of Numantine War, Numidians also had archers and slingers, which were deployed mainly to support their elephants.[14]

Caesar recorded a feigned retreat tactic used against him by the Numidians, which combined light infantry and cavalry. They would attack mixed, only for the cavalry to retreat, apparently abandoning their comrades. When the enemy chased those, the cavalry would return and catch the pursuers off guard.[14]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Simon Hornblower; Antony Spawforth; Esther Eidinow (29 March 2012). The Oxford Classical Dictionary. OUP Oxford. p. 1026. ISBN 978-0-19-954556-8.
  2. ^ "Numidia". Livius. 23 Sep 2020. Retrieved 20 Sep 2023.
  3. ^ Broekaert, Wim; Vanacker, Wouter (2016), Slootjes, Daniëlle; Peachin, Michael (eds.), "Raiders to Traders?: Economics of Integration among Nomadic Communities in North Africa", Rome and the Worlds beyond its Frontiers, Brill, pp. 96–122, p.97, doi:10.1163/j.ctv2gjwvw1.10, ISBN 978-90-04-32561-6, retrieved 2023-04-24
  4. ^ a b Walsh, P. G. (1965). "Massinissa". The Journal of Roman Studies. 55 (1/2): 149–160, p.150. doi:10.2307/297437. ISSN 0075-4358.
  5. ^ Plutarch, Life of Cato
  6. ^ .<ref>Fentress, Elizabeth (2006). "Romanizing the Berbers". Past & Present. 190 (1): 3–33, p.7.
  7. ^ Broekaert&Vanacker, p. 100 - 101.
  8. ^ Portillo, Marta; Albert, Rosa M. (2011-12-01). "Husbandry practices and livestock dung at the Numidian site of Althiburos (el Médéina, Kef Governorate, northern Tunisia): the phytolith and spherulite evidence". Journal of Archaeological Science. 38 (12): 3224–3233. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2011.06.027. ISSN 0305-4403.
  9. ^ "Elizabeth2006", p. 7-8.
  10. ^ "Elizabeth2006", p. 9.
  11. ^ Maritz, J.A (2001). "THE IMAGE OF AFRICA: THE EVIDENCE OF THE COINAGE". Classical Association of South Africa. 44 (1): 105–125, p. 111.
  12. ^ "Elizabeth2006", p. 12.
  13. ^ a b Fields, Nic (2017). Lake Trasimene 217 BC: Ambush and annihilation of a Roman army. Bloomsbury Publishing. p. 35. ISBN 9781472816337.
  14. ^ a b c d e Horsted, William (2021). The Numidians 300 BC–AD 300. Bloomsbury Publishing. pp. 3–10. ISBN 9781472842176.


  • Lazenby, J. F. (1978) Hannibal's War: A Military History of the Second Punic War. London: Aris & Phillips ISBN 9780856680809
  • Warmington, B. H. (1993) Carthage, A History. New York: Barnes and Noble. ISBN 9781566192101