The Jugurthine Wars: Facts & Causes

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The Jugurthine War was a major moment in the beginning of Rome's transition from a republic into an empire. We are going to explore this war, and see what impacts it had on Roman society.

The Jugurthine War

The Roman Empire had one of the most effective militaries in the world, but they didn't simply develop this overnight. The empire's famous military had its origins in the Roman Republic. From the second century BCE on, constant battles around the Mediterranean encouraged the Romans to turn their traditionally volunteer-based military into a professional army. One war which had a big impact on this change was the Jugurthine War (112-106 BCE), fought between the Roman Republic and the North African kingdom of Numidia. Much of our knowledge of this war comes from the Roman historian Sallust, who wrote about it in the first century BCE, but it seems clear that this war was an important step in Rome's march towards empire.

Background: Conflict in Numidia

By the mid-2nd century BCE, Numidia had become the most powerful kingdom on the North African coast. Located near modern Algeria, this major Mediterranean trade center was also one of Rome's most important allies; the two had fought together in the Punic Wars. The ruler of Numidia was Micipsa, who left his kingdom to his two sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal, as well as to his nephew Jugurtha.

Numidia in relation to the Roman Republic

Jugurtha had served under the great Roman general Scipio in his youth, giving him a chance to learn all about Roman military tactics and to create a network of professional contacts throughout Rome. After Micipsa died, Jugurtha made his bid for power, murdering Hiempsal and attacking Adherbal. Adherbal responded by calling out to his kingdom's top ally, Rome, for help.

Rome Gets Involved

The Romans were very concerned to hear about the crisis in Numidia, so they sent ambassadors to check it out. Jugurtha, however, was clever and used his knowledge of Roman politics and his connections in Rome. By the time that the Roman ambassadors left Numidia, they had decided that Jugurtha really hadn't done anything wrong, and recognized both his and Adherbal's claims to a now divided kingdom.

Jugurtha, however, wanted all of Numidia. He launched a new campaign against Adherbal, despite Roman warnings. What Jugurtha may not have been aware of was the fact that Adherbal's army contained a large number of Roman and Italian soldiers. Rome demanded that Jugurtha stop the attack, but the power-hungry king continued. In 112 BCE Adherbal was killed, and his soldiers (including the Italians) were executed. Rome had no choice but to declare war.

Rome's War with Jugurtha

The Romans were outraged at Jugurtha's power grab, but the fact remained that he was a powerful and well-connected ally. The Roman Senate sent an army into Africa, which quickly negotiated peace with little fighting. Many people in Rome were furious, believing that Jugurtha had used his connections in Rome to basically buy his way out of trouble. The people demanded that Jugurtha be brought to Rome for trial, in order to determine which politicians were in his pocket. Jugurtha came to Rome, but the corrupt courts controlled by the Roman elites released him.

Jugurtha, back in Numdia, responded by trying to assassinate another cousin, flaunting his impunity. As a result, the Senate declared war again in 110 BCE, and raised another army to be sent into Africa. This army was ambushed then bribed by Jugurtha, and it soon left Numidia. The people of Rome couldn't believe that the Senate would allow this, and riots broke out across the city.

The Senate was quickly losing the support of the people and realized that they needed a win. So, they reached out to Quintus Caecilius Metellus, a prominent Roman general from one of the most prestigious military families in the republic. Metellus marched his armies into Africa, but it wasn't the general himself who would save the day. It was his chief subordinate, a plebeian (non-aristocratic) man named Gaius Marius.


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