Jugurthine War (111-104 BC)

The Jugurthine War (111-104 BC) was a prolonged struggle between Rome and her former ally of Numidia that played a part in the rise of Marius and eventually ended with a Roman victory.

Numidia had taken advantage of the defeat of Carthage in the Second Punic War to expand into Carthaginian territory, and was further rewarded after the destruction of Carthage in the Third Punic War. However there were always tensions in the relationship. King Masinissa, the founder of the Numidian kingdom, had hoped to be allowed to conquer Carthage himself, and provoked Carthage into declaring war, a breach of the terms of their treaty with Rome. Instead of supporting Masinissa, the Romans decided to declare war themselves, and after the defeat of Carthage took the remaining Punic lands and formed the first Roman Province of Africa. Masinissa died in 148 BC, during the Third Punic War, and the alliance thus survived his annoyance.

Masinissa was succeeded by his three sons (Micipsa, Gulussa, and Mastarnable), each of whom was given a different role within a single kingdom on the advice of Scipio Aemilianus, the victorious Roman commander of the Third Punic War. His oldest son, Micipsa, was given the capital of Cirta and the treasury, while his brothers had control of the military and of justice. However both of his brothers soon died, leaving Micipsa as the sole monarch.

Mastarnable's son Jugurtha survived, and was raised at Micipsa's court. In 134-133 Jugurtha commanded a force of Numidian cavalry that served under Scipio Aemilianus in the final stages of the Numantine War in Spain. Scipio praised Jugurtha's contribution, and Micipsa adopted him and made him his co-heir (probably only three years before his death).

Micipsa died in 118 BC, leaving his kingdom to his sons Hiempsal and Adherbal, and his adopted son Jugurtha. Jugurtha soon had Hiempsal murdered (after he chose to stay with one of Jugurtha's supporters), and forced Adherbal to flee, first into the Roman province of Africa and then to Rome. He appealed to the Romans for support, and in 116 BC a senatorial commission split the kingdom in two. Jugurtha was given the western part of the kingdom, while Adherbal got the more developed eastern part, which included the capital at Cirta (modern Constantine), and the areas taken from Carthage.

This settlement didn't last for long. Jugurtha invaded eastern Numidia and besieged Adherbal in Cirta (112 BC). The Romans attempted twice to intervene diplomatically without success, and eventually Adherbal was forced to surrender by his Italian supporters. At this point Jugurtha made war inevitable by killing Adherbal and the Italians.

Phase One: Jugurtha attempts to submit

Even after the fall of Cirta, Sallust reports that Jugurtha's supporters in the Senate attempted to drag out the Senate debate so long that the anger against him would fade, but Caius Memmius, one of the tribunes of the plebs, turned the people of Rome against Jugurtha. As a result the Senate felt forced to declare war. This took place late in 112 BC, but before the election of the consuls for 111 BC, as Numidia and Italy were set as the two consular provinces for that year. Publius Scipio Nasica and Lucius Bestia Calpurnius won the lections and Bestia was given Numidia as his province. Jugurtha sent his son to Rome to try and bribe the senate to end the war. On this occasion the Senate refused to let the deputation enter the city unless they came to surrender, and ordered them to leave Italy within ten days if not. The Numidians thus returned home.

Bestia raised an army in Italy, and took it to Sicily and then to the Roman province of Africa, before invading Numidia. He captured several towns, but Jugurtha wisely avoiding fighting, as he clearly still hoped to win peace. He opened negotations with Bestia, and quickly submitted. He was allowed to keep his kingdom in return for a small tribute (thirty elephants, a large number of cattle and horses and a small financial payment). Roman politics now intervened. Bestia was accused of accepting bribes by Caius Memmius, and Jugurtha was summoned to Rome to testify against him. Jugurtha accepeted the offer of safe conduct, and travelled to Rome. One of the tribunes of the plebs vetoed his testimony in front of the popular assembly, a move that a few years later, as Roman political life got increasingly violent, would probably have seem him lynched.

While he was in Rome Jugurtha ordered the murder of Massiva, the son of Micipsa's other brother Gulussa. Unsuprisingly this ended any chance of a peaceful end to the war, but Jugurtha was allowed to return home, having been guarunteed his safety before coming. As he left the city, Sallust has Jugurtha say that 'it was a venal city, and would soon perish, if it could but find a purchaser', although this has more to do with Sallust's knowledge of the decline and fall of the Republic, which would be just about complete by his time, than with the realities of 111 BC.

Phase Two: Spurius Postumius Albinus

The command for 110 BC went to the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus. He had been allocated Numidia in 111 BC, and Sallust suggests that he helped overthrow Bestia's peace deal so he could take up his command. If so he didn't achieve much during his time in Africa. Jugurtha realised that Albinus needed a quick victory, before he would have to return to Rome to hold the elections for 110 BC, and managed to prolong the war until Albinus had to return home to conduct the elections for 109 BC. During this period Jugurtha retreated whenever the Romans advanced, carried out counterattacks, and entered into false negotiations, even promising to surrender at one point.

Albinus's time eventually ran out, and he returned to Rome, leaving his brother Aulus Postumius Albinus as his propraetor in Numidia. In January 109 BC Aulus decided to attack Jugurtha's treasury at Suthul. He besieged the city, but was then lured into an ambush by Jugurtha, who had finally decided to risk attacking the main Roman army. Aulus's army was attacked in its camp, and forced to flee in chaos. Aulus was forced to agree that his men should pass under the yoke, and leave Numidia within ten days. Unsurprisingly the Senate repudiated this agreement, while Spurius dashed back to Africa to try and restore the family name. However he found the army in very poor condition, and realised that there was nothing he could do.

Phase Three: Q. Caecilius Metellus

By this point the elections for 109 BC had finally taken place, and the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus (later known as Metellus Numidicus) had been given the Numidian command. He raised a sizable new army in Italy, and then moved to Africa, taking Gaius Marius with him as his legate. Metellus had to spend some time restoring the morale and discipline of the army already in Africa, but his reputation began to worry Jugurtha. He attempted to open peace talks, but Metellus was either not interested or didn’t trust him. He attempted to subvert Jugurtha's envoys, while at the same time pretending to consider his peace terms. However he then launched an invasion of eastern Numidia, capturing the trading city of Vaga.

Jugurtha finally realised that he would have to fight. He attempted to ambush Metellus as he advanced towards the Muthul River (109 BC), taking advantage of a low ridge that ran parallel to Metellus's route to the river, but despite some initial successes the attack failied, and Jugurtha was forced to retreat.

Metellus then carried out a distructive raid across the most prosperous parts of Numidia, but was unable to force Jugurtha to risk another battle. In order to break the deadlock, Metellus decided to besiege Zama (109 BC), in the hope that this would force Jugurtha to fight. In this he was correct, but not in the way he had hoped. While Metellus attacked Zama, Jugurtha carried out two attacks on the Roman camp, on both occasions coming close to victory. Even these failures helped undermine the Roman siege, and Metellus eventually decided to withdraw and go into winter quarters.

Over the winter of 109-108 Metellus attempted to defeat Jugurtha through treachery. He attempted to win over Bomilcar, the man who had murdered Massive at Rome, and who thus had much to fear if he ever fell into Roman hands. Bomilcar was promised a full parden if he delivered Jugurtha alive or dead, and agreed to work with the Romans.

Bomilcar's first attempt to earn his pardon saw him attempt to convince Jugurtha to surrender. Negotations actually got underway, and Jugurtha went as far as surrendered his elephants, 200,000lb weight of silver, a portion of his horses and arms and handing over Roman deserters. It was only when Metellas ordered Jugurtha to appear in front of him in person that he changed his mind, and decided to fight on.

Over the same winter the Senate voted to extend Metellus's command in Numidia into 108 BC, but at the same time Marius began to believe that he should be allowed to stand for election as one of the consuls of 107 BC, with the aim of replacing Metellus in Numidia if the war was still going on. At this point Metellus refused to give Marius permission to leave for Rome, triggering a feud that would soon undermine the relationship between the two men.

Jugurtha's next plan was to try and regain control of the towns that had gone over to the Romans. He met with success at Vaga, where the locals massacred all but one of the Roman garrison. The Roman governor, Titus Turpilius Silanus, was the only man to escape, but he was later put on trial and executed. Metellus quickly regained control of the city, but the execution of Turpilius exacerbated the fued with Marius.

Bomilcar's treachery now reached a new level. He found a potential accomplisse in Nabdalsa, a nobleman with an independent military command who appears to have served as Jugurtha's deputy. The two men agreed to overthrown the king, but on the agreed day Nabdalsa lost his nerve and failed to appear. Bomilcar sent a letter to Nabdalsa attacking him for his irresolution and assuring him that Jugurtha would soon fall. Almost inevitably this letter fell into the wrong hands. Nabdalsa realised he was in trouble, and decided to go to Jugurtha himself to claim that he had been about to inform the king himself. Jugurtha had Bomilcar executed, and officially forgave Nabdalsa.

According to Sallust, soon afterwards Metellus finally let Marius return to Rome to stand as one of the consuls for 107 BC. Plutarch has this happened only twelve day before the elections, which were probably held in or around July 108 BC. Marius got back to the city just in time, and campaigned on a populist agenda, attacking Metellus and his predecessors for their noble birth and failure to defeat Jugurtha. He was duly elected as one of the consuls for 107 BC. The Senate voted to extend Metellus's command in Numidia, in an attempt to frustrate Marius. With the support of Manilius Mancinus, one of the tribunes of the plebs, Marius took the issue to a full assembly of the Roman people, and had the command transferred to him. On this occasion this gamble succeeded, but it also set a dangerous precedence. Later in life Marius used the same ploy to take the command against Mithridates from his rival Sulla, but Sulla refused to accept the change, convinced his army to support him against Marius and marched on Rome (Sulla's First Civil War).

While Marius was engaged in politics back in Rome, Metellus still had a year to try and end the war. Jugurtha had been unnerved by Bomilcar's and Nabdalsa's treachery, and couldn't decide what to do next. According to Sallust this gave Metellus the chance to force him to accept battle, appearing suddenly before Jugurtha could escape. This 'second Metellan battle', at an unnamed location, ended as a Roman victory, although most of the Numidians managed to escape. Jugurtha retreated to the city of Thala, a weathly city in dry country. Much to his surprise Metellus followed him across the desert and prepared to besiege the city. Jugurtha managed to escape, with his children and part of his treasure. The city held out for forty days, but once the town had fallen the defenders retreated to the royal palace which they set on fire, committing suicide rather than fall into Roman hands.

In the aftermath of this defeat, Jugurtha was running out of Numidian supporters. He fled south into the lands of the Gaetulians, described by Sallust as 'a people savage and uncivilized, and, at that period, unacquainted even with the name of Rome'. He recruited a large force of Gaetulians, and then spent some time training them. He also attempted to win over King Bocchus of the Mauri, whose kingdom was in the north-western corner of Africa. Bocchus had offered his friendship to Rome at the outbreak of the war, but had been rejected, and was now willing to side with Jugurtha (who was also married to one of his daughters).

At some point during the year the city of Cirta had fallen to the Romans, and Metellus was now using it as a supply base, where he had his plunder, prisoners and baggage. The two kings decided to try and recapture the city. Metellus decided to fortify a camp close to Cirta and await the approach of the kings. Just at this moment the news of Marius's election as Consul and appointment to the Numidian campaign reached Metellus, who lost interest in continuing with the fighting. Instead he opened negotiations with Bocchus, and appears to have been able to prolong these for the rest of the campaigning season of 108 BC.

Metellus had achieved a great deal in Numidia. He had defeated Jugurtha in two field battles, captured many of his cities, and at least temporarily captured the eastern part of the kingdom. However he had failed to capture Jugurtha himself, and by the end of his time in command was faced with an alliance between Jugurtha, with his army of Gaetulians and Bocchus. On his return to Rome he was given a triumph and the name 'Numidicus',

Phase Four: Marius

Marius spent some time raising a fresh army in Rome. He recruited from the normal sources of soldiers, but most famously also allowed members of the 'head count', the sixth, or lowest, of the classes of Roman citizens. This was probably seen as a temporary measure in 107 BC, but Marius had to repeat the exercise to deal with the crisis caused by the Cimbri and the Teutones (Cimbric War).

He crossed over to Africa on the traditional route into the Roman province, landing at Utica. Metellus refused to meet with him, and command of the existing army was handed over by Publius Rutilius Rufus. Marius then chose to attack a prosperous but poorly defended part of Numidia, to give his new troops some experience. He attacked a series of poorly defended towns and fortresses and managed to fight a number of small scale engagements. Sallust reports that the two kings split up and retreated into inaccessible areas on different routes, following a plan suggested by Jugurtha, but Bocchus was also in touch with the Romans during this period, and seems to have been unwilling to risk an actual clash with them.

Marius's inexperienced recruits thus gained confidence. He also attempted to win over the Numidians by protecting them from Jugurtha's raids. He also came close to capturing Jugurtha near Cirta, forcing him to flee without his arms. However this didn't bring the war any closer to an end, so Marius decided to methodically capture all of the strongholds still held by Jugurtha, in the hope that this would force Jugurtha to risk another battle. When this failed to happen, Marius decided to attack Capsa, in the south-east of the kingdom, another city similar to Thala, protected by its location in the middle of a desert, and considered to be very loyal to the king. After crossing the desert that protected the city in three night marches, Marius caught the defenders by surprise, captured and destroyed the city. The inhabitants were either killed or sold into slavery.

Marius then advanced across Numidia, attacking those cities still loyal to Jugurtha. Most were abandoned before Marius even arrived, and then burnt. A few put up some resistance, but were quickly overwhelmed. By 106 BC this bought Marius to the western edge of the kingdom, marked by the River Muluccha. Jugurtha had a fort on a steep sided rock just to the east of the river, but this fell to Marius after one of his men found a way up the hill on the opposite side to the main fighting.

Although this siege took place almost on the edge of Bocchus's kingdom, he failed to intervene. So far he had proved to be a rather disappointing ally for Jugurtha, but the Numidian king had very few options. In an attempt to gain more active support he offered Jugurtha one third of Numidia if the war ended with the Romans expelled from Africa, or without Jugurtha losing any territory.

This agreement finally convinced Bocchus to make a real contribution to the war effort, and his efforts almost resulted in a disaster for the Romans. Marius was withdrawing east towards his winter quarters, and clearly wasn't expected to be attacked. He was thus caught out when the combined armies of Bocchus and Jugurtha attacked him close to Cirta (first battle of Cirta). We have two very different accounts of this battle, from Sallust and Orosius, but in both cases the Romans were caught out, were in real danger of defeat, and were saved largely by luck. In Sallust the Romans had to take refuge on a hill overnight, and managed to catch their enemies napping with a dawn attack. In Orosius they were in the middle of a desperate last stand when heavy rain saved them. Marius was able to resume his march into winter quarters, but Bocchus and Jugurtha attacked again (second battle of Cirta). Once again they came close to victory before being defeated when Sulla's cavalry returned to the field after an early success.

Marius was finally able to get into his winter quarters, but he didn't remain there for long. He decided to besiege a fortress that was garrisioned by Roman deserters. At the same time Bocchus had decided to change sides, seeing it as his best chance of saving his own crown. His envoys reached Sulla, who had been left with the main army, before meeting with Marius and a council made of Sulla and every senator to be found in the province. Bocchus was granted a truce and permission to sent ambassadors to Rome to ask for a treaty of friendship and alliance. The Senate strongly hinted that the only way for Bocchus to gain that alliance would be to hand over Jugurtha. 

Bocchus agreed to go along with this, and asked Marius to send his deputy Sulla to help with the plot. Sulla was sent with a small escort. Five days after leaving the main camp Bocchus's son Volux appeared at the head of 1,000 cavalry, causing a brief scare in Sulla's party. Volux claimed he had been sent to escort Sulla to his father, and joined Sulla's column. That night he reported that his scouts had found Jugurtha nearby, and urged Sulla to flee with him into the night. Sulla refused, but did agree to make a night march. At dawn, just as Sulla's men were camping, Volux's cavalry reported that Jugurtha was only two miles away. Unsuprisingly many of Sulla's men assumed that they had been betrayed by Volux, but he managed to convince Sulla that he was innocent, and suggested that Sulla's force should march directly through the middle of Jugurtha's camp, trusting in Volux's presence to keep them safe. This ploy worked, suggesting that Jugurtha had accepted some sort of truce at this stage. According to Sallust, at this point Bocchus hadn't quite decided which side to support, but he was eventually convinced by Sulla to betray Jugurtha. The betrayal was to be disguised as peace talks, with Jugurtha to be captured during the talks. On his part Jugurtha agreed to the peace talks, but suggested that Sulla should be taken hostage, presumably with the aim of keeping the Romans honest. When the meeting finally took place, Bocchus sided with the Romans. His men ambushed Jugurtha's party, killed everyone apart from the king, and delivered him to Sulla.


Jugurtha was taken back to Rome, where he took part in Marius's triumph on 1 January 104 BC. After the triumph he was either starved to death or strangled in his cell.

The new settlement of Africa was surprisingly moderate. The Romans didn't take any new territory for themselves. Bocchus kept his original kingdom, and was given the western third of Numidia, as originally promised by Jugurtha. Jugurtha's half brother Gauda became the new king of Numidia. Rome had extended her more informal influence in the area, and could see both Numidia and Mauretania as client kingdoms.

Marius had already been appointed as one of the consuls for 104 BC, after the Romans suffered a heavy defeat at the battle of Arausio (Cimbric War). This would be the first of five consecutive years as Consul for Marius, who thus came to dominate the Roman state. During this period he won his most famous victories, Aquae Sextiae in 102 BC and the Raudian Plains in 101 BC.

The victory over Jugurtha is said to have been the start of the feud between Sulla and Marius that would end with Sulla's First Civil War and the beginning of the end for the Roman Republic. Marius's opponents in Rome claimed that Metellus had won the war and Sulla captured the king, leaving no credit for Marius. Sulla had a seal-ring made showing the Bocchus surrendering Jugurtha to him, which he used all the time. In the 90s Bocchus helped fan the feud by paying for a a group of statues showing the same scene to be erected on the Capital in Rome. However Sulla and Marius were able to work together successfully for most of the Cumbric Wars, and the worst of their feud probably developed late in that war or afterwards. It finally came out fully into the open at the start of the 80s BC, when both men wanted the command against Mithridates of Pontus. Sulla was given the command, but once again Marius manipulated the political system at Rome to take the command. Unlike Metellus, Sulla wasn't ready to accept the change, and he took the drastic step of leading his army against Rome to regain the command (Sulla's First Civil War, 88-87 BC). This was the first time Roman troops had been led against their own city since the possibly legendary Coriolanus 400 years earlier, and it marked the start of the prolonged series of civil wars that would end with the collapse of the Republic.

The Crisis of Rome: The Jugurthine and Northern Wars and the Rise of Marius, Gareth C. Sampson. A study of a forgotten crisis of the Roman Republic, threatened by wars in Gaul, Macedonia and North Africa, and by a series of massive defeats at the hands of the Cimbri. Rome was saved by Marius, the first of a series of soldier-statesmen who eventually overthrew the Republic. [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (8 December 2017), Jugurthine War (111-104 BC), http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_jugurthine.html

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