By the time of the Second Punic War, Cirta was the capital of the kingdom of Numidia. Here Syphax established his headquarters, after defecting from the Romans and taking much of Masinissa’s ancestral kingdom. Syphax also gained a wife from his new support of Carthage, Sophonisba, who was Masinissa’s former fiancée. After his return from Spain, Masinissa at once began a campaign to regain his lands. After several skirmishes, he suffered a crushing defeat which left him badly wounded. Only four other of his men survived. They all escaped the slaughter by swimming a river and all believed that Masinissa was dead. The men tended his wounds in a hidden cave. As soon as he was well enough to ride, he revealed himself to his people. They were overjoyed to see him safe, and many more flocked to join him.

Mosaic Cirta Museum Constantine
Mosaic Cirta Museum Constantine,Algeria by Fayeq M.Alnatour is licensed under  CC BY-SA 4.0

Scipio Arrives in Africa 

Cirta mosaic
Cirta mosaic by Ghirlandajo is licensed under  Public Domain

While Masinissa had been fighting in Africa, Scipio had been fighting the Roman Senate. He finally received permission, and set sail for Africa. Hearing of Scipio’s impending arrival, Syphax and the Carthaginians tried to lure Masinissa into a trap with a fake offer of peace. They hoped to remove the threat of the young warlord before Scipio arrived. However, Masinissa turned the deceit back onto them. He pretended that he wished to meet, but actually headed at full speed to Scipio at the coast. Together, the two generals began wreaking havoc upon the Carthaginian forces. The first battle took place before the Carthaginians even knew that Scipio had landed. Masinissa and his Numidians drew them out of their defensible city and into a trap laid by the Romans. 

In a subsequent action, Masinissa’s forces rode in to set fire to the huts of Syphax’s men. The Carthaginians woke, confused, and went to aid their allies, unaware that the blaze was due to enemy actions. Dazed and unarmed, they were easy prey for the waiting Romans. 40,000 Carthaginians and Numidians died, and 5000 captured. While the Carthaginians desperately regrouped, Scipio and Masinissa took city after city. In another major fight, the Carthaginians suffered crushing defeat again, and fled back toward Carthage. The frightened Carthaginian Senate finally ordered Hannibal to halt his attack on Italy and return to defend his home. 

The Charms of Sophonisba

Meanwhile, Masinissa re-entered Massylian territory, and his people enthusiastically welcomed him. Yet Syphax was not ready to give up. He brought his forces into battle with Masinissa, and in the fighting, fell from his horse and fell captive. Masinissa and his cavalry rode ahead to Cirta, the capital city, and informed them of Syphax’s capture. They refused to believe him at first, until Masinissa brought Syphax up and showed him, bound in chains. The city officials were grieved and frightened, and they decided their best course of action was to mollify Masinissa.  They opened the gates and handed over the city without any further fighting. When Masinissa entered the royal palace, Sophonisba threw herself at his feet and begged for mercy. 

Giovanni Antonio Fasolo, Castello Porto Colleoni Thiene, Sofonisba before Masinissa
Giovanni Antonio Fasolo, Castello Porto Colleoni Thiene, Sofonisba before Masinissa by Giovanni Antonio Fasolois licensed under  Public Domain

She rekindled Masinissa’s earlier passion for her, and he married her immediately. He vowed to protect her and to save her from the shame of being paraded in a Roman triumph. When Scipio learned of this, he handled the situation tactfully, due to his deep friendship with Masinissa. He publically praised Masinissa’s exploits, and then took him aside to privately rebuke him. Masinissa may have stood firm in the face of angry reproach, but he crumbled at Scipio’s loving appeal to the trust, friendship, and bond between the two of them. Distraught at having betrayed his friend, Masinissa withdrew to his tent in tears. After much thought, he offered Sophonisba poison. It was the only way he could honor his promise to her, while upholding his duty to Scipio. She accepted, and Masinissa was heartbroken at her death. 

War Ends

Soon after, Scipio called Masinissa before the full assembled army.  “Addressing Masinissa as king and eulogizing him in the highest possible terms, he presented him with a golden crown, curule chair, an ivory sceptre and also with a purple-bordered toga and a tunic embroidered with palms. He enhanced the value of these gifts by informing him that the Romans considered no honour more splendid than that of a triumph, and that no more magnificent insignia were borne by triumphing generals than those which the Roman people deemed Masinissa, alone of all foreigners, worthy to possess.” The Senate confirmed Scipio’s declaration of Masinissa as the King of the Numidians. He continued to aid Scipio against the Carthaginians. Scipio so valued Masinissa that at the final battle at Zama, he delayed the action until his friend arrived. 

Scipio at the deathbed of Masinissa
Scipio at the deathbed of Masinissa by A.C. Weatherstone is licensed under  Public Domain

The two men stayed close throughout their lives, and Masinissa remained an unwaveringly loyal ally of Rome. He sent cavalry to aid Rome on multiple occasions, often sending even more soldiers than requested.  He outlived his old friend Scipio, who died relatively early at the age of fifty-three. Masinissa ruled Numidia for fifty-four years from his capital at Cirta, and the kingdom thrived under his leadership. He fathered his final son at eighty-six, and at eighty-seven he was still personally leading his armies into battle. When he reached the age of ninety, he felt he did not have long left. He sent for Scipio Aemilianus, the grandson of his old friend. In a fitting tribute to his friendship with Scipio, he left the division of his kingdom and the care of his children all in the hands of Aemilianus. 

This article was written for Time Travel Rome by Marian Vermeulen.

Sources: Livy, History of Rome; Appian, The Foreign Wars; Cassius Dio, Roman History; Diodorus Siculus, The Library of History; Polybius, The Histories.

What to See Here?

Very few Roman remains have survived at Cirta. The only substantial piece of ancient architecture within the city is part of a rampart, preserved at the citadel. Outside the city, archaeologists have discovered inscriptions that indicate the presence of a sanctuary dedicated to Saturn. There is also evidence of a 1st century BC dwelling. A deep canyon (created by the Rhummel-wadi) runs through the middle of the city. Fragmentary remains of several bridges still stand in this valley. Further along are a few arches of the city’s aqueduct.

Smaller Artifacts recovered from Cirta, including a beautiful mosaic, are on display in the Musée National Cirta.

To find out more: Timetravelrome.