Prelude to the Jugurthine War: The Years 118-114 BCE

View of the Forum Romanum.


  • King Micipsa of Numidia dies and leaves his kingdom to his sons Adherbal and Hiempsal and his nephew and adopted son Jugurtha (118 BCE);
  • Jugurtha has Hiempsal murdered and defeats Adherbal on the battlefield (117 BCE);
  • De Senate sends a committee of ten men (decemviri) under Lucius Opimius to Numidia to divide the kingdom between Adherbal and Jugurtha (116 BCE);
  • The consul Marcus Aemilius Scaurus defeats the Carni and is awarded a triumph (115 BCE);
  • The censors Lucius Caecilius Metellus Diadematus and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus expel 32 men from the Senate and register 394,336 Roman citizens (115-114 BCE);
  • The consul Gaius Porcius Cato, governor of Macedonia, suffers a heavy defeat against the Scordisci (114 BCE).

In 118 BCE, King Micipsa of Numidia passed away peacefully. He had been on the throne for thirty years after the death of his father, the great Masinissa, in 148 BCE. Micipsa had two legitimate sons of his own, Adherbal and Hiempsal. Some three years before his death he had also adopted his nephew Jugurtha, the son of his brother Mastanabal and a concubine. Jugurtha seems to have been slightly older than both Adherbal and Hiempsal. He was a strong man, very handsome and incredibly intelligent, at least that is how the Roman historian Sallustius chooses to portray him. Jugurtha certainly had plenty of military experience, having served under the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus during the siege of Numantia some fifteen years previously. His involvement with the Roman army ensured that he knew the strengths and weaknesses of this army very well.

Prelude to the Jugurthine War

The Senate House – Curia – on the Forum Romanum.

King Micipsa had left his kingdom to his two sons and his nephew, and had charged the three men to be harmonious. Although Adherbal, Hiempsal and Jugurtha initially agreed to divide the Numidian territories and the money in the treasury between the three of them, Jugurtha had other plans. In 117 BCE, he had Hiempsal murdered in a town called Thirmida. Jugurtha and Adherbal then began raising armies to fight each other out in the open, and although Adherbal’s army was far larger, it was Jugurtha’s military skills and experience that won him the day. After being thoroughly defeated, Adherbal fled inland first and then decided to seek help in Rome. Jugurtha responded by sending envoys to Rome as well. According to Sallustius, these envoys were provided with lots of gold and silver to please old friends and bribe many new ones.

In 116 BCE both Adherbal and Jugurtha addressed the Senate. The senators saw no need to send military aid to the former. Although this decision may partly have been the result of Jugurtha’s bribery, we should also note that there were as yet no compelling reasons for the Romans to intervene. This was an internal conflict between two Numidian cousins, which did not in any way pose a threat to the neighbouring Roman province of Africa. Some senators nevertheless argued that Jugurtha should be punished for the ‘fratricide’ he had committed. His most vocal critic was Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, who would be elected consul for the next year.

In the end it was decided to send a committee of ten men (decemviri) to Numidia. It was ordered to divide the kingdom between Adherbal and Jugurtha, and led by the former consul Lucius Opimius, the man who had been responsible for the death of the popularis tribune Gaius Gracchus. Sallustius suggests that it was bribery again that ensured that the decemviri granted Jugurtha the most fertile and most populous parts of Numidia. According to our historian, the Numidian now believed that everything in Rome was for sale. Sallustius may have been exaggerating, but he is still our best source for the conflict. In any case, the dispute between the two cousins seemed to have been settled now. But unfortunately the peace did not last, and there can be no doubt that Jugurtha was to blame.

Other events

Some Celtic war gear.

In 115 BCE, the aforementioned Marcus Aemilius Scaurus fought against the Carni, a Celtic people living near the Alps. The consul managed to defeat them and was awarded a triumph. One of his successors as consul, Gaius Porcius Cato, was not so lucky. He had been allotted the province of Macedonia and had campaigned against the Scordisci. Although Florus calls them “the cruellest of all the Thracians”, the Scordisci were more likely a Celtic tribe. The Romans had become acquainted with them in 176-175 BCE, when a former consul had visited the region north of Macedonia and had learned that the Scordisci had allied themselves with the Bastarnae. The first military confrontation with the tribe came about a decade after the Romans had added Macedonia to their ever growing empire. In 135 BCE, the praetor Marcus Cosconius had campaigned against them, probably with little lasting success. Gaius Porcius Cato had no success at all: in 114 BCE, his entire army was cut to pieces.

In 115 BCE, the Roman people elected new censors. Lucius Caecilius Metellus Diadematus (the consul of 117 BCE) and Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus (the consul of 122 BCE) took their job seriously and struck 32 senators from the roll for unspecified vices. A year later they concluded the census after having registered 394,336 Roman citizens. A citizen who could no longer be counted because he had recently passed away was Quintus Caecilius Metellus Macedonicus, a famous general who had won important victories in Greece in 148 BCE and 146 BCE. The censors also discovered that three Vestal virgins had broken their sacred vows of chastity, an offense which carried the death penalty. The women were punished accordingly.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the name of Rome, p. 130-131.


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