The Jugurthine War and the Great Threat from the North: The Years 113-112 BCE

View of the Forum Romanum.


  • Jugurtha breaks the peace with Adherbal and captures his camp near Cirta; he subsequently puts the city under siege (113 BCE);
  • The Senate sends a committee of three young men to Cirta to force Jugurtha to give up the siege; Jugurtha chooses to ignore them (113 BCE);
  • In Noricum, the consul Gnaeus Papirius Carbo is heavily defeated by the Cimbri and Teutones (113 BCE);
  • The Senate sends a new delegation led by the princeps senatus Marcus Aemilius Scaurus to Numidia, but it fails to achieve anything (112 BCE);
  • Adherbal surrenders Cirta to Jugurtha and is subsequently tortured to death; Roman and Italian traders living in the city are massacred (112 BCE);
  • The Romans declare war on Jugurtha and send the new consul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia to Numidia (112 BCE);
  • The consul Marcus Livius Drusus defeats the Scordisci (112 BCE).

In 113 BCE, after just two or three years of peace, Jugurtha and his army began raiding the territories of his cousin Adherbal. The latter refused to be provoked into a new war and confined himself to sending envoys to protest the incursions. Jugurtha was not impressed. He strengthened his army and marched on Cirta, one of the largest Numidian cities and the capital of his adversary. Adherbal decided to camp outside the city, which was probably a bad idea. Just before dawn, Jugurtha struck and stormed his cousin’s camp. Adherbal’s men were taken completely by surprise, and many of them were still fast asleep. They were quickly routed, the survivors fleeing back to Cirta.

The siege of Cirta

It had been an easy victory for Jugurtha, but Adherbal now entrenched himself inside Cirta and taking this heavily fortified city would not be easy. What complicated matters further for Jugurtha was that Cirta seems to have had a fairly large community of Roman and Italian traders. Rome had a moral duty to defend her own citizens and allies, and the traders living in Cirta seem to have been more than willing to defend themselves. The Senate soon heard about the siege of Cirta because envoys from Adherbal had managed to escape the city and travel to Italy. A committee of three young men was sent to Numidia, who were instructed to convince Jugurtha to give up the siege and settle his dispute with Adherbal in a more civilised way. The Roman delegation achieved nothing, as Jugurtha felt he could simply ignore these ignorant youths.

Theatre of the Jugurthine War (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

And so the siege of Cirta dragged on. The situation for Adherbal was growing more desperate by the day, but he still managed to send two new envoys to Rome. These brave men left the city undetected, managed to make their way through the enemy’s lines and took a ship to Italy. After they had reached Rome, they were allowed to read out a letter from their king in the Senate. The senators took the situation in Numidia more seriously now, unhappy that their previous envoys had been disrespected. In 112 BCE a new and much more formidable delegation was sent to Jugurtha. It was led by Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, the consul of 115 BCE. He had recently been nominated princeps senatus by the censors, so his prestige was considerable.

Numidian cavalry (source: Europa Barbarorum).

The new envoys set sail for Africa and summoned Jugurtha to come to Utica, where they had landed. Jugurtha first did his utmost to capture Cirta, but after his storming parties were repulsed he had no choice but to gather a handful of his horsemen and gallop off to Scaurus and his colleagues. The latter issued heavy threats if the Numidian were to continue the siege, but then left again. The Roman and Italian traders in Cirta subsequently convinced Adherbal to surrender, believing Jugurtha would not dare harm them. They were dead wrong. As soon as Adherbal had capitulated, he was arrested, tortured and killed. Jugurtha also massacred the adult Numidian men in the city and the traders that had taken up arms against them.

The horrified Senate now decided that war was inevitable. During the Early and Mid-Republic, it had been the comitia centuriata – the popular assembly of the centuries – that declared war and made peace, but during the Late Republic this competence seems to have shifted to the Senate. Under the Lex Sempronia de provinciis consularibus of 122 BCE, it had to select the consular provinces before the consuls themselves were elected. Numidia was one of these provinces, and it was later allotted to the new consul Lucius Calpurnius Bestia. A fresh army was raised and money was set aside to pay the soldiers. Jugurtha sent a diplomatic delegation to Rome, led by his son and armed with plenty of cash, but it was told to leave Italy within ten days unless it had come to offer the king’s surrender. It looked like Rome was finally going to show her might and intervene in earnest. But Rome had other problems as well, and these were much larger.

The Great Threat from the North

Germanic warrior (Huis van Hilde, Castricum).

A few years previously, two Germanic tribes known as the Cimbri and the Teutones had begun a southward migration. Both were probably originally from what is now Denmark. Whatever caused them to start their migration is uncertain; natural disasters[1], overpopulation, a civil war and pressure from external enemies have all been suggested.[2] Plutarchus claims that there were 300.000 armed warriors, a number that is no doubt inflated. Nevertheless, these were two peoples on the move and their caravans included many women and children. The Germanic migration was anything but peaceful. As the Cimbri and Teutones moved south, they pillaged the territories that they passed through and chased away the people that lived there. Some of these people chose to join them, most notably the Ambrones and the Tigurini, two Celtic tribes.

By 113 BCE, the Germanic tribes had reached the region of Noricum, which covered part of modern Austria and Slovenia. Noricum was not under Roman rule, but it was close to the important Latin colony of Aquileia and the Roman territories in Illyria. Its inhabitants seem to have been allied to or at least on friendly terms with Rome. After receiving a request for aid from the Norici, the Senate decided to send the consul Gnaeus Papirius Carbo north with an army. Unfortunately Carbo proved to be both treacherous and incompetent. According to Appianus, the tribes apologised for their invasion of Noricum, informing the consul they had not realised the people living there were friends of the Romans. The consul feigned to accept the apology, but then attacked the tribes anyway when they least expected it. Carbo soon realised he had bitten off more than he could chew. The Germanic warriors fought back ferociously and destroyed much of the consul’s army before darkness and bad weather put an end to the fighting (usually called ‘the Battle of Noreia’). The Romans were lucky that the tribes then decided to move west in the direction of Gaul instead of trying their luck at an invasion of Italy. Nevertheless, the Romans had been given a stern warning.

Theatre of the War against the Cimbri and Teutones (source: Ancient World Mapping Center. “À-la-carte”; CC BY 4.0).

Other events

Elsewhere, the Romans did enjoy some success on the battlefield. In 112 BCE, the consul Marcus Livius Drusus served as governor of Macedonia. He was the same Marcus Livius Drusus who, as people’s tribune, had so successfully opposed Gaius Gracchus in 122 BCE. Drusus now took on the Celtic Scordisci, who two years previously had inflicted a heavy defeat on the consul Gaius Porcius Cato. Unlike his predecessor, Drusus proved to be very successful, winning a victory over the Celts and ending the threat they posed to his province. For his victory he was granted a triumph.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the name of Rome, p. 141-142.


[1] Florus mentions flooding of their territories (The Epitome of Roman History, Book 1.38).

[2] Adrian Goldsworthy, In the name of Rome, p. 142.


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