The Jugurthine War and the Great Threat from the North: The Year 109 BCE

View of the Forum Romanum.


  • Aulus Postumius Albinus suffers a defeat against Jugurtha and is forced to accept a humiliating peace treaty;
  • The treaty is rejected by the Senate and the consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus is sent to Numidia to continue the Jugurthine War;
  • A Lex Mamilia sets up a committee of three men to investigate corruption in the war against Jugurtha; several influential Romans are convicted;
  • Metellus knocks the Roman army in Africa back into shape, invades Numidia and captures the city of Vaga;
  • Metellus wins a hard-fought victory over Jugurtha near the river Muthul, while his legate Publius Rutilius Rufus defeats Jugurtha’s lieutenant Bomilcar;
  • Gaius Marius wins a small victory over Jugurtha at Sicca;
  • Metellus fails to capture Zama;
  • The Cimbri and Teutones defeat the consul Marcus Junius Silanus in or near Gallia Transalpina;
  • The proconsul Marcus Minucius Rufus defeats the Scordisci.

Two people’s tribunes who wanted to have their terms of office prolonged held up the elections for the other offices as well. As a result, the consul Spurius Postumius Albinus had to stay in Rome far longer than he had planned. The consul had left his brother Aulus in command of the war against Jugurtha, and Aulus – who was audacious, but not too bright – now hoped he could defeat the king before his brother returned. In January of 109 BCE, he advanced on the city of Suthul, where Jugurtha reportedly kept his treasury. Soon the expedition would turn into disaster for the Romans.

The Jugurthine War

Suthul was located on the edge of a mountain and surrounded by a muddy plain which had been turned into a swamp by excessive winter rains. Although the city appeared to be impregnable, Aulus started preparing siege engines anyway. Jugurtha pretended to be impressed, sending envoys and proposing a deal to end the war. He lured the Roman general away from Suthul and in secret began bribing the latter’s centurions and cavalry commanders. Then suddenly, in the middle of the night, he surrounded Aulus’ camp with a large force of Numidians. As panic spread through the camp, a handful of Roman soldiers who had been bribed defected, and so did a whole cohort of Ligurians and two turmae of Thracian cavalry. What was worse was that the most senior centurion of the Third Legion, the primus pilus, had also succumbed to the king’s money and opened the gates to let in the enemy. The Romans fled to a nearby hill and the Numidians enthusiastically stripped the camp of anything of value.

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

The next day Jugurtha had his men surround the Romans on the hill and had a meeting with Aulus. The Roman general had no choice but to accept the humiliating peace treaty the king offered him. His men were allowed to go free, but they were sent under a yoke of spears first, thus losing their status as soldiers. Aulus was to leave the king’s territories within ten days. Of course there was outrage in Rome when news of the humiliation reached the city. The Senate rejected the treaty and Spurius Postumius Albinus immediately began levying new troops, although some people’s tribunes prohibited him from taking the new soldiers to Africa. Apparently they felt that Albinus still had plenty of troops at his disposal. The Roman army had been humiliated, but it had not suffered serious losses. The men were now to show that they could fight after all and restore their reputation as warriors that had won an empire. Unfortunately, what Albinus found when he returned to Africa was a bunch of demoralised, ill-disciplined, profligate good-for-nothings. The former consul therefore decided to stay in his camp and do nothing.

View of the Forum Romanum.

Meanwhile the people’s tribune Gaius Mamilius Limetanus had the popular assembly pass a bill (a Lex Mamilia) that set up a committee of three men to investigate corruption in the war against Jugurtha and the king’s ties to influential Romans. A previous investigation in 111 BCE had achieved nothing, but now three investigators (quaesitores) were appointed. Rather ironically, one of them was Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, who in the past had been accused of corruption himself. Sallustius claims that the investigators did not do their job well: they were harsh and violent, and relied on rumours rather than evidence. According to Cicero, the quaesitores had popularis sympathies, which – according to the orator – was why they found several former consuls guilty who sympathised with the optimates. Among the condemned was Lucius Calpurnius Bestia, who had fought against Jugurtha and had allegedly been bribed by him. Gaius Porcius Cato (the consul of 114 BCE) was also convicted and so were Spurius Postumius Albinus and Lucius Opimius, the man who had been responsible for Gaius Gracchus’ death and who had been sent to Numidia in 116 BCE.

The war against Jugurtha was granted to the new consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus. His older brother Lucius Caecilius Metellus had been consul in 119 BCE and had earned himself the nickname ‘Delmaticus’ for his victories over the Dalmatae. Quintus Metellus chose two experienced men as his senior legates. One of them was Gaius Marius, who was now in his late forties. The Marii were clients of the Caecilii Metelli, but when he was people’s tribune, Marius had had a serious beef with Lucius Metellus when the latter tried to obstruct his Lex Maria de suffragiis (see this post). Marius had even ordered the arrest of his patronus, but that was ten years ago and apparently Quintus Metellus did not hold a grudge against the former tribune because of what had happened to his brother. Marius was a veteran of Scipio Aemilianus’ Spanish campaigns, and that was likely the reason Metellus picked him. The other senior legate was Publius Rutilius Rufus, who had also served under Scipio in Spain.

Equipment of a Republican military tribune.

Quintus Caecilius Metellus had one marked advantage over his predecessors: he was completely incorruptible. Unlike his predecessor Albinus he was allowed to take fresh troops to Africa. These were sorely needed, because the army that Albinus handed over to Metellus was still a sorry bunch. It was time to knock this army back into shape and make soldiers of these men again. No doubt aided by Marius and Rutilius Rufus, Metellus subjected the soldiers to a rigorous training programme. Whores, merchants, slaves and pack animals were ejected from the camp and the men were ordered to carry their own equipment and personal belongings again. Metellus had his army march, drill, build camps, dig moats, erect palisades and stand guard. Soldiers had to bake their own bread (previously they had simply sold their rations of grain and bought bread that was baked for them) and they were subjected to regular inspections. Soon the consul and his legates had an effective fighting force again.

Fighting at the river Muthul and Zama

Believing Jugurtha was completely untrustworthy, the consul ignored the king’s offer of surrender and instead tried to convince his envoys to betray their master. Metellus then invaded Numidia and advanced on the city of Vaga, an important centre of trade which had a large community of Roman and Italian merchants. There was no resistance here, so the consul decided to station a garrison in the city and ordered the inhabitants to collect grain to support his offensive. He then marched south and reached a mountain range several kilometres from the river Muthul. There Jugurtha had formed up his army on a hill. His position was a good one: if Metellus kept advancing towards the river, he could attack the exposed right flank of the consul’s marching column. The consul was initially oblivious of the king’s presence, but then suddenly spotted armed men and horses among the trees. He had discovered the enemy right on time, otherwise he might have walked into a trap. Metellus quickly deployed his men in battle formation, but when the Numidians refused to leave their hill, he sent Rutilius Rufus with some light troops and cavalry to the river to find a suitable location for a camp.

Republican legionaries, late 2nd century BCE (photo: Jastrow).

Then Metellus himself had his battle line wheel back into marching columns and resumed his advance on the river, with squadrons of cavalry covering his front and rear. As soon as the Roman rear-guard had marched past his lines, Jugurtha sent some 2.000 men to the mountain range from which the Romans had just descended. Then he ordered an all-out assault. The Roman army was attacked from all sides. The Numidians knew they were no match for the legionaries in close combat, so they used their swift horses and knowledge of the terrain and peppered their enemies from a distance with javelins. If the Roman cavalry gave chase, the Numidians simply galloped away in all directions. Once the Roman horsemen had become spread out, the Numidians surrounded individual targets and finished them off easily. Jugurtha’s army managed to break up the army of the consul into several smaller units, but these continued to resist ferociously under the scorching sun. Metellus had plenty of archers and slingers in his army, and although their role in the fighting is not explicitly mentioned in the sources, it seems likely that they were very effective against the lightly armoured Numidians. The consul ultimately managed to restore the Roman formation and had four of his infantry cohorts charge up the hill, where they broke through the Numidian lines. The enemy quickly fled, and the consul had won a victory, albeit a costly one.

Closer to the river, Rutilius Rufus had just finished his camp when his men suddenly bumped into a part of the Numidian army led by Bomilcar, one of Jugurtha’s lieutenants. Rufus won an easy victory. His soldiers managed to kill 40 battle elephants and capture an additional four. His losses were likely minimal, unlike those of Metellus. Although Sallustius, our main source for the conflict, does not give any numbers for the Roman (or Numidian) casualties, he does imply that the number of wounded was substantial. The consul stayed in his camp for four days, made sure the wounded received proper treatment and awarded military decorations to soldiers that had fought bravely. He then decided to no longer risk pitched battles, but to focus on destroying the fertile countryside and capturing Numidian cities where he stationed garrisons. This strategy seemed to work, but Jugurtha was far from defeated. He continued to harass the consul’s columns with his cavalry, cutting up parties of Roman soldiers if they wandered too far from their comrades. In response the consul kept his troops under tight control as he marched through Numidia. Jugurtha was always hot on his tail.

Plate featuring two elephants (Villa Giulia, Rome).

Metellus now chose the city of Zama as his next target. The name of the city had a mythical ring to it because of Scipio Africanus’ victory over Hannibal at the Battle of Zama in 201 BCE (although the actual battle took place near Naraggara, further to the west). Zama was an important city and the Numidian garrison was determined to defend it. Among the defenders were several Roman and Italian defectors, who knew that they faced execution if Zama was captured. While the consul himself marched on Zama, he sent Marius to Sicca further to the west to gather provisions. The city had defected to the Romans, but its loyalty to the Roman cause was shaky at best. As soon as Marius’ troops left Sicca again, they were attacked by Jugurtha and his cavalry. The king exhorted the inhabitants to revolt and attack the Romans in the rear, but Marius kept his calm and managed to get his men out in time, routing the king’s troopers after a brief fight. Sicca remained in Roman hands and Marius rejoined his commander at Zama.

Unfortunately for the consul, Zama proved to be too well defended. The Romans stormed the walls and tried to fight their way into the city, but the defenders pelted them with everything they had: stones, javelins and burning pitch. While the fighting raged, Jugurtha suddenly and unexpectedly attacked the Roman camp, catching the sentries completely off guard. The king’s attack forced Metellus to send all his cavalry back to the camp, with Marius leading the cohorts of allied infantry close behind. The king’s horsemen could not manoeuvre freely inside the camp and were beaten back with heavy loss. The next day there was more heavy fighting, with some of Marius’ soldiers almost succeeding in breaking into the city. But Zama was too tough a nut to crack and the consul decided to give up the siege. As the war season was almost over, he decided to retire to his winter quarters in the Roman province of Africa.

The Great Threat from the North and other events

Germanic warrior (Huis van Hilde, Castricum).

Metellus’ marginal successes brought little joy to the capital, as the Romans had to swallow a heavy defeat against Germanic tribes again this year. In 113 BCE, the Cimbri and Teutones had left their homeland and had started a southward migration. The Romans had tried to stop them in Noricum, north of the Alps, but their army was cut to pieces at the Battle of Noreia. The tribes had then swung westward and invaded Gaul. From there they threatened the Roman province of Gallia Transalpina. The consul Marcus Junius Silanus, Metellus’ colleague, checked them with his army, and at first the tribesman offered to negotiate. The Cimbri and Teutones asked for land on which to settle, but Silanus and the Senate refused. It is not entirely clear who started the ensuing battle, but Silanus was heavily defeated and the Romans could count themselves lucky that the Germans did not press on into Italy. The fact that the proconsul Marcus Minucius Rufus, as governor of Macedonia, won a victory over the Scordisci did little to assuage Roman pain.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the name of Rome, p. 131-133.

One Comment:

  1. Pingback:The Jugurthine War: The Year 108 BCE – – Corvinus –

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