The Jugurthine War: The Year 108 BCE

View of the Forum Romanum.


  • The consul Hortensius is forced to resign for unspecified reasons;
  • The censor Marcus Aemilius Scaurus is forced to resign when his colleague Marcus Livius Drusus dies;
  • The town of Vaga rebels against the Romans and massacres the garrison; the only survivor is the garrison commander, Titus Turpilius;
  • The proconsul Quintus Caecilius Metellus recaptures Vaga and reluctantly orders the execution of Turpilius;
  • Marius is elected consul for the first time;
  • Bomilcar’s plot against Jugurtha fails;
  • Metellus defeats Jugurtha in a minor battle;
  • After 40 days of heavy fighting, the Romans capture Thala;
  • Metellus aids Leptis Magna by sending four cohorts of Ligurians to the city;
  • Jugurtha forges an alliance with his father-in-law, King Bocchus of Mauretania.

The year started with Servius Sulpicius Galba and Quintus or Lucius Hortensius as the new consuls, but Hortensius was soon forced to step down because of an unspecified offence. Marcus Aurelius Scaurus was elected in his stead. Things did not go smoothly with the censors either. The previous year, the Romans had elected the princeps senatus Marcus Aemilius Scaurus (the consul of 115 BCE) and Marcus Livius Drusus (the consul of 112 BCE). However, Drusus died this year and an old tradition dictated that Scaurus now had to resign as well. This he did, reluctantly. The two consuls of 116 BCE, Quintus Fabius Maximus Eburnus and Gaius Licinius Geta, were elected as the new censors. A curious and spicy detail is that Geta had actually been expelled from the Senate previously: he had been among the 32 senators struck from the roll in 115 BCE for unspecified vices.[1] Apparently it did not in any way hamper his political career, and he was probably reinstated either by Scaurus and Drusus (before the latter died), or by his colleague Eburnus. Scaurus was confirmed as the princeps senatus.

The Jugurthine War

While in his winter camp, Quintus Caecilius Metellus got into contact with Bomilcar, Jugurtha’s lieutenant, and tried to convince him to betray his king. Bomilcar managed to persuade Jugurtha to surrender. The king sent some deserters to the Roman general , but when he was himself summoned to the town of Tisidium, he suddenly changed his mind and decided to continue the war. In the meantime the Senate had already decided to prolong Metellus’ command in Numidia. As proconsul he was to continue – and if possible, end – the Jugurthine War. His first job would be to retake Vaga. Metellus had captured the town the previous year, but Jugurtha had enticed the inhabitants to rebel. They had invited the Roman officers to their private homes to celebrate a public holiday and had subsequently murdered them. Roman soldiers found wandering in the streets were massacred. The only survivor was the garrison commander, a certain Titus Turpilius.

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

Numidian cavalry (source: Europa Barbarorum).

Metellus mobilised the legion that was staying at his winter camp and advanced on Vaga, where he arrived just two days after the massacre. By now several units of Numidian cavalry were fighting for the Romans and the proconsul ordered the horsemen to form a wide screen in front of his legionaries. Seeing the Numidians, the citizens of Vaga assumed it was Jugurtha and enthusiastically went out to meet him. Then Metellus sprang his trap. His cavalry and infantry stormed into the town and went on a killing spree. After Vaga had been thoroughly pillaged, the proconsul had to decide on Turpilius’ fate. The latter was an Italian who held Latin status and who had always been a client of the Caecilii Metelli. Since he was the sole survivor of the massacre at Vaga, he was suspected of having betrayed the city to Jugurtha and having been spared in return. This constituted treason, and treason carried the death penalty. The case was heard by a military court of which the legate Gaius Marius was a member. Plutarchus claims he played a major role in the court’s decision to find Turpilius guilty. Metellus now had no choice but to execute a client of his family. Since he was a Latin, he was scourged before his execution (this was normally prohibited with regard to Romans).

Marius’ popularity was on the rise at the time. His soberness and stamina – he was in his late forties – had won him much sympathy with the regular soldiers. Plutarchus wrote that “it is a most agreeable spectacle for a Roman soldier when he sees a general eating common bread in public, or sleeping on a simple pallet, or taking a hand in the construction of some trench or palisade”.[2] Marius now began thinking of running for consul. Even before the Turpilius affair he had asked Metellus for leave to travel to Rome to announce his candidacy in the elections. At first the proconsul, who seems to have thought Marius’ plans were a clear-cut case of hubris, tried to talk him out of it. When Marius persisted, Metellus jokingly remarked that his legate could be a candidate as soon as his own son ran for consul. The young man was about twenty years old at the time. According to Plutarchus, the rift between the two men became total after the Turpilius affair. In the end, Metellus reportedly gave Marius permission to travel to Rome just twelve days before the elections were to take place. These were usually held in December[3], so if the story is true, it must have been at least November when Marius travelled to Utica and from there took a ship to Italy. Marius arrived in the nick of time, announced his candidacy and was duly elected.

Bust of Gaius Marius (Glyptothek, Munich; photo: Bibi Saint-Pol).

After Marius had left, Metellus continued the war against Jugurtha. He soon heard about the death of Bomilcar, whom he had encouraged to plot against Jugurtha. Unfortunately for the Romans, Bomilcar’s conspiracy had been discovered and the man himself had been executed. Sallustius claims that the conspiracy had made Jugurtha paranoid and that may very well be true. After all, little more than thirty years previously the Romans had ended a seemingly endless war by assassinating their chief opponent, the Lusitanian Viriathus. As Jugurtha marched through the countryside with what was left of his army, he was suddenly confronted by Metellus and his forces. The latter won an easy victory. Jugurtha’s soldiers were thoroughly defeated, but casualties were probably fairly light. Sallustius rather sarcastically remarked that “in almost all their battles the Numidians depend more upon speed of foot than on arms”, implying that they were very good at running away.

Jugurtha fled to the large and wealthy town of Thala, where the king kept a large part of his treasury and where his sons were raised. Thala was to be Metellus’ next target. When he arrived there, the king fled with his family during the night. Seeing that the citizens of Thala were prepared to defend themselves, the proconsul had the town surrounded with a palisade and moat (circumvallatio). He ordered his men to construct moveable shelters called vineae and to start building a ramp (agger) and towers (turres). After 40 days of heavy fighting, so probably in the new year, the Romans captured Thala, only to discover they had taken an empty shell. Jugurtha had taken much of the treasury with him when he fled, and the citizens of Thala had burned the rest. Many inhabitants had also committed suicide to prevent falling into Roman hands.

The Arch of Septimius Severus in Leptis Magna (photo: David Gunn).

After Thala had been taken, Metellus welcomed envoys from the city of Leptis Magna in Libya. The people of Leptis had become friends and allies of the Roman people in 111 BCE. They now requested a Roman garrison to stop the attempts of a nobleman named Hamilcar to topple the local magistrates. Since Leptis had been loyal to the Roman cause, Metellus decided to send four cohorts of Ligurians led by one Gaius Annius. The Romans now had a military foothold in Libya as well.

In the meantime, Jugurtha was growing ever more desperate. He had first fled to the Gaetuli in what is now Central Algeria and had subsequently tried his luck at the court of Bocchus, the king of Mauretania (in present-day Morocco). Bocchus happened to be his father-in-law, as Jugurtha had married one of his daughters. These family ties had so far not helped the Numidian much, as he had other wives as well. But now the two kings forged an alliance and marched on Cirta, the most important city in Numidia. Jugurtha had captured the city in 112 BCE and had murdered his cousin Adherbal there, but at present Cirta was in Roman hands and Metellus kept his loot, prisoners and baggage train there. As Bocchus and Jugurtha advanced on the city, the proconsul was waiting for them. But then he received a message containing bad news: the newly elected consul Gaius Marius had been given Numidia as his province.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the name of Rome, p. 133-134;
  • Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 10, note 4.


[1] Cicero, For Aulus Cluentius 119.

[2] Life of Marius 7.

[3] Andrew Lintott, The Constitution of the Roman Republic, p. 10, note 4.

One Comment:

  1. Pingback:The Jugurthine War and the Great Threat from the North: The Year 106 BCE – – Corvinus –

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