The Jugurthine War and the Great Threat from the North: The Year 106 BCE

View of the Forum Romanum.


  • Quintus Caecilius Metellus celebrates a triumph for his victories in the Jugurthine War and acquires the nickname ‘Numidicus’;
  • Gaius Marius captures an important fort of Jugurtha near the river Muluccha;
  • Marius is joined by his quaestor Lucius Cornelius Sulla;
  • While returning to his winter camp, Marius is attacked by Jugurtha and Bocchus, but the two kings are heavily defeated;
  • Four days later, Marius again defeats Jugurtha and Bocchus in the vicinity of Cirta;
  • Marius sends his legate Aulus Manlius and his quaestor Sulla to Bocchus to negotiate;
  • The Lex Coelia de suffragiis introduces the secret ballot for capital trials;
  • The consul Quintus Servilius Caepio captures Tolosa and strips the temples of their valuables, but none of the confiscated gold ever reaches Rome.

In spite of the fact that he had not been able to inflict a decisive defeat on the Numidian king Jugurtha, the former consul Quintus Caecilius Metellus had been given a cordial welcome when he returned to Rome. Metellus was awarded a triumph for his victories, which he celebrated this year. He was also allowed to add the agnomen ‘Numidicus’ to his name. According to the Fasti Triumphales, there was another triumph this year: as governor of Macedonia, the former consul Marcus Minucius Rufus had defeated the Scordisci. One of the consuls for this year was Quintus Servilius Caepio. The fact that he had celebrated a triumph the previous year for victories in Hispania Ulterior helped him get elected. But no matter how many triumphs the Romans celebrated, they were actually doing poorly on the battlefield. The Jugurthine War was still raging, and after three humiliating defeats the Romans were desperate for a victory against the Cimbri and Teutones.

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

The Jugurthine War

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

It was probably early in the year when Marius, whose command had been prolonged, embarked on a risky expedition. He marched hundreds of kilometres to the west and reached the river Muluccha, which formed the border between the kingdoms of Jugurtha and his father-in-law and ally, King Bocchus of Mauretania (see the map above). His target was a small but important fort situated on a rocky hill. Sallustius claims that Jugurtha kept his treasury here. We have already seen that the king had lost the town of Thala, the previous location of his treasury, to Metellus in 108 BCE. Before the Romans arrived there, he had hastily taken large amounts of money with him, which were probably now kept in the fort near the Muluccha. Jugurtha likely believed his money was safe at this distant location. The fort appeared to be impregnable because of its position, and Marius’ attempts to storm the place were repulsed with heavy loss. But the Roman commander was lucky, very lucky.

A Ligurian soldier serving in the Roman army had left the camp to fetch water. When he found some edible snails, he suddenly discovered a concealed path that offered an alternative route to the fort. It was a dangerous climb, but Marius decided to make use of the discovery anyway. He selected five trumpeters (tubicines) and horn-blowers (cornicines) from his army who were also good climbers. These were accompanied by a handful of picked centurions and soldiers and sent to the rock, with the Ligurian as their guide. After a long, dangerous and exhaustive climb, the men managed to reach the fort. There were no Numidian guards on this side, as no one expected an attack from this direction. When messengers reported to Marius that the men were in position, he launched a new assault on the fort. Protected by portable shelters (vineae) or in testudo formation, the Romans advanced along the narrow path leading to the enemy stronghold. They were supported by artillery, archers and slingers. The Numidians had already repulsed many attacks and were confident they could do so again. Soon heavy fighting broke out, but then suddenly the Numidians heard the sound of trumpets and horns behind them. Believing themselves to be surrounded, their resistance quickly caved in. The Romans now routed their opponents and captured the fort and treasury.

Bust of a man who is usually identified as Sulla.

After the victory Marius was joined by his 32-year-old quaestor, a man named Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who had initially stayed behind in Italy to recruit more cavalry reinforcements. Sulla was from a branch of the patrician gens Cornelia, but his family had faded into obscurity after his ancestor Publius Cornelius Rufinus, a former consul, was expelled from the Senate in 275 BCE for possessing more than ten pounds of silver.[1] The new quaestor performed his tasks admirably and soon became popular with both the men and Marius. In the meantime, Jugurtha and Bocchus had united their forces again, probably because Marius had come so close to the latter’s borders. When the proconsul marched back east to his winter quarters, the two kings suddenly attacked him. It was late in the day and there was little light left. The Romans seem to have genuinely been surprised and they were soon hard-pressed. There was a whirling cavalry battle and the legionaries and allied infantry formed up in defensive circles (orbes) to repel attacks from all sides. Nevertheless, the situation was beginning to look bleak for them.

Marius fortunately kept his cool and managed to stage an orderly retreat to two strategic hills. Jugurtha and Bocchus believed they had already won and their men spent the rest of the night celebrating. But the Romans were far from defeated, and at dawn they charged down the hills and routed the enemy. Sallustius says the Numidians, the Moors and their Gaetulian allies suffered disproportionate casualties. Normally they would likely have managed to get away, relying on their speed, but now they suffered from a lack of sleep and were completely taken by surprise by the sudden Roman attack. Marius and his men had succeeded in turning an imminent defeat into a resounding victory.

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

In spite of his victory, the proconsul kept his soldiers under tight control. As he continued his march to his winter quarters, he formed up his army in a hollow square (in quadrato agmine), with the baggage train in the centre, heavy infantry on all sides and cavalry, slingers and archers protecting the flanks. Jugurtha and Bocchus had suffered a serious defeat, but apparently they had enough troops left to give chase and there was a second battle near Cirta four days later. The Numidians and their allies attacked the Roman square from all sides, but they were beaten back after some very heavy fighting. Sulla led part of the cavalry and performed very well during the battle. Jugurtha, on the other hand, got himself surrounded and was almost killed. In the end, the Romans won another important victory, a victory that brought an end to the alliance between Jugurtha and Bocchus. A mere five days after his defeat, King Bocchus sent envoys to the proconsul to negotiate. He asked Marius to send him two of his men that were completely trustworthy to discuss how his interests and those of the Romans could be reconciled. Marius chose his legate Aulus Manlius and his quaestor Sulla.

The Great Threat from the North

The previous year, the Romans had suffered another humiliating defeat in their war against the Cimbri and Teutones. Although these Germanic tribes themselves had not been involved, a Roman army under the consul Lucius Cassius Longinus had been soundly beaten in a battle against the Celtic Tigurini, who were allies of the Germans. The consul and a lot of his men had been killed. An officer named Gaius Popilius had been responsible for the negotiations that had saved the lives of the survivors, but when he returned home, he was accused of treason (maiestas) by a people’s tribune named Gaius Coelius. Popilius was presumably dragged before the popular assembly (or rather, the concilium plebis), but we do not know what its verdict was. We do know that Coelius had the council pass a Lex Coelia de suffragiis, which introduced a secret ballot for capital trials in the assembly (treason carried the death penalty). It was the fourth and final ballot law in Republican Rome. In 139 BCE, a Lex Gabinia had already introduced the secret ballot for elections. It was followed by a Lex Cassia in 137 BCE and a Lex Papiria in 131 BCE, which had introduced the secret ballot for non-capital trials and legislative assemblies respectively. Now there was a secret vote for capital trials as well.

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

The war against the Germanic tribes was continued by the consul Quintus Servilius Caepio, who – as we have seen above – had already celebrated a triumph. At first he appeared to be good choice, as he managed to capture the city of Tolosa (modern Toulouse). The city was the capital of the Volcae Tectosages and had previously been a Roman ally, but it had recently joined the Cimbri and Teutones. Caepio’s victory was an easy one: his soldiers were admitted into the city in the middle of the night by some Tolosans who sympathised with the Romans. But then the consul showed poor judgment by pillaging the city, stripping the temples of their treasures and taking gold and silver that had been thrown into sacred lakes. It was a sacrilegious act, and what was worse was that none of the loot ever reached Rome. Caepio and some of his men were suspected of having kept it for themselves. A late source, Orosius (4th-5th century) claims that the treasure had been sent to Massilia, but had subsequently been stolen by brigands, who had killed the guards. It was widely rumoured that these robbers had been on the consul’s payroll.


Primary sources

Secondary sources

  • Adrian Goldsworthy, In the name of Rome, p. 135 and p. 143.


[1] Plutarchus, Life of Sulla 1.


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