A painting of a man wearing chains surrounded by onlookers

This ruthless African king knew Rome was for sale. He bought it

Jugurtha, king of Numidia, murdered rivals and bribed Roman officials to look the other way, sparking a war and exposing the republic's corruption.

Jugurtha in chains. Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1729. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
QUINTLOX/AURIMAGES

Struggling to subdue the people of Spain in 134 B.C., Roman general Scipio Aemilianus realized he needed more troops. He turned to Numidia, a North African ally whose ruler, Micipsa, was glad to provide Numidian soldiers. A loyal ally of Rome in its recent victory over Carthage, Numidia (located in parts of modern Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya) had an underlying motive for helping Rome: Micipsa could send his nephew Jugurtha to command Numidia’s forces.

Charismatic, clever, and aggressive, Jugurtha represented a threat to Micipsa’s throne and his two sons. Assisting Rome in Spain would conveniently put Jugurtha in harm’s way. Perhaps he would never return.

But Jugurtha did return after a decisive Roman victory at Numantia with a glowing letter of recommendation from Scipio. His military and political reputation enhanced, Jugurtha had also established valuable Roman connections. To diminish his threat to the throne, King Micipsa decided to adopt his nephew and include him in a three-way split of the kingdom with his biological sons, Hiempsal and Adherbal. Jugurtha’s ambition was undeniable, and he would not be content to co-rule with his adoptive brothers.

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