1902 Encyclopedia > Numidia


NUMIDIA was the name given to a large tract of country in the north of Africa, extending along the Mediterranean Sea from the confines of Mauretania to those of the Roman province of Africa. The term was, however, employed in very different senses, and within very different limits, at different periods of time. When Carthage was at the height of its power, and he Romans first came into contact with the nations of northern Africa, the name of Numidia was applied to the whole country from the river Mulucha (now called the Mulúya), about 100 miles west of Oran, to the frontier of the Carthaginian territory, which nearly coincided with the modern regency of Tunis. It is in this sense that the term is employed by Polybius, and all succeeding historians down to the close of the Roman republic. The Numidians, as thus defined, were divided into two great tribes, the Massyli on the east, and the Massaeyli on the west, —the limit between the two territories being the river Ampsaga, which enters the sea to the west of the remarkable promontory called Tretum, now known as the Seven Capes. At the time of the Second Punic War the eastern tribe was under the government of Masinissa, who took part with the Romans in the contest, while his rival Syphax, king of the Massaeylians, supported the cause of the Carthaginians. In consequence of this, after the close of the war, Syphax’s dominions were forfeited, and united with those of Masinissa, who now ruled the whole Numidian people from the frontier of Mauretania to the boundary of the Carthaginian territory. That monarch, who attained to a great age, retained the whole of these extensive dominions till his death in 148 B.C., as was the case also with his son and successor Micipsa ; but after the death of the latter in 118, the ambition of his nephew JUGURTHA (q.v) involved him in a war with Rome, which ended in his defeat and death in 106.

Numidia was not, however, incorporated with the Roman empire until a later period. After the death of Jugurtha the western portion of his dominions was added to those of Bocchus, king of Mauretania, while the remainder continued to be governed by native princes until the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, in which Juba, then king of Numidia, having espoused the cause of the latter, and supported Scipio and Cato in Africa, was defeated by Caesar and put an end to his own life (46 B.C). Numidia, in the more restricted sense which it had now acquired, became for a short time a Roman province, but in the settlement of affairs after the battle of Actium (30) it was restored to Juba II., son of the preceeding monarch, who had acquired the favour of Augustus. A few years later, however, Juba was transferred to the throne of Mauretania, including the whole western portion of the ancient Numidian monarchy as far as the river Ampsaga, while the Roman province of Numidia, which was now definitely constituted, comprised only the tract between that river and the Tusca, which formed the western limit of the Roman province of Africa. But though thus restricted in extent—so as nearly to correspond with the modern French province of Constantine, while the kingdom of Numidea in the wider sense had included the whole of Algeria—the Roman province of Numidia attained a high degree of prosperity and civilization, and was studded with numerous towns, the importance of which is attested by inscriptions still extant, as well as by the massive remains of their ancient monuments and works of public utility. This period of prosperity continued to be favoured by unbroken peace for more than four centuries, until the invasion of the Vandals in 428 A. D. reduced it to a condition of gradual decay ; and the invasion of the Arabs in the 8th century again brought desolation upon the land, which was aggravated by continual misgovernment until the conquest of Algeria by the French within the present century.

The physical character of the country has been already described in the article ALGERIA. It may be briefly observed that the whole tract of northern Africa from the river Mulucha to the frontiers of the regency of Tunis may be divided into three parallel zones or regions : the Tell, or fertile district near the sea, the broad inland plateaus beyond it, and the Sahara, or barren region to the south of these uplands, sloping thence down to the great desert which is generally known by that name. The central upland tract assumes a more rugged and mountainous character in the eastern district, which formed the Roman province of Numidia, and now constitutes the French province of Constantine. But this elevated region breaks down abruptly towards the east, where it sends out only the few offshoots into the plains of Tunis, as well as to the south where it faces the wide expanse of the Sahara. It is here that is situated the mountains group called the Aures (the Mons Aurasius of Procopius), of which the highest summit, called by the Arabs Jobel Chellia, attains to an elevation of 7580 feet.

The name of the Numidians appears to have been nothing more than a Latinized form the Greek term Nomades, vaguely applied by them to the wandering tribes of northern Africa. It could never have had any ethnographical signification ; and there can be no doubt that the people thus designated were merely a portion of the great Berber race4, which extended in ancient times from the shores of the Atlantic to the confines of Egypt, and which still, under the name of Kabyles, forms a portion of the population of both Algeria and Tunis. The Gaetulians, who at the same period occupied the southern slopes of the mountains towards the Sahara, appear to have stood in much the same relation to the Numidians that the tribes called Tuareg do at the present day to the comparatively civilized kabyles of Algeria. But the Roman authority over these wanderers of the desert was of a very precarious character, and a line of outposts near the foot of the mountain range formed the limits of their practical dominion towards the south.

The chief towns of Numidia under the Romans were :—Cirta, the capital, in the interior, subsequently called Constantina, which name it still retains ; Rusicada, on the coast, serving as its port, on the site now occupied by Philippeville ; and east of it the more important city of Hippo Regius (well known as the see of the celebrated Augustine), near the modern Bona. South of Cirta, in the interior, were Theveste (now Tebessa) and Lambaesa (now Lambessa), with extensive Roman remains. But there were not less than ten towns with the title of "coloniae," and in the 5th century the Notitia enumerates no less than 123 episcopal sees.

For details concerning the condition of Numidia as a Roman province, see Corp. Inscp. Lat., vol. viii. (1881). A more popular account will be found in the Algérie Romaine of G. Boissière (2 vols. 8vo, Paris, 1883). (E. H. B.)

The above article was written by: Sir E. H. Bunbury, Bart.

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