One of the most enduring pictures of the ancient world is the swift moving Numidian horsemen. There are literary characterizations of him trotting out against the powers of Carthage or Rome on a swift horse, armed with nothing but a small shield, and a fistful of javelins. The People From the Punic Wars to the campaigns of Trajan, the destiny of these irrepressible riders seems closely linked with Rome, and the association was often turbulent. Although they were enemies as well as allies for a long time, were they as good as legend makes them?
The main sources used here are : Livy, The History of Rome, Caesar The Civil War, Sallust – The Jugurthine War, Polybios Histories.
It was believed in ancient times that Africa was originally populated by Gaetulians and Libyans, both were nomadic people. The demigod Hercules died in Spain and his polyglot eastern army was left to settle the land, with some migrating to Africa. Persians went to the West and inter married with the Gaetulians and became the Numidians. The Medes settled and were known as Mauri latter Moors. Sallust s version of African history must be considered with reservations. These stories more likely recall Aryan invasions from Spain.
The Numidians and Moors belonged to the race from which the Berbers are descended. The translated meaning of Numidian is Nomad and indeed the people were semi-nomadic until the reign of Masinissa of the Massyli tribe. He was initially on the side of Carthage, but went over to the Romans with decisive effect in 206 BCE. Given additional land at the expense of Carthage, the king retained the support of Rome for 50 years until his death in 148 BCE. Masinissa began to turn his people from rovers to peasant farmers and those who fled the destruction of Carthage and settled the land helped this process.
The kingdom was divided into three by Rome and remained so until an illegitimate prince named Jugurtha forcibly reunited the land in 118 BCE, but the Romans won it back by 105 BCE. Rome maintained client Kings and reduced the size of the country and things remained so until Juba I attempted to rebuild the state 49 – 46 BCE.. After his defeat, Numidia became part of the Roman Empire. Unlike most countries, Numidians were recruited into the army in their own attire and using their own weapon. The Numidians are shown thus on Trajan s column, which indicates the value Rome placed upon them as light cavalry.
Numida stretched for 700 miles along the African coast occupying about the position of modern day Algeria with the Western part of Tunisia. The coastal plains were fertile, the interior less so turning to rolling scrub and tree covered hills and as one goes further south the bleak rugged Atlas Mountains and the barren desert are encountered. Such land encouraged the development of using the horse for transportation.
Numidians at War
The Numidians had three national past times. Of their king Jugurtha, it is said “He took part in the national pursuits of riding, javelin throwing and competed with other youngmen in running.” [Sallust The Jugurthine War: 6]
These pursuits prepared the Numidians for the style of war they preferred. Both horse and foot were part of a Numidian force, but the foot was always of dubious quality: “Metullus could rely on the courage of his soldiers, but the ground was against him. Jugurtha had everything in his favour except the quality of his troops.” [ Sallust The Jugurthine War :51] Even the cavalry was not the best in the ancient world:” The Numidian horsemen were not a match for the Spanish.” [Livy Book XX111: 26] This said it is only fair to state that the Numidian cavalry was not equipped for hand to hand combat any more than the infantry and when attacked by Spanish and Celtic cavalry who were accustomed to charging home and equipped to do so, they could only flee. “This being perceived, the legionaries immediately halted; and the cavalry, though few in number, boldly charged the vast multitude of the enemy. An incredible event occurred, that less than thirty Gallic horse repulsed two thousand Moors, and drove them into the town. Having thus repulsed the enemy and compelled them to retire behind their walls.” [Sallust, the Jugurthine war. 11.6]
The weapon of choice for any Numidian soldier mounted or on foot was always the javelin. This certainly led to some under estimation of Numidian worth by Roman generals and a misunderstanding of what took place in battles. The Romans soon learnt from practical experience, the danger of fighting against the very different style of Numidian tactics. C. Julius Caesar gives us a lucid description of the problems of fighting the nimble Africans. “Meanwhile, both the main bodies advancing to engage, the enemy s cavalry, intermixed with some light-armed Numidians, suddenly sprang forward, from their crowded troops, and attacked the legions with a shower of darts. Our men, preparing to return the charge, their horse retreated a little, while the foot continued to maintain their ground, till the others, having rallied, came on again, with fresh vigor, to sustain them.”
Caesar perceived that his ranks were in danger of being broken by this new way of fighting, for our foot, in pursuing the enemy s horse, having advanced a considerable way beyond their standards, were wounded in the flank by the nearest Numidian darts, while the enemy s horse easily escaped our infantry s javelins by flight; he therefore gave express orders that no soldier should advance above four feet beyond the ensigns. Meanwhile, Labienus s cavalry, confiding in their numbers endeavored to surround those of Caesar: who being few in number, and overpowered by the multitude of the enemy, were forced to give ground a little, their horses being much wounded. The enemy pressed on more and more; so that in an instant, the legions, being surrounded on all sides by the enemy s cavalry, were obliged to form themselves into a circle, and fight, as if includes with barriers.” [Caesar The Civil War. Book11.14,15]
Numidians were always tormented by the lack of solid fighting foot troops. A lack which the liberal use of elephants did not satisfactorily compensate for. They lacked the capacity to close with an enemy that other troops such as Spanish enjoyed. “Meantime the Numidian horse, wheeling round the hills, to the right and left, threatened to incise Caesar s forces with their numbers, while part continued to harass his rear: and if but three or four veteran soldiers faced about, and darted their javelins at the enemy, no less than two thousand of them would take to flight: but suddenly rallying, returned to the fight, and charged the legionaries with their darts.” [Caesar the Civil War. Book 11.70]
To evade from contact was acceptable; to run right out of the combat zone was not. This harsh discipline had an unfortunate result for Jugurtha. When his armies were beaten, they tended to disperse completely, leaving the hapless Numidian ruler with the unenviable predicament of raising a completely new army. This may have been a customary punishment used by other Numidian kings because it was usual for defeated
Numidian armies to completely disperse and make for their homes. This is not to say that Numidians were easy to fight. The novelty of the style was disconcerting in the extreme and required Roman experience and/or careful training to combat them. “Caesar, to meet enemies of this sort, was necessitated to instruct his soldiers, not like a general of a veteran army which had been victorious in so many battles, but like a fencing master training up his gladiators, with on what foot they must advance or retire; when they were to oppose and make good their ground; when to counterfeit an attack; at what place, and in what manner to launch their javelins. For the enemy s light armed troops gave wonderful trouble and annoyance to our army; because they not only deterred the cavalry from the encounter, by killing their horses with their javelins, but likewise wearied out the legionary soldiers by their swiftness: for as often as these heavy- armed troops advanced to attack them, they evaded the danger by a quick retreat.” [Julius Caesar The Civil War Book 11.71]
The Chemtou Horseman The cavalry was always the more effective arm of the Numidian cavalry.. Each rider being familiar with the way he was required to fight. Both cavalry squadrons and infantry companies utilized standards to rally to after an evade and would form up on these. “Jugurtha took up his own position nearer the mountain with all his cavalry and the pick of his infantry. Then visiting each squadron and company, he earnestly besought them to remember the victory which their valor had already gained.
The Numidians had stationed themselves and their horses among the thickets and although they were not completely hidden by the low trees, it was difficult to distinguish just what was there since the men and their standards were concealed both by their surroundings and by camouflage.” [Sallust. The Jugurthine War. 49]
The outcome of this was that the Numidians cavalry was able to retire swiftly from a charge, but return quickly to the attack. This method would be used whether the enemy was foot or mounted. “Whenever a squadron of Roman cavalry began to charge, instead of retiring in a body in one direction, they retreated independently, scattering as widely as possible. In this way they could take advantage of their numerical superiority. If they failed to check their enemies charge, they would wait until the Romans lost their formation and then cut them off.” [Sallust, The Jugurthine War. 51]
Even in formal battles as auxiliaries for Carthage or Rome, the Numidians maintained this loose manner of fighting. The metaphor of a pack of dogs springs readily to mind. Any charge would not be resisted, but the flanks and rear of the enemy would be savaged as the attack ran out of steam. The aim was to cut off the victim and force him to stand or run. To stand was to be shot to death. To run was fatal. The Numidian cavalry was deadly in pursuit. Even if the enemy was not dispersed they would be neutralised by the scattered Numidians.
Polybius gave an excellent account of this style of fighting in his account of the battle of Cannae. “The Numidian horse on the Carthaginian right were meanwhile charging through the cavalry on the Roman left; and though, from the peculiar nature of their mode of fighting, they neither inflicted nor received much harm, they yet rendered the enemy s horse useless by keeping them occupied, and charging them first on one side and then another. But when Hasdrubal, after all but annihilating the cavalry by the river, came from the left to the support of the Numidians, the Roman allied cavalry, seeing his charge approaching, broke and fled. At that point Hasdrubal appears to have acted with great skill and discretion. Seeing the Numidians to be strong in numbers, and more effective and formidable to troops that had once been forced from their ground, he left the pursuit to them; while he himself hastened to the part of the field where the infantry were engaged, and brought his men up to support the Libyans.” [Polybius Book 3, 116.5]
Mostly due to inferior horses, Numidians were not the fastest cavalry ( the Southern Spanish were quite capable of riding them down). The small horse was agile and apart from being very maneuverable, could scramble through or over terrain that brought other mounted units to a halt. “Numidians found it more convenient to retreat to the hill rather than the plain, their horses being used to the ground, made their way easily through the thickets” [Sallust, The Jugurthine War. 51]
Two types of basic light cavalry both armed with a round shield and javelins are described, being distinguished by riding bridled or unbridled horses. It is not made clear which of the two were superior if indeed either were. Livy refers to Roman cavalry releasing their bridles so their horses would ride right through a Celtiberian wedge, but it is unlikely the Numidians did not ride without bridles for this reason. Those that rode in this fashion relied on their knees plus a riding crop\ prod. Armor was not worn, nor were hand weapons generally carried. One other cavalry group existed. It is customary to consider the Numidians as being entirely skirmishing cavalry, but this is hardly correct with reference to Numidian national armies. It was customary for the kings to have a sizeable bodyguard of foreign horsemen.
Numidian kings were never able to come up with decent infantry, although they did succeed in some improvement under King Syphax. During the Second Punic War he was able to obtain the services of a Roman centurion Quintus Statorius. Livy has Syphax saying his army was quite shapeless and haphazard, a mere casual mob. The centurion went to work. “Statorius found ample material from which to enrol infantry soldiers for Syphax; he organized them very much after the Roman pattern, gave them instruction in forming up, maneuvering, following the standards, and keeping formation, and accustomed them to various military duties, including fortifications, and all so successfully that the prince soon came to trust his infantry no less than his cavalry, and that when an engagement took place on open ground he defeated his Carthaginian foe.” [Livy, The History of Rome Book XXIV]
This was obviously too dangerous for Carthage who allied with the most famous Numidian prince Masinissa to annihilate Syphaxs army. Some vestige of the training of Statorius must have stuck, because the Numidian infantry is never referred to as a formless mass in later times. In fact, the formations do seem to echo the Roman maniples and although this can only be conjecture, the infantry fight in a mix of Roman and Numidian techniques as a sort of light infantry. Showing an ability to maintain unit cohesion and rally to standards like the Roman troops, while attempting to avoid direct contact in their native fashion.
As previously mentioned, the Numidian army lacked real staying power and although the cavalry and infantry could deal very effectively with enemy mounted troops by use of formations working in close support, Disciplined infantry were another problem. In an effort to hold the Romans until the heavy missiles could destroy them with missile fire, the Numidians made extensive use of African elephants. Caesar describes some as having towers on their backs, Sallust is less clear, but both mention body protection.
That this combination of tactics was initially quite effective is apparent by the degree of trouble Julius Caesar took to accustom his legionaries to the beasts. “Caesar was rendered very anxious by these occurrences; because as often as he engaged with his cavalry, without being supported by the infantry, he found himself by no means a match for the enemy s horse, supported by their light-armed foot: and as he had no experience of the strength of their legions, he foresaw still greater difficulties when these should be united, as the shock must then be overwhelming. In addition to this, the number and size of the elephants greatly increased the terror of the soldiers; for which, however, he found a remedy, in causing some of those animals to be brought over from Italy, that his men might be accustomed to the sight of them, know their strength and courage, and in what part of the body they were most vulnerable. For as the elephants are covered with trappings and ornaments, it was necessary to inform them what parts of the body remained naked, that they might direct their darts thither. It was likewise needful to familiarize his horses to the cry, smell, and figure of these animals; in all of which he succeeded to a wonder; for the soldiers quickly came to touch them with their hands, and to be sensible of their tardiness; and the cavalry attacked them with blunted darts, and, by degrees, brought their horses to endure their presence. [Caesar, The civil War Book 11.72]
Significant numbers of elephants are recorded in Numidian armies, ranging from four captured and 40 killed in one battle to 60 in another and even 120 with the troops fighting Caesar. Elephants have always been a two edged weapon, as the Romans were aware and once they had grown used to dealing with them the legions found that fleeing elephants would either trample their own troops in flight or generate a panic in units that had put their faith in the mighty beasts. Even after years of training, elephants could remain a dangerous proposition to all troops on the battlefield. “Caesar perceiving that the ardor of his soldiers would admit of no restraint, giving “good fortune” for the word, spurred on his horse, and charged the enemy s front. On the right wing the archers and slingers poured their eager javelins without intermission upon the elephants, and by the noise of their slings and stones, so terrified these animals, that turning upon their own men, they trod them down in heaps, and rushed through the half-finished gates of the camp. At the same time the Mauritanian horse, who were in the same wing with the elephants, seeing themselves deprived of their assistance, betook themselves to flight.” [Caesar, The Civil War Book 11.83]
Numidian cavalry and infantry were used to operating with elephants and capable of stiff resistance as long as the elephants stood fast. Little thought seems to have been given to placement of theses ancient tanks as is shown by the description of a battle where the elephants are deployed in rough ground. ” As soon as the enemy came close both sides charged with loud shouts. The Numidians stood their ground only as long as they thought they could rely on their elephants for protection. When they saw the beasts getting entangled in the branches of trees, with the result that they were separated and could be surrounded by the enemy, they took to their heels. Most of them, dropping their arms escaped unhurt, thanks to the proximity of a hill and the approaching dark.. Four elephants were killed and all the remaining forty killed.” [Sallust, The Jugurthine War. 53]
It is interesting to note that the later battles of the Jugurthine war do not feature elephants. Perhaps the supply had dried up, or the Numidian commanders no longer trusted them. Probably a combination of both.
By Peter Morrison