Alternate spellings: Safanba'al; Cafonba'al

Born : Unknown (likely approximately 221 B.C.E.)
Died: 203 B.C.E.

The history of the ancient world has been recorded almost exclusively by men.  Women, if they featured into these accounts at all, too often were rendered as mere decoration, their true importance written out of the narratives.  Sometimes, though, a female figure loomed so large that even with biographical details stripped away, her essence, her influence, remained untouchable.  Only the barest facts of Sophonisba’s life are known today, but for millennia she has retained her place in legend, becoming the subject of tragedies, operas, poems and paintings for thousands of years after her noble demise.  This is her story.

From 218 B.C.E. to 201 B.C.E., life in the Mediterranean basin was overshadowed by death.  The Second Punic War, a bitter struggle between the rising powerhouse Rome and its southern rival Carthage, was launched when Hannibal Barca famously crossed over the Alps into the Italian peninsula, terrorizing Romans and their protectorates for over a decade.  It was to become one of the bloodiest wars in history.

Mediteranean Basin during the Second Punic WarCredit: University of Texas at Austin. Historical Atlas by William Shepherd (1923-26)

The ongoing battles were costly in both economic and human terms, rendering Rome and Carthage alike ever needful of allies.  Northern Africa, situated near Carthage, was comprised of two contentious kingdoms making up greater Numidia.  The eastern Numidian kingdom, was known as Massylia, and ruled by King Gala.  The fractious western Numidian kingdom, called Massaeslia, lacked definitive leadership.  King Gala kept western Numidia aspirations in check with frequent incursions against them, and his success against Massaeslia (a mosaic of tribes as likely to raid Carthage as each other) made him a favorite among the CarthagiCarthaginian coinCredit: Douglas Sladen, Vol. 1; Hutchinson & Co., London (1906)nian leadership.  His son, a dashing prince named Masinissa, was raised in Carthage and indoctrinated in their culture.  In 211 B.C.E., commanding a mercenary force of eastern Numidian cavalry, he triumphed magnificently over a Roman legion encamped in Iberia (now Spain).  By way of reward for this and other victories –as well as to further cement the alliance between Carthage and Massylia—Masinissa was betrothed to the young and incredibly beautiful Sophonisba, the great city’s most scintillating jewel.

Sophonisba was a prize indeed for a would-be king: in addition to her beauty, she was the daughter of Hasdrubal Gesco, one Carthage’s most powerful and influential generals.  Likewise, her engagement to the daring prince Masinissa was not unwelcome to her, as the Carthage’s cause was her own.

That cause was, in her lifetime, Rome.  Concentrating its efforts on supporting Hannibal and striking Roman territories, Carthage offered little in the way of aid to Massylia in its ongoing struggle against Massaeslia.  When King Gala died in 206 B.C.E., the Massaeslians united under the banner of King Syphax, who then rapidly swept through eastern Numidia and reduced Massylia to a mere foothold in northern Africa. 

Carthaginian falcataCarthage, ever capricious and recognizing a shift in Numidian power, made plans to approach Syphax at his western capital of Siga.  The Romans, too, desired an allegiance with the increasingly powerful Syphax and, racing to reach him first, both the Roman general Publius Scipio and Carthage's Hasdrubal Gesco arrived in the city's port the same time.  Unwilling to cross swords in the harbor of their host, both leaders (at Syphax’s request) agreed to meet and dine together along with the king.  The generals presented their respective terms of treaty to the Massaeslian king, but Syphax appeared to favor Scipio's proposal over Hasdrubal's.  Fearing that Syphax would formalize relations with Rome, Hasdrubal recalled his daughter from the besieged Massylia, and bewitching Sophonisba approached Syphax on her father's—and Carthage's—behalf.

Her engagement to Masinissa broken, Sophonisba now plied her charms on King Syphax, soon enough capturing him in her thrall.  At Sophonisba’s behest, Syphax abandoned all notions of siding with Rome, agreeing instead to a compact of mutual support with Carthage and taking Sophonisba for his bride.  The daughter of a general became the Queen of Numidia.  Emboldened by this union, Syphax committed vast resources to the Carthaginian war effort.

Meanwhile, Masinissa was driven from his Massylian homeland, was deserted by Carthage, and was outraged by Sophonisba's betrayal.  In response to these offenses, he covertly arranged a meeting with Publius Scipio to offer an alliance.  Realizing they had enemies in common now, the two struck a bargain.  Masinissa, once the hated adversary of Rome (and in fact responsible for the death of Scipo's father and his uncle five years earlier during the Iberian campaign), became its staunchest ally.

As the Second Punic War raged on, in 203 B.C.E. Scipio and Masinissa assaulted north Africa, attacking an army led by Hasdrubal Gesco and Syphax in the Battle of the Great Plain.  The combined Roman/Massylian coalition routed the Carthaginan/Massaeslian force, with Scipio following Hasdrubal back to Carthage while Masinissa pursed his arch-nemesis to the walled city of Cirta.  By most accounts, Syphax was prepared  to surrender to Masinissa after the crushing defeat on the Great Plain.  Sophonisba, though, was determined not to see one of Carthage’s few remaining friends yield, and admonished the king to stand fast.  The battle dragged on at Cirta and, with the Massylians occupied there, Scipio was compelled to abandon a possible siege at Carthage.

Masinissa pressed his attack, ultimately seizing Cirta and capturing Syphax who would later be put to death.  Sophonisba, all too aware Carthage was now bereft of its most significant ally, appealed to the conqueror and rekindled their previous romance.  Through beauty and guile she once more made herself Masinissa’s bride, this time consummating the marriage denied to him three years earlier.

When Scipio learned that his eastern Numidian collaborator was apparently (and quite literally) in bed with Carthage again, he rebuked Masinissa and demanded the new bride be turned over to Rome, else Massylia face Roman wrath.  Masinissa considered his options—take up war with Rome, or see Sophonisba wrested from him once again by another.  He sent word to her, along with a means of avoiding either outcome.

MasinisPhonecian bustCredit: Brian Wildeman delivered to Sophonisba a draught of poison, and, as the story goes, she imbibed it without baulking.  Then, with her dying breath, the daughter of Carthage sent word of her own back to Masinissa.  What she said is lost to time, but is suggested as something along the lines of, "I accept this potion as your princely wedding gift, but I would have done better to die by the side of the true king: Syphax."

Sophonisba’s story ends there and while Masinissa’s reaction to his bride’s valiant death is unknown, her message must have seemed to him nearly as bitter as the poison he proffered her, if less lethal.  Following her demise, Carthage lost its heart for the war and surrendered to Rome less than two years later.  While Sophonisba died in tragedy, her legend—that of the general’s daughter, a daughter of Carthage itself; the daughter who became a queen; the queen who defied Rome—will live on, for millennia to come.

Recreation of CarthageCredit: Charles Delagrave; Paris, France (1906)