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Rex Juba: the Romanised king of Numidia

October 27, 2017

 

 

King Juba II,a marble bust in the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen

 

The Roman Empire was vast, stretching from Arabia in the South-East to Britain in the North- West, but despite knowing about the diverse territories ruled by Rome the diversity of the Roman people often gets forgotten. The population of Ancient Rome is rarely depicted as racially diverse in films and television shows. This has impacted the popular image of the Roman world so much that when a BBC cartoon featured a black man as a high ranking soldier and head of a typical Roman family it caused outrage. So, to begin balancing out the very Caucasian view of Ancient Rome let me tell you the story of King Juba II, a respected scholar, Roman client king, and black African.

 

The story begins with Juba's father, King Juba I of Numidia, a friend and ally of Pompey the Great. Juba and Pompey both hated Julius Caesar, and so the Numidian king supported Pompey's cause when civil war broke out. Juba continued to fight against Caesar after Pompey's death in 48BC, only to be defeated at the Battle of Thaspus in 46BC. The king chose to commit suicide rather than be taken captive, but Caesar took his two-year old son, also called Juba, back to Rome to appear in his Triumphal parade (Plutarch, Caesar, 55). 

 

After the Triumph Juba was raised by Caesar' relatives,  receiving the excellent education of the Roman nobility. Plutarch describes Juba II as "the most fortunate captive ever taken", for despite being a Barbarian and a prisoner of war "he came to be enrolled among the most learned historians"(Caesar, 55). Juba wrote extensively throughout his life (52 books according to one surviving list) but unfortunately these texts survive only as fragments and citations. However, the praise from Plutarch and the fact that Pliny the Elder references Juba around 65 times in his Natural History suggests that he was a respected authority.

 

Juba became a friend and ally of Caesar's nephew Octavian, and fought in Octavian's campaigns against Mark Antony. After the defeat and death of Mark Antony in 30BC Octavian rewarded his friend's loyalty, by giving him his father's kingdom and Cleopatra Selene, daughter of Antony and Cleopatra, as his queen. Later, Octavian exchanged Numidia for Mauretania, where Juba and Selene reigned peacefully for the rest of their lives.

 

 

Juba and Selene may have been born in North Africa but they were keen to show off their Roman-ness. Their capital city Iol (modern Cherchell, Algeria) was quickly renamed Caesarea in honour of Octavian (by then known as Augustus), and rebuilt in a mixture of Egyptian, Greek and Roman architectural styles, similar to the contemporary building project at Volubilis (in modern Morocco). The currency of Juba's kingdom used coins imitating Roman designs, and the statues of Juba and Selene which decorated their new cities were also Roman, with Juba's hair carved in the same style as statues of Octavian.

Volubilis, main road (via decumanus maximus)

UNESCO, Barbara Blanchard

 

Unfortunately we know very little of Juba and his reign, but maybe this is a mark of his success as a politician. He was able to gain the respect of both Roman high society and the north African tribes he ruled, a difficult balance to tread. This scholarly and diplomatic king demonstrates how barbarians could become Romans through education and embracing Roman culture.

 

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