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For the Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola (c. 1532-1625), see Sofonisba Anguissola. For the American activist Sophonisba Breckinridge (1866-1948), see Sophonisba Breckinridge.
The Death of Sophonisba, by Giambattista Pittoni (1730s)

Sophonisba (also Sophonisbe, Sophoniba; in Punic, 𐤑𐤐𐤍𐤁𐤏𐤋 Ṣap̄anbaʿal) (fl. 203 BC) was a Carthaginian noblewoman who lived during the Second Punic War, and the daughter of Hasdrubal Gisco Gisgonis (son of Gisco). In an act that became legendary, Sophonisba poisoned herself rather than be humiliated in a Roman triumph.


A celebrated beauty, Sophonisba had been betrothed to King Massinissa until 206. Massinissa was the leader of the Massylii (or eastern) Numidians. However, in 206, Massinissa allied himself to Rome and Hasdrubal, having lost this valuable alliance, started to look for another ally. He found one in Syphax, king of the Masaesyli (or western Numidians). As was normal in those days, Hasdrubal used his daughter to conclude the diplomatic alliances with Syphax, who had himself previously been allied to Rome.

Syphax was defeated and captured in 203 BC by Masinissa and Scipio Africanus in the Battle of the Great Plains at Bagradas. Masinissa fell in love with Sophonisba and married her. Scipio, however, refused to agree to this arrangement, insisting on the immediate surrender of the princess so that she could be taken to Rome and appear in the triumphal parade. Masinissa, upbraided by Scipio for his weakness, was urged to leave her.

Masinissa feared the Romans more than he loved Sophonisba. Thus, he went to Sophonisba and swore his love to her. He told her that he could not free her from captivity or shield her from Roman wrath, and so he asked her to die like a true Carthaginian princess. With great composure, she drank a cup of poison that he offered her.

Her story, probably much embellished, is told indirectly in Polybius (14.4ff.); and more concretely in Livy (30.12.11-15.11), Diodorus (27.7), Appian (Pun. 27-28), and Cassius Dio (Zonaras 9.11). Polybius, however, never refers to Sophonisba by name in his allusions to her marriage to Syphax, and in his extensive account of Laelius' maneuvers against Syphax. The historian had met Masinissa. Nevertheless, it has been proposed that Polybius' account provides the basis for the Sophonisba story.[1] When Polybius does refer to her, he uses the diminutive in a tone that may be less than flattering. In one passage, Polybius ridicules Syphax for being less courageous than his own "child bride".

In literature, art and film[edit]

Sophonisbe by Corneille, 1663

Petrarch elaborated her story in his epic poem Africa, published posthumously in 1396.

The playwright John Marston wrote The Wonder of Women a Roman tragedy based on the story of Sophonisba, in 1606 for the Children of the Queen's Revels.

There are a number of paintings of Sophonisba drinking her poison, but the subject is often very similar to that of Artemisia II of Caria drinking her husband's ashes, and the Rembrandt in the Prado and a Donato Creti in the National Gallery are examples of works where the intended subject remains uncertain between the two.[2]

Sophonisba became the subject of tragedies (and later operas) from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and, along with the story of Cleopatra, furnished more dramas than any other. The first tragedy is credited to the Italian Galeotto Del Carretto (c. 1470–1530) which was written in 1502, but issued posthumously in 1546. The first to appear, however, was Gian Giorgio Trissino's play of 1515 which, "in codifying the forms of Italian classical tragedy, helped consign Del Carretto's Sofonisba to oblivion."[3] In France, Trissino's version was adapted by Mellin de Saint-Gelais (performed in 1556), and may have served as the primary model for versions by Antoine de Montchrestien (1596) and Nicolas de Montreux (1601). The tragedy by Jean Mairet (1634) is one of the first monuments of French "classicism", and was followed by a version from Pierre Corneille (1663).

The story of Sophonisba also served as subject for works by John Marston (1606), David Murray (1610), Nathaniel Lee (1676), Daniel Caspar von Lohenstein (1680), Henry Purcell (1685), Antonio Caldara (1708), Leonardo Leo (1718), Luca Antonio Predieri (1722), James Thomson (1729), Niccolò Jommelli (1746), Baldassare Galuppi (1747, 1764), Tommaso Traetta (1762), Antonio Boroni (it) (1764), Christopher Gluck (1765), Maria Teresa Agnesi (1765), Mattia Vento (it) (1766), François Joseph Lagrange-Chancel, revised by Voltaire (1770), Christian Gottlob Neefe (1776), António Leal Moreira (1783), Joseph Joaquín Mazuelo (1784), Vittorio Alfieri (1789), Pietro Alessandro Guglielmi (1802), Marcos Portugal (1803), Ferdinando Paer (1805), Vincenzo Federici (1805), Luigi Petrali (1844), Emanuel Geibel (1869), Jeronim de Rada (1892), Giuseppe Brunati (it) (1904), Dimitrie Cuclin (1945), Vasco Graça Moura (1993), and others.

Sophonisba also appears in film, first in Giovanni Pastrone's 1914 silent film Cabiria and again in Carmine Gallone's 1937 epic movie Scipio Africanus: The Defeat of Hannibal.

Some years after writing a play called The Tragedy of Sophonisba, the aforementioned James Thomson authored the still-current patriotic British song "Rule, Britannia!"; Sophonisba's proud defiance and refusal to submit to slavery might have inspired that song's famous refrain "Britons never, never will be slaves!".[original research?]

In the 1922 heroic high fantasy novel The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison, there is a character named "Queen Sophonisba", though her role in the book has little in common with the historic Sophonisba.



  1. ^ Sophonisbe[dead link]
  2. ^ Finaldi, Gabriele and Kitson, Michael, Discovering the Italian Baroque: the Denis Mahon Collection, p. 56, 1997, National Gallery Publications, London/Yale UP, ISBN 1857091779
  3. ^ Abstract of the article “Galeotto Del Carretto’s ‘Sofonisba’” by Lovaniano Rossi, in Levia Gravia (2000). Universities of Turin and of Piemonte Orientale.


Livy, Ad urbe condita libri xxix.23, xxx.8, 12-15.8

External links[edit]

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