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For the Canadian mountain, see Mount Syphax. For the mythological figure, see Sufax. There is also a genus of fossil spiders Syphax (Thomisidae).
Sifaks El Madher.jpg

Syphax was a king of the ancient Numidian tribe Masaesyli of western Numidia during the last quarter of the 3rd century BC. His story is told in Livy's Ab Urbe Condita (written c. 27-25 BC).[1]


Tomb of Sifax in Batna (Algeria)

When in 218 BC, war broke out between Carthage and Rome, Syphax was initially sympathetic to the Romans. In 213 BC, he concluded an alliance with the Romans and they sent military advisers to help Syphax train his troops. He then attacked the eastern Numidians, the Massylians, ruled by King Gala; at that time allied to the Carthaginians. When Gala died in 206 BC, his sons Masinissa and Oezalces quarreled about the inheritance, and Syphax was able to conquer considerable parts of the eastern Numidian kingdom.

After the Roman general Publius Cornelius Scipio (Scipio Africanus) was victorious in the Battle of Ilipa (206 BC), he sent his friend Gaius Laelius to visit Syphax to ratify the treaty with Rome. Syphax however, refused to ratify any treaty except with Scipio, so Scipio sailed with two quinqueremes to meet with Syphax, taking a considerable risk in doing so. In fact he arrived at the Numidian harbor, at exactly the same time as Hasdrubal (who had fled from Spain) anchored there on his way back to Carthage. However, Scipio's ship managed to make harbor before Hasdrubal's seven triremes could make out to intercept them, and in a neutral harbor, Hasdrubal dared not act against the Romans. Syphax invited both to dinner, where both Syphax and Hasdrubal were taken in by Scipio's charm.[1]:p77

Meanwhile, Masinissa had concluded that Rome was winning the war against Carthage and therefore decided to switch sides. Having lost the alliance with Masinissa, Hasdrubal started to look for another ally, which he found in Syphax, sealing the alliance by offering his daughter Sophonisba in marriage, although until 206 BC she had been betrothed to Masinissa.

With the reversal of alliances it looked like Carthage and Syphax were in a strong position in Africa, certainly during the early stages of Scipio's campaign in North Africa, the joined forces of Syphax and Hasdrubal Gisco were able to force Scipio to abandon the siege of Utica. However, in the Battle of Bagbrades (203 BC), Scipio overcame Hasdrubal and Syphax and while the Roman general concentrated on Carthage, Laelius and Masinissa followed Syphax to Cirta.

During the pursuit, Syphax was threatened with desertion by his army when Laelius and Massinissa's army approached the Numidian battle line. In a brave attempt to rally his troops, Syphax rode alone, straight towards the Roman cavalry, but in this desperate attempt his badly wounded horse threw him off. Syphax was pounced upon immediately by Roman soldiers and taken to the ecstatic Massinissa.[1]:p405 Syphax's troops retreated to the capital city which later fell as Massinissa claimed his kingdom. Syphax was delivered to Scipio and was taken as a prisoner, dying in Tibur (modern Tivoli) in 203 or 202 BC.

In a twist of fate, Sophonisba then married Masinissa. However, Scipio, suspicious of Sophonisba, demanded that she be taken to Rome and appear in the triumphal parade. To spare her such humiliation, Masinissa sent her poison, with which she killed herself.

The Tunisian city Sfax is said to be named after King Syphax.


  1. ^ a b c Livy: Ab urbe condita, vol. VIII, bks. xxviii-xxx Loeb Classical Edn, pp.73-99, 173-225, 405-421 at openlibrary.org

External links[edit]

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