CoinWeek Ancient Coin Series by Mike Markowitz …..
NORTH AFRICA IN antiquity was a greener place. Climate change and centuries of deforestation and overgrazing have caused extensive desertification of lands that once fed and sustained ancient empires. The kingdom of Numidia, which emerged in the third century BCE in parts of Tunisia and Algeria, produced an extensive coinage. The history of this kingdom is closely entwined with the story of Carthage and its long wars against the rising power of Rome.
Numidians were the ancestors of the modern people known as Berbers. Only fragments of the Numidian language survive, written in Punic (Carthaginian script), Greek, and eventually Latin letters. There were two main tribal groups: the Massylii in the east and the Masaesylii in the west. Numidians were skilled horsemen and Numidian cavalry was highly prized as allies or mercenaries by ancient armies, so it is not surprising that horses often appear on the coins.
Syphax, king of the Masaesylii, ruled from c.215 to 203 BCE. He formed an alliance with Rome during the Second Punic War and fought successfully against the rival Numidian tribe allied with Carthage. In 206, Syphax married a Carthaginian noblewoman named Sophonisba (Sapanba’al in Punic), who persuaded him to switch sides. The Roman historian Cassius Dio (c. 155-235 CE) described her as:
“…clever, ingratiating, and altogether so charming that the mere sight of her or even the sound of her voice sufficed to vanquish every one… (Book XVII, 51-52)“
Massinissa, the king of the rival Massylii, defeated Syphax with Roman aid in a great battle at Cirta (now Constantine, Algeria). Syphax was captured and died in Roman captivity in 202 BCE. To avoid the humiliation of being forced to march in a Roman triumphal procession, Sophonisba took poison secretly provided by Massinissa, who was in love with her.
Syphax issued some rare bronze coins. There is a “unit” of about 10 grams and a quarter unit of about three grams. His portrait appears on the obverse, wearing the diadem, a headband that was the Hellenistic emblem of kingship. A rider on a galloping horse appears on the reverse with the Punic inscription sphq hmmlkt (“Syphax the King”). Like Hebrew, Punic was written without vowels.
The British Museum possesses an apparently unique silver tetradrachm (BM 1840, 1010.2) in the name of Vermina, son of Syphax. It weighs 14.53 grams and was acquired in 1840. A beardless, diademed male head appears on the obverse and a galloping horse with a Punic inscription “Vermina the king” in a rectangular frame on the reverse. All we know about Vermina is that he survived his father’s defeat, made peace with Rome in 200 BCE, and retained a small kingdom in western Algeria (the British Museum attributes the coin to “Mauretania”).
Massinissa and Micipsa
Massinissa, who ruled from 203 to 148 BCE, is the most famous Numidian ruler.
He enjoyed a remarkably long reign and played a crucial role in the Second Punic War, switching sides from Carthage to Rome. At the decisive Battle of Zama (202 BCE), he led the right wing of the Roman army, with 6,000 Numidian and 3,000 Roman cavalry. His father was a chieftain of the Massylii. Polybius (c. 200 – 118 BCE), a Greek historian who knew Massinissa personally, called him “the best man of all the kings of our time.” The Numidian king lived for over 90 years, and remarkably, his tomb still survives.
Massinissa issued an extensive coinage in bronze, but because the coins are either un-inscribed or inscribed with just a few ambiguous Punic letters, his coins cannot be reliably distinguished from the coins of his sons who reigned after him: Micipsa, Gulussa, and Mastanabal. The current practice of most cataloguers is to attribute the coins to “Kings of Numidia, Massinissa or Micipsa (?)” or similar. A large bronze “unit” of about 12-14 grams bears a bearded, laurel-wreathed head of the king within a dotted border on the obverse and a riderless horse on the reverse. On a rare half-unit of about seven grams, a leafy palm branch, perhaps celebrating a military victory, appears behind the horse.
A number of Numidian coins struck in lead survive from this period, perhaps an emergency issue because the supply of bronze ran short. Because lead is so soft, these are rarely found in high grade and are relatively inexpensive.
Adherbal (named for a famed Carthaginian admiral of the First Punic War) was the son of Micipsa and the grandson of Massinissa. He ruled Numidia from 118 to 112 BCE, when he was killed by his adoptive brother, Jugurtha, who seized the throne and fought a bitter war against the Roman republic for six years. Some bronze coins are doubtfully attributed to Adherbal’s brief reign. On the reverse, a starburst appears above a prancing horse.
Jugurtha was a son of Mastanabal, and therefore a grandson of Massinissa. Although his mother was a lowly concubine, Jugurtha was adopted by his uncle, King Micipsa:
Though he had common origins, Jugurtha seems to have grown up with all of the conventionally desired traits: strength, handsomeness, intelligence, skill at arms, athleticism. And he was popular with the people (Hildinger, 64).
Jugurtha killed his co-ruler cousins Hiempsal and Adherbal and seized the throne solely for himself in 112 BCE. No coins are reliably attributed to Jugurtha’s reign (118-105 BCE) but he figures prominently on a historic Roman denarius issued 48 years after he was strangled to death in a Roman prison. Faustus Sulla, a mint official, celebrated his father’s achievement in capturing Jugurtha, thereby winning the “Jugurthine War”. The reverse of the coin, depicts Jugurtha kneeling with his hands bound behind his back, while the victorious Lucius Cornelius Sulla is presented with an olive branch by his ally, King Bocchus of Mauretania.
Iarbas (or Hiarbas) is an obscure figure who seized the Numidian throne around 88 BCE and ruled until 81 when he was captured and executed by the forces of Roman general Pompey the Great. Some bronze coins are doubtfully attributed to Iarbas. They show a long-haired male head on the obverse and a personification of “Africa” wearing a distinctive elephant-skin headless on the reverse. The North African forest elephant native to Numidia was probably hunted to extinction around the year 100 CE.
Juba I (Ywb’y in Punic) reigned as the Roman client king of Numidia from 60 to 46 BCE. His extensive silver coinage was based on the standard of the Roman denarius, and he also issued bronze coins on a local standard. On his silver denarius, he appears with a pointed beard and an elaborate wig or hairdo with rows of tight curls, and the Latin inscription REX • IVBA (“King Juba”). The reverse shows a columned temple, with the Punic inscription of the same meaning (HMMLKT YWB’Y) On most examples, the Punic inscription is partly off the edge, or not fully struck up.
There is a very rare silver quinarius (valued at one-half denarius) with a bust of Victory on the obverse and a galloping horse on the reverse. Juba’s heavy bronze “unit” (about 12.7 grams) depicts the head of Zeus-Ammon on the obverse and a walking elephant on the reverse. The bronze half unit (about 6.8 grams) shows a personification of “Africa” wearing an elephant skin headdress on the obverse and a walking lion on the reverse.
In the Roman civil war of 49 through 45 BCE, Juba sided with the forces of Pompey the Great. The Numidians defeated and killed Gaius Scribonius Curio, one of Julius Caesar’s lieutenants, at the Battle of the Bagradas (August 24, 49 BCE). Three years later, after Caesar arrived in North Africa, the combined forces of Juba and the Pompeians were routed at the Battle of Thapsus (April 6, 46 BCE). In the aftermath of the battle, Juba committed suicide. His son Juba II, who was educated in Rome, was restored to the Numidian kingdom by Emperor Augustus in 30 BCE, and later made king of Mauretania after Numidia became a Roman province. The royal coinage of ancient Mauretania will be examined in a future article.
In major coin auction catalogs, ancient coins of Numidia are generally found right after the coinage of Ptolemaic Egypt and right before neighboring Mauretania. The standard reference for the coinage of Numidia and Mauretania is Mazard (1955), 265 pages, in French. Long out of print, second-hand copies currently sell for as much as $250-300 USD. Jean Mazard (1900-1984) was a jurist and numismatist who lived in Algeria and assembled an extensive collection of ancient North African coins that was later acquired by the famous Armenian-French collector Nadia Kapamadji (1901-1978). Bronze coins of Massinissa and his sons, and the silver coins of Juba I appear frequently in major auctions but other Numidian royal issues range from scarce to very rare.
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 CNG Mail Bid Sale 57, April 4, 2001, Lot 663. Realized $2,000 USD (estimate $1,000).
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 62, October 17, 2019, Lot 95. Realized £240 (about $307 USD; estimate £150).
 NAC Auction 114, May 6, 2019, Lot 362. Realized CHF 450 (about $442 USD; estimate CHF 500).
 Roma Numismatics E-sale 62, October 17, 2019, Lot 96. Realized £200 (about $256 USD; estimate £75).
 CNG Electronic Auction 327, May 28, 2014, Lot 743. Realized $60 USD (estimate $100).
 CNG Triton V, January 15, 2002, Lot 590. Realized $400 USD (estimate $300).
 Roma Numismatics, E-sale 66, January 9, 2020, Lot 832. Realized £800 (about $1,044 USD; estimate £1,000).
 Pecunem Auction 37, November 1, 2015, Lot 367. Realized €100 (estimate €130).
 There is no letter “J” in Latin. The letter did not come into general use until the 16th century.
 Nomos Auction 14, May 17, 2017, Lot 278. Realized CHF 1,400 (about $1,430 USD; estimate CHF 500).
 CNG Triton XVIII, January 6 , 2015, Lot 798. Realized $2,200 USD (estimate $1,000).
 Künker Auction 182, March 14, 2011, Lot 402. Realized €1,200 (about $1,677 USD; estimate €350).
 CNG Electronic Auction 392, March 1, 2017, Lot 351. Realized $525 USD (estimate $150).
Hildinger, Erik. Swords Against the Senate. Cambridge MA (2002)
Mazard, Jean. Corpus Nummorum Numidiae Mauretaniaeque. Paris (1955)
Müller, Ludvig. Numismatique de l’ancienne Afrique. Vol. III: Les monnaies de la Numidie et de la Mauritanie. Copenhagen (1862)
Sear, David. Greek Coins and Their Values, Volume 2: Asia and Africa. London (1979)
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Mike Markowitz is “Second Consul” of the Ancient Numismatic Society of Washington. He has been a serious collector of ancient coins since 1993. He is a wargame designer, historian, and defense analyst, who writes for StrategyPage and Defense Media Network. He designed the game Alexandros, which won the 1991 Charles Roberts Award for “Best Pre-WWII Wargame”. He has degrees in History from the University of Rochester, New York and Social Ecology from the University of California, Irvine. He has worked as a technical writer, editor and trainer for a variety of aerospace and defense firms. Born in New York City, he lives in Fairfax, Virginia.