Sophonisba (c. 225–203 BCE)

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Sophonisba (c. 225–203 bce)

Carthaginian noblewoman who chose suicide over Roman slavery during the Second Punic War. Name variations: Sophoniba; Sophonisbe. Born around 225 bce; committed suicide in 203 bce; daughter of the Carthaginian Hasdrubal (son of Gisgo); married Syphax; married Masinissa.

Sophonisba was born around 225 bce, the beautiful daughter of the Carthaginian Hasdrubal. Hasdrubal, son of Gisgo, was a major player in the Second Punic War fought between Rome and Carthage (218–201 bce). From 214 until 206, Hasdrubal was one of the generals who sought to keep Rome from seizing Spain from Carthage. Initially, he was successful, helping to defeat the army of the elder P. Cornelius Scipio and killing the Roman general in the process (211 bce). However, when the Roman war effort in Spain was turned over to the elder Scipio's strategically brilliant son, P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the tide turned on Carthage and Hasdrubal: after the Battle of Ilipa (206 bce), the latter fled Spain, leaving it to Rome.

With Spain lost to Carthage, Hasdrubal fled to North Africa and Syphax, a Numidian chieftain of the Masaesylii tribe, intent on fostering the waning Carthaginian war effort. Hasdrubal's mission to Syphax was of great importance for his city, for Syphax had openly rebelled against Carthage's hegemony in North Africa (c. 214 bce) and in 206 bce was being wooed by the younger Scipio as an ally against Carthage. Making Hasdrubal's assignment all the more critical was the fact that Masinissa (another Numidian chieftain and a rival of Syphax), who had been an ally of Carthage until the loss of Spain, was at the time defecting to the Roman cause. Any hope for a Carthaginian victory in this long and bitter conflict would be dashed if Rome could unite Numidia against Hasdrubal's city.

Hasdrubal's efforts to secure an alliance with Syphax were successful after he offered the stunning Sophonisba in marriage to the Numidian. Thus, Sophonisba's charms acquired for Carthage an ally as that city desperately mounted a last ditch effort against Rome. In the short term, Sophonisba's marriage alliance turned Numidian affairs in Carthage's favor, for Syphax was able to expel Masinissa from the latter's ancestral chiefdom. However, when Scipio Africanus invaded Africa (204 bce), it soon became evident that no Numidian ally could save Carthage. In 203 bce, Syphax met Scipio in the Battle of the Great Plains, to the west of Carthage, and was decisively defeated. Fleeing to his kingdom, Syphax contemplated making his peace with Rome, but was dissuaded from doing so by Sophonisba. While Scipio was otherwise engaged against Carthage, however, Masinissa and one of Scipio's lieutenants, C. Laelius, invaded Syphax's realm. Syphax was once again defeated in battle and soon thereafter captured by his enemies.

In Roman hands, Syphax was destined to be deported to Italy (where he would die in captivity in 201 bce). Nevertheless, before Syphax met this fate Sophonisba played out her most famous moment. After Syphax's defeat, Masinissa was the first of his enemies to enter Cirta, Syphax's capital. There, Sophonisba approached Masinissa to beg his protection from the Romans. Desperate to avoid falling captive to the bitter foes her father had schooled her to hate, she threw herself before her husband's victorious rival and begged him for sanctuary. Masinissa was stunned by Sophonisba's beauty, and she, seeing the effect her physical presence was having on him, decided to alter the nature of her approach. Rather than throwing herself upon his mercy, Sophonisba began to behave seductively. Almost immediately Masinissa promised to do all he could to protect her. In fact, it is alleged that he took her as a wife virtually on the spot. Another version of the story is somewhat less fevered. In this telling, Sophonisba and Masinissa had been betrothed before her father decided to offer her to Syphax. Meeting him upon his entry into Cirta, she pleaded with him not to turn her over to her father's enemies. He promised he would not, and married her. Both versions agree that when the Roman Laelius arrived at Cirta and discovered that Masinissa was entranced by Sophonisba, he was furious and refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of their "marriage." Although he wanted to send Sophonisba (with Syphax) as a prisoner to Scipio Africanus, in the interest of diplomacy Laelius nevertheless agreed to allow Scipio to decide Sophonisba's fate.

As a result of this decision, Sophonisba remained with Masinissa when Syphax was forwarded to Scipio. Syphax, however, had his revenge. Extremely jealous and angry about Sophonisba's willingness to abandon him for his victorious rival, Syphax went out of his way to convince Scipio that she constituted a potentially dangerous influence on Masinissa. Worried by the implications of Masinissa's overly hasty appropriation of Syphax's rabidly anti-Roman, Carthaginian spouse, Scipio ordered Masinissa to quit this new marriage and to send Sophonisba to him as a legitimately won war captive. Distressed and wishing to grant Sophonisba her wish (or, in the second version, to keep his promise) that she never fall into Roman hands, Masinissa chose to disregard this command. Instead, he apologized to Sophonisba for being incapable of otherwise "saving" her, and procured for her a cup of poison. Thus offered her release from Roman captivity, Sophonisba defiantly drained the cup, preferring annihilation to slavery. In this act, she foreshadowed the fate of her native city: too proud to submit to absolute Roman dominion, Carthage would also one day opt for honorable destruction over Roman bondage.

William S. Greenwalt , Associate Professor of Classical History, Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, California