This painting, by the French artist Pierre Guérin (c. 1774-1833), was inspired by the death of a Carthaginian noblewoman named Sophonisba (or Sophoniba). She lived during the Second Punic War (c. 218-201 BCE), when both Rome and Carthage were seeking ties with Numidian warlords in hopes of gaining an advantage on the battlefield. Sophonisba, as happened too often in ancient and medieval history, found herself used as a bargaining chip, with her hand in marriage being offered as incentive for the Numidians to join Carthage’s side in the war. She was first betrothed to the powerful Numidian nobleman, Masinissa, but when he abandoned Carthage to align with the Romans in 206 BCE, the engagement was broken and Sophonisba was instead given in marriage to Masinissa’s greatest rival in Numidia—Syphax. The Roman historian, Livy (59 BCE-17 CE), wrote of the impactful marriage, stating, “[Sophonisba’s father] sent to Carthage for the young woman and hurried on the wedding. Congratulations were general, and, by way of strengthening the family tie by a national compact, a treaty of alliance between the people of Carthage and the king was declared and sworn…” (Livy, History of Rome, 29.23). Although Sophonisba had been used as leverage, she decided to embrace her role as Carthage’s representative in Syphax’s palace. She was quite effective at keeping her husband faithfully committed to the Carthaginian cause, even as the Romans were starting to gain momentum.
Unfortunately for Sophonisba, her family and her nation married her to the wrong Numidian lord. The coordination between the Roman general, Publius Cornelius Scipio (soon to be nicknamed ‘Africanus’), and Masinissa proved too much for the Carthaginians and Syphax to handle. By 203 BCE, Syphax and Sophonisba were defeated and captured by Masinissa at the city of Cirta. As the story goes, Masinissa took pity on his ex-fiancée and planned to marry her. Yet, Scipio and the Romans were concerned that if Masinissa married an outspoken and politically-active Carthaginian bride, then his loyalties might shift in the war. Therefore, the Romans reportedly demanded that Sophonisba be handed over into their custody. This was something that Masinissa would not do, but he also would not let the Carthaginian girl ruin his productive relationship with the Romans. Unfortunately for Sophonisba, this led to a grim third option—poison. The aforementioned historian, Livy, described what allegedly happened next:
“[Masinissa] called a trusty slave, in whose care was the poison which all kings keep against the changes of chance and fortune. He told the slave to mix the poison in a cup and carry it to Sophonisba, and tell her that Masinissa would gladly have kept the first promise which a husband owed to his wife, but that since those who had power robbed him of the freedom to do so, he was keeping his second promise, not to let her fall alive into the hands of the Romans…no less proudly she took the cup and calmly drained it with no sign of perturbation” (Livy, History of Rome, 30.15).
Such is the story, then, that inspired Pierre Guérin’s painting. Seen in her hand is likely the message she wished to be brought back to Masinissa as she died. According to Livy, the letter read, “‘I accept this bridal gift—a gift not unwelcome if my husband has been unable to offer a greater one to his wife…I should have died a better death if I had not married on the day of my funeral’” (Livy, History of Rome, 30.15). Sophinisba’s death did not sour Masinissa against the Romans, at all. Quite the opposite, he continued working with them for the rest of his life. With Roman support, Masinissa officially became the sole king of the Numidians in 201 BCE and his reign lasted until his death in 148 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Livy, (Roman History) The War with Hannibal, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1972.
- Polybius, (The Histories) The Rise of the Roman Empire, translated by Ian Scott Kilvert. New York: Penguin Classics, 1979.