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American Journal of Philology 122.2 (2001) 179-200

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The Myth Of Numidian Origins In Sallust's African Excursus (Iugurtha 17.7-18.12)

Robert Morstein-Marx

The excursus on the ethnography and geography of North Africa in Sallust's Iugurtha (17-19) has lately attracted much attention. Until recently there seemed to be little to say but that it demarcated the structure of the narrative and relieved the reader with "Greek erudition and fancies." 1 On one level, that is surely true enough, and consistent with the conventions of Roman historiography. 2 But a series of more probing studies of aspects of the digression by Carin Green, Renato Oniga, Thomas Scanlon, and Thomas Wiedemann has done much to lay bare the web of allusions and ethnographic typologies at work in the text and to demonstrate its thematic links with the larger narrative of the Iugurtha. 3 Yet while each of these studies has cast new light on the African excursus and demonstrated its considerable interest, no convincing reinterpretation of the digression's function in the monograph has emerged. 4 Another try, building on some of the best recent work, is warranted. I shall concentrate on the myth of Numidian origins that forms the core of the African excursus (Iug. 17.7-18.12). Its importance is clearly signaled by its central position in the digression; by the appearance of a "second introduction" of its own containing an eye-catching [End Page 179] claim to be contributing a heterodox, native account on the basis of original research (17.7); by its narrative form, through which it stands out from the surrounding descriptive material; and indeed by its length, far greater than the other parts of the excursus. I begin with a reexamination of the underlying structure of ideas that drives the narrative of 18.1-12 and characterizes the Numidian people against a complex background of ethnographic thought. Ultimately I wish to show that this deceptively rich narrative defines the Numidian people as an African counterpart to the Romans, yet also their polar opposite--a natural enemy with nomadic traditions and a heritage that makes them brothers to the Parthians, who at Sallust's time of writing were posing an extraordinary threat to Rome's eastern provinces and allies. The myth sets the Jugurthine conflict within a wider cultural context: this will be a war not merely between the Roman people and a particularly energetic and cunning African prince, but between Roman civilization and the mobile, treacherous, seminomadic "Other" whose dangerous intractability and capacity to erode the bases of civilized order were to be proven not for the last time in 112-105 B.C. 5

The narrative begins with the aboriginal Libyes and Gaetuli, both tribes "savage and uncivilized, whose food was raw flesh and fodder on the ground, as for cattle. They were not controlled by customs, law, or anyone's power: scattered wanderers, they stayed wherever night forced them" (18.1-2). The traditional (and conventional) polarity between primitive savagery and civilization is thus implicitly invoked. 6 As far back as Odysseus' account of the Cyclopes (Od. 9.106-15), uncivilization was defined above all by the absence of agriculture and the constraint of law. 7 We may note, too, that native Africans are described by Sallust as eating like animals (uti pecoribus); they are thus explicitly living in a bestial condition. In our author's historiographical thought, certain other associations emerge from such a categorization. We may recall that in the [End Page 180] prologue of the Catilina we are told that the properly human state differs from the animal according to the degree to which men strive "not to pass their lives unnoticed, like cattle [veluti pecora] which nature has made to face the earth and obey their stomach" (Cat. 1.1). In Sallust's moral matrix, primitives such as the Gaetuli and Libyes are aligned on the side of corporis servitium rather than animi imperium, dependent on vires rather than ingenium; "warlike" they may be, but...