The Romans have been fighting the Carthaginians for decades. The city of Carthage, on the tip of North Africa (where Tunisia is today) has been a great seafaring power in the Mediterranean for hundreds of years. Under their commander Hannibal, they have delivered serious defeats to Rome. But the tide turns…
Also in North Africa are Western and Eastern Numidia (today these countries make up modern Algeria). Syphax, lord of Western Numidia, was once an ally of Rome, but he comes under the spell of Sophonisba, the daughter of another high Carthaginian commander. Syphax marries her and switches his allegiance to Carthage.
Massinissa, lord of Eastern Numidia, allies with Rome. The Romans attack Syphax’s camp in the middle of the night, burning it, driving his soldiers into the open, where they are slaughtered. Syphax flees to Cirta, his capital city in Western Numidia. The Numidians were famous as horsemen. The pursuit of Syphax is exciting to imagine…Massanissa follows him and takes Syphax and Sophonisba captive.
At the palace of Cirta, Massinissa falls in love with Sophonisba and takes her as his wife. Syphax, having lost everything, is humiliated and despondent. The Roman commander, Scipio Africanus, takes Syphax to task for his treachery of switching loyalty from Rome to Carthage, but Syphax tells her he was bewitched by Sophonisba, as Massinissa will be too.
Who was Sophonisba–innocent beauty or cunning temptress? The stories, legends, and history vary on this point.
There is also a legend that Massinissa knew Sophonisba before Syphax when, in his youth, he was a hostage of Syphax. Massinissa loved Sophonisba and had to endure watching her become Syphax’s wife. Only later would he recapture her for his own…
Scipio orders Massinissa to give up Sophonisba so that she may be taken to Rome in chains for display in the parade celebrating his triumph over the Carthaginians. Massinissa is not willing to withstand Rome like Syphax did, but he does not want Sophonisba to be degraded in that way. He tells her to take poison and die an honorable death as a royal princess of Carthage. She does not hesitate–this is the core of her legend–and the story of her death becomes the subject of countless paintings over fourteen hundred years later, as well as operas and dramas.
Massinissa gives Sophonisba a funeral worthy of a princess, and because he proves in this extreme way his allegiance to Rome, he is given the crown of a now-unified Numidia, both the former Eastern and Western kingdoms–a monarchy which he holds for more than a half century until his death at age ninety. Syphax, however, is taken to Rome for display in Scipio’s triumphal parade, and there dies of grief.
As skilled as all these depictions are, they suffer from a common tendency of European art–the costumes depicted were those of the time of the artist, not of the subject. This approach, ironically, was also used by Hollywood in the 1960s, when women in historical or period films would sport contemporary hairstyles and makeup. I recently saw The Cincinnati Kid, set in Depression-era America, with Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld sporting the ‘dos of the 60s. Very annoying.
Likewise, I want to see a more authentic Sophonisba. I only had one actress in mind if I were to show you a photo. I saw the following image at a memorabilia show a few months ago, but it was too expensive to buy. Then this afternoon, on a fantastic site I discovered called Dr. Macro, which features gorgeous scans of cinema photos, I found and recaptured it…like Massinissa recaptured Sophonisba. (I’m adding Dr. Macro to my blogroll too for your ready reference and personal ease of horny time travel.) My choice for the role of the Carthaginian princess, then, is the late actress Marina Berti (1924-2002), seen here in her great character as the slavegirl Eunice in 1951’s Quo Vadis (now available in a new, gorgeous DVD edition):
I think you will agree that this is a woman who, in the words of the Roman historian Livy, could make a king “become the slave of his captive!”
I looked through many sources for this journey into history clouded with legend. One that was particularly helpful, besides Wikipedia, was Roman History Books and More. It goes on the blogroll too!