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Tunisia - Berber Kingdoms

The coastal regions of Tunisia shared in an early neolithic culture that was common to the whole Mediterranean littoral. Artifacts left by hunters and fishermen who excelled in making stone blades and tools are plentiful, and evidence points to the early domestication of cattle and the cultivation of crops in the area. South of the Atlas range, nomadic hunters and herders roamed a vast savanna, well watered and abounding in game, that 8,000 years ago stretched across what is now the vast desert known as the Sahara. Their culture flourished until the region began to desiccate after 4000 B.C. Scattering before the encroaching desert and invading horsemen, some of the savanna people migrated northward, where they were subsequently absorbed by the Berbers.

Linguistic evidence suggests southwestern Asia as the point from which the ancestors of the Berbers began their migration into North Africa early in the third millennium B.C. Over succeeding centuries they extended their range from Siwa in Egypt to the Niger Basin. The Berbers present a broad range of physical types, and the affinity of various groups seems based almost entirely on linguistic grounds. Berber tradition told that they were descended from two unrelated families, and modern scholars believe that the Berbers did indeed cross North Africa in two simultaneous waves-one that entered the region from the southeast after a long sojourn in Black Africa and another that took a northerly route.

The Berbers were well known to classical writers. Sallust, a Roman historian and politician living in the first century BC, described their way of life, elements of which still existed in the twentieth century. The basic unit of social and political organization among the Berbers was the extended family, usually identified with a particular village or with traditional grazing grounds. Families in turn were bound together in the clan. An alliance of clans, often tracing their origins to a common ancestor as a symbol of unity, formed a tribe. Courts and representative assemblies guided by customs peculiar to the group functioned at each level of organization. Berber folk law and government, like Berber folk religion, were highly personalized and therefore most effective at the lowest levels of their application. Ultimately, each household or tent was its own republic. For mutual defense, kindred tribes joined in confederations, which, because war was a permanent feature of tribal life, were in time institutionalized. Some chieftains, successful in battle, established rudimentary territorial states by imposing their rule on defeated tribes and allies alike, but their kingdoms were easily fragmented, and the dynasties that they sought to found rarely survived more than a generation.

By the third century BC, however, several large, although loosely administered, Berber kingdoms had emerged behind the coastal areas controlled by Carthage. These monarchies were supported by the sedentary farmers who looked to the kings to protect them from the raids of the nomadic pastoralists. The Berber kings adapted Punic and Greek ceremonial forms to the usage of their courts, and treaties of friendship with Carthage were often sealed by a king's marriage to a woman from the family of a Carthaginian notable. The Berber kings ruled in the shadow of Carthage and later Rome, sometimes forming alliances with one or another of the great powers. After Carthage was vanquished by Rome, they threw in their lots with factions vying for power in the Roman civil wars of the first century BC.

One of the most illustrious of these tribal monarchs was Masinissa (ca. 240-148 B.C.), who had served with the Carthaginians in Spain. Masinissa shifted his support to Rome in time to be counted among the victor's allies when Carthage surrendered in 202 B.C. With Roman patronage he united Numidia and extended his authority from the Moulouya River to Cyrenaica, a territory he governed from his Hellenistic court at Cirta (Constantine in presentday Algeria). Numidia was divided among several heirs after Masinissa's death. Rome intervened when his grandson, Jugurtha (118-105 B.C.), attempted to revive Masinissa's Berber kingdom. Betrayed by a rival chieftain at the end of a long and exasperating war in which he pinned down large numbers of Roman troops, Jugurtha was carried away to Rome and was starved to death in the Capitol.

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