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No. 3048:
Juba II

by Richard Armstrong

Today, a scholar king of Africa. The Honors College at the University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them. 

The year is 46 BC, and a two-year old boy is being paraded through Rome. But this is no happy occasion for him. He's the scion of a great royal dynasty from Numidia in North Africa, and this parade is the triumph of Julius Caesar. The boy's family was on the wrong side of a Roman Civil War. And now he's being shown off among the captives of the victorious dictator. Many in this parade will later be executed; but the little boy will be spared.

Coin of Juba II. Photo Credit: PGHCOM/Wikimedia Commons

His name was Juba, and his luck was about to change. He was kept as a hostage at Rome, a practice that allowed the Romans to acculturate the children of useful foreign dynasties. And as luck would have it, he ended up being raised in the extended family of the man who would become Rome's first emperor: Caesar Augustus. As a result, Juba received the best education Rome could offer. He learned from some of the greatest scholars of the age, and immersed himself in a wide range of studies.

By the age of 20, Juba established a solid reputation by writing treatises on Roman history, the Greek and Latin languages, painting, and the history of theater. In 27 BC, the Emperor Augustus took him along to Spain to finish his education with a final, quintessentially Roman subject: the art of war. 

Now Juba was truly ready to serve Augustus in rebuilding the empire. He was dispatched to rule as a client king over Mauretania, part of what is today Morocco and Algeria. Client kingship was another Roman practice, aimed at consolidating regions they didn't want to garrison directly. To rule Mauretania, Juba needed an appropriate queen, and here again he was in luck. Another hostage reared in the imperial household was ready for marriage: Kleopatra Selene, the only surviving child of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. So the two were married and packed off to North Africa, where they ruled together for twenty years.

Mount Teide on Tenerife, Canary Islands. Photo Credit: Dmitry A. Mottl/Wikimedia Commons

Kleopatra Selene brought with her an entourage of scholars and artists from Alexandria, who helped the couple create a brilliant court. The scholarly Juba must have been in heaven. He explored his kingdom assiduously, sending back reams of information to aid in making a map of the world. He led expeditions into the high Atlas mountains, and along the Atlantic coast of Africa. Searching for the Islands of the Blessed, he sent out an expedition and discovered the Canary Islands. These lie 60 miles off the coast of Morocco. Juba so proved his usefulness as both ruler and scholar that the Emperor sent him on expedition to the Middle East. There Juba collected enough detailed information to write a very influential book on Arabia, and thus helped to establish a Roman trade network that would lead all the way to India.

Juba ruled for nearly 50 years, serving the Roman Empire as much with his pen as with his sword. And those Canary Islands he discovered would later be the starting point for another intrepid discoverer: Christopher Columbus.

I'm Richard Armstrong at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Sadly, much of Juba's work has been lost, through fragments of it percolate through the works of others, like Pliny the Elder's Natural History. Duane Roller has done excellent work reconstructing Juba's life story and his works, as well as the history of exploration.

Roller, Duane W. 2003. The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene. New York, Routledge.

Roller, Duane W. 2004. Scholarly Kings: The Fragments of Juba II of Mauretania, Archelaos of Kappadokia, Herod the Great and the Emperor Claudius. Chicago, Ares Publishers.

Roller, Duane W. 2006. Through the Pillars of Herakles: Greco-Roman Exploration of the Atlantic. New York, Routledge.

This episode was first aired on February 23, 2016