King John and Jugurtha

ImageWhile reading Sallust’s ‘Bellum Iugurthinum’, I am struck at how similar England’s king John and Jugurtha often seem to be. Take for instance this passage:

“To these words [of Nabdalsa, Numidian chieftain suspected of treason], the king made a courteous reply, disguising his real feelings. After putting to death Bomilcar and many others whom he knew to be implicated in the plot, he restrained his anger, for fear that the affair might cause a rebellion. But from that time forward Jugurtha never passed a quiet day or night; he put little trust in any place, person, or time; feared his countrymen and the enemy alike; was always on the watch; started at every sound; and spent his nights in different places, many of which were ill suited to the dignity of a king. Sometimes on being roused from sleep he would utter outcries and seize his arms; he was hounded by a fear that was all but madness.” (lxxii.2-lxxiii.7, trans. J.C. Rolfe)

First, let me pause and take stock of such decriptive power. It’s remarkable how vivid Sallust’s brushes are. One can see Jugurtha shivering in fear, away from human company, spending time in brooding over imaginary conspiracies and turning small details into symptoms of treachery. We are not very far from king John’s conduct during the last years of his reign. Fearing conspiracies on every side and confronted with all sorts of challenges to his throne, anxiety pushed him to distrust everyone and everything, to see deceit everywhere and loyalty only in mercenaries. Such was John’s apprehension that historians with hindsight like Roger of Wendover and Matthew Paris concocted all sorts of stories to bring John’s suspicion closer to dementia. 

It is nevertheless surprising that despite Sallust’s popularity through the Middle Ages, no chroniclers, with or without hindsight, ever tapped the ‘Bellum Iugurthinum’ for a narrative mantle with which to festoon John’s fretfulness. The Numidian Nabdalsa could very well have represented any of John’s barons to whom the king turned his suspicious face.

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