When he died an old man in 24 A.D., Juba was succeeded by the Queen, Cleopatra Selene, who maintained his wise policies. She similarly groomed their son, Ptolemy XV, to one day rule his country in the same, enlightened fashion. Meanwhile, Mauritania became a center for great wealth and cultural opulence. Relations with the Empire were exemplary, so much so, prosperous Romans often vacationed in the sun-kissed North African land, and many stayed to form their own community.
But these halcyon days of high civilization were about to come to a catastrophic end. In 40 A.D., the new Emperor, Gaius Caligula, invited Mauritania’s popular leader to a party in Rome. Such an invitation was not to be turned down, so young Ptolemy sailed for Italy. There he was magnificently feted by Caligula, who referred to him as his brother and loaded the Mauritantian monarch down with costly gifts. However, on his way to Ostia, the port of Rome, where a ship was waiting to take him home, Ptolemy was suddenly stabbed to death by members of his own Roman guard. The killers fled, but botched their escape, and were apprehended soon after by centurions. The murderers confessed under interrogation that they had been commissioned by none other than Caligula himself. The Emperor, having drained the imperial purse through his grandiose debaucheries, planned to blame Ptolemy’s death on Numidian assassins, then pose as the avenger of the betrayed king and the protector of his people by occupying Caesarea and seizing its royal treasury. But when the plot was exposed, the Mauri rose in angry revolt against Rome.
Before he could do anything about it, Caligula was himself assassinated. His successor was a sane and liberal-hearted man, Claudius, who wanted to make amends with the Mauritanians and restore them to their previous position of friendly semi-independence within the imperial system. He was unanimously opposed by both the Senate and his generals. They argued that colonized peoples elsewhere would interpret any lenience toward Mauritania as proof of Roman weakness and stage their own revolts. Soon, the whole Empire would be aflame with insurrection. Moreover, the Mauri, in their wrath at the death of Ptolemy, had gone too far, and massacred innocent Romans peacefully residing in their country.
There was another consideration, now more palatable, given the nature of the situation: Claudius had inherited a bankrupt imperial purse, thanks to the profligacy of his lunatic predecessor. Seizing the Mauritanian treasury, as standard practice in any such punitive operation, would have a salubrious impact on the royal household’s financial affairs.
But the Mauri were not some colonial exotics to be pacified by the mere sight of a Roman standard. They operated a large navy whose vessels bested Roman warships in the open seas of the Atlantic Ocean. Their army, trained and equipped by the Romans themselves, had never lost a battle. Claudius was forced to dispatch an entire army to Mauritania in what soon developed into full-scale warfare for seven months, involving 20,000 troops and several corps of chariotry.
Although the Mauri slowed the Roman invasion, they could not stop it. Defeat seemed inevitable to the wealthy men who initially backed the revolt. They were confronted by two alternatives: Await the Romans, who would execute some and over-tax the survivors, or flee. But to where? Rome controlled the world to the north. To the east sprawled the largest desert on Earth, the Sahara. In the south was Senegal, within easy reach of Claudius’ legions. The broad ocean, which the landlubber Romans feared as “the Pasture of Fools,” rolled westward, the Mauritanians’ only escape route. In short, they could only hope to survive as “boat-people.”
Perhaps the scholarly Juba, in his long-since lost geography texts, described distant territories on the other side of the sea-- lands he learned of from the Phoenicians, who used North African ports for their commercially secret, transatlantic voyages. Indeed, the Canary Island Current runs like an underwater conveyor-belt from the Mauritanian shores of North Africa, westward across the Atlantic Ocean, straight into the Gulf of Mexico. It seems unlikely that the scholarly Juba or Phoenicia’s prodigious sea-farers knew nothing of this obvious phenomenon. After all, it was the same current used nearly 1,500 years later by another sailor, Christopher Columbus, as his direct route to America.
Meanwhile, the invading Romans announced their intentions of reducing Mauritania to indentured, colonial status. It was clear, too, that their immediate objective was to seize the Mauritanian treasury. It had been moved from Caesarea, ever further southward, ahead of their advancing columns. The Mauritanian royalty, into whose keeping the treasury had been entrusted, fled toward the Senegalese border.
All the events described up to this point in our narrative comprise the historical record, as documented by several Roman writers, including Plutarch and Dio Cassius. What follows is speculation based on their factual accounts.