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Tacfarinas – African rebel

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

African warriors. From the left: Numidian aristocrat, Moorish horseman, light Moorish infantry
African warriors. From the left: Numidian aristocrat, Moorish horseman, light Moorish infantry

In the history of the principate, there were revolts of the provincial population, most of which had a small range and could not permanently threaten the security of the Empire. An example was the fights in Africa, where in 17 CE the Numidian Tacfarinas, a former auxiliary soldier, stood against the Roman authorities.

Fight starts

Ancient sources give little information about Tacfarinas himself. He came from the Musulamii people who had their headquarters on the outskirts of Roman Africa, on the border of what is now Tunisia and Algiers. He deserted from the Roman ranks, although the reasons for this decision are not clear. It is possible that he came from the local aristocracy and commanded the auxiliary troops, but felt disappointed at his lack of promotion. For he did not receive citizenship or other honours from the Romans, as did Arminius.

The reason for Tacfarinas’ turn to anti-Romanism could also be his crime, injustice suffered by imperial officials or his aversion to Roman authority. It is known that his leadership skills made him a leader in the entire Musulami tribe, and his military successes at the beginning of the campaign attracted more and more volunteers to the ranks of Tacfarinas’ army. It was not the only uprising of the local population against Rome.

Already during the reign of Augustus, there were anti-Roman actions in these areas, the last of which was suppressed in 6 CE. Since then, the Roman authorities organized the administration of these territories, creating a tax base for the African population and building roads through the tribal territories. It was these actions and other moves by the Romans, such as attempts to put an end to inter-tribal struggles or involvement in local conflicts, that led to an increase in anti-Roman sentiment and the popularity of Tacfarinas. He allied with Mazyppa, the Moorish leader, and soon the Cinit tribe joined the rebels. Some of the rebel units were equipped and trained on the Roman model, and Mazyppa with the light-armed “fires, murders and terror spread all around”. It did not take long for the Romans to respond. Commanding the units against the insurgents, proconsul Furius Camillus had the 3rd Legion (Legio III Augusta), two cavalry squadrons (alae) and auxiliary infantry cohorts. With these forces, he forced Tacfarinas to confront him in a major battle. Before the fight, Camillus placed his legion in the centre, light infantry cohorts stood on its sides, the flanks were traditionally assigned to the cavalry. Despite the fact that Tacfarinas’ people had a significant advantage in numbers, the Romans, thanks to the discipline, self-confidence and good armament, defeated his army. Camillus received triumphal badges, and the emperor himself in the Senate gave a speech of praise for its part.

The elusive Numidian

Legionnaires guarding the camp.

Tacfarinas, however, did not lay down his arms and changed his tactics. It was based on the activities of smaller and more mobile troops, which brought him success and the support of local tribes. Success in the fight encouraged him to act even bolder. Encouraged by his successes, he besieged the cohort stationed near the Pagyda River. It is not known whether it was composed of legionaries or a support unit, and it is also difficult to define where it was stationed. Its commander, Decrius, responded to Tacfarinas’ attack, leading his subordinates behind the camp ramparts, thus demonstrating his confidence. However, the commander’s enthusiasm was not shared by his soldiers who, after the first enemy attack, started to flee. The efforts of Decree, who tried to return the fleeing people, did not help. Abandoned by his own, twice wounded Dekrius himself resisted the attackers until he fell on the battlefield. The survivors of the pogrom were subjected to decimation (decimatio). By order of the new proconsul, every tenth soldier was to die, beaten with sticks by his companions, the rest received barley for food, considered to be the food of animals and slaves, and were forced to camp outside the embankments. Fortunately, however, the unit famous for the decree’s pogrom left. His fighters soon attacked the garrison at Thala, composed of 500 veterans dedicated to lighter combat missions.

In the battle on the Roman side, the legionary Marcus Helvius Rufus distinguished himself, who received corona civica for saving his comrade-in-arms. Then he was promoted to centurion and primi pilusa, earning the ancestral nickname Civica. Information about him can be found on an inscription from Tivoli, Italy, which mentions that he founded a bathhouse for the local community. Tacfarinas, taught by defeat, avoided contact with the territories occupied by garrisons from then on, fragmenting his forces and tearing his Roman driveways. Many areas were vulnerable to the plundering attacks of his warriors, as the Roman authorities had too little strength to man them and were busy pursuing the elusive Numidian without purpose. The Romans made long marches through the difficult terrain, unsuccessfully tracking down the busy rebel troops. This situation lasted for several years.

Legionaries during the fights.

Romans’ riposte

Tacfarinas gained confidence with each success and finally turned against the more fertile coastal areas. He was acquiring abundant loot, but the problem to be solved was their collection, transport and storage. So he created a camp where he gathered his gains and which served as a starting point. The Romans sent cavalry against the Numidian, auxiliary cohorts supported by elected legionaries under the command of the son of the proconsul, Apronius Caesianus. This time they managed to surprise the enemy, who suffered a severe defeat and was dispersed. However, this did not end the war.

Emperor Tiberius intervened in the fight in Africa, and in a letter to the Senate, he recommended the appointment of a new proconsul to act against the rebels. The choice fell on Quintus Junius Blazus, who was the uncle of the notorious Prefect Sejanus. The new commander received the support of Legion IX (Legio IX Hispana) withdrew for this purpose from Pannonia. Tacfarinas tried to negotiate and sent emissaries to the Romans who threatened his interlocutors with an “endless war” until he had land allocations for Tacfarinas and his subordinates. The negotiations came to nothing, and the emperor, outraged by Tacfarinas’ arrogance, ordered Blazus to vigorously wage warfare. As was their custom, the Romans used diplomatic measures alongside military operations, prompting many Tacfarinas commanders to surrender. They formed 3 mobile columns attacking from different directions, guiding Tacfarinas troops to the network of fortified outposts.

After several successes, they divided their forces into even smaller groups which, under the command of the centurions, continued their pursuit of the elusive African during the summer. At the same time, more fortified outposts were created. So Tacfarinas was not at ease and was chased from one camp to another. Before the Romans went to the winter lair, they managed to capture his brother. Another Roman commander received triumphal badges and was hailed emperor by his subordinates. Recognizing the campaign winners, the Romans sent the IX Legion back to the Danube. This move was considered by the rebel leader as a sign of the withdrawal of Rome from these areas and the general collapse of the empire. Tacfarinas resumed his fields in the field, gaining new allies. He managed to win over the people of Mauritania, whose new ruler, known for his pro-Roman attitude, was very unpopular with his subjects. Tacfarinas also won over King Garamant, who sent him his warriors and opened the market for the export of his spoils. Attacks on the province intensified, and their culmination was the siege of Thubuskum on the border with Mauritania. The new proconsul, Cornelius Dollabella, however, managed to unlock the city, punishing several Musulami leaders with suspected sympathies for the rebels with death. Dolabella divided her forces into 4 main groups and many volatile troops supported by the warriors of the King of Mauritania. The latter was perfectly suited to the pursuit and were familiar with field combat.

Death of Tacfarinas and the fall of the uprising

The final deal with Tacfarinas took place after eight years of fighting, in 24 CE when the Romans tracked him down in a forested area in the town of Auze. The Roman column, consisting of light infantry and cavalry, surprised the people of Tacfarinas, whose horses were tied and grazed in the field, during the rest of the people of Tacfarinas. Deprived of the possibility of attack and defence, the rebels immediately succumbed to the Romans. The leader’s son was taken prisoner, and Tacfarinas himself and his bodyguard were killed.

This event definitely ended the fighting in Roman Africa. Dolabella himself did not receive any decorations, as these were previously awarded to Blazus, who was considered the winner of the entire campaign. The ruler of Mauritania, unpopular with his subjects, famous for fighting Tacfarinas alongside the Romans, was awarded the title of “king, ally and friend of the Roman nation” by the Senate. The Garamantes, shocked by the fall of their allies, humbled themselves before the victors, sending a mission to the Tiber to obtain forgiveness from the Roman authorities.

Author: Marcin Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Goldsworthy A., Pax Romana. War, Peace and Conquest in the Roman World, London 2016
  • Tacitus, Annales

The illustrations come from the book by B. Nowaczyka, Kartagina 149-146 p.n.e., Warszawa 2008.

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