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Battle of Ruspina and Thapsus

(46 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

A print showing the battle of Thapsus
A print showing the battle of Thapsus

Historical background

Started in 49 BCE, the civil war from the very beginning was characterized by offensive actions of Caesar, who brought down his forces from Transalpine Gaul, quickly marched along the eastern shores of Italy capturing every city he came across. The man from whom he encountered stronger resistance was Domitius Ahenobarbus, but he was also defeated. Nevertheless, Caesar failed to destroy Pompey’s army in Italy by blocking the port of Brundisium.

Within two months, the slayer of the Gauls became the ruler of Italy, with almost no loss! Meanwhile, in 49 BCE Caesar suffered a defeat in Africa. The Roman governor installed there, P. Attius Warus spoke against him. As well as that, Juba I, the king of Numidia also held a hostile attitude towards Caesarians. Caesar underestimated his opponent sending an unexperienced commander Scribonius Curio at the head of legions composed largely of former Pompeians against him. After initial success, Curio was ambushed by the Numidians and his two legions were destroyed. The defeat influenced the further course of the war and deprived the empire’s capital city of one of the sources of grain supply, which was compensated by the seizures of Sicily and Sardinia by the Caesarians.

In 49 BCE Caesar set off to Spain to fight against Pompey’s legates – Afranius and Petreius. Within 40 days, he forced their large and well-trained army to surrender. Another Pompeian legate in Spain, Varro also capitulated. After capturing Massilia and a short stay in Rome, the slayer of the Gauls crossed the Adriatic to land on the other side of the sea where Pompey had gathered 11 legions supported by numerous cavalry and fleet. After the failure to block his forces near Dyrrahium, Caesar’s troops withdrew to Thessaly. The next clash took place in August 48 BCE at Pharsalus, where Caesar defeated Pompey’s more numerous army. Roman aristocrats fighting for Pompey who survived the rout gathered the remnants of the army in Greece and in the Balkans and went with them to Africa. If the winner from Alesia had prevented this concentration, the war would have ended just after the battle of Pharsalus. However, Caesar chased Pompey who went to Egypt and was soon murdered by King Ptolemy’s ministers. Caesar became an arbiter in the dispute between Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII. The way in which he settled it led to a situation where he was besieged in the palace district of Alexandria in the winter of 48/47 BCE. It was troops from Cilicia and Syria under Mithridates of Pergamon and Antipater of Jerusalem that enabled Caesar to emerge from this difficult situation. After defeating the enemy army at the western arm of the Nile, the winner of Gaul bestowed royal power on Cleopatra. Then Caesar set off to Asia Minor, where Farnakes, a son of Mithridates the Great, took over the former kingdom of Pontus. In a short, five-day’s campaign, Caesar defeated his opponent and after settling the political issues in those areas, returned to Rome.

African campaign

During his short stay in the capital, Caesar supervised the elections for the officials who were to hold power for the end of 47 BCE. and brought order to the capital. He issued orders to improve the economic situation, rewarded his supporters and showed mercy to the Pompeians who joined him. On top of that, he prepared an expedition to Africa to defeat his political opponents’s troops gathered there. At the end of 47 BCE he marched off to join the invasion army in Sicily. Troops which were to take part in operations in Africa, as well as supplies, were gathered at Lilybeum. Caesar lacked vessels, mainly transport ships, so he had to transport his troops to Africa in several stages. Within the first weeks he gathered 6 legions on the island – XXV, XXVI, XVIII, XXIX, XXX and V Alaudae, composed of Transalpine Gaul’s citizens who were granted Roman citizenship. Only the soldiers of the last unit were experienced. The rest of the legions, largely composed of Pompeian soldiers, had been formed during the war. They were accompanied by 2,000 cavalrymen. In addition to these units, only the necessary luggage was taken to ships, and most of the feed, food and animals was expected to be obtained in Africa. The expedition was not well prepared – Caesar’s staff did not have accurate information about suitable landing places. The situation was complicated further by windy weather. Caesar’s fleet departed from Lilybeum on December 25 and after three days some crews saw the shores of Africa. They landed near Hadrumentum – it was only the first throw of the army, composed of 3,500 infantry and 150 cavalry. In the following days most of the remaining transport ships together with the rest of invasion army joined this group. The same as during the landing in the Balkans in 49 BCE, at this stage of the campaign military operations of Caesar were facilitated by surprise effect. The enemy had not expected that his offensive could take place in the winter and that he could take rapid offensive actions just after going ashore. Pompeian legions in Africa were scattered across the country and it took some time to put them into one army. Reports estimated the number of these troops at 10 incomplete and inexperienced legions supported by numerous cavalry and 4 legions of king Juba organized in the Roman way. Additionally, this group of troops commanded by Q. Metellus Scipio had 120 war elephants at its disposal.

Battle of Ruspina

Initially Caesar avoided forays inland in search of food, because he feared enemy counterattack, Moreover, he did not want to lose touch with the coast where the rest of his troops was landing. The land was stripped of supplies, so the slayer of the Gauls sent requests for grain to be delivered from Sardinia and other provinces. After an unsuccessful attempt to capture Hadrumentum, the Caesarians set up a base in Ruspina and entered Leptis, admitted to the city by its residents themselves. After leaving 6 cohorts in the city, Caesar returned to his base. In order to obtain supplies, at the head of 30 cohorts he set off on expedition across the area, but 4.5 km. from his camp he came across an enemy. Caesar sent for 400 cavalry and 150 archers and moved forward with his legions himself. The enemy troops previously spotted consisted of 8,000 Numidian cavalry, 1,600 Gallic and Germanic horsemen and a great number of infantrymen. The man who took command of the whole group was the former Caesar’s subordinate Labienus, The sight of their narrow ranks confused Caesar’s scouts, who consequently considered them as infantry. Because he was afraid of being outflanked, he deployed his troops into a single line. He divided the few horsemen between the two wings, the archers took positions at the front. Labienus moved against Caesar’s forces – masses of his infantry attacked the few Caesarian riders, while in the center Pompeians’ light infantry kept attacking Caesar’s legionaries, then they were retreating, firing at the enemy at the same time. Caesarian forces were surrounded. To prevent his legionaries from moving too far away and the danger of being cut off from the rest of the army, Caesar forbade his infantrymen along the entire line to go further than five paces from every cohort’s main group. The pressure of Labienus’ men was great, and the legionaries repelling their attacks were mostly inexperienced and prone to nervous behavior. Caesar therefore tried to comfort them.

Według przekazów zawartych w “De Bello Africo” w trakcie bitwy pod Ruspiną, Labienus wyjechał na koniu przed szereg swoich wojsk i zbliżył się do armii Cezara drwiąc z legionistów. W odpowiedzi jeden z weteranów X legionu wyszedł przed szereg i rzucił pilum zabijając konia Labienusa mówiąc: “To cię nauczy, Labienusie, jak atakuje żołnierz Dziesiątki”1.

When his subordinates began to gather together in small groups and thus to expose themselves to the enemy’s more effective fire, the commander ordered them to loosen formation. He ordered every other cohort to turn its back on the rest of the army to fight back against the enemy’s cavalry at the back, while the rest of soldiers were to engage Pompeian infantry. Formed in such a way, the two lines of troops launched an attack on the enemy, throwing their pila at him. When the opponent was repulsed, Caesar ordered his troops to retreat to the camp. Unfortunately for Caesarians, at that moment a Pompeian commander Petreius at the head of 1,600 cavalry and large infantry forces appeared on the battlefield. Having grown in number Pompeians began to harass Caesar’s army again. Although both sides were already tired after the whole day of fighting, the slayer of the Gauls inspired his legionaries to attack the enemy once more, which led to the enemy’s being repulsed across the nearby hills. Owing to this, the Caesarians managed to withdraw into the camp, but they had not managed to ensure food supply for themselves. Caesar ordered to fortify the camp better than before and to deliver the food supply to his subordinates. He turned his ships crews into light infantry and ordered his artisans to produce javelins and missiles for slings. Meanwhile, the Pompeian army was joined by Metellus Scipio, who merged with them 1.5 km. from Caesar’s position. However, King Juba, Caesar’s personal enemy, was not able to join with them, because his lands were attacked by the troops of his rival Bokchus of Mauretania. The desertions in the ranks of Caesar’s opponents were mulitplying. Apparently they themselves behaved with brutality which alienated locals from Pompeians.

In the next days there were skirmishes between the two armies, but neither side risked a major battle. Metellus Scipio tried to provoke Caesar to take up the fight, placing his troops in front of his camp and when his opponent did not react for a long time, he approached his fortifications. He did not want to attempt to take them, seeing their powerful construction, towers manned with soldiers and equipped with artillery. The conqueror of Gaul was cautious – he withdrew army foragers and patrols distant from the main base and allowed outposts to retreat only in the face of strong enemy pressure. Soon after that, Caesar’s reinforcements composed of XIII and XIV legion, 1,000 light-armed infantry and 800 Gallic cavalry arrived from Sicily. They brought enough grain with them, which was enough to meet the most urgent needs. At the end of January 46 BCE Caesar led most of his troops out of the camp to launch an offensive. The column bypassed Ruspina, moving away from the enemy to suddenly turn back and capture the chain of nearby hills, thus threatening the Pompeians’ camp. They fought against Caesar for the hills he occupied, and the next day there was a fight in which a numerous Numidian cavalry under Labienus was defeated. Germanic and Gallic warriors who supported them, were left defenceless on the battlefield and many of them were killed.

Battle of Thapsus 6 April 46 BCE

Caesar set off to the city of Usitta, the main source of water supply for the enemy. However, he did not accept the challenge of battle made to him by Metellus Scipio, who formed battle formation ready for a fight. Meanwhile, Scipio also received support – King Juba’s troops with the strength of three legions organized in Roman fashion, 800 heavy cavalry, masses of light Numidian cavalry and light infantry. Both sides conducted military operations around Usitta to take control of the mountains situated between their positions. Pompeians failed in their attempt to ambush the vanguard of Caesar’s army because some of their soldiers were not disciplined. Caesar’s men managed to set up camp on the hill. They continued to fight enemy forces and began to build fortifications to cut off Usitta from the outside world and hinder the opponent’s movements. Meanwhile, more reinforcements with the strength of IX and X legion joined them, increasing Caesar’s army to 10 legions, half of which were veteran troops. Also, Pompeian deserters came to his camp. Caesar skillfully prompted chiefs of Gaetuli to revolt against Juba, which reduced his contingents supporting Labienus and Scipio. When his fortifications around the city were almost finished, both armies stood a short distance opposite each other. However, there was no general battle apart from the clash of cavalry and light infantry of both sides.

Meanwhile, Caesar received information about the approach of his next legions to the African coast. This information also reached the Pompeians, who destroyed or captured some of the ships protecting the transport of these troops at the final stage of the journey. Having been informed about this, Caesar set off to the coast and defeated the enemy fleet. However, it is possible that the information about the reinforcements for Caesar was false, and VII and VIII legion reached the main army only after the campaign was decided. Then the slayer of Gaul sent two legions in search of food which was buried underground according to the local tradition. When he found out from deserters that Labienus planned to set an ambush on his men, he sent other groups of soldiers along the same route for several days, and then sent 3 legions of veterans supported by cavalry against the expected ambush. Despite the destruction of the ambush set by enemy, Caesar still lacked food for his growing army. Unable to force the opponent to fight in conditions favorable to him or to quickly capture Usitta, he broke camp and marched around the city of Aggar. From there he sent resupply groups that imported significant amounts of barley. After an unsuccessful attempt to attack the enemy’s provisioning units. Caesar ordered a retreat, harassed by Numidian cavalry. He sent most of his cavalry to the back of his column to protect the retreat. Thanks to this, he finally managed to reach a place suitable for setting up a camp. After some time he set up a battle line, but when the opponent was reluctant to fight, Caesar moved on. Caesar ordered units taken from every legion and composed of 300 soldiers each to maintain battle formation during the march and help their own cavalry repel the attacks of the Numidians harassing his column.

Soon the city of Sarsura was captured along with large reserves of grain left there by the Pompeians. When the next city he encountered proved impossible to be taken in a short siege, Caesar returned to Aggar, where his legions set up camp. It was not possible to force the enemy to accept battle – the Pompeians did not want to leave their favorable position on the hill. On the 4th of April 46 BCE, Caesarian army set out very early in the morning and after covering 25 km. they reached the coastal city of Thapsus. Scipio, who marched after them, divided his army into two camps set up 12 km. away from the city. Thapsus lay on a cape separated from mainland by two isthmuses, running on both sides of a vast lagoon, hence access to the city led through two narrow passages. Caesar blocked the route of the march most convenient for the enemy, building a fort in the right place. Therefore, his opponent moved to Thapsus through the northern isthmus, which is a strip of land only 2 km wide. On the morning of the 6th of April, Scipio’s army stood outside the city, opposite Caesar’s legions. The rest of the Pompeian army, which was led by Afranius and Juba, was stationed elsewhere to divert Caesar’s attention from Scipio. Caesar sent two legions of recruits to besiege the city – the rest of the army formed into the classic triplex acies (an array of three lines) was set up opposite Scipio’s army. Flanks were formed by experienced legions – IX and X took the right wing, XIII and XIV held the left. On both flanks these units were accompanied by slingers and archers. Legion V Alaudae was divided between both wings of the army where some of its cohorts formed the fourth line – they were to provide protection, especially against enemy war elephants. The center was occupied by three inexperienced legions whose numbers are not recorded by our sources. The cavalry stood on both flanks, although due to the narrowness of the battle ground its possibilities of maneuver were retricted. When it comes to the number of enemy troops, we do not have reliable information on that nor is there any precise data on their deployment during the battle. They were probably arrange according to the Roman military tradition – into a three-line formation with their numerous cavalry on the wings. War elephants were probably deployed in front of the flank troops. The terrain favored Caesar – the narrow area of the battlefield forced him to form a tight army formation convenient for his veterans.

Already at the beginning of the battle the winner from Alesia sent some of his ships to go through the channel to the rear of the enemy. Caesar’s legionaries were enthusiastic about the upcoming battle and willing to face the enemy as soon as possible. Their officers urged the commander to give orders to attack, but he consistently refused their requests, considering such action as inappropriate. Meanwhile, on the right wing, soldiers forced the trumpeter (tubicen) to give the signal to attack. Despite the insistence of centurions trying to stop this insubordination, Caesarian cohorts on the right wing spontaneously attacked the enemy. On seeing this, Caesar finally issued the battle slogan Felicitas and threw himself into the ranks of the enemy. The attack of cohorts on the right flank immediately broke the line of the Pompeian forces, who were forced to retreat. Plutarch presents a slightly different version of events, informing that Caesar had an epilepsy seizure, which was supposed to cause him to stop commanding the army. Other sources, however, do not mention similar attacks of the commander’s disease on the battlefield. The attack of war elephants in the left wing of the Pompeian army ended in defeat, because Caesar’s skirmishers in this section of the battle line drove the animals away by throwing missiles at them what caused the startled animals to trample their people. Scipio’s left wing collapsed and fled. The battle turned into a slaughter.

Caesarians were killing surrendering enemy soldiers because they wanted to end the war as soon as possible. Some officers of the victorious army, advocating forbearance towards the enemy, fell victim to their subordinates. This cruelty contrasts with Caesar’s gentleness towards the opponents at the beginning of the civil war. His policy in this matter was consistent – he forgave those who opposed him for the first time. However, when they continued to fight against him and were taken prisoner again, they could no longer count on his mercy. It is estimated that 10,000 Pompeans were killed in the battle, Caesarian losses were negligible – over 50 soldiers! Many officers of Scipion’s army managed to escape from the battlefield, but most of them would lost their lives in the coming weeks anyway. Some of them were sentenced to death by Caesar – Afranius and Faustus, son of Sulla at the request of the soldiers themselves. Even Caesar’s relative Lucius was executed. Afranius and Juba fought to death and life and the winner was to commit suicide – the man who survived the duel was Afranius. The Pompeian commander-in-chief at the battle of Thapsus Q. Metellus Scipio committed suicide on board of his ship when it was captured by Caesar’s fleet. Labienus was one of the few survivors from the battle who fled to Spain. Caesar’s bitter enemy – Cato at the news of defeat committed suicide because he refused to live at the mercy of the winner. His death began the fashion of honorable suicide committed by Roman nobles.

The importance of the battle

Thapsus was the next stage in the civil war, having a key impact on the further history of the Roman Empire. The battle meant the loss of many senior officers and leaders in the Pompeian party. After completion of the battle the process of extermination of Pompeian elites would find its final stage at Munda one year later. The battle itself is a testimony to the great atmosphere prevailing in Caesar’s army – soldiers eager for fight decided its outcome. As in previous battles, it turned out that the army’s fighting spirit is one of basic factors of success on the battlefield. It should be noted that at the battle of Thapsus these moods could also be due to the desire to “finish off” the enemy to end the conflict quickly.

Author: Marcin Bąk
  1. Tłumaczenie własne: Jakub Jasiński
  • Goldsworthy A., Cezar. Życie giganta, Warszawa 2018
  • Carry M., Scullard H.H., Dzieje Rzymu. Od czasów najdawniejszych do Konstantyna, Warszawa 1992

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