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Revolt of Tacfarinas

(17–24 CE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

The Arch of Caracalla in Tebessa (Algeria). Photo from 1860-90
The Arch of Caracalla in Tebessa (Algeria). Photo from 1860-90.

Tacfarinas was a Numidian by descent who deserted from the Roman auxiliary forces (auxilia) and in 17 CE he started a war in Africa against Rome1. Little is known about his origins or the history of his service2. Also, the reasons for the rebellion are not entirely clear. Initially, it was thought that the conflict could have started after the first campaigns in Africa, which ended in 6 CE. It was related to the Roman policy towards the nomadic tribes of Africa: marking the first borders and building a road that collided with the tribal territories3. Most likely, however, the main reasons were taxes and recruitment to the army4. The local population decided to react when Rome undertook to demarcate the tribal territories that fell under the jurisdiction of the Roman administration and to impose further taxes5. The rebellion lasted seven years, although Tacfarinas suffered three serious defeats against the legionaries. Four African proconsuls faced him successively: Marcus Furius Camillus (II), Lucius Apronius, Quintus Junius Bezus and Publius Cornelius Dolabella6. An account of these events was published by Publius Cornelius Tacitus in “Annals” in volumes II-IV.

Governorship of Marcus Furius Camillus (17-18 CE)

According to Tacitus, Tacfarinas initially gathered vagrants and robbers around him, but soon became the leader of a strong people – the Musalamites. He also allied with Mazepa, who commanded the neighbouring Moors. In addition, other peoples (according to Tacitus under duress) joined the fight, such as the Cynithi7.

Initial successes made Tacfarinas overconfident8. As early as 17 CE the Roman governor in Africa, Marcus Furius Camillus (II)9, gathered his troops and defeated the enemy troops in open battle, which was approved by Emperor Tiberius10.

Tacfarinas managed to escape and resumed his hostilities the following year. First, he dealt with small robberies, gradually moving to loot the countryside, until he decided to attack the Roman cohort. Dekrius commanded the besieged fortress. He lined up his men ready to fight in the open field. It ended in the victory of Tacfarinas because the Roman soldiers did not obey their commander and scattered under the pressure of the enemy. Decrius himself fought to the end, sustaining many wounds in battle and losing an eye, and eventually also his life11.

Governorship of Lucius Apronius (18-21 CE)

These events meant that another proconsul – Lucius Apronius – restored the punishment from the early republic. Every tenth, randomly selected soldier from the disgraced escape from the battlefield was to be killed by supplicium fustuarium. This punishment consisted of hitting to death with sticks or rods12.

Encouraged by his victory, Tacfarinas attacked another garrison. The punishment restored by Apronius, however, paid off: the duty of Roman soldiers was strengthened. When the city of Thala was attacked, 500 veterans opposed the rebels13. However, Tacitus’s account does not bring too many details – we only know about the legionary Marcus Helwius Rufus, who saved the life of another soldier, for which he was decorated, and also received corona civica. The Numidians in this fight were forced to flee, which stopped Tacfarinas’ success streak14.

As a result, he gave up open fights with garrisons and focused on plundering forays into undefended estates. The Romans were not able to protect each of the settlements, nor were they able to capture or inflict more serious losses on the constantly moving bands. It was only after a few years that it became possible to successfully attack the rebels, as Tacfarinas’ troops were forced to build a permanent base where they could store their loot15.

The Romans managed to locate the hostile camp, where troops supported by the most agile legionaries under the command of the governor’s son, Apronius Caesianus, were sent. The fight ended with the success of the Roman cohort16.

Governorship of Quintus Junius Blesus (21-23 CE)

Tacfarinas still persisted and kept renewing his attacks. Tiberius recommended to the senate that the next proconsul of Africa should be a man who knew about war, which would allow the rebellion to be finally stopped17. It was Quintus Junius Blezus18. He received additional support in the form of legio IX Hispana transferred from Pannonia, as well as an order to fight vigorously19. Tiberius’ reluctance was additionally motivated by the fact that Takpharinas sent a message to the emperor demanding that he and his army be granted lands, threatening with endless war20.

Blezus, knowing that he could not count on an open fight on the part of the enemy, decided to use a war stratagem. He divided his army into three parts in order to be able to attack the enemy gangs from several sides and direct them to the places of ambushes. As the fighting progressed, the columns split into even smaller units, commanded by centurions. It might have been a surprise for the rebels that Blazus, with the end of the summer, did not withdraw his troops, but continued the attacks. It was only the capture of Brother Tacfarinas that led to the retreat of the Romans, who considered the war over. Blesus received triumphant decorations and was hailed the emperor21.

Governorship of Publius Cornelius Dolabella (23-24 CE)

Tacfarinas took advantage of the withdrawal of the troops, spreading the rumour that Roman power was beginning to collapse under the pressure of other peoples and therefore was giving way to Africa. He gained the support of, among others the people of Mauritania who were against the throne of Ptolemy, the successor of King Juba II, who wanted to remain faithful to the emperor. In addition, the king of Garamants allied with him, sending additional warriors22. All this was to encourage the locals to deal with the remaining Romans there, which led to the siege of the city of Tubuskum on the border with Mauritania. Another proconsul, Publius Cornelius Dolabella, undertook the defence and recovery of the city. He ordered the beheading of several Musulami governors suspected of planning a treason23.

Dolabella, following Bezus’ footsteps, also divided his troops, deciding on four columns and smaller troops to attack the scattered enemy troops. The final hearing took place in 24 CE. A rebel camp was located in a place called Auze, where Tacfarinas was also24.

The Numidians, completely unprepared for the fight, were surprised, and the Romans took revenge for their earlier defeats. Tacfarinas’ closest associates, his son and himself were killed in the fighting, which finally put an end to the war. Dolabella was not honoured with triumphal badges, however, because the war officially ended when Blazus withdrew his troops from Africa25.

The question of Tacfarinas’ allies was also dealt with. The Senate, appreciating Ptolemy’s loyalty as ruler of Mauritania, awarded him with an ivory sceptre, a triumphant toga and a greeting as “king, ally and friend of the Roman people”. The King of Garamantes, in turn, delivered the message through Dolabella, subjecting himself to the authority of Rome26.

The victory of the Roman Empire also meant the continuation of administrative work in Africa. In the years 29–30, the cadastral division of individual regions was completed, which allowed for an increase in taxes and also limited the movement of southern tribes27.

Nature of the war

Tacfarinas’ rebellion is also classified as latrocinium as it was largely associated with guerrilla warfare. Importantly – Tacfarinas also used his knowledge of Roman military techniques, which he learned during his own service. He used it especially in the initial phase of rebellions when he created an elite unit that had Roman armament, as well as many features of the local army. It was only when he lost to Camillus that he was limited to guerrilla fights28.

Author: Aneta Bąk (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
Footnotes
  1. Tacitus, Annales
  2. A. Goldsworthy, Pax Romana. Wojna, pokój i podboje w świecie rzymskim, 2016, s. 399.
  3. W. Vanacker, Adhuc Tacfarinas: the causes of the Tiberian war in North Africa (AD ca. 15-24) and the impact of the conflict on Roman imperial policy, "Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte", 64 (3), Stuttgart 2015, s. 339.
  4. D. F. Burg, A World History of Tax Rebellions: An Encyclopedia of Tax Rebels, Revolts, and Riots from Antiquity to the Present, New York/London 2004, s. 22.
  5. W. Vanacker, dz. cyt., s. 349.
  6. D. F. Burg, dz. cyt., s. 22.
  7. Tacitus, dz. cyt., s. 103.
  8. A. Goldsworthy, dz. cyt., s. 400.
  9. Tacitus, dz. cyt., s. 103.
  10. A. Goldsworthy, dz. cyt., s. 400.
  11. Tacitus, dz. cyt., s. 121.
  12. T. Szeląg, Kary i odznaczenia w rzymskim prawie wojskowym, "Zeszyty Prawnicze", 6/2, 2006, s. 89.
  13. D.F. Burg, dz. cyt., s. 23.
  14. A. Goldsworthy, dz. cyt., s. 402.
  15. Ibidem, s. 402–403.
  16. Tacitus, dz. cyt., s. 130.
  17. Ibidem, s. 135.
  18. Ibidem, s. 137.
  19. A. Goldsworthy, dz. cyt., s. 403.
  20. D. F. Burg, dz. cyt., s. 23.
  21. Tacitus, dz. cyt., s. 154.
  22. D. F., Burg, dz. cyt., s. 23.
  23. Tacitus, dz. cyt., s. 168.
  24. Ibidem, s. 169.
  25. Ibidem.
  26. D. F. Burg, dz. cyt., s. 23–24.
  27. Ibidem, s. 24.
  28. T. Grunewald, Bandits in the Roman Empire: Myth and Reality, 1999, s. 51.
Sources
  • D. F. Burg, A World History of Tax Rebellions: An Encyclopedia of Tax Rebels, Revolts, and Riots from Antiquity to the Present, New York/London 2004.
  • A. Goldsworthy, Pax Romana. Wojna, pokój i podboje w świecie rzymskim, 2016.
  • T. Grunewald, Bandits in the Roman Empire: Myth and Reality, 1999.
  • T. Szeląg, Kary i odznaczenia w rzymskim prawie wojskowym, "Zeszyty Prawnicze", 6/2, 2006, s. 85–95.
  • Tacitus, Annales
  • W. Vanacker, Adhuc Tacfarinas: the causes of the Tiberian war in North Africa (AD ca. 15-24) and the impact of the conflict on Roman imperial policy, "Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte Geschichte", 64 (3), Stuttgart 2015, s. 336–356.

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