The cause of the Roman Civil War, which spilled over the Mediterranean Sea to North Africa, lay in the deterioration of social order in the later years of the Roman Republic. The class struggle between the Populares (party of the people) and the Optimates (the senatorial aristocracy) resulted in internal revolution and rioting in the streets, which led to the Senate appointing dictators to keep the peace. The political rivalries between such strong men as Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla culminated in a power struggle and outright war prior to the birth of Gaius Julius Caesar in 102 BC.
Caesar demonstrated political acumen at a very young age. He seemed to sense opportunity in the disruptive environment of 1st-century BC Roman politics. Although he could boast of a noble heredity, his early political life was tied to the Populares. Starting with a series of minor offices, he consistently rose within the political establishment. He continued to develop his populist image, and he was finally elected pontifex maximus, the head of the state religion, in 63 BC. He also saw a chance to increase his power by supporting bills granting the military leader Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey the Great, his important assignments.
In 61 BC Caesar got his first overseas command: proconsul in the province of Further Spain, where he carried out a victorious campaign against the Lusitanians. When he returned from Spain early in 60 BC, the staunch Republican Marcus Porcius Cato Minor (Cato the Younger) led the Senate in blocking his request to be allowed to stand for the consulship in absentia, and further acted to discourage his rise. Caesar retaliated by seeking the support of Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus, who were also troubled by senatorial power. With their backing, he was elected consul for 59 BC, and the trio’s ensuing partnership was known as the’First Triumvirate.’ Having served as a consul, a leader generally assumed control of a province. Caesar, after some political maneuvering, was granted Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum for five years, with command of three legions and the right to appoint his own officers and establish colonies. When the governor-elect of Transalpine Gaul suddenly died, Caesar added that province to his command. Caesar’s aggressive performance of his duties in Gaul established his military reputation and raised his stature to a level commensurate with that of Pompey. Jealous of Caesar’s and Pompey’s military successes, the rich businessman-turned-general Crassus sought glory to the east by attacking the Parthian kingdom in Persia — only to meet ignominious defeat and death at Carrhae in 53 BC.
As the stability of Rome further deteriorated, prominent politicians asked Pompey to assume command of all forces in Italy and save the Republic. When he accepted, Caesar knew that his position was severely threatened. After unsuccessfully attempting to reach a compromise, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River to face Pompey in open civil war. In the summer of 49 BC, Caesar destroyed the Pompeian legions in Spain. He then followed his enemy across the Adriatic Sea into Greece. There, on August 9, 48 BC, he cut Pompey’s army to pieces on the plain of Pharsalus. Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered by his Ptolemaic hosts. In Egypt Caesar also met Queen Cleopatra VII.
Caesar has been criticized for lingering along the Nile when he was needed either in Rome or to deal with Pompey’s surviving followers in North Africa. By then, however, his 10-year record of martial success, capped by outgeneraling Pompey at Pharsalus, had made him believe he was invincible. Why not linger in the arms of Cleopatra? After a short campaign in Asia Minor, Caesar did return to Rome, restored order and quelled a mutiny among his troops. He was then ready to deal with the remaining Republican forces in North Africa.
This region had long been a problem for Caesar. In 49 BC one of his generals, the former tribune Gaius Curio, had been defeated while trying to placate its inhabitants. In the spring of 48, he sent orders to Quintus Cassius, his general in Spain, to invade Africa. Part of that army mutinied, however, and the campaign was canceled. The main problem in North Africa lay with the Numidian King Juba and his ally Masinissa, who ruled over the part of Numidia that lay between Juba’s kingdom and Mauretania to the west. In contrast, the two kings of Mauretania, Bogud and Bocchus, were Roman allies. Another of Caesar’s friends was an ex-Catilinarian knight from Campania named Publius Sittius, who had fled his Italian creditors and ended up in Mauretania. There, he had recruited armed bands of adventurers, which, to his great profit, he hired out as mercenaries to native princes. Now he put this contingent at Caesar’s disposal and joined the Mauretanians in harassing Juba’s territories. The Roman province of Africa was commanded by Publius Attius Varus, a Pompeian partisan, and both he and Juba built up their defenses.
After their defeat at Pharsalus, remnants of Pompey’s forces migrated to North Africa, further complicating the situation for Caesar. Among their leaders were Cato the Younger with 15 cohorts (from 300 to 600 men each); Titus Atius Labienus with Gaelic and German cavalry; Pompey’s son-in-law, Lucius Cornelius Sulla Faustus; and his sons, Sextus Pompeius and Gnaeus Pompeius. Metellus Scipio finally took overall command of the Republican forces opposing Caesar.
By far Caesar’s leading adversary in Africa was Cato. An eminent statesman dedicated to the Republic, he had been an opponent of the Triumvirate, opposed Caesar for the consulship in 60 BC and tried unsuccessfully to defend Sicily against Caesar’s forces during the civil war.
The relationship between the Pompeians and King Juba was of primary importance. The choice of a commander proved to be an extremely delicate matter. Juba, Scipio and Varus all hungered for the post, while the army favored Cato. Cato, however, wisely deferred leadership to Scipio, who had greater military credentials, and convinced Juba that the Romans were his protectors, not subordinates. Cato confined his efforts to the city of Utica, where he prevented Scipio and Juba from exterminating the pro-Caesarean population.
The combined forces poised against Caesar were formidable. Juba’s Numidian horse and infantry numbered about 30,000 men; he also commanded a corps of Gaelic and Spanish cavalry and more than 60 elephants. Masinissa too possessed a considerable force. By the end of 47 BC, the Pompeians themselves had assembled 10 legions (approximately 35,000 men), light-armed troops, archers, javelin men and slingers. Their 15,000 cavalrymen outnumbered any mounted troops with which Caesar could oppose them in Africa.
It was not until November 47 BC that Caesar restored order and placated his army. On December 17, he arrived at his port of embarkation, Lilybaeum in Sicily. Although only one legion of recruits and less than 600 cavalry were there, Caesar was as usual hot to engage his enemy with what he had, and was deterred only by unfavorable weather. As it was, he kept his ships at the ready for a favorable change in conditions.
Again Caesar would rely on his charmed destiny. With his small force, he would embark for any location offering the opportunity for positive action — this was not to be a bridgehead for troops that would follow, but an offensive operation.
Soon after his arrival in Sicily, six legions and some 2,000 cavalry reached Lilybaeum, and most embarked immediately. With Caesar in command, the fleet then assembled at the island of Aponiana, 10 miles south of Lilybaeum, and on December 25 they sailed for the coast of Africa. Storms prevented the enemy’s forces from obstructing their passage, but the storms scattered Caesar’s fleet, and he had only 3,000 infantry and 150 horsemen when he reached Hadrumentum on the 28th. Caesar’s subsequent African War consisted of three operations, centered around Ruspina, Uzita and Thapsus.
Initially Caesar took possession of the seaports of Ruspina and Little Leptis, and kept his troops in entrenchments, ready to reembark if attacked by a superior force. Additional ships soon arrived, however, and on the following day he led three legions into the interior to procure supplies. There, he was attacked by Labienus, who had only light troops but nevertheless soon surrounded Caesar’s legions. Other enemy forces under Marcus Petreius and Gnaeus Calpurnius Piso soon joined the battle. In addition, Scipio came from the north, Juba from the west.
The African War, written by one of Caesar’s lieutenants, gives a detailed account of the entire campaign. The writer states that’when Caesar had advanced about three miles from the camp, scouts and advance patrols of horsemen brought word that they had seen the enemy’s forces not far away,’ and he ordered his small group of cavalry together with a few archers to follow him slowly in regular order. His total force was 30 cohorts, 400 cavalry and 150 archers.
Labienus formed a long, closely packed line of regular cavalry, Numidian light cavalry and archers. Caesar deployed a single line with archers in front and cavalry to cover both wings. In this engagement, he was exposed to a new type of enemy tactics. As The African War points out:'[Caesar’s] infantry, in pursuing the enemy cavalry too far from the standards exposed their flanks and received javelin wounds from the Numidians nearest them, while the speed of the [enemy] cavalry enabled them easily to evade the soldiers’ pikes. He therefore sent the order along the ranks that no soldier was to advance more than four feet ahead of the standards.’
When his troops were again surrounded, Caesar executed a brilliant maneuver, as outlined in The African War:’Ordering his line to be extended as far as possible; then commanding alternate cohorts to face about, so that one was drawn up behind the standards, the next in front. By this ploy, he split the enemy formation in two on the right and left wings. He then cut one-half off from the other by means of his cavalry and proceeded to launch an attack from inside with his infantry, who hurled volleys of missiles and put the enemy to flight.’ After his adversaries had been repulsed with heavy casualties, Caesar fell back within his own defenses. Enemy reinforcements arrived, however, and he again had to rally his forces before retiring at day’s end. Having narrowly escaped annihilation, he realized he would have to exercise more caution in future operations and wait for reinforcements to arrive.
Following this encounter, there was a three-week hiatus. Caesar further strengthened his lines on the plateau of Ruspina and trained his recruits, while ships from his first convoy continuously arrived with reinforcements. Juba had been compelled to return to Numidia by the timely intervention of Bocchus of Mauretania and Publius Sittius, but he left some cavalry and 30 elephants with Scipio. Even without Juba’s help, the Pompeians were too strong for Caesar to launch an offensive, but finally the second segment of his expedition arrived, bringing two forces, Legions XIII and XIV, 800 cavalry and 1,000 archers and slingers. Now with eight legions, Caesar could hope for victory in a pitched battle before Juba returned.
The terrain around Ruspina did not lend itself to such a battle and was not easy to supply. Caesar’s horses had already begun to suffer from lack of fresh fodder. Therefore, on the night of November 7, he moved his forces to a group of low hills six or seven miles to the south. This helped in gaining provisions, but it did not provoke the confrontation he desired. Scipio encamped so as to be able to use the town of Uzita to strengthen his position, and he could not be induced to fight except in the unlikely event that he possessed the advantage. Caesar, now further re-
inforced by the arrival of Legions IX and X, extended his lines so as to threaten Uzita, but again he was foiled by his opponents’ skillful use of the terrain. In addition, even here he was having difficulty supplying his troops with corn and other provisions, so he decided to move on to another, more fertile area.
Ten weeks after leaving Ruspina, Caesar set fire to his camp near Uzita and marched about 20 miles southeast to Aggar. Some minor clashes followed. But later, when an additional 4,000 legionaries and 1,000 archers and slingers arrived from Sicily, Caesar decided the time had come to strike a decisive blow. In order to overcome the superior numbers of the enemy and to neutralize the effect of their cavalry in a pitched battle, he required equal ground with a limited front. Only Caesar’s genius and daring could have provided the solutions to this problem. Fifteen miles to his north lay the city of Thapsus on the sea, approached by necks (isthmuses) of land on either side of a wide lagoon. It was held by a strong Pompeian garrison. After a night march, Caesar organized lines of defense and advanced on the city.
Scipio then tried to cross the same isthmus. Caesar had anticipated this. On the previous day he had built a fort there and installed a garrison of three cohorts, while he and the rest of his forces invested Thapsus with a line of siege works. Finding the isthmus barred to him, Scipio proceeded to the western side of the lake and built a camp. When Caesar learned that, he abandoned his siege works and moved against Scipio on February 6, 46 BC. This was the moment for which he had yearned: His enemy lay with the sea on one flank and the lagoon on the other; retreat to safety would be very difficult.
As described in The African War:’When Caesar arrived and saw that Scipio had his line drawn up in front of the rampart, with elephants stationed on both wings…he himself drew up a three-fold line and posted his Legions X and II on the right wing, the VIII and IX on the left, and five cohorts from Legion V on each wing as a fourth line, opposite the elephants. On both wings he had archers, slingers and cavalry interspersed with light infantry.’ Seeing frenzied activity among the enemy, Caesar’s officers and veterans urged him to attack immediately, but he preferred to organize his forces professionally before advancing.
Suddenly a trumpeter on his right wing, yielding to pressure from the troops and without Caesar’s orders, began to sound the charge. This was taken up by all the cohorts, and they began to advance even as the centurions tried to restrain them. Caesar realized that it was impossible to resist his troops’ impetuosity and set his horse at a gallop against the Pompeian front line. The slingers and archers on his right wing hurled missile volleys at the dense mass of enemy elephants, which became terrified and caused havoc. Then the front ranks on the same wing, consisting of Moorish cavalry, fled. Caesar’s legions charged around the elephants and seized the enemy’s rampart, causing a frenzied retreat.
Scipio’s forces were routed over the entire field, with Caesar’s legions in hot pursuit. Finally the Pompeians halted on a hill and laid down their arms; the victors, however, could not be restrained. Ten thousand Pompeians were slaughtered and a good many put to flight. The soldiers then turned savagely against Roman senators and knights and even against their own officers, whom they accused of softness toward the enemy. Caesar returned to camp with the loss of 50 of his own men and a few wounded. The city of Thapsus itself was taken without resistance. Some rebel Republican leaders, including Pompey’s two sons, fled to Spain, where a revolt against Caesar’s deputies had already broken out, but many of them perished on the way. Scipio, when cornered by Publius Sittius at sea, stabbed himself. Juba also died by his own hand, and Caesar annexed Numidia as a province after exacting large fines from the individuals and communities that had supported his enemies.
According to The Cambridge Ancient History,’The strategy by which Caesar had brought off the battle of Thapsus was his crowning masterpiece.’ But in his work Death of a Republic, John Dickinson writes that’The dramatic climax of the war for Africa was not Caesar’s victory at Thapsus but the death of Marcus Porcius Cato. He was not present at the battle, for he had been left in command of Utica, the republican headquarters….In the end, the Roman residents of Utica told Cato that they wished to submit to Caesar, and he did not oppose them.’
As the Republicans were leaving Utica, Cato invited some prominent Roman residents to supper, where he discussed Stoic philosophy. After the gathering broke up, Cato withdrew to his room and later called for his sword and calmly committed suicide. Cato’s demise was symbolic of Caesar’s victory over the Republicans. Although the civil war continued in Spain, his dominance was assured.
Upon his return to Rome, Caesar celebrated his victory at Thapsus. As Plutarch points out:’He did not omit to pronounce before the people a magnificent account of his victory, telling them that he had subdued a country which would supply the public every year with two hundred thousand attic bushels of corn and three million pounds’ weight of oil. He then led three triumphs for Egypt, Pontus, and Africa….After the triumphs, he distributed rewards to his soldiers, and treated the people with feasting and shows.’
The critical victories at Pharsalus and Thapsus ended the joint rule of Pompey and Caesar, and while conspiracies, revolutions and temporary restorations might follow, the Roman Republic, which had spanned 500 years, was terminated. For all intents and purposes, Julius Caesar was the first emperor in all but name — at least until the fateful Ides of March in 44 BC.
This article was written by Jonas Goldstein and originally published in the June 2006 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!