Battle of Thapsus

Battle of Thapsus

Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Battle of Thapsus
partof=Caesar's civil war

caption=Thapsus in relation to Rome
date=April 6, 46 BC
place=Thapsus (Tunisia), modern Ras Dimas
result=Populares victory
commander1=G. Julius Caesar
commander2=Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio Nasica †,
Cato the Younger
Marcus Petreius
strength1=Unknown (at least 10 legions)
strength2=Unknown (at least 10 legions), 2,500 cavalry
Juba's allied troops with 60 elephants
The Battle of Thapsus took place on April 6 46 BC [The date is that of the Roman calendar prior to the reforms of Julius Caesar. By the Julian calendar, it is February 7 46 BC.] near Thapsus (modern Ras Dimas, Tunisia). The Conservative Republican Army, led by Marcus Porcius Cato, the younger and Quintus Caecillius Metellus Scipio clashed with the forces of Julius Caesar, who eventually won the battle. With this victory, Caesar temporarily ended the resistance against his power in Africa and was one step closer to absolute power.


After crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC, Caesar started the last Republican civil war by defying senatorial orders to disband his army. Following his invasion of Italy and Rome, the Conservative Republicans fled to Greece under the command of Pompey. The Populares under Julius Caesar were defeated in the Battle of Dyrrhachium but went on to decisively defeat the Optimates under Pompey at Pharsalus in 48 BC. Pompey fled to Egypt, where, to Caesar's consternation, Pompey was assassinated. But the conservatives, not ready to give up fighting, clustered in the African provinces and organized a resistance. Its leaders were Marcus Cato, the younger, and Caecilius Metellus Scipio. Other key figures in the resistance were Titus Labienus, Publius Attius Varus, Lucius Afranius, Marcus Petreius and the brothers Sextus and Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey's sons). King Juba I of Numidia was a valuable local ally. After the pacification of the Eastern provinces, and a short visit to Rome, Caesar followed his opponents to Africa and landed in Hadrumetum (modern Sousse, Tunisia) in December 28 47 BC.

The Optimates gathered their forces to oppose Caesar with astonishing speed. Their army included 40,000 men (about 10 legions), a powerful cavalry force led by Caesar's former right hand man, the talented Titus Labienus, forces of allied local kings and 60 war elephants. The two armies engaged in small skirmishes to gauge the strength of the opposing force, during which two conservative legions deserted to Caesar. Meanwhile, Caesar expected reinforcements from Sicily. In the beginning of February, Caesar arrived in Thapsus and besieged the city, blocking the southern entrance with three lines of fortifications. The conservatives, led by Metellus Scipio, could not risk the loss of this position and were forced to accept battle.


Metellus Scipio's army circled Thapsus in order to approach the city by its northern side. Anticipating Caesar's approach, it remained in tight battle order flanked by its elephant cavalry. Caesar's position was typical of his style, with him commanding the right side and the cavalry and archers flanked. The threat of the elephants led to the additional precaution of reinforcing the cavalry with five cohorts.

One of Caesar's trumpeters sounded the battle. Caesar's archers attacked the elephants, causing them to panic and trample their own men. The elephants on the left flank charged against Caesar's center, where Legio V Alaudae was placed. This legion sustained the charge with such bravery that afterwards they wore an elephant as a symbol. After the loss of the elephants, Metellus Scipio started to lose ground. Caesar's cavalry outmaneuvered its enemy, destroyed the fortified camp, and forced its enemy into retreat. King Juba's allied troops abandoned the site and the battle was decided.

Roughly 10,000 enemy soldiers wanted to surrender to Caesar, but were instead slaughtered by his army. This action is unusual for Caesar, who was known as a merciful victor. Some sources contend Caesar had an epileptic seizure during the battle and was not fully conscious for its aftermath. Scipio himself escaped, only to die months later in a naval battle near Hippo.


Following the battle, Caesar renewed the siege of Thapsus, which eventually fell. Caesar proceeded to Utica, where Cato the Younger was garrisoned. On the news of the defeat of his allies, Cato committed suicide. Caesar was upset by this and is reported by Plutarch to have said: "Cato, I must grudge you your death, as you grudged me the honour of saving your life."

The battle preceded peace in Africa--Caesar pulled out and returned to Rome on July 25 of the same year. Opposition, however, would rise again. Titus Labienus, the Pompeian brothers and others had managed to escape to the Hispania provinces. The civil war was not finished and the battle of Munda would soon follow.


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