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Bill Thayer

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Chapters 67‑78

This webpage reproduces part of
The African War

by an unknown writer, attached to the name of
Julius Caesar

Loeb Classical Library

The text is in the public domain.

This text has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapters 87‑98

African War

p269 [Chapters 79‑86]

79 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Finding it impossible on any terms to induce his opponents to come down to level ground and risk their legions, and realising that it was equally impossible for him to pitch his own camp closer to the enemy owing to the poor supply of water, and perceiving that his opponents, so far from having any confidence in their own valour, were led to hold him in contempt by their reliance on the dearth of water, Caesar left Aggar on April 4th at the third watch.1 Then, after advancing sixteen miles by night, he pitched camp near Thapsus,2 where Vergilius was in command with a considerable garrison. That same day he began to invest the town, seizing and manning several suitable strategic points to prevent the enemy's being able to infiltrate and approach him, or capture any inner positions. Scipio had in the meantime got to know of Caesar's plans; and being now reduced to the necessity of fighting, if he was to avoid the utter humiliation of losing Vergilius and those most staunch supporters of his cause — the men of Thapsus, he forthwith followed Caesar along the high ground and established himself in two camps at a distance of eight miles from Thapsus.

[image ALT: A map of the battle of Thapsus in Caesar's war in Africa.]

Map 5: Thapsus

p271 80 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] There was a lagoon of salt water, separated from the sea by a certain narrow strip of land not more than a mile and a half wide; and this corridor Scipio now attempted to enter to bring help to the men of Thapsus. The likelihood of such a move had not escaped Caesar's attention: in fact, the day before he had built a fort at this spot and left behind a force of three cohorts to hold it, while he himself with the rest of his forces established a crescent-shaped camp and invested Thapsus with a ring of siege works. Meanwhile Scipio, foiled in his undertaking, by‑passed the lagoon to the north by a march which he completed in the ensuing day and night,3 and then, at the first pale light of dawn, took up a position not far from the camp and the defence area I mentioned above,4 and a mile and a half from the sea coast;5 and any he began to fortify a camp. When this was reported to Caesar, the latter withdrew his troops from their work of fortification, left behind the pro‑consul Asprenas to guard the camp with two legions, and hurriedly marched to that location with a force in light order. As for his fleet, part of it was left behind off Thapsus, while the remaining ships were ordered to advance as close as p273possible inshore in rear of the enemy and to watch for a signal from Caesar; on the giving of which signal they were suddenly to raise a shout, surprise the enemy from the rear, and thus demoralise them, so that in their utter confusion and panic they would be obliged to look behind them.

81 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] When Caesar arrived there and observed Scipio's battle line arrayed in front of the rampart, with the elephants posted on the right and left wings, while none the less part of his troops were busily engaged in fortifying the camp, he himself disposed his army in three lines: the Tenth and Seventh legions he posted on the right wing, the Eighth and Ninth on the left, while five cohorts of the Fifth legion were stationed on each of the actual wings, forming a fourth line to contain the elephants; and his archers and slingers were deployed on either wing, and the light-armed units interspersed among the cavalry. Caesar himself hurriedly went the rounds of his troops on foot, reminding the veterans of their gallant bearing in previous combats and raising their morale by flattering appeals. As for the recruits, seeing that they had never so far fought in pitched battle, he urged them to emulate the gallantry of the veterans and to make it their ambition by gaining a victory to enjoy a fame, status and renown equal to theirs.

82 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Now in the course of making these rounds of his army he observed that the enemy in neighbourhood of their rampart were excited, rushing hither and thither in alarm, now retiring inside the gates, now trooping out in a spasmodic and undisciplined fashion. Several others were beginning to observe the same symptoms when without more ado his p275lieutenants and reservists implored Caesar not to hesitate to give the signal, saying that it was decisive victory that the immortal gods were thus foretelling them. Caesar still hesitated, opposing their impetuous eagerness, repeatedly protesting that a precipitate sally was not his approved way of fighting, and again and again holding his battle line in check; when suddenly on the right wing, without orders from Caesar but under coercion of the troops, a trumpeter began to sound the charge. Whereupon every single cohort began to attack the enemy, despite the resistance of the centurions, who planted themselves in the path of the troops and sought to hold them back by force to prevent their attacking without orders from the commander-in‑chief, but all in vain.

83 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] When Caesar realised that it was quite out of the question to hold back his troops in their present state of excitement, he signalled 'Good Luck' and giving his horse its head rode in hot haste against the enemy front ranks. Meanwhile on the right wing the slingers and archers in crowds launched rapid volleys of missiles against the elephants. Whereupon the beasts, terrified by the whizzing sound of the slings and by the stones and leaden bullets launched against them, speedily wheeled round, trampled under foot the massed and serried ranks of their own supporting troops behind them, and rushed towards the half-completed gates of the rampart. The Moorish cavalry, who were posted on the same wing as the elephants, followed suit and, abandoned by their protective screen, started the rout. Having thus speedily got round the elephants, the legions gained possession of the enemy's rampart; p277and when the few defenders who offered a spirited resistance had been killed, the remainder precipitately sought refuge in the camp from which they had issued the day before.

84 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] I ought not, I think, to omit to mention the gallantry of a veteran soldier of the Fifth legion. On the left wing an elephant, maddened by the pain of a wound it had received, had attacked an unarmed soldier, pinned him underfoot, and then knelt upon him; and now, with its trunk erect and swaying, and trumpeting loudly, it was crushing him to death with its weight. This was more than the soldier could bear; he could not but confront the beast, fully armed as he was. When it observed him coming towards it with weapon poised to strike, the elephant abandoned the corpse, encircled the soldier with its trunk, and lifted him up in the air. The soldier, perceiving that a dangerous crisis of this sort demand resolute action on his part, hewed with his sword again and again at the encircling trunk with all the strength he could muster. The resulting pain caused the elephant to drop the soldier, wheel round, and with shrill trumpetings make all speed to rejoin its fellows.

85 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Meanwhile the members of the garrison of Thapsus made a sortie from the town by way of the seaward gate and, whether their object was to hasten to the aid of their fellows, or to abandon the town and secure their own safety by flight, out they came and accordingly, wading waist-high into the sea, made for the land. They were, however, prevented from reaching land by stones and heavy javelins hurled by the slaves and lackeys in the camp;6 and so they returned back into the town. Meanwhile Scipio's forces, now p279thrown into utter confusion, were in wholesale retreat in every sector of the field, and Caesar's legions promptly pursued them without giving them any respite in which to pull themselves together. When the fugitives reached the camp they were making for, with the object of making a recovery there and defending themselves once more, and of trying to find someone to lead them — someone to look up to, under whose authority and command they could carry on the fight; when they got there and perceived that there was nobody guarding it, they forthwith discarded their armour and beat a hasty retreat to the royal camp. This too on their arrival they saw to be in the hands of the Julians. Abandoning all hope of salvation, they now halted on a hill and gave the military salute by lowering their arms. This gesture, unhappily for them, stood them in but little stead. For Caesar's veterans were filled with such burning indignation and resentment that, so far from any possibility of inducing them to spare the enemy, they actually wounded or killed several men of culture and distinction among the ranks of their own side, calling them ringleaders. Among these was Tullius Rufus, an ex‑quaestor, who was mortally wounded by a soldier who deliberately ran him through with a heavy javelin; and similarly Pompeius Rufus was stabbed in the arm with a sword and would have been done to death, had he not promptly rushed to Caesar's side. This behaviour caused grave alarm among quite a number of Roman knights and senators, who retired from the battle lest they themselves should also be massacred by the soldiers, who after so resounding a victory had apparently taken it for granted that they were free to perpetrate p281any excesses, on the assumption that they would go unpunished in view of their magnificent achievements. Accordingly, although all these troops of Scipio implored Caesar's protection, they were massacred to a man, despite the fact that Caesar himself was looking on and entreating his troops to spare them.

86 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Having made himself master of three camps and killed ten thousand of the enemy and routed a large number, Caesar retired to camp with fifty soldiers missing and a few wounded. Immediately on his arrival he established himself in front of the town of Thapsus. He then took sixty-four elephants, equipped, armed and complete with towers and harness, and these he now drew up in array in front of the town: his object in so doing was to see if Vergilius and the others who were being besieged with him could be induced to abandon their obstinate resistance by the evidence of their comrades' failure. He then addressed a personal appeal to Vergilius inviting him to surrender and reminding him of his own leniency and clemency; but on failing to observe any response he withdrew from the town. On the following day, after offering sacrifice, he held a parade and in full view of the occupants of the town congratulated his troops, rewarding his entire veteran force and bestowing decorations publicly in front of the dais for conspicuous gallantry and meritorious service. Thereupon he immediately withdrew from the town, leaving behind the proconsul Rebilus in front of Thapsus with three legions and Cn. Domitius with two at Thysdra, where Considius was in command, to continue the blockades of these places; and then, p283sending M. Messalla on ahead to Utica with the cavalry, he himself also proceeded with despatch to the same destination.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 i.e. at about midnight on the night of April 3rd‑4th. Thus eo die is still April 4th.

[decorative delimiter]

2 See Map 5. I have assumed, with most editors, that Caesar approached Thapsus from the south, by way of the narrow coastal corridor east of the Marsh of Moknine; and that Scipio took the same route and encamped near its south-eastern fringe. The strategic points may well — as Veith suggested — have included El Faca and El Hafsa.

[decorative delimiter]

3 Apparently he marched round its western side. The words postero die et nocte have been variously explained and amended. Scipio's abortive attempt to penetrate the eastern corridor was made, as pridie shews, on April 5th: postero die is, I think, relative to pridie (April 4th) and denotes the remainder of April 5th, nocte being the night of April 5th/6th. The time involved — perhaps some eighteen hours is certainly long for the distance of about 20 miles; but, as R. Holmes has pointed out, Scipio may well have rested en route and timed his march so as to begin his entrenchments under cover of darkness.

[decorative delimiter]

4 See Map 5. The defence area here alluded to may well be that close to Thapsus mentioned in the previous chapter. If the allusion is to the fort mentioned earlier in this chapter, then the fort too must have been close to Thapsus. But the only place where the corridor to‑day is not more than a mile and a half wide is at the SE corner of the lagoon.

[decorative delimiter]

5 The words MD passibus present a difficulty. Bouvet translates 'à quinze cents pas du côté de la mer,' though in a later note he refers to Scipio's position as near Caesar (at 1500 paces), and in his map he marks Scipio's camp only 1 km distant from the sea. It seems possible to render the words non longe . . . consedit by 'took up a position towards the sea, not far distant — a mile and a half — from the camp . . .'. According to this interpretation Scipio's camp would appear on Map 5 not — as now marked — close to Bekalta, but some 1¼ Roman miles nearer the sea, behind the left wing of Scipio's battle line. This is perhaps confirmed by the behaviour of the routed elephants described below in ch. 83.

[decorative delimiter]

6 It would appear that Asprenas and his two legions (ch. 80) had moved out, either to take part in the battle, or to seal off the eastern corridor and menace Scipio's camps at its southern end.

Page updated: 26 Jul 13