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The battle of Thapsus sealed the fate of the Pompeians' venture in Africa. Once again their army had been shattered: their main ally, Juba, was dead: Cato and Scipio had both perished by their own hands: Afranius, Petreius, Faustus Sulla and Considius had all been killed: of the leaders only Varus, Labienus and the two sons of Pompey survived. In Spain lay their last chance of regrouping and making another stand. But this time they were not to enjoy so long a respite in which to consolidate; for less than nine months after his victory at Thapsus Caesar was to set foot in Spain for the final reckoning.
For two months after the battle Caesar was occupied in reducing the remaining African strongholds, replenishing his finances by inflicting heavy fines upon the prosperous communities which had lately defied him, and reorganising the province and its neighbouring territories. On his return to Rome in July 46 conditions were outwardly more settled than on his previous visit. Honours and offices, including a third dictatorship and a fourth consulship for the ensuing year, were showered upon him, while preparations went ahead for his delayed triumphs. These he celebrated in August with unprecedented magnificence — over Gaul, Egypt, Pontus and Africa; and there appears to have been a general feeling that the last battle of the civil wars had already been p304 fought and that, with Cato's suicide, the struggle to maintain the old order was too futile to pursue.
Meanwhile the news from Further Spain was ominous. Since Caesar's brilliant victory at Ilerda in 49 much had happened to lessen his prestige and revive memories of Pompey's earlier feats of arms in the peninsula. The prolonged misgovernment of Q. Cassius had exasperated the Spaniards and driven several of the Roman legions to open mutiny;1 and though this had been quelled with but little bloodshed and Cassius had fled, the mischief was done. The mutinous legions, fearing Caesar's retribution, expelled the new governor, Trebonius, and chose Scapula and Aponius as their leaders; and when, in the autumn of 46, Pompey's elder son, Gnaeus, landed in the province, he was at once elected as their commander. After Thapsus came the refugees — his younger brother, Sextus, and the remnants of the broken armies led by Labienus and Varus; while in Spain itself many of the troops who had once served with Afranius and had been disbanded by Caesar to their homes in Spain now joined his standards. By the end of 46 Gnaeus had thirteen legions, though only four were of proved worth; and though his own record ill fitted him for the supreme command, yet he had two valuable assets — the magic influence of his father's name and, in Labienus, at least one brilliant and experienced subordinate.
Caesar had not been blind to these ever-increasing dangers. Didius had been despatched with a fleet: Pedius and Fabius had been furnished initially with troops from Sardinia and, when these proved insufficient, p305 reinforced. But the situation had got out of their control: most of Baetica had gone over to the rebels, and the few remaining loyal communities like Ulia, unable to hold out much longer, kept sending him urgent appeals for help. Early in November 46 Caesar left Rome for Further Spain, where, with a force of eight legions and eight thousand cavalry, he now entered upon what was to prove the final campaign alike of the war and of his own career.
Of this campaign, the bloodiest of the war, we have one contemporary account, de Bello Hispaniensi — perhaps the most illiterate and exasperating book in classical literature. Who wrote it is unknown; but he appears to have been one of the combatants;2 and Macaulay's guess that he was some 'sturdy old centurion who fought better than he wrote' is possibly not far off the truth. In view of the sorry state of the MSS. tradition it is difficult to assess accurately his historical and literary merits: all that can be attempted here is a brief and general survey of his qualities.
As a military commentator he lacks a sense of proportion; for while he describes — often at some length — all kinds of engagements, including quite minor skirmishes,3 as well as frequent atrocities,4 desertions and even apparent trivialities,5 yet he throws little light on problems of supply,6 finance, p306 the number of troops engaged7 and, above all, the tactical reasons for the various manoeuvres.8 His grasp of tactics seems, in fact, negligible.9
His enumeration of casualties10 sometimes reflects the partisan; but in other respects, wherever his narrative can be compared with the brief accounts of later writers, it appears in the main to be reasonably trustworthy.
His presentation of his material is not always effective. He tries hard to follow a chronological sequence, and, when it occurs to him to do so, he quotes a date.11 But this day‑by‑day system often involves a mere catalogue of disconnected incidents.12 Nor is his chronology always accurate: not seldom he forgets to mention something in its proper place and has to go back.13
His literary style is poor. Colloquial expressions14 jostle with quotations from Ennius and reminiscences of Homer: his vocabulary is limited and dull repetitions p307 of the same word or phrase are frequent.15 His grammar is uncertain, often colloquial, sometimes barely intelligible.16 But his chief failing is a want of clarity resulting from a habit of not stating clearly the subject of the sentence and frequently changing it without warning; and this often leads to serious ambiguities.17
Nevertheless, despite all its obvious failings, de Bello Hispaniensi has character. Its author appears to be an honest man struggling with an unfamiliar task; and if fortune had not preserved his efforts, our knowledge of the campaign would be the poorer.
1 See Bell. Alex. chs. 48‑64.
13 e.g. ch. 10: 'I forgot to mention in its proper place'; moreover, he appears to have coined a special phrase for such emergencies, if the recurrent words hoc praeterito tempore means, as they seem to, 'just before this time'.
14 e.g. his constant use of bene in the sense of 'very,' which occurs in Cicero (but mainly in the letters) and the comic poets; words like loricatus.
15 e.g. his monotonous repetition of the relative pronoun as a connective in the middle of ch. 3, and the doubled prope in the last sentence; also, in ch. 9, committere twice in the same sentence. The repetition of tripertito in ch. 5 and of itaque nostri procedunt in ch. 29 is rather different and suggests the informal style of conversation.
16 See ch. 22 for several examples of the subjunctive used in factual relative clauses: ch. 36 for renuntiare followed by a quod clause; and in ch. 27 the barely grammatical phrase 'a. d. III . . . factum est, ex eo tempore . . .'.
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Roman Military History
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Page updated: 7 Feb 13