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Battle of Thapsus

The battle of Thapsus took place on February 6, 46 BC near Thapsus (modern Ras Dimas, Tunisia). The conservative republicans 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 ended the resistance against his power in Africa and was one step closer to absolute power.

Battle of Thapsus
Date of battleFebruary 6, 46 BC
ConflictRoman Republican civil wars
Battle beforeBattle of Pharsalus
Battle afterBattle of Munda
Site of battleThapsus (Tunisia)
modern Ras Dimas
Combatant 1Conservative Repubicans
CommandersMetellus Scipio †,
Cato the younger
Strength?? (at least 10 legions), 2,500 cavalry
Juba's allied troops with 60 elephants
Combatant 2Caesar's party
CommandersJulius Caesar
Strength?? (at least 10 legions)
ResultDecisive Caesarean victory
Casualties(1): 30,000
(2): 1,000

Table of contents
1 Prelude
2 Battle
3 Aftermath

Prelude

After the crossing of 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. They where defeated in the battles of Dyrrhachium and Pharsalus in 48 BC. Pompey was murdered, but the conservatives, not ready to give up fighting, clustered in the Africa provinces and organized a resistance. Their leaders were Marcus Porcius Cato, the younger, and Metellus Scipio. With them were others like Titus Labienus, Publius Attius Varus and the brothers Sextus and Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey's sons). King Juba of Numidia was a valuable local ally. After the pacification of the Eastern provinces, and a short visit to Rome, Caesar followed is opponents to Africa and landed in Adrumetum (modern Sousse) in December 28 47 BC.

The conservatives started to gather their forces, with astonishing speed. They had about 40,000 men (circa 10 legions), a powerful cavalry led by veteran Titus Labienus and allied forces of local kings. Their most precious contribute were 60 war elephants. The two armies then embarked into small conflicts within each other, measuring forces. The conservative army lost two legions that deserted to Caesar, during this time. Meanwhile, Caesar expected reinforcements arrived from Sicily. In the beginning of February, Caesar arrived in Thapsus and besieged the city, blocking the southern entrance (the easiest available) 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.

Battle

The army of Metellus Scipio contoured Thapsus in order to approach the city by its Northern side. Expecting Caesar's approach, they were in tight battle order, with the elephant cavalry placed on the wings. Caesar's dispositions were the classical ones, with him commanding the right side and the cavalry and the archers placed in the wings. The threat of the elephants led to the additional precautions of reinforcing the cavalry with 5 cohorts.

The battle began due the initiative of one of Caesar's trumpeter. Listening to the charge call, the soldiers reacted so vigorously that Caesar had no choice but to follow them. Caesar's archers attacked the elephants with no mercy, causing them to panic and step men on their own side. The left wing elephants charged against Caesar's centre, where the 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 loose ground. Caesar's cavalry outflanked the enemy and destroyed the fortified camp the enemy was building for cover. The king Juba's allied troops abandoned the site and the battle was decided.

Circa 10,000 enemy soldiers wanted to surrender to Caesar but were slaughtered by his own men, including Metellus Scipio. This is a strange action for Caesar, known as a merciful victor. A possible explanation is the fact that some sources refer that Caesar had an epilepsy seizure during the battle and was not present at this time.

Aftermath

Following the battle, Caesar renew the siege of Thapsus, that eventually would fall and proceeded to Utica, where Cato the younger was garrisoned. On the news of the defeat of his allies, Cato committed suicide. Caesar was most upset with this event 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.

Caesar then proceeded to pacify the rest of Africa and returned to Rome on July 25 of the same year, with no resistance left. But this was not the end of the opposition. 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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