Battle of Ruspina: Julius Caesar Avoids Disaster During Roman Civil War

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Battle of Ruspina: Julius Caesar Avoids Disaster During Roman Civil War

Likely initial set-up of battle of Ruspina; Romans on the right
(photo courtesy of Mr. Simon Miller's wargaming blog,

Today in Military History: January 4, 46 BC

Today's highlight battle features Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) and a battle fought against allies of his enemies during the Roman Civil War (49-45 BC). Three major sources give some contradictory information about this fight, but I will do my best to sort things out.


Bust of Caesar in National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy
Bust of Caesar in National Archaeological Museum, Naples, Italy
[All illustrations, unless specifically cited, are from Wikipedia]

By the end of the year 50, Caesar had established himself solidly in Republican Roman society. He had conquered the land of Gaul, and put down a major revolt which threatened his conquests. [For further details on the final battle see my Burn Pit posting of October 5, 2011: "Siege of Alesia Ends; Rebellious Gauls Defeated, Julius Caesar Triumphs."] After the final embers of Gallic disaffection were extinguished, Caesar was a virtual hero to two major groups; the soldiers who fought for him in Gaul; and the people of Rome. His conquest of Gaul had opened new lands to the common farmers, and poured great wealth into the Roman treasury (not to mention adding hundreds of thousands of slaves to the economy).

However, the Roman Senate did not regard Caesar's popularity in the same light. Though he was of the patrician class, the Senate believed he was seeking greater power, perhaps even hoping to be proclaimed king of Rome. Late in the year 50, the Senate informed him that he must disband his army and return to Rome. When the great war hero vacillated, the Senate approached Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (better known to history as Pompey the Great, 106-48 BC).

Pompey was also a hero, having supplied the troops that finally settled the Third Servile War in 71 (a slave revolt led by Spartacus), and suppressed pirate activity in the Mediterranean in 67. [He was also responsible for the siege and capture of Jerusalem in 63.] Pompey was asked to defend Rome against the "outlaw" Caesar, and he agreed should no other course of action take place. Pompey was only slightly hesitant to take the job, as he at one time was the son-in-law of Caesar, married to Julius' daughter until she died in childbirth in 54.

Bust of Pompey the Great in the Ny Carlsberg Art Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark
Bust of Pompey the Great in the
Ny Carlsberg Art Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark

The patrician Senate then sought to appoint Caesar to position that included watching over the Roman forests. [Caesar as a head forest ranger?] Caesar realized that if he obeyed the Senate, disbanded his army and went to Rome essentially unarmed, he would likely be brought to trial on various charges, including misappropriation of funds. Irregularities during his governorship, and supposed war crimes during his Gallic campaigns. Therefore, he made a fateful decision.

Caesar marched his army – consisting of a single legion, the XIII Gemina – through the province of Cisalpine Gaul (a province which comprised most of northern Italy south of the Alps) from his headquarters in the city of Ravenna. On January 10, 49 Caesar's force reached the Rubicon River, the southernmost boundary of his province and Italy proper. Caesar received word of Pompey's charge from the Senate. Therefore, Caesar ordered his men to cross the river and occupy several border towns. Finally, Caesar himself crossed the river, and utters a Greek phrase, "Alea jacta esto" [the die has been cast], using a gaming metaphor to symbolize his fateful decision. Caesar and his men were now officially enemies of the Republic…

Over the next three years, Caesar and his allies – including Mark Antony, among others – fight a brutal civil war. Caesar's forces fight in Hispania (Spain), Greece, Numidia (Tunisia), Egypt, and Pontus in Asia Minor (Turkey). Pompey had been defeated early in the civil war, and fled to Egypt, hoping for asylum. He was captured and beheaded by the Egyptians, hoping to appease Caesar. When presented with Pompey's preserved head, one historian states that Caesar openly wept, for he thought it an ignoble end to man who had loyal served the Roman state.

Caesar Aghast at the Head of Pompey, etching, 1820
Caesar Aghast at the Head of Pompey, etching, 1820

Prelude to the Battle

By the end of the year 47, the civil war was still raging very hot, despite the fact that the Senate's main champion Pompey was dead. Caesar had also been appointed dictator by the Senate, but resigned after eleven days and installed Mark Antony as his second-in-command. He installed Cleopatra on the throne of Egypt, took her as his mistress, and produced a son Caesarion. Caesar militarily dealt with the rebellious client monarch of Pontus, then returned to Rome to deal with the mutiny of four of his veteran legions. By using reverse psychology, Caesar promised the men their back pay and reenlisted them for the continuation of his campaign in Africa. He also began a furious recruitment campaign, as indications were that his enemies in North Africa had garnered 14 legions to oppose him.

In late December of 47, Caesar sailed for North Africa. His army – stated by one historian as consisting of 35,000 to 40,000 men – landed on the Tunisian coast in a violent storm, which scattered his forces widely. Caesar gathered what men he could and established a fortified camp near the small town of Ruspina. With the greater part of his supplies of food missing, on the morning of January 10, 46 Caesar decided to lead a force of men to comb the countryside for supplies. [At this time period, North Africa was considered the primary supplier of grain to Rome, as was Egypt.]

For one of the few times in his military career, Caesar and his men were taken by surprise. Only a few miles away from the Roman camp, an army at least twice the size of Caesar's force appeared and moved to attack. The Numidians – who had fought the Carthaginians in the three Punic Wars between 264 and 146 BC – had allied themselves with the Senate and Pompey's faction against Caesar. Caesar now prepared to battle for his political and military life…

Composition of the Armies

[Most of the sources I have perused do not fully agree on the specifics of either army. I am, therefore, forced to speculate…]

Caesar's army at Ruspina
Caesar's army at Ruspina (photo courtesy of

Caesar's Roman original army totaled some 35,000 to 40,000 men. However, his foraging-party-in-force consisted of between 9000 and 11,000 men – described in some sources as 30 cohorts of legionaries – 400 cavalrymen (probably Gallic or Germans), and 150 archers, possibly Numidians or Cretans. The Roman legionaries wore segmented metal armor, carried an oval wooden shield, and was armed with a short sword and javelin called a pilum (see below). Each Roman soldier carried a pilum, which was used as his primary missile weapon. As a unit charged, the soldiers would cast their pila at the enemy. If the missile did not immediately strike its human target, its secondary object was to become embedded in the enemy's shield, weighing it down and making it easier for the Roman legionary to fight a shieldless opponent.

Reconstructed Roman pilum
Reconstructed Roman pilum

The vast majority of this Roman army was raw recruits, with the leavening of some veterans of Caesar's Gallic conquest and the previous three years of fighting during the civil war. As such, Caesar's force was not the highly-disciplined army that he had come to expect. Consequently, he would be forced to depend on his personal generalship and charisma more in this battle than many previous conflicts.

The Numidian Army

The army approaching Caesar consisted mainly of light infantry, light cavalry, a force of heavy cavalry, and a number of footmen that had been trained to fight like the Romans Estimates of the number of men in this army run as high as 40,000 total or more, with the cavalry alone numbering 10,000. The heavy horsemen comprised large numbers of Germans and Gauls. These men at one time served under Caesar, but followed Labienus when he joined the Pompeian faction.

Numdian forces, light infantry and light & heavy cavalry
Numdian forces, light infantry and light & heavy cavalry
(Photo courtesy of

The vast majority of the Numidian army consisted of light infantry, mainly skirmishers wearing no armor, carrying a small shield, and armed with several javelins. Their objective was to harass the enemy with showers of missiles, provoking an attack. Then, the light cavalry – similar to the foot skirmishers except equipped with horses – would swoop in to take out the disordered enemy. Finally, there were several units of Numidian footmen who had been trained similarly to the Roman legionaries, equipped similarly, and trained to maneuver like their foes. Some of the modern authors writing about these men have called them "imitation legionaries."

To make matters worse for Caesar, the commander of this threatening army was Titus Atius Labienus, a former subordinate. Labienus had served during the conquest of Gaul, and had helped defend an important sector of the Roman siegeworks during the siege of Alesia. After Alesia, Labienus and Julius had a falling out, and Labienus joined the Pompeian faction. [There is also the possibility that, as a loyal Roman citizen, Labienus regarded Caesar's thirst for power as extra-legal, and joined the side wishing to stop a dangerous criminal.]

The terrain through which this battle occurred consisted of rough hills on either side of a fairly flat valley, with a few gently sloping ridges. Each side of the valley was delineated by cliffs, which were not easily traversed.

Battle of Ruspina

Caesar's army sought to align themselves to resist the attacks of the Numidian skirmishers, who charged forward and loosed clouds of javelins. When the heavier armored, but poorly trained, Roman recruits charged seeking to come to grips with these footmen, the Numidians would fall back; then, the light cavalry of the Numidians would surround the groups of straggling legionaries. Further, the Pompeian Gallic/German heavy horsemen sought to outflank the Roman force almost from the beginning. During the opening stages of the battle, Labienus' heavy cavalry drove off or killed the majority of Caesar's Gallic horsemen.

Romans try to prevent Numidian envelopment
Romans try to prevent Numidian envelopment
(Photo courtesy of

With the quickness of light infantry and light horsemen, the Numidian army hoped to cut off Caesar's retreat, surround the Romans, and massacre them to a man. Caesar realized his predicament almost immediately. Scurrying about the battlefield as fast as he could, Caesar gave orders to his cohorts. The Roman force formed two parallel lines, back-to-back. The remaining Roman cavalry was placed at each flank. Then, as the day wore on, individual Roman units would make quick sallies to drive back Numidian attacks. The Romans also began to slowly march closer to their camp. The Pompeian forces pressed them hard into the afternoon.

At some point in the early afternoon, the Caesarian forces managed to reach a low ridge. Aligning themselves for defense, they temporarily held off further Pompeian attacks for awhile. However, the Romans spotted some dust in the distance behind the Numidian lines; the Pompeians were receiving some reinforcements, Numidian light horse and several units of "imitation legionaries." These men were under the command of Marcus Petreius, a long-time political opponent of Caesar. The addition of these Pompeian units places even more pressure on the Caesarian force.

During the battle, Labienus led his German/Gallic heavy horsemen into direct contact with Caesar's forces. Whenever he got within earshot of the Romans, he taunted them mercilessly. Finally, one Roman legionary shouted back, "I'm no raw recruit, Labienus; I'm a veteran of the Tenth [Legion]." Labienus replied, "I don't recognize the standards of the Tenth." The soldier then said, "You'll soon be aware what sort of man I am." As he spoke, the man threw off his helmet, so that he could be recognized by Labienus, then aimed his javelin at him and flung it with all his might. He drove it hard full into the chest of Labienus's horse and said, "Let that show you, Labienus, that it's a soldier of the Tenth who attacks you". [This anecdote came from "The African War," a pro-Caesar publication, probably written by one of the low-ranking officers in the Caesarian army. It was likely written to be read by Caesar's political base in Rome.] Both Labienus and Petreius were wounded during the fighting.

Finally, as dusk approached, the constant pressure of the Pompeian skirmishers and light horse became too much for Caesar's men. Despite Caesar's constant presence wherever he was needed, the strain of battle took its toll on the new recruits. Soon, large groups of Roman legionaries began to break ranks and head towards their camp. Caesar managed to organize a number of his cohorts and his surviving cavalry to cover the retreat, and as evening came the fighting petered out. The battle of Ruspina was over.


Casualty figures for this battle are mostly lacking. One source claims that Caesar's force suffered nearly one-third casualties, between 3000 and 3500 killed and wounded. It is likely that the Pompeian forces suffered an equal number, but were still an effective force with more than 35,000 men. However, with both of its commanders wounded, the Pompeians were content to let the Romans pull back to their camp.

Footnote #1: It would take another year of bloody fighting before Caesar achieved his final victory over the forces opposing him at the battle of Munda in March of 45 BC. At that battle, Caesar defeat an army led by Pompey's sons, Gnaeus and Sextus Pompeius. A year later, he would be assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 BC.

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