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Battle of Ruspina, 46 BC

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Julius Caesar versus Titus Labenius: A light Numidian army under Labenius surrounds a Roman army under Caesar and begins to wear it down with missiles. Can Caesar extricate his army from this predicament or will the Numidian javelin gain the same glory the Parthian bow won at Carrhae? Click on images below to view PowerPoint presentation. | Legend |
 
 
Primary sources disagree as to why the battle ended (see below) and whether the result was a Roman or Numidian victory. Goldsworthy, a modern historian, hardly even considers this a battle, referring to it as an “action” (2006: 558), complicating its classification further. Caesar was fortunate to escape annihilation and only did enough damage to the Numidians to make good his escape so it is certainly not a Roman victory. For the Numidians, they significantly rattled the Roman army and forced its retreat from foraging but did not win on the battlefield nor destroy the Roman army so it is certainly not a Numidian victory. This battle thus fits into the category of indecisive which the majority of military engagements actually belong. We may focus on the great decisive encounters but these are relatively rare, thus magnifying their significance. Ruspina, an indecisive battle, set the stage for the more decisive engagement of the civil war in Africa, Thapsus.
 
Caesar was very fortunate to survive this battle; he was caught in the open by a more mobile adversary and did not assess the enemy intentions very well. Caesar formed a battle line and ordered his cavalry to not allow themselves to be outflanked, suggesting he thought Labenius would fight a pitched battle, primarily with infantry (Fuller, 1965: 268). Why Labenius and the other Pompeian commanders were not willing or able to push home their advantage and destroy the Roman army is subject to debate. Ancient primary sources outright disagree as to why Petreius (commanding the Numidians after Labenius is wounded) drew off his forces; Anonymous writes that the Romans routed the Numidians while Appian writes that the Romans were routed but Petreius withdrew to allow Scipio the honour of defeating Caesar (Fuller 1965: 269-270). Delbrück, always eager to dispel myths and point out the obvious, states plainly that the Romans were only able to withdraw at under dusk’s dimmer light, which came sooner being winter at the time of the battle (1975: 556-559). Lack of an infinite supply of missiles on the Numidian side also must have contributed to Petreius’ decision to discontinue the engagement; it must be noted that the Parthians possessed a vast supply train of arrows when they defeated the Romans at Carrhae in 52 BC. Like virtually every other battle, logistics was a key factor to decisions on both sides with the battle only taking place due to Caesar’s diminishing supply situation.
 
 
As usual, I have done my best to find the most sober estimates of numbers for each side. Dupuy provides our low estimate (usually the best for ancient battles) for the Numidians (1969: 154-156). For the Romans, we know that there were 30 cohorts but it is not explicit how up-to-strength these cohorts were. To estimate this, I have simply used strength proportions for Roman cohorts under Caesar’s command during other parts of the campaign and applied them here. So in December 47 BC, Caesar possessed 18,000 infantry divided among 60 cohorts (Dupuy, 1969: 153-154) which would mean each cohort had about 300 men which, if consistent, would mean 9,000 infantry on hand at Ruspina.
 
Researching this battle got me interested in researching the great captains of military history. Each great captain typically gave his own account of who were the other great captains but I find the Top 100 list found here to be the most useful. Heavily researched and debated into the ground on forums, it is an excellent place to start, even finish, when it comes to great captains. One of my many intrigues is that of such great captains’ struggles. This includes battles and campaigns where they were faced with such overwhelming odds that not losing completely was demonstration of their abilities, engagements such as Ruspina for Caesar, Berezina for Napoleon, Dneiper (August – December 1943) for Manstein. When I say great captains’ struggles, this also includes battles and campaigns they simply did not perform well and suffered defeat, engagements such as Gergovia for Caesar, Asspern-Essling for Napoleon, Kunsersdorf for Frederick. It is the failures of the greatest which we can really learn from.
 
- Jonathan Webb
 
Works Consulted
 
Cowan, Ross. Roman Battle Tactics 109 BC – AD 313. Oxford: Osprey, 2007.
 
Caesar, Julius. The Civil War: With the Anonymous Alexandrian, African and Spanish Wars. Translated by John Carter. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997.
 
Dando-Collins. Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2002.
 
Delbrück, Hans. History of the Art of War Within the Framework of Political History: Antiquity Vol. 1. Translated by Walter J. Renfroe Jr. Westport: Greenwood, 1975.
 
Dodge, Theodore Ayrault. Great Captains: Caesar. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1900.
 
Dupuy, Trevor N. The Military Life of Julius Caesar, Imperator. New York: Franklin Watts, 1969.
 
Fuller, J.F.C. Julius Caesar: Man, Soldier and Tyrant. London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1965.
 
Goldsworthy, Adrian. Caesar. London: Orion, 2007.
 
Jimenez, Ramon L. Caesar Against Rome: The Great Roman Civil War. Westport: Praeger, 2000.
 
Images
 
Julius Caesar: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Caesar
 
Numidian cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_53_figure_1.htm
 
Numidian light infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_53_figure_1.htm
 
Roman archers: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_64_figure_1.htm
 
Roman cavalry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_59_figure_1.htm
 
Roman infantry: http://www.dbaol.com/armies/army_59_figure_1.htm
 
Titus Labenius: http://www.ageod-forum.com/showthread.php?25952-Titus-Labenius
 

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  1. One Comment to “Battle of Ruspina, 46 BC”

  2. Thanks again for an excellent presentation. Waiting to see more of your new presentations now that your exams are over.

    By Sunil on Oct 6, 2014 at 12:16 pm

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