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Old November 23rd, 2009, 12:02 PM   #1
Joined: Jan 2009
Posts: 1,121
Battle of Ruspina

Hello everyone.

Recently, I stumbled on the mention of Labienus vs. Ceasar in the Battle of Ruspina in this forum. Naturally, I googled it and read up on it a bit, lacking access for better sources at the moment (and being more of a hobbyist than a serious armchair historian or a true professional).

This link seemed to have the most to say about it... (Sorry for the clutter.)


In the recent thread of Alexander vs. Germanicus, Divus Ivlivs states that Julius Caesar's only two non-victories were Gergovia and Dyrrachium. I assume the Battle of Ruspina is counted as a victory since Julius Caesar was left in the possession of the battlefield even though his forces suffered heavy casualties (wikipedia states a third, which seems a really high proportion for a 'winning' army in ancient warfare).

I would be curious to learn if anyone has numbers for the dead on the Optimates' side?

In my personal opinion, the Battle of Ruspina seems more like a draw, or even a loss for Caesar, given the heavy casualties. I have nothing but admiration for Caesar's ability to keep his army together and prevent a rout and a total catastrophe; indeed, the Battle of Ruspina should have been a crushing victory for the Optimates in my estimation. Caesar could be faulted, however, for allowing his (part of the) army to get caught in that situation in the first place: he was not infallible.

I eagerly wait for the learned members of the Forum to leap in and dazzle me with a detailed analysis of the battle and of the commanders.
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Old November 24th, 2009, 12:31 AM   #2

Joined: Mar 2009
From: Virginia
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Re: Battle of Ruspina

Even by the several accounts of the battle that we have that are most hostile to Caesar, it would seem quite clearly to have been a Caesarean Victory. Even if the casualties were exhorbitently high (personally I do not think that they were so) at the end of the day the Optimates withdrew from the field, and left Caesar standing with his army, likely having suffered more casualties themselves than they had inflicted upon the Caesareans.

The trouble with the classification of this battle (incidently - never ever trust Wikipedia) is that there are several different sources for it, of which only one however provides any real detail. Cassius Dio and Appian both talk briefly of the battle, and Plutarch makes reference to it, but the trouble is that each of these authors was heavily anti-Caesar, and furthermore, cannot really be trusted to provide good military history. If you read through these sources (majorly the former two - Plutarch never really does much more than briefly summarize the military stuff) one finds contradictions and errors that really make one doubt them on whatever they talk about. An excellent way of seeing this is by cross-referencing them with Caesar's Commentaries (which provide the most detailed and sensible accounts of each of his battles). I know right now that some will be screaming (and preparing to type) that we should trust other sources over Caesar (or rather in this case the unknown author since Caesar himself did not write the Commentarius dealing with Africa). This might be a debatable point if we were simply going to compare the two accounts of battles and argue which should be given preference to, but before we even get to that there are other issues to deal with. Dio and Appian seem quite capable of taking plain facts and getting them plain wrong. An excellent example is Caesar's account of how he crossed the Allier River against opposition. Caesar gives a very detailed account of how he was able to trick the Gauls into moving up-stream, allowing him to build a bridge and get across on it. Even the biggest doubters of Caesar should surely be able to admit that he is not very likely to lie about the issue of whether or not he built a bridge. And yet somehow, Dio manages to tell us all about how Caesar used rafts to cross the Allier. This might be excusable if it were a lone incident, but it is not. All through their accounts of Caesar's campaigns Appian, Cassius Dio, and Plutarch keep coming up with very important details, sometimes extremely important ones, that they consistently get badly wrong, and these things are without exception things that Caesar would have had no reason to lie about, if only because in Plutarch, Cassius Dio, and Appian the result is still always a brilliant success for Caesar anyway. It results in giving one a highly negative impression of the ability of these three sources to give us the correct facts. It cannot really be put down singularly to the problem of the bias against Caesar that these three held. There are similar contradictions in the accounts of the campaigns of men like Pompey, Marius, etc. Of course, with these others it is more difficult to pick it out, because we don't have extensive sources on them as we do for Caesar, but the point stands that there are funny contradictions in all of them. In other words, it seems best simply to accept the Commenatries, which also have the benefit of making the most sense.

Now to the battle of Ruspina itself.

I will disagree with Whyte in that Caesar can be faulted for allowing himself to be caught by the Optimates. The fact is that he needed to gather supplies for his men, and that meant taking a large group of them out and gathering it. It was how Caesar always conducted his campaigns - living off the land that way allowed him to free himself from having to maintain supply lines, allowing for far greater maneuverability (millenia later Napoleon would use a very similar method of waging war).

It was when he had gotten several miles away from his camp that Caesar and Labienus ran into each other. It would seem clear from the accounts that this was not an intended battle on either side - in one of the Freak Accidents of War Labienus stumbled upon Caesar, summoned reinforcements, and resolved to fight him. The account in the Commentaries clashes with this - according to the Commentaries it was an intentional battle on Labienus's part, the Optimates hoping to "repeat the victory over Curio", but this does not ring true. The author of the Commentraius dealing with the African Campaigns seems to provide an accurate account of the actual events, but it is clear that he did not know the purpose behind them. It is clear from several of his sections that he was not one of the officers who was privy to Caesar's actual intentions - he has to guess at the motivations for a number of Caesar's actions, and it is quite easy to see how in the aftermath he would have been amongst the majority of the Caesarean army coming to believe that the battle had been premeditated. Ignoring this unknown writer's speculations and simply concentrating on the actual events as he tells them it is generally possible to discern more easily the true motivations behind each side.

Caesar had with him thirty cohorts, or three legions, on paper about 15,000 men, but in actuality Caesar's legions were often at less than full strength, so it could have been as low as 7,000. He also had 400 cavalry and 150 archers.

Labienus to oppose this had with him immediately some 8,600 cavalry along with four times as many foot soldiers, and "numerous archers and slingers", for a total of around 45 - 50,000. Also in the vicinity, and presumably summoned to help as soon as possible was Petreius with another 1,600 cavalry and a "large force of infantry" that we can assume to have been in the area of several thousand at least, possibly as many as another 10,000. It is this key detail that makes one suspect strongly that this was not an ambush, but an accident. Labienus was one of the best generals of the day - to not have his force unified before launching the attack if he knew there was going to be an attack would be the mark of a mediocre general, and Labienus was anything but mediocre. From the movements between the three armies, as well as from later parts of the Commentarius that speak of how the Optimates had not even known there had been a landing yet, it becomes clear that what happened was Labienus, moving through the area, stumbled by accident upon Caesar, who was out hoping to collect some supplies, and a battle ensued, with Labienus calling for another Optimate force in the area to come and help him crush Caesar.

Labienus opened the battle by forming up his forces in two greatr lines - at the front one solid line of cavalry backed up by a line of infantry and skirmishers. It was an unusual formation, but it was one in keeping with the plan Labienus had in mind.

Unfortunately for Labienus, Caesar had a knack for being able to read his opponents' moves. he had done it at Pharsalus, and he did it here as well. While his men belived that the line approaching them was one of infantry, Caesar instantly recognized that it was made up of cavalry, and realized what Lanienus was planning to do - upon drawing in close the cavalry would split into two and move around to surround the Caesareans, and then the infantry would move around with them so that Caesar and his army would be enclosed in a great ring of enemy soldiers. To counter this, Caesar drew up his own men in a single long line, posted all of his archers directly in front of it (he knew that they would not need to worry about being charged for the meanwhile) and put a cavalry force on each win, giving them instructions to try and block the enemy from moving around them. However, against such numbers this was never going to do anything more than delay the enemy briefly, and Caesar knew that - his plan would depend upon lulling the enemy into a flase sense of security.

*continued in next post*
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Old November 24th, 2009, 12:32 AM   #3

Joined: Mar 2009
From: Virginia
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Re: Battle of Ruspina

Sure enough, the enemy soon got around the wings, and the Caesareans were shut up in a great circle of foes, just as Labienus had planned. That Caesar’s men did not break was due solely to his presence – as Dodge so poetically put it, the wrath of a Great Man had such an effect upon their souls that they were prepared to stand and fight as long as he stood with them. Caesar gave instructions for no soldier to advance more than a few paces past the banners, preventing them from spreading out and being picked off and slowly drew them in. Then Caesar began the second part of his plan – the part that would break him and his men out. At the center of his army he formed up his cavalry in four groups and told them what they would need to do when he gave the signal. Meanwhile the infantry, who had been drawing inwards as though packing together in terror, now slowly began to spread out again, but with a purpose. They began forming a line again that pushed out against the edges of the Optimate ring, which spread out further to accommodate them. The Optimates preferred at this point to shower the Caesareans with missiles (it is unlikely that these caused man casualties – as was shown by Crassus’s army at Carrhae, as long as the Romans kept their heads and their shields, missiles had little effect – it was only in the retreat or rout that these proved devastating. The account in any case makes clear that few men were falling – most simply caught the missiles on their shields), and when Caesar’s men approached, they backed away. This was just what Caesar wanted. What had been a circle of Optimates was now oval shaped – stretched out before his advancing men. Now he unleashed his main coup. At his signal men all along the line that had formed turned around alternatively and formed two new lines, one facing each way. Then, from the center, the cavalry sprang. At each end of the oval, where there would be a weak point, half of Caesar’s cavalry smashed in and through the startled Optimates, breaking Labienus’s line in two.

Now there were two Caesarean lines back to back, facing two Optimate lines on either side, with the Caesarean cavalry on the outside. Now it was Caesar’s turn to go on the offensive. Each of the two Caesarean cavalry groups now split in half, so that there were four groups of Caesarean cavalry, and each of these slammed into one each of the flanks of the Optimate lines. In that critical moment, when both Optimate lines were wavering, caught between an attack on each end of a long, thin line, Caesar ordered his infantry forward, and his men charged with a vengeance, hurling their javelins and routing the enemy. Caesar then drew his men back together, keeping the two lines in formation, back to back, with the cavalry hovering on the wings and the archers presumably now in the center, and began to move off, alert for new trouble, which was not long in coming.

Petreius chose this moment to appear. He had presumably received a message from Labienus saying that he had come across none other than Caesar, who had made a surprise landing on the coast with a small force, and needed him to come to help finish him off. Petreius and his 1,600 cavalry with a large force of infantry joined with Labienus’s force, which drew what was left of itself back together, and they moved in to threaten Caesar again. Caesar however had no intention of being boxed in again, and he skillfully evaded any attempts that they made to do so. His men were no bone-weary, but his energy, described by friend and foe alike as unnatural, infected them and kept them fighting as long as he asked them to. Rallying them to him, he prepared for one last charge, and he launched it at precisely the right moment. He discerned a weakness in the enemy line and concentrated all of his forces upon it, succeeding once again in shattering the enemy line and breaking through to a strategic piece of high ground, which he proceeded to occupy, from which he was able to beat off any more attacks that the enemy might launch. By the time night arrived the Optimates could see that they had failed, and abandoned the field in order to inform Scipio that Caesar was definitely in Africa, and where he was. Caesar returned to his fortifications. However, the episode was not over. When they heard of how Caesar had been able to fend off and rout a force so superior to his own, masses of Optimate soldiers began to defect to him, making up for any losses that he had suffered.

I personally would rate this as one of Caesar’s finest and most decisive victories. Caesar’s actions with his small forces upon landing in Africa were the height of excellence, and having established a firm footing on the African coast from which he could build up his forces he took out a force of them to forage. In a freak accident of war he encountered a massively superior army under the command of Labienus, who was able to call upon Petreius, who was also in the area to come to his aid with a second large force. Caesar then fought one of his tactically finest battles – his actions in recognizing Labienus’s tactics, responding to them, and shattering the enemy not once but twice, were on a level with his tactical ability displayed at Pharsalus and Charleroi. His casualties I would maintain were not crippling, not nearly enough for this to even be a Pyrrhic victory for Caesar. Doubtless many of his men had suffered small injuries – it is likely that if the figure of “one third” has basis it is in the number of men to receive wounds, rather than killed – but by the account itself and precedents in other similar battles, fought by other Romans it seems likely that he was able to add to his feat by coming away having lost not too many men.

Caesar was left in possession of the field, and afterwards he gained many new soldiers when the news of his victory caused masses of the enemy soldiers to defect to him, thus making up for whatever casualties he may have suffered. He had lost something of the element of surprise – the enemy now knew for a certainty that he was in Africa and where he was, but he had his foothold, and he had opened the campaign with a victory to boast of. The enemy had been humiliated – a large force of theirs had been unable to rout a small force of his.

In conclusion I must disagree completely with the statement of the first post – the battle of Ruspina reflects nothing but credit upon Caesar and it ranks as one of the finest that he ever fought. The ground, the numbers, the nature of the enemy in troops and in commander – all was against him, and yet he achieved spectacular success.
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Old November 24th, 2009, 12:34 AM   #4

Joined: Mar 2009
From: Virginia
Posts: 3,006
Re: Battle of Ruspina

Just as with the battle of Pharsalus, it is my opinion that no other commander could have done as well in the situation at Ruspina as Caesar did.

Excellent thread, by the way I have been waiting for ages to be able to type about the battle of Ruspina.
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