Libyans / Africans: Tacitus on Tacfarinas and resistance by Numidians, Maurians, and Musulamians (early second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Libyans / Africans: Tacitus on Tacfarinas and resistance by Numidians, Maurians, and Musulamians (early second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 18, 2023,

Ancient author: Tacitus, Annals 2.52; 3.20-21, 32, 73-74; 4.23-26 (link).

Comments: Narratives regarding native resistance (“revolts” from the hegemonic perspective) provide another somewhat different avenue into elite perspectives on conquered peoples and onto the tensions that could exist between such peoples and the currently dominant power. The Roman senatorial figure Tacitus’ accounts regarding Tacfarinas (active around 17-24 CE), a Numidian who had previously served as an auxiliary in the Roman army, characterize Numidians, Musulamians, Maurians or Moors (of Mauretania), and Garamantians as rebellious, bandit-like peoples. The emphasis is on the disorganized guerilla forms of warfare of such populations that contrasts to the carefully organized approach of the Roman army. Tacitus’ narrative nonetheless pictures a situation in which Tacfarinas has considerable success and support from various peoples in northern Africa (including a Garamantian king) until his ultimate and dramatic demise.

Although it is difficult to reliably reconstruct historical details regarding such native “revolts,” the existence of resistance itself is a sign of ongoing tensions between conquered peoples and the ruling power, occasionally manifesting itself in violent conflict and attempts to overthrow foreign domination. The hegemonic process of categorizing such resistance as “banditry” serves, in part, to delegitimize or even criminalize resistance and to affirm Roman expansionism. On this process, see also the discussion of “barbarians” as “bandits” (link) and the material on “bandit peoples” from Strabo and Livy (link coming soon).

Works consulted: T. GrĂĽnewald, Bandits in the Roman Empire: Myth and Reality, trans. John Drinkwater (London: Routledge, 2008), 33-71.

Source of the translation: C.H. Moore and J. Jackson, Tacitus: Histories, Annals, 4 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1925-37), public domain (copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.


Book 2

52 In the course of the same year, war broke out in Africa, where the enemy was commanded by Tacfarinas. He was a Numidian by birth who had served as an auxiliary in the Roman camp and then deserted. He began by recruiting gangs of unsettled people accustomed to actions of banditry (latrocinia) for the purposes of pillaging and plundering. Then he marshalled them into a body in the military style by companies and troops. Finally, he was recognized as the head not of a chaotic mob but of the Musulamians (Musulamii) [i.e. a Berber speaking people].​ That powerful descent group (gens), bordering on the solitudes of Africa and even then innocent of city life, took up arms and drew the adjacent Maurians (Mauri; or: Moors)​ into the conflict. They, too, had their leader, Mazippa. The confederate army was so divided that Tacfarinas could retain in camp a picked body of soldiers equipped on the Roman model, and there train it for discipline and obedience. On the other hand, Mazippa disseminated fire, slaughter, and terror with a light-armed band. They had forced the Kinithians,​ by no means a negligible tribe, to join them.

Then Furius Camillus, proconsul of Africa, combined his legion with the whole of the auxiliaries under the standards and led them towards the enemy. This was a modest array in view of the multitude of Numidians and Maurians. Yet he was especially anxious to avoid them taking fright and evading a confrontation with weapons. The hope of victory, however, lured them into defeat. The legion, then, was posted in the centre. The light cohorts and two squadrons of horse were on the wings. Nor did Tacfarinas decline the challenge: the Numidians were defeated. After many years the Furian name won martial honours [ca. 17 CE]. For, since the days of Rome’s great recoverer​ and his son, the laurels of high command had passed to other houses. This Camillus was not regarded as a soldier. Tiberius, therefore, was even more ready to praise his achievements before the senate. While the Fathers voted him the insignia of triumph — to the unassuming Camillus an innocuous compliment. . . . [sections on other incidents omitted].

Book 3

20 In the same year, Tacfarinas – whose defeat by Camillus in the previous summer​ I have already mentioned [above] – resumed hostilities in Africa. At first he did this by way of disorganized raids too speedy for reprisals; then, he did so by the destruction of villages and by plunder on a larger scale. Finally, he engaged a Roman cohort not far from the river Pagyda.

The position was commanded by Decrius, who, quick in action and experienced in war, regarded the siege as a disgrace. After an address to the men, he drew up his lines in front of the encampment in order to offer battle in the open. As the cohort broke at the first onset, he darted eagerly among the missiles in order to intercept the fugitives, cursing the standard-bearers who could see Roman soldiers turn their backs to a horde of undrilled men or deserters. At the same time, he turned his wounded breast and his face – with one eye pierced – to confront the enemy, and continued to fight until he dropped forsaken by his troop.

21 When the news reached Lucius Apronius – the successor of Camillus [as proconsul] – perturbed more by the disgrace of his own troops than by the success of the enemy, he resorted to a measure rare in that period and reminiscent of an older world. He drew lots and flogged to death every tenth man in the dishonoured cohort.​ So effective was the severity that, when the same forces of Tacfarinas assaulted a stronghold named Thala,​ they were defeated by a company of veterans not more than five hundred in number. During the engagement a private soldier, Helvius Rufus, earned the distinction of saving a Roman life, and was presented by Apronius with the collar and spear. The civic crown was added by the emperor who regretted, more in sorrow than in anger, that the proconsul had not exercised his power to award this further honour.​

Since the Numidians had both lost heart and disdained sieges, Tacfarinas turned back to an intermittent style of war, yielding ground when the enemy became pressing and then returning to harass from behind. Indeed, so long as the African adhered to this strategy, with impunity he made a fool of the Romans, who were ineffective and had sore feet. But when he moved to the coastal district and encumbered himself with a train of plundered goods which kept him near a fixed encampment, Apronius Caesianus, marching at his father’s order with the cavalry and auxiliary cohorts reinforced by the most mobile of the legionaries, fought a successful engagement and chased the Numidians into the desert. . . . [sections dealing with other matters omitted].

32 Not long afterwards, a letter from Tiberius apprized the senate that Africa had been disturbed once more by an inroad of Tacfarinas and that the Fathers were to use their judgment in choosing a proconsul with military experience and a physical makeup adequate to the campaign. Sextus Pompeius improved the occasion by airing his hatred of Marcus Lepidus, whom he attacked as a spiritless and poverty-stricken degenerate, who should consequently be debarred from the province of Asia as well. The senate disapproved: Lepidus, it held, was gentle rather than cowardly. Since Lepidus’ patrimony was embarrassed, an honoured name carried without reproach was a title of honour, not of disgrace. So he went to Asia and, as for Africa, it was decided to leave the emperor to choose a man for the post. . . . [other issues omitted].

73 In spite of many repulses and having first recruited his forces in the heart of Africa, Tacfarinas had reached such a level of arrogance that he sent an embassy to Tiberius, demanding nothing less than a territorial settlement for himself and his army and, as an alternative, threatening war from which there was no escape. By all accounts, no insult to himself and the people ever stung the emperor more than this spectacle of a deserter and bandit imitating the procedure of an unfriendly power. “Even Spartacus,​ after the annihilation of so many consular armies, when his fires were blazing through an Italy unavenged while the commonwealth reeled in the gigantic conflicts with Sertorius and Mithridates — even Spartacus was not accorded a capitulation upon terms. And now, at the glorious zenith of the Roman people, was this bandit Tacfarinas to be bought off by a peace and giving up of lands?” He handed over the affair to Blaesus who, while inducing the other rebels to believe they might put their sword away with impunity, was to capture the leader by any means whatsoever. Large numbers came in under the amnesty. Then, the arts of Tacfarinas were met by a mode of warfare akin to his own.

74 Since it was noticed that the African, overmatched in solid fighting strength but more expert in the petty knaveries of war, operated with a number of bands, first attacking, then vanishing, and always manoeuvring for an ambush, arrangements were made for three forward movements and three columns to execute them. One under the legate Cornelius Scipio held the road by which the enemy raided the Leptitanians and then fell back upon the Garamantians. On another side, the younger Blaesus​ marched with his own division to prevent the hamlets of Cirta from being ravaged with impunity. In the centre, with the flower of the troops, was the commander himself. By securing the appropriate positions with fortresses or entrenchments, he had rendered the whole district cramped and dangerous for his enemies. Turn where they would, they found some part of the Roman forces: on the front, on the flank, often from behind. Numbers were destroyed or entrapped by these methods. Next, he subdivided his tripartite army into yet more numerous detachments, headed by centurions of tested courage. Not even when summer was over would he fall in with custom by withdrawing his men and quartering them for a winter’s rest in the Old Province. Precisely as though he stood on the threshold of a campaign, he arranged his chain of forts and – with flying columns of men familiar with the deserts – kept hounding Tacfarinas from one desert camp to another until at last, after capturing the renegade’s brother, he returned.

Yet this was done too quickly for the interests of the province, since he left those behind him who were capable of resuscitating the war. Tiberius, however, chose to treat it as ended, and even conferred on Blaesus the privilege of being saluted “imperator” by his legions: a time-honoured tribute to generals who, after a successful campaign, were acclaimed by the joyful and spontaneous voice of a conquering army. Several might hold the title simultaneously, nor did it raise them above an equality with their colleagues. It was awarded in a few cases even by Augustus. Now, for the last time, Tiberius assigned it to Blaesus.

Book 4

23 This year at last freed the Roman people from the long-lasting war with the Numidian Tacfarinas. For earlier commanders, once they considered their exploits sufficient for a grant of triumphal decorations, usually left the enemy in peace. Three laurelled statues already adorned the capital while Tacfarinas was still harrassing Africa, reinforced by contingents of Maurians (or: Moors) who, during the heedless youth of Juba’s son Ptolemy,​ had sought in war a change from royal freedmen and servile despotism. The Garamantian king​ acted as the receiver of his plunder and the partner of his forays, not to the extent of taking the field with an army, but by despatching light-armed troops, whose numbers report magnified in proportion to the distance. From the province itself every man of broken fortunes or turbulent character rushed to his standard with great eagerness because (after the successes of Blaesus), as though no enemies were left in Africa, the Caesar had ordered the ninth legion back. Nor had Publius Dolabella, proconsul for the year and more apprehensive of the emperor’s orders than of the chances of war, ventured to detain it.

24 Accordingly, Tacfarinas launched a rumour that other peoples were also engaged on the dismemberment of the Roman empire, which for that reason was step by step evacuating Africa, and that the Roman garrison remaining might be cut off by the combined onslaught of all who preferred freedom to slavery. Then Tacfarinas increased his strength, established a camp, and invested the town of Thubuscum.​ Dolabella, on the other hand, mustered every available man and, through the terrors of the Roman name and the inability of the Numidians to face embattled infantry, raised the siege at his first advance and fortified the various strategic points. At the same time Dolabella brought to the block the Musulamian​ chiefs who were contemplating rebellion. Then, as several expeditions against Tacfarinas had shown that a nomadic enemy could not be subdued by a single incursion carried out by heavy-armed troops, he summoned king Ptolemy [king of Mauretania, ca. 20-40 CE] with his countrymen and arranged four columns under the command of legates or tribunes. Companies of raiders were led by chosen Maurians. Dolabella himself was present as adviser to all the divisions.

25 Before long, word came in that the Numidians had pitched their tents and were lying close by a half-ruined fort called Auzea, to which they had themselves set fire some time ago. The Numidians felt confident of their ground since it was encircled by enormous woods. On this, the light cohorts and mounted squadrons, without being informed of their destination, were hurried off at full speed. Day was just breaking when – with a fierce yell and a blast of trumpets – they came on the half-awakened barbarians, while the Numidian horses were still shackled or straying through distant pasture-grounds.

On the Roman side, the infantry were in massed formation, the cavalry disposed in troops, every provision made for battle. The enemy, in contrast, were aware of nothing, without weapons, without order, without a plan, and they were dragged to slaughter or to captivity like cattle. Embittered by the memory of hardships undergone and of battle so often hoped for against this elusive enemy, the Roman soldiers indulged in revenge and blood. Word was passed round the maniples that everyone was to go after Tacfarinas, a familiar figure after so many engagements. There would be no rest from war till the arch-rebel was killed. With his guards cut down around him, his son already in chains, and Romans streaming up from every direction, Tacfarinas rushed on the spears and escaped captivity by way of a death which was not unavenged. This marked the close of hostilities.

26 The request of Dolabella for triumphal distinctions was rejected by Tiberius. This was a tribute to Sejanus, whose uncle Blaesus might otherwise have found his glories lessening. But the step brought no added fame to Blaesus, and the denial of the honour heightened the reputation of Dolabella. With a weaker army, Dolabella had credited himself with prisoners of note, a dead general, and a war concluded. He was attended also (a rare spectacle in the capital) by a number of Garamantian ambassadors, whom the Garamantians had sent to offer satisfaction to the Roman people because the Garamantians were awed by the fate of Tacfarinas and conscious of their delinquencies. Then, as the campaign had demonstrated Ptolemy’s good-will, an old-fashioned distinction was revived. A member of the senate was despatched to present him with the traditional bounty of the Fathers, an ivory sceptre with the embroidered robe, and to greet him by the style of king, ally, and friend.

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