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Tacfarinas

Tacfarinas (†24 CE): leader of a Berber tribe in the Maghreb that fought against the Romans during the reign of the emperor Tiberius.

Coin of the Third Legion, later called Augusta
Coin of the Third Legion, later called Augusta
The second, third and fourth books of the Annals of the Roman historian Tacitus contain the account of the rebellion of Tacfarinas, a former soldier of the Roman auxiliary troops who had learned how to find a Roman war, deserted, and was able to bring a professional legion, III Augusta, into deep trouble.

He belonged to the Berber tribe of the nomadic Musulamii that lived in the south of the Roman provinces of Numidia and Mauretania Caesariensis, i.e. in modern Algeria, on the Sahara frontier. His rebellion, which started in 17, was not the first of the Musulamii, who had revolted in 5/6 as well.

The war started as one could have expected from a nomadic leader fighting against an agrarian state: with cattle thefts and small raids. Nomads need freedom to move whereas the Romans needed clear borders and did not like cattle on the arable land. This type of conflict is as old as agriculture itself.

Tacfarinas gathered a band of robbers, ready for plunder and rape. Later, however, he organized them like soldiers in regular battalions with standards. From now on, he could no longer be regarded as the chief of some undisciplined rabble, but was commander of the tribe of the Musulamii.note

After his initial hit-and-run actions had been successful, Tacfarinas received support from other people, like the Moorish leader Mazippa. However, the Roman governor of the nearby province of Africa, a proconsul named Marcus Furius Camillus, and the Third legion Augusta defeated the rebels in 17 in a regular battle. The general was hailed by the emperor Tiberius as a war hero and received a statue with a laurel wreath, but Tacfarinas was still alive and able to continue a guerilla, the type of war the Romans least understood.

In 18, the leader of the Musulamii besieged and annihilated a subunit of III Augusta near the river Pagyda (unidentified). The new governor, Lucius Apronius, blamed the legionaries and restored discipline according to an ancestral custom: decimation, i.e. the killing of every tenth soldier. Having done this, he defeated his enemy near a town named Thala. Although he was the second commander to receive a statue with a laurel wreath, he had in fact been unable to end the war. The rebel army was even able to strike in new directions, threatening the Roman towns along the coast.

Tiberius
Tiberius
The war lasted on and Tacfarinas even sent an embassy to Tiberius to demand land. Although this was probably meant as an overture to end the war, the result was the opposite, because the Roman emperor felt insulted that the former deserter dared to threat Rome as his equal. "Not even Spartacus", declared Tiberius, "dared to send envoys." In 21, the emperor sent VIIII Hispana, until then stationed in modern Croatia, to help III Augusta.

Governor Quintus Junius Blaesus renewed the war, but not without concessions. First he announced an amnesty, and many people left Tacfarinas. Next, Blaesus marched to the interior of Numidia. Two other armies protected his flanks: Publius Cornelius Scipio, the commander of the ninth legion, marched through eastern Tunisia, Blaesus' son protected the northwest.

Between the two was the general himself with some picked troops. By establishing redoubts and fortified lines in commanding positions, he had rendered the whole country embarrassing and perilous to the foe, for, whichever way he turned, a body of Roman soldiers was in his face, or on his flank, or frequently in the rear. Many were thus slain or surprised. Blaesus then further divided his triple army into several detachments under the command of centurions of tried valor. At the end of the summer he did not, as was usual, withdraw his troops and let them rest in winter quarters in the old province; but, forming a chain of forts, as though he were on the threshold of a campaign, he drove Tacfarinas by flying columns well acquainted with the desert, from one set of huts to another, till he captured the chief's brother, and then returned, too soon however for the welfare of our allies, as there yet remained those who might renew hostilities. Tiberius however considered the war as finished, and awarded Blaesus the further distinction of being hailed imperator by the legions.note

After this victory, Blaesus  received a statue with a laurel wreath. The Ninth was recalled in 23: its commander Publius Cornelius Scipio received a monument along the Cardo of Lepcis Magna.

However, Tacfarinas returned and started to build a new army. But now, the Third Augustan legion was able to overcome its enemy. Supported by Mauretanians from the kingdom of king Ptolemy, Publius Cornelius Dolabella defeated the rebel at a fortress in a forest called Auzea (unidentified) in 24. Tacfarinas committed suicide.

The Musulamii revolted again in 45, but were defeated by the Roman general Servius Sulpicius Galba (the future emperor). This was the end of their resistance. In the last quarter of the first century, a unit of Musulamii was added to the Roman army, the cohors Musulamiorum. The Roman emperor Trajan (98-117) forced the nomadic tribe to become sedentary. The territory he gave them was larger than the territory that had belonged to them in the days of Tacfarinas, and it can not be excluded that as part of the final settlement with the Musulamii, the Romans gave in to his demand of land.

This page was created in 2003; last modified on 11 April 2014.