Plutarch on Caesar's War in Africa

Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.122): influential Greek philosopher and author, well known for his biographies and his moral treatises. His biography is here; the following fragment is from his Life of Julius Caesar.

In April 46, Julius Caesar defeated an army of his opponents at Thapsus in modern Tunisia. Among his enemies was Cato the Younger, a conservative who had been Caesar's most outspoken critic. The Greek author Plutarch of Chaeronea (46-c.120) describes what happened in chapter 52-55 of his Life of Julius Caesar.

The translation below was made by Robin Seager.

[52.1] After the the battle of Pharsalus,note Catonote and Scipionote had escaped to Libya, where, with the help of King Juba, they got together a considerable force. Caesar decided to make an expedition against them

[52.2] and crossed over to Sicily about the time of the winter solstice.note Here he pitched his own tent on the beach, wishing to make it clear immediately to his officers that they need have no hopes of wasting time by staying in the island. And as soon as the wind blew from the right quarter, he embarked and put to sea with 3,000 infantry and a few cavalry.

[52.3] He landed this force without being observed and then put to sea again, since he was anxious about the larger part of his army. He found them, however, already at sea and brought them all into camp.

[52.4] He discovered that the enemy were deriving much encouragement from an ancient oracle to the effect that the family of the Scipios must always be victorious in Africa. Here it is difficult to say whether Caesar was in a jesting spirit making a mock of the Scipio in command of the enemy,

[52.5] , or whether he was quite seriously trying to appropriate the prophecy for himself. What he did was this. He had with him a man who was a completely negligible character except that he belonged to the family of the Africani. (He was called Scipio Sallustio.) This man Caesar put at the head of his troops in battle as though he were the commander. And Caesar was forced to engage the enemy often and to seek battle with them,

[52.6] since there was not enough food for his men or provisions for his horses. In fact they had to feed the horses on seaweed with the salt washed out of it and a little grass mixed with it to make it palatable.

[52.7] The fast-moving Numidians were everywhere in great numbers and controlled the country. There was one occasion when Caesar's cavalry were off duty and were being entertained by a Libyan who was dancing and playing the flute at the same time in a most remarkable manner. The cavalrymen had given their horses to their servants to hold and were sitting on the ground enjoying the performance, when the enemy suddenly swept all round them and attacked, killing some of them on the spot, and chasing the rest of them, who were flying in disorder, right up to their camp.

[52.8] If Caesar himself, with Asinius Pollio,note had not come outside the ramparts to their aid and stopped their flight, the war would have been over then and there.

[52.9] There was also an occasion in another battle when the enemy had got the better of things in the fighting and Caesar, so it is said, seized hold of the standard-bearer who was naming away and, gripping him by the neck, made him face about saying: "Look, that's where the enemy are."

[53.1] Scipio was encouraged by these successes to risk a decisive action. He left Afranius and Juba encamped each a short distance from the other and himself began to fortify a camp beyond a lake near the city of Thapsus, with the idea that this camp should serve the entire army as a base from which to go into action and as a place into which they could retreat.

[53.2] But while he was engaged on this operation, Caesar, marching with incredible speed, made his way through thick woods which disguised his approach, outflanked one division of the enemy, and attacked another from the front.

[53.3] After routing them, he made full use of his opportunity and of the fortune that was going his way. At the first attack he captured the camp of Afranius, and at the first attack he overran and sacked the camp of the Numidians, from which Juba ran away.

[53.4] So in a small part of a single day he made himself master of these camps and killed 50,000 of the enemy without losing as many as fifty of his own men.note

[53.5] This is the account given by some authorities of the battle. Others say that Caesar was not present personally at the action: he began to suffer from an attack of his usual illness just as he was drawing up his troops

[53.6] and ordering them to their positions, and, being aware at once that the illness was coming on, and finding that he was already losing the use of his faculties, he was carried, before they entirely left him, to a tower nearby, where he rested while the battle was going on.

[53.7] Of the men of consular or praetorian rank who survived the battle, some killed themselves as they were being rounded up and others, who were captured, were put to death by Caesar.

[54.1] Cato was in command of the city of Uticanote and for that reason had taken no part in the battle.

[54.2] Being extremely anxious to capture him alive, Caesar hurried to Utica, but found that he had committed suicide. The news clearly had a disturbing effect on Caesar, though it is difficult to say exactly why. Certainly he exclaimed: "Cato, I must grudge you your death, as you grudged me the opportunity of giving you your life."

[54.3] But the essay which he wrote later attacking Cato after his death does not bear the traces of a kindly or forgiving temper. After such a pitiless outpouring of anger against the man when he was dead, one can scarcely imagine that he would have spared him when he was alive.

[54.4] And yet from the kindness which he showed to Cicero and Brutus and very many others who had fought against him it may be inferred that even this essay was written not so much out of his hatred for Cato as from a desire to justify his own policy.

[54.5] The essay came to be written because Cicero had composed a work in praise of Cato, which he entitled Cato. This was widely read, as was natural considering that it was the work of so great a master of oratory writing on such an excellent theme.

[54.6] Caesar, however, was annoyed, since he considered that Cicero's praise of the dead Cato amounted to an attack upon himself; and so he wrote his own essay, called Anti-Cato, in which he put down everything that could be said against him. Both essays have many admirers, just as Cicero and Caesar have.

[55.1] On his return to Rome from Libya Caesar's first reaction was to make a speech to the people in order to impress them with the extent of his victory. He claimed that he had conquered a country large enough to supply the public every year with 200,000 Attic bushels of grain and three million pounds of olive oil.

[55.2] He then celebrated three triumphs - one for Egypt, one for Pontus, and one for Libya. The last of these was officially for his victory victory over King Juba and not for his victory Scipio.

[55.3] On this occasion Juba, the son of the king and a mere infant, was carried in the triumphal procession, and indeed he was the most fortunate of captives, since instead of growing up as a barbarous Numidian he won a place for himself in the end among the most learned historians of Greece.

[55.4] After the triumphs Caesar gave large rewards to his soldiers and entertained the people with banquets and shows. He gave a feast to the whole people at one time, using 20,000 dining couches for the occasion; and he provided gladiatorial shows and naval battles in honor of his daughter Julia, who had died long before this.