Tacfarinas: Rome’s North African Nightmare | History Hit

Tacfarinas: Rome’s North African Nightmare

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By the beginning of the 1st century AD, Rome had established itself as the dominant power on the African coastline. Its authority extended all the way from Tingis (Tangier) in the west to Lepcis Magna (Labdah) in the east, and beyond. Controlling such a large domain brought prosperity to the superpower, for Africa’s Mediterranean coastline was abundant in fertile lands.

Such lands, alongside Roman citizenship, were perfect for Rome to distribute as payment to soldiers at the end of their military careers. Retired servicemen therefore settled in Africa en-masse. With this influx of its own citizens, Rome cleverly strengthened its control over its southern-most possessions. They quickly made Northern Africa their own.

Arch in the Roman-Berber ruins at Djemila, Algeria.

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Yet the Romans were not the only people to inhabit this land. Semi-nomadic native tribes co-existed with this power on the fringes of the Sahara. These were the Berber tribes; tribes such as the Garamantes in Tripolitania, the Musulamii and Gaetuli neighbouring the Roman province of Africa Proconsulares, and the Mauri in Mauretania. They preferred to fight lightly-armed and with extreme mobility, the hot climate no friend to slow, heavily armoured units. Truly, these people were the masters of desert warfare.


In 17AD, open hostilities broke out between these two peoples. This revolt likely (although the Roman historian Tacitus claims otherwise) erupted from an extortionate Roman Imperial policy consistent on frontier communities throughout its Empire. This was a policy of heavy taxes, encroachments on local lands, as well as forced recruitment into the army. No wonder that resentment and anger soon gripped the local African tribes. To the west in Mauretania, however, there was a clearer explanation for the outbreak.

Greco-Roman historians including Herodotus, Tacitus and Pliny the Elder would have us believe that the Garamantes were simple uncivilised cattle herders, living in sporadic camp dwellings. Luckily, archaeologists like Professor David Mattingly have dedicated years of research to sifting the fact from the fiction in the story of these residents of present day Libya.
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At this time, the province of Mauretania  was what we would call a client state of Rome. Its King, Juba II, was effectively a pawn of the Empire, ready to serve on command. The Berber tribes in the region, especially the Mauri, knew this. They could not respect such an uninspiring puppet of a leader who realistically had very little authority. Insurgency ensued throughout the province.

For all the above reasons, open hostilities broke out between the Berbers and Rome across Northern Africa. Powerful tribes such as the Musulamii, Mauri and Cinithii united in common purpose. Their unity was down to one man.


Tacfarinas, by Roman standards, was the lowest of the low. He was a former auxiliary soldier turned deserter. Bu to the Berbers he was the leader of the resistance.

Having deserted the Roman army, Tacfarinas returned to his native Musulamii tribe and became one of its chiefs. His knowledge of how the Romans trained and fought was invaluable. Indeed, Tacfarinas even armed some of his soldiers in the heavier Roman manner.

Performance of Roman soldiers parading down the street at Easter, in Calahorra, Spain, 2013.

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Despite the introduction of these ‘Roman’ units, Tacfarinas realised that his troops could not rival Rome in open battle. He learned this the hard way. Yet the threat he posed to Rome remained serious. Following defeat, these tribes resumed a devastating tactic comprised of raiding, looting and harassing their enemy; guerrilla warfare.

Guerrilla warfare

The result of such warfare was devastating: panic and insecurity seized the African provinces. Common people were now in the front line of the war, and at any time their land could be raided and their livelihoods left in tatters.

Roman soldiers were simply not used to such unconventional fighting and suffered heavy losses as a result. Their morale plummeted. To counter the problem, Roman commanders reintroduced decimation.

He was one of the greatest rebels of Rome from the 1st century AD, but his name is not one you might initially think of. For several years, between 19 and 24 AD, Tacfarinas led a revolt against the Romans in North Africa, sending the province into turmoil and becoming the bane of all troops stationed there to fight him.
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This was one of Rome’s most severe punishments for poor performing soldiers, where every tenth man of a certain unit was beaten to death by his comrades. The implementation of such a rare and drastic measure to restore discipline shows the serious threat Tacfarinas and his rebels posed.

Down but not out

Finally, in 22AD, the Romans hounded the tribes away from guerrilla tactics and forced them into battle. A decisive Roman victory followed and war, at last, looked to be over. Tacfarinas had other ideas. This desert hydra escaped to the fringes of the desert and began to raise new forces.

The man’s resilience was remarkable. Whenever the Romans defeated one of his armies, this leader would quickly raise a new force to challenge his enemy. Only by killing Tacfarinas could the revolt be ended. Within two years, this rebel figurehead rose once again to challenge Rome with a new army. Only now he realised he had an unbelievable opportunity.

A new hope

Following the victory in 22 AD, the Emperor Tiberius made a potentially game-changing decision. Believing the southern border of his Empire was now safe, he relocated one of the African legions to Europe.

In this one act, Rome’s military power in Africa significantly decreased. Only one legion remained to protect the provinces. Tacfarinas took the opportunity to prove that he was more than a mere bandit. The Roman general in Africa, P. Cornelius Dolabella, then made a critical decision.

Bust of king Ptolemy of Mauretania, son of Juba II.

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Seven long years of war had proven that the heavily armoured Roman legionaries were ill-prepared to deal with the nomad forces, so Dolabella demanded military aid from Rome’s puppet state of Mauretania, now ruled by Juba II’s son Ptolemaeus. These local troops would be crucial: they were lightly armed and effective at countering Rome’s fleeting foes.

The critical moment

With these light forces, Dolabella designed a plan to surprise their enemy at a place called Auzea. Such surprise tactics were what Tacfarinas and his rebels had been doing for years. Now, Dolabella’s own light-armed units returned the favour: the surprise attack was a crushing success. Tacitus writes that it was so effective that “The enemy, by contrast unaware of anything, had no weapons, no order, no plan; like sheep, they were dragged off, butchered or captured.”

In one decisive move, Dolabella crushed the insurgent threat. He had caught the tribes off-guard and slaughtered them. Along with other tribal leaders, Tacfarinas died fighting.

The result

Following the demise of Tacfarinas, Rome’s African provinces emerged from seven years strafed by insecurity. Much would change due to these events. In the first instance, Rome realised the feebleness of Mauretania as a client state. Both Juba II and his son Ptolemaus had proven inadequate at handling the nomadic revolt. Indeed, rather than helping to put down the uprising, the perception of these rulers as Roman puppets had potentially encouraged more people to join Tacfarinas and his rebels.

Soon after, Emperor Caligula summoned Ptolemaus to Rome and there had him killed. Rome then annexed Mauretania for itself and divided it in two. As for Dolabella, he received no triumph. Tiberius had already given three to previous generals, believing they had already defeated Tacfarinas, so he would not give a fourth for the same war. Yet Dolabella’s defeat of the tribal confederation earned him much renown.

But Tacfarinas was just the start. Insurgency by the Berbers continued against Roman rule for centuries. Tacfarinas’ revolt showed to the Romans, however, how crucial light-armed troops were to combat local tribes. With this knowledge, relative stability returned to the lands under Roman authority.

Tristan Hughes