The Battle of Thapsus was a disaster for the senatorial side. Some commentators suggest that as many as fifty thousand of Scipio’s and Juba’s troops died that day, April 5, 46 B.C. The author of The African War puts the figure at five thousand. Caesar’s losses were a few hundred at most. Caesar’s 5th Legion turned King Juba’s war elephants on the flanks, the 10th Legion carved into General Scipio’s left wing, and the senatorial line unraveled as the 14th Legion and other units in Caesar’s center bore in. Ironically, Caesar, architect of the victory, was laid low by an epileptic fit early in the battle.
But it was a disaster mitigated by the fact that many senior senatorial officers and the substantially intact 1st Legion managed to withdraw up the coast to Utique, where Cato the Younger had command of the garrison and the fleet in the harbor. Scipio, too, escaped, commandeering the twelve frigates in port—light, undecked ships and the fastest craft available. Taking senators, staff officers, servants, and bodyguards with him, he set sail, intending to join Pompey’s two sons, who were on Spain’s Balearic Isles.
General Labienus, commander of the Senate’s cavalry, also reached Utique. He and General Varus loaded the surviving men of the 1st Legion onto Admiral Octavius’s larger, slower warships, and then they, too, set sail. Once Cato was certain that all who could escape had done so, and knowing that Caesar’s army was advancing up the coast and would soon arrive outside the town, he calmly ate dinner with a few colleagues, then retired to his bedchamber. For a while he read—Plato’s Phaedo, says Dio. In this dialogue, Socrates is in prison, discussing life and death prior to his execution. Cato would have consoled himself with Phaedo’s statement that the souls of the dead exist in some place out of which they come again. His mind composed, Cato lay aside the book, unsheathed his sword, and fell on it, killing himself.
King Juba escaped back to Numidia, traveling by night and hiding in farmhouses by day. Barred by the townspeople from entering Zama, one of his capitals, where his wives and children were holed up—and the site of Hannibal’s last great defeat on land a century and a half before—the king retired to an estate nearby. There he dined with General Petreius before the pair conducted a duel to the death, with the much more powerful Juba coming out the victor. Juba then committed suicide.
With a thousand men, General Afranius fled from his camp eight miles from Thapsus and headed west into Mauretania, accompanied by Lucius Cornelius Sulla Faustus, intending to reach Spain. Faustus, the son of the late dictator of Rome, Sulla, had married Pompey’s daughter Pompeia, and she and their children accompanied him on the flight west. Afranius’s party was eventually captured in Mauretania by Publius Sittius, a bankrupt Roman turned freebooter with an army of mercenaries for hire. Sittius was fresh from destroying the Numidian army of Juba’s deputy, General Saburra, in a one-sided battle in which Saburra, slayer of Curio, also died. In return for a slice of Juba’s former territory in western Numidia, Sittius handed his prisoners over to Caesar.
Caesar set Pompeia and her children free, and they sailed for Spain to join her family. But her husband, Faustus—whose name means “lucky”—and the hapless General Afranius were subsequently executed, along with Caesar’s second cousin, Lucius Caesar.
General Scipio didn’t escape far. Caught in a storm off the Algerian coast as they made for Spain, his twelve little frigates were forced into a bay off the town of Annaba, also known as Bône. There, to Scipio’s horror, he found the fleet that had been supporting Sittius’s operations in Numidia, also sheltering from the storm. These ships quickly surrounded Scipio’s flotilla. Every one of Scipio’s frigates was sunk, and all on board died. Scipio himself committed suicide before he could be captured. Perhaps the words of the centurion of the 14th flashed through his mind in his last moments: “If you haven’t already realized who you’re up against, you’ll soon find out.”
Caesar declared eastern Numidia a new Roman province, having divided the western half between the bandit Sittius and King Bogus of Mauretania, giving it the name Africa Nova, or New Africa, the original African province becoming Old Africa. The two would be combined to become the one province of Africa several decades later. While he was at Zama, auctioning off King Juba’s belongings, Caesar appointed Major General Gaius Sallustius Crispus to control the two African provinces with the rank of proconsul, making him the most senior Roman official between Morocco and Syria, and installing him in Juba’s former palace at Zama. History knows the curly-headed Sallustius better for his later career as the historical writer Sallust.
By June 13, Caesar was sailing out of Utique on his way back to Italy. In his wake, most of his legions were ferried back across the Mediterranean to Sicily, and from there to Italy. As far as he was concerned, the civil war was at an end, and he began planning a major military operation, the invasion of Parthia in the East. In part this was to be an act to restore Roman pride by punishing the Parthians for their crushing defeat of his fellow triumvir Crassus at Carrhae seven years earlier. But according to Plutarch, the operation was to be much more than just a raid of retribution: after defeating the Parthians, Caesar planned to march around the Caspian Sea, through the Caucuses, then conquer Germany and the lands bordering it, adding the entire area to his Roman Empire.
The half-strength 28th Legion was dispatched to Syria to commence preparations for the Parthian operation. The 5th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, and 13th Legions went into camp in Italy, to embark for the East once Caesar had completed all the civil, political, and personal business he had planned. Four legions were left behind in North Africa: the 25th, 26th, 29th, and 14th. Some or all four legions moved into the camp previously built on the cliffs outside Utique by General Varus and set to work extending it.
To be left behind in Africa, a “veteran” legion stationed with three “new” Italian legions, would have been galling for the men of the 14th, like a high school student being put in a class of elementary school children. Certainly theirs was the most senior legion at the station, but that was little to be proud of—all the other senior legions that had taken part in the Battle of Thapsus had been earmarked for the next stage in Caesar’s military career, and here was the 14th consigned to a backwater. Again. Just as it’d been placed in the center at Thapsus along with the new legions, rather than be entrusted with a wing. Apparently never to live down the disgraces of Atuatuca and Lérida, there they would sit, in Tunisia, while other legions fought the last great battle of the Civil War.
In Spain, supporters flocked to Pompey’s two sons Gnaeus and Sextus when they landed from the Balearic Isles with Generals Labienus and Varus and the 1st Legion in the summer of 46 B.C. Despite the fact that the brothers were only in their twenties, the locally based 2nd and Indigena Legions defected to them. Then when Caesar sent his best legions to Spain to deal with these young upstarts, contravening his promise to his veteran troops of just one last campaign in Africa before he released them from military service, the 8th, 9th, and 13th Legions all defected to the Pompey boys as well.
In the end, Caesar went to Spain himself, and defeated the elder Gnaeus Pompey at the March 17, 45 B.C. Battle of Munda, south of Córdoba, a victory wrung from the jaws of defeat. Gnaeus, General Labienus, and General Varus were all killed. A little later, Caesar took Córdoba, and Sextus Pompey went into hiding.
With the end of resistance in Spain, the Civil War was finally over. The peace terminated all chances of the 14th Legion redeeming itself in Caesar’s eyes, or so it would have seemed to the men of the 14th. Now they began to pin their hopes on being included in Caesar’s rumored Parthian operation.
Again the 14th was to be disappointed, for a completely unforeseeable reason. But its day would come. It would be later, rather than sooner; but one day the 14th would be Rome’s most famous legion of all. Before that day arrived, the course of Roman history would be changed, dramatically, in ways no one in 45 B.C. could have imagined.
It began with an event at the capital the following year. Toward the end of March in 44 B.C., the stunned men of the 14th Legion stationed at Utique learned that on March 15, the Ides of March, just four days before he was due to set off for Syria to launch his Parthian offensive, Julius Caesar had been assassinated while attending a meeting of his Senate at Rome.