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Advent calendar for December 15: the Battle of Tricamarum

At the far end of our ancient period, a battle took place on December 15. The year was AD 533, at the battle of Tricamarum, Belisarius fought the Vandal king Gelimer some 30km from Carthage.

The campaign

The battle of Tricamarum was the decisive battle in the Byzantine reconquest of  Vandal North Africa. The whole campaign was lightning fast. Belisarius had left Constantinople in June 533 and landed in North Africa three months later, in late September. He had only 15,000 men with him, 10,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry. With these he expected to face 80,000 Vandals – Procopius (essentially our only source for the campaigns) tells us this number on several occasions (History of the Wars 3.5.18; Secret History 18.6). No modern author wants to accept such a discrepancy, however, and it is usually revised down to 20-30,000 men. They were, however, all cavalry (Procopius 3.8.27). Procopius was the adsessor (legal advisor) of Belisarius and accompanied him on his campaigns in North Africa. He, therefore, offers priceless insights and we must find good reasons to reject what he tells us.

Nonetheless, Belisarius was outnumbered but he forged on, confident in success. At Ad Decimum (literally ‘at the tenth’ milestone) some 70 stadia (14.8km) from Carthage, Belisarius fought a piecemeal battle against the Vandals – his Hun foederati defeated a force more than three times their size led by Gelimer’s nephew Gibamundus while his advance guard of only 300 men defeated a much larger Vandal force from Carthage led by Gelimer’s brother Ammatas. Gelimer himself was pursuing the Romans but, coming on the site of Ammatas’ defeat ahead of Belisarius, he found his brother’s corpse and, when Belisarius led a charge of all his remaining cavalry, the Vandals fled. Although a defeat, the Vandals only suffered 800 casualties (Procopius 4.3.18) and so were still intact and a real threat. Gelimer fled with his men to the Plain of Boulla, probably around Bulla Regia, near modern Jendouba, Tunisia. There he was reinforced by his other brother, Tzazon who returned from the reconquest of Sardinia with 5,000 more men.

Belisarius, meanwhile, had advanced on Carthage and taken it unopposed. He immediately set about restoring the defences (something Gelimer had neglected to do). He also built another palisade around the walls so they were protected while the repairs were carried out. When Gelimer advanced towards Carthage with his army once more in mid-December (4.3.28), he found the city well defended. They had destroyed part of the aqueduct and expected someone in the city to betray it to them. No one did. Gelimer again withdrew, to Tricamarum, a location which has not been securely identified, but 30km from Carthage and on a river (although not much of one). Belisarius pursued him. Procopius tells us that the Huns were in two minds as to whether to betray Belisarius or not (4.2.3) – this seems unlikely. They did not take much part in the battle, however, and it is possible Procopius has provided this potential betrayal as an explanation (they did not end up betraying Belisarius). More likely is that they had done their part at Ad Decimum and probably suffered casualties (their 600 saw off 2,000 Vandal cavalry there).

The battle

Belisarius’ pursuit brought him to the area of the Vandal camp on the 14th of December. On the following morning, both Gelimer and Tzazon spoke to their army (Tzazon encouraged his Sardinian veterans to become the "saviours of the nation of the Vandals" (4.2.30). They led their army out around lunchtime. This was apparently unexpected by Belisarius since there had been no activity earlier in the morning. The Vandals arrayed themselves for battle along the bank of the stream, but one so small that it was not given a special name by the locals. The Romans came to the opposite bank and arrayed themselves (4.3.2-3). Procopius goes into some detail regarding the Roman deployment (4.3.4-5). The left wing consisted of foederati, the right of the remaining cavalry and the centre consisted of the infantry and two contingents of 500 bucellari – heavy cavalry hired and equipped at Belisarius’ expense. One was under Belisarius’ command, the other commanded by John the Armenian.

Tzazon was in the centre of the Vandal line (with his 5,000 veterans) and the remainder of the Vandals on either side of him. Procopius tells us (4.3.9) that “the command had been previously given to all the Vandals to use neither spear nor any other weapon in this engagement except their swords.” He has already told us that the Vandals did not use missile weapons (3.8.27) "for they were neither good with the javelin nor with the bow." By contrast, many of Belisarius’ foederati were mounted archers. 

After deploying, there was some time where nothing happened. Eventually, John the Armenian charged his cavalry at Tzazon. This was a feint, however, intended to draw his force across the stream. John’s force soon withdrew towards the Roman camp. Tzazon was not baited but halted his men’s pursuit (4.3.11). John charged a second time with the same results (4.3.12). A third charge was mounted by “almost all the guards and spearmen of Belisarius he took the general's standard and made his attack with much shouting and a great noise” (4.3.13). The Vandals fought this charge too using only their swords as instructed. A fierce fight developed and Tzazon fell. This was the decisive moment. The entire Roman army now advanced and the Vandals, without Tzazon to inspire them fled precipitously – “each of the Roman divisions turned to flight those before them with no trouble” (4.3.15). Only now did the Huns join the fight (explained by Procopius as the aforementioned potential perfidy). This second defeat completely broke the Vandals – they fled to Hippo Regius.

The Romans plundered the Vandal camp and then pursued the Vandals. Many in Hippo Regius surrendered the first chance they got. Gelimer fled to Mount Pappas (a site with remains unidentified) and there remained under siege by one of Belisarius’ foederati commanders until March the following year when he surrendered unconditionally. He would be paraded in triumph in Constantinople and then sent into retirement in Galatia. 2,000 of his warriors were enlisted into the Roman armies of Theodosius I. Belisarius’ conquest of North Africa and the entire Vandal Empire is remarkable – it was all achieved within 3 months of his landing in North Africa and only six months after Belisarius left Constantinople. It is one of the most rapid and largest conquests in ancient military history.

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