The Battle of the Muthul River
by: M. Horatius Piscinus
At the Battle of the Muthul River Gaius Marius first came to prominence as a Roman legatus.
In the spring of 108 BCE Quintus Caecilius Metellus finally led a Roman army against Jugurtha, after a few Roman defeats and political intrigues had prolonged the war needlessly. Jugurtha withdrew before Metellus and prepared a trap. The path of the Roman army had to cross a mountain range to reach the Numidian interior, then traverse a desert plane eighteen miles wide before reaching the River Muthul where it would find much needed water before it could move on. Along the flank of the desert plane was a low ridge covered with brush. Near the River Muthul, Jugurtha placed a portion of his infantry and all of his elephants as a blocking force. Behind the ridge, near to the mountain passes, he placed the best of his remaining infantry and all of his cavalry.
Coming out of the mountain passes, Metellus saw the trap, but knew he had to reach the river. He dispatched a small force under Publius Rutilius Rufus towards the river that was to pitch camp. The main body of his army he had march out of the mountain passes piecemeal in small detachments, marching obliquely across the plane towards Jugurtha's forces on the ridge. His plan of battle, exposing the flank of part of his army, exposing part to a superior force, and engaging a cavalry force when he lacked any cavalry to screen his own movements, almost cost him his entire army.
Jugurtha had his infantry on the ridge cross behind the Romans to retake the mountain passes and thus cut off the Roman army's retreat. Swarms of Numidian cavalry charged down from the ridge engulfing the Romans, keeping them in small detachments that were unable to advance or support one another. Bomilcar, leading the other portion of Jugurtha's infantry and elephants, attacked Rufus so that he was unable to reinforce the main Roman body. At that point the confused battle had broken down into several small engagements, each Roman detachment having to desperately fight its own battle to survive, while Numidian cavalry controlled the battlefield and prevented the Romans from making any coordinated effort.
It was then that Marius, a Roman officer who had risen from the ranks, managed to put together a number of Roman detachments, forming a column of about two thousand legionaries. First he reached Metullus and rescued his commander's detachment. Then forming his force at the foot of the ridge, Marius led the charge uphill that routed Jugurtha's finest infantry, seized the ridge and regained the mountain passes. From this advantage point Marius was then able to fall on the rear of the Numidian cavalry and rejoin the separated detachment into a cohesive Roman army. Meanwhile Rufus held off Bomilcar, then led another attack that scattered Bomilcar's force and killed or captured all of the Numidian elephants. Late in the evening the two Roman forces finally managed to rejoin.
Marius' action saved Metullus' army from annihilation at Muthul. Metellus next split his force into two columns, one led by himself, the other by Marius. Both columns went on to seize the towns of Numidia, Marius succeeding, where Metellus stalled. At Zama, Metullus was again taken by surprise, his camp overrun by Jugurtha. He was forced to withdraw his entire army back to the Roman province around Carthage, thus abandoning all the towns seized by Marius in Numidia. Metellus' treatment of his own men led to a breach between himself and Marius. Marius returned to Rome and, against the opposition of the Senate, appealing directly to the people of Rome, he was elected consul in 107 BCE. Next the Senate refused to grant an army for the new consul, so Marius called for volunteers, and even accepted those Roman citizens who did not meet the property qualifications as was previously required of those who served in the army. He made his famed reform and reorganization of the Roman army, and then returned in 106 to conquer Numidia as well as capture Jugurtha along with his sons. For all that he accomplished, the Senate remained hostile towards Marius, awarding the honor to Metellus of being called Numidicus, and crediting Marius' victories to his lieutenant Cornelius Sulla. The people of Rome, however, did not forget Marius, electing him consul six more times over the next twenty years.