Battle of the Muthul

Battle of the Muthul
Part of Jugurthine War
Date108 BC
Locationnear Muthul River, Numidia
Result Roman victory[1]
Numidia Roman Republic
Commanders and leaders
Quintus Caecilius Metellus
Gaius Marius
20,000 men (light infantry, cavalry), 84 war elephants 35,000 infantry men
Casualties and losses
Low High

The Battle of the Muthul was an episode of the Jugurthine War. This battle was fought in 108 BC between the Numidians led by King Jugurtha, and a Roman force under Caecilius Metellus. The Romans were victorious, and four years later Jugurtha was dead, executed by the Romans following his capture by Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The Roman historian Publius Rutilius Rufus distinguished himself during the battle, while Gaius Marius' military genius shone through for the first time, saving the day for the Romans.

The Muthul River ran through Adherbal's old kingdom in eastern Numidia.[2] It has been identified as the Wäd Mellag,[3] and in this case Metellus would have started his campaign in south-east Numidia, with the aim of strengthening his communication links. Other views (Mannert and Forbiger) identify the Muthul with the river Ubus, with Metellus starting his campaign in western Numidia, and later returning to Zama.

The battle

The objective of Metellus' army was to reach the interior of Numidia. His army had to descend from the mountains and cross a desert plain, eighteen miles wide to reach the Muthul River where he could refill his water reserves. Jugurtha had deployed part of his infantry and all of his war elephants along the river, under Bomilcar, while all of his cavalry and the best part of his infantry was hidden in a short and bushy ridge along the path the Roman army had to follow.

Descending from the mountain pass, Metellus noticed the ambush, but his army needed to refill its water reserves, and thus had to cross the desert without cavalry coverage and within sight of the enemy. So he detached a small force under the command of P. Rutilius Rufus to set up a camp beside the river. The main part of the Roman army moved diagonally towards the Numidian force on the ridge to dislodge them.

Jugurtha ordered his infantry to cut off the retreat of the Romans by occupying the mountain pass while the Numidian cavalry charged against the Romans scattering them into small detachments. The Romans were kept in small groups, unable to perform any coordinated movement. Each group was fighting for its own survival, and the Numidian cavalry had control of the battlefield. Bomilcar engaged the troops of Rufus, thus preventing him from aiding Metellus' troops.

At this point an officer who had risen from the ranks, C. Marius, re-organized a few detachments, and led a column of 2000 soldiers through the Numidians to free his commander Metellus. Marius then led the Roman column up the hill against the Numidian infantry, which retreated, leaving the Romans with control of the hill. From this position, Marius led his men against the rear of the Numidian cavalry, uniting the separated Roman detachments into a single army.

At the same time, Rufus had held the Numidian force on the river, and succeeded in killing or routing the Numidian elephants. At evening, the two armies met and rejoined.

Despite the retreat of the Numidians, the retreat was well-timed by the quick-thinking Jugurtha. As a result, Jugurtha's forces suffered light casualties compared to the battered Romans. Therefore, the result was somewhat indecisive.

The Romans primarily survived the battle thanks to the luck of the Roman scouts prior to the battle, and the inspirational leadership of Marius against the odds.

After the battle

Jugurtha disbanded most of his troops and skilfully and successfully reverted to guerilla warfare. Hearing of the Battle of the Muthul and Metellus' subsequent manoeuvres against Numidian cities, Romans back home applauded Metellus' performance:

great joy was manifested at Rome when intelligence was received of the success of Metellus; how he had conducted himself and his army according to the ancient discipline; and had, by his bravery, come off victorious, though under the disadvantage of situation [...]. The senate, therefore, appointed public thanksgivings and oblations to the immortal gods for the success of their arms. The city, before full of anxiety for the event of the war, was now filled with joy, and nothing was to be heard but the praises of Metellus.[4]

Metellus and Marius drove two columns against the Numidian cities, but Metellus' defeat at Zama forced the Romans to return to Carthage.

Marius returned to Rome, where he was elected consul with the support of the people and over the objections of the Senate. Since the Senate did not give him an army, he called for volunteers. He allowed citizen classes that had never been levied previously into the army. Marius thus reformed the Roman army, and went on to conquer Numidia and capture Jugurtha (106 BC).

The Senate disliked Marius and gave the title of Numidicus to Metellus, and recognized Marius' lieutenant Lucius Cornelius Sulla as the conqueror of Numidia. However, Marius retained the support of the people of Rome, and became consul six more times in the following years.


  1. Sallust, Jugurthine War, 53.
  2. "Muthul", in Smith (1854), Dictionary of Greek and Roman Geography, illustrated by numerous engravings on wood.
  3. Tissot Géographie comparée 1. pp. 67–68.
  4. Sallust, Jugurthine War 55.


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