Battle of Mount Tifata/ Casilinum, 83 BC

The battle of Mount Tifata or Casilinum (83 BC) was the first major battle during Sulla's invasion of Italy after his return from the east, and saw him defeat the army of the consul Gaius Norbanus (Sulla's Second Civil War).

Both sides were well prepared for war in 83 BC, having spent the previous year preparing for the conflict. In 84 BC the consuls Cinna and Carbo had even prepared to cross from Italy into the Balkans to fight Sulla there, but their troops mutinied and Cinna was killed trying to restore order. When Sulla landed at Brundisium, at the far eastern corner of Italy, the consuls for the year, Gaius Norbanus and Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus failed to defend the area. Sulla was able to advance towards Rome, cross the Apennines and enter Campania before he encountered any recorded resistance.

The consuls for the year did manage to raise a sizable army, 250 cohorts of 500 men (125,000 men) at the start of the war according to Appian, but their army appears to have been scattered when Sulla invaded, and they were forced to send them south from Rome in detachments. Norbanus took the lead, and reached the Volturnus River before encountering Sulla. Scipio was following further behind.

None of our sources give many details of the battle, and there is even some confusion over the location.

Appian places the battle at Canusium (modern Canosa di Puglia). This would place it on the east coast, just over 100 miles to the north-west of Sulla's landing point at Brundisium.

Plutarch puts the battle on Mount Tifatum (or Tifata) in Campania, as does Velleius Paterculus.

Both Appian and Plutarch have the defeated Norbanus retreat into Capua after the battle.

Ancient Capua was located a few miles to the south-east of Casilinum, the location of a Roman bridge over the Volturnus and a junction between the Via Appia and Via Latina. Modern Capua is close to the location of ancient Casilinum. 

The most likely location for the battle is thus Mt. Tifata and Casilinum. Sulla probably followed the Via Appia from Brundisium into Campania, where he found the armies of Gaius Norbanus and Lucius Cornelius Scipio Asiaticus, with Norbanus near the river crossing at Casilinum and Scipio a few miles further to the north-west, to the north of Teanum (modern Teano).

Appian first came to Rome just after the reign of Trajan, who was responsible for building the Via Traiana, which ran north-west from Brundisium and passed close to Canusium, before crossing the Appenines to join the Via Appia not far to the south-east of Capua. It was perhaps thus logical for Appian to assume that Sulla had followed this route, which was shorter than the old Via Appia, thus confusing Canusium and Casilinum. 

Plutarch reported a miraculous sign at Mt Tifata, seen just before Sulla crossed over from Greece. An apparition of two he-goats were seen fighting, but the apparition slowly rose from the earth and dispersed into the air (like a cloud..). The battle the took place in the very same place.

Plutarch provides a short account of the battle. Sulla didn't wait to form up into an order of battle, instead relied on 'a vigorous general alacrity and a transport of courage in them'. Norbanus was routed, and retreated into nearby Capua, having lost 7,000 dead. Sulla believed that this success was the reason that his army didn't disperse when faced with the much larger Marian forces.

Appian provides no details of the battle itself, but does give casualty figures of 6,000 dead for Norbanus and only 70 for Sulla, although Sulla suffered many wounded. Once again Norbanus retreated into Capua.

Velleius Paterculus has the battle happen when Sulla was ascending Mount Tifata, to the east of Casilinum, after a peaceful advance through Calabria and Apulia. He records Norbanus as having lost 7,000 dead and 6,000 prisoners, while Sulla lost 124 dead.

This was perhaps an encounter battle or an ambush, with Sulla finding Norbanus with his men out of formation, perhaps not expecting an attack. This would explain Sulla's decision not to take the time to organise his men into their normal formations, and instead to attack before the enemy could respond. It would also explain the disparity of casualties, although these figures probably came from Sulla's own memoirs, and are thus potentially suspect.

After defeating Norbanus, Scipio moved north, and found Scipio and his army north of Teanum. This time there would be no major battle, as after a period of negotiations Sulla managed to win over Scipio's entire army, and the consul found himself deserted

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 September 2017), Battle of Mount Tifata/ Casilinum, 83 BC , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_tifata.html

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