The Man Behind the Man: 8 Great Commanders Who Stood in the Shadows of Legendary Leaders

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3 – Titus Labienus (100 BC? – 45 BC) [Julius Caesar]

Not a great deal is known about the early life of Titus Labienus although it is likely that he had ties with Pompey from an early age as he had a desire to rise up through the military ranks and Pompey was a patron for Picenum. Labienus served in the army from 78 – 75 BC in Cicilia and the next mention of him is when he became Tribune for the Plebs in 63 BC. At this point, Caesar worked closely with Pompey, and it was during this time that Labienus struck up a friendship with Caesar.

Labienus used his political role as a springboard into a position of military command, and he became Caesar’s legate in Gaul. Indeed, he is the only legate Caesar mentioned by name during his first campaign record which suggests that he held Labienus in high regard. It’s clear that Caesar trusted him implicitly because Labienus was given full command of the legions in Gaul when the great commander was away; as he was in 54 BC during his second invasion of Britain.

Labienus distinguished himself during a battle against the Nervii and Atrebates near Sabis in 57 BC. He defeated the Artebates force and sent his 10th legion to aid Caesar against the Nervii, thus turning the tide of the battle and helping his leader secure an important victory. Other impressive wins for Labienus include a victory over the Treviri and a big success against the Parisii at the Battle of Agendicum. Caesar rewarded him by making Labienus the governor of Cisalpine Gaul in 51 BC before things went sour.

Before Caesar took Rome, Labienus defected over to Pompey. Historians are still unable to agree as to the reasons for the move. Perhaps he felt as if he was the equal of Caesar on the battlefield and that he deserved even greater credit. Maybe he was simply opposed to Caesar’s move and wanted to help his country against a possible tyrant. Also, it is important to remember that he knew Pompey many years before he met Caesar. Whatever the reason, his decision was a disastrous one.

Labienus lost none of his command skills while on Pompey’s side. The difference was, he was used less often than he had been under Caesar. Pompey did not listen to his advice to attack Caesar in Gaul, and at the Battle of Thapsus, supreme command was given to Cato, a man whose military skills paled in comparison to Labienus’. Previously, at the Battle of Ruspina in 46 BC, he was able to bring a temporary halt to Caesar’s advance.

Even his death at the Battle of Munda in 45 BC owed more to the incompetence of his troops than his own shortcomings. He spotted an assault on the army’s rear and went to meet the enemy with his cavalry which he brought from the front lines. His men misinterpreted the move as a sign of retreat and fled. The Pompeian’s suffered huge losses, and Labienus was killed in the battle.

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