Munda: The Battle to End the War

The Battle of Munda was the final clash in Caesar’s Civil War which had begun with his crossing the Rubicon in 49BC.
Home » Articles » Munda: The Battle to End the War

Fought in 45BC, three years after the battle of Pharsalus when Julius Caesar triumphed over Pompey Magnus, this victory over his old rival’s sons finished the war and ended the Republic. Turney’s latest novel climaxes at Munda in Spain, and here he details the battle and his investigations into where exactly it took place.

In 2020, I wrote the fourteenth (penultimate) volume of Marius’ Mules, the series based upon the Gallic and Civil wars of Julius Caesar. One thing I like to do with my work, when I am to cover an important battle, is to get the details right. I like to locate, study, and for preference, walk, the battlefield. In the case of the battle in question for MM14, the battle of Munda, there were two hurdles. Firstly, COVID has prevented travel for research these past few years. Secondly, the site of Munda has never been convincingly located. Some research was clearly in order.

The last battle of Caesar’s career was fought in southern Spain (Hispania Baetica) against Sextus Pompey and his brother Gnaeus, though the location of the battle site remains a matter of debate among historians and archaeologists. Thus begun a two month search without it being possible to physically visit the region.

Prior to the Battle of Munda, Caesar’s engagements occurred on the River Salsum (convincingly identified as the Guadajoz, south of Cordoba), and then in a series of locations, pursuing the forces of Pompey. Of the sites mentioned in sources, the site of Aspavia is unknown, but Soricaria has been identified with Castro del Rio and Ventipo with Casariche. The last stop before Munda on Caesar’s journey is Carruca. Though the location of this place unknown, if it follows in a rough line from Castro del Rio and Casariche, would lie somewhere between there and Osuna. The end point of Munda, then, seems likely to lie somewhere in the region of Osuna.

A number of towns have been linked with the battle over the years. Some seem to be based largely on etymology. Monda, for instance, fits with little of the known geography and makes little sense other than the similarity of the names.

So what do we know about Munda? The only details we have in literature are from the De Bello Hispaniensi attributed to Julius Caesar, though likely written by one of his officers. In the text, we are told that “Caesar marched into the plain of Munda” and that “Between the two camps ran a plain, extending for some five miles”. We are also told that it is “lofty country, bastioned by hills with an occasional intervening plain”. So we seek a five mile plain within a region of hills.

The plain lay beside the city of Munda, a walled city of some size, judging by the sieges of the place. The city must have lain at the edge of the field of battle rather than at some distance, for we are also told that Pompey’s camp was protected “by the fortifications of the town itself”, and that he “would not venture to advance far from the defences of the town: on the contrary, they were establishing themselves in the town close to the wall.”

Furthermore, “extending from the town the plain nearest to it levelled out, and down to where a stream ran in front of it, which made the ground there extremely awkward […] for the soil to the right of the river’s course was marshy and full of bog‑holes.”

And finally, the plain was not flat, but sloped up in stages with periodic flat parts, from the river to the town, for we are told that Pompeius was grateful for the “lofty nature of the ground”, “the enemy were ready on higher ground” and “they gave our men the opportunity of engaging them on steep ground”.

If the identification of Soricaria with Castro del Rio and Ventipo with Casariche is correct, then Munda must logically lie somewhere to the west of there. Surviving Pompeian officers flee to both Carteia and Cordoba, and so a generalised location should be possible.

Caesar’s campaign to Munda

So, is there anything else we know? Epigraphy and archaeology connected to Republican battles is exceedingly rare. We know that the region of Osuna/Ecija was connected, for inscriptions found there laud the town of Astigi (Ecija) for siding with Caesar. But the most interesting evidence located is a collection of sling bullets found near the town of La Lantejuela, itself a place with Roman vestiges, which lies conveniently between Osuna and Ecija. These sling bullets bear inscriptions that appear to place them in the army of Caesar’s opponents. CN MAG has been interpreted as Gnaeus Pompey, the son of the famous Pompey Magnus, and others found bearing AVAR have been linked with Attius Varus, another leader of the opposition.

Of course, whether La Lantejuela itself can be identified as the battle site, or whether it was just one of undoubtedly many skirmish sites the armies occupied over the weeks, it is hard to say.

Of the many claimants for the location of Munda, we can probably rule out Montilla, which, given other identified locations, would mean Caesar’s army doubling back on itself between Ventipo and Munda. Monda is far too far south to be considered, the plain there no more than 2 miles long and lacking a swampy river. Both Ronda and Acinipo fit the bill in a number of ways, but are too far south to be likely, given that the survivors flee to Corduba.

To suggest a site for Munda, then, we need to satisfy these conditions:

  • A Roman city
  • A plain 5 miles long that slopes down from the city to a river in a hilly region
  • That river is crossable but potentially marshy
  • West of Castro del Rio and Casariche but close to La Lantejuela, Osuna and Ecija

A number of matching sites have been suggested, from the Las Camoras area to the east of La Lantejuela to various places along the Rio Blanco north of El Rubio. Of the many claimants, these latter better match the criteria. I spent many happy hours on Google Earth, searching field by field and cross referencing with literary sources and other people’s research. Had COVID not been an issue, I would have been out there in a car driving and walking every possible route. In the end, I placed my battlefield on the Rio Blanco just as a number of other historians and archaeologists have.

My site lies just off the A388 a mile or two northwest of El Rubio. Here, the Rio Blanco snakes to the north. It is a narrow enough river for infantry and cavalry to cross, but is also prone to flooding, the ground on either bank being low and (now) agricultural. It fits the bill. To the west of the river, the ground slopes gently upwards, rising some 200 feet across the proposed battleground. The region is one of gently rolling hills. And best of all, as I passed along this road some years ago, my attention was caught by a ruined tower atop the slope to the west. This tower is a late medieval structure known as the Torre De Gallape, but some investigation turns up the fact that this tower was partly constructed of Roman brick and tile, suggesting the presence of a Roman civil site in the proximity. While identification of said Roman material with a ‘city’ is tenuous, and there has been no archaeological evidence as yet unearthed of a battle there, the site satisfies the criteria as much as any other, and more than many, and so I am content that it was at least a feasible site.

In truth, the location of the Battle of Munda is likely to remain a subject of contention among academics until the end of time, unless (as happened with the Teutoburg conflict) someone stumbles across the site of the battle with all its buried archaeology. For now, it remains a fascinating puzzle and a subject for armchair archaeologists.

S.J.A. Turney is the acclaimed author of the Rise of the Emperors series. His latest book is Marius’ Mules XIV: The Last Battle.