Sometimes small incidents, rather than glorious exploits, give us the best evidence of character. So, as portrait painters are more exact in doing the face, I must give particular attention to the marks of the souls of men. — Plutarch

Julius Caesar - Ada Russell




Caesar in Egypt, Asia, and Rome

Pompey was murdered on the 28th of September 48, and Caesar, who had followed him to Asia Minor and Cyprus, arrived in Egypt and learned of his death early in the month of October. He found the kingdom almost as unwilling to receive him as, it had been to welcome Pompey, and, seizing the King, Ptolemy, he entrenched himself in the palace and adjoining part of the city of Alexandria. Rome had already made good her claim to interfere in Egypt, and as Roman consul Caesar demanded that Ptolemy and Cleopatra should submit their differences to him. He had ventured into Egypt with the small force of 4000 men (cavalry and infantry) and some war-ships, and now found himself cut off by the excellent Egyptian army. He occupied the harbour on the cast side of Pharos (the citizens holding the western harbour), and made his fortifications so strong that the national army could not enter his side of the capital. A resolute effort was made to spoil his water. Aqueducts led the water of the Nile to the houses of the rich, and now, after immense labour, sea-water was forced into the aqueducts which led to the houses on Caesar's part of the town. The water speedily became unfit to drink, and his soldiers began to clamour against Caesar, whose imprudence had put them into their present position. He at once bade them dig wells; the men laboured all night, and before morning fresh water had been found, and all the enemy's toil wasted.

A legion sent by Domitius Calvinus then dispatched word to Caesar that it had brought him corn and artillery, but could not make the port on account of the east wind. Caesar at once set off to go to it, without any of his troops, and being set upon by some Alexandrian ships, put in to avoid a fight. One of his ships, however, a Rhodian vessel, lagged behind, and was attacked by the Alexandrian fleet. Although very angry he was forced to go to the rescue; and the Rhodians, noted for their naval skill, and fearing lest their folly should be the cause of a great disaster, fought desperately, won an almost incredible victory, and inflicted great slaughter and damage on the foe. If night had not fallen all the enemy's ships might have been taken. The foe then set to work to prepare for a great naval battle, as, if Caesar's ships could be destroyed, he would be more than ever a prisoner. The Alexandrians were a sailor people and their allies were drawn from the neighbouring coasts, and they built ships and drilled their mariners until they thought that they were more than a match for Caesar. Caesar also drilled picked men, and when the day came won a further victory, thanks to his nine Rhodian war-ships. So that he should not be forced to fight another naval battle, which brought him no advantage, he then made a daring attack on the island of Pharos, and seized it and the mole connecting it to the mainland, thus obtaining complete command of the eastern harbour. He filled up with stones the arch by which ships passed under the mole, and was superintending the fortification of his new acquisition when the enemy fell upon him in their long-ships, while their whole army left the city and sought to stop him in his work. The rash conduct of some of the Caesarians in the harbour ended in a general disaster. The workmen on the bridge and mole, isolated from their fellows, fled to the boats on the shore, struggled as to who should get aboard, and sank them by overcrowding, while those who held back were slain by the enemy. A few swam out, supported by their shields, to the ships riding at anchor. Caesar had exhorted his men in vain to remain at the fortifications, and at last, in despair, himself left and hastened on board one of his ships at the mole. When crowds flocked after him, and he saw that his angry commands to them to keep back were disregarded, he leaped over the side and swam to the distant vessels. Some said that he held up the manuscript of his Commentaries  in one hand to keep it from wetting, others that he swam with his general's cloak in his teeth, lest the foe should have it as a trophy. He soon sent boats to bring off as many as possible. The ship he had left went down with everybody on board. The Egyptians then cleared out the arch which he had blocked up and made strong works at this point.

The Egyptians now begged for their King back, and Caesar, to whom he had been of no use, let him go. They found little comfort in his presence, and their spirits were cast down by the news of a great relieving army coming to Caesar from Cilicia and Syria, and of ships on their way with provisions. The army, under Mithradates of Pergamum, advanced by the land route to Pelusium, which was occupied by a strong Egyptian garrison. Pelusium, the key of eastern Egypt, was captured, and then Mithradates went on toward Alexandria, reducing the country in Caesar's name. A messenger carried word to the latter of his approach, and Caesar set forth from Alexandria to join him while, at the same time, Ptolemy hastened off to attack him before Caesar came up. Caesar, however, won the race, as he won every race. Ptolemy encamped on a hill defended on one side by a marsh, on another by the Nile, and on a third by its own steepness. He fortified it in an excellent way, and Caesar, when he appeared, after defeating the cavalry force sent against him, saw at once that it would be a matter of great difficulty to dislodge the defenders. His effort to storm the camp failed, but soon he noticed that the highest part of the hill was undefended. He sent three cohorts to pass round unnoticed, climb the hill, descend, and attack in the rear. They did so, and, as they came down on the startled foe from behind, raised the great cries wherewith warriors create a panic among their opponents. The King's forces began to run hither and thither, and were in the utmost confusion, when the Romans made an attack from the crest and all sides of the hill at once. Some of the foe leaped from the rampart on the side near the river and fell into the trench. The fugitives behind them sprang down on to this locusts' bridge and escaped, the King among them. He boarded a ship waiting there, but sank with the crowds who flocked on after him.

Caesar now marched as absolute victor into Alexandria, entering on the side held by his own forces. All the citizens threw down their arms and left their fortifications. In the raiment of suppliants they bore out their sacred things as they went to meet the conqueror, this being their custom when seeking forgiveness for any offence committed against their kings. Their great city was in a sad condition, with many of its famous buildings destroyed by the war. They had suffered terribly, and Caesar made no attempt to punish them in any way for their behaviour. He settled the dispute as to the succession by referring to the will of Ptolemy's father, who had bequeathed the crown to his elder son and daughter. The elder son, Ptolemy, was now dead, and he appointed the younger son to reign jointly with the elder daughter Cleopatra. This most famous of all beautiful women had been his firm friend ever since he came to Alexandria. He assured the Egyptians that Rome had no designs against their independence, but he left a strong force to watch over affairs and control the sovereigns.

While Caesar had been shut up in Alexandria, Pharnaces, King of Pontus, had annexed Armenia Minor, defeated his lieutenant Domitius Calvinus, and almost destroyed his army at Nicopolis. His presence was urgently called for in Rome, and indeed in nearly every part of the Empire, and, judging from experience, the reduction of a great Asiatic power might be the affair of years; yet he determined to quell Pharnaces. On his way to Pontus he visited almost every Syrian state, settled controversies, and rewarded services. Then he went by forced marches to Pontus. He brought from Egypt the veteran Sixth legion, reduced by wars and travels to less than a thousand men; of the three legions he took over in Asia, two had been already defeated by Pharnaces. Pharnaces tried in vain by flattery and gifts to persuade him to depart, and then placed his army on a hill nearly three miles from the town of Zeta. This hill was connected with the great victory of Zola which Mithradates the King's father had won over the Romans, and Pharnaces believed that the site of his father's camp would bring him luck.

Caesar at once determined to seize the valleys which strengthened this position before the King, who was much nearer to them, could do so. He had materials for a rampart brought into his camp, and setting out at dawn next day he occupied the old battlefield. Then he sent back for the material for the rampart, and his new camp was being fortified when Pharnaces woke in the morning. He at once led his army out of his camp, and as he would have to fight at a great disadvantage at any spot between his camp and Caesar's, Caesar thought that it was merely a military exercise. He therefore merely led his first line out beyond the rampart and allowed the rest to continue their labour at the fortifications. Pharnaces, however, was superstitious, and wished to attack Caesar on the spot where his father had conquered, and believed, too, that his army was vastly superior to that of the Romans. Caesar was very soon astonished to see him descending the steep valley between the two camps, not only crowding his large numbers into a narrow space, but exposing them to the missiles of the Romans from above. He laughed aloud as he saw the dreaded Pontic army in a position which no sane commander would have ventured near, but as Pharnaces held on his way and began to climb the hill on which his camp was stationed, he had to act with the utmost speed. He called the soldiers off the works to arm and take their places in the hurriedly drawn up lines. The suddenness of the call caused some terror, especially as the enemy's scythed chariots sped up the hill and assailed them before they were in order. The charioteers were overpowered with missiles, and the situation made the Roman victory certain, but still there was a stubborn conflict. The Sixth legion, on the right, had the first decisive success, driving the enemy before it down the hill. Soon the whole army was in flight and slain or trampled underfoot in the narrow spaces of the valley. Even the enemy's camp was captured, and Pharnaces and a few cavalry with great difficulty escaped.

This victory (2nd August 47) caused Caesar a special joy, both because he had ended what threatened to be a long war by a single blow, and because he had lost so few men. In the following year, when he celebrated his Pontic triumph in Rome, there was written in large letters on the triumphal car, "Vene, vidi, vici"  ("I came, I saw, I conquered"). He made his faithful ally, Mithradates of Pergamum, King of Bosphorus, in place of Pharnaces, and Tetrarch of Galatia; and thus left a powerful and friendly ruler between the Roman province and hostile states farther east. Then in a quick progress through Asia Minor he settled controversies and altered or confirmed the status of kings, tetrarchs and republics, and appeared in Italy much earlier than he was looked for.

His long absence from Rome was fraught with danger, but fewer mischances had befallen than might have been expected. The first disturbance came from Marcus Caelius Rufus, the praetor, in 48. He agitated for farther measures for relief of the debtors, and boldly proposed 'new tablets,' besides the socialistic plan of abolishing house rent. This brought him an army of rowdy supporters, and he attacked and drove from his tribunal in the Forum the orderly praetor urbanus, Trebonius. Servilius, Caesar's colleague in the consulship for this year, referred the matter to the Senate, and Caelius was forbidden to address the people; whereupon the humiliated demagogue, once Cicero's most brilliant pupil and a great favourite with him and with Caesar, left the city, giving out that he was going to Caesar's camp. Instead, he summoned Milo back to Italy, and sought to collect an army of rustics and gladiators to attack Rome. A stone from a town wall ended the life of Milo, and Caelius had no better fate; he was slain by some Gallic and Spanish cavalry of Caesar's as he was trying to bribe them to hand over Thurii to him.

Now in 47 Rome was again simmering with revolution, and Antony had had to occupy the Forum with an army. Caesar went to the city by forced marches, and the citizens at once sank into quiet, but he had to face the more serious rebellion of his troops. They were clamouring for the rewards promised after Pharsalus, and for dismissal at once, as they had served long beyond the legal period. He sent Sallust with more promises, but they cried out in wrath that they wanted ready money, and Sallust with difficulty escaped with his life. When Caesar heard this he sent the troops with which Antony had guarded the city to protect the town gates and his own house; and then, despite the warnings of his friends, betook himself to the Campus Martius, a raging sea of soldiers, and appeared on a platform unannounced. The soldiers saluted by instinct; he asked them to state their demands, and his presence awed them so that they dared only ask for disbandment, not rewards. They thought, moreover, that he needed them too much to dismiss them and would himself speak of the rewards. But he never even hesitated, ill as he could afford to take the risk of losing them. "I discharge you!" he said; and, after a profound silence, added, "As to what I have promised you, I shall give it you when I and all celebrate our Triumph." The soldiers were embarrassed by his unexpected mildness, and the idea of no longer being in Rome at the Triumph struck dismay into their hearts. Then they began to ponder on the fact that their general still had Africa to reduce, and that it was a rich country, where they might get much booty; but the chief motive that inspired them, now that they were in his presence, was their old wish for his approval. Again silence reigned, but as he prepared to depart his friends begged him not to dismiss in that cold way an army which had served him so long and so faithfully.

He then made another speech, addressing his old veterans as 'Citizens' (Quirites), not as 'Soldiers,' or, as so often, 'Fellow soldiers.' This broke their hearts. They had been so proud of their rank as victorious soldiers, and had come to scorn civilians. As the word 'Citizens!' fell from Caesar's lips they cried out for pardon, and to be retained in the service; and as he descended from the platform, affecting not to hear them, they gathered round him and begged him to punish them but to allow them to remain in his army. He stopped, pondered, and returned to the platform. He wished to punish no one, he said, but he was deeply hurt by the mutiny of the Tenth legion, to which he had shown such favour. It should be discharged alone. The Tenth then begged to be decimated and forgiven; again the general melted, and soon the whole army was in a mood that promised well for its success in Africa. The Romans were a cold people, but if there was a warm, human relationship among them, it was that between a general and his army. It is interesting to recall the mutiny at Opis against Alexander the Great, and to contrast Caesar's dry speeches with Alexander's oratory, and the Greek tears of reconciliation with the restrained joy of the Roman troops and commander.