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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces part of
The Alexandrian War

by an unknown author, attached to the name of
Julius Caesar

Loeb Classical Library

The text is in the public domain.

This text has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

Alexandrian War

 p3  Introduction

The battle of Pharsalus, fought in August 48, was a crushing defeat for the Pompeians, but not finally decisive. Fifteen thousand men were said to have perished: more than twenty-four thousand to have been captured. Their field army was indeed shattered; but both leader and cause yet survived.

There were several quarters of the Roman world where resistance might be renewed successfully in the name of senatorial government: the province of Africa, where King Juba of Numidia was a formidable, if exacting, supporter of the Pompeians, and where, since Curio's defeat in the previous year, Caesar's prestige had ebbed; Spain, where Pompey's name still stood high, while Caesar's cause had suffered from the prolonged misgovernment of his deputy, Q. Cassius; and, closer at hand, Egypt, an independent kingdom whose rulers were indebted to Pompey for past services and so might be expected to succour him now.

But Egypt — important to Rome as a prolific source of cornº — was now faced with a constitutional crisis. The late king, Ptolemy Auletes, had been expelled in 58 but reinstated three years later by Gabinius, acting in the interests of the triumvirs — Caesar, Pompey and Crassus — who were still awaiting payment for this service. An unofficial Roman army of occupation, comprising many soldiers who had once served under Pompey, still remained in the country. In 51 Ptolemy had died, bequeathing  p4 his throne jointly to his elder son — a mere boy — and his eldest daughter, Cleopatra, and urging the Senate in his will to ensure that its terms were faithfully observed. Nevertheless, Cleopatra had been driven out by the young king's regents, only to raise an army in Syria, return at its head, and confront her brother at Pelusium.

In such a situation Pompey's arrival was hardly opportune. To the young king's unscrupulous regents, menaced as they were by Cleopatra and her adherents, his motives were obscure. Had he in mind to win over the Roman occupation troops and conquer the country? And anyway, was not Caesar's cause now for them the better risk? Thus possibly they argued; and, untroubled by scruples, accordingly contrived his murder, the treacherous character of which shocked the whole world and gave to Pompey the status of a martyr.

Three days after Caesar arrived to find his foremost rival thus destroyed. But others remained: prompt action was advisable both in Asia, whither Domitius had already been despatched, and in Africa, to crush the remnants of his opponents. However, the seasonal winds off Alexandria prevented any immediate departure; and he might utilise the interval by settling the dispute over the royal succession and collecting the moneys long owing to the triumvirs. But if he argued thus he failed to take into account two factors: first, the natural feelings of the Egyptians and the resentment they might show at his official interference in their domestic affairs; and secondly, the charms of Cleopatra. Of these two important factors the former is duly mentioned by Caesar himself, whereas the  p5 latter is studiously glossed over in de Bello Alexandrino. Yet what other reason can account for Caesar's strange inaction between March, when he made himself master of Alexandria and Egypt, and June, when at last he left for Syria to conduct a whirlwind campaign against Pharnaces? Where later writers​1 shed a lurid light, Hirtius observes a discreet silence.

In literary merit de Bello Alexandrino, though in general a plain and somewhat pedestrian tale, is the best of the three works. If it never soars to the heights, it never sinks to the depths of de Bello Hispaniensi. The subject matter is well arranged, and Caesar's victory at Zela provides an effective climax. The facts presented seem reasonably accurate and undistorted by party bias.​2 The style is neither so terse nor so lively as Caesar's; but it is neat, free from affectations, and above all clear. Though the narrative tends sometimes to monotony, yet the author is not without a sense of the dramatic and is at pains on occasion to work up the reader's interest before a climax.​3 Nor is he a mere purveyor of facts: though there are very few speeches he not infrequently speculates on motives. His tendency in this respect is to suggest alternatives from which the reader may make his own choice;​4 and where he does commit himself, his judgment does not always ring true.5

The Author's Notes:

1 e.g. Suetonius: Life of Julius Caesar, ch. 52.

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2 At any rate he does not appear in chapters 21 and 40 to underestimate Caesarian losses.

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3 e.g. chapter 16.

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4 e.g. chapters 43 and 63.

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5 e.g. chapter 24, where he suggests that Caesar's motive in releasing the young king was merely to enhance his own prestige, and makes no attempt to reconcile this attitude with the earlier policy described in Civil Wars III, ch. 109.

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Page updated: 13 Feb 13