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Bill Thayer

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Chapters 1‑33

This webpage reproduces part of
The Alexandrian War

probably by Hirtius, 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!


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Chapters 42‑47

Alexandrian War

 p65  [Chapters 34‑41]

Thayer's Note: The map is from the end of the volume, to which I've added the Google map of the area today.

[image ALT: A political map of Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean in the time of Julius Caesar. It is square and in modern terms, shows Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and northern Egypt; the ancient regions marked are Asia, Bithynia, Galatia, Pontus, Armenia, Cappadocia, Cilicia, Syria, Arabia Petraea and the Nabataen territory, and Egypt; Cyprus, Rhodes, and Crete.]

Map 2: Asia and the Eastern Mediterranean

34 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] While these events were taking place in Egypt, king Deiotarus came to Domitius Calvinus, to whom Caesar had assigned the government of Asia and the neighbouring provinces, to beg him not to allow Lesser Armenia, his own kingdom, or Cappadocia, the kingdom of Ariobarzanes, to be occupied and over‑run by Pharnaces:​1 for unless they were liberated from this scourge, he could not carry out his instructions and pay out the money he had promised to Caesar. As Domitius not only considered the money to be indispensable for defraying military expenses, but also decided it was a shameful affront to the Roman people and to the triumphant C. Caesar as well as a slight to himself that the kingdoms of their allies and friends should be seized by a foreign king, he forthwith sent a deputation to Pharnaces, bidding him withdraw from Armenia and  p67 Cappadocia and not assail the rights and majesty of the Roman people by resorting to civil war. In the belief that this warning would have greater force if he approached closer to that area with an army, he set out for his legions; then, taking with him one of the three, the Thirty-Sixth, he sent to Caesar in Egypt the two​2 which the latter had called for in his despatch. One of these two did not arrive in time for the Alexandrian war, as it was sent by the overland route through Syria. Cn. Domitius reinforced the Thirty-Sixth legion with two from Deiotarus, which the latter had had for several years, having built them up on our system of discipline and armament; he also add to it 100 horsemen, and took a like number from Ariobarzanes. He sent P. Sestius to C. Plaetorius, the quaestor, with instructions to bring the legion which had been formed from the hastily improvised forces in Pontus; and Quintus Patisius to Cilicia to muster auxiliary troops. All these forces speedily assembled at Comana​3 according to the orders of Domitius.

35 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Meantime the envoys brought back this reply from Pharnaces: 'he had withdrawn from Cappadocia, but had recovered Lesser Armenia, which he ought to possess by due right of inheritance from his father. In short, the issue touching that kingdom should be kept open for Caesar's decision; for he was ready to do what Caesar should decide.' Now Cn. Domitius observed that he had withdrawn from Cappadocia not from free choice but of necessity, since he could defend Armenia next door to his own kingdom more easily than the more distant Cappadocia, and also because he had supposed that Domitius would bring up all three legions; and that when he heard that  p69 two of those legions had been sent to Caesar, this had heightened his rash resolve to stay on in Armenia. Consequently Domitius proceeded to insist that Pharnaces should withdraw from that kingdom also: 'as far as legal right went, there was no difference between Cappadocia and Armenia, nor had he any right to demand that the question should be left open pending Caesar's arrival; a matter was 'open' when it remained just as it had been.' Having given him this reply Domitius set out for Armenia with the forces I have recorded above, and began by marching along the higher ground. From Comana in Pontus there is, in fact, a lofty, wooded ridge which extends into Lesser Armenia and forms the boundary​4 between Cappadocia and Armenia. This route, as he saw, offered definite advantages, namely that on the higher ground no sudden enemy attack could develop, and that, as Cappadocia adjoined this ridge, it was likely to assist him by affording an abundance of supplies.

36 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Meanwhile Pharnaces sent several embassies to Domitius to discuss peace and to take princely gifts for Domitius. All these he firmly rejected and replied to the envoys that as far as he was concerned nothing should take precedence over the prestige of the Roman people and the recovery of the kingdoms of its allies. Then, after completing an uninterrupted succession of long marches, he began to approach Nicopolis, a town in Lesser Armenia which is actually situated in the plain, though it is hemmed in on two sides by high mountains at a fairish distance. Here he pitched camp roughly seven  p71 miles from Nicopolis. From this camp he had to traverse a narrow and confined defile; and for this reason Pharnaces arrayed the pick of his infantry and practically all his cavalry in an ambush, giving orders, moreover, that a large number of cattle should be pastured at various points within this gorge, and that the peasants and burghers should go about openly in that area. His object in so doing was that, if Domitius should pass through that defile as a friend, he might have no suspicions of an ambush, as he would observe both men and beasts moving about the countryside, as if friends were in the offing; while if he should come in no friendly spirit, treating it as enemy territory, his troops might become scattered in the process of plundering and so be cut down piecemeal.

37 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] While making these dispositions he still constantly continued sending delegations to Domitius to talk of peace and friendship, as he believed that by these self-same tactics Domitius could the more readily be duped. But on the other hand Domitius' hopes of peace afforded him a motive for tarrying in the camp, where he was. Consequently, as Pharnaces had now lost his immediate opportunity and was afraid that his ambush might be discovered, he recalled his troops to camp. On the morrow Domitius advanced nearer Nicopolis and pitched his camp over against the town. While our troops were fortifying it, Pharnaces drew up his line of battle according to his own established custom. This, in fact, was formed with its front as a single straight line, with each of the wings reinforced by three supporting lines; and on the same principle support lines were also posted in the centre, while in the two spaces,  p73 on the right hand and on the left, single ranks were drawn up. Having once begun the task of fortifying his camp, Domitius completed it, with part of his forces posted in front of the rampart.

38 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] The following night Pharnaces intercepted some couriers who were carrying despatches to Domitius concerning the situation at Alexandria. From them he learned that Caesar was in a very dangerous position, and that an urgent request was being made to Domitius that he should send Caesar reinforcements as soon as possible and himself advance through Syria closer to Alexandria. On learning this, Pharnaces saw himself virtually victorious if he could spin out the time, as he thought that Domitius must speedily withdraw. Accordingly, from that side of the town which he saw offered our men the easiest and most favourable line of approach to do battle, he carried two straight trenches, four feet deep and spaced not so very far apart, as far as the point beyond which he had decided not to advance his own battle line. Between these trenches he consistently drew up his line, while posting all his cavalry on the flanks outside the trench; for otherwise they could not be of any use, and they far outnumbered our cavalry.

39 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Domitius, however, was more disturbed by Caesar's peril than by his own; and as he thought that he would not be safe in withdrawing, if he made a fresh attempt to secure the terms he had rejected or if he withdrew for no good reason, he deployed his army from its nearby camp into battle formation. He posted the Thirty-Sixth legion on the right wing and the Pontic one on the left, while the legions of Deiotarus he concentrated in the centre, leaving  p75 them, however, a very narrow frontage and posting his remaining cohorts behind them in support. The lines being thus arrayed on either side, they proceeded to battle.

40 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] The signal to attack was given almost simultaneously on both sides: then came the charge, with hotly contested and fluctuating fighting. Thus the Thirty-Sixth legion launched an attack on the king's cavalry outside the trench and fought so successful an action that it advanced up to the walls of the town, crossed the trench, and attacked the enemy in rear. The Pontic legion, however, on the other flank, drew back a little from the enemy, and attempted, moreover, to go round or cross the trench, so as to attack the enemy's exposed flank; but in the actual crossing of the trench it was pinned down and overwhelmed.​5 The legions of Deiotarus, indeed, offered scarcely any resistance to the attack. Consequently the king's forces, victorious on their own right wing and in the centre of the line, now turned upon the Thirty-Sixth legion. The latter, nevertheless, bore up bravely under the victors' attack and, though surrounded by large enemy forces, yet with consummate presence of mind formed a circle and so made a fighting withdrawal to the foothills, where Pharnaces was loth to pursue it owing to the hilly nature of the ground. And so, with the Pontic legion an almost total loss and a large proportion of the troops of Deiotarus killed, the Thirty-Sixth legion retired to higher ground with losses not exceeding 250 men. There fell in that battle not a few Roman knights — brilliant and distinguished men. After sustaining this defeat Domitius none the less collected the remnants of his scattered army and  p77 withdrew by safe routes through Cappadocia into Asia.

41 [Legamen ad paginam Latinam] Elated by this success and confident that his wishes for Caesar's defeat would be granted, Pharnaces seized Pontus​6 with all his forces. There he played the role of victor and utterly ruthless tyrant and, promising himself his father's fortune though with a happier ending,​7 he took many towns by storm, plundered the property of Roman and Pontic citizens, and decreed for those who in respect of youth and beauty had anything to commend them such punishments​8 as proved more pitiful than death. Thus he held unchallenged sway over Pontus, boasting that he had recovered the kingdom of his father.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 King of Pontus, son of Mithridates the Great.

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2 See chapter 9 (arrival of the Thirty-Seventh) and chapter 33, note 1 on p64.

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3 A town in Pontus.

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4 The conventional boundaries as marked in Map 2 are only approximate: Armenia may well have extended further W and Cappadocia further N. Domitius may, as R. Holmes suggested, have followed the ridge between the rivers Lycus and Iris; and this would have been his most direct route. But he may have taken a more devious route further S for the motives suggested in the text.

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5 The text is corrupt and the manoeuvre is by no means clear; but it would seem that part, if not all, the Pontic legion — like the Thirty-Sixth — was posted outside the trench, and so, to attack the enemy flank, they had either to cross the trench (its width is not stated) or else retire far enough to work round its end.

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6 His hereditary kingdom, from which his father Mithridates had been driven by Lucullus.

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7 Mithridates the Great, a fugitive from Pompey the Great, took his own life in 63 B.C. as a result of the rebellion of his son Pharnaces.

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8 viz. castration, cf. ch. 70.

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Page updated: 26 Oct 18