The message from Caesar was a godsend to Cleopatra. The twenty-one-year-old desperately needed a new champion, and a Roman champion at that. But reaching Caesar would be no easy task. If she fell into Egyptian hands, she could expect no mercy from her brother and his entourage. So, taking just one adviser with her—Apollodorus, a native of the Roman province of Sicily, a freedman of Greek extraction—Cleopatra hired a small boat to conduct her secretly along the coast to the Egyptian capital.
Several days later, Cleopatra’s little boat slipped unnoticed into Alexandria’s Great Harbor in the fading light of sunset. The craft tied up not far from the royal palace, and as darkness was descending, Cleopatra and Apollodorus climbed up onto the dockside. All industry within the city ceased at nightfall, to resume again at dawn the next day, so in the dark and with the streets soon deserted, Cleopatra could reach the palace unnoticed. But gaining entry into the palace, with its Egyptian guards, was another thing.
At first Cleopatra was stumped as to how she might get past the sentinels. But her agile mind soon devised a solution to the problem. Apollodorus, a large man apparently, had brought his bedding with him, so Cleopatra lay full length on the bedding and commanded Apollodorus to wrap her up in it and tie the ends. The freedman then hoisted the bedroll onto his shoulder and proceeded to the palace gate. There he informed the guards that he had a gift for General Caesar, and they let him enter.
When Apollodorus reached the guesthouse within the palace compound where Caesar was staying, he told the Roman legionaries on guard that he had a gift for Caesar from Queen Cleopatra, and the centurion of the guard also let him pass, until Apollodorus was escorted into Caesar’s presence. With Caesar’s staff and men of his German cavalry bodyguard looking on, Apollodorus lay the bedroll on the floor in front of a curious Caesar, untied the ends, and unraveled the coverlet. To the amazement of all the Romans, Cleopatra emerged from the bedding, came to her feet, and stood, smiling, before Caesar.
Few images of Cleopatra survive. Those that do exist show a woman with a long, bent nose, narrow eyes, large mouth, small chin, elaborately braided hair in the ancient Egyptian style, and small but pronounced breasts. She was, by all accounts, quite plain. But she made up for her lack of physical beauty with other qualities. Like all the Ptolemies, Cleopatra’s ancestry was not Egyptian but Greek. Greek was the language of the Egyptian court, and Cleopatra was the only member of the Egyptian royal family to bother to learn Egyptian, the language of their people. In fact, she was a talented linguist, fluent in many of the languages of the East, including Hebrew and Parthian. And, of course, she spoke Latin like a native. Plutarch was to say that it was a mere pleasure to hear the sound of her voice, with which she could effortlessly pass from one language to another, “like an instrument of many strings.”
Cleopatra also had other talents. She was able to quickly assess all with whom she dealt, and to cut her cloth to fit each. If a man quoted Greek poetry to her, she could quote the finest Greek poetry back. If a man told her a coarse soldier’s joke, she would tell him an equally lewd joke in return. She could drink all night and play dice like a man, but equally she could charm and seduce as only a woman could. Plutarch was to write that while Plato had said there were four kinds of flattery, Cleopatra possessed a thousand. “The attraction of her person, combined with the charm of her conversation and the manner that attended all she said and did, was something bewitching,” said Plutarch of the young queen.
And here now, having made an unforgettable entrance, stood the bewitching Cleopatra, petite and alluring. Caesar was delighted by her clever use of the bedroll—Plutarch says that he was immediately captivated by both the cleverness and the boldness that Cleopatra had displayed in coming up with such a ploy.
The Romans had a saying, “The traveler with an empty purse sings in front of the highway robber.” And Cleopatra, now a nearly penniless traveler on Egypt’s royal road, put on a superlative performance in front of Caesar. Plutarch was to write that he was soon overcome by her charm.
But if Cleopatra believed that she could charm Caesar into installing her as sole ruler of Egypt and to then go away to continue his prosecution of the Roman civil war, she was in for a shock. Caesar had his own ideas on how Egypt would be ruled in the future, and while he had a role in mind for Cleopatra, it was not that of a solo star. For the moment, Caesar gave orders for Cleopatra and Apollodorus to be lodged within the palace complex.
Many historians have assumed that from that first night, Cleopatra made herself at home there at Caesar’s guesthouse, within the royal compound south of the Canopic Way. Later outcomes point to a different turn of events. After ordering a strong guard to be provided for Cleopatra, it seems that in the early hours of the morning Caesar sent her across the Canopic Way to take up residence once more in the wing of the palace that had been her home prior to her ejection by Ptolemy’s people. As she settled into her old quarters, a guard of Roman troops took up positions outside, with orders to let no one make contact with her without Caesar’s permission. Almost certainly, Caesar chose the 6th Legion to provide Cleopatra’s guard. The youths of the 28th Legion were too callow and unworldly for such a delicate task. The German troopers of Caesar’s bodyguard were too coarse; besides, they weren’t Roman citizens, so to place them over Cleopatra would have been a rank insult to the young queen. The tough, no-nonsense veterans of the 6th would have been the ideal men for the job.
The transfer of Cleopatra to the main palace would have been done by the legionaries with as much courtesy as circumstances allowed, but as the hardened soldiers of the 6th Legion took up guard duty outside her door, Cleopatra knew that even though she had come to Caesar of her own will, and the Roman troops outside her door were supposedly there for her protection, she was now very much Caesar’s prisoner. She would have felt a measure of relief, knowing the legionaries keeping her under lock and key had orders to prevent any attempt on her life by her brother’s adherents. But she knew that if she was to achieve her ambition of getting rid of her brother and becoming sole ruler of Egypt, she would have to use all her wiles and all her charms on Julius Caesar.
Caesar, meantime, moved quickly to exploit the fact that he now had Cleopatra in his power. That same night—sometime before dawn, according to Cassius Dio—Caesar sent a message to Ptolemy XIII, informing him of Cleopatra’s presence in Alexandria and of his wish to reconcile brother and sister. It was his fervent desire, he said, that Ptolemy and Cleopatra once more rule Egypt jointly, as their father had wished and decreed. This was despite the fact that Caesar knew that Cleopatra and Ptolemy now despised each other. The early morning message from Caesar would have surprised and enraged Ptolemy and his clique. The sudden change in circumstances would require a tactical reevaluation by the Egyptian leadership.
The next day, surrounded by Roman troops, Caesar brought Ptolemy and Cleopatra together in the palace and succeeded in wringing an agreement from the reluctant Ptolemy that his sister—who cunningly gave the impression that she was all for the idea—could once more rule beside him as his colleague in power. Cleopatra would have set her mind at using all her charms to convince Caesar to dump her brother. Ptolemy, meanwhile, still harbored ambitions of getting rid of Cleopatra as soon as Caesar was out of the picture.
Before an assembly of the Egyptian court, Caesar now announced that under the terms of the will of Ptolemy XII he, as a consul of Rome, had successfully arbitrated the dispute between Ptolemy and Cleopatra and as a result they would once again rule jointly as king and queen, as their father had wished. He also announced, according to Dio, that their younger siblings Princess Arsinoe and Ptolemy XIV would rule over the island of Cyprus, of which Rome had taken control during their father’s reign.
In acting as the arbitrator, Caesar was giving legitimacy to the will of Ptolemy XII. But, in turn, he was affirming the legitimacy of his right as a consul of Rome to determine who should rule Egypt. It was a clever strategy, but not one that suited either Ptolemy or Cleopatra. While, for now, both played along, neither had any intention of allowing this return to joint rule to be a long-term arrangement.
Plutarch says that Caesar then put on a dinner to celebrate this reconciliation of brother and sister. While the dinner was in progress, Plutarch says, some of the Egyptian guests drank too much. One of Caesar’s servants, his barber, “a busy listening fellow,” according to Plutarch, and who came across as timid and unthreatening, had an ear for all that was said around him. The barber overheard dining couch talk of a plot between Pothinus and the absent General Achillas of the Egyptian army to kill Caesar. When the barber informed his master of what he had heard, Caesar quickly had an armed guard put on the dining hall. Caesar, who was not a heavy drinker, sat up all night, pretending to drink but on his guard against the assassination attempt.
Within a few days, it was reported to Caesar that the Egyptian army was on the move. Leaving a garrison at Pelusium, General Achillas was marching most of his twenty thousand infantry and all of his two thousand cavalry toward Alexandria. In his memoirs, Caesar wrote that his own force was much too small for him to consider confronting the Egyptian army in the open outside the city, something he would have done had his troop numbers been greater. His only alternative, he said, was to stay where he was in the city and try to learn what Achillas’s intentions were. He called his troops to arms.
Yet, Caesar did more than that. Much more. The approach of the Egyptian army forced him to take drastic action to secure both his political and his military positions. We know from Caesar himself the outcome of what he did next; the exact methodology has always remained a mystery, until now. Throughout his career Caesar demonstrated a talent for doing the unexpected, for catching his opponents off guard. Several times, for example, he conducted hazardous amphibious invasions in winter, when the other side was expecting him to wait for spring and more favorable weather conditions.
But his most effective tactic was the use of night operations. At critical points in his military campaigns, Caesar conducted night marches to take the enemy by surprise. More than once, he had his legions build a marching camp for the night, and then, in the early hours of the morning, he led them quietly out of camp and covered a number of miles in the darkness, sometimes to put distance between sleeping pursuers and himself, at other times to suddenly appear on the enemy’s doorstep come the dawn. It seems that here in Alexandria this October night, he again employed darkness to his advantage.
Roman legions changed the watch every three hours during the night, when a fresh contingent of sentries would replace those of the old watch. Over the several days since Cleopatra had been installed at the royal palace, the Egyptian palace guards became accustomed to the Romans following their change of watch routine. Every three hours each night they would have seen a new detachment of 6th Legion men march in to replace those of the old watch. This particular night was no different. In the early morning hours, as a Roman trumpet sounded the change of watch from Caesar’s guesthouse south of the Canopic Way, the legionaries of the new guard made their way into the main palace compound, probably via a small gate controlled by the Roman sentries. And the Egyptians on guard in their towers and on the walls would have thought nothing of it.
The size of the guard allocated by Caesar to Cleopatra would have been no less than century strength—a hundred men. So at least a hundred soldiers of the 6th Legion made their way to Cleopatra’s quarters. But instead of the men of the old watch retiring to their quarters at Caesar’s guesthouse, they combined with the new guard contingent. Just such a plan had probably been in Caesar’s mind when he had installed Cleopatra in her old quarters with a legionary guard. Now two hundred legionaries swept through the marble halls of the palace of the Ptolemies.
We know that King Ptolemy’s bodyguard was made up of spearmen, probably men handpicked from the Egyptian army for this prestigious role. But their elite status counted for nothing when confronted by Caesar’s characteristic use of the tactic of surprise. Before they could react, sleepy Egyptian sentries posted outside the door to King Ptolemy’s quarters were quickly overpowered. Caesar’s account of these events makes no mention of casualties, and it seems that surprise was complete and not a drop of blood was spilled. The door to Ptolemy’s bedchamber crashed open. As the young king awoke with a start, his bed was surrounded by legionaries with drawn swords.
“Get out of bed!” a centurion would have snapped. “You are coming with us!”
Ptolemy, accompanied by a few servants and key advisers, was herded out of the main, northern compound of the royal palace and across the Canopic Way to the guesthouse being used by Caesar as his headquarters. At the same time, his siblings Arsinoe and Ptolemy Jr. and a few attendants also were being hustled at swordpoint through the night from their palace quarters to the guesthouse by businesslike legionaries.
Cleopatra, too, would have received a rude awakening and been informed by a stern-faced centurion of the 6th that she was being moved to new quarters. And when she asked why, she would have been gruffly informed, “You and your brothers and sister are now hostages of Gaius Julius Caesar.” The centurion would have added with satisfaction, “We have kidnapped the entire Egyptian royal family.”
Cleopatra and the other three young royals were allocated cramped quarters at Caesar’s headquarters, with Roman troops on the doors. Ruffled and in shock, teenaged King Ptolemy was brought before Caesar, who informed him that he and his siblings were all now his “guests.” Caesar then instructed the king to immediately send leading men of his court as envoys to Achillas, to ask him what he was up to. As his envoys, Ptolemy nominated two men from his inner circle who had been very influential in his father’s court and who in the past had gone to Rome as Egyptian ambassadors. These men, Dioscorides and Serapion, were briefed on their mission. The pair then hurried to the city’s Canopic Gate with an entourage of servants, to meet the approaching army in the name of King Ptolemy and Queen Cleopatra.
The Alexandrian city guards, meanwhile, were in a quandary. No attempt was made to launch an assault on the compound occupied by the Romans to free King Ptolemy, by either his remaining bodyguards or the men of the city guard. No doubt they lacked leadership in the vacuum left by the kidnap of Ptolemy and his senior advisers. Besides, the Romans outnumbered the Egyptian troops then in the city, and there also would have been a fear that their king would be harmed if they did try offensive action. All the city guards could do in the wake of the kidnap of all the members of the royal family was to close the outer gates to lock down Alexandria. Now, when the ambassadors of their king and queen sought to leave the city on royal business, the guards had no choice but to allow them to depart.
Dioscorides and Serapion hurried east, and encountered the Egyptian army on the march in the Nile Delta. When the two envoys were brought into General Achillas’s presence, knowing they would have come at Caesar’s instigation, he didn’t even give them the chance to open their mouths to explain why they were there. He ordered them arrested and put to death at once. The pair was dragged away. One of the envoys was killed immediately, apparently having his throat cut. From what Cassius Dio was to write, it was the ambassador Serapion who died.
The other ambassador, Dioscorides, also had his throat slit and was left for dead. But after General Achillas’s murder squad had departed, Dioscorides’s servants found that he was still alive. Pretending he was dead, they quickly carried Dioscorides away, as if to conduct his funeral. They then bandaged his wound and brought him back to Alexandria, where he was able to inform Caesar of what had taken place.
The Romans considered envoys inviolate, although Caesar himself had once, in Gaul, ignored the neutrality of German ambassadors and seized them. That act of expediency on Caesar’s part had caused Cato the Younger to rise in the Senate and demand, in vain, that Caesar be handed over to the Germans for violation of the laws of neutrality. Now Achillas’s brutal response to the sending of envoys gave Caesar a very good idea what the Egyptian general’s attitude and intentions were.
Achillas’s actions suited Caesar just fine. In murdering one of his own king’s emissaries and almost killing the other, Achillas had seemingly set himself against the king. Caesar was to write in his memoirs that apart from the fact that the king’s name carried great weight with his people, far more so than that of Cleopatra, who had no popular following to speak of, Caesar wanted it to appear to the Egyptians that this conflict now flaring up between the Egyptian army and Caesar was not at the initiative of the king but was the idea of a few “ruffians,” namely Pothinus and Achillas. And in that respect Achillas played right into Caesar’s hands.
Not that Achillas would have been concerned about the semantics of the situation now developing. Clearly, he was undaunted by Caesar’s reputation. Achillas had a formidable army that significantly outnumbered Caesar’s legionaries. Not that he had any fear of legionaries; Achillas knew that in the previous year, Caesar’s general Curio and two legions of Italians had been wiped out in Africa by native troops, proof to Achillas and the soldiers of his Egyptian army that Roman legionaries were not supermen. The Egyptian army continued its advance on Alexandria.
Meanwhile, knowing that Egyptian troops were fast approaching, a number of men in Caesar’s force were by this time wondering why they were still in Alexandria. Pompey was dead, so what was the point of staying here? Some suggested that Caesar had fallen for Queen Cleopatra. Other legionaries would have said that in that case, why didn’t he just sail away with her and take them with him? Hearing of these mutterings in the ranks, Caesar sent a message to his men via their officers. He would soon be ordering all his men to board their ships and to leave this inhospitable place. In the meantime, they should be patient, do their duty, and trust that he knew best.
Within days, General Achillas and his army marched up to the city walls from the east; and the Egyptian guards at the Canopic Gate enthusiastically sprang to operate the giant wheels that opened the big wooden gate—it was, apparently, like the gates of Rome, a single wooden gate that, in the open position, was raised up into the gate tower.
As the Egyptian army marched into the city via the Canopic Gate, Caesar ordered his troops to their posts around the small perimeter he had set up surrounding the part of the royal palace he occupied. At the same time, he instructed his friend Mithradates of Pergamum to immediately take one of the Asiatic cruisers and head for Syria and Cilicia, to seek backup. It is quite possible that Caesar now had doubts that Commander Cassius had fulfilled his earlier orders to bring reinforcements, that he feared Cassius had deserted him once it was clear his situation was tenuous. Caesar also seems to have doubted that the former Pompeian POWs had turned up in Asia as he had ordered.
Caesar’s instructions now ignored Cassius’s earlier mission. Those instructions were specific: Mithradates was to round up as many additional warships as he could from Syria, Cilicia, and Rhodes, and he was to have them bring him reinforcements. Mithradates carried letters from Caesar to leaders throughout the region containing detailed demands for their military support. Auxiliaries were to be put together and dispatched to Caesar’s aid. Corn was to be sent to him. Artillery was to be collected from all quarters. Archers were to be brought from Crete. And Malchus, king of Nabatea, on Palestine’s southeastern border, was to send his renowned cavalry.
One of Caesar’s letters was addressed to Hyrcanus bar Alexander, Jewish high priest at Jerusalem, recognized by Rome since Pompey’s heyday as ethnarch, or chief magistrate, of the Jews of Palestine. In his letter, Caesar urged Hyrcanus to join a relief column led by young Mithradates, taking with him all the financial and physical support he could muster from among the Jewish people of Palestine. As Mithradates sailed off, all Caesar’s hopes were now pinned on the success of his mission. Without reinforcements, and so thoroughly outnumbered, Caesar knew that he would fail at Alexandria. And he could not afford to fail.
Achillas, whom Caesar describes as “signally audacious,” was to prove very adept at the sort of tactics needed in a battle within the confines of a city. On the day of his army’s arrival in Alexandria he had very clear military goals: seal Caesar off in the city, and then eliminate him. As he entered Alexandria, Achillas divided his army in two. One force had orders to push through the city to the harbor and secure the docks, preventing Caesar’s escape. The other was to launch an assault on the guesthouse where Caesar was staying.
Caesar, on the other hand, knew that his future depended on maintaining a strong defensive position within the city while at the same time retaining contact with the harbor, where his warships were still at anchor, to preserve a route for supplies to reach him in the city. The Egyptian troops reached the docks too late to prevent Mithradates from sailing on his mission to secure reinforcements—in the streets around the docks, they ran into the bulk of Caesar’s legionaries, most likely the men of the 28th Legion, who were able to hold the Egyptians back while Mithradates’s cruiser cleared the harbor.
Meanwhile, the second Egyptian force launched a determined attack in the direction of Caesar’s quarters, aiming to free King Ptolemy. Caesar says that he stationed several cohorts in the streets around the house. These were almost certainly the two cohorts of the 6th Legion. The tough Spaniards, spoiling for action after weeks of inactivity, stopped the Egyptians in their tracks. The legionaries then pushed the Egyptian attackers back from the vicinity of Caesar’s quarters, where the royal Egyptian hostages would have been guarded by a detachment of Caesar’s dismounted cavalry.
Caesar himself was at the docks. This, he later wrote, was where the most serious struggle took place that day. Achillas and his men, repulsed in their first attack at the waterfront, came again, determined to get through to seventy-two Egyptian warships docked in the city’s Inner Harbor, the so-called Harbor of Eunostos to the west, which was separated from the Great Harbor by a narrow, man-made causeway.
This causeway was called the Hepstadion because it was seven stades long—about fifteen hundred yards. There was an arch at each end of this causeway, the one at the island end to the north being the larger, with a wooden bridge over each arch. While small craft could pass beneath them, these bridges could be raised to allow warships to pass from one harbor to the other. If the Egyptians could bring these warships into the conflict they would be able to attack Caesar’s ships with the aim of securing the Great Harbor and so cutting off Caesar from the sea.
Of the ships in the Inner Harbor, fifty were Egyptian battleships of the deceres class and heavy cruisers of the quadrireme and quinquereme classes that Gnaeus Pompey had taken to Greece in support of his father the previous year. After ranging along the western coast of Greece, sinking scores of Mark Antony’s transports, young Pompey had landed to join his father. Once the Egyptian commander of the warships learned of Pompey’s defeat at Farsala he did not participate in the evacuation of senatorial troops from the Buthroton area but instead brought his ships back home to Alexandria.
The other twenty-two ships in the Inner Harbor were lighter craft, although all were decked so were larger than frigates. This smaller squadron consisted of the warships that normally guarded Alexandria. Caesar says that all seventy-two vessels were in tip-top condition and fully fitted out, ready for battle. The barefoot Egyptian seamen and marines who manned them were all quartered ashore, and Caesar had been able to get his men into position at the docks in time to prevent these crews from reaching their vessels.
Soon there were a number of separate fights in different streets near the docks. Neither side was able to come to grips with the other, fighting shield to shield just ten or twelve men abreast in the narrower back streets, and casualties on both sides were only minimal. Nor, in the confines of the city streets, could either side employ its cavalry with any effect. Caesar was a great proponent of cavalry and always employed them with skill. Conversely, several times during his career he came close to losing a battle and his life for lack of cavalry. He had made a point of bringing his cavalry horses with him on this expedition, but for now, unable to use them for reconnaissance work or for a galloping charge, he had no choice but to employ his troopers as little more than mobile infantry who would dismount and go into action on foot.
For a time the fighting around the docks was stalemated, with neither side able to gain an advantage. But gradually Achillas’s greater numbers told, and some of his men were able to press around Caesar’s containment line toward the Egyptian warships. Seeing that the enemy would soon regain control of their ships, Caesar ordered that the ships be set alight, to prevent them falling into Egyptian hands and so keeping his lines of communication open via the sea.
The north wind was blowing forcefully as the first fires were lit. Tinder-dry vessels were soon blazing from stem to stern. Flames leaped to adjoining ships. Before long, the entire Inner Harbor northwest of the city was one mass of flames. But the fire didn’t stop there. Driven by the wind, the flames spread to dockyards along the shoreline where a number of vessels were drawn up out of the water. Forty of these dry-docked warships also caught fire. From the dockyards, the flames spread to buildings lining the shore. Shipbuilders’ workshops, grain warehouses, and the residences of seamen and dock workers close to the harbor in the northwest of the city were soon ablaze. The fire began to creep along the Street of the Soma.
Precisely what happened next is unclear, but before long the fire spread to part of the Great Library of Alexandria, which was filled with its precious papyrus volumes. Some ancient authorities would claim that the entire library of seven hundred thousand volumes, greatest in the world, was razed to the ground by this uncontrollable fire. Others state that part of the library was gutted and that perhaps one hundred thousand volumes were destroyed. Whatever the number of books involved, all were irreplaceable.
Caesar’s original object had been achieved. Seventy-two Egyptian warships in the Inner Harbor were either burned to the waterline or sunk, the destruction also eliminating their artillery and ammunition. Another forty warships had been totally destroyed ashore. But history would soon forget the military objective. Blame for the destruction of the world’s greatest collection of literary works would rest heavily on the shoulders of Julius Caesar forevermore.
While Achillas’s troops were distracted by combat, and by futile efforts at firefighting with bronze and leather water buckets at the Inner Harbor and at buildings toward the northern end of the Street of the Soma, Caesar, at the Great Harbor to the east, had his own warships load several hundred men, perhaps from his cavalry, and these were rowed across the Great Harbor to the Pharos lighthouse. Meeting no opposition, these troops scrambled ashore and occupied the near-deserted lighthouse.
Here at the Pharos, Caesar’s landing party either set up artillery brought ashore from Caesar’s ships or took control of existing catapults that could command the harbor entrance. While the distance from the Pharos to Cape Lochias was a little over half a mile, shallows extended much of the way from the mainland shore, so that the navigation channel ran close by the point where the lighthouse stood. From here, this detachment of Caesar’s could control who came and went via the Great Harbor and so could guarantee access to the reinforcements and supplies that Caesar was banking on receiving by sea.
As night fell and the fires continued out of control to the northwest, Caesar gave his troops no rest. While the enemy was occupied with the fire, the Roman commander had his men toil at creating a defensive cordon around the part of the city he occupied. His troops now controlled one of Alexandria’s five precincts, while General Achillas’s troops occupied the other four.
Caesar’s area of control included that portion of the royal palace south of the Canopic Way where his guesthouse was located, together with the adjacent Greek theater. In the event that his troops were pushed back from the outer defensive positions, he could withdraw to the theater, with its high, thick stone walls, for a last-ditch stand. In the meantime, the theater became his headquarters. Here his troops assembled at sunup for Daily Orders, here men were engaged in the manufacture of ammunition, here the wounded were brought.
The Egyptian forces occupied buildings on Caesar’s eastern and western flanks. A marsh lined his southwestern perimeter, with the Egyptians manning the city wall that bisected the marsh. Opposition forces also occupied the buildings north of the Canopic Way all the way to the harbor.
The fire at the Alexandrian docks and northwestern part of the city burned all night. From their vantage points on walls and rooftops as they toiled at building defenses, men of the 6th Legion would have watched as an awesome red-orange glow illuminated the north and west of the city through the hours of darkness. Come the morning, a smoky gray cloud would have hung over Alexandria, with the air filled with wafting cinders and the smell of a singed city, and the rising sun glowing an eerie orange through the hazy smoke.
With all the men of the 6th Legion thrown into the street fighting and the subsequent construction of defensive works, the task of guarding the Egyptian royals had fallen to members of Caesar’s cavalry. King Ptolemy and Queen Cleopatra had been under tight Roman guard all through the night, for they were vital to Caesar’s plans for the future of Egypt. Less attention had been paid to Ptolemy’s younger siblings, and come the morning Caesar was informed that in all the confusion of the previous night, Princess Arsinoe and her tutor Ganymede had managed to slip by her cavalry guardians and escape. This Ganymede was named after a figure from Greek myth—the original Ganymede had been a son of the king of Troy, and because of his extreme beauty had been kidnapped by the gods to become their servant. Quite possibly then, Arsinoe’s tutor, in addition to possessing a learned mind, was a handsome man.
At the time, the escapes of Arsinoe and Ganymede seemed minor irritations and nothing for Caesar and his troops to be greatly concerned about. But fifteen-year-old Arsinoe was intelligent and ambitious. Encouraged by the wily Ganymede, she saw her opportunity to grab power now that her brother and sister, the king and queen, were prisoners of the Romans. After escaping Roman custody Arsinoe found her way to the Egyptian lines and had herself taken to General Achillas’s headquarters. Here she volunteered to act as the focal point of Egyptian resistance to the Roman invasion, an offer that Achillas gladly accepted. Now the Egyptian people could be encouraged to fight behind the standard of a member of their own royal family, not merely the “ruffians” that Caesar had previously alluded to.
To extend and secure the perimeter of the sector of the city he now occupied, Caesar ordered his small force to barricade the streets around it and block off entrances to buildings along the demarcation line. The industrious men of the 6th Legion quickly built a battering ram, which was suspended on a frame on wheels, and using this, they battered down internal walls to create building materials for their barricades and to establish clear lines of fire.
So rapid had the Egyptian assault been the previous day that few residents of the part of Alexandria now occupied by the Romans had time to flee. Most had been trapped inside the cordoned-off area with Caesar’s men. Now the locals encouraged the Roman occupiers and offered them assistance. Residents and Romans alike were in the same proverbial boat. Completely surrounded within the city of Alexandria, for the time being the civilians would have to rely on what supplies they had stockpiled and hope for a rapid end to hostilities.
Many legionaries of Caesar’s small force would have assessed their situation with furrowed brows. They were now cut off from the outside world, surrounded, and outnumbered more than five to one, with enough provisions to last perhaps a few weeks. No relief could be expected to come to them overland—not in time to save them from starvation, anyway. Supplies and reinforcements could only reach them by sea. Even that was a tricky proposition. Sure, Caesar had burned more than 110 Egyptian warships, meaning that the Romans’ own relief ships should be able to reach Alexandria without being intercepted by the Egyptian navy, which had been virtually eliminated overnight. And yes, Caesar had his own cruisers at anchor in the Great Harbor, and a contingent of his soldiers held the Pharos lighthouse. But how were the supplies to be gotten to the trapped men once they reached Alexandria? Egyptian troops now occupied the buildings between the Roman sector and the harbor.
When supplies did arrive, as Caesar assured his men they would, Caesar’s troops would have to make a drive from their lines down the streets to the harbor, under fire from the rooftops, to link up with the men landing with the supplies, and then run the gauntlet all the way back, carrying the supplies.
The old hands of the 6th seem to have been reasonably pragmatic about their situation. But already there were rumblings of revolt among the ranks of the young Italians of the 28th Legion. Pessimists among them would have been spouting the old Roman proverb “Bad beginnings have bad endings” as they began to openly question the wisdom of trying to hold this corner of the Egyptian capital. They pointed out that they had ships in the harbor. Why couldn’t they simply break out from their current position, reach the ships, and sail away from this damnable place?