In Caesar’s opinion, Lieutenant General Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus was one of his best generals. Certainly he had shown that he was an energetic commander who did not hesitate to act when he had to. A consul in 53 B.C., Domitius, now in his late forties, had skillfully commanded Caesar’s forces in Macedonia prior to the Battle of Dyrrhachium, causing great difficulties for Pompey’s father-in-law, Scipio, and the two legions he’d commanded there. Domitius had subsequently been given command of Caesar’s center at the Battle of Pharsalus, where, after Pompey’s wings had been hammered, the ultimate victory had been made possible when the inexperienced senatorial troops in Pompey’s center gave way.
Following Pharsalus, Caesar had appointed Domitius governor of the province of Asia in western Turkey, replacing the previous republican appointee, additionally giving him overall command of all Roman territories in the East for the time being. He had also ordered him to bring to Asia the 27th Legion and those of Pompey’s troops who changed sides after their defeat on the Farsala plain—other than the 6th Legion.
Domitius had subsequently reached Asia with the 27th, 36th, and 37th Legions some little time after Caesar had sailed from Cnidus for Alexandria, and Domitius put these units into winter camp there while awaiting further orders. But Domitius had not been in Asia long before he received disturbing news from the northeast. The elderly King Deiotarus, ruler of Armenia Minor and Gallograecia, and for many years a friend of Pompey and a firm Roman ally, came to General Domitius in Asia to warn him that a foreign monarch had crossed the Black Sea from today’s southern Ukraine and made an amphibious landing in Armenia Minor with a powerful army. That army had quickly marched down into the kingdom of Cappadocia and was threatening to swing west and occupy Pontus, a Roman province.
The monarch in question was King Pharnaces II, young ruler of the Bosporan Kingdom, and son of the late Mithradates the Great, king of Pontus. In 63 B.C., after Pompey had driven back Mithradates the Great’s army, which had previously been fighting Rome for a decade with great success, the aging Mithradates had retreated to Panticapaeum, today’s port city of Kerch in the Ukraine.
Kerch had been founded by the Greeks five centuries earlier as a trading center and was part of Mithradates’ extensive Eastern empire. Several of Mithradates’ sons had subsequently been kidnapped and taken to Pompey. One of these sons was Pharnaces II; another may have been Mithradates of Pergamum. According to third-century Roman historian Cassius Dio, who had access to earlier histories that have not survived to the present, young Pharnaces had then only recently achieved manhood—Romans were considered to come of age at fifteen.
Pompey had proposed to young Pharnaces that he return to Kerch and convince his people to overthrow old Mithradates before he brought about the destruction of them all at the hands of Rome. The teenaged Pharnaces had agreed and set off with a band of followers and Roman aides. Old Mithradates had heard that his son was leading a small force against him, and sent part of his Gallic bodyguard to arrest him.
But, like Napoleon Bonaparte after his return to France from exile on Elba in 1815, Pharnaces was able to talk the French soldiers sent to arrest him into joining him. When the prince reached Kerch, the city had gone over to him. His father, locking himself away in his palace, had poisoned his wives and remaining children but failed in his bid to kill himself when the poison ran out. He finally convinced one of his loyal Gallic bodyguards to kill him. Pharnaces had then surrendered Kerch to the Romans.
With Mithradates the Great out of the way, Pompey had been able to carve up the brutal king’s former Eastern empire. To young Pharnaces, as his reward for removing his father, Pompey had given the prosperous Bosporan Kingdom, one corner of his father’s former large realm, to rule over as a client of Rome. Since then, based at his capital, Kerch, Pharnaces had spent the past fifteen years maturing, consolidating his power base, and building an efficient army—supposedly in support of Rome’s interests. But Pharnaces was known to have ambitions to expand his realm into areas in the East that had once been ruled by his father, most notably Pontus, his family’s hereditary kingdom, which Pompey had turned into a Roman province.
When Pompey’s fleeing generals had gathered in western Greece following the Pharsalus defeat in August 48 B.C. and had decided to withdraw their surviving troops to Africa, they had ordered a senior officer to sail to Kerch to see Pharnaces, who was now about thirty-one and firmly established in his little realm on the Black Sea. It was this senatorial officer’s task to urge Pharnaces to invade Pontus, behind Caesar’s back, in support of Pompey, to whom, it was felt, Pharnaces should feel indebted for his throne. This tactic was designed to keep Caesar’s troops busy in the East while the senatorial forces regrouped in North Africa.
Pompey had previously sent to Pharnaces asking for troops for the fight against Caesar in Greece, but Pharnaces had declined, because he could see no advantage to himself. But this request from Pompey’s subordinates, if it indeed reached Pharnaces, was a different matter. One way or another, Pharnaces learned that Pompey was on the run, with Caesar in hot pursuit, and he saw an opportunity to lay claim to part of his father’s former domains in Turkey and Armenia and expand his own little empire while Rome’s back was turned. It hadn’t taken Pharnaces long to launch the invasion the Roman republican leadership had wanted him to undertake as a diversion.
Caesar, before he’d left Asia, had written to all the Roman allies in the East, instructing them to send him money to fund his continued military operations, in compliance with their treaties with Rome. But, King Deiotarus of Armenia Minor now told General Domitius, it was a disgrace to the Roman people and brought dishonor to both the victorious Caesar and himself that the kingdoms of Rome’s allies and friends had been permitted to be occupied by a foreign invader.
“Unless we are freed from this menace,” the Alexandrian War section of Caesar’s memoirs says Deiotarus told General Domitius, “we can’t carry out orders and pay the money promised to Caesar.”
At almost the same time that General Domitius heard of Pharnaces’ invasion, Commander Cassius landed in Asia with Caesar’s order to urgently send reinforcements to Alexandria. General Domitius found himself in the proverbial cleft stick. He had to send Caesar reinforcements, but he knew that neither Caesar nor history would forgive him if he were to let Pharnaces devastate the Roman East with what was, by all reports, a sizable and well-equipped Bosporan army. There was also the problem of how Domitius was going to get reinforcements to Caesar, as he had no shipping.
General Domitius sent envoys to track down Pharnaces and deliver a message ordering him to withdraw from Armenia and Cappadocia at once and not attempt to take advantage of Rome’s civil war to further his own ambitions. At the same time, Commander Cassius set sail again, this time with instructions from Domitius to round up shipping. Cassius soon pulled together a small convoy of transports supported by eight warships from Pontus and five from Lycia.
The Pontic flagship was a quadrireme heavy cruiser, and it was supported by several bireme light cruisers plus liburnians—small open, fast frigates propelled by some seventy oars with two men to each. The Lycian ships were all frigates. At Admiral Cassius’s direction this little fleet arrived in Asia to provide transport for Domitius’s Alexandrian relief force.
Domitius had decided to send Caesar two of his three legions, retaining one, the new 36th, which he would combine with other local forces to counter the threat posed by Pharnaces. The few transports organized by Cassius—perhaps thirty at most—could accommodate only one legion, so Domitius embarked the 37th Legion together with a cohort or so of picked local auxiliaries plus grain, ammunition, artillery, and other supplies, and ordered the little fleet to sail across the eastern Mediterranean to Egypt to relieve Caesar. At the same time, because he had no more shipping, he ordered the 27th Legion to march overland from Asia via Syria and Palestine to also join Caesar at Alexandria.
King Deiotarus maintained two infantry legions that he had withdrawn into Cappadocia from Armenia Minor ahead of Pharnaces’ advance, and these he now handed over to General Domitius’ command, together with a hundred of his best cavalry. These two infantry units, the so-called Deiotaran Legions, made up of men from Armenia and central Turkey, had been organized and equipped in Roman fashion and trained by Roman officers. They had been in existence for “several years,” according to Caesar’s staff officer Colonel Hirtius—it would have been at least three years, for in 51 B.C., when Marcus Cicero was governor of Cilicia, one or both Deiotaran units had marched with Cicero’s two Italian legions, the “Cilician Legions” that had formed the basis of Pompey’s Gemina at Pharsalus. In the second half of 51 B.C. the Deiotarans had campaigned with Cicero’s legions in Cilicia, first against a Parthian advance force, sending it retreating from whence it had come, then successfully laying siege to, overrunning, and pillaging the fortified mountain town of Pindenissum, which had been the stronghold of Cilician rebels for as long as anyone could remember.
Adding the two Deiotaran legions to the 36th, Domitius marched for Cappadocia, thinking, according to Colonel Hirtius, that his order to Pharnaces to get out of Cappadocia and Armenia would carry more weight if he advanced Roman forces toward the invader. At the same time, Domitius sent officers throughout the region to muster as much local military support as possible, telling them to meet him at the town of Comana in Pontus, near present-day Tokat. Domitius sent Major General Publius Sestius galloping ahead to Pontus to fetch a new legion that had just been hastily recruited there among Roman citizens by Domitius’s chief of staff, Brigadier General Gaius Plaetorius. Colonel Quintus Patisius was dispatched to Cilicia for auxiliary troops. General Domitius also commandeered a hundred cavalry from King Ariobarzanes of Cappadocia, a Roman ally.
When Pharnaces first received General Domitius’s instruction to withdraw from the territory he had occupied, he had learned from the Roman envoys that Domitius commanded a force that included four Roman legions and the two Deiotaran legions. Pharnaces was no fool. In fact, he was extremely shrewd. He would have done the math and calculated that his adversary could confront him with some thirty thousand heavy infantry. The size of Pharnaces’s army has not come down to us, but it probably consisted of about twenty thousand men.
So Pharnaces withdrew from Cappadocia, back up into Armenia Minor. But when he learned that Domitius had only retained two of his four Roman legions and was sending the other two to Caesar in Egypt, he set up a military camp in Armenia Minor near the city of Nicopolis.
Its name meaning “City of Victory,” Nicopolis had been established by Pompey the Great in about 66 B.C. as a colony of wounded and time-expired veterans who had served in his legions in his war against Mithradates the Great, and it had swiftly attracted settlers from throughout the region. A century or so later, the Nicopolitans, under pressure from Parthian invaders, would abandon their city and migrate to Cappadocia.
From Nicopolis, Pharnaces sent General Domitius a message. He intended retaining control of Armenia Minor, he said, because it had previously been part of the realm of his father and his ancestors, earlier kings of Pontus. But, he said, he was prepared to keep the question of his long-term rule over Armenia Minor open and would submit to Caesar’s decision in the matter.
Domitius had no intention of letting Pharnaces remain in occupation of Armenia Minor—which had been assigned to King Deiotarus by the Roman Senate following the death of Pharnaces’ father. Domitius decided he would have to use force to eject the invader, and sent Pharnaces a curt message to say that the matter of who controlled Armenia Minor was not “open” for discussion, and insisting that Pharnaces return home at once.
The forces that Domitius had sent for quickly assembled at Comana, and from here he set off to confront the enemy in Armenia. To get there he marched his force along the wooded Taurus Mountain ridge that separated Cappadocia from Armenia and that led from Comana all the way to Armenia Minor. This route was preferable to the easier lowland route because it eliminated the potential for ambush in mountain passes, and enabled Domitius to send down into Cappadocia for supplies en route.
Domitius’s approach was no secret to Pharnaces. He sent ambassadors to meet him in the mountains, ambassadors who offered the Roman general expensive gifts and asked him to put up peace terms for their royal master’s consideration. Domitius sent back the royal trinkets, accompanied by the message that he was only interested in recovering the prestige of Rome and the territory of her allies. Pharnaces, now learning that only a single Roman legion containing experienced troops marched with Domitius, and scornful of the hastily recruited and untried Pontic recruits and King Deiotarus’ native legions, prepared for war.
By a series of long forced marches, the Roman column followed the ridge route and quickly entered Armenia Minor from the west. Scouts told Domitius that Pharnaces was not far away. Seven miles from the town of Nicopolis, Domitius halted and built a fortified camp in the hills. Nicopolis lay on a plain with tall mountains flanking it on two sides. To reach Pharnaces’ Bosporan army, which had by this time occupied the town, Domitius would have to come down out of the mountains and enter the plain via a narrow pass.
The proactive Pharnaces laid an ambush in this pass, using a detachment of picked infantry and all his numerous cavalry. To screen his ambushing force, he also had a large herd of cattle spread through the pass and the rolling fields below it, and forced farmers and residents of Nicopolis to go up into the pass and pretend to be tending the cattle, and farming. He reasoned that this way Domitius would either not suspect an ambush or would allow his troops to scatter to round up the cattle as booty. Either way, when he sprung his trap he would have the Romans at a disadvantage. All the time, he kept sending new deputations to Domitius seeking peace, to keep him off guard.
But Pharnaces outsmarted himself. Domitius was not in a hurry to give up the advantage of high ground, and while Pharnaces continued to send him envoys and held out the hope of a peaceful solution, he kept his troops in the camp in the hills. As days passed like this in stalemate, and with Roman scouts likely to stumble on his ambush at any moment, Pharnaces withdrew his ambushers and recalled his envoys.
The next day Domitius came down out of the hills and moved his force closer to Nicopolis, camping on the plain within sight of the enemy. While the Roman troops were busily building a new camp, General Domitius’s attention was drawn to the enemy position—Pharnaces’ army was moving out from the town and forming up in the open in battle order. Pharnaces had his well-drilled troops line up in a battle formation that involved a single, straight, uninterrupted front line of infantry from one side to the other. Behind the front line, on each wing and in the center, three bunched lines of reserves formed up, with a single reserve line linking the three main reserve concentrations.
To counter this fancy formation, Domitius lined up part of his force in battle formation in front of the camp ramparts while the remaining men increased their efforts to finish building the walls and ditches of their new camp. Neither side attempted to launch an attack, and through the afternoon the opposing troops stood in their ranks behind their standards, eyeing each other across the plain until, as sundown approached, the Romans completed their camp and the Bosporan army marched back to its camp, allowing Domitius’ men to also withdraw behind camp walls.
That night, Pharnaces’ wide-ranging cavalry patrols intercepted Roman couriers bringing dispatches for General Domitius. These dispatches had come from Mithradates of Pergamum, whom Caesar had urgently sent from Alexandria to find the reinforcements he had originally ordered Cassius to round up. Mithradates—Pharnaces’ half brother—had landed in Syria after leaving Alexandria ahead of the Egyptian assault on Caesar and sailing around the coast. Apparently basing himself at Laodicea, principal port of Syria, and a city strongly behind Caesar, Pharnaces’ brother had sent messages to all quarters seeking the reinforcements that Caesar so desperately needed.
When Pharnaces read the dispatches from Mithradates intended for General Domitius, he learned for the first time that Caesar was trapped in Alexandria and in extreme danger. Mithradates was as yet unaware that Commander Cassius had done his job and that the 27th and 37th Legions were now on their way to Egypt, with the 27th yet to reach Laodicea overland. He ordered Domitius, on Caesar’s behalf, to immediately send Caesar reinforcements and to himself move closer to Alexandria with those forces he retained.
Pharnaces now cunningly released the couriers and permitted them to deliver the dispatches that he had just read to Domitius. Pharnaces’s strategy now was to spin out the time, to put off a full-scale battle, until Domitius had no choice but to pull out and head south in aid of Caesar, as he had been ordered to do in these latest dispatches. In this way Pharnaces could have Armenia Minor without a fight.
To strengthen his defensive position and deter Domitius from considering an attack, Pharnaces now had his men dig two parallel trenches, each four feet deep, running out from the part of the town that offered easiest access to the Romans, and lined up his infantry on the ground between the trenches, placing his cavalry at either end of the trench lines.
Colonel Hirtius says that Domitius was more worried about Caesar’s position than his own, but he was not prepared to negotiate terms with Pharnaces after having rejected giving him terms before. Even worse to the proud Domitius would be for him to approach Pharnaces with terms for a settlement that would allow him to go south secure in the knowledge that Pharnaces would not occupy Pontus behind his back, only for Pharnaces to reject his approach.
On the morning of a fine fall day, having decided that he would have to deal with Pharnaces before he did anything else, General Domitius led his troops out of the camp on the plain outside Nicopolis and formed them in battle order.
The men of the 36th Legion, former Pompeian troops, had at least experienced combat at Farsala, even if they had lost the battle, and so, considering them his most experienced troops, Domitius placed the 36th on his important right wing. The left wing he assigned to the Legio Pontica. Most of the men of this Pontic Legion, Roman citizens from Pontus, were raw recruits, having been in uniform for only weeks. But it is highly likely that several cohorts of this new legion were actually retired veterans of the old Valeria Legion, which had served in the East under Pompey and been discharged by him here and given land grants in Pontus. Under their discharge agreements, retired legionaries were required to serve a total of four more years as reservists if and when required, and it is more than likely that the Valerians had been recalled to help bring the Pontic Legion up to strength. On the negative side, while these recalled veterans had significant experience—having fought Pharnaces’ father, Mithradates the Great—all were now in their forties at least and had not thrown a javelin in anger in a decade.
Domitius would have deployed the legions on the wings in the standard Roman battle formation of three lines, splitting their cohorts four-three-three through the three lines, as Caesar did. He placed King Deiotarus’s two legions in his center. Because he had no great confidence in these native units, he bunched them tightly. The aged king himself was not present. Domitius held the auxiliary cohorts from Cilicia in reserve. For cavalry, he only had two hundred men, a hundred supplied by Deiotarus and the hundred Cappadocians. He would have placed a hundred troopers on each of his wings, under the direction of his commander of cavalry, Colonel Quintus Atius Varus.
Seeing that the Roman general meant business, Pharnaces decided that he would give battle, and lined up his troops between the trenches, in the formation he had used previously. But this time, while the reserve lines took up their positions between the two trenches, Pharnaces placed his front line in advance of the trenches. Once again, he split his cavalry between his wings. His mounted troops significantly outnumbered the Roman cavalry; Pharnaces possessed perhaps a thousand cavalrymen. Where they came from we don’t know, although it’s possible many of them were Sarmatians. Pharnaces’ aggressive Ukrainian neighbors, the Sarmatians were the original inhabitants of his Bosporan Kingdom. They were expert horsemen who excelled as heavy cavalry, wearing fish-scale-style metal armor and sporting long lances.
The nature and origins of Pharnaces’ infantry also are unknown. We do know that his army had been together for a number of years, fighting numerous battles, and had never been beaten in all that time. Pharnaces would have used his father’s large army as the basis of his military, retaining the best officers and soldiers when Pompey demobilized the surrendered army in 63-62 B.C. Mithradates the Great had employed mostly Greek officers, plus a few Romans who had defected to him. Much like the men of the Egyptian army facing Caesar now in Egypt, many of Pharnaces’s rank and file would have been mercenaries, men from throughout the East and perhaps as far afield as Gaul (the men of his father’s bodyguard unit had been Gauls) who had voluntarily signed up with him for profit, not for patriotism. It’s likely a few former Cilician pirates also marched for Pharnaces, as they did for the Egyptians; the pirates had been allies of Pharnaces’ father.
The Bosporan unit names and strengths are not recorded. Pharnaces’ father, Mithradates the Great, was named for the god Mithra, who, through much of the East, was worshiped as the god of the sun, justice, contract, and war. Typically, the Romans, who tolerated the worship of many Eastern gods, incorporated Mithra into their pantheon, and a temple to him was built at Rome. Later, the Christian church would appropriate Mithra’s birthday, December 25, as the day on which the nativity of Jesus Christ would be celebrated. It’s thought that Mithradates worshiped Mithra; his allies the Cilician pirates certainly did. If his son Pharnaces was also a follower of Mithraism it’s probable he appropriated its symbols for his army.
The white bull, Mithraism’s key symbol, is likely to have been his emblem, while his troops marched behind standards bearing the four elementary symbols of Mithraism—the raven (air), the lion (fire), the serpent (earth), and the mixing bowl (water). Perhaps his units were named in the same manner. The moon also was an important symbol to followers of Mithra, for in their legend of creation, after Mithra sacrificed the white bull from which all things subsequently grew, the bull transformed into the moon. It’s possible that a quarter-moon emblem appeared on the shields of Pharnaces’ soldiers.
The arms carried by most of Pharnaces’ infantry were apparently similar to those of the Romans—throwing javelins and swords, not the long spears used by Greek phalanxes in the past and by the tribes of Germany. The East produced the best archers of the ancient world, and it’s probable that Pharnaces had companies of bowmen among his reserve units.
As for Pharnaces himself, apart from his approximate age we know that he had at least one wife—probably several, as his father did—and a daughter and a very young son named Darius. He would have spoken Greek as his primary language, for all the cities of the Bosporan Kingdom were peopled primarily by people of Greek extraction. He would have been raised by Greek tutors, and his learning would have been remarkably similar to that of his Roman adversaries. He is likely to have been square jawed, and clean-shaven in the Greek and Roman fashion—as his father had been and as several rulers of the Bosporan Kingdom were.
As the Romans later learned, Pharnaces consulted auspices prior to battle, just as they did. In the predawn, General Domitius would have attended the sacrifice by Roman augurs of a bull, dedicated to the Roman war god, Mars, as all Roman generals were expected to do prior to a battle. He would have obtained favorable omens—Mars was with the Romans, the augurs would have assured Domitius. In the same way, Pharnaces would have presided over the sacrifice of a bull in the early morning hours. With the entrails of the animal clear and unblemished, a good sign, Pharnaces would have proceeded to battle confident that Mithra smiled on him and his army this day.
The two armies stood in their battle formations, facing each other across the plain, with less than half a mile separating them. There would be no pointless standoff between the two armies today—at almost the same instant, Domitius and Pharnaces each ordered their armies to charge. In the midst of the Roman army, wearing his armor and scarlet general’s cloak and surrounded by his staff, General Domitius nodded to his personal standard-bearer. His purple standard bearing the twelve fasces of a consul dropped, trumpets sang out through the ranks of some sixteen thousand or seventeen thousand men, and with an exultant roar the men of all three Roman lines advanced at the run.
A similar catalyst sent the Bosporan front line charging forward, but Pharnaces’ cavalry on the wings and the reserves behind the lines held their positions, as they had been ordered. The Roman cavalry also remained stationary, as their general awaited the ideal opportunity to insert them into the action. As the infantry dashed forward, both sides let fly with their javelins, on the run. Then, at the last moment, just as the two front lines were about to ram into each other, the Bosporans let out a blood-curdling battle cry. A moment later, the two sides collided with a roar in a mass of clashing shields and slashing swords.
General Domitius had decided his strategy in advance of the battle. He had passed on instructions accordingly at a full assembly of the troops in camp that morning, before the legions had marched out to do battle. He didn’t want to attempt to cross the Bosporan trench lines; that would break up his battle formations and leave his men vulnerable. So, while the Deiotarans kept the Bosporans occupied in the center, the 36th and Pontic Legions were under orders to run around the outside of the trenches and then sweep in on the flanks of the reserve behind the trenches.
On the Roman right, the 36th Legion charged into the Bosporan cavalry standing just outside the trench lines. Their charge broke up the mounted formation; Bosporan troopers dispersed in disorder. The 36th could have then swung into the left flank of the Bosporan reserve infantry, but the tribune leading it chose instead to lead his men all the way to the town walls. From there the 36th wheeled around, crossed the trench behind the Bosporan reserves, and attacked them in the rear.
On the other wing, Bosporans met the charge of the Pontic Legion in the open, stood their ground, and brought the mostly inexperienced Roman troops to a shuddering halt. So the commander of the Pontic Legion drew his troops back. The Bosporans, fearing a trap, did not follow them. The Pontic Legion re-formed, then launched a fresh attack, this time heading toward the first trench, planning to negotiate the trench and then attack the enemy beyond it. This was a disastrous error. While, in normal circumstances, a man could jump into the four-feet-deep ditch and clamber out of it again on the other side on his own or with a helping hand from a comrade, it was a different story when that man was under attack from above.
The Bosporans quickly swarmed up to the trench and launched spears, arrows, and stones at the Roman legionaries as they struggled to get across it. To the men of Pharnaces’ right division—no doubt his best, as units on the right wing of a battle line invariably were in these times—it would have been like a turkey shoot.
In the center, the men of the two Deiotaran legions met the Bosporan charge, came to a standstill, then buckled as the enemy pushed forward again. Many Deiotarans began turning and streaming from the field in panic, leaving comrades to be mowed down. Their Bosporan opponents, being well disciplined, instead of giving chase, saw that their fellows on their left were under sustained attack from the 36th Legion and in trouble, and turned to give them support.
With the Pontic Legion pinned down at the trench and taking very heavy casualties, many Bosporan troops on that wing were pulled out and also sent to aid Pharnaces’ embattled left. The 36th Legion soon found itself under attack from almost the entire Bosporan army. Colonel Hirtius, quoting an eyewitness, was to say that the 36th bore the brunt of this attack bravely. But before long the legion was surrounded.
The men of the 36th were all former republican troops, from a variety of Pompey’s legions, and some of them would have been highly experienced soldiers. But they suffered from the fact that the 36th had been thrown together, and its men had yet to develop an esprit de corps. Heavily outnumbered, seeing the Deiotarans in the center of the Roman line flee, and seeing the Pontic Legion being carved up on the other wing, they could only think about survival. Orders rang out for the 36th to form an orbis, the Roman army’s circular formation of last resort.
The men of the 36th obeyed with good discipline. Then, with their standards in the center of this ring, the 36th gradually withdrew in a practiced maneuver, fighting all the way, toward the hills. Seeing this, Pharnaces ordered his troops not to follow the Romans into the foothills, where the 36th, which continued to maintain its discipline, would have the advantage of high ground and could launch an effective counterattack.
At the same time, given a respite by the enemy’s concentration on the 36th, survivors from the Pontic Legion were able to escape the deadly trench, now the grave of thousands of their fellow recruits, and flee from the battlefield. Accompanied by his cavalry, General Domitius also withdrew into the hills, abandoning his camp to the enemy.
The Battle of Nicopolis was over. It had resulted in a resounding success for Pharnaces and his Bosporans—a “notable victory” according to historian Appian—and a bitter defeat for Caesar’s deputy. Precise casualty figures are unknown. As General Domitius’s subordinates were able to round up surviving troops in the hills and regroup with their commander, the losses were tallied. The Deiotarans had lost more than half their number, men who had either been killed or were still running. The Pontic Legion had lost about two-thirds of its men. The 36th Legion had fared best of all, losing just 250 men in the battle. All told, Roman losses would have approached 9,000. Included among the dead were a number of tribunes, young colonels of the Equestrian Order who had perished leading their legions and cohorts, several of them from Rome’s best families—“men of distinction and renown,” according to Colonel Hirtius.
During the afternoon, Domitius led his bloodied, regrouped units back the way they had come, along the mountain ridge toward Cappadocia. From Cappadocia he would retreat all the way back to Asia, to lick his wounds and reequip, and to try to restore the confidence of his remaining troops. In doing so, he left the East open to Pharnaces and his victorious army.
Pharnaces was delighted with himself. He had just emulated his famous father and defeated a Roman army, and with only minimal casualties. The way lay open for him to consolidate his control over Armenia Minor and to advance unopposed into Pontus, which had always been the objective of his invasion. After looting and burning Domitius’ abandoned camp, he led his army across the mountains into Pontus. Over the next few weeks Pharnaces’ army stormed and looted scores of wealthy Pontic towns and cities that shut their gates to him, as he took full control of the province and as his troops glutted themselves with pillage, rape, and destruction. Colonel Hirtius says that Pharnaces behaved “as a conqueror and cruel despot” throughout the conquest of Pontus.
According to Appian, at the city of Amisus in Pontus, which held out against Pharnaces for some time until his troops succeeded in storming it, Pharnaces sold the entire population into slavery, castrating all the boys of the city. Hirtius indicates this practice of castration was more widespread, inflicted by Pharnaces throughout Pontus on “those men whose beauty recommended them” to such a punishment—a punishment more wretched than death, in Hirtius’s opinion.
With little effort, Pharnaces had recovered his hereditary kingdom. Made arrogant by his success at the Battle of Nicopolis and the easy conquest of Pontus, and knowing from the captured Roman dispatches that Caesar was in dire straits in Egypt, he could see no reason why he could not use his army to spread his sovereignty throughout the East, the way his father had. These Romans, he would have declared to his celebrating followers, weren’t the mighty soldiers they were cracked up to be.