No one at Alexandria yet had the slightest idea that a Roman army led by one of Caesar’s generals had been defeated in Armenia Minor. As the siege of Caesar’s 6th and 28th Legions continued unabated in the Egyptian capital, the possibility of Roman reinforcements reaching Caesar would have increasingly exercised the minds of the men on either side—for both sides knew that if reinforcements were to reach the Romans, Caesar could be in a position to lift the siege and take the offensive.
With this in mind, Ganymede, the new commander of the Egyptian army since his mistress, Princess Arsinoe, had engineered the permanent removal of General Achillas, now set out to galvanize the dispirited members of the Egyptian royal council with a powerful speech. This speech by one of the Egyptian leaders was again chronicled verbatim by Colonel Hirtius—suggesting that its contents were later related to Hirtius by someone who had been present at the meeting in question. From later events it is not impossible—in fact, it is quite likely—that these details were subsequently provided by Ganymede himself.
In this speech, Ganymede showed a good tactical mind and considerable skills in the areas of improvisation and organization. Yes, Ganymede acknowledged to his fellow council members, the Egyptian forces had lost more than 110 ships during the disastrous fires lit by Caesar’s men, but that should not discourage the Egyptians from making the water a battle-ground.
“Alexandrians are seafaring men,” he went on, “with many of you receiving daily training in sailing since childhood. The sea is natural to you and a part of your everyday lives. You should be taking advantage of your skills in building and sailing watercraft to achieve your earlier ambition, curtailed by the fire, of denying the sea to Caesar and preventing reinforcements and supplies reaching him over water.”
There were many calls of agreement and nodding heads in his audience.
“It is merely a matter of using your native intelligence and the resources of Alexandria,” Ganymede assured his listeners. “For one thing,” he said, “we still have a number of small craft we can employ, if only in the harbor.”
As his listeners agreed with him, Ganymede continued, pointing out that a flotilla of light frigates of fifty oars or so was stationed at the seven mouths of the Nile, where the great river entered the Mediterranean. The usual task of these frigates was that of collecting customs duties. But what was the point of customs duties when Alexandria was occupied by an invader and the city was in need of warships? Ganymede declared that these vessels should be immediately recalled to Alexandria and pressed into military service.
Then he reminded his colleagues that there were many old, abandoned ships, now mere hulks, sitting in royal dockyards attached to the palace, at the so-called King’s Harbor, a small, walled-off dock on the northeastern side of the Great Harbor. Although these ships had not been near the water in years, they could and should be resurrected by the Alexandrians, Ganymede said, using their boat-building skills, and sent against Caesar’s ships. All this made a great deal of sense, and there was much enthusiastic agreement from the reinvigorated members of the Egyptian council.
Fired up by their new general, the Egyptians quickly recalled the customs boats from the mouths of the Nile and inspected the hulks in Alexandria’s royal dockyards. It became apparent that several dozen ships in the royal dockyards, including heavy cruisers, might be repaired sufficiently to be pressed into service against the Romans. After all, Ganymede told his colleagues, it wasn’t as if they had to prepare these craft for a long sea voyage. They would only be used in the harbor.
It was soon found that in Alexandria’s hot climate, the timbers of the old ships had remained in remarkably good condition, and only minor repairs would be needed on the hulls. It was decided not to bother with masts or sails, and to rely on oarpower alone. But even this presented a problem: none of the hulks was equipped with oars. And the Egyptians had used the last of their spare timber building a wooden barrier along the front of the docks of the Great Harbor to prevent Caesar’s twenty-one cruisers from getting in close to shore and using their artillery against the Egyptians holding the docks. Now someone suggested removing the roofs of city colonnades, gymnasia, and public buildings and stripping them of their rafters to provide the timber they needed for oar manufacture. The idea was immediately seized on. Without letting up on the military operations against the Romans around the perimeters of the encircled Roman sector, large Egyptian work parties repaired ships, while others spread through the city, dismantling roofs with enthusiasm and energy.
On the other side of the battlements, two days after they’d dug the new wells in their sector of Alexandria, the news that Roman reinforcements were close by came as a great relief to Caesar and his men. To the legionaries of the 6th, the tidings, delivered via a small rowboat that slipped into the Great Harbor at night without the Egyptians knowing, vindicated their belief that Caesar knew best. And it was news to make the panicky youngsters of the 28th eat humble pie. The questions now were: How many men were coming to their relief? From which units? And when would they arrive?
Caesar knew some of the answers to these questions. The reinforcements consisted of some five thousand former Pompeian legionaries of the new 37th Legion who had signed up on the Farsala battlefield, plus a small contingent of auxiliaries. Commander Cassius had not let Caesar down—the reinforcements had been sent by General Domitius from Asia as a result of Cassius’s mission. As to when these extra troops would reach Alexandria, that was a trickier question to answer, as the convoy was stranded.
The 37th Legion’s convoy of thirty or so merchantmen and an escort of thirteen warships of various types had chanced the last leg of its journey across the open sea, and had made landfall too far to the west. The vessels were now anchored in a sheltered cove some miles from Alexandria, on the Libyan coast, unable to make any further progress because of a strong east wind blowing in their crews’ faces. The message that Caesar received via the ship’s boat sent from the convoy commander also informed him that the reinforcements were suffering from a lack of freshwater and would soon be in no shape to fight anyone if water was not soon found for them.
With reinforcements so frustratingly near, yet still out of reach as the wind blew hard from the east without relent for days on end, the impatient Caesar decided that he would tow the relief convoy all the way into the Great Harbor if he had to. In the night, taking just a few staff members with him, he stole out of the Roman sector of Alexandria and slipped along silent cobbled streets to the docks, then took a small boat out to one of his cruisers anchored in the harbor.
With the dawn, Caesar sailed from the Great Harbor, leading all twenty-one of his warships out to sea. The Roman flotilla then set a westerly course, with the wind behind it, to follow the coast toward the Libyan cove where the relief convoy was sheltering. On shore, the bemused Egyptians, seeing the Roman ships depart and then turn west and hug the coast as they headed for Libya, but not having the slightest idea what they were up to, ordered a cavalry squadron to shadow them along the coast.
At a coastal village called Chersonesus, Caesar, conscious of the water problems of his reinforcements and the limited water supply he had back in Alexandria, put in and landed some of his seamen with water amphorae and orders to fill them and then quickly return to their ships. Most did as they were told, using the town’s wells, and his ships’ holds were within several hours loaded with water-filled jars. But one band of oarsmen decided they would loot the place while they were at it. These men strayed too far and walked straight into the hands of the skulking men of the Egyptian cavalry squadron, who had been watching proceedings from cover. The seamen were quickly taken prisoner.
Caesar didn’t wait for the missing crewmen to return—there was much he had to accomplish before he ran out of daylight. So he continued along the coast minus the missing men. Meanwhile the seamen, prisoners now, revealed to their Egyptian captors under questioning that Caesar himself was aboard one of the ships. More importantly, they told their interrogators that Caesar had not brought any troops with him. A messenger from the cavalry unit was sent galloping back to Alexandria with this vital information.
As soon as he received this dispatch, Ganymede saw an opportunity to strike Caesar while he was at a disadvantage. By this stage the Egyptian work parties at the docks had managed to refloat and reequip four cruisers of the quadrireme class. In addition, as had been hoped, carpenters had succeeded in fashioning oars from rafters stripped from city buildings, and there were more than enough willing rowers to man them. The four cruisers and the former customs frigates were immediately loaded with heavily armed marines and dispatched from the Inner Harbor with orders to intercept the larger Roman formation. It was a risk to all on board to send the quartet of resurrected cruisers to sea, but if they could disrupt Caesar’s plans—or better yet, deliver him a crippling blow—it would be worth the risk.
It was late in the afternoon when lookouts on Caesar’s ships spotted the small Egyptian fleet making toward them from the east at high speed, with the wind behind it. Despite the fact that his ships outnumbered the enemy’s, Caesar chose not to give battle. Instead, he steered his squadron into shallow water and ran most of his ships onto the beach. Colonel Hirtius ascribes to Caesar two reasons for avoiding a battle: he had no soldiers or marines with which to fight, and the enemy knew these waters far better than his captains did and would be at an advantage if a battle extended into the night, when Caesar’s masters would be as good as blind.
Not all of Caesar’s vessels could fit onto the small beach; a heavy cruiser from Rhodes had to drop anchor some distance from the shore. Occupying Caesar’s right wing, the cruiser was several hundred yards from the rest of Caesar’s ships. Seeing this, the Egyptian commanders made a beeline for the lone Rhodian cruiser. The Egyptian flotilla swept in, surrounded the ship from Rhodes, and began peppering it with missiles. The plucky Rhodian crewmen put up a mighty fight, returning fire as best they could, but, heavily outnumbered, it was obvious to observers on the beach that they were doomed if left to their own devices. Their countrymen from Rhodes couldn’t stand by and let them be overpowered and wiped out, and before long Admiral Euphranor and his colleagues spontaneously launched their cruisers to go to their aid, without even conferring with Caesar.
Seeing the eight Rhodians launching, a furious Caesar had no choice but to commit all he had to the fray, or run the risk of losing more than one cruiser. All the beached ships were heaved back into the water, their crews scrambled aboard, oars dug into the water, bows came around, and a course was set for the Egyptians.
Well in advance of the rest of Caesar’s ships, the eight skippers of the Rhodian ships, determined to help their own, quickly maneuvered into attacking positions and went into action. The opening gambit in a classical sea battle was normally an attempt to ram and sink the opposition. All warships of the era were constructed with a large pointed ram, nicknamed a “beak,” projecting from the prow. Most of a ship’s beak was just below the water’s surface, and if it hit an enemy craft side-on with sufficient impact, this ram would either splinter timbers or force an opening between planking below the waterline. If the hole created was large enough, the damaged ship would fill with water and sink.
In the fading light, one of the Egyptian cruisers either didn’t see the Rhodian ships coming to the rescue or was so determined to keep up its attack on the moored ship it didn’t attempt to get out of the way of the Rhodian cruiser that bore down on it with its oars pulling at maximum rate. With a sickening thud the Rhodian vessel plowed into the Egyptian quadrireme broadside and came to an abrupt halt.
As missiles flew from the decks of both ships, the Rhodian oarsmen backed water furiously, and with a creak of shattered timbers it disengaged, its beak slipping from the hole it had driven in the Egyptian’s side. The Egyptian cruiser began to quickly fill with water, listing badly to one side. Those crewmen and marines who could swim—and in these times, few could—abandoned their posts and dove into the bay. Men who could not swim stayed with the ship, and most drowned when it went down.
A second Egyptian quadrireme was rammed by another of the attacking Rhodians, but after the Rhodian backed off, the damage proved insufficient to sink it. So several of Caesar’s ships ranged close alongside the stricken Egyptian vessel, like wolves surrounding and hounding a wounded deer. Large, harpoonlike iron grappling hooks called harpogos were shot from catapults on the Rhodian decks. The hooks flew through the air with ropes trailing behind them, and connected with the stricken Egyptian cruiser’s woodwork. The damaged Egyptian was snared, and reeled in like a fish on a hook. Cheering boarding parties of armed Rhodian sailors swarmed onto its deck. The ship’s defenders were quickly overcome, and the cruiser was captured.
The two remaining Egyptian cruisers lost so many of their marines to missiles from the Roman ships that they pulled out of the battle and fled east, with their decks awash with blood. The open Egyptian frigates received frightening numbers of casualties from the missiles launched by the much larger Roman ships as they towered beside them, and they, too, turned tail and ran for home.
With night falling, Caesar chose not to give chase. None of Caesar’s ships had been lost, and casualties among his crews were comparatively light. With his oarsmen and sailors exhilarated at their success against the Egyptian marines, he spent the night there in the lonely Libyan bay. Nothing more is heard of the captured Egyptian quadrireme, and it seems it sank in the night.
Next day, as soon as it was light, Caesar continued on along the coast to the west and located the anchored fleet of Roman transports and their thirteen escorts. He shared his water with the reinforcements; then, with most of the thirty-four oar-powered warships of his now enlarged navy taking a transport in tow, and with sails lowered, he set off back to Alexandria against what was now a gentle easterly breeze. The few now greatly outnumbered Egyptian warships, which had returned to Alexandria the previous night, did not venture out to contest Caesar’s return. Later that day he was able to tow his heavily laden transports past the Pharos lighthouse and his cheering, waving troops who occupied it, into the Great Harbor, where all his ships dropped anchor.
Now that Roman reinforcements had arrived, a new phase in the Battle of Alexandria was about to begin.