The old year had passed. It was now 47 B.C., or, according to the Roman calendar, A.U.C. 707, literally 707 years since the foundation of Rome. The bloody, ongoing conflict at Alexandria, now months old, had become a daily grind of infantry sortie and counter infantry sortie by either side, as each tested the defenses of the other. The Egyptians were full of confidence after regaining Pharos Island. Meanwhile, the pride of the Roman troops had been stung by their reverse at the causeway, and they were hell-bent on making up for it. Colonel Hirtius records that all three of Caesar’s legions were now determined to show him they were his best troops, and, he wrote, rather than having to urge them to fight, Caesar had to restrain his legionaries from engaging in dangerous encounters that would only cause unnecessary casualties for little gain.
Caesar was biding his time, waiting for his next contingent of reinforcements. The approximately fifty-five hundred men brought by the reinforcement convoy had proven not to have been enough to tip the balance in his favor. With as many as eighty thousand men under arms, the Egyptians still significantly outnumbered his force, which, while bolstered by the 37th’s arrival, still numbered less than ten thousand.
Caesar now knew, from the officers of the 37th Legion, that General Domitius had sent the 27th Legion marching overland from Asia to join him in Egypt. Having no idea about the Roman defeat at the Battle of Nicopolis, he also expected Domitius to himself be moving down toward Egypt with his other forces, as he had sent him orders to do via Mithradates of Pergamum. On top of that, Caesar held high hopes that young Mithradates would himself have pulled together a coalition of troops from Rome’s eastern provinces and allies and that he was now bringing them to Egypt by sea or land. Until he received additional troops, Caesar knew he had to be patient—not an easy thing for the notoriously impatient Julius Caesar to do—and tread water.
Now, out of the blue, the Egyptians sent him a delegation to talk peace. Caesar never learned precisely what caused this unexpected development. Colonel Hirtius was to later speculate that perhaps the Egyptians simply could not see themselves being victorious against Caesar’s troops. Alternatively, he was to write, they may have hatched a scheme with supporters of young King Ptolemy XIII who were being held with the king and his sister Cleopatra by Caesar. Or perhaps, Hirtius mused, the scheme had originated with the teenage king himself, and he had used secret agents to communicate with his people outside the Roman zone.
When Caesar met with them, the Egyptian envoys proposed that he return the boy king to them. They claimed that the Egyptian people were tired of the rule of the girl Arsinoe and her cruel associate Ganymede, and were ready to obey their king, Ptolemy. And, they said, they were sure that once he had resumed control of the Egyptian armed forces the king would enter into a relationship of friendship and trust with Caesar, that he would convince the Egyptians to lay down their arms and submit to Caesar.
This all came as a complete surprise to Caesar and his officers and staff. Those closest to Caesar were unanimous in arguing against releasing the king. They didn’t trust the Egyptians. Even Caesar admitted to his staff that he was well aware this was a deceitful and lying nation they were dealing with. Yet, Caesar said to his companions, “It would be politic to grant their request.”
As those around him vehemently opposed Ptolemy’s handover, Caesar declared that if the king were released he felt sure he would remain loyal to him. This would not be the first time that Caesar had misjudged the loyalty of someone he thought on his side. It would be a characteristic of his career. Men he had known, trusted, and even loved fraternally for many years, such as his “son” Brutus, men who had served him loyally, such as General Labienus, his deputy in Gaul for nine years, had chosen the republic over him when it had come to the crunch in the lead up to the civil war, much to Caesar’s surprise.
Hirtius says that Caesar went on to reason that if the Egyptians were foxing and wanted to make Ptolemy their war leader, then he would be happier to make war on a king than on “a horde of foreigners and runaway slaves.”
Caesar sent for Ptolemy. When the young king was brought before him, Caesar urged him to consider the interests of Egypt and to have mercy on his own country, which had been shamelessly scarred by fire and destruction—all because, said Caesar, of the senselessness of the Egyptian people. He told the king he wanted him to bring his people back to their senses, and to show good faith to himself and the Roman people. Caesar then informed young Ptolemy that he trusted him so implicitly he would agree to the envoys’ request and deliver him up to his own armed enemies.
Caesar then took the sixteen-year-old’s hand and shook it, wishing him well. He was about to send him on his way, but at this, to the astonishment of Caesar and those around him, Ptolemy burst into tears. The young king begged Caesar not to send him away, saying the sight of Caesar was more dear to him than possession of his own kingdom.
Caesar wiped the youth’s tears, and, obviously moved himself, said that in that case Ptolemy need not be concerned, for they would shortly be together again, as soon as Ptolemy had convinced the Egyptian people to choose the path of peace with Rome. Saying this, he sent the young man on his way, and Ptolemy was handed over to the Egyptians, taking along with him his personal attendants and several of his chief courtiers, among the latter being Theodotus, and Dioscorides, the ambassador who had been badly wounded by General Achillas and had by now recovered from his injuries.
Few in Caesar’s circle had been in favor of releasing Ptolemy. What Cleopatra counseled we are not told, but in all probability it suited her to have her brother and rival out of the picture, and she may well have urged Caesar to release him to the Egyptians. She was already several months pregnant to Caesar and had chosen him as her latest protector and champion, although to the outside world the impression continued that she was being held a hostage still. In some respects she was—it must have been in Caesar’s mind that even if Ptolemy proved untrustworthy and had to be eliminated, at least he still had the other ranking member of the Egyptian royal house in his power.
Hirtius says that many of Caesar’s senior officers, his friends and staff members, his centurions and most of the common soldiers were convinced that Ptolemy had pulled the wool over their commander’s eyes. They considered that on the one hand Caesar had been overly generous, while on the other the king was no different from any of his deceitful countrymen. His tears, they were certain, had been contrived. They knew that Ptolemy was “well trained in wiles,” Hirtius was to comment cynically. But Hirtius himself would later claim that Caesar’s decision had nothing to do with generosity. It was a shrewdly calculated move, Hirtius wrote. But he wrote that some time after the event.
As it turned out, the pessimists were proven right, and quickly so. As soon as Ptolemy rejoined his royal court, he enthusiastically assumed control of the Egyptian war effort against Caesar and urged Egyptian troops to complete his destruction. Arsinoe now meekly took a backseat as Ptolemy adopted Ganymede and Dioscorides as his chief military and civil advisers. Ptolemy urged his people to achieve victory over the Romans, but to do it quickly. Having been in Caesar’s headquarters, he knew that the Romans were banking on receiving more supplies and reinforcements. He also knew that Caesar had good reason to believe that both were on the way to him.
The Egyptians were now beginning to receive reports of troops movements in Palestine. And, with the likelihood of another Roman supply convoy appearing over the horizon any day, the Egyptian battle fleet was now ordered to seal off Alexandria. Despite the fact that its refloated vessels had not been intended for deep-water operations, and a doubt hung over their serviceability and even their survivability once they were offshore, the fleet hurriedly put to sea.
Many of Caesar’s troops were soon saying “I told you so” when, not only did the Egyptians increase their offensive activities around the Roman perimeter following the young king’s release but also the Egyptian warships were seen filing out of the Inner Harbor via the narrow western channel to the sea, then sailing past Pharos Island and heading east. From tall buildings, the Romans watched the enemy ships head up the coast toward the mouths of the Nile. Caesar immediately realized the implications of the enemy move, and issued instructions for his own warships to prepare to sail in pursuit of the Egyptian fleet.
It probably occurred to him that the Egyptians had heard that another Roman convoy was on its way south and were sailing to intercept it. He also would have been acutely aware that this may be a trick designed to lure him away from Alexandria. Once before, at Durrës the previous year, he had been lured away from his army, only for the enemy to launch a well-prepared attack behind his back. That error had lost him the Battle of Dyrrhachium and almost lost him the civil war.
Caesar had learned several hard lessons during this civil war. One such lesson had come out of the Durrës deception, and he had been wary ever since of being lured away from the main conflict by a sideshow. The other lesson had stemmed from Curio’s annihilation in North Africa—never again after that had Caesar sent a subordinate to do what he could do himself. This was why he had personally commanded the naval operations in and around Alexandria to date. On balance, the Durrës lesson seemed the most applicable here. So in case the Egyptians were indeed trying to lure him away from Alexandria before launching a major counteroffensive inside the city in his absence, Caesar gave command of the fleet to his chief of staff, young General Tiberius Nero.
In a flurry of activity and swirling water, Caesar’s cruisers and remaining frigates upped anchor and rowed out of the Great Harbor, then turned right and headed east. As had previously been the case, selected men of the 37th Legion sailed with the fleet as marines. General Nero found the Egyptian fleet at anchor near Canopus, a dozen miles up the coast. The city sat beside, in the words of the Roman poet Virgil, “the Nile’s lagoon-like overflow” into the sea. Here the Egyptians were indeed lying in wait for the next Roman convoy bound for Alexandria, which they expected to arrive at any time.
As in the past, Admiral Euphranor commanded Caesar’s Rhodian squadron. Euphranor had previously proven impatient and difficult to manage, even when operating right under Caesar’s nose. Now, no doubt with little respect for Tiberius Nero, an officer in his twenties without any naval experience, Euphranor didn’t wait for orders. While the ships of both sides were forming up in battle lines, and before General Nero gave the order to attack, Euphranor took his cruiser charging straight at the enemy, no doubt expecting the remainder of the fleet to follow, as it had the last time he’d charged into the attack like this, off the Libyan coast.
With her banks of oars splashing and gyrating in unison like well-oiled machines, the big Rhodian cruiser powered through the water toward an Egyptian quadrireme. Taken by surprise by his solo attack, the Egyptian’s master was unable to bring his bow around in time. Euphranor slammed into the Egyptian cruiser beam on with an impact that would have knocked all on board from their feet. With an ominous creaking and splintering of timbers from his opposite number, Euphranor then backed away. The Egyptian ship immediately began to sink. A cheer would have risen up from the men aboard the Rhodian flagship.
Meanwhile, other Egyptian cruisers were swarming toward the victorious Rhodian ship like vengeful bees. When Euphranor looked around for help, he saw that General Nero was holding the other Roman ships back. No one went to Euphranor’s aid, says Hirtius. Perhaps, he suggested, it was because the other Romans commanders thought he could take care of himself. After all, he had been at the forefront of all the Roman naval victories during this campaign.
The renowned Rhodian skipper paid the price for his impetuosity and his disregard for his fleet commander. Trying to fight off several attackers at once, his ship was successfully rammed. The Rhodian flagship was soon taking water. It sank there off Canopus, in an indecisive action that produced no other result for either side other than the loss of a cruiser each. But Caesar paid a higher price, losing his best Rhodian commander—the rash, overconfident Admiral Euphranor went down with his ship and drowned.