XVI

BATTLE ON THE NILE

Caesar and young Ptolemy XIII both reacted in the same manner and at about the same time to the news from their commanders on the Nile. Ptolemy decided to set off from Alexandria, taking the bulk of his remaining forces to, in the words of Caesar’s staff officer Hirtius, “check” Mithradates. Having dealt with the relief force, he would return to Alexandria to finally destroy Caesar. So the Egyptian fleet was summoned back to the capital from its position off Canopus, to quickly transport Ptolemy, Ganymede, and their troops to the Nile, where they would link up with Dioscorides and the second, bloodied Egyptian army currently standing in Mithradates’ way, and then launch into a climactic and decisive battle. That was the plan, anyway.

Caesar also knew that his relief force was close, but bogged down. It was all or nothing for Caesar now. First, he chose a garrison to remain behind in the sector of Alexandria controlled by the Romans and provide a guard for his remaining hostages, Cleopatra and her little brother Ptolemy XIV. That garrison was made up of his auxiliaries and probably part of the 28th Legion, which had disappointed him until now. After saying farewell to Cleopatra, who was now close to six months pregnant, Caesar loaded the rest of his troops on board his ships, then sailed from the Great Harbor.

According to Cassius Dio he sailed at night, and he built large signal fires on his ships so the Alexandrians could see that he was leaving, then turned east up the coast, as if sailing for the Nile. But once he was out of sight of Alexandria, says Dio, Caesar extinguished the signal fires and turned about and slipped back past Alexandria and along the Libyan coast toward the west.

Hirtius says that Caesar didn’t want to invite a time-wasting battle on the Nile between his forces and Ptolemy’s navy, which he believed to be still stationed up the coast near the mouths of the Nile, and that was why he turned west. His primary objective was to link up with Mithradates of Pergamum, without a fight. A little way down the coast toward Africa he landed his men, and set off to march inland via a diagonal route, to link up with Mithradates at the Nile.

For the men of the 6th Legion and their comrades of the 28th and 37th this route march would have been a welcome change from the sedentary life they had been leading in the city. The Spaniards of the 6th had been cooped up in Alexandria for close to six frustrating months, and the prospect of a decisive pitched battle in the open, where the Roman legionary shone, would have been a welcome one.

Following Caesar’s departure from the city, the Egyptian fleet returned to Alexandria, as instructed by their young king. Ptolemy quickly loaded most of his troops onto the ships along with arms and ammunition. Leaving his sister Arsinoe with a force of militia to garrison the city, and possibly also leaving Ganymede in charge at Alexandria—it is unclear whether Ganymede accompanied the king or remained at Alexandria—Ptolemy set off, believing that Caesar was somewhere ahead of him.

Ptolemy’s route was the most direct, and he was using water transport, meaning his progress should be by far the most speedy. Once he reached the mouths of the Nile, Ptolemy collected a number of smaller, shallow-draft craft—hundreds of them, it would appear. There he off-loaded his troops from his cruisers and frigates onto the smaller river craft. This fleet of distinctive Nile riverboats, wherries with high, pointed sterns and prows, a single mast, and several oars each, their timbers brightly painted, according to Virgil, then made its way up the Nile to locate and join Dioscorides and his troops.

Although Ptolemy had the shortest, fastest route to travel, Caesar had a good head start of perhaps a day, with the result that both sides reached their respective Nile armies at much the same time on March 25.

As his two armies came together with hails of comradeship and cheers of joy, Caesar warmly greeted his faithful friend Mithradates, who would have sighed with relief at the sight of the man he had not seen since the previous October and had come to fear had perished in Alexandria. Caesar also embraced the Jewish commander, Antipater, and congratulated him for his feats and his valor in the battles at Pelusium and in the Delta.

Caesar also was delighted to welcome another Jewish leader, who had just joined Mithradates. Hyrcanus, high priest of the Jews, from Jerusalem, to whom Caesar had written the previous fall seeking help, had arrived to join Mithradates with another fifteen hundred Jewish troops, more than making up for the Roman losses at the Battle of Jews Camp. Whether these fifteen hundred men had previously made up Mithradates’ garrison at Pelusium or whether Hyrcanus had brought them down from Palestine as additional reinforcements is unclear.

At the same time that Caesar united his forces, ten to twelve miles to the north of the Roman position King Ptolemy linked up with Dioscorides and the Egyptian holding force. During street fighting at Alexandria not long after the king had rejoined his troops, some among Caesar’s men had called out jibes to the Egyptians, deriding Ptolemy’s youth and physical weakness. But the Egyptians had rallied solidly behind their king, who, now that he had been freed from the overbearing influence of the arrogant Pothinus by Caesar’s executioner, was displaying strong leadership qualities and excellent strategic skills.

Unloading most of his men onto the eastern bank of the Nile, and leaving a few selected units of archers and slingers on the boats in the river, Ptolemy chose a site for a new camp beside the river for his unified army. That site, close to an unnamed village, was, according to Hirtius, a naturally strong one. It was a sloping rise elevated above the river plain, with the river on one side, a marsh on another, and steep cliffs along the third, highest side, with a more accessible, gently inclining approach on the fourth side. The Egyptian army quickly set to work building fortifications around the rise, fortifying the nearby village, and building a wall linking the village and the camp on the rise.

The officers in charge of building the Egyptian fortifications borrowed from the Roman army textbook, as would be expected of the Romans, the so-called Gabinians, who officered the Egyptian units. A wall of earth at least ten feet high and three feet thick created from a ditch ten feet deep and three feet across ran around the camp’s outer perimeter. But unlike the standard Roman legion camp, which had a gate in each of its four sides, there seems to have been just a single gate in the walls of the Egyptian camp, on the most accessible side. From this strong base, the king intended to watch Caesar’s movements and choose an appropriate time to attack him.

While this construction work was under way at the Egyptian camp, Ptolemy dispatched cavalry to screen Caesar’s approach, and, on March 26, Ptolemy received a report from cavalry scouts that the Roman army was marching down the Nile toward his position. From his scouts, the king learned that seven miles from the Egyptian camp Caesar’s route of march would bring him to a river, a tributary of the Nile that diverted from it and angled across the Delta to enter the sea many miles from the mother river. This river was not wide, but it was deep, and its banks on either side were steep. An army reaching this barrier would have to pause to create a crossing of some kind. Seeing an opportunity to strike Caesar while he was at a disadvantage, Ptolemy dispatched all his cavalry and selected light infantry units to ambush the Romans while they were making the river crossing.

Marching north now, Caesar was determined to swiftly terminate this Egyptian war with a decisive victory here beside the Nile. In coming out to face him on the Delta, the Egyptians had played right into his hands; he much preferred a set-piece battle on open ground, as opposed to the restricting type of urban fighting he’d had to engage in at Alexandria.

Caesar was confident that with the combined forces now at his disposal he had both the quantity and the quality of troops he needed to do the job. In addition to Roman legionaries of the 6th, 27th, 28th, and 37th Legions, he had the forty-five hundred Jewish fighters of Antipater and Hyrcanus, most of whom had already shown their mettle at Pelusium and Jews Camp, plus further Jewish reinforcements from Egypt. He had his tried and trusted eight hundred German and Gallic cavalry, their horses having survived the conflict in Alexandria due to his determination to feed and preserve them. And he had several thousand allied light infantry-men and cavalry. His force now totaled some twenty thousand troops, almost exactly the same number he’d led to victory against Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus.

An advance guard of cavalry and infantry always preceded a Roman army on the march, to ensure that the way ahead was free of enemy, and to build roads and bridges where necessary for the main force and its large baggage train to use without being delayed. When Caesar’s advance guard reached the river chosen by the Egyptians as the location for their ambush, its legionaries set to work felling tall trees, which they then lay across the river. They next covered the logs with earth, to create a temporary bridge. The Roman troops labored in the hot sun for several hours to complete the bridge, just in time for the main force’s arrival.

As the first troops began to cross the bridge, on the opposite bank hundreds of previously concealed Egyptian ambushers suddenly rose from behind rocks and undergrowth and pelted those crossing and the Roman units massed on the opposite bank with javelins and stones. The Roman advance came to a dead stop at this juncture as men hurriedly retreated across the temporary bridge.

According to Hirtius, the Roman troops who had been with Caesar in Alexandria were furious that they had been fighting these damnable Egyptians for so many months and still hadn’t been able to get the better of them. But Caesar had a secret weapon, and now he employed it. Knowing the special skills of one contingent of his German cavalry bodyguard, Batavians from present-day Holland, Caesar quickly summoned their officers and ordered the Batavians to disperse up and down this river barrier and find fording places.

As ordered, the Batavian troopers scattered along the riverbank and were soon gone from sight. At one point the Batavians found a place where they could get their horses down the steep bank into the water. These troopers had a special talent: they could swim their horses across rivers while holding onto their saddles, in full equipment. Once on the far bank the soggy troopers were able to quickly remount and immediately go into action. This talent mastered by the Batavians would help Roman generals win numerous battles in times to come, and in the imperial era the Batavian Horse would become the Roman army’s most elite cavalry regiment.

Out of nowhere, the Batavian cavalrymen came charging into the rear of the Egyptians occupying the riverbank facing Caesar’s halted army. They took the Egyptian cavalry completely by surprise. The Egyptians would have dismounted to undertake the ambush; on foot, they were at a vital disadvantage. As the Batavians charged into the flat-footed Egyptians and set about them with flashing swords, Roman infantry was able to pour across the tree bridge in ever-increasing numbers and enter the fray from the front.

Sandwiched between the two attacking forces, Egyptians who stood and fought were cut to pieces. Most of those who ran were overtaken at the gallop and cut down. It was, says Hirtius, a rout, from which very few Egyptian cavalrymen were able to escape and return to their king with the news of their defeat.

With the blood lust of his men aroused, Caesar decided to drive home his advantage. As soon as his column had completed the river crossing, he marched directly toward the Egyptian camp seven miles away. Within two hours the Roman army appeared outside the Egyptian position. The Egyptians called their men to arms, and around all the walls of their defenses their troops ran to take up positions. There were about forty thousand of them, and they lined the walls of their camp and the adjacent fortified village almost shoulder to shoulder.

It was soon obvious that Ptolemy had no intention of sending his troops out to fight the Romans in the open, and Caesar’s troops began calling on their commander to immediately send them against the enemy fortifications. While he appreciated his men’s zeal, Caesar, seeing the extensive nature of the Egyptian forces and the excellent location of their camp, and knowing that his men were weary after marching, fighting, and then marching yet again for the better part of the day, decided against further hostilities and ordered a fortified camp built for the night not far from the Egyptian position.

While his men threw up the walls of their marching camp, and before the sun set, Caesar made a careful reconnoiter of the Egyptian position on horseback, analyzing its strengths and weaknesses. Beside him, his secretary Apollonius would have noted down his observations as he dictated; Caesar was famous for dictating to two and three secretaries at once when he was traveling—a different subject to each one.

That night, Caesar had orders circulated to his troops to prepare for an all-out assault on the Egyptian position the next day. While the troops were hard at work preparing ammunition and building scaling ladders and wooden hurdles to cross enemy trenches, Caesar, in his command tent, hispraetorium, briefed his officers on what he intended doing the next day and what he required of each of them in the coming assault.

Shortly after dawn on the morning of March 27, having given his men a pep talk at morning assembly, Caesar marched his army out of camp, leaving a small guard behind, almost certainly made up of auxiliaries. But instead of attacking the main Egyptian camp, Caesar sent his entire force against the Egyptian village being held by the enemy. The objective was small, the defenders vastly outnumbered.

The overwhelming numbers of the attackers meant the village fell very quickly. As Caesar’s legionaries came swarming up scaling ladders and swept over the front walls of the village’s fortifications, knocking aside all opposition, hundreds of terrified Egyptian troops jumped from the rear walls of the village’s fortifications and fled back to their main camp. The Roman attackers gave chase, as Caesar urged his men to maintain the initiative while the Egyptians were on the back foot. Leaving the village in ruins, the Roman army swept up the slope to the main Egyptian position. King Ptolemy’s camp was soon under attack from the two most accessible sides.

When Caesar came riding up to join his men, he found that his troops had chased wide-eyed village stragglers all the way to the camp’s front wall, which occupied the gently sloping side. The Egyptian refugees from the village begged their countrymen to let them into the camp, but the Egyptian troops inside dared not open the gate. Caesar’s legionaries cut down every straggler there below the wall, in full view of their distraught comrades on the wall. The legionaries then began exchanging javelin fire with defenders on this wall. On the Nile side of the Egyptian camp there was a narrow approach between river and marsh, and some of the Roman troops were also going against the defenders there.

Ptolemy had assigned the defense of the camp’s front wall to a large force of picked regular soldiers. Only a smaller number were defending the approach on the Nile side of the camp, but they were inflicting casualties on the Romans and their allies attacking from that quarter, because they were supported by a deadly barrage of arrows and slingshot coming from the Egyptians’ many riverboats that had been drawn into the bank by their crews.

Even though his men weren’t losing their enthusiasm for the assault, Caesar could see that he wasn’t going to make progress the way things were going. The Roman general now noticed that the wall at the highest part of the Egyptian camp, that which rose above the cliff face to the rear, was all but deserted. Most of the defenders assigned to that sector, bored by inactivity and wanting to get into the fight, had deserted this wall and gone down to the two places on other walls that were under attack, some to help, some to watch.

Caesar sent for one of his most experienced centurions, Carfulenus, who was “outstanding both for dauntlessness and military skill,” in the words of Hirtius. Pointing out the almost undefended but seemingly inaccessible wall, Caesar gave Centurion Carfulenus his instructions. The centurion and a handpicked group of Caesar’s best men set off for the wall in question. It’s almost certain that Carfulenus and his men were from the 6th Legion—recognized by Caesar as his best troops.

While Egyptian attention was focused on Roman attacks on the two walls elsewhere, Centurion Carfulenus and his men silently climbed the cliffs below the rear wall, apparently with the aid of scaling ladders, which they then used to mount the camp wall itself. The legionaries slid over the wall like demons, surprising and slaying the few sentries left on duty, who were all looking toward the hectic action on the lower walls. The other men meant to be guarding the rear wall, who had gone down to be closer to the action at the front wall, turned to see a tide of Roman legionaries washing over the rear wall, ran to engage the invaders, and called with alarm for support.

This yelling from the top of the camp caused confusion, consternation, and ultimately panic in Egyptian ranks elsewhere. Egyptian troops ran uncertainly to and from each of the three scenes of combat as their frantic officers tried to deal with the variety of threats. With attention now drawn to the rear wall, the Roman troops assaulting the front wall covered the outer trench with wicker hurdles and brought up scaling ladders.

Centurion Carfulenus and his men were now inside the enemy camp. They had cleared the rear ramparts of defenders, and now with bloodied Egyptian corpses in their wake and with shields raised, they drove down the slope into enemy reinforcements sent to counter them. According to Hirtius, Carfulenus’s unstoppable legionaries killed large numbers of Egyptians.

Now over the front wall came Jewish assault troops. Leading the Jewish forces as they fought their way onto the camp ramparts, showing neither fear nor hesitation, was Hyrcanus, the Jewish high priest. His fighting prowess, witnessed by Caesar’s officers, was to impress Caesar. In a later citation to the people of Sidon quoted by Josephus, Caesar would say of Hyrcanus that during this battle he “showed himself superior in valor to all the rest” of the men in his Jewish force. Antipater, the Jewish commander, also was prominent during this assault, and he was wounded yet again.

Under attack from three directions now and in terror, Egyptian troops crushed toward the wall facing the Nile in their hundreds and then their thousands, intent on escaping the camp and reaching their river craft. Discipline did not break down entirely; at least one unit, possibly made up of the spearmen of the king’s bodyguard, fought a resolute rearguard action to hold back the Romans attacking them from inside the camp.

This gave hundreds of other Egyptian soldiers the chance to jump from the riverside wall into the ditch running around its outside. These men were struggling to clamber from the ditch when the earth wall collapsed on top of them under the weight of thousands more men mounting it to escape. This collapse buried and suffocated those Egyptians in the ditch. It also created a large opening in the wall, making it easier for thousands more Egyptians to escape. Among the sea of men fleeing toward the Egyptian riverboats nudging the nearest Nile bank were King Ptolemy and members of his court.

At first, Egyptian archers and slingers on the boats provided covering fire to allow their retreating colleagues to reach the safety of the boats as Roman troops pressed after them. But as yelling, screaming men tried in wide-eyed desperation to board the craft, boatmen began to realize that all sense had deserted these fools, who in their desire to survive would only overload their vessels. Many boats began to put out from the shore, causing more panic among the desperate escapees. Here, a boat sank under the weight of too many passengers. There, men were killing fellow Egyptians to keep them from boarding. With piercing screams from its horrified occupants, another boat turned turtle. Then another, and another.

In the midst of this chaotic scene King Ptolemy was pulled aboard one vessel, which likewise tried to put out into midstream. But as the boat moved away from the riverbank to escape this “hell unleashed,” as an Italian saying goes, men whose only thought was escape clung to its side. The king’s boat began to heel over.

With swords and cudgels, crewmen and surviving members of the king’s bodyguard tried to make the hundreds grasping onto the boat’s rail let go. But too late. The boat containing the king rolled over, tipping all on board into the murky green-brown Nile, and went down. The young man was briefly seen struggling in the water, and then Ptolemy XIII, teenage king of Egypt, disappeared.

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