In the last days of March 47 B.C., a large mounted force of several thousand men approached the city of Alexandria’s Canopic Gate from the direction of the Nile River. Julius Caesar rode at the head of his personal cavalry and up to two thousand allied cavalry that had come south with Mithradates of Pergamum.
In addition to their own standards, the troopers would have carried the captured royal standard of King Ptolemy XIII. Several leading Egyptians would have ridden with them, too, their hands chained. These were men captured during and after the Battle of the Nile Delta, the battle that had destroyed the Egyptian army and brought about the demise of the Egyptian king. Ptolemy’s body was never found. One of his advisers, Theodotus the rhetoric master, is known to have escaped from Egypt. Four years later he would be discovered in the province of Asia by Roman troops of the Liberators, and put to death there—on the orders of Marcus Brutus, according to Plutarch; on the orders of his colleague Cassius, according to Appian.
None of the Roman officers who had served in the Egyptian army, the Gabinians, survived the Battle of the Nile Delta. It seems that men such as Colonel Lucius Septimius and Centurion Salvius, Pompey the Great’s assassins, either perished in the battle or were put to death immediately following it, as traitors to Rome. It was one thing to take up arms against Julius Caesar to serve under fellow Romans such as Pompey, but no Roman had sympathy for a fellow citizen who fought for a foreign foe.
Alexandria’s Canopic Gate was opened to Caesar by the Egyptian troops left by Ptolemy to guard his capital, and the Roman general rode victoriously into the city. News of the battle and its outcome had preceded the conquering Romans, and all thought of resistance evaporated from the hearts and minds of the people of Alexandria. Abandoning their fortifications, the troops of the city’s guard and remaining militia came out and piled up their weapons. Civic leaders came to Caesar wearing mourning clothes, to throw themselves at his feet and beg his pardon. Heaping the sacred objects from their temples before him, they surrendered unconditionally.
After accepting the surrender of the leading Alexandrians and reassuring them that he would not carry out reprisals against them or their city, Caesar dismounted and passed through the former Egyptian lines to the sector of the city he and his men had occupied for six months in often grueling conditions. Here he reunited with the officers and men he had left behind to hold the Roman-occupied sector of the city. At the royal guesthouse that had been his quarters, he was greeted as victor by Cleopatra.
There, too, Cleopatra’s ambitious and scheming sister Arsinoe was brought to Caesar. Cleopatra would have counseled Caesar to execute Arsinoe for leading the war against him for a time, but Caesar had boasted of his generosity to the defeated after his victories over Roman citizens during the civil war for the past two years, so he could hardly execute a woman. Instead of putting Arsinoe to death, he would magnanimously banish her to the Temple of Diana at Ephesus in Asia. But not before he took her back to Rome to display her as a trophy to the Roman people.
He would choose Arsinoe’s place of exile for a quite deliberate reason. It was a reason full of irony, and the Romans loved irony. Years before, Arsinoe’s father, Ptolemy XII, had sought sanctuary in the same temple, after Arsinoe’s elder sister Berenice had overthrown him, and he had spent several humbled, frustrating years there. Whether Caesar intended Arsinoe to end her days at Ephesus we don’t know. But that would be how it turned out—a decade later, Cleopatra, described by Josephus as a woman who hesitated at no wickedness, would convince Mark Antony to have Arsinoe executed at Ephesus, ridding her of a royal rival.
It also appears that at the same time that Arsinoe was handed over to Caesar, Ganymede, Arsinoe’s former tutor and later the cunning commander of the Egyptian army, was presented to Caesar as a prisoner by the Egyptians.
Caesar now took charge of the entire royal palace of the Ptolemies, and in the throne room he formally installed Cleopatra as Queen of Egypt, in partnership now with her younger brother the twelve-year-old Ptolemy XIV. As part of the ceremony, Caesar had the will of Ptolemy XII read aloud, with emphasis on the article requiring that the late king’s eldest daughter and eldest son occupy his throne after him, which, with Ptolemy XIII drowned and out of the way and Ptolemy XIV the only surviving son, was now the case. In doing this, Caesar wanted the world to believe that he was not acting as a conqueror but as a liberator who was merely fulfilling the wishes of the late king of Egypt.
For the next two weeks, Caesar took a vacation. With Cleopatra lounging at his side, he sailed down the Nile in a fleet of riverboats and barges—four hundred of them, according to Appian. Caesar and the obviously pregnant Cleopatra traveled on a lavishly equipped royal barge, with many of his soldiers sailing in the other craft. It was party time for the victors. Suetonius says that Caesar and Cleopatra often dined till dawn. Suetonius also says that Caesar was so captivated by Cleopatra that he would have sailed all the way to Ethiopia with her on this leisurely concourse along the Nile. Certainly she would have wanted Caesar to stay for the birth of their child.
Yet, it wasn’t all fun and games. Caesar also had a mind for matters of science, and the subject of the Roman calendar was playing on his mind. Wherever he had gone on his travels during his career he had studied and written about things that interested and intrigued him, always with the goal of scientific advancement. While briefly in Britain in 55 and 54 B.C., for example, he had conducted a study of the length of the days in that part of the world, having servants time the hours of daylight, using water clocks, while he was on the island, and noting down the results.
As Pontifex Maximus or Roman high priest since 61 B.C., Caesar had been in charge of the Roman calendar, which fixed the dates of the holy days each year when religious festivals were celebrated and Roman courts and businesses were closed. That calendar had been derived from the calendar of the Greeks—which, some scholars believe, went back as far as the eighth century B.C. It had been bothering Caesar for some time that the Roman calendar had become increasingly out of step with the seasons—and many Roman religious festivals, like later Christian successors, had a seasonal basis. The Roman calendar, which at that time was based on a year made up of 355 days, was woefully out of step with the phases of the moon, and was becoming even more so with each passing year. Yet, here in Egypt, the Egyptians, who had studied astronomy even before Rome existed, used a calendar that was closely aligned to the phases of the moon and was far more accurate than its Roman counterpart.
So, while he dallied in Egypt, Caesar conferred with local experts. One expert in particular, Sosigenes, an Alexandrian astronomer and scholar of Greek extraction, impressed him, and they talked at length about how the Roman calendar could be brought into sync with the phases of the moon. As Caesar would have told Sosigenes, the original Roman calendar was credited to Romulus, founder of Rome. Romulus’s calendar had set March as the first month of the year, a year made up of ten months lasting a total of 304 days—six months of 30 days each, and four lasting 31 days. Just to complicate matters, there had been a brief uncounted winter gap between December and March.
A century after its introduction, this Romulan calendar had been corrected by Numa Pompilius, second king of Rome, who had added the months of January and February and extended the year to 355 days. Because the highly superstitious Romans had developed a dread of even numbers, Pompilius reduced the existing 30-day months to 29 days each and gave February 28 days; an even number was considered appropriate in this case, because February was a month devoted to the infernal gods.
Sosigenes explained to Caesar how and why the Egyptians had a 365-day calendar based on twelve months. Impressed by Sosigenes’s knowledge and thinking, Caesar gave the Egyptian astronomer the task of coming up with a new Roman calendar, one he would introduce to replace the inefficient existing calendar.
That a new calendar would totally change the Roman way of life and would be resisted by many who were set in the old way did not concern Caesar. He had introduced major change to Rome before. Back in 59 B.C., when consul for the first time, he had created the world’s first daily newspaper, the Acta Diurnia, written by hand at Rome every day. Circulated throughout the empire, it contained official news, court cases, appointments, chariot race results, even news of house fires in the capital. In that same year, Caesar had introduced traffic regulations banning most wheeled traffic from Rome’s narrow, heavily congested streets by day; wagons and carts rolling in and out of the city could only do so at night. Hence Rome’s reputation as the city that never slept.
Similar traffic regulations were later adopted by other large cities around the empire. This had been a reform that would have generated much complaint from Romans who had to become accustomed to the night-long sounds of wheels rolling over stone-paved streets, the cries of muleteers and the crack of their whips, the hubbub of thousands of conversations in the streets as most of the city tried to sleep.
Caesar was enjoying the break in Egypt, his rare vacation. He was enjoying his time with Cleopatra, enjoying exploring the Nile, enjoying long discussions with learned men such as Sosigenes. But, says, Suetonius, Caesar’s soldiers objected to this dalliance. Increasingly, the mutterings and sour faces of the troops, even among men of the 6th, who would have been anxious to fulfill their obligation to Caesar by bringing the civil war to a close and then go home, could not be avoided. Caesar’s staff would have reminded him that there was news of an army of republican legions gathering in Africa not so far away to the west that he must yet deal with his surviving Roman political opponents and their army before he could truly say the Roman Empire was his. There was also the matter of Pharnaces’ occupation of Pontus.
In April, after two weeks on the Nile, Caesar gave in to the demands of his men and his colleagues and returned to Alexandria to put Egyptian affairs in order before departing from the country. Although Egypt would remain a kingdom in name, with Cleopatra and her youngest, powerless brother its joint sovereigns, in reality Egypt was now a protectorate of Rome. The country was firmly under Caesar’s control, as were the funds in the Egyptian royal treasury, from which he would have taken the millions he claimed he was owed by Ptolemy XII, and a little more besides.
The Egyptian army was abolished on Caesar’s orders. Never again as long as the Roman Empire existed would there be a separate Egyptian army. Instead, for now three of the four legions with Caesar would remain in Egypt—the 27th, 28th, and 37th. The most dilapidated relics of the Egyptian navy were burned; the more seaworthy would be taken to Rome for a public spectacle planned by Caesar.
Hirtius doesn’t hide the fact that the subjugated Egyptians were not happy that their country was now occupied Roman territory. He says the three legions were left in Egypt because Cleopatra and her brother had neither the affection of their subjects—because they had sided with Caesar in the recent war—nor the power of authority over them. Besides, Caesar later told Hirtius, as long as the rulers of Egypt remained loyal to him and to Rome, the legions would protect them and their throne, while if they proved ungrateful, the legions would keep them in line.
Within a few years this garrison would increase to four legions. They would have two bases, one at Alexandria, the other at a site beside the Nile close to where the Battle of the Nile Delta was fought. Called Babylon Fossatum, because it would be surrounded on three sides by a moat, as Babylon was, this legion base would eventually become the location of the city of Cairo. In addition to housing a legionary garrison, Egypt would also in the future be required to provide auxiliaries to serve in the Roman army, under Roman officers. Within a century, Egypt was sufficiently acquiescent for the number of legions stationed there to be reduced to two.
According to Suetonius, Caesar would send one of his favorites out from Rome, the son of a freedman, to take charge of the legions now permanently stationed in Egypt, in the capacity of a prefect. This appointment was intended as a courtesy to Cleopatra. To appoint a Roman senator as Rome’s man in Alexandria would have been a slap in the face to proud Cleopatra. Once Augustus became emperor and Egypt became a province, Augustus would continue the policy of appointing prefects to govern there. But Augustus did this for a different reason: the man who controlled Egypt, which produced a fourth to a third of Rome’s grain needs, would have the power to control that grain supply. To eliminate the possibility of rivals gaining that power, Augustus decreed that no Roman of senatorial rank could even enter Egypt without his express permission.
In the autumn of 47 B.C., promising to send for Cleopatra once he was settled back in Rome, Caesar set off overland for Syria, via Pelusium, together with the Jewish leaders Hyrcanus and Antipater and their Jewish troops, as well as the allied forces supplied by the other leaders of the East. Mithradates of Pergamum also marched with Caesar. As his escorts Caesar took along his eight hundred cavalry and the men of the 6th Legion.
The tough veterans of the 6th, as Caesar had expected when he signed them up, had proven themselves by far his most effective and most reliable troops through the many difficult months in Egypt. The 6th had come out of this campaign virtually unscathed, unlike the other legions involved. It was a point that was not lost on Caesar or the less than one thousand men of the 6th. Legionary Publius Sertorius and his comrades would have begun to boast that it was as if the gods were now smiling on them and protecting them—after taking them to the brink of extermination at Farsala.
Leaving behind Alexandria, the Delta, and Pelusium, the column quickly marched up to the coastal plain of Idumaea. All the minor potentates of the region came flocking to Caesar once he arrived in Syria. He reaffirmed his friendship with them and Rome’s determination to keep their lands safe from external enemies, with their help and while they maintained order within their realms, and he sent home most of the regional forces that had marched with him and fought for him in Egypt.
While he was in Syria he was joined by his cousin Sextus Caesar, who had come out from Rome with a fleet of ships. From Sextus and from letters he received from various leading people at Rome he learned that Mark Antony was doing an appalling job of running things at the capital in his absence. Caesar’s bigheaded young relative Lucius Dolabella had been appointed a Tribune of the Plebs—the tribunes were at this time the only regular magistrates at Rome. Dolabella, to win public popularity, had been promising to abolish debts and eliminate rents. Aulus Trebellius, another of the tribunes, took exception to this, and the population had taken sides, until there were riots in the streets. Yet Antony, who was supposed to be in charge, had done nothing to prevent or terminate any of this.
Meanwhile, three of the four Spanish legions camped on the Field of Mars as they waited for Caesar’s return to Rome had run out of patience. Encouraged by some of their senior officers to grab what was owed to them, the men of the 8th, 9th, and 10th Legions had gone on a looting spree in the city. The 7th Legion had kept out of this, and only when Antony brought the 7th into Rome to stand guard duty did the looting stop in the city. But then the three recalcitrant legions had gone on a rampage in Campania, south of Rome, looting the country estates of the rich. Leaving Sextus Caesar temporarily in charge at Rome, Antony had gone to Campania to convince the rampaging troops to go back to camp on the Field of Mars, where they now were once more. But the situation was still on a knife edge, and Caesar’s friends in Rome were begging him to hurry home to fix things.
Despite the volatility in Rome, Caesar was determined to settle affairs in the East to his satisfaction. By this time he had become fully aware of Pharnaces’ victory over General Domitius at Nicopolis and his subsequent brutal occupation of Pontus. Caesar had hoped that news of his victory in Egypt and subsequent arrival in Syria would be enough to scare Pharnaces into withdrawing from Pontus. But reports coming to Caesar while he was in Syria told him that Pharnaces was not budging. Those reports said that Pharnaces was puffed up with self-confidence in the wake of his defeat of General Domitius and his Roman army. Caesar began planning a military operation designed to terminate Pharnaces’ occupation of Roman territory. But while he was prepared to use force, he was in no rush—perhaps the Bosporan king would lose his nerve if Caesar merely hovered just over the horizon, and save him the trouble of a military campaign.
So, through May and June, Caesar focused on administrative duties in Syria. He standardized the laws and judicial procedures of each district he passed through, and made various official appointments, firmly putting his personal imprint on the region. The most important of these appointments was that of Sextus Caesar as governor of the province of Syria, the post that had previously been held by Pompey’s father-in-law, Scipio, who was now in Africa with the other surviving republican leaders. Sextus would take up residence at the governor’s palace in Antioch, the Syrian capital. Caesar further decreed that from Antioch, Sextus also would have overall command of the legions based in Egypt and could, if circumstances required, summon them up from Egypt for military operations in the East.
Caesar also heard and passed judgment on local disputes, and distributed awards to individuals and Syrian communities. Among the many people who came to see him and place matters before him for judgment was Antigonus, son of Aristobulus, a former ruler of Judea who had been an opponent of Antipater and Hyrcanus before being poisoned and almost killed. In front of Caesar, Antigonus accused Antipater and Hyrcanus of having acted unjustly and extravagantly in Judea in the past. As for the help they’d just given Caesar in Egypt, he said they hadn’t done it through goodwill to Caesar but rather to cover up the fact that they had previously been friends and supporters of Pompey the Great.
Given the chance to respond, Antipater dramatically disrobed in front of Caesar, to reveal a body scarred from numerous wounds, which, he said, he’d gained in the service of Rome and of Caesar. He would let his body do the talking, he said, although he suggested that if Antigonus were to gain power in Judea he would stir the Jews into revolt against Rome.
Caesar agreed wholeheartedly with Antipater. Sending his accuser Antigonus away, Caesar told Antipater that as his reward for his service in Egypt he could have whatever authority he wanted in his own country, and Antipater chose the post of Roman procurator of Judea. Caesar agreed to the appointment, also making Antipater a Roman citizen and freeing him from taxes for the rest of his life. Antipater subsequently made his eldest son, Phasaelus, governor of Jerusalem and his fifteen-year-old son Herod governor of Galilee. Antipater also received permission to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem, which Pompey and his legions had knocked down when they successfully besieged the city two decades earlier. High Priest Hyrcanus also was rewarded for his meritorious military service in Egypt—his high priesthood was confirmed on him for life by Caesar, who also decreed that Hyrcanus’s children would succeed him as high priest after his death.
Hyrcanus and Antipater accompanied Caesar all the way through Syria until he left the province. Before he parted from the pair he vowed that the rewards he had bestowed on them would later be confirmed by decrees of the Senate at Rome, which they were, and would be inscribed in brass at Rome.
The Jewish people as a whole also received Caesar’s thanks for the part their fighting men played in his victory in Egypt. The Jewish residents of Alexandria were made citizens of that city, with all the rights this entailed. And, over the next few years, the cities of the East would receive decrees from Caesar that pronounced that because devout Jews were required by their faith to observe one day in seven as a day of rest, and this was incompatible with military service, any Jew then serving in the Roman army was to be immediately discharged. No Jew was thereafter enrolled in the Roman army.
In late June of that year, 47 B.C., at the Syrian port of Laodicea, Caesar, the men of the 6th, and Caesar’s eight hundred cavalry boarded his own fleet and the ships that Sextus Caesar had brought out from Italy. Always with an ear cocked for news of what Pharnaces was doing in Pontus, Caesar sailed to Tarsus, the principal city of Cilicia, and summoned all the leaders of the communities of Cilicia and neighboring states to a council.
On June 23, back in Egypt, Cleopatra gave birth to a son. She named him Ptolemy Philopater Philometor Caesar. He would soon become known simply as Caesarion. Later, for political reasons, Caesar’s former friend and staff officer Gaius Oppius would write a document disclaiming Caesar’s paternity of Cleopatra’s son, but Caesar himself would claim Caesarion as his own flesh and blood, and Mark Antony would confirm it in the Senate.
At Tarsus in late June, unaware that his son had entered the world, Caesar was conducting his Cilician council, settling the affairs of the region. As he received submissions and settled disputes, couriers hurried dispatches from him to the Roman units that had fought in the Battle of Nicopolis and had been withdrawn to Asia by General Domitius. Those dispatches contained marching orders for the substantially intact 36th Legion and what remained of the Pontic Legion. They were both to march at once for Pontus, where Caesar would rendezvous with them. He himself would bring the 6th Legion and his cavalry.
Caesar had forgiven General Domitius for the disaster at Nicopolis. Before long Domitius would serve as a senior commander in Caesar’s army when he took on the republican forces in Africa. But for now Caesar left Domitius in charge in Asia; he would appoint the former consul of 48 B.C., Publius Servilius Isauricus, to govern Asia in Domitius’s stead in the new year. Now Caesar gave command of Domitius’s two legions to General Caelius Vinicianus for the Pontus operation; apparently he had come out from Italy with Sextus Caesar.
After spending just a few days attending to matters of state in Tarsus, Caesar, impatient now to deal with the threat posed by the intransigent Pharnaces, set off overland with the 6th and his cavalry. In the first half of July, Caesar and his by now regular escort of two thousand infantry and cavalry arrived unexpectedly in the mountainous kingdom of Cappadocia after a series of forced marches from Cilicia.
Pontus, Pharnaces, and the Bosporan army were now just several days’ march to the north.