XIX

THE CHARIOTS OF ZELA

The valley of the Yesil Irmak, the Yesil River, was and is green and fertile. Today, watered by the murky Yesil and its tributaries, the valley is dominated by sugar beet and tobacco plantations. When, on the first day of August 47 B.C., the men of the 6th Legion and their comrades of Caesar’s task force came up the valley from the direction of Cappadocian Comana with their backpacks over their shoulders, sugar and tobacco were unknown in the Roman world. Vineyards and orchards then lined the valley’s steep surrounding foothills.

The Roman column had been marching since dawn, with a strong advance party of cavalry and infantry out front and a long baggage train of packmules and supply carts toward the rear. In the early morning, when it was twenty-five miles from the town of Zela, Caesar’s column was met by another delegation from Pharnaces.

Caesar didn’t halt the column. Instead, he dismounted and walked and talked with the Bosporan ambassadors as the army continued to march up the valley road. According to Appian, the envoys again sought to come to an arrangement for Pharnaces’ withdrawal from Pontus, offering Caesar a golden crown yet again, then increasing their offer to include the hand in marriage of Pharnaces’ daughter.

From Dio we know that the daughter’s name was Dynamis, but her age at that time is not given. Dynamis would have been in her early teens or younger and must have been quite a beauty to be the subject of an offer of this nature. Apparently the girl was back at Kerch. The offer from Pharnaces, who probably, like his father, had several wives, was sponsored by Caesar’s reputation as a purveyor of attractive women enhanced by his recent liaison with Cleopatra of Egypt. The fact that Dynamis was no doubt a virgin also would have added to her potential appeal.

Caesar rejected both crown and virgin out of hand. He had already decided his course as far as Pharnaces was concerned. According to Appian, Caesar said to the envoys in response to their offers, “Is a man who had killed his father to escape justice?” This referred to Mithradates the Great, who, while he hadn’t been killed by Pharnaces personally, had met his end through his son’s actions.

The envoys became incensed at this slight of their king. They reminded Caesar that the last time their army had met a Roman army it had easily come out the victor. And they boasted that their army was made up of vastly experienced veteran soldiers. That army, they declared, had fought forty-two battles and had won every one. Unimpressed, Caesar sent the envoys on their way. As they went galloping back to their master with Caesar’s negative response, the Roman column continued its progress toward Zela.

The classical town of Zela sat on a low hill on the flat valley floor, its high, enclosing stone walls running around the base of the hill. The scenic valley backdrop was made up of a number of tall hills sliced by valleys. The highest of these surrounding hills was a little over three miles from the town, to which it was connected by tracks running over high ground. This hill was famous in this part of the world as the site of a 67 B.C. victory by an army led by Mithradates the Great over a Roman army commanded by Gaius Valerius Triarius, a general subordinate to the famous Lucius Lucullus. As a result of this defeat and other blunders, the Senate had replaced Lucullus as Rome’s commander in chief in the East, installing Pompey the Great in his place.

On a rise next to this hill, Pharnaces had installed his army. He’d restored the fortress erected there on the rise twenty years before by his father, and this he developed as his base of operations against this latest Roman threat.

At about the middle of the day on August 1, Caesar pitched a marching camp on high ground five miles from the enemy position. While the legionaries set to work digging the entrenchments and throwing up the walls of their camp, the thousands of slaves in the party were sent to cut and collect timber from the nearby hill slopes for the camp gates, guard towers, corrals, and ramparts, and for the army’s cooking fires.

The slaves played no part in the construction work itself. Legionaries built their own camps. Not even auxiliaries were permitted to lift a hand when it came to building Roman fortifications and siege works; they would be allocated the task of gathering water, firewood, and fodder. For centuries to come, this policy was to be employed by the Roman military. Even, in A.D. 71, when General Lucillus Bassus was mopping up the last resistance of the Jewish Revolt in the Middle East and had access to many thousands of Jewish prisoners, he used his single depleted legion, the 10th, to build the siege works around the holdout town of Machaerus, merely employing the prisoners to carry his water.

Only legionaries were considered suitable for construction work by Rome’s generals. Legionaries, Roman citizens, could be trusted to do the work with precision and efficiency, without fears of shoddy workmanship or sabotage, for they knew that their own lives would depend on their labor. Besides, the Romans adhered to the philosophy that hard work makes hard men. So it was the men of the 6th and their legionary colleagues who built Caesar’s latest camp in the valley of the Yesil Irmak on August 1.

Pharnaces had been watching this construction work from the distance. When he went to his bed that night it was with a clear picture of where Caesar lay and confident that he knew what to expect to find the next morning. Yet, Julius Caesar had become famous for doing the most unexpected thing at the least expected time. Just as he had pulled off the surprise kidnapping of all four members of the Egyptian royal family at Alexandria, once again, here outside Zela, he caught his opponents by surprise. And once again he achieved it via a nocturnal operation.

In the early hours of the following morning, while it was still dark, Caesar quietly roused his legions and led them out of their new camp and across the valley floor toward the enemy position. Having left their baggage behind at the camp, the legionaries carried only their shields and weapons and were able to travel swiftly. Silently, they covered four miles in quick time.

As the sun rose on August 2, Pharnaces was astonished and infuriated to see Caesar’s army now on the hill where his father had celebrated his great victory over the Romans—less than a mile from his own camp. It was as if Caesar and his troops had materialized from nowhere.

As soon as it was light, Caesar set the legions to work digging a new camp on the barren hillside they now occupied. On the hill above them there was a weathered stone monument, built by Mithradates the Great to celebrate his victory over Lucullus’s Roman army. Caesar had no intention of emulating that result. While his troops worked, he sent orders for the slaves to take the building materials from the old camp and bring these and the army’s baggage up to the new camp. A constant line of slaves was soon extending between the old camp and the new one under construction, as the legionaries concentrated on the building work.

Now it was Pharnaces’ turn to deliver a surprise. Up to this point he had been under the impression that the slaves in the Roman column had been armed soldiers, as Caesar had wanted him to believe. But now as they toiled back and forth across the valley floor below with packmules and baggage carts he recognized them for what they were, and realized that the opposing military force was not as numerous as he had at first thought. In fact, Caesar had only about fifteen thousand fighting men here at Zela, and of those, no more than eight thousand were Roman legionaries. Pharnaces’ army, probably by now thirty thousand strong, would have outnumbered Caesar’s force by at least two to one.

With that knowledge, and once he had conducted a sacrifice and received favorable omens, and apparently driven by the belief that the hill on which Caesar had installed himself was unlucky for Romans but lucky for him because of his father’s victory there, Pharnaces decided to act. Leaving just a few cohorts to guard the walls of his camp, he ordered the rest of his army to form up in battle order on the slope outside, facing the Romans on the hill across the valley a mile away.

On his two wings, in addition to cavalry, Pharnaces also placed a number of war chariots equipped with sharp scythes on their wheels. This is the first time we hear about Pharnaces possessing chariots. No mention is made of them participating in the Battle of Nicopolis. Hirtius describes these vehicles at Zela as royal chariots, suggesting they formed a special bodyguard unit for the Bosporan king. Indications are that Pharnaces received reinforcements from Kerch once he occupied Pontus, leaving behind only a small garrison that Asander was able to easily overcome or turn, so it is likely the chariots joined him after Nicopolis.

These vehicles would have been similar to Egyptian chariots of earlier ages, drawn by two horses each, light and fast, with leather bodywork stretched over wooden frames, and with the small compartment forward of the axle built to accommodate a standing driver and an archer or spearman.

Hirtius says that Caesar assumed the Bosporan troops were being drawn up outside their camp merely to intimidate him. Perhaps, Hirtius says Caesar reasoned, Pharnaces was trying to force him to also line up some of his own troops in battle order to counter the implied threat, which would take Romans out of the construction work and slow down progress on the building of his latest camp. Or maybe he thought, so Hirtius says, that Pharnaces was hoping Caesar would abandon his camp construction altogether to form all his men into battle lines.

Yet Caesar was not one to be intimidated by anyone. Just the same, he couldn’t be reckless, so he issued orders for two-thirds of his men to continue working on the new camp. The troops who would normally form the first of his three battle lines were to take their positions on the slope below the camp, facing the Bosporans across the valley in their ranks and files.

In this lone battle line, Caesar assigned the honored right wing to the 6th Legion. Just two cohorts strong, they would all have formed up on the right of the line eight men deep. Almost certainly Caesar allotted the left wing to the 36th Legion, which had shown itself the best of the other legions at Nicopolis. The much reduced cohorts of the Pontic Legion and the single Deiotariana Legion would have occupied the center. Despite the fact that the Deiotarans were equipped and trained as heavy infantry, Caesar only rated them as auxiliaries, and not very reliable auxiliaries at that, after their poor performance at Nicopolis. While the majority of Caesar’s men continued to dig, lift, and carry with a wary eye on the silent host of enemy soldiers in battle formation on the hill opposite, these selected battle line troops stood in battle formation on the hillside.

Now Pharnaces delivered his second surprise of the morning. Bosporan trumpets sounded, standards inclined, and Pharnaces and his entire army began to descend the steep side of the hill opposite. Hirtius says that Caesar was amused at first at the sight of this mass of men scuttling down the slope to the valley that separated the two armies, considering it a “vainglorious display.” In his opinion, no sane enemy would attempt an attack in this fashion, and he ordered his men to keep digging.

Reaching the valley floor, the Bosporans bunched up as they caught their breath, but then, with Pharnaces leading, they began to charge up the hill toward the Roman position in good formation. Hirtius says that Caesar was caught completely off guard by the incredible rashness, or self-confidence, of Pharnaces’ charge. Now Caesar was issuing a stream of orders: “Down tools! To arms! Battle order! Form second and third battle lines!”

At the unfinished Roman camp site, there was alarm and confusion as legionaries dropped their entrenching tools and dashed to where their helmets, shields, and javelins were stacked, then looked around to try to find their cohort’s standard or to pick out their centurion’s commands in the melee of yelling men running this way and that. Roman legionaries were trained to form up behind the nearest standard in emergencies, rather than waste time trying to find the standard of their own maniple or cohort. Whether this is what now took place as Caesar’s officers strove to form second and third battle lines is unclear.

At Alexandria, Caesar had been in some tight situations, yet suddenly, now, seeing the enemy swarming up the hill and seeing much of his own army in disarray, Hirtius indicates that Caesar felt more in peril than ever before.

From the Bosporan flanks the chariots came speeding, bumping into the lead, coming up the slope with their horses straining and sweating under the whips of their drivers. They raced up the slope and were on the single Roman battle line before Caesar could form his second and third lines.

The normal battle tactic for chariots to employ in a situation such as this was to charge toward one wing of the enemy line, then swing and run all the way along the front of the line, giving their archers or spearmen ample opportunity to let loose their full arsenal of missiles on this attack run. At the end of the line the driver would turn his steeds away, and the chariot retreated, having softened up the opposition, to make way for the charging infantry. It seems that on the hill at Zela the Bosporan chariots chose to charge the Roman right wing—the 6th Legion’s wing.

The men of the 6th Legion steadfastly held their positions as the chariots bore up on them. Then, on the command of their centurions, every man let fly with a javelin. Close to a thousand of these missiles sliced down the hill into the charging chariots. The legionaries immediately took up a second javelin, and again, on command, let fly.

The closely packed chariot formation was devastated by the barrages. Horses, pincushioned by javelins, tumbled through the air, or reared up, mortally wounded, then crashed to the ground, overturning their chariots and spilling out the occupants. Unarmed drivers of other chariots fell from their perches, impaled by javelins. Chariots coming up behind barreled into vehicles ahead that were driverless and out of control. Not a single chariot survived the charge.

On the command “Close ranks!” the men of the 6th shuffled into tight formation with their shields locked together, ready to meet the Bosporan infantry when they arrived, and armed with a grim satisfaction at having destroyed the chariots so effectively and with a steely resolve to now deliver death and destruction to the enemy infantry.

Letting out their battle cry, the Bosporan troops came rushing up to the thin, stationary Roman line of four thousand to five thousand men. Then, with a thunderous clash of shields, they came to grips. The men of the 6th received the enemy and stood their ground. The charge of the wild-eyed Bosporan mercenaries came to a shuddering halt at the Roman shield line.

For a long time it was a noisy, drawn-out stalemate as both sides fought shield to shield, toe to toe without any advantage. But being on the down-slope, and having run down one hill and then up another in full equipment before engaging, the Bosporans had sapped their strength and were at a disadvantage. On their wing, the 6th Legion began to exploit that disadvantage.

Little by little at first, the Spaniards of the 6th commenced to push the Bosporans in front of them back down the gradient, using their shields like battering rams, jabbing over the top of the shields and into the faces of the enemy with the point of their Spanish swords. One step at a time at first; then slipping, sliding yards.

Soon the backpedaling became a rout on the right. Bosporans began to turn, disengage from the fight, and run for their lives back down the hill. Many tripped and fell on the uneven ground and over the wreckage of chariots and the corpses of horses and chariot crews, and were trampled to death by those who came fleeing after them and then by the steady, inexorable advance of the 6th.

On the Roman left wing and in the center, the Bosporans had held their ground. But now they saw what was happening to their comrades on their left, and were demoralized to see men of this army that had never lost a battle now throwing away their weapons and fleeing back down the hill in terror, then across the valley and all the way back to the fort on the far hill. The Bosporans on the Roman left and in the center now also gave way.

The men of the 6th, their adrenaline pulsing, chased the enemy all the way across the valley and up the hill to the Bosporan camp. The cohorts that Pharnaces had left on guard put up a spirited defense, but men who have tasted blood become part animal, part machine, and nothing nor no one was going to stand in their way now. Once joined by men from the other legions, the troops of the 6th overwhelmed the guard units and fought their way into the enemy camp and quickly, bloodily captured it. Pharnaces’ proud, boastful army ceased to exist that second day of August. Virtually every member of it was either killed or captured in the Battle of Zela.

Pharnaces himself managed to escape, fleeing on horseback with part of his cavalry. Hirtius indicates that he was able to make his escape while the Roman troops were busy looting his camp.

According to Appian, Pharnaces fled all the way back to the Bosporan Kingdom, no doubt using the same ships that had brought his army to Armenia Minor and Pontus. He was not to survive long. Dio says that Pharnaces fought Asander, but came off second best, and was made a prisoner. With no sympathy for his former ruler and friend, Asander soon executed Pharnaces. To add insult to injury, Asander took as his wife Pharnaces’ beautiful young daughter Dynamis, the same girl who had been offered to Caesar by Pharnaces’ ambassadors.

According to Hirtius, Caesar was overjoyed by the defeat of the Bosporans at Zela. It was “an easy victory [that] had befallen him in extraordinary circumstances,” Hirtius remarked. He added that Caesar won many battles, but no victory made him happier than this one because the peril he had felt he was in at the commencement of the battle was etched permanently in his memory. Standing surveying the Bosporan corpses littering the battlefield and the thousands of humbled prisoners from Pharnaces’ army, Caesar disdainfully remarked, according to both Appian and Suetonius, “Lucky Pompey! So these were the sort of enemies you met in your war against this man’s father, Mithradates, when you were considered great and called Great.”

The brief nature of Caesar’s campaign to retake Pontus was immortalized in the equally brief message Caesar soon sent to Rome to announce his victory. Fond of word puns and alliteration, he simply said, “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered).

At an assembly of his troops on the day following the Battle of Zela, Caesar honored individual soldiers for their bravery during the battle and doled out decorations and rewards. Pharnaces’ royal treasure had been taken, and the proceeds from this were promised by Caesar to his troops. Money earned from the sale into slavery of the thousands of prisoners also would be distributed among the legionaries who had brought Caesar victory at Zela.

Caesar then announced the future postings of the units involved. Deiotarus’s men were being sent back to home territory. This was not to be the end of their unit, however. Before long, the Deiotariana Legion would be stationed in Macedonia, and soon would be a permanent part of the Roman army, with its men granted Roman citizenship. The 36th Legion and the Pontic Legion were to be stationed in Pontus for the time being, under the command of General Caelius Vinicianus, whom Caesar appointed the new governor of the regained province.

But Caesar fully recognized that for his survival and ultimate victory in Egypt and now his rapid and decisive victory here at Zela he had one small group of soldiers to thank: the men of the 6th Legion, little more than nine hundred of them. And he would not forget the contribution made by the 6th, described by Hirtius as “a veteran legion that had undergone many toils and dangers” to this point.

“The Sixth Legion,” Caesar announced from the tribunal, “is ordered to return to Italy to receive rewards and honors.”

A cheer would have gone up from the men of the 6th. So as Caesar prepared to set off that same day with his omnipresent cavalry escort to continue to travel light and fast overland through Gallograecia and Bithynia to Asia, the men of the 6th prepared to march across Turkey and Greece to the Albanian coast, there to make a short sea journey from Durrës across the Strait of Otranto to Brindisi in Italy prior to the final leg up the Appian Way to Rome. They would head for the city at the heart of their empire, yet a city they had only heard about but never visited.

The men of the 6th would be marching chained Bosporan prisoners all the way to Rome with them—hundreds or even thousands of surrendered survivors from Pharnaces’ army. Caesar had plans for these prisoners in Rome; already he was planning to celebrate a Triumph for his victory in Pontus, and these captives would be marched through the streets of Rome, displayed to the leering, jeering Roman people as trophies of war, prior to their being sold into slavery in the capital’s slave market.

As the soldiers of the 6th packed up their personal belongings and their accumulated loot acquired from almost exactly a year’s service under their agreement with Caesar, and wondered what manner of rewards and honors Caesar would bestow on them once he himself arrived back in Italy, they would have allowed themselves the luxury of thinking about their long overdue retirement. In their mind’s eye they could see themselves hanging sword and shield on the wall of a comfortable farmhouse and settling down on a fine piece of land somewhere in the sun with an equally comfortable wife.

And the soldiers of the 6th would have marveled that since they had marched for Caesar they had led something of a charmed life. Their casualties, in Egypt and in Pontus, had been minimal, yet all around them other units had suffered greatly—the 37th Legion at the Hepstadion causeway in Alexandria, the 27th Legion at Jews Camp, the 36th and Pontic Legions at Nicopolis. It was almost, someone would have suggested, as if nothing could harm them, as if the 6th Legion were ironclad.

As the 6th marched away from Zela herding its chained column of humbled Bosporan prisoners with it, the men of the 36th Legion and the Pontic Legion were hard at work building a monument on the site of Caesar’s victory, close to the twenty-year-old monument erected by Mithradates the Great to celebrate his victory over General Triarius. Dio says that Caesar did not dare tear down Mithradates’ monument because it had been dedicated to the gods, essentially the same gods the Romans worshiped, but he had his own grander edifice thrown up within sight of it, to overshadow it.

As the 6th Legion proceeded west in his wake, Caesar arrived in Gallograecia. He’d given thought to King Deiotarus’s contested claim to the region, and had decided that as Deiotarus had originally taken Gallograecia by force, that claim was not legitimate. But he would not give Gallograecia to one of the other claimants. Mithradates of Pergamum was riding with him, and now Caesar granted the tetrarchy of Gallograecia to him. And for good measure, Caesar also anointed Mithradates ruler of the Bosporan Kingdom, in Pharnaces’ stead. There in Gallograecia the two firm friends parted, as Caesar continued west toward the province of Asia.

Mithradates of Pergamum would soon attempt to claim the Bosporan Kingdom as his own, but Asander had no intention of giving it up. To Caesar’s great regret, Mithradates would be killed in the attempt. Asander was to reign over the Bosporan Kingdom for three decades, becoming a friend and client of Rome. Meanwhile, Dynamis’s little brother Darius, son of Pharnaces and grandson of Mithradates, would be made ruler of Pontus by Mark Antony. On Asander’s death in 13 B.C., the new ruler of Pontus, King Polemon, would invade the Bosporan Kingdom in an attempt to bring it under his rule. Asander’s widow, Dynamis, the daughter of Pharnaces, would lead a spirited fight against the invaders until Rome brokered a peace.

Dynamis then married her opponent Polemon, but after a year they separated and resumed their war, which dragged on for years. In 8 B.C. the Bosporans would capture King Polemon and execute him. While Pontus became a Roman province once again, Dynamis was to rule the Bosporan Kingdom for the next fifteen years as its queen, with the approval of Rome, until her death in A.D. 8. In the imperial era, Rome would base forty warships of its Pontic Fleet in the Bosporan Kingdom, at the capital and naval city of Kerch, as part of its ongoing alliance with the Bosporan sovereigns.

Caesar could not have imagined, as he departed from Asia and set off back to Rome in the late summer of 47 B.C., that the virgin he had declined to take as a bride would one day rule her father’s and her grandfather’s kingdom.

Crossing the Hellespont, Caesar rode quickly along the Egnatian Way to Durrës, crossed to Brindisi, and then rode up the Appian Way, arriving at Rome far sooner than expected, just as the news of the swift and total victory at Zela was being digested at the capital.

He had been away a year and a half, but he came back as victor over Pompey, as conqueror of Egypt, and as liberator of the Roman East. The fact that he came back at all had much to do with the courage and fighting skills of the nine hundred men of the 6th Legion, and Caesar knew it.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!