XXI

ONE LAST BATTLE

Before he left Rome for Spain to take care of the Pompey brothers, Caesar attended to a great deal of public business. One item was unfinished business: the Roman calendar. It seems that Sosigenes, the Egyptian astronomer consulted by Caesar, had by this time come to Rome, possibly as a member of Cleopatra’s party, with orders to advise Caesar and the College of Priests on the solution to the problem with the Roman calendar that Sosigenes and Caesar had discussed in Egypt.

Sosigenes told Caesar that the Roman republican calendar involving a year made up of 355 days divided into twelve months, with an extra month sandwiched in every four years to make up the lost days, had to go, and the attempt to match the calendar with the lunar cycles that had been behind the original Roman calendar just didn’t work and must be abandoned. The system that Sosigenes recommended required the months to be arranged seasonally, based on the solar year, just like the Egyptian calendar. Sosigenes’ precise year, with 365.25 days, meant that now the equinoxes would fall on the same date each year, and the seasons would always begin at the same time, year in, year out.

Caesar endorsed the astronomer’s recommendations and instructed the College of Priests to implement his new Roman calendar at once. To account for the quarter day, the new calendar would involve one complete extra day every four years—creating what we know as a leap year, with 366 days, although the term “leap year” would not come into use until Anglo-Saxon times. Caesar ordered that the extra day, which he called the “point of time,” be inserted into February, between the twenty-third and twenty-fourth of that month, to give February twenty-nine days every four years. Anyone born on this extra “point of time” day had his birthday recorded as and celebrated on February 23. This system of calculating the passage of time became known as the Julian calendar, which is the basis of our Western calendar today.

To bring the new Julian calendar into line with the seasons, with January falling in winter every year, that year, 46 B.C., was extended by Caesar by the addition of sixty-seven extra days, spread over two extra months inserted between November and December. This meant that 46 B.C. lasted fourteen months, and when January 1, 45 B.C. came around, it would fall on what had previously been March 1. It also meant that January 1, the first day of the year, fell in the first part of winter. Caesar even published an almanac for farmers, to guide them with their seasonal planting and harvesting according to his new calendar.

This was all very well, grumbled men of the 6th Legion as they waited in their camp on the Field of Mars through the two extra months. Caesar’s almanac might be of some use to them down the road once they finally received their discharge from military service and took up the promised grants of government land and became farmers. But in the meantime, they would have complained, who was paying them for the extra two months’ service? Legionaries were paid just once a year, before they went into winter camp. And there is no indication that Caesar paid his troops extra wages for the additional two months’ service occasioned in 46 B.C. by his creation of 67 extra days, or that the time was credited toward the legionaries’ eventual discharge date.

Caesar would have considered his troops well reimbursed after the huge payouts he’d made following the recent Triumphs. But as a Roman saying so aptly puts it, the love of money increases as wealth grows. Still, even though there would have been some among the ranks of the 6th who would not have been satisfied, it was not an issue the majority would have considered worth agitating over, not with their discharge seeming to be tantalizingly near. Soon the nine hundred men of the 6th were on the march again, heading for what they hoped and expected would be their last campaign before they finally received that discharge.

By December, more than twenty weeks after the month of four Triumphs, Caesar had himself set off for Spain. His best legions, including the 6th, had already gone on ahead. Initially, he rode up through Italy and crossed the Alps with a large cavalry escort; but, impatient to come to grips with his last adversaries, he made the journey from the south of France to Tarragona in eastern Spain by sea, leaving his cavalry behind to make their way over the Pyrenees Mountains and join him in eastern Spain.

When he came ashore in Spain, Caesar was stunned to learn that three of his veteran legions—the 8th, 9th, and 13th—also had deserted to the Pompey brothers, just as the 2nd and Indigena Legions had done months before. The 2nd and Indigena were both former Pompeian legions, so their defection was explainable—they were asserting their old loyalty to the Pompey family. But these three latest turncoat units were all veteran legions that had served Caesar for years, legions that had helped make him great.

The loss to the other side of these three legions would have stung Caesar. No explanation is given for this defection of some of Caesar’s best and longest-serving units, but they apparently deserted him through a disintegration in their faith in Caesar and frustration with his endless promises of discharge—promises that were, as the Romans said, no more than cabbage warmed up a second time. But Caesar still had seven legions in Spain, including the heroes of his 6th and the famous 10th, demonstrably his two best units in his greatest battles. Once his cavalry joined him, he was also backed by four thousand troopers, the largest mounted force he had ever put into the field.

Back in Italy, there was much speculation and concern about the outcome of the war in Spain, which, despite Caesar’s reputation and his veteran legions, was by no means certain now that five legions had gone over to the Pompey brothers and the locals in western Spain were giving them their heartfelt support. Young Gnaeus Pompey, who was in overall command of the rebel forces, had a reputation for a short temper and a vicious streak. He was not well liked in Italy, even by leading men who had once been faithful supporters of his father. Following the Battle of Pharsalus, when senatorial leaders had gathered on the western coast of Greece, Marcus Cicero had announced he was going back to Italy to become a neutral; Gnaeus Pompey had wanted to kill him, and had to be restrained by Cato the Younger.

Now, in January 45 B.C., Marcus Brutus’s brother-in-law Gaius Cassius sent a letter to Cicero to say that he was deeply worried about the situation in Spain and about Caesar’s prospects. “I’d rather have the easygoing old master than a cruel new one,” he wrote. “You know what a fool Gnaeus is, how he takes cruelty for courage, how he thinks we always made fun of him. I’m afraid he may answer our frivolous banter with his sword.”

After combining his legions and cavalry, Caesar pushed into western Spain, and in a series of skirmishing actions slowly drove Gnaeus’s field army back along the Salsum River valley toward Córdoba, capital of Baetica, or Farther Spain, which was held by his younger brother Sextus.

The attitude of the men of the 6th to this Spanish campaign can only be guessed at. They were natives of eastern Spain, so they didn’t feel the same way as the legionaries of the 8th and 9th Legions—natives of western Spain, they had objected to fighting their own people, and this had influenced the 8th and 9th’s decision to defect to the Pompeys. But just the same, the soldiers of the 6th could not have been thrilled at the idea of fighting Spaniards on Spanish soil.

As it turned out, they were not to be at the forefront of the initial fighting. Only once did the 6th become involved in a serious engagement during the bloody weeks of skirmish and counterskirmish in the Salsum River valley, as Caesar advanced and Pompey fought a fighting withdrawal. And when they did go into action, the men of Caesar’s smallest legion reminded everyone on both sides that they were the formidable 6th.

One morning in late winter, the men of the 6th were building entrenchments near the river outside the town of Ategua, which was held by the opposition, when just after dawn they were attacked by a large Pompeian force with the objective of dislodging them from their position. Despite outnumbering the 6th Legion men, the attackers were driven back, all the way to the town, by the tough veterans of the 6th. There were heavy casualties in the engagement on the Pompeian side, but there was hardly a scratch among the legionaries of the 6th.

This was the 6th Legion’s sole fight of note prior to the major battle of the campaign, the Battle of Munda, which was to be the only set-piece battle of this last principal act of the civil war. The battle was fought near the hill town of Munda on March 17, 45 B.C.

With his support faltering in the face of his continual withdrawals, young Pompey brought on the battle to settle the issue once and for all, and Caesar was happy to oblige. Against Caesar’s seven legions, the Pompeians fielded thirteen, but most of these were made up of raw recruits. The 10th Legion was given Caesar’s right; the 5th, famous now for neutralizing Juba’s elephants at Thapsus, his left. The men of the 6th were in Caesar’s center with four other virtually full-strength legions.

The battle didn’t begin well for Caesar. He unwisely marched his men five miles to confront Pompey, then sent them charging up a slope at the eighty thousand troops of the other side, who stood waiting for them. This was reminiscent of Pharnaces’ foolish tactics at Zela. Out of breath, being cut down by volleys of javelins coming down the slope at them, Caesar’s thirty thousand men halted on the hillside. At that moment, says Appian, Caesar thought briefly of taking his own life. Instead, he dashed out in front of his front line, defied enemy javelins, and goaded his men into restarting their charge. In the end, Caesar won the Battle of Munda, his last battle, but, as he was to confess to his staff, he had never come closer to defeat.

Gnaeus Pompey escaped, but was tracked down and killed within days. Generals Labienus and Varus died in the fighting, and the famous 1st Legion could not slip from Caesar’s grasp this time; badly mauled, it surrendered. Sextus Pompey slipped out of Córdoba while Caesar was besieging the city, and disappeared. He would survive for another decade, later retaking the stage to challenge Caesar’s successors. Córdoba had to be stormed by Caesar’s troops, and several other towns that held out against Caesar had to be besieged before resistance in Spain finally caved in, but essentially with the Battle of Munda the civil war came to a close.

As for the men of the 6th Legion, they had come through this Spanish campaign virtually untouched. Now they were increasingly referring to themselves as the Ferrata, the ironclad legion. Nothing could harm them. And finally, the men of Caesar’s 6th, now four years past their due discharge, were allowed by Caesar to retire. He had promised them land, and now he delivered. They would be allowed to form a Roman colony, with all the privileges that colony status entailed, in the south of France. Caesar had assigned one of his most trusted generals, Major General Lucius Munatius Plancus, the task of settling the veterans of his best legions in Gaul. In many cases veterans from more than one legion would be settled in the new colonies, but the men of the 6th Legion were to have a colony all to themselves, despite their lack of numbers—colonies usually involved three thousand or more veterans.

General Plancus—a praetor, whom Caesar would the following year select to become a consul for 42 B.C. in a long list of appointments he planned five years in advance—obviously had orders to find the best colony site possible for the men of the 6th Legion, in recognition of the debt that Caesar owed them. The chosen location was the town of Arelate, today’s Arles, in the Provence region of southern France. Situated northwest of Marseilles on the Camargue plain where the Rhône River divides for its run to the sea on the Côte D’Azur, Arles had been a noted town of Ligurian tribes in times past and now served as a Roman port for goods going up and down the Rhône. The town was situated in some of the most beautiful, fertile, and productive land in the Roman Empire. Caesar was truly keeping his word to the men of the 6th.

Earlier, when Caesar’s four Spanish legions had demanded their discharge and land grants, they had made it clear they didn’t want to be given land taken from private individuals who could later reclaim their land, via the courts or via appeals to influential Roman nobles. Yet over the next two decades this was to be a common and recurring fact of life, with many a landowner dispossessed and his farmland divided among discharged legionaries. As Arles was surrounded by prime agricultural land, it is probable that the land given to the men of the 6th was indeed confiscated from Gallic farmers, some of them descendants of settlers from Italy.

Four years after the 45 B.C. retirement of the veterans of the 6th, when large numbers of legionaries were discharged following the Battle of Philippi, tens of thousands of them, and they, too, were given their fifty-acre lots in various parts of the empire, much of that land had previously been confiscated by the authorities. One family affected by those confiscations of 41 B.C. was that of Publius Vergilius Maro, whom we know as the poet Virgil. Even though Virgil’s father was a Roman citizen, his land and farmhouse at Andes beside the Mincio River, just north of the Po in Cisalpine Gaul, were swallowed up in these mass confiscations. Vergilius Sr. had built the farm up, taking his holdings from barely improved land and a humble cottage with a sod roof to a respectable villa surrounded by fields supporting a large goat herd and acres of flourishing wheat, plus pear orchards and vineyards on the distant valley slopes.

Virgil objected bitterly to the confiscation of his father’s land, where he had been born and grew up. “These fallows, trimmed so fair,” he was to write, “some brutal soldier will possess.” It was all the fault of the civil wars, he lamented: “To what a pass has civil discord brought our hapless kinfolk?” He may have actually been present when the new owner, the veteran soldier, arrived to take possession of the Vergilius farm and eject its residents. “We have lived to see, what never yet we feared, an interloper own our little farm, and say, ‘Be off, you former husbandsmen! These fields are mine.’ ”

Virgil is known to have appealed to powerful friends for the restitution of his father’s land, although it is uncertain whether his appeals were successful.

The father of Virgil’s fellow poet and contemporary Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) also lost his farm to soldier settlers in the confiscations of 41 B.C.—at Venusia in the hills of central Italy. In his case it was as a reprisal because Horace had served as a young tribune in command of one of Brutus’s and Cassius’s legions at Philippi. But within two years Horace had been pardoned by Octavian, so it is possible that he, too, attempted to have his father’s property returned to him. Such were the clouds that could hang over the legality and certainty of many land grants to discharged legion veterans during this period.

Official Roman colony status would be bestowed by the Senate on the Arles settlement, which was named Colonia Julia Paterna Arelatensum Sextanorum. Among the long list of honors granted Caesar, a fawning Senate bulging with his appointees had recently bestowed on him the title Pater Patria, or Father of His Country, and this influenced the colony’s title, which means the Paternal Julian Colony of Arelate of the Soldiers of the Sixth. As with most Roman colonies, Arles would be a town without walls. In its forum would stand a statue of Marsyas, a naked male figure with his arms raised above his head as he stands chained to a column in the whipping position. This statue of Marsyas was a common sight in all Roman colonies, being the symbol of a colony’s autonomy.

To administer its own affairs Arles was to have its own Senate, to which retirees from the 6th could be elected. Within a few years the city of Arles would fund and build a fine amphitheater for public shows, large enough to seat twenty thousand people and that is still in use today, as well as a hippodrome, a drama theater, and all the other grand public buildings that became part of the fabric of a Roman colony. And in the regular religious processions on the annual calendar, the men of the 6th would lead the way, dressed in white robes, with their former centurions and men who had received the highest bravery decorations during their years in military service at their head.

But the men of the 6th were not to take up their land grants at Arles overnight. Colony sites were very carefully surveyed and laid out, because the Roman bureaucracy was pedantically thorough and under instructions to ensure that there would not be any later title disputes between new owners, so this selection and surveying process took months.

In the meantime, Caesar took the men of several legions, including the veterans of the 6th, back to Rome with him once Spain had finally been subdued. When, in the fall of 45 B.C., news reached the capital that Caesar’s column was marching south down the Aurelian Way from Genoa, thousands of people flooded out of Rome to line the road to welcome Caesar home. Those who went farthest were the magistrates and senators, and Caesar’s relatives. Notable among the latter was his favorite, the youngest of the three grandsons of his late sister Julia, Gaius Octavius, who turned eighteen on September 23 and who had been living at Caesar’s official residence on the Sacred Way since he turned fifteen.

But it was Mark Antony, for so long in Caesar’s disfavor, and who had grown fat now after several years of idle, luxurious living, who went many miles out in advance of anyone else to greet Caesar on the road to Rome. Caesar forgave him for his poor performance during his long absence in the East, and allowed him to travel back to Rome with him in his litter. From this point on, Antony was to share power with Caesar, who appointed him his coconsul for 44 B.C., effective January 1.

Once back in the capital, Caesar celebrated one last Triumph, this time for his victory in Spain. Again he had to split hairs to justify this Triumph, which he said was a victory over the Spanish, not all of whom were Roman citizens at that time—universal Roman citizenship would not be granted to all the people of Spain until the reign of the emperor Vespasian 120 years later. There also had been a detachment of native troops from Mauretania in North Africa in the Pompey brothers’ army, and this was an added justification for Caesar’s latest extravagant street parade. And so, officially, this was another Triumph to celebrate a great victory in a foreign war.

Apparently Caesar had learned a lesson from the reaction to the excesses of his African Triumph. The sons of Pompey were neither mentioned nor depicted in this procession’s wheeled dioramas. Neither were Titus Labienus nor Attius Varus, nor the many hundreds of other Roman noblemen who fought and died in Spain in the last contest of the civil war, or the thousands of Roman legionaries who perished with them, a number of them men who had previously marched for Caesar for almost two decades.

Once again the men of the 6th shared the procession with their general, and once again the streets were lined with cheering Romans. Yet there was a tense undertone about the whole affair, a feeling of threat and intimidation. Just as, in the Senate, senators were now vying with each other to vote various honors for Caesar to prove their loyalty to him, so some members of the ruling class felt they had to win his favor—especially those who had supported Pompey and the republican Senate previously—by providing items for his latest Triumph. In this way Gaius Lucilius Hirrus, a cousin of Pompey and a former Tribune of the Plebs who had been against Caesar prior to the defeat of Pompey at Pharsalus, donated six thousand fish for Caesar’s public banquet on the occasion of the Spanish Triumph.

Following the Triumphal banquet, Caesar walked to his home on the Sacred Way, dressed in a white toga, wearing slippers and with his oak-leaf crown on his head, passing through the Julian Forum, the new forum he had just built in Rome as a place for public debate and given his name to. A vast, good-natured crowd of well-wishers followed him all the way to the mansion on the Via Sacra.

Soon the men of the 6th also went home—to their new properties in Arles. But Fate was not to permit them to enjoy retirement in the south of France for long.

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