The sounds of battle came from behind them, and away to their left. Cries of pain, shrieks of terror, bellows of command, the clash of iron on wood, iron, and bronze. The surviving men of two cohorts of the proud 6th Legion, less than a thousand of them, stood silently in their circular orbisformation, ten men deep. Their large, curved, rectangular shields bearing the 6th’s charging bull emblem were raised on their rippling left arms and locked together to create a series of almost impenetrable walls of wood, leather, and iron. In their right hands each man held his short sword, the twenty-inch gladius, known as the “Spanish sword” among the rank and file.
Few men of the 6th had bloodied their blades this hot summer day, for the tide of battle had quickly turned against their army after their cavalry had been sent fleeing from the field. And here they were on the plain of Farsala, Pharsalus as the Romans called it, in the Thessaly region of eastern Greece, surrounded, trapped, without the opportunity to show their worth. It was August 9, 48 B.C., and this was the Battle of Pharsalus, the battle in the now eighteen-month-old civil war that would decide who controlled Rome and her empire.
These legionaries were Spaniards, among the six thousand men recruited into the Roman army’s new 6th Legion by Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus—Pompey the Great—seventeen years before in the Roman province of Tarraconensis, better known as Nearer Spain, the eastern part of Spain. Back then, in 65 B.C., most of these men had been raw recruits, a few of them penniless, homeless volunteers, but draftees in the main, as young as seventeen, averaging twenty years of age. Clean-shaven and wet behind the ears, they had been town laborers, farm boys, fishermen; poorly educated, and most of them poorly off. They were all Roman citizens, but they spoke their Latin in accents tainted by local Spanish dialects.
Sorted into ten cohorts, the equivalent of modern battalions, each of six hundred men, they were then subdivided into maniples, or companies, of two hundred men marching behind a standard bearing the emblem of an open hand, a symbol of power. These had been subdivided again into centuries of a hundred men, with every century commanded by a centurion. Centuries were in turn divided into ten contuberniums or squads, each of ten men. Once their units had been sorted out, with NCOs appointed—a centurion, an optio or sergeant major, and a tesserarius, an orderly sergeant, to every century—their officers had told the recruits to team up with a comrade in their squad, a buddy who would watch the other’s back in combat, who would hold his last will and testament, and, if necessary, bury him and act as executor of his estate.
The equipping of a Roman legionary was by this time a methodical and well-organized affair. Each recruit had been provided with a standard dark-red Roman army tunic that reached almost to the knee, plus a red woolen cloak, an armored vest made of chain mail sewn to an armless leather waistcoat, and a bronze helmet with a jutting neck protector, a plume of yellow horsehair, and cheek flaps that tied under the chin. They wore heavy-duty, hobnailed military sandals on their feet.
Each recruit was armed with a gladius, the short, pointy-tipped sword, worn in a scabbard on the right side, plus a puglio army knife worn on the left hip, and several javelins that had weighted ends and were designed to bend behind the head once they hit a target—so that no opponent could throw them back.
Finally, they were given their shields. Made from strips of wood glued together, not unlike modern plywood, the shield had a leather surface covering. Four feet long and two and one-half feet across, the shield was curved, to provide better body protection, rimmed with metal, and equipped with a metal boss at the center. The handle was attached to the reverse side of the boss, to be gripped in the left hand. A leather strap slipped over the elbow to help support the shield’s weight. Most of the legions raised in Spain during this period took as their emblem the bull, a symbol of religious sacrifice. The 6th Legion’s symbol of a charging bull was painted on every man’s shield and appeared on every standard. When not on parade or in battle order, each soldier protected his shield with a slip-on leather weather cover.
Legionaries also were provided with an entrenching tool, a scythe for foraging, a water bucket, bedroll, and eating and cooking implements. Some were given a pickax, a turf-cutter, and a wicker basket. All were equipped with a pair of picket stakes; combined, the twelve thousand pickets carried by the men of a legion would form the top of the legion’s camp wall when they were in the field. All this equipment had to be carried in a backpack slung from a pole over the soldier’s right shoulder when on the march.
As legionaries, they were no longer subject to civil law. After they had sworn to obey their officers and serve the Senate and people of Rome, their centurions read aloud the strict military regulations that would govern their lives for the next sixteen years of their enlistment, if they lived that long. They could not marry. Homosexual acts were punishable by death, as was desertion and even falling asleep on guard duty. Minor infractions would bring various punishments, starting with a beating from the vine stick carried by every centurion. Three minor infractions also added up to the death penalty—the original three-strikes-and-you’re-out policy.
Now that they were professional soldiers, their rations would be supplied by the state and they would be paid a salary, at that time a meager 450 sesterces a year, doubling to 900 sesterces a year on the initiative of Caesar during the 50s B.C. As the recruits got to know each other in camp, scratching their names inside their new shields and helmets (one helmet found in modern times had four names scratched inside, indicating four different owners at various times), sharpening their blades, and sorting out their equipment, they would have talked about the likelihood of making money in the years ahead.
The army’s rules of plunder meant that if they stormed an enemy town the troops kept all the booty they looted from it. But if the town surrendered, the loot went to their commanders. Likewise, proceeds from the sale of prisoners who were fighting men went to the legionaries, while their officers received the money generated by the sale of civilians. The new recruits of the 6th Legion would have all heard how during the past decade the men of Pompey the Great’s legions had come back rich men after conquering the East. From Asia Minor to Palestine, Pompey’s legionaries had stormed cities and towns and enriched themselves—and their general, who was now considered Rome’s wealthiest man. There were still considerable parts of the known world to conquer and troublesome allied states to keep in order, so a profitable future would have seemed an excellent prospect to the recruits of the 6th.
Enlisted men also could improve their financial positions via promotion. A senior centurion could earn a handsome 20,000 sesterces a year, and received the lion’s share of booty and bonuses. Promoted from the ranks, and in eleven grades, a legion’s sixty centurions had money, prestige, and power. Prior to the major Roman army reforms instituted by the consul Gaius Marius during his seven consulships between 107 and 86 B.C., centurions had been elected by the rank and file. Now a centurion was chosen, promoted, and demoted or dismissed on the say-so of his superiors, based on his courage, performance, and leadership qualities.
Technically, a legion was commanded by its six tribunes. Six young men from leading Roman families, all members of the Equestrian Order of knighthood, in their late teens and twenties, they had no previous military experience and served for just a year before going home to Rome to commence their civil service careers. Over the twelve months the tribunes spent with a legion they would take turns commanding it—every two months the command would rotate. For his remaining ten months, each tribune commanded two of the ten cohorts of the legion. Some of these young tribunes would prove exceptionally able, and would go on to one day become famous generals, but many were far from equipped to lead men in battle, and in practice the leadership of a legion in republican times fell to its centurions.
Those centurions were responsible for the training of their men. With their own lives depending on how well their men performed in combat, centurions were tough, even brutal with their recruits. They taught them how to march, how to run twenty-five miles in full equipment, and how to build a fortified camp in hours at the end of every day’s march. But most of all they taught their men how to fight—not as individuals but as members of a close-knit team.
A century later, in another civil war, two thousand gladiators would be drafted into a Roman army to fight on the battlefield for the emperor Otho. The gladiators would ultimately prove a failure as soldiers. Trained to fight as individuals, they did not have the skills to work as a unit. Those skills, once ingrained into legionaries through grinding, painful training and later in battle, meant that a legionary would obey his centurion’s commands in combat without thinking, would instinctively cooperate with his comrades around him. He knew exactly what to do and where to go when his centurion called for various offensive and defensive formations. There was the wedge, a standard defense against cavalry attack. And the crescent, designed to suck the enemy into the center before the wings wrapped around behind them. Then there was the testudo, or tortoise, a formation used for attacking enemy fortifications where legionaries locked their shields over their heads as protection from missiles flung from above. And the orbis, or ring, often a formation of last resort.
Publius Sertorius and his brother Marcus were among these soldiers of the 6th. Their father, Marcus, had apparently been granted Roman citizenship by Quintus Sertorius, rebel Roman governor of Spain, taking Sertorius’s last name as his own. Perhaps these soldiers’ father had marched for Sertorius against the Roman general sent to regain Spain from him, Pompey the Great, returning to civilian life after Sertorius’s assassination in 72 B.C. The Sertorius boys had been caught up in Pompey’s mass intake of thirty-six thousand Spanish legion recruits authorized by the Senate in 65 B.C. From that intake, in addition to the 6th, Pompey also created the new 4th and 5th Legions, units that would march with the 6th for decades to come, and the 7th, 8th, and 9th, legions that would form the backbone of Julius Caesar’s army in Spain and later in Gaul during his 58-50 B.C. conquests there.
Legionaries Publius and Marcus Sertorius were here now in the ranks at Farsala, along with comrades including Lucius Caienus, Quintus Tetarfenus, Gaius Tetarfenus, Lucius Labicius, Gaius Figilius, Lucius Acilius, Gaius Numisius, and Quintus Nonius. And a question was exercising the minds of them all. Had they survived seventeen years of battles, sieges, and assaults, only for their careers and their lives to come to an end here in a Greek wheat field?
During their early years in the legion, the men of the 6th had garrisoned eastern Spain; before, from 55 to 52 B.C., they marched on bloody campaigns in Lusitania, today’s Portugal, against the wild Celtic tribes of the region. Led by a dashing, ambitious, short-tempered general, Marcus Petreius, they had subdued the locals, who made excellent cavalry but poor infantry, after many a battle in which the men of the 6th had adopted unorthodox but ultimately successful tactics.
In 52 B.C., Pompey, who maintained overall control of Spain from Rome, had loaned the 6th Legion to Julius Caesar, to help him out in Gaul after the recently conquered Gallic tribes had risen in revolt. That revolt, led by a young Gallic chief from the Auvergne Mountains named Vercingetorix, was extinguished before the 6th Legion had a chance to get a major piece of the fighting or the booty. But with minor manifestations of the revolt erupting around Gaul like brush fires even after Caesar had forced Vercingetorix to surrender at Alesia that same year, Caesar had retained the 6th as part of his army in Gaul.
At first, because it had been one of Pompey’s legions, Caesar hadn’t entrusted the 6th with important tasks, relegating it to guarding baggage and harvesting wheat in southern France with the 14th Legion, a Caesarian unit in which he had lost faith after it had been wiped out once and savaged again by Belgian and German tribesmen. But in the winter of 52- 51 B.C. the proximity to the action of their camp had meant the 6th and 14th had been called in to put down unrest in central France, marching north to occupy the city that was to become modern Orléans. In the new year, the 6th and the 14th had worked together to terminate unrest in western France before conducting the successful siege of the rebel hill town of Uxellodunum in the Department of Lot, where Vercingetorix’s deputy had holed up. This turned out to be the last engagement of the Gallic War.
By 50 B.C., with resistance quashed and Gaul, Belgica, and western Germania—France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, and Germany west of the Rhine—under the Roman yoke, Caesar had turned to matters political. During the turbulent year that he had served as consul of Rome, in 59 B.C., Caesar had done much good for the republic. Among numerous initiatives, he had created the world’s first daily newspaper, the Acta Diurnia (Daily News), written by hand at Rome every day and circulated throughout the Roman world. Caesar also had brought in the capital’s first traffic laws, banning most wheeled traffic from the city’s narrow, congested streets by day, so that all night, every night, wagons and carts rolled in and out of the city, those coming in loaded with farm produce and foreign imports, those departing taking out the manufactured goods of the capital.
But in his impatience to make his mark on Rome and her administration, Caesar had cut many corners and made many enemies in 59 B.C. Deferring to no man, he’d defied anybody who stood up to him, even forcing his antagonistic fellow consul Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus to retire behind closed doors for the latter part of his consulship. Throughout his career, Caesar was never afraid to offer a bribe to win his way, and once his consulship ended, many accusations were circulating that he’d played fast and loose with treasury funds.
Moves to bring Caesar to court to face charges of illegal acts during his consulship were circumvented when he left Rome in 58 B.C. to take up his governorship of Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, and Illyricum—a current consul or proconsul could not be taken to court. But when in 50 B.C. those governorships were coming to an end, Caesar’s enemies in the Senate began to agitate to bring him to trial on the old charges when he was once again a private person. If found guilty, he could face the death penalty, or, at least financial ruin and banishment. To prevent this, Caesar proposed that he be given a new appointment to govern just one of his provinces, supported by two legions. When this idea failed to win support, he set his sights on again being elected consul, with his talented deputy during the Gallic War, General Titus Atius Labienus, as his coconsul.
Yet, while Caesar managed, via elections and bribery, to cement the loyalty of three key supporters, including his relative Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), who all had power of veto over Senate votes as Tribunes of the Plebeians, it became increasingly obvious to him that his many opponents in the Senate would never let him again become consul. Even his old ally Pompey the Great, who had been married to Caesar’s daughter Julia until her death in 54 B.C., began to back away from him.
In the summer of 50 B.C., Pompey had sent a trusted senior officer to southern France to collect the 6th Legion and lead it out of Caesar’s area of control and back to his, in Nearer Spain, where the legion was due to undergo discharge and reenlistment in the new year, at the end of their sixteen years’ contracted military service. This officer was identified by Plutarch as General Appius. Lieutenant General Appius Claudius Pulcher, a consul in 54 B.C., governor of Cilicia in 52 B.C., was close to the Pompey family—his daughter had married Pompey’s eldest son, Gnaeus.
When Caesar learned that he was being deprived of the 6th Legion, in the hope of securing their loyalty he sent a gift to the men of the 6th as they prepared to leave the camp they’d been sharing with the 14th Legion in France—1,000 sesterces per man, more than their annual salary of 900 sesterces, for by then Caesar had decided on his future course. Denied what he saw as his due, prevented from retaining gubernatorial power or again becoming consul, he had decided to grab total power for himself, using his loyal legions while he still had control of them.
“I see quarrels ahead in which strength and steel will be the arbiters,” former Tribune of the Plebs Marcus Caelius Rufus wrote to his patron Marcus Cicero at the end of that summer of 50 B.C. “Fate is preparing a mighty and fascinating show.” He was one of the few to fully realize what Caesar had in mind. Pompey and the Senate had been lulled into a false sense of security, never expecting Caesar to go to war with his own country.
That sense of security had several origins. First, one of the consuls for 50 B.C., Gaius Claudius Marcellus, had ordered Caesar and Pompey to each provide a legion for a force that would invade Parthia from Syria. Primarily this was intended to punish the Parthians for defeating General Crassus at Carrhae, in today’s Iran, three years before. But the plan also was sponsored by reports of movement by Parthian forces on the northeastern rim of Rome’s provinces in the East. Caesar had not been happy to give up a legion, but when Pompey sent his elite 1st Legion marching up from Rome into Caesar’s province of Cisalpine Gaul as his contribution, Caesar had been forced to hand over the 15th Legion.
After taking the 6th Legion back to Spain, General Appius had led the 1st and the 15th to Rome as a prelude to their embarkation for the East. At that point, the Parthians had ceased to threaten Roman territory in the East, and the Senate had canceled the Parthian operation and given both the 1st and the 15th over to Pompey’s control. He had subsequently sent the two units into winter camp at Luceria in the Puglia region of southeastern Italy.
Privately, Caesar had been furious at losing both the 6th and 15th Legions from his army, but said nothing publicly—although he would rail about it in his memoirs. This silence led his opponents in the Senate to believe they had the better of him. But, never one to be outwitted, Caesar promptly replaced the 15th Legion by recruiting six thousand men from Celtic tribes in Transalpine Gaul to form a new legion. He did this without the permission or prior knowledge of the Senate—all provincial governors were required to seek Senate approval before they enrolled new units. None of his new recruits was a Roman citizen, but Caesar soon fixed that by unilaterally granting them citizenship. For the time being, Caesar called his new legion the Alaudae, which was a Celtic word meaning “crested larks,” apparently deriving from these soldiers’ long Celtic-style helmet plumes.
There was another factor that had made Caesar’s opponents believe he would not embark on what they felt was the insane course of armed conflict with his own countrymen. After General Appius returned to Rome with the 1st and the 15th, the handsome, vain Appius, who was both fickle and prone to poor judgment, had assured Pompey and his colleagues that Caesar’s legions had no stomach for civil war. Plutarch says that Appius even told Pompey that if Caesar were to overstep the mark, such was the loyalty of Rome’s legions to Pompey that they would all flock to Pompey’s banner. As it was to prove, Appius was way off the mark. Even if Appius had genuinely felt Caesar’s troops were loyal to Pompey—rather than telling Pompey what he felt he wanted to hear—Appius had mixed primarily with the men of the 6th and the 1st, both of them Pompey’s legions, and had no real feel for the attitude of Caesar’s troops then stationed in Gaul other than those of the 15th.
Pompey took Appius’s view as his own. “Should Caesar take leave of his senses,” Marcus Cicero wrote to his friend Titus Atticus after a meeting with Pompey during which he had raised the possibility of Caesar resorting to military action, “Pompey is quite contemptuous of anything he can do and confident in his own and the republic’s forces.”
When the men of the 6th Legion had tramped back over the Pyrenees Mountains to their old base in eastern Spain, toting their by then bulging purses, there would have been much talk among the ranks of the likelihood of Caesar going to war against the Senate, of what stand Pompey might take, and where the men of the 6th stood in the eventuality that it came to civil war.
By the time the year was ending and the confrontation between Senate and Caesar was coming to a head, Pompey had decided on his position, prompted by a December 21 speech in the Senate in which Caesar’s former quaestor, or chief of staff, Mark Antony, had condemned Pompey out of hand. Four days later, in another meeting with Marcus Cicero, Pompey had declared: “How do you expect Caesar to behave if he gets control of the state, when his feckless nobody of a quaestor dares to say this sort of thing?”
In Cicero’s opinion, far from seeking a peaceful settlement, Pompey had come to dread such an option. Unless Caesar backed down, as most people thought he would, war was inevitable.
When, in January 49 B.C., just weeks before his 7th, 8th, and 9th Legions were—like the 6th—due to receive their sixteen-year discharge, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, invading Italy and launching into a civil war against his own countrymen, the 6th had stayed firm in its loyalty to Pompey. This was despite the bribe Caesar had paid them the previous summer, and even though it meant that hard fighting lay ahead. Discharge was on hold for all legions on both sides of the conflict, both those serving Caesar and those, like the 6th, serving the Senate of the republic and its appointed military commander, Pompey. They could go home only once this civil war initiated by the rebel Caesar had been decided.
Even though there were seven republican legions in Spain—six of them made up of long-serving, highly experienced soldiers—their generals, although loyal to Pompey, were not in either Pompey’s or Caesar’s league as strategists or leaders. As Caesar set off from Rome to take command of his forces in Spain, he was confident of quickly dealing with Pompey’s best soldiers and poorest generals. Suetonius says that Caesar, who was fond of witticisms and wordplay, told his staff at the time: “I’m off to meet an army without a leader. When I come back I’ll meet a leader without an army.”
The 6th Legion was one of five experienced legions, along with the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and Valeria, that went up against six of Caesar’s legions in eastern Spain that summer. After some initial success in battles and skirmishes outside the city of Lérida, the Roman Ilerda, the republican legions, low on supplies, had been led north by their generals, Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius, toward the mountains, in search of food. Outmaneuvered and cut off on the plain by Caesar, Afranius and Petreius had surrendered their starving legions.
Surrender had been an ignoble end to an illustrious career for the men of the 6th, but at least Caesar discharged them, even paid them their back pay—having to borrow from his own officers to do it—and sent them home. So, disarmed, but carrying full purses, on August 4, 49 B.C. the men of the 6th legion had set off to tramp back to their homes in eastern Spain with their fellow discharged veterans of the 4th Legion, to surprise families they had not seen in sixteen years, to find and marry old sweethearts or new ladyloves, to buy a farm or set up in business, to look forward to a retirement, with a “home and a pleasing wife,” as the Romans said. Within days, Caesar also discharged the Spanish legionaries of Pompey’s surrendered 5th Legion and sent them on their way toward their homes farther west, while he sent the 3rd and the Valeria marching under escort of two of his legions to Transalpine Gaul, where they, too, would be discharged, at the Var River, which formed the border with Cisalpine Gaul. Caesar then quickly set off for western Spain, to deal with the two republican legions still under arms and to secure the province of Baetica, Farther Spain.
The Pompeian commanders, Generals Afranius and Petreius, also were set free, after giving Caesar their parole that they would take no further part in the civil war. Ignoring his parole, Afranius, in his fifties, an old friend of Pompey’s and fellow native of the Picenum region of eastern Italy, had immediately hurried with the younger Petreius to Tarragona, the Roman Tarraco, principal city of the province of Nearer Spain. On the Mediterranean coast, Tarragona was not yet in Caesar’s hands. The initial intent of the two generals was to find a ship that would take them to Greece to join Pompey.
Other surrendered Pompeian officers joined Afranius and Petreius in Tarragona, several of whom had been captured and released on parole once before by Caesar, during his drive down through eastern Italy in the spring. Back in March, after hearing that these officers had broken their parole, Caesar had commented in a letter to Cicero: “I’m not worried by the fact that those whom I have released are said to have left the country in order to make war against me again. Nothing pleases me more than that I should be true to my nature and they to theirs.” But a second violation of their parole would try Caesar’s patience.
There in Tarragona, to their delight, Generals Afranius and Petreius found that a fleet of eighteen heavy warships under the Senate’s Admiral Lucius Nasidius had just pulled into port. Admiral Nasidius had been sent west from Greece by Pompey with sixteen battleships and cruisers with orders to help the people of Marseilles, Roman Massilia, in southern France, who were holding out against three of Caesar’s attacking legions. Capturing and manning an additional cruiser when he raided Messina on Sicily along the way, Admiral Nasidius had linked up with eleven Marseilles warships and gone into battle off the city against a Roman fleet led by Caesar’s Admiral Decimus Brutus. Nasidius’s allies had fared badly in the battle, losing nine ships. One of the survivors had joined Nasidius as he withdrew his battered vessels and headed for the nearest friendly port, Tarragona.
Now, Generals Afranius and Petreius had an idea. Sending messengers around Nearer Spain, they hastily recalled thirty-five hundred of their best soldiers of the 4th and 6th Legions, enough men to make three cohorts of the former and four of the latter. The number of men summoned was dictated by the number of Nasidius’s warships—about two hundred men could be crowded onto the deck of each ship together with all the supplies and war matériel they could carry. Then, with their paid oarsmen straining at their banks of oars, the big ships departed Tarragona and set a course for Greece. The exact route taken by the little fleet of crowded ships is unknown, but they succeeded in reaching Greece late in the summer without encountering any opposition, for Caesar’s naval forces were limited.
Generals Afranius and Petreius then led the cohorts of the 4th and 6th overland to link up with Pompey at Veroia in northeastern Macedonia, where Pompey was building up his forces for an inevitable battle against Caesar. Afranius seemed to think that Pompey would be pleased that he had brought him thirty-five hundred of his best men. But Pompey was staggered that Afranius also brought him the news that he had lost him eastern Spain, and five legions, with western Spain and the remaining two republican legions sure to soon follow.
For his dismal performance in Spain, Afranius suffered continual criticism from the hundreds of senators and senior officers accompanying Pompey. There were even accusations that Afranius was a traitor who had deliberately given up his legions to Caesar. As a result, he would never be completely trusted by those in Pompey’s camp. But the men of the 4th and the 6th were indeed welcome additions to Pompey’s army. Apart from his crack 1st Legion, which had served Pompey for decades, and the 15th, which had been raised by Caesar and had seen service in the conquest of Gaul, Pompey’s legions were composed of a combination of new recruits and men who had not seen action in years. While marching behind their own eagle standards still, the 4th and the 6th were ordered by Pompey to act as a single unit.
There in Macedonia, through the fall and early winter of 49 B.C., the seven Spanish cohorts of the 4th and the 6th had trained together, watching the other units of the senatorial army go through their paces. Fifty-seven-year-old Pompey himself trained with his troops, on foot and horseback. He had gained weight in the decade since he’d last marched at the head of an army, and was no longer the lithe, trim twenty-three-year-old who had led his first legions to victory after victory back in the civil war between Sulla and Marius. Yet, despite the passing of the years, the added pounds, and the fact that he had been gravely ill the previous year when Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Pompey looked fit and well, and he had galvanized his troops by displaying the energy and skill of a youngster.
Inspired by their famous general, who had never been beaten in battle—Pompey was still “a match for all comers,” according to first-century writer Seneca—they vied for his approval. As it went through its formation drills, the 1st Legion would have shown a machinelike discipline that impressed all who saw it. The men of the 6th would have been amused when they heard from their comrades of the 1st Legion that after Pompey had sent the 1st to Caesar in Cisalpine Gaul as his contribution to the soon-to-be-aborted Parthian operation, when Caesar sent the 1st on its way back to Rome with General Appius and the 15th, he had paid the men of the 1st a bonus of 250 sesterces each. Caesar had obviously been trying to buy the loyalty of the 1st ahead of his planned invasion of Italy.
What would have amused the men of the 6th most was not that Caesar had attempted to bribe the men of Pompey’s most elite and most loyal unit, but that he had given the men of the 1st Legion only 250 sesterces. He’d paid the legionaries of the 6th four times as much the previous year! And how that information would have swelled their heads. As it turned out, Caesar didn’t value the 6th above the 1st; he was just running out of money.
The six-year veterans of the 15th Legion also would have been in good form as they trained in Macedonia. Caesar would have been hoping that their long association with him in Gaul would see them desert Pompey, but he had been disappointed; the 15th had stayed firmly behind the Senate’s commander. The Italians of the five cohorts of the new 28th Legion would have trained enthusiastically, but they were worryingly inexperienced. After being caught on the Adriatic in an abortive amphibious landing in Illyricum led by Mark Antony’s brother Gaius, they had deserted their commander and come over to Pompey and the republic. But they were raw draftees, enrolled eighteen months before in central Italy, and while they had performed creditably in the Durrës breakout, they were yet to prove themselves in a full-on battle.
There were also two four-year-old legions made up of Italians, which had been stationed in Syria. But they were survivors of the mayhem of the Battle of Carrhae against the Parthians, in modern-day Iran, four years before, when Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus and thirty thousand Roman legionaries had been wiped out by ten thousand mounted Parthians in one of Rome’s greatest defeats. The men of this pair of surviving legions had not seen action since, and a question mark hung over their dependability once memories of Carrhae were revived in a combat situation.
Pompey’s newly created Gemina Legion had been put together using men from two legions stationed in Cilicia since being recruited in eastern Italy two springs before. Immediately after they’d arrived in Cilicia in 51 B.C. they had seen some action under their then governor Marcus Cicero, first skirmishing with the advance guard of a Parthian expeditionary force that had pushed up into Cilicia but then withdrew after its general died, and then successfully conducting an eight-week siege of a town held by “Free Cilician” rebels in the Amanus Mountains. But to veteran soldiers such as the men of the 6th Legion this was mere child’s play and did nothing to equip the men of the Gemina for a set-piece battle against Caesar’s best troops.
The men of the last of Pompey’s twelve legions, three units hurriedly raised the previous spring in southern Italy, were as green as grass. Although they had been given experienced centurions, and several cohorts of discharged veterans recalled from retirement in Macedonia and on the island of Crete had been salted through their formations, their lack of battle experience could be expected to show when the signal for battle was given and they came up against Caesar’s legions.
Six of Caesar’s nine legions had seen extensive experience in his bloody conquest of Gaul, with the longest-serving of Caesar’s legionaries having accumulated, like the men of the 4th and the 6th, seventeen years’ combat experience. Pompey’s new recruits would have boasted that their youth would give them the advantage against the “old-timers” in Caesar’s ranks, but the men of the 6th were “old-timers,” too, and they would have shaken their heads at the naïveté of the youngsters. “Deeds, not words,” they would have mumbled disparagingly, repeating a proverb of the day and raising their eyes.
In fact, the tough veteran men of the 6th were, along with their comrades of the 4th, now by far Pompey’s most experienced troops. Even the majority of the rank and file of the vaunted 1st had only joined Pompey’s most elite legion at its latest reenlistment three years back and had no combat experience. But at least the proud senior centurions of the 1st had been enlisted by Pompey, many in his native region of Picenum in eastern Italy, and some had served him faithfully for thirty years or more. None would let the renowned legion’s lofty reputation be forgotten by their troops, or by anyone else.
As for the “Allied” troops, auxiliary light infantry, archers, slingers, and cavalry supplied by kings and minor potentates from throughout the East who owed their thrones to Pompey, only Pompey’s cavalry, by its sheer size—seven thousand troopers in all—would have impressed Publius Sertorius and his comrades of the 6th. The eastern foot soldiers, the Greeks in particular, looked soft and easily spooked, but at least the cavalry, sixteen hundred of them Gauls who had previously ridden for Caesar, seemed formidable enough.
More than that, the legionaries of the 6th would have been impressed that Pompey’s cavalry commander was General Titus Atius Labienus. For nine years Caesar’s brave and brilliant deputy during his conquest of Gaul, Labienus, a republican at heart, had not believed in Caesar’s self-serving cause and had changed sides to follow Pompey and the Senate at the outbreak of the civil war, bringing two-thirds of his cavalry with him.
Where and when Pompey would finally come to grips with Caesar had still been a mystery to the men of the 6th as they broke camp in the first week of January 48 B.C. and joined the line of march as Pompey’s entire army of forty thousand men set off west along the paved Egnatian Way military highway, heading for the Adriatic port of Dyrrhachium. Located in Albania today and known as Durrës, this was Rome’s principal port in the Epirus region, immediately opposite Brundisium, today’s Brindisi. At Durrës, Pompey had stockpiled enough food to last him many months, and with rations fast running out he was taking the army to the supply dump to stock up for the spring—the time when he expected Caesar to cross to Greece from Italy to confront him.
On the march, word had reached Pompey that on the night of January 4-5 Caesar had made an amphibious landing on the Epirus coast some distance below Durrës with elements from seven legions. As the news rippled through Pompey’s army, many an Allied infantryman had begun to look pale and fearful. Although stunned that Caesar had attempted a sea crossing in winter, when the Adriatic was storm-tossed, and pulled it off, Pompey reacted quickly. He set off at double time to reach Durrës, and his supplies, before Caesar did. Pompey had won the race, and then set up a camp on the coast south of the port to defend it. The town’s senatorial garrison was commanded by famous senator, writer, and orator Marcus Cato—known to history as Cato the Younger. Formerly governor of Sicily, Cato had escaped to Greece when four Caesarian legions were about to land at Messina and take Sicily.
Once Caesar had landed in Greece, he had marched toward Durrës and, reinforced in February by Mark Antony and another ten thousand legionaries from Italy, had surrounded Pompey’s camp with a fifteen-mile trench line dotted with twenty-four forts and had begun a siege. Caesar and his officers were confident of a swift victory. One of his young colonels, the twenty-one-year-old Publius Dolabella, who was related to Caesar, wrote a gloating letter to his father-in-law, Cicero, saying of Pompey’s plight: “Driven out of Italy, Spain lost, his army of veterans taken prisoner, and to crown everything he is now blockaded in his camp, a humiliation that I believe has never before fallen a Roman general.”
For all this, the expected swift victory had not come Caesar’s way. For months there were skirmishes along the trench line south of Durrës, until, one night in June, with Caesar decoyed away to Durrës town in the belief that the locals were going to let him in behind Cato’s back, Pompey had launched a carefully prepared assault, based on intelligence provided by defectors, against a fort in the encirclement held by Caesar’s weakened 9th Legion. The defenders were overwhelmed and Pompey’s breakout was successful. Although Caesar hastily returned and led a counterattack in daylight, his forces failed to seal the breach in the encirclement. Caesar suffered heavy casualties and was forced to withdraw from the untenable Durrës position.
In the wake of his first serious reverse of the civil war, Caesar had led his hungry troops east, toward the wheat-growing region of Thessaly in eastern Greece. The latest wheat crop would soon be ready to harvest, so when Caesar made camp on a wheat-covered plain at Farsala, his men looked forward to soon filling their grain sacks and their bellies. Pompey and his now confident army had shadowed them all the way to Thessaly, and set up camp on high ground several miles away from Caesar’s position.
Pompey’s officers had urged him to give battle, here on the plain of Farsala. The success at Durrës had convinced them that Caesar could be beaten. But Pompey had held back for weeks—like the men of the 6th, he had his doubts about the abilities of most of his infantry. Finally he relented, basing his battle plan on a decisive flanking maneuver by his cavalry, which outnumbered the men of Caesar’s mounted force seven to one.
And now here the day was, August 9, 48 B.C. At dawn that morning, just as Caesar was breaking camp, planning to march away, Pompey had lined his army up on the plain in battle order. And the men of the 6th Legion would have contemplated a smashing victory over Julius Caesar’s army, outnumbered as it was two to one. Once Caesar was dealt with, the men of the 6th could look forward to their discharge, now a year overdue, a victory bonus from the Senate, and a grant of farmland where they could at last settle down and raise a family.
The most honored place for a Roman legion in any battle line was the right wing. Only the best troops were placed on the right, because soldiers stationed there, carrying their shields on their left arms, were exposed on their right side. Many a battle was won and lost on an army’s right wing. This day, the men of the 6th and the 4th Legions had been assigned Pompey’s right wing. Their divisional commander, the general in charge of Pompey’s right wing, mounted behind his frontline troops with his staff, was Lieutenant General Lucius Cornelius Lentulus. A consul the previous year, about forty-three years of age, Lentulus had no military reputation, but his rank as a recent consul and an intense personal dislike of Caesar had qualified him for this command.
Beside the seven cohorts from the two Spanish legions ran the Enipeus River. Filling the gap between the 4th and the 6th and the river, Pompey had stationed lightly armed Greek auxiliaries and six hundred slingers. Because the river’s high banks prevented mounted troops from outflanking him on the right, Pompey hadn’t given the 4th and the 6th any cavalry cover, instead massing all seven thousand of his mounted troops away on his left for his strike against Caesar’s flank.
Pompey lined his foot soldiers up in three successive battle lines, the usual Roman military tactic. Each legion was spread between all three lines—full-strength legions had four cohorts in the front line and three in each of the second and third lines. The 4th and the 6th Legions, working together as a single legion, would have spread their cohorts three-two-two through the three lines.
The centuries within each cohort of each legion stood ten men deep, and, if a century was at full strength, eight men across. Their centurion stood at the left end of the front line, while their optio, or sergeant major, stood at the right end of the rear line, and their tesserarius, or sergeant, occupied the left rear position—the two NCOs being in the best places to prevent desertions. There was a gap of about three feet between each legionary and his immediate neighbor, room enough for him to launch his javelins. On the command “Close ranks,” the legionary would step up to form a solid mass, shoulder to shoulder, with his comrades.
On that still, baking hot morning, looking across a field of ripening wheat to the troops immediately opposite them, and wiping sweat from their eyes as it rolled down from beneath their helmets, the men of the 6th would have recognized the bull emblems on the shields of the adjacent 7th, 8th, and 9th Legions, and realized that they would soon be coming to grips with fellow Spaniards, and killing them.
Not an ideal prospect, but better than facing their old marching companions of Caesar’s 14th Legion, the unit the 6th had spent two years campaigning with in Gaul. The northern Italians of the 14th had never regained Caesar’s favor because of their unit’s bloody and disgraced past—any legion that lost its eagle standard carried the shame long after. Likewise, the 6th, because it was one of Pompey’s units, had not been entrusted to major campaigns by Caesar. Their shared status as outcasts had brought the two legions together, like two gawky kids who become friends because they’re never picked for schoolyard teams. True to form, Caesar had left the 14th in Spain after he’d accepted the final Pompeian surrender on the Iberian Peninsula; it had been the only one of Caesar’s experienced “veteran” legions he’d left behind in Spain as he turned east to tackle Pompey himself in Greece.
Pompey’s infantry had been carefully briefed on what they had to do here on the Farsala plain. Their commander in chief would launch a flanking attack with his cavalry, an attack designed to get behind the 10th Legion, Caesar’s best, which occupied the extremity of his right wing, and, hopefully, wrap up the Caesarian line like a shovel driving snow. While the cavalry was doing its job, Pompey’s legions were to stand their ground; they were not to charge. If, however, Caesar’s infantry had the opportunity to launch a charge against Pompey’s front line, Pompey’s legionaries were under instructions to continue to stand where they were, immobile, instead of also charging. A countercharge was the usual response to a charge by the opposition, to meet the enemy on the run, but Pompey was hoping that Caesar’s troops would be winded by the 450-yard dash from their position to his waiting front line, which was to act as a solid barrier from which Caesar’s troops would rebound like surf from a seawall.
That, at least, had been the theory behind the tactic, a tactic that revealed Pompey’s lack of confidence in his infantry’s ability to match it in the open with Caesar’s men. With luck, Pompey had hoped, it would never come to that—if General Labienus’s cavalry did the task he had assigned to them, all his infantry would have to do was mop up after the cavalry charge. But it was a tactic that Caesar later roundly condemned as detrimental to both the morale and the attacking power of the troops involved. Certainly, the men of the 6th Legion wouldn’t have been enamored of the idea of just standing there, waiting for their opponents to come charging into them, remembering the old Roman saying “He who does not advance goes backward.”
Still, all had begun well enough for Pompey’s side. In the middle of the morning General Labienus had set the battle in motion by leading his cavalry in a charge that killed two hundred of Caesar’s troopers when they tried to stand in his way, and sent the remaining eight hundred Caesarian cavalry galloping from the field. Labienus had then led his excited horsemen into the side and rear of the 10th Legion. But Caesar had anticipated Pompey’s maneuver and had stationed a reserve of heavy infantry as a fourth line—out of sight, on the ground—behind his standing third line. On Caesar’s command, this reserve force had sprung up and charged into the tightly packed Pompeian cavalry, thrusting their javelins lancelike into their faces. Caesar’s cavalry had returned, and between them, the 10th Legion and the reserve, they’d killed a thousand of Labienus’s mounted men. The rest of the Pompeian cavalry had turned and fled, exposing Pompey’s left wing.
When his reserve had spontaneously surged across the battlefield toward Pompey’s 1st Legion, Caesar had ordered his entire first line to charge. His banner dropped, trumpets sounded “Charge,” and with a roar the men of the first line had rushed forward. As ordered, the men of the 6th Legion and their comrades of the republican infantry had stood their ground. Halfway across the gap separating the two armies, Caesar’s charging thousands had halted, regained their breath, then charged anew through the wheat stalks, launching their javelins as they came. They had crashed into the shield line of the republican army and come to a dead stop. Pompey’s line held firm. There, toe to toe, shield to shield, the opposing front lines had fought it out.
Without cavalry covering their wing, the men of Pompey’s elite 1st Legion had soon found themselves under sustained attack from front and flank. With Caesar’s troops threatening to get behind it, the 1st closed up and began to slowly move back to cover its rear. It did so in tight, disciplined formation, fighting with each backward step, but this forced the 15th Legion beside it to also begin a slow fighting retreat. Seeing this withdrawal on their left, men in the less experienced legions in Pompey’s center lost their nerve and their discipline. Many broke, pushing their way through the lines behind them to get to the rear, throwing away their equipment, and running for the hills. Men in the rear lines, experiencing wide-eyed deserters pushing back through their ranks from the battlefront, began to look uncertainly around them as their centurions called for them to hold their positions. Roman historian Tacitus was to write that the spread of fear and panic starts with the eyes. That infectious fear, transmitted from eye to eye, began to make the legs of men in the stationary rear lines at the republican center weak and wobbly.
At this point, Caesar ordered his second line to also charge into the fray. Once these troops came at the run and entered the battle, Pompey’s center gave way completely, through all three lines, as whole units turned and ran. This allowed Caesar’s men to advance through the center and split Pompey’s army in two, then wrap around the still solid and defiant wings. Pompey had held back no reserves who might have bolstered his center. Seeing that the day was lost, and in a shocked daze, he left the battle and rode to his camp on the heights. On the Pompeian left, as the 1st backpedaled with determined discipline, the 15th disintegrated.
On the right, the 4th and the 6th stuck together like glue and stubbornly held their ground against the men of the 8th and the 9th Legions, fellow Spaniards, who were urged forward by their divisional commander, Mark Antony. But as the men of the 6th saw the Greek auxiliaries and the slingers to their right turn and flee blindly toward the rear, and saw the Gemina Legion to their immediate left quickly crumble and the well-led opposition Spaniards of their brother 7th Legion close in along their left flank and push toward their rear, threatening to swing behind them, they knew that, like the 1st, they must retreat. Behind them, General Lentulus, the 6th’s divisional commander, had turned his horse around and, emulating Pompey, fled at a gallop to the camp on the hill. The men of the 6th were on their own.
With iron discipline, step by deliberate step, guided by the barked orders of their centurions, hounded all the way by their opponents, the 4th and the 6th began to pull back, with shields raised and locked, and with swords jabbing and flashing over the top. But unlike the 1st Legion over on the far left of the battlefield, their withdrawal was not speedy enough. Caesar’s troops hurried down the left side of the Spanish formation and came around behind them. The two under-strength legions were compressed beside the tall bank of the Enipeus. With the 6th taking the pressure from their assailants, men of the 4th behind them began deliberately sliding down the steep riverbank. Soon all fifteen hundred men of the 4th had managed to cross the river and clamber up the far bank. Men of the 6th able to cast a quick glance over their shoulder would have seen Eagle-Bearer Marcus Caesius bearing away the silver eagle of the 4th and fleeing west across the plain with his comrades, toward the town of Farsala.
Half the men of the 6th were able to follow the troops of the 4th. But the last thousand men of the 6th Legion, acting as rear guard so their own eagle could also be carried safely from the field, weren’t so lucky; they were completely surrounded by Mark Antony’s troops. They could see Antony himself, on horseback, with his staff officers, directing operations quite close by. They would have recognized him, having seen him in Gaul during their two years’ service there, when he was one of Caesar’s generals—a tall, solidly built man of thirty-four with curly hair and a square jaw. They knew him by reputation as a man with a not entirely honorable past who liked wine, women, and song off the battlefield but who was a fiercely brave soldier on it, fighting like a demon, flinching at nothing.
These last defiant fighters of the 6th Legion prepared to die in the field of flattened wheat. Covered in perspiration under the hot August sun, bleeding from wounds, their muscles aching under the weight of the equipment that gave them the label of “heavy infantry,” encircled and vastly outnumbered, they expected to be overwhelmed at any minute. But not one of them would ask for quarter; they would go down fighting, “claws and beak” as the Romans said. If they were to die here on Greek soil, across the world from their Spanish homeland, that would be all right. The legions had a saying, “Every soil is a brave man’s country.”
There was also a prayer prevalent among the rank and file of Rome’s legions, and recorded on a roughly scrawled inscription: “Jupiter, Best and Greatest, protect this cohort, soldiers all.” Many a soldier of the 6th would have uttered that prayer as the battle began that day, and many would have been saying it to themselves now with the fervor of men who could see death closing in around them and all possibility of escape apparently denied them.
But today was not to be the final day of life and breath of these men of the 6th. As Suetonius and Appian both record, at that moment mounted messengers were galloping urgently about the battlefield calling out an order from Caesar: “Spare your fellow Romans!”
Caesar only wanted troops from the Allied states killed, because they had actively sided with Pompey and the Senate. By his reckoning, Pompey’s Roman legions were only following orders. Later in this protracted civil war Caesar would not be quite so magnanimous when it came to sparing his fellow countrymen, but right now he wanted to give legionaries, Roman citizens, the opportunity to surrender and be accorded all the rights of prisoners of war. He had written in a note to his staff officers Gaius Oppius and Lucius Balbus in March of the previous year: “Let this be the new style of conquest, to make mercy and generosity our shield.”
Now Mark Antony himself was yelling to the men of the 6th that if they stood their ground and threw down their weapons they would not be harmed. Sympathetic fellow Spaniards in the ranks encircling them, men such as Marcus Aemilius and Lucius Mestrius of the 9th Legion and Gaius Canuleius of the 7th, began repeating the call, as their officers told them that they could each personally spare a fellow legionary from the other side.
The soldiers of the 6th looked at each other, with questions in their eyes. They had survived more than a decade and a half of battles, sieges, and skirmishes via a combination of fighting skill and good, old-fashioned luck. Was their luck holding, or was it about to run out? Could they trust the word of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony?