On the Pharsalus battlefield, the men of the 6th had agreed to surrender on August 9, and true to the word of Caesar and Mark Antony they had not been harmed once they threw down their weapons. Meanwhile, all around them, Allied troops and noncombatants had been slaughtered. Appian records the surrendered legionaries standing stock still while Caesar’s troops had run by them and even through their ranks to attack the fleeing Allies.
Caesar, in his “commentaries,” his memoirs, would give an inflated casualty list for Pompey’s army at the Battle of Pharsalus. His staff officer Colonel Gaius Asinius Pollio, who was at Caesar’s side throughout the battle and also later as the bodies were counted, and who was considered a particularly reliable witness by Roman authors, later wrote an account of the civil war in which he put Pompey’s Pharsalus losses at 6,000. At most, Caesar had lost 1,200 men, 200 of these cavalry. A total of 24,000 Pompeian soldiers had surrendered and been made prisoners of war. Another 18,000, including survivors from the 4th and 6th Legions and the almost intact 1st Legion, had escaped west.
Because Caesar’s legions did not pursue them, over the coming weeks these 18,000 escapees would be loaded aboard the ships of the senatorial fleets based on Greece’s western coast. It was an efficient evacuation organized by Marcus Brutus’s uncle Cato the Younger, who came down from Durrës to Buthrotum, today’s Buthroton, and the waters around Corfu, where the bulk of the senatorial ships were based, and calmly took charge.
When Cato was joined by Pompey’s leading generals after they’d escaped from the debacle of Pharsalus—Labienus, Afranius, Petreius, and Pompey’s father-in-law, Scipio—they agreed that they would transfer the surviving troops to the province of Africa, modern Tunisia, still firmly in senatorial hands and which held a large number of friendly forces, there to regroup before going against Caesar again.
When Caesar returned to his camp on the Farsala plain on August 11, it was to find that not only were the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th Legions in revolt in their commander in chief ’s absence, but they had also infected all his other legions with the same mutinous spirit. Now all nine of his legions were on strike, demanding discharge for the legions who were entitled to it, and payment to every single surviving legionary of the bonus that Caesar had promised at an assembly of his army at Brindisi in December prior to their embarkation for Greece: 20,000 sesterces per man.
Caesar didn’t have anywhere near the sort of money the legions were demanding. The costs of the civil war to date had left his purse bare. Besides, he was determined not to give in to blackmail. So on August 11, while his eight hundred loyal cavalrymen—three hundred Germans and five hundred Gauls who possessed neither Roman citizenship nor a grievance against their general—stood guard duty at his Farsala camp and watched over the Pompeian prisoners encamped with Caesar’s legions, he sent his most trusted officers ranging through the POW camp. He had briefed them to talk to the prisoners and determine who among them would be prepared to march for him in several new Caesarian legions that would be formed entirely from POWs. Just as he had promised his own men big rewards at the outset of his invasion of Greece, Caesar now promised the POWs the same rewards—to be paid once this civil war was concluded.
Throughout his career, Caesar considered his Spanish legions by far his best and used them at the forefront of his operations. When he’d served as governor of Baetica, or Farther Spain, for a year in 61 B.C., he had inherited a garrison made up of two legions, the 8th and the 9th, both of which had been raised locally by Pompey four years earlier. Caesar had immediately raised a new legion, the 10th, in his province. He’d then led his three legions on a rampaging and profitable campaign against the towns and villages of the unconquered tribes of Lusitania, to the north of his provincial capital, Corduba, today’s city of Córdoba.
Later, when he took up his commands in Gaul in 58 B.C., Caesar had received Senate approval to summon the 8th, 9th, and 10th, and their brother legion the 7th, then stationed in eastern Spain, for his advance north into what today is France and Belgium. These four Spanish legions had been at the forefront of his conquests ever since. Tough, determined, courageous, slow to panic, and quick to respond to orders, Caesar’s Spaniards had never let him down in battle.
And it so happened that among the tens of thousands of Pompeian prisoners on the Farsala plain were the men of the 6th Legion—less than a thousand of them, but veteran Spanish legionaries just the same. What was more, Caesar well remembered that these men had marched for him in Gaul for two years, so he directed his officers to initially concentrate on the legionaries of the 6th. Not only were these men of the 6th Legion the best soldiers among all the surrendered Pompeians, but also if they signed up for Caesar they were so well respected by the other prisoners that many others could be expected to follow their lead.
It didn’t trouble Caesar that these men of the 6th had previously made a moral choice against him and for Pompey and the republic, and had ignored the bounty he’d given them two years before when they were led back to Spain. Suetonius said of him, “He judged his men by their fighting record, not by their morals.”
The precise details of the deal the soldiers of the 6th made that day with Caesar are unknown. To win them over, Caesar would no doubt have offered them considerably more than he had been prepared to pay his own men. They would have known that at Brindisi the previous fall he had promised his legions 20,000 sesterces per man to defeat Pompey. Later he would up this to 24,000 sesterces to convince reluctant legionaries to fight one more campaign for him. The men of the 6th, being hard-dealing Spaniards, would have hung out for even more, knowing how important their defection was to Caesar’s fortunes.
There was another factor to be considered. When the men of the 6th had marched down the slope to the Farsala plain on the morning of August 9, they had left their personal possessions behind at the sprawling republican camp on the hill. Those personal possessions had included all their noncombat equipment, spare clothing, their utensils, as well as the souvenirs of the many victories they had won over the years while marching for Pompey the Great and also, briefly, for Caesar. Most important of all was the money they had left at the camp, their savings from seventeen years’ military service, their horde of gold accumulated from their annual salary payments, bonuses, and the proceeds of the sale of booty.
There is no record of the amounts involved, but within twenty years or so Rome’s legions would have banks, administered by the standard-bearer of each cohort, in which the savings of every man were preserved. Following a rebellion on the Rhine in A.D. 89, which was financed by their general robbing the troops’ savings then in the banks of two legions, the emperor Domitian would limit the amount that a soldier could save in these banks thereafter to just 1,000 sesterces a man. Such savings would amount to tens of thousands of sesterces per man as they neared the end of their enlistment. And on August 9, 48 B.C., the men of the 6th Legion had lost every penny they had put away over almost two decades, as Caesar’s troops fought their way into Pompey’s camp, then progressively looted it of everything that was valuable and killing every noncombatant who stood in their way or tried to save packmules or their master’s silver plate.
No one could deny that the men of the 6th Legion had lost everything they possessed other than what they had on them when their camp fell to the other side. But they had no way of proving any claims of losses they might have made, or of reclaiming those losses from Caesar’s men. It was a classical case of finders keepers. No general in his right mind would ask his troops to hand back their loot, certainly not Caesar, faced now as he was with his legions on strike as they demanded even more. So not only would the men of the 6th now have demanded at least the same victory bonuses that Caesar’s troops were being promised by their commander, they also would have wanted restitution for what they had lost at Pompey’s camp. And realizing how badly Caesar needed them, they would have exaggerated their losses and pitched their demands high when Caesar’s recruiting officers came to them in the POW camp.
Even if Caesar had to pay these men double what he had previously offered his own men, it would have been worth the cost to attract what he considered the best soldiers from among the prisoners to march for him. Whatever Caesar ultimately offered the men of the 6th, it was enough to convince the Spaniards to change sides. As the Spanish say, there is no lock that a golden key will not open, and there in the POW camp the men of the 6th were tempted by the promise of sufficient gold coin to enter into a contract with Caesar’s officers and change sides and loyalties, at least until the civil war was settled.
But there was more to the deal than money. In addition to the promise of a considerable financial reward for each man who survived this next episode in their military careers, Caesar also agreed to give the men of the 6th their now well overdue discharge from military service once the contract expired, plus grants of farmland; retiring veterans during this period received around fifty acres each.
In agreeing to the deal, the men of the 6th stipulated that the land involved in this instance was not to be confiscated from other owners, who might later challenge the legality of their tenure. There had been examples of this in the recent past, and the troops didn’t want their land grants to be contested later. The land they were given had to be state-owned land, with no strings attached.
The full package was to be delivered by Caesar once his troops had won this conflict for him. No money changed hands up front. The men of the 6th would rely on Caesar to keep his word, confident that they had the backup of the contracts they now put their names to, and their swords.
It is apparent that in addition to their agreed rewards, Publius Sertorius and his comrades of the 6th set down two key final conditions before they would march for Caesar. First, they would not join a new unit containing other POWs. If Caesar wanted them on his side, they would not be assimilated into other units—he had to take them as the 6th Legion, marching behind their own eagle, even if their unit was well below strength; nor would they permit their numbers to be bolstered by the addition of men from other units. And, most importantly, they would not under any circumstances fight their comrades of the 6th who had escaped from Greece to Africa after the Battle of Pharsalus.
Caesar quickly acceded to these requirements; the 6th Legion was reinstated, and its men included on the pay lists of his army. He ordered his quartermaster, General Quintus Cornificius, to rearm the men of the 6th and to provide them with the best equipment available. The 6th was to be ready to march as soon as possible.
There was also the matter of the 6th’s eagle standard. Nine silver eagles and many more cohort standards had been captured from Pompey’s twelve legions during and after the Battle of Pharsalus. As with the eagles of the 1st and 4th Legions, the eagle of the 6th had been preserved and carried away by the men of the legion who had escaped from Farsala. It seems that the men of the 6th who would now march for Caesar were provided with one of the captured eagle standards, which Roman priests would have blessed in a hurried performance of the lustratio exercitio, or Lustration Exercise, the traditional religious ceremony in which a legion’s standards were dressed with garlands and perfume in the spring, prior to each campaigning season, before Caesar formally presented it to the 6th Legion.
In later centuries some confusion would arise about the 6th and its role in Caesar’s army at this time, prompted in part by the Roman writer Suetonius, who, in his book Lives of the Caesars, written 150 years after the event, would put the 6th Legion on Caesar’s side in an engagement against Pompey’s army during the Battle of Dyrrhachium. Suetonius confused the 6th Legion with the 9th Legion in that engagement, as we know from Caesar’s own memoirs. The 6th was always in Pompey’s army until this deal following the Battle of Pharsalus.
On the morning of August 12, Caesar would have called an assembly of his legions and informed them that he was continuing this war without them, and with the help of Pompey’s surrendered troops. His own legions would be taken back to Italy by Mark Antony, he said, where they were to await his pleasure. He then departed Farsala, accompanied by a small staff and his cavalry, heading for Macedonia, with the intent of crossing the Dardanelles into the province of Asia and then marching overland down to Syria as he attempted to track down Pompey. If necessary, he was prepared to march all the way to Egypt to find him.
As Caesar galloped away to the north with his eight hundred horsemen, the camp he left behind was full of activity. The men of the 6th Legion were hastily preparing to also march. Antony would lead the striking legions to Durrës, where they would obtain shipping for a return to Italy. With them would go those POWs who chose not to march for Caesar, about thirteen thousand of them.
In the end, another ten thousand agreed to change sides, and these ex-Pompeians were formed into two new Caesarian legions. Over the past sixteen months, Caesar had conscripted twenty-one new legions in Italy and Cisalpine Gaul, some of them from republican troops who had surrendered to him during his advance into Italy after crossing the Rubicon. Those legions had been numbered 17 to 35, so that the two new legions formed from POWs at Farsala were assigned the numbers 36 and 37.
Caesar had left orders for Lieutenant General Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus, who had commanded his center at the Battle of Pharsalus, to lead on his heels those men other than the legionaries of the 6th who changed sides, as soon as they were ready to march. On Caesar’s instructions, General Domitius was to take charge of the province of Asia, and it was there that Caesar wanted Pompey’s former troops to link up with him and the 6th Legion.
At the same time that Caesar and his cavalry rode north, messengers galloped south from Farsala, to the region of Achaea, south of Athens. Since his invasion of Greece, Achaea had been occupied for Caesar by General Quintus Fufius Calenus with the 27th Legion and the five cohorts of the 28th Legion that had not been involved in the aborted invasion of Illyricum by Gaius Antony. Caesar’s messengers carried orders for General Fufius to immediately send the five cohorts of the 28th—containing a little over twenty-two hundred men, according to Caesar himself—marching to join him, the 6th, and the former republican troops in Asia, at once. As for the 27th Legion, Fufius was to send it to join General Domitius and the men who would make up the 36th and 37th Legions, as soon as practicable.
On the same day when Caesar set off, the 6th Legion departed the plain at Farsala at forced march pace, leaving behind Caesarian mutineers and Pompeian POWs. The 6th’s orders were to follow Caesar with all speed, bringing a baggage train of war supplies with them. It must have been with mixed thoughts that the men of the 6th marched rapidly up the road toward Macedonia. Only days before, they had been preparing to die. Now, not only were they very much alive, they had been welcomed into Caesar’s army, they had been provided with the best equipment, and they had been given the role of Caesar’s most elite foot soldiers.
Their change in fortune came at the price of a change in allegiances, and with the knowledge that Caesar wanted them to link up with him in Asia and help him track down their former commander, Pompey. This may have bothered some of them. As later events were to show, Spaniards held Pompey and his family in high regard. But it didn’t bother the men of the 6th enough to cause them to have second thoughts.
With luck, many of the legionaries of the 6th would have hoped, Pompey may well come to terms with Caesar before any more blood had to be shed. And then, with peace, they could start new lives, enriched by Caesar, before they had to kill anyone.