XI

SEXTUS, SEA BATTLES, AND SUICIDES

The 14th Legion was taking part in another amphibious invasion. This time they were sailing from North Africa to Sicily. To fight a Pompey.

By 36 B.C., Pompey the Great’s youngest son, Sextus, was aged thirty, and he had been at war with Rome’s Board of Three for years. Since he was sixteen, when the Civil War began, he’d never known a time when his life was not on the line. Nine years back, he had escaped from Spain after his elder brother Gnaeus’s defeat at Munda and gone on the run. Following Caesar’s death, Sextus had come to an accommodation with the Senate, in a deal worked out at the instigation of Mark Antony. This had seen Sextus paid reparations for the loss of his father’s property and given command of a Roman fleet in the western Mediterranean. Little better than a pirate, over the next six years he’d been an irritation to the triumvirs as he used his fleet to create a power base west of Italy.

With his supporters in control of the islands of Corsica and Sardinia, where triumvirate troops had switched their support to him, he’d set his sights on taking over Sicily. It had been promised to him by the triumvirs to keep him quiet, but being Octavian’s domain and at the heart of Roman commercial and military shipping routes, they’d never come through on the promise. After several failed attempts at a lasting negotiated peace, in 38 B.C. Octavian decided to rid himself of Sextus Pompey by force.

In two naval battles off Sicily that year, Sextus’s admirals came off the better, and then storms drove many of Octavian’s ships onto the rocky coastline of southwestern Italy, opposite Sicily. Octavian himself and a number of his shipwrecked sailors and soldiers managed to make it ashore on a remote stretch of the coast. The 13th Legion was just then marching over the mountains nearby, and came to Octavian’s aid. Its legionaries shared rations with the shipwrecked men, provided shelter, and tended to injuries.

The 13th had undergone its scheduled reenlistment in 42 B.C. But instead of discharging its one thousand surviving veterans recruited by Caesar back in 58 B.C., Octavian convinced these men to stay in service for a few more years in return for big rewards. Just like Lepidus and the 14th. They were still waiting for their discharges and their rewards, which Octavian now indicated would come once Sextus was sorted out. For sort him out he must—as a result of Octavian’s maritime disasters, Sextus was now able to occupy Sicily. And all the troops garrisoned on the island went over to him.

Octavian had lost more than half his ships to gale and enemy action. So he made a deal with Mark Antony, agreeing to swap thousands of his legionaries for 120 warships from the East. Octavia even begged another ten warships from her husband in exchange for a thousand of Octavian’s Praetorian Guardsmen, men chosen by Antony in person. Antony kept his part of the bargain, but Octavian reneged on his.

Octavian now dismissed his naval commander, Gaius Calvisius—former governor of Africa and the 14th Legion’s commander at the close of the Civil War in 45-44 B.C. In Calvisius’s place as admiral in chief, Octavian appointed his dependable best friend, Marcus Agrippa. Made a consul and lieutenant general the previous year by Octavian, Agrippa had just returned from putting down an uprising in Aquitania, in southwestern France. This appointment of generals as admirals was the norm—Roman generals were expected to be as adept at sea as on land. If a good general turned out to be a great admiral, as proved to be the case with the multi-talented Agrippa, it was a bonus.

In the spring of 36 B.C., twenty-four-year-old Octavian and twenty-five-year-old Agrippa had finalized plans to retake Sicily from Sextus Pompey. Their joint army-navy offensive would involve twenty-four legions. Three-pronged, it would be an amphibious operation three times larger than anything Julius Caesar had ever attempted. Here, Octavian’s talent for organization came to the fore.

Now, on July 1, 36 B.C., three separate convoys set out for Sicily. By far the largest convoy, a thousand transports escorted by seventy warships, sailed from Tunisia under Marcus Lepidus. Among the tens of thousands of legionaries being transported in Lepidus’s armada were the thousand remaining men of the old enlistment of the 14th Legion, now two years past their discharges, accompanied by the three Italian legions of the Africa station, the 25th, 26th, and 29th, all of which still had three years of their enlistments left to run.

These four units were accompanied by the six legions transferred to Africa after Lucius Antony’s failed coup attempt. A number of additional legions had been sent to Africa some time after 46 B.C., because twelve legions were being carried in the North African convoy, while another four waited back in Tunisia for the convoy’s ships to unload and return for them. Lepidus’s troopships also carried thousands of cavalry and auxiliaries.

As this massive convoy filled the waters off western Sicily, the second convoy—102 of Mark Antony’s former vessels commanded by Lieutenant General Titus Statilius Taurus, Octavian’s most trusted general after Agrippa—put out from Taranto, on the boot of Italy. Like Agrippa, Taurus had been a consul the previous year. Octavian’s own fleet, of unknown size, sailed from Pozzuoli, on the Bay of Naples.

At first, all went well. The 14th Legion and its fellow legions of the Tunisian armada stormed ashore on the western coast of Sicily, unopposed. As Lepidus then besieged young Pompey’s garrisons at Marsala and neighboring towns, his transports sailed back to Tunisia to collect the last four legions. But to the east, the two other invasion fleets were forced back to port by bad weather, which wrecked thirty-two cruisers and several frigates and damaged many more, although most passengers and crew were saved.

Meanwhile, Lepidus’s troopships embarked the four waiting legions in Tunisia and again set sail. But this time, one of Sextus Pompey’s fleets caught the convoy at sea—and devastated it. Two of the four legions in the convoy were close to wiped out in the savage ship-to-ship fighting. The other two legions managed to land and join Lepidus.

After pushing his commanders to repair his fleet within thirty days, Octavian tried for his eastern landing a second time. As Octavian put to sea, Agrippa, off the northern coast of Sicily, took his battle fleet against 155 opposition warships at Mylae, modern-day Milazzo. The Battle of Mylae saw Agrippa sink thirty of Sextus’s principal ships, for the loss of five of his own, before the other side withdrew.

This provided breathing space for troop landings, enabling Agrippa to put three legions ashore on the northern coast, while despite difficult weather and nagging naval opposition, Octavian put three legions under Lieutenant General Lucius Cornificius ashore on the eastern coast, at Taormina. For four days Cornificius’s units struggled inland over difficult terrain in the vicinity of the famous volcano Mount Etna, harassed by young Pompey’s troops all the way, before linking up with Agrippa’s legions at Milazzo.

In late August, Octavian himself landed at Tyndaris, on the northern coast, with several more legions. He had now put ashore a total of twenty-one legions, five thousand auxiliary light infantry, and twenty thousand cavalry. After Lepidus brought several of his units, including the 14th, overland from the western coast and joined him, Octavian advanced into the northeastern corner of the island and cut off Pompey at Messina. The men recruited for the 14th in northern Italy and the legion’s veterans who’d come across from Tunisia were now able to link up. As veterans and recruits joined forces, the 14th Legion was close to full strength for the first time in eighteen years.

Sextus’s strength lay with his naval forces. And he considered that Neptune, god of the sea, was on his side; so much so that he replaced his normal crimson general’s cloak with a dark blue one, to show that he was a son of the sea. Now, confident of victory on water, he challenged Octavian to a naval battle. Although Octavian had experienced mixed luck on water, he accepted the challenge, gambling his future on the hope that his best friend, Agrippa, would bring him victory as he had at Mylae.

The Battle of Naulochus took place off the northeastern coast of Sicily on September 3, 36 B.C., with three hundred battleships and cruisers from each side doing battle just offshore. As the battle raged, the men of the 14th and fellow legions sat and watched the show from the clifftops. To distinguish one side from the other, the temporary wooden fighting towers erected on the decks fore and aft on each ship were painted a different color for each navy. Perhaps Pompey opted for blue for his ships, to match his cloak.

Neptune deserted young Pompey, for the day brought a stunning victory for Agrippa. Only seventeen of Sextus Pompey’s ships escaped, dumping their fighting towers overboard and fleeing for the Strait of Messina. The rest were sunk, burned, or captured. Just three of Agrippa’s ships were lost. Late in the day, as sailors and marines on Agrippa’s warships raised a victory chant that rolled across the water, it was answered from the shore by the men of the 14th and the triumvirs’ other legions.

Sextus’s troops outside Messina quickly surrendered. But another eight rebel legions hurried from the northwest to support Sextus at Messina, now under siege from Lepidus and legions including the 14th. When Octavian’s warships appeared off Messina, Sextus didn’t wait for the reinforcements. He sailed with his last seventeen ships and headed for Asia, planning to throw himself on Mark Antony’s mercy. When his legions arrived at Messina, only to find he’d deserted them, they opened surrender negotiations with Lepidus. Now the increasingly sidelined triumvir saw an opportunity for himself.

Accepting their surrender, Lepidus combined Sextus’s troops with his own, then let all twenty-two legions now under his command sack Messina, supposedly on the grounds that the city had supported young Pompey. Once the legionaries had finished their pillage, Lepidus played a desperate card: having ingratiated himself with these legions, he called on them to swear allegiance—to him, and to him alone.

Octavian, only miles away and approaching fast, acted quickly to nip this insurrection in the bud, calling a meeting with his fellow triumvir outside Messina. In this first meeting, Lepidus haughtily offered to give Sicily and Africa to Octavian in exchange for Octavian’s control of the rest of the West. Octavian refused, and angrily departed.

A day or so later, Octavian came unannounced to Lepidus’s massive camp. Leaving his cavalry escort outside, he entered with a few staff officers and a handful of bodyguards, probably German cavalrymen, and passed along the tent lines of the legions, talking to Lepidus’s men at their quarters.

Appian says that from the ranks he was greeted by cries of “Hail, Commander!”

Men who had served Sextus Pompey crowded around young Octavian to beg his pardon. According to Appian, in response Octavian declared that he was amazed these men weren’t acting in their own interests. Taking the hint, standard-bearers hurried away and returned with their standards, forming up behind Octavian.

In his headquarters tent, an alarmed Lepidus received a report of what was happening outside. Hurrying from the tent, he called his bodyguard unit to arms, then came face to face with his fellow triumvir. In the tense standoff that followed, several of Lepidus’s men threw javelins at young Octavian. One of Octavian’s bodyguards was killed, and a javelin even glanced off Octavian’s own breastplate. Shielded by his officers and bodyguards, Octavian withdrew.

Octavian’s angry cavalry then surrounded a number of forts on the camp perimeter, wiping out Lepidus’s men on duty at one fort. Soon the legionaries at all of Lepidus’s outposts were going over to Octavian. Troops whom Lepidus sent to reinforce the outposts also changed sides. The rot had set in.

Many legionaries in Lepidus’s force, including the men of the 14th, had never even seen Octavian before the day he appeared in their camp. Equally, a number, including veterans of the 14th, had firsthand experience of the weak and changeable Lepidus, going back as far as the Gallic War. It took just the sight of the fine-boned young Octavian for the troops to recognize the quality that set him apart from others, even though he had turned just twenty-five on August 6 of that year.

It was a quality put into words by Appian. When General Pansa was dying a slow, painful death in 43 B.C. from wounds he’d received from Mark Antony’s troops outside Modena, he had said, according to Appian, that by his achievements, Octavian had demonstrated that he had “the divine force of destiny” on his side. Yet destiny smiles on many who are unfit or unready. It was not enough to be destiny’s child. Octavian had a maturity that other men could not acquire in a lifetime. He wasn’t even old enough to sit in the Senate. He was seventeen years short of the legal age at which a Roman could then be elected a consul. Yet his talents more than equipped him to rule the Roman Empire.

The temerity of this attempt on the life of Julius Caesar’s heir galvanized Lepidus’s men and Sextus Pompey’s former troops. Over the next twenty-four hours they deserted Lepidus’s camp in droves and went to Octavian. Desperate, Lepidus grabbed the standard of one deserting unit in an attempt to turn the tide. It may have been a standard of the 14th Legion—we aren’t told which unit.

“Let go!” Appian says the standard-bearer demanded.

“I will not!” Lepidus replied.

“You’ll let go when you’re dead!” the standard-bearer growled, with his right hand on the hilt of his sword.

Lepidus got the message. He let go of the standard.

In the end, the 14th Legion and all the other infantry units changed sides, and then Lepidus’s last supporters, his auxiliary cavalry, left him as well. The troopers even sent Octavian a message asking if he wanted them to kill Lepidus, but he wouldn’t have it. Deserted by all supporters, the weak, insipid Lepidus went to Octavian, then tried to fall on his knees in front of his young colleague, blubbering and wailing as he begged for his life. But Octavian had him keep his feet and his dignity.

Lepidus was not only allowed to live, he also retained the lifelong appointment he had inherited from Caesar of pontifex maximus. But that was all. He would live in secluded retirement for another twenty-four years, just across the Strait of Messina, according to Suetonius, at a remote retreat popular with the Roman elite, Circeii, today’s village of San Felice Circeo. Lepidus’s father had taken on the Senate of his day, using force, only to be defeated by Pompey the Great and to die in exile in 77 B.C. Lofty ambition, poor judgment, and failed gambits seem to have been the destined lot of the Lepidus family.

As for Sextus Pompey, the following year, running out of friends and desperate to be taken to Mark Antony, he would finally surrender in Asia to Antony’s young general and quartermaster during his recent Parthian campaign, Marcus Titius. Severe, by-the-book General Titius ignored Sextus’s pleas for clemency and put him to death at Miletus. Some said Antony personally authorized Sextus’s execution. Others say a deputy used his seal in his absence. One way or another, Sextus Pompey lost his head. And the influence that Pompey the Great’s name had exerted on the Roman world for more than half a century died with his last surviving son.

Following the humbling of Lepidus outside Messina, Octavian called an assembly of his army, now including the legions that had marched for him, for Lepidus, and for Sextus Pompey. As was the custom, Octavian praised individual soldiers for their courage during the Sicilian campaign, handing out coveted golden crowns to men who had performed particularly meritorious acts of bravery, and paying part of the bonuses he’d promised every man before the operation began—he couldn’t afford to pay them in full, but promised to do so as soon as he was able—and pardoning officers who had served with Sextus.

Now, voices called from the 13th and 14th Legion ranks: “Give us our discharge!” The veterans of the old enlistment of the 13th were six years past their due discharge date; those of the 14th, two years overdue.

But Octavian responded that he was not prepared to release any of his troops yet. When he went on to say that he planned to take his army on a campaign against rebellious tribes in Illyricum, the veterans of the 13th and 14th refused to serve any longer. They probably guessed he was thinking more about Antony than about Illyricum. Scowling down at them, Octavian reminded the two thousand veterans of the two legions of the laws and oaths that governed them as legionaries, and the punishment he could dole out to them. He meant decimation.

The men of the 13th and 14th weren’t fazed by this thinly veiled threat. And Octavian, seeing men who had recently come over from Lepidus and Sextus being made uneasy by his tough attitude toward two of his own veteran legions, moderated his tone. “I’ll distribute additional bravery crowns to you men,” he said to the 13th and 14th veterans, “and your centurions and tribunes will have the purple-bordered full-dress toga of the Equestrian Order, and the status of decurion in their hometowns.”

According to Appian, a tribune of either the 13th or 14th Legion, a Colonel Ofillius, called back a caustic response: “Crowns and purple are toys for children! Soldiers’ rewards are land and money.”

There was a rowdy chorus of agreement from the 13th and 14th ranks.

Incensed, Octavian stormed from the dais, and men of the two legions crowded around Colonel Ofillius, congratulating him on his forthright-ness. But by the next morning, Ofillius had disappeared; he was never heard of again. Suspecting foul play and seeking protection in numbers, the legionaries now sent large delegations to Octavian to demand their discharge, their bonuses, and the land grants they’d been promised.

The disaffection of these two legions threatened to spread to the whole army, whose three previously disparate entities Octavian now held together with a slender thread of authority, as he knew only too well. Once he’d cooled off, he begrudgingly ordered the discharge of all two thousand veterans of the 13th and 14th, informing them pointedly that their discharges were granted against the wishes of their commander in chief. The retirees were shipped to Italy at once, to march home to Cisalpine Gaul. But Octavian only paid the men of the 13th Legion the bonuses he’d promised, because, he said, they’d served him loyally in the Modena battles seven years before—they’d actually served his superior, Hirtius—and had waited longer for discharge than the 14th.

The thousand discharged men of the 14th went home toting purses bulging with the savings from their military career, their pay and the profits from booty taken from Gaul to Messina, but bitter that they had been denied the bonuses and land granted other retiring legionaries. With Atuatuca, Uxellodunum, Lérida, Philippi, and Sicily behind them, they tramped up through Italy, crossed the Po River, and at towns, villages, and farmhouses across northeastern Italy, the ex-soldiers knocked on shocked relatives’ doors for the first time in almost two decades. One of those 14th Legion retirees was Legionary Gaius Allius. He set up home at Ateste, modern Este, by the Adige River, where he married and settled down. There at Este, his wife would bury him sometime before 14 B.C. His tombstone survives to this day.

Back in Sicily, the men of the 14th Legion’s new enlistment were presented with the silver eagle that had been carried by the legion since Atuatuca. Conscious of the dark cloud that had hung over the reputation of the 14th since 54 B.C., and that would have only been made worse by the last enlistment’s rude discharge, the new recruits would have been anxious to prove themselves. Not only to Octavian, but also to the men of other legions who would have considered the 14th an unlucky legion, even a bad-luck legion, a pariah legion, despite the 14th’s good work in Africa and Sicily of late. But as they were to find, bad reputations are easy to make but hard to shake.

Octavian’s army was now huge. According to Appian, after reclaiming Sicily, Octavian found himself with six hundred warships, twenty-five thousand cavalry, twelve thousand five hundred auxiliaries, and forty-five legions, including the 14th. Within five years these forces would be involved in another civil war as Antony and his mistress Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, combined to take on Octavian.

Cleopatra was a fluent speaker of numerous foreign languages apart from her native Greek—the members of her Egyptian royal family were of Greek descent. She spoke another language with even greater fluency: the language of seduction. Plutarch was to say that Cleopatra knew a thousand different ways to flatter. No great beauty by all accounts, she had flattered her way into Julius Caesar’s heart and bed. And she did the same with Mark Antony, winning him away from his new wife, Octavia, who, both Plutarch and Appian suggest, Antony genuinely loved. Octavia bore Antony several daughters, but Cleopatra also bore him two sons and a daughter.

With Cleopatra’s emotional and financial support—based on the enormous Ptolemy fortune—Antony set out to dominate the Roman stage. His efforts to push back the Parthians saw mixed success. His failed invasion of Media in 36 B.C. cost him twenty-four thousand men, but his deputy, Lieutenant General Publius Ventidius, won major victories in Armenia that boosted Antony’s reputation and ego. Antony punished his regional opponents, but he rewarded others, such as Herod the Great, who was cemented on the throne of Judea, with his land protected from the avaricious eyes of Cleopatra.

Not that Cleopatra fared badly from the partnership—in 34 B.C. Antony gifted all lands in the East formerly ruled by the great Greek king of Macedonia, Alexander, to Cleopatra and her children, a move that outraged many back home in Rome.

The five-year agreement of the triumvirs had been renewed in 38 B.C. When it came up for renewal a second time, in late 33 B.C., Octavian vetoed it, decreeing the dissolution of the Board of Three for the Ordering of State. It was all downhill from there. In the new year, Antony sent Octavian’s sister letters of divorce, a move that swiftly destroyed any hope for a defrosting of relations between the two former ruling partners. Soon after, Octavian formally declared war—on Cleopatra, a foreign enemy.

Both current consuls went to join Antony; two hundred senators likewise fled to the East, to Antony. But the traffic wasn’t one-way; several of Antony’s top men came back from the East to stand behind Octavian, including Marcus Titius, the general who’d executed Sextus Pompey four years back. If Octavian suffered from self-doubt, he didn’t betray it. With the legions of the West solidly behind him, he and his brilliant deputy, Marcus Agrippa, made plans for a lightning campaign to destroy Antony and Cleopatra.

Immediately following the Sicilian campaign in 36 B.C., the new enlistment of the 14th Legion was transferred back to the 14th’s regular station in Africa. There it stayed through four years during which the rivalry between Octavian and Antony blew up into war.

At their base outside Utique, the men of the 14th would have heard reports of the war as it flared up in Greece, and turned anxious eyes toward Egypt. Antony’s dominion included Cyrenaica. Taking in today’s state of Libya, it lay between the province of Africa and Egypt. Antony maintained seven legions in Egypt and Cyrenaica, and the larger part of that force was now camped in Cyrenaica under General Pinarius Scarpus.

Cassius Dio says that General Scarpus’s troops had been positioned there in Cyrenaica to defend Egypt—against the 14th and Octavian’s other legions in Africa. Equally, it’s likely they were there in preparation for an invasion of Africa. Had Octavian not acted to forestall Antony’s offensive operations by taking the war to him in Greece, it’s likely that Antony would have ordered General Scarpus to invade Tunisia from Libya, in which case the 14th and the three other legions in Africa would have had a major battle on their hands. But it turned out that the center of operations was in Greece.

After first establishing a headquarters at Ephesus—modern Selçuk, in Turkey—in the spring of 31 B.C., Antony advanced twelve legions into Greece and set up a new headquarters at Athens before moving on to Patras, present-day Pátrai, creating a major supply base on the Ambracian Gulf on the west coast, at Actium, where his battle fleet and Cleopatra’s Egyptian fleet met and concentrated. Combined, they had 230 battleships and cruisers here, and fifty transports.

In the summer of 31 B.C., Octavian appeared unexpectedly off the west coast of Greece with a battle fleet of four hundred ships, mostly fast frigates, escorting two hundred transports. As Octavian landed forty thousand legionaries and built a camp on the shore not far from Actium, Agrippa’s warships beat off Antony’s squadrons in several engagements, took Pátrai, and sealed off Antony’s supply lines via the Gulf of Corinth.

Antony decided to withdraw to Egypt and regroup. Cleopatra now spoke in Antony’s councils of war, influencing Antony’s decision-making. They devised a breakout plan involving a sea battle, not a land battle. Off Actium on September 2, the couple succeeded in breaking out with eighty warships, but the rest were sunk or fell into Octavian’s hands. Within a week, Antony’s troops ashore surrendered to Octavian.

Following the Battle of Actium, Octavian discharged all Italians from both his and Antony’s surrendered legions who were due to retire—fifteen legions raised by Caesar in 49 B.C. were now two years past their discharge date, and the four raised in 48 B.C. were a year overdue. Their men went home to Italy as Octavian marched on Egypt with the non-Italian legions.

The 14th Legion was able to sit out the rest of the war, for when the new year came, Antony’s legions in Cyrenaica changed sides. Taken over by one of their colonels, the thirty-nine-year-old Gaius Cornelius Gallus, they marched across the border into Egypt, and at the port of Sollum destroyed scores of Antony’s ships. As these units advanced on Alexandria from the west, Octavian came down through Syria with his army and entered Egypt from the east.

Pelusium, site of Pompey the Great’s murder almost eighteen years before, and a major Egyptian military base, was quickly taken by Octavian. Plutarch quotes him saying in his thirteen-volume memoirs, which covered his life up to 29 B.C., that Pelusium was surrendered to him on Cleopatra’s orders; in her heart, she had already deserted Antony.

Antony was by now like a bee in a bottle. Rushing to Sollum in the west, he made a failed surprise attack on Colonel Gallus and his own former troops before trying to talk them into coming back to him. Failing again, he dashed back to Alexandria to stand in the way of Octavian, whose advance reached the Egyptian capital in August of 30 B.C. Outside the city, after Antony’s last infantry were wiped out, his cavalry surrendered.

On August 30, fifty-one-year-old Mark Antony took his own life, dying in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra had been secretly negotiating with Octavian for some time, but apparently horrified by the prospect of being paraded through Rome as a captive, she also famously committed suicide within days of Antony’s death.

In Cleopatra’s mausoleum, Octavian found a massive treasure—enough to pay his men everything he owed them and to finance a standing Roman army for years to come. In recognition of the fact that it was his conquest of Egypt that had made him, Octavian’s seal for the next three years bore the image of an Egyptian sphinx.

The civil wars that had lasted, on and off, for the past twenty years were finally at an end. Octavian, sole ruler of Rome, rationalized the combined army he had inherited, abolishing a number of legions and combining others to create a standing army of twenty-eight legions. In this reorganization process the four thousand remaining men of the 14th Legion found themselves combined with new marching partners: Martians.

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