VI

THE RULES OF PLUNDER

Over the past year, a small force of rebels not unlike the Confederate irregular cavalry that conducted harassing operations away the main theaters during the American Civil War of 1861-from the main theaters during the American Civil War of 1861- 1865 had been plaguing Caesar’s supply lines in the south of France. Made up of slaves, outlaws, and bandits, according to Hirtius, and led by a Senonian desperado named Drappes, this group had raided Roman baggage trains and supply convoys with some success. Over the winter of 52-51 B.C. these raiders had linked up with the remnants of a force led by Lucterius, one of Vercingetorix’s lieutenants, which had unsuccessfully attempted frontal assaults on Roman defenses in the south.

With their combined force numbering no more than two thousand men, Drappes and Lucterius learned that General Caninius and the 14th and 6th Legions were advancing south to mop up this last manifestation of Gallic defiance. Lucterius, a member of the Cadurci tribe, led his companions into his home territory. The two thousand rebels took a long baggage train laden with booty to the mountaintop town of Uxellodunum, near modern Vayrac in the Department of Lot in southwestern France. Prior to the revolt, Lucterius had governed the town, and now he convinced the townspeople to join him and his army of outlaws in resisting the Romans. As General Caninius and his two legions came marching down from the north, the town shut its gates and prepared its defenses.

The mountain terrain here was rocky and difficult to traverse, and General Caninius split his troops among three camps on high ground, then set them to work digging entrenchments around the mountain on which the town stood. While the work was still incomplete, Lucterius and Drappes led a party out at night to secure grain so they could comfortably outlast the longest siege. Collecting grain from sympathizers, they returned to a temporary camp about twelve miles outside the besieged town.

From there, Lucterius tried to slip back into Uxellodunum in the dead of night with one of several mule trains loaded with grain from around the district. General Caninius’s sentries heard the mules in woods near the town, and a detachment the general sent out to investigate quickly captured the train and scattered the rebels accompanying it. Lucterius himself managed to escape, and disappeared. From prisoners, General Caninius learned of Drappes’s camp, and flushed with his success, set off with one legion to take it. Emulating Caesar, he sent his cavalry and German auxiliaries ahead, and in a preemptive strike in the darkness they took the camp and all its occupants, including Drappes, before the general and the legion arrived on the scene.

Just two thousand armed defenders—a mixture of townsmen and rebels—remained in Uxellodunum, but they stubbornly refused to capitulate when Caninius victoriously returned with his prisoners, so the general recommenced his siege works. The next day, General Fabius also arrived below Uxellodunum, bringing his two legions, which took up entrenching tools and joined in the siege with the men of the 14th and the 6th.

Caesar was near Orléans in central France when dispatches from General Caninius brought news of the trouble in the south. Both Caesar and his opponents were well aware that his command in Gaul was soon to expire, and with politics at Rome currently in a state of flux, it was unlikely to be extended. The last rebels at Uxellodunum thought the Roman army might be forced to pull out if they could hold out until the next summer had passed, but equally, Caesar was determined to finally and decisively terminate all Gallic resistance while he still had an army at his command. Caesar hurried south to personally take command of the siege of the impudent little town in Lot.

His arrival, with the main Roman cavalry force, was a surprise to both sides. The town had by now been completely surrounded by entrenchments. Learning that the defenders were still reasonably well provisioned, Caesar blocked their main water supply, a river running around the foot of the mountain. This left a spring outside the town wall as the sole source of water for the occupants. Caesar then put a line of mantlets up the steep slope, to a place opposite the spring. Under cover of the mantlets his legionaries toiled at building a terrace. They then erected a siege tower ten stories tall, putting marksmen and artillery on every floor to make the approaches to the spring untenable.

The Gauls countered with two commando parties, one that set fire to Caesar’s siege works, the other to attack any Roman who tried to put out the fire. This tactic worked well until Caesar sent a detachment around the mountain to attempt to scale the rocks on the far side. These legionaries had orders to make as much noise as possible, to give the impression that large numbers of Roman troops were somehow succeeding in climbing the almost sheer rock face. This trick succeeded, forcing the Gauls to call their commandos back inside the town to join the small number of defenders manning the walls at the rear. But the damage had been done: the wooden Roman tower crumbled in flames, and the townspeople were once more able to access the spring.

All this time, Caesar also had a party of miners digging through the mountain toward the rivulets that supplied the spring, and after weeks of work they were able to divert the water. The superstitious people of Uxellodunum, thinking that their spring had dried up through divine intervention, now gave up the fight in despair. The town gates opened. The defenders trooped out, piled their weapons in front of the waiting legions, and were clapped in irons. Drappes would starve himself to death while in custody. Lucterius was captured in the region by a Gaul, who handed him over to Caesar.

It was not an entirely satisfying result for the men of the 14th Legion. Because the town surrendered, under the Roman army’s rules of plunder the legionaries couldn’t loot the place, which was full of the fruits of the rebels’ raiding activities over the past year. Only when they took a town by storm were legionaries entitled to plunder it.

Caesar, impatient to wrap things up so he could attend to political affairs in Rome, set free the two thousand Gauls who’d borne arms in Uxellodunum, but first ordered the 14th and the 6th to chop off the hands of every one of them. It was an act intended to deter other potential Gallic revolts. It worked. Following the capitulation of Uxellodunum, there were no more rebellious outbreaks in Gaul.

After spending the rest of the summer dealing peacefully with the tribes of Aquitania in southwestern France, Caesar sent his legions into winter quarters in Gaul—earlier in the year he’d sent the 15th Legion to Cisalpine Gaul to garrison towns near the border with Illyricum after the Adriatic city of Trieste had been attacked by bandits during the Vercingetorix Revolt.

The 14th and 6th Legions set up camp not far from Uxellodunum. Caesar himself returned to northern France, setting up his winter headquarters at Arras, the Atrebate town of Nemetocenna. This was King Commius’s former capital, and that Caesar’s occupation of it was a quite deliberate and symbolic act was emphasized by the fact that he brought cohorts from all his legions, including the 14th, there briefly for a grand ceremonial review before sending them back to their camps for the winter.

For the first time in eight years, Gaul was peaceful. For the 14th Legion, it was to be a winter without action, in contrast to the previous winter, and it’s unlikely they welcomed the peace. This past year had seen the 14th playing an active part in Caesar’s operations for the first time, and the men of the legion would have relished the opportunity for action, promotion, and the spoils of war.

Two thousand years later, toward the end of World War II, there was a saying current in the German High Command—“Enjoy the war, peace will be hell.” A similar sentiment would have prevailed in the camps of the 14th and other legions during the closing stages of the Gallic War.

For now, with the tribes of Gaul abiding by their peace treaties, it was time for the men of the 14th to tally the booty that each legionary had acquired over the past year and to do some lucrative trading with the merchants who set up for business at their camp.

As for Caesar, the winter gave him time to plan his next career steps. His military victories had given him fame, glory, and wealth. His plans now called for victories in the political arena, engineered by favors, secret negotiations, and bribes, and backed by the steel of his legions if necessary.

In the spring of 50 B.C. Caesar returned to Italy armed with a firm political agenda. With his appointment as governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, and Illyricum due to expire later in the year, he had decided to aim for power in Rome itself. According to Hirtius, Caesar’s aim was to have both himself and his deputy, General Titus Labienus, elected consul. Caesar would be eligible for another consulship in two years, in 48 B.C. But first he aimed to increase his influence in what was essentially a hostile Senate.

He successfully campaigned for close friend Mark Antony’s election to the prestigious priesthood of the augurs, and by December 10 Antony also was sitting in the Senate, as a tribune of the plebeians. The ten civil tribunes had the power of veto over Senate votes, making them powerful allies for politicians such as Caesar. Now he had three civil tribunes in his pocket. One, Gaius Curio, had been looking after Caesar’s interests ever since Caesar had paid off his heavy debts a year or so earlier. Those debts had begun to mount, says Plutarch, when, as a teenager, Curio and his best friend, Mark Antony, had led a life of drinking, partygoing, and girl-chasing, and Curio had slid farther into debt as the years passed. According to Dio, Curio had won his tribuneship through Pompey’s influence. And initially, according to Appian, Curio, who was now about thirty-two, had been one of Caesar’s most vocal critics in the Senate—until Caesar bought him off. According to Appian, Curio was just one of several members of the Senate bribed by Caesar that year.

Early in the year, before Caesar reached Italy, the Senate voted to send an army to the East to punish the Parthians for their defeat of the triumvir Crassus at Carrhae in 53 B.C. To support the legions already in the East, the Senate required Caesar and Pompey to each contribute a legion. Pompey had just one under arms in Italy, his elite 1st Legion. For years, he had camped the 1st outside Rome during the summer and sent it to the Puglia region southeast of the capital each winter. Nominating the 1st for the Parthian expedition, he now sent it up to Caesar in Cisalpine Gaul. Caesar was suspicious of the Senate’s Parthian plan, but he sent the 15th Legion down to Rome with the 1st, replacing the 15th in the Cisalpine Gaul garrisons with the 13th Legion, from eastern France.

Now, inexplicably, the Senate called off the Parthian operation. But instead of sending the 15th back to Caesar, both it and the 1st were given over to Pompey’s command. According to Hirtius, Caesar told him this was instigated by the ailing consul Gaius Claudius Marcellus, an old foe of Caesar’s.

Pompey, until recently Caesar’s son-in-law and firm ally, was under increasing pressure from powerful members of the Senate to clip Caesar’s wings. Plutarch says that Pompey was prepared to agree to Caesar receiving a new appointment as governor of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum, with an allocation of two legions, but was overruled. There were those, like Pompey’s volatile father-in-law, Mettellus Scipio, who would be satisfied with nothing less than a complete stripping of the ambitious Caesar’s power.

So as he sent the 1st and 15th Legions south into camp in Puglia, Pompey also sent his 6th Legion its marching orders. With all quiet in Gaul, it was apparent Caesar no longer needed a legion on loan from Pompey. Besides, the 6th Legion was about to end its sixteen-year enlistment—the men of the legion were due to be discharged and replaced by a new enlistment in the new year, and the place for that was back in home territory.

An unnamed general sent by Pompey arrived at the camp being shared by the 6th and 14th Legions in southwestern France, to lead the 6th back to Spain. According to Plutarch, when Caesar learned that the legion was preparing to leave, he had every single legionary of the 6th paid a bonus of 1,000 sesterces, more than a year’s salary, in his name. Caesar had already decided on his future course, and if he had to buy the loyalty of Pompey’s troops ahead of his bid for ultimate power, then so be it. So it was that in the spring or summer of 50 B.C., the men of the 6th Legion upped stakes, bode farewell to their campaigning partners of the 14th, and marched over the Pyrenees, back to General Afranius and their old base in eastern Spain, whence they had come two years earlier.

As the winter of 50-49 B.C. approached, Caesar sent orders to his legions in Gaul to move closer to Italy. The 8th and the 12th both crossed the Alps and set up camp in Cisalpine Gaul with the 13th. The remaining legions came down to the south of France. Three of them camped on the Mediterranean coast at Narbonne, under General Fabius. The 14th Legion was a member of this trio. From there, these units could stand in the way of Pompey’s legions in Spain if they strove to march to Italy.

In late December of 50 B.C., Julius Caesar arrived at Ravenna, southernmost city of his province of Cisalpine Gaul, accompanied by the 13th Legion and his bodyguard of three hundred German cavalrymen. A few miles to the south lay the Rubicon River, the border with Italy proper. In the Senate, his minions were at work for him. “We had before us,” Senator Marcus Cicero wrote to his friend Titus Atticus, “a speech made by Mark Antony on December 21 denouncing Pompey from the day he came of age, a protest on behalf of the people condemned [by Pompey’s courts two years before], and threats of armed force.”

On January 1, 49 B.C., Gaius Curio stood in the Senate and read an ultimatum from Caesar: if Pompey would give up his army, Caesar would give up his. If not, Caesar would advance into Italy with his troops and take what was due him. The Senate exploded in uproar. The course Caesar had chosen was to make him no less a rebel than men he had fought in Gaul over the past few years, men such as Vercingetorix, Ambiorix, and Commius. Their cause had been patriotism. For the sake of expediency and history, Caesar would cloak his ambitions in the same colors.

Considering Caesar’s ultimatum nothing short of a declaration of war, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to appoint Pompey the Great as Rome’s commander in chief and authorized him to put an army of 130,000 men into the field against Caesar if the rogue general did not voluntarily surrender his governorships and his legions. Curio, Antony, and their fellow pro-Caesar civil tribune Quintus Cassius disguised themselves and lit out of town to join Caesar and his troops in Ravenna.

Even now, Pompey didn’t believe that Caesar would be as rash as to actually go to war with his own country. Pompey had recently been ill. Not yet fully recovered, he did not possess his usual acute powers of judgment. Confident he knew Caesar’s mind, he thought he was bluffing. Besides, Plutarch tells us, the general who’d led the 6th Legion back to Spain from the camp it had been sharing with the 14th Legion had subsequently assured Pompey that from all he had seen at the camp of the 14th Legion, Caesar’s troops had no interest in a civil war.

Pompey seems to have taken the general’s view as his own, being convinced that when push came to shove, Roman legionaries would not go to war with Rome just because Julius Caesar told them to, and Caesar would be forced to back down.

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