VII

THE HILL AT LÉRIDA

Quintus Fulginius was a first-rank centurion with the 14th Legion. In the spring of 49 B.C., sitting outside his tent in a camp on France’s Mediterranean coast overlooking Rome’s oldest colony in Gaul, the port of Narbo Martius, modern Narbonne, Centurion Fulginius would have been an unhappy man.

Over the years he had pushed his way up through the ranks to become the third most senior centurion in the legion. He was probably in or approaching his fifties, and before his enlistment was up, Fulginius could be promoted to chief centurion of the legion. But for Fulginius to achieve promotion, the 14th would have to see some action and provide the centurion with an opportunity to impress his superiors. Fulginius probably didn’t care who he had to kill to gain Caesar’s sanction—Gaul or Roman, it wouldn’t have mattered. Talk of civil war had hovered on men’s lips for months. As Pompey’s new general of the 6th Legion had reported, the men of the 14th had not been enthusiastic about going to war with fellow Romans. But once Caesar had taken the irrevocable step of crossing the Rubicon, the men of his legions at Narbonne had grown impatient for action as they kicked their heels around camp waiting for orders.

Meanwhile, the men at Narbonne were hearing via dispatches from Italy that other legions were grabbing the glory. After surprising his opponents by his bold invasion of Italy with just the 13th Legion in the second week of January, Caesar had quickly pushed on down the eastern coast. In February, by the time Caesar reached Corfinium, traditional capital of the Marsi tribe, east of Rome, every town in his path had come over to him. At Corfinium, eighteen thousand Pompeians made a stand. Here Caesar had been joined by the 8th and 12th Legions, and after a week-long confrontation the town had capitulated.

The rapidity of Caesar’s advance into Italy had taken the Senate completely off guard and put thousands of potential recruits in the rebel general’s hands. At the same time, Pompey had managed to hurriedly raise just three new legions of raw conscripts in southern Italy. He quickly made a decision for which he would be criticized by historians such as Plutarch. Pompey would pull out of Italy with these untrained recruits and the men of the 1st and 15th Legions, which remained loyal to him. Rome’s fleets also stayed faithful to the Senate, and with command of the seas, Pompey planned to go to Greece and rebuild the Senate’s forces with the support of Eastern rulers who were in his debt. And when he was ready, he would take on Caesar.

Leaving Rome behind, Pompey, hundreds of senators, and the two current consuls had hurried south to the port of Brindusium, modern Brindisi. From there, Pompey evacuated across the Adriatic to Albania in two convoys. Caesar failed to prevent Pompey’s Dunkirk-like escape with twenty-five thousand men. Still, once the final ships of the evacuation fleet left Brindisi on the night of March 17-18, Italy was Caesar’s.

But Caesar didn’t have the ships to go after Pompey, who landed his infantry and cavalry, together with most of the members of the Senate, at Durrës, in Albania opposite Brindisi, then marched across Greece to set up a base at Veroia, in Macedonia. What Caesar would do now was anyone’s guess, and the men of the 14th at Narbonne would have been laying a bet or two on his next move.

The 14th wasn’t alone at Narbonne. The 9th and 10th Legions were in camp here, too. That would have been the source of some satisfaction to Centurion Fulginius. The 9th and the 10th were classed as among Caesar’s best legions. In fact, the 10th was notoriously Caesar’s favorite. He’d raised it himself in western Spain twelve years earlier, and it had been at the forefront of many a victory for him since. Fulginius would have told himself that if Caesar was keeping the elite 10th Legion out of the action, he must have plans for it.

There was no use trying to wring information out of the generals and colonels—they didn’t confide in the rank and file. The best grapevine in the army was the centurions’ network. Fulginius would have chatted earnestly in camp with his six fellow first-rank centurions from the 10th, hoping to glean a piece of juicy information from them—men such as Titus Salienus, Marcus Tiro, and Gaius Clausinus. If anyone had inside knowledge, they would. Yet Caesar was never one to share his thoughts. His friends were often just as surprised by his actions as his enemies. So even the centurions’ network would have been relying on gossip and speculation, just like everyone else.

By late March, Centurion Fulginius would have heard two pieces of news that were not good for Caesar but that contained a promise of action for the men of the 14th. The first was the story of Pompey’s evacuation from Brindisi. The other involved General Titus Labienus, Caesar’s loyal deputy of nine years. To the astonishment of Caesar’s legions, Labienus—like Pompey, a native of Picenum—had gone over to Pompey and the Senate, taking most of Caesar’s Gallic cavalry with him.

Caesar would tell his aide Aulus Hirtius that he’d heard reports that his opponents in the Senate had been trying to win over Labienus the previous winter but he’d not taken them seriously. This was uncharacteristically careless of Caesar. He was stunned by the defection of Labienus and a number of other friends and relatives including his second cousin, Lucius Caesar, and the young man he considered a son, Marcus Brutus.

All this time, another six hundred of Labienus’s cavalry had been encamped with the legions at Narbonne. Away from Labienus’s influence, they remained loyal to Caesar and stayed in camp with the legions. To make up for the troopers lost to Pompey, Caesar hurriedly sent letters to all the chiefs of Gaul, commanding them to send him fresh cavalry for the next phase of his operations. To replace Labienus as his general of cavalry, Caesar would promote his point man during the Gallic War, Gaius Volusenus.

The cavalrymen at Narbonne would have joined in the speculation with Fulginius and his 14th Legion colleagues about what Caesar had in mind. Some would have suggested that they would be involved in an amphibious invasion of Greece. Others would have reminded their comrades that there was the matter of Pompey’s legions at their back to the west, in Spain. The career soldier goes where his orders take him, and Centurion Fulginius probably didn’t care where he was sent, just as long as it involved active service. He would make the most of his opportunities; as the French say, where the goat is tethered, there it must browse. But just the same, the affluent Spanish provinces were close at hand, and offered rich pickings if towns and cities had to be stormed. Fulginius would have been justified in wondering why Caesar had placed the 9th, 10th, and 14th here at Narbonne if not to take on the Pompeians in Spain. He would have wished it were so.

Fulginius’s wish came true. In April, the 9th, 10th, and 14th and the cavalry at Narbonne received orders to march west under General Fabius, to clear the Pyrenees mountain passes of Pompeian troops and open the way for full-scale operations by six of Caesar’s legions against the Senate’s forces in Spain.

As the Spanish sun beat down, Centurion Fulginius and his five fellow first-rank centurions marshaled their men of the 1st Cohort of the 14th Legion ten men deep to form the leading edge of the foremost of three lines on the left wing of Caesar’s battle formation at the bottom of a small hill. So far, so good: no opposition troops in sight.

This low, bare hill, near the Segre River in northeastern Spain, overlooked a wooden bridge. On the far side of the river stood the town of Lérida, the Roman Ilerda. On this side, a Pompeian army camp occupied a hill. Split between town and camp were the men of five of Pompey’s legions and forty thousand auxiliaries. The hill stood between them. If Caesar could occupy this rise, he could prevent supplies reaching the camp from the stockpile at Lérida. To achieve that objective he had led three of his six legions from General Fabius’s camp on the Segre. One of those units was the 14th Legion.

The 14th’s first battle line consisted of four cohorts; the second, of two cohorts. The last two of the below-strength legion’s eight cohorts were in the third line. The two legions to the right of the 14th—one, a unit of new Italian recruits, either the 21st or the 30th, and on the right wing the 9th—had their cohorts split four-three-three through the three lines, Caesar’s regular disposition.

Fulginius took up his post on the extreme left of the line and waited with a set, determined jaw for further orders and the opportunity to crown his career. There was an old Roman proverb, “From the foot, we recognize the Hercules.” Many times before this day, in battles from Gaul to the Middle East, Fulginius had shown the proverbial foot. Now he was determined to be recognized as the hero.

Behind him, a legionary or two may have voiced the concern exercising many a 14th Legion man’s mind at that moment—where was the cavalry support for their exposed left flank? Fulginius would have snapped at the grumblers that Caesar knew what he was doing, and to keep their lips sealed. He knew that speed of action had been Caesar’s intent, to use the element of surprise. A cavalry maneuver may have alerted the other side. To take the Pompeians by surprise, he had brought up these three legions and formed them in battle lines below the small, vacant hill, without cavalry support.

In the open ground behind the first line, as was the custom, stood the trumpeters, the standard-bearers of the leading cohorts and maniples, heads clad in bearskin, and the bareheaded bearer of the sacred eagle standard of each legion. Caesar himself, accompanied by staff officers, watched from behind the 9th Legion’s front line.

Caesar’s opponent, Lieutenant General Afranius, had never been an inspired or an inspiring leader. He had even been labeled incompetent. Caesar would have been justified in expecting to outwit him. But the opposition commander on the spot was almost certainly Afranius’s sometimes rash deputy, General Marcus Petreius, who had a wealth of experience fighting the tribes of Portugal. And he reacted quickly. General Petreius had several legionary cohorts from the 3rd and Valeria Legions formed up on guard outside the camp on the nearby hill. These were units he’d personally led in Portugal over the past year. Realizing Caesar’s intent, Petreius had sent these cohorts around the back of the camp hill at the double, with orders to secure and hold the summit of the bare small hill.

Now, just as Caesar’s troops had halted at the foot of the rise to regain their order prior to moving up the slope and occupying the summit, the leading elements of these Pompeian cohorts began to appear on the crest above the 14th Legion; they’d succeeded in climbing from the other side without Caesar seeing them.

Caesar probably cursed to himself when he saw that the opposition had reached his objective ahead of him, but he was here now, and by hook or by crook he’d dislodge the Pompeians from the hill and make it his own. He issued an order: “Front line of the 14th Legion, advance at double time.”

Trumpets sounded, and the call was relayed to the left of his battle formation.

Perhaps Centurion Fulginius would have allowed himself a momentary smile as he heard the call. His prayers were being answered—action at last, and right under Caesar’s very nose. The command rang out: “First Cohort, advance at the double!”

With a cheer, Fulginius and his legionaries, shield on left arm, javelins in their right hand, and hearts pounding, lurched forward and began to run up the hill toward the Pompeian legionaries waiting above.

The 3rd and Valeria Legions were both from Cisalpine Gaul, like the 14th. Over the years these legionaries had fought regular skirmishes with the wild Lusitanians and the mountain tribes from farther north who knew nothing of formal battle lines or unit tactics, and the Roman troops had adapted their offensive techniques accordingly, playing and beating the tribesmen at their own unorthodox game.

Now, instead of a formal Roman-style charge, the men on the hilltop let out a bellow and charged loosely and independently at various parts of the approaching 14th Legion line. The bemused men of the 14th came to a ragged halt as they met the charge.

“Close up! Close up!” came the order from Fulginius and fellow centurions.

The men of the 14th shuffled closer and locked their shields in front of them to create an impenetrable wall. There was little opportunity for them to use javelins, as the men on the other side pushed at the wall of shields, slashing and jabbing over the top of them with the short, pointed gladius, the Roman legionary sword, and javelins.

If they made no progress at one part of the Caesarian line, Pompeian centurions such as Titus Caecilius, chief centurion of either the 3rd or the Valeria, didn’t suffer from the pride that caused some of their opposites on Caesar’s side to shun the idea of even a temporary giving of ground. Instead, they would draw their men back, then lead another disorderly but determined charge at a different place. While some of the Pompeian troops paid attention the front of the 14th Legion’s line, others swamped around the exposed flanks and began hacking away at the side of the line of the three leading cohorts.

Fourteenth Legion centuries at the front of the line were making a stand, and even forcing the other side back in places, but men at the rear began to panic, calling out that they would be surrounded and cut to pieces if they stayed on the downslope.

While Fulginius and his colleagues were yelling for their men to hold their ground and maintain order, others in the rear looked anxiously over their shoulders to see the eagle and the other standards of the 14th out in the open, ahead of Caesar’s second line. Fearing for the standards, centurions in the rear ordered their men back to cover them.

The officers of the 14th Legion’s second line now saw men from the advance guard withdrawing toward them, with Pompeians giving chase. Some second-line tribunes and centurions believed the advance guard would be overrun, and without waiting for orders from Caesar, they instructed the remaining five cohorts of the legion to break away from the general formation and pull back to higher ground, to their left.

Up on the slope, Centurion Fulginius wasn’t giving an inch. Knowing Caesar didn’t have a high opinion of the 14th after the legion’s disastrous double birth, he was determined not to screw up this chance to show the commander in chief what he was made of. Around him, loyal legionaries also were standing their ground. But once troops behind them withdrew to the standards, Fulginius and his men were surrounded.

Spotting Centurion Fulginius’s helmet with its transverse crest, symbol of his rank, Pompeian legionaries would have set their sights on the reward they would receive from their superiors for bringing back his head, and zoomed in on him. Fulginius would have put up fierce resistance. Perhaps he thought he could fight his way out of it, or maybe he resigned himself to the possibility of falling with his sword in hand, picturing a tombstone bearing an inscription like the one found on an anonymous Roman soldier’s memorial: “Halt traveler, you’re standing on a hero’s dust.”

Standing over on the right of the field with the 9th Legion, an exasperated Julius Caesar had seen his strategy dissolve before his eyes as the tide on the hill turned against the 14th. Now, too, with growing fury, he saw the rest of the 14th withdrawing. At the same time, more and more Pompeians were appearing on the hilltop and then running down to give chase to the withdrawing cohorts of the 14th.

According to Caesar, this sight caused panic to sweep through his entire force. He called out, urging the withdrawing cohorts to go to the support of the men trapped on the hill. But it was too late to turn the terrified men of the 14th. So now, ignoring the white-faced youths of the untried new legion at the middle of his battle formation, Caesar called to the men of the Spanish legion behind him.

“Ninth Legion, at the charge, follow me!”

The trumpets of the 9th blared the charge, standards inclined forward, and with a roar the hardened soldiers of the 9th followed Caesar at the run.

Afranius’s chief centurion, Caecilius, and his 1st Cohort men, bearing in on the heels of the retreating 14th Legion cohorts and cutting down the rearmost men with glee, didn’t hear the charge sound behind them. Only when Caesar himself appeared in his flowing scarlet general’s cloak, the paludamentum, animatedly directing the thousands of troops of the 9th who were arriving on the scene with him, did they realize they were in trouble. Substantially outnumbered, and sandwiched between the 14th and the 9th, the Pompeians gave up the chase of the 14th and turned to fight their way out.

Pompeians on the hill, seeing in the dust cloud raised by the combatants the 9th Legion’s charge change the battle in Caesar’s favor, retreated. They didn’t go back toward the camp whence they’d come, but instead took the shortest escape route available, dashing over the Segre River bridge to the safety of Lérida town.

Chief Centurion Caecilius and his Pompeians were still battling to break out. Some forced a way through the 9th Legion and ran to the bridge, with Caesar’s men in hot pursuit. Many didn’t make it, Chief Centurion Caecilius among them.

As the dust cleared, Caesar saw that most of the 14th Legion had reformed on high ground to the west, and that the Pompeian troops had given up the hill, the object of his original drive. The grass of the lower slope of the hill was stained with blood and covered with mangled legionaries, some slowly, painfully moving, some frozen in grotesque death poses. Most were men of the leading cohorts of the 14th Legion. Among the dead was ambitious Centurion Quintus Fulginius of the 14th’s 1st Cohort.

Caesar later wrote that Fulginius was a man of “outstanding valor.” The centurion couldn’t have wished for a finer epitaph. Around Fulginius’s body, and to the west in a trail leading toward the position where their legion now stood in silent, dejected ranks, were seventy dead legionaries of the 14th and six hundred wounded from the 14th and the 9th.

But Caesar had more urgent matters to attend to. In their enthusiasm for the chase, men of the 9th had surged over the Segre bridge and all the way to the walls of Lérida town itself, only to be cut off there. They were surrounded on a ridge outside the town for five hours before breaking out and escaping back to Caesar on the opposite side of the Segre. Both sides then withdrew to their respective camps with their dead and injured.

It had been a long and bloody day, for no good end. The bare hill remained a no-man’s-land. Caesar, who notoriously fudged the casualty figures of later battles, gives no figures for 9th Legion losses outside Lérida, although he asserts that Afranius lost five centurions and more than two hundred legionaries. But Afranius claimed the day as a victory, and when news of the Lérida battle reached Rome, some faint hearts among Caesar’s supporters decided they were on the losing side and hurried to join Pompey in Greece.

There was an old Latin saying, “It is not permissible to blunder twice in war.” The men of the 14th Legion would have been familiar with the sentiment. They’d let Caesar down for a second time. Throughout his career men close to Caesar who let him down were often forgiven. But legions that displeased him didn’t fare as well. Caesar hadn’t blamed the men of this enlistment of the 14th for the original Atuatuca disaster, but the second disgrace had been theirs to wear, for five years now. Lérida had been their second chance to rid the 14th of the stain of Atuatuca. And they had failed themselves and their general.

Caesar was to make it perfectly clear that the 14th no longer had his confidence. After Generals Afranius and Petreius succeeded in a surprise breakout from Lérida, the 14th was the one and only legion Caesar left behind as he gave chase. There the brooding men of the 14th sat, watching Lérida town, with its pro-Pompey residents and its garrison of auxiliaries, while Caesar overtook Afranius, surrounded him, and forced him to surrender his entire force. Lérida town capitulated when it learned of Afranius’s surrender.

As Afranius’s five legions, including the 6th, were disarmed and discharged, Caesar sent General Quintus Cassius, the former civil tribune who’d been in his pay, into Farther Spain with the 21st and 30th Legions. He himself set off for Farther Spain via a different route, with most of the cavalry. As the 14th Legion camped at Lérida, Pompey’s legions in the west, the 2nd and the Indigena, under General Marcus Terrentius Varro, surrendered without a fight. Pompey’s control of Spain, and of seven legions, had been terminated.

As Caesar departed Spain, he issued orders for several newly raised legions currently in the south of France and northern Italy to march over the Pyrenees to reinforce the single experienced legion he’d assigned the job of garrisoning Nearer Spain—the 14th. Left behind in Spain, the men of the 14th Legion would have felt rejected and dejected. Of all the legions that had marched with Caesar for all the past five years, theirs was the only one he failed to take with him as he set off to continue the war elsewhere.

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