VIII

SPITTING IN SCIPIO’S EYE

Pompey the Great was dead, murdered by Egyptians as he went to step ashore at Pelusium in Egypt on September 28, 48 B.C. Just a day later he would have celebrated his fifty-eighth birthday. Seven weeks before, on August 9, Pompey’s army had been defeated by Caesar’s legions in Greece, at the Battle of Pharsalus, near modern Farsala in the Thessaly region. Most of Pompey’s generals and eighteen thousand of his troops had fled west, escaping from Greece aboard ships of the Roman navy anchored off Corfu. Pompey himself had gone east, with just a handful of companions. As Labienus, Afranius, Petreius, Scipio, Cato the Younger, and other leading senatorial commanders sailed for North Africa, which was held by friendly forces, Pompey had sailed to Egypt, looking for support for a comeback from the Egyptians. Instead, they cut off his head.

The senatorial forces subsequently regrouped in Tunisia, electing as their new commander in chief Lieutenant General Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius Scipio, Pompey’s father-in-law and one of the divisional commanders at Pharsalus. Now, more than a year later, Caesar was conducting an amphibious landing in North Africa as he went after Scipio’s army, determined to end armed opposition to his takeover at Rome. Meanwhile, in Spain, after it had missed the big one at Pharsalus, the 14th Legion had received the call to join this latest operation.

Caesar himself had been caught up in a struggle in Egypt that had delayed his pursuit of the senatorial leaders and given them the opportunity to rebuild their shattered army. After Caesar landed in Egypt with only thirty-four hundred troops, four days behind Pompey’s fatal arrival, the Egyptians learned that most of Caesar’s army had gone on strike after Pharsalus, demanding their overdue discharges and promised cash bonuses. With an army of twenty-two thousand well-trained troops, the Egyptians had decided to eliminate Caesar, too. So Caesar had taken their fifteen-year-old king, Ptolemy XIII, and his twenty-one-year-old sister Cleopatra hostage and barricaded himself inside part of the royal palace at Alexandria.

After nine months of bitter street fighting, and eventually reinforced—mostly by former POWs, Pompeian troops who’d come over to his side after being captured—Caesar had defeated Ptolemy’s forces in the Battle of the Nile Delta. After installing Cleopatra, by now his mistress, on the Egyptian throne, he’d hurried north to Turkey to take on Pharnaces, son of the late Mithradates the Great, who’d invaded Armenia and Pontus while Caesar’s back was turned. Decisively defeating Pharnaces and his war chariots at Zela, modern Zile, on August 3, 47 B.C.—after which he sent his famous “I came, I saw, I conquered” dispatch—Caesar had returned to Rome, to win back the legions that were still on strike, so he could lead them against Scipio in North Africa.

Caesar being Caesar, he’d talked his best legions into one more campaign, one more battle. But even then he would need all the experienced legions he could lay his hands on—Scipio had put together ten legions. In addition, Scipio had the support of four legions and 120 war elephants of King Juba of Numidia, a friend of Pompey and a backer of the senatorial cause.

Two and a half years had passed since the 14th Legion’s poor showing at Lérida; it hadn’t seen combat since. There had been only a brief police action in western Spain in the fall of 48 B.C., when the 14th had been a part of a force of thirty-five cohorts marched by the governor of Nearer Spain, Major General Marcus Lepidus, into Farther Spain to sort out a dispute between the locals and the governor there, Quintus Cassius, former civil tribune and brother of one of Pompey’s admirals. Cassius had ripped off his subjects so much that two of his own legions, the 2nd and the Indigena, plus half of the new enlistment he’d raised locally on Caesar’s orders to reconstitute Pompey’s 5th, had rebelled against him.

Cassius had led his remaining legions, the 21st and the 30th, against the mutineers, and it had taken General Lepidus stepping in with his troops from eastern Spain, including the men of the 14th, to stop the dispute. Cassius withdrew to the hill town of Carmona, near Seville, then one of Spain’s major citadels. After learning he’d been replaced as governor, he loaded a ship at Málaga with his ill-gotten gain and set sail for Italy, ignoring negative weather forecasts. Caught in a storm, Cassius and his gold had gone down in the mouth of the Ebro River just south of Tarragona.

Now, in the fall of 47 B.C., three legions marched through southern Gaul and Italy to reach Caesar’s staging point in Sicily, to join his African operation. Elements of the 5th went first, joined by Spanish cavalry. The eight cohorts of the 14th Legion marched over the Pyrenees and into Gaul shortly after, with all their worldly goods. The legion hadn’t been brought up to full strength since the second Atuatuca battle, and wouldn’t be—it wasn’t Roman policy to add new recruits to a legion before a current enlistment was discharged. For that reason, legions such as the 10th were now only about two thousand men strong. Only when their current enlistments were discharged would new recruits be drafted and each legion brought back up to the full nominal strength of six thousand men.

The 14th was accompanied on its march by the 13th Legion and the last cohorts of the 5th. Through southern France they slogged, over the Alps, down through northern Italy, across the Po River at Piacenza, and then on to Rome. From there, it was down the coast to Vibo, to embark on ships for the transfer across the Strait of Messina to Sicily, with a final march along the top of the island to the west coast embarkation point, Marsala, just as winter was beginning to bite.

As they marched, the thoughts of men of the 14th Legion would have been on Caesar’s last attempt to invade North Africa. Two years earlier, while Caesar was conducting operations against General Afranius in Spain, Gaius Curio, the former tribune of the plebeians who’d been one of Caesar’s spokesmen in the Senate, had led a landing in Tunisia by two legions, the 17th and the 18th. These were new units made up of former senatorial recruits who’d surrendered at Corfinium in February of 49 B.C.

Before that summer had ended, Curio and most of his men were dead, killed at the Battle of Bagradas River outside Utica, modern Utique, by forces under King Juba’s deputy, General Saburra. Even the legionaries of the five cohorts that avoided the Bagradas River debacle hadn’t survived after they surrendered; King Juba had executed every last one of them. Caesar had loaned Curio his chief aide, Colonel Gaius Asinius Pollio, as a sure hand to lead his cavalry, and it was Pollio who’d escaped to bring Caesar the news of the African disaster. As the Spanish say, Pollio, sent to fetch wool, had come back shorn. The fate of the men of the 17th and 18th was food for thought for troops of the 14th as they assembled at Marsala—King Juba’s undefeated army was a key part of the large opposition force awaiting them in Africa.

Caesar had already been ashore in Tunisia for a month with elements of the 5th, 10th, 25th, 26th, 28th, and 29th Legions when, in the third week of January in 46 B.C., his second invasion convoy set sail from Marsala, carrying the 14th and 13th Legions and the last men of the 5th. It was not to be a pleasant voyage. For some, it would be their last.

Caesar was still short of shipping, particularly transports. Most of the merchantmen used by Curio for his 49 B.C. landing had fallen into opposition hands, so that Caesar now had only enough dedicated transports for his cavalry and limited quantities of supplies. So, for this operation, his infantrymen were put aboard warships. At least in that department Caesar was no longer a pauper. In addition to a small number of warships of his own based at Messina and Vibo, Caesar had added to his fleet when Admiral Gaius Cassius, brother of the infamous Quintus Cassius, who’d gone down at the mouth of the Ebro River, had come over to Caesar following Pharsalus, as had his colleague Admiral Decimus Laelius. Both brought a number of frigates and cruisers with them. According to the author of The African War at least forty capital ships were now involved in Caesar’s North African operations.

The men of the 14th were packed onto the decks of the cruisers of the fleet while below them the ships’ perspiring oarsmen heaved at their three banks of oars. Contrary to popular belief, the men who manned the oars in Roman warships weren’t slaves chained to their stations. The wholesale use by Rome of punishment galleys as depicted in Lew Wallace’s 1880 novel Ben Hur is a fiction. That was a phenomenon of the Middle Ages. Eastern potentates such as Herod the Great used prisoners as oarsmen, but the men who crewed Roman warships such as those now taking the 14th Legion to Tunisia were freedmen, former slaves, serving long enlistments with the Roman navy, men paid to row.

Standing cheek by jowl on the decks of the vessels of Caesar’s small fleet, the men of the 14th Legion traveled light, under orders to leave behind their heavy equipment and personal belongings. Officers also were instructed to leave behind their horses and servants. Some of Caesar’s officers considered this so much of a sacrifice that they would ignore the order, at their subsequent cost. To save space, the men of the 14th Legion even left their tents in Sicily. In North Africa, like the men who had gone before them in the first wave, they would have to sleep under the stars, trying to create protection from the elements by stringing their cloaks between branches of trees. They were assured by their officers that this primitive state of affairs wouldn’t last long. This campaign would only be a short one, Caesar had promised; there was no need of “luxuries.”

The convoy had to contend with the difficult winter weather that set in from November each year in these climes. Caesar’s initial convoy in December had encountered strong adverse winds, but this second fleet met with even worse conditions. The cold, perpetually soaked legionaries sardined on warships’ decks were racked with seasickness as the craft bucked through the waves. There would have been little opportunity to down cold rations of hardtack during the three days at sea, not that many legionaries would have the stomach for food. Vomiting over themselves and their neighbors, they would have prayed to the sea god Neptune that they might soon be permitted to land and be freed from their torment. All the ships would survive the storm. But for some men of the 14th Legion there would be another threat to contend with.

A number of the Senate’s warships had reached North Africa from Greece and had been combined in a fleet under Admiral Marcus Octavius, who’d handled the Liburnian and Achaean Fleets on the Adriatic for the Senate. Off the Adriatic island of Korcula in 49 B.C., Octavius had captured Mark Antony’s younger brother Gaius and the convoy carrying seventy-five hundred men of the 24th and 28th Legions as they attempted an amphibious landing in Croatia—probably aiming for Salonae, near modern Split, which Admiral Octavius had under siege. But Admiral Octavius had later been defeated in a naval battle in the Adriatic by Caesar’s general Publius Vatinius. After his battleship sank under him, the wounded Octavius had swum to another ship, escaping to Africa, where the senatorial side’s commanding general Scipio had placed him in charge of the Senate’s naval forces.

As Caesar’s second invasion fleet approached the Tunisian coast, Admiral Octavius was anchored in Tunis Bay with fifty-five warships—fast frigates and massive, heavy cruisers, most equipped with marines. Expecting Caesar to attempt to reinforce his initial landing force and so solidify his shaky foothold on African soil, Octavius prepared to set sail in search of Caesarian vessels as soon as the weather improved.

The gale broke up this second convoy of Caesar’s, sending some ships too far south and others way to the north. As was demonstrated during World War II, a convoy’s strength lies in numbers. On their own, ships become sitting targets. Now, in January of 46 B.C., Caesar’s second African convoy was in tatters. Vessels lost contact with each other, and masters were forced to nervously proceed singly as best they could, hoping that enemy warships were still sheltering in port.

Still, for all the drama of the crossing, and despite the presence of opposition naval forces, most of the storm-tossed legionaries reached their destination safely. In dribs and drabs, the sick, weak men of the 14th and 13th Legions and several shiploads of 5th Legion men gratefully came ashore at Leptis, in Tunisia. Leptis was a walled port town at the heart of a prosperous olive-growing area, where the people still spoke Punic, the language of the old Carthaginian Empire. Caesar made it the landing point for reinforcements and supplies of grain, timber for building, and iron and lead for weapons and ammunition manufacture being sent across from Sicily in what became a series of regular convoys. Ten miles away lay the town of Ruspina, where Caesar sited his North African headquarters and where he was building up his forces. His opponent Scipio was training a large army farther south, along the Tunisian coast.

For the moment, Caesar assigned the newly arrived troops of the 14th and 13th Legions to garrison duty, to give them, he said, the opportunity to overcome the exhaustion caused by their seasickness. By this stage the men of the 54 B.C. enlistment of the 14th had served Caesar for more than seven years. Despite the failings that had earned it Caesar’s past displeasure, the 14th was now described by Caesar’s staff as one of his veteran legions, placing it in the same category as the famous 10th and the other Spanish legions, the 7th, 8th, and 9th. Compared to legions levied in Italy two years earlier, none of which had done anything spectacular in this war to date, and which on several occasions showed they weren’t made of the same stuff as the legions that had fought in the Gallic War for Caesar, the 14th certainly was an experienced unit.

But not all the men of the 14th joined Caesar’s army in Tunisia. Two ships of the second convoy failed to reach their destination. One carried centurions and four of the 5th Legion’s six tribunes, including two brothers named Titius. Their ship and a number of others had been pushed well down the Tunisian coast, toward Cyrenaica, but once the storm abated, they were able to turn about and head for Leptis. In the process, they straggled past the enemy-held town of Thapsus, in full view of the garrison there.

The senatorial commander at Thapsus, Major General Gaius Vergilius, had a few sail-powered merchantmen and a single light, fast frigate at his disposal. Realizing that the opposition vessels would escape if he were to rely on sailpower to try to overtake them, he immediately boarded the frigate. Loading it with infantrymen and archers, he set off in hot pursuit. At the same time, he gave orders that the dinghies of his cargo vessels be loaded with troops who could wield an oar and be sent after him.

By urging his rowers to maximum effort, General Vergilius was able to overhaul the heavy, troop-laden ships with his frigate. Before long, the oarsmen in the small boats also soon caught up with the stragglers. Virgilius and his motley little flotilla proceeded to attack the Caesarian craft, but were beaten off by all but one. On board this last, surrounded vessel, cut off from the other troopships as they escaped north, a centurion convinced his superiors that the wisest course was surrender. It wasn’t a good idea. The colonels were taken ashore and placed in chains at Scipio’s headquarters, where they were beheaded three days later—as traitors to the Senate and the people of Rome.

A second Caesarian vessel, a cruiser of the trireme class, was blown well to the north and found itself in Tunis Bay, the very lion’s den. Hungrily, ships of Admiral Octavius’s fleet swooped around it. Surrounded, the trireme’s captain was forced to surrender. The cruiser was carrying two hundred passengers. The majority of these were legionaries of the 5th Legion, young men, teenagers many of them, from western Spain. They’d been drafted into the legion when Governor Cassius had re-formed Pompey’s unit at Córdoba on Caesar’s orders fewer than two years before. Apart from the Cassius affair, they had seen no action. The rest of the passenger list was made up of a crusty centurion and some seven-year veterans of the 14th Legion.

The prisoners were taken ashore at Utique. There, Major General Publius Attius Varus, the Senate’s district commander, a man who always tried to play things by the book, gave orders that the captives be treated as prisoners of war and that no harm should come to them, and sent them to Scipio, his commander in chief. The POWs were duly marched down the coast to Scipio’s camp outside Thapsus. There they were brought in a group before the dais of the general by a large escort from Scipio’s legions.

Scipio was a severe man, long-nosed, with plaited hair and a beard in the Eastern style, a fashion he had adopted since residing in the East as the Senate’s commander in Syria after escaping from Italy with Pompey in March of 49 B.C. He had a reputation for brutality, a reputation reinforced by the fate of the four captured tribunes of the 5th. But now he offered not only to spare the lives of the men of the 14th and 5th Legions standing in front of him but also to pay them if they changed sides and joined the senatorial army.

Details of the confrontation between Scipio and the POWs may have come from one of Scipio’s officers, who related them to Caesar’s men after later being captured, or from a 5th Legion recruit who survived what was to come. According to The African War,this is what transpired at that meeting outside Thapsus:

“I know that you haven’t engaged in this wicked vendetta against your fellow citizens and all right-thinking men of your own free will,” General Scipio told the prisoners as he glowered down at them. “You’ve done it at the instigation and command of that damned general of yours.” He was referring to Caesar. After he’d informed them that he was prepared to spare them and take them into his army, he asked the legionaries what they thought of his offer, no doubt expecting them to express their gratitude.

The most senior prisoner, the centurion of the 14th Legion, a vastly experienced soldier who commanded one of the 14th’s cohorts, now stepped forward. We don’t know his name, but from his own lips we obtain sufficient information to calculate that he was at least fifty-three years of age, if not older.

“Thank you for your great kindness, Scipio,” he began, his tone faintly sarcastic. “I won’t call you ‘General,’” he added, a deliberate comment that would have seen Scipio’s eyes narrow. “Thank you for offering me my life and safety, even though I’m a prisoner of war and properly entitled to both. I might take advantage of your offer if it didn’t involve completely criminal conduct!” The centurion’s voice would have been raised by now, and the atmosphere would suddenly have become charged. “Do you really expect me to take up arms against Caesar, my own general, under whom I’ve commanded a cohort, and against his army?”

The centurion went on to say that he’d served in the Roman army for thirty-six years. In his younger days he would have fought in the East under General Lucullus, and later, under Pompey. But it was the latter part of his career of which he was most proud—for at least the past eleven years he had loyally marched for Julius Caesar. Caesar considered his centurions the backbone of his army and treated them with care and respect as long as they gave him their loyalty and fought bravely. In turn, most would have marched into Hades if he’d ordered them to.

“So Scipio, do you really expect me to take up arms against Caesar?” the centurion scoffed. “I won’t. And what’s more, I strongly urge you to abandon your plans, for if you haven’t already realized who you’re up against, you’ll soon find out.”

Laughter almost certainly erupted around him from his guards. After all, the centurion was in no position to boast. This would have only incensed the proud centurion even more than Scipio’s offer, and before the furious Scipio could respond to his defiance, the centurion made an offer of his own.

“Choose from your army the cohort you consider to be your strongest. Pit it against me and ten men I choose from among my comrades now in your hands. Then you’ll see, from our bravery, what fate lies ahead for your forces.”

The indignant Scipio, arms folded, did not reply. Instead, he glanced over to the senior centurion of the guard detail and nodded. Two centurions moved forward and grabbed the brave centurion of the 14th by the arms and forced him to his knees in front of Scipio’s dais. The officer in charge stepped up, drawing his sword. He lifted the prisoner’s head, so his neck was straight. Then he raised his sword and swept it down.

Death by beheading was the right of every Roman citizen, but the execution was usually performed cleanly, with a sharp ax. No such privilege was afforded the centurion of the 14th. Just the same, as proven by modern-day experimentation by forensic archaeologists, General Scipio’s executioner could have taken off the prisoner’s head with a single blow of the gladius. One blow, or several, the result was the same: the head of the defiant centurion fell at Scipio’s feet.

Scipio hadn’t finished. Enraged by the centurion’s audacity, he gave orders for the experienced legionaries of the 14th—these supermen their centurion had boasted of—to be separated from the youngsters of the 5th, taken outside the camp, tied to wooden crosses like slaves, and tortured to death. The youths of the 5th were distributed among the senatorial legions; like it or not, within a few months they would fight for Scipio against Caesar, at the Battle of Thapsus.

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