By Philip Freeman
Simon & Schuster
Copyright © 2009
All right reserved.
In all of life, but especially in war, the greatest power belongs to fortune.
No one expected that Caesar would dare invade Italy with only a few thousand men, but once he crossed the Rubicon into Italy Caesar advanced south against all odds. His rapid advance caught Pompey and the optimates totally off-guard and threw Rome into a panic. It was precisely the effect Caesar had intended.
Caesar''s first stop was the old Umbrian town of Ariminum (modern Rimini) just ten miles beyond the Rubicon. Sulla had sacked the town several decades earlier, but Caesar quickly occupied this strategic gateway to the south without any bloodshed. It was here that Mark Antony caught up with his sponsor after fleeing from Rome. Caesar played up his arrival for all it was worth to further motivate his army and justify his move against the Senate. Look at him, he cried, as he led Antony before his troops. This man is a sacrosanct tribune of the people, manhandled by the Senate and driven from Rome in defiance of all that is holy and just. Even Sulla, who had little respect for the common man, never dared to interfere with the rights of the tribunes. Will you allow this to stand? Will you let a small cadre of self-serving nobles who care nothing for the true welfare of the state destroy centuries of tradition and rob you of your freedom? As for me, Caesar exclaimed as he wept bitter tears and tore his robe in grief, will you let Pompey and the optimates destroy my dignity? We''ve fought bravely together for nine years against Gauls and Germans alike -- and we won! Are you afraid to face Pompey and his ragged band of cowards? Are you afraid to follow me to victory?
It was a beautiful performance. The soldiers declared that they were ready to follow Caesar anywhere to defend his honor and restore the rightful power of the tribunes. Part of their enthusiasm may have grown from a rumor that he would make all of them knights, but they doubtless would have risked everything for him in any case. He had lifted them from poverty and taught them to believe in their ability to accomplish the impossible. They had beaten Ariovistus and his ferocious Germans, they had sailed beyond the edge of the world to Britain and returned, they had conquered Vercingetorix and the whole army of Gaul. Caesar had also put more money in their pockets than they had ever dreamed of back when they were struggling on the farm. Now they would restore the stolen honor of their commander and win undying glory for themselves, not to mention a tidy bit of loot.
Meanwhile in Rome, there was chaos in the streets. Countless frightened refugees were flooding into the city from the countryside, adding to the panic among the already terrified inhabitants of Rome. Stories flew among the crowds of dire portents -- blood had fallen as rain from the sky, lightning had struck the holy temples, statues of the gods were sweating, and a mule had given birth to a foal. Fights broke out between partisans of Caesar and Pompey, mobs raged violently through the streets, and no one seemed to be in charge. The optimates turned on Pompey and berated him for letting Caesar cross the Rubicon. Where are the armies you had only to stomp your foot to raise? What are you going to do now? they demanded.
Pompey had an answer for them, but they didn''t like it. Their only chance was to evacuate Rome and regroup in southern Italy. From there, it would probably be necessary to withdraw further across the sea to Greece. Then, like Sulla years before, the senatorial forces could gather their armies and retake Italy. Pompey pointed out that holding Rome meant nothing in the long term. It was men that won wars, not empty buildings. His scattered forces were still ten times the size of Caesar''s army and would crush the upstart general in the end as surely as Sulla had destroyed Cinna and Marius. Pompey then warned them darkly that he would consider anyone who remained in the city a traitor to Rome. With that, Pompey took the Appian Way south, followed by almost every magistrate and senator in Rome. The refugees and common people of the city would have to face alone whatever horrors awaited them from Caesar''s troops.
It wasn''t long until Caesar received two visitors sent by Pompey himself. As Caesar writes, they came with a private message from the general expressing his regret to his former father-in-law that matters had reached such a sorry state. Pompey exclaimed that his recent actions were nothing personal against Caesar, but were merely the result of his lifelong desire to serve his country -- a desire that always took precedence over his own wishes. Caesar, likewise, should put the welfare of Rome before his own pride, no matter how unjustly he believed he had been treated. Pompey urged Caesar to be reasonable and not let his bruised dignity lead Rome into civil war.
Caesar felt insulted by Pompey''s condescending tone, but sent the envoys back to him with an olive branch. Caesar declared that he, too, had always put the needs of the state above his own desires, but he was fighting for the rights of the Roman people as well as his own honor. He therefore proposed that the Italian peninsula be demilitarized. He and his army would leave Italy if Pompey would at the same time withdraw to Spain with his troops. Then the Senate and the popular assemblies could meet in peace to settle everything without the threat of armed force from either side. Finally, he urged that he and Pompey meet face-to-face to work out the details of the agreement without the tiresome interference of politicians.
Cicero, who was in Pompey''s camp at the time, reports that the message from Caesar arrived on January 23, 49 B.C. Whatever Pompey might have wished to do if left to his own devices, he was overruled by the optimates. They sent a letter back to Caesar agreeing that Pompey would go to Spain at some future date, but only if Caesar first withdrew from Italy. Until that time, they would continue to recruit and train their army to defend the state. And, of course, the optimates were not about to let Pompey meet privately with Caesar.
It''s fascinating to see how the different parties viewed the negotiations. Caesar portrayed himself as an injured party: "It was an unfair offer," he exclaimed. But Cicero wrote to his friend Atticus that "Caesar would be mad not to accept, especially as his demands were so impudent." The practical result was that the discussions went nowhere and communications between the two parties ceased.
Caesar now sent Mark Antony to hold the mountain passes north of Rome while he himself continued his advance south along the Adriatic coast. By early February, he had peacefully taken all of Picenum -- an especially galling development to Pompey as it was his home region. Throughout the wider area of north central Italy, towns were flocking to Caesar''s banner, much to the consternation of the optimates. Caesar portrays this support as sincere patriotism and affection for his just cause, though most townspeople cared little who won the war as long as they were left alone. The towns knew they were facing Caesar''s army on their doorsteps while most of Pompey''s troops were far away, thus the sudden swell of support. At Iguvium in Umbria, Pompey''s lieutenant Thermus withdrew his few troops from the town in the face of open hostility. Even more telling was Caesar''s reception at the ancient hill town of Auximum. There the local town council met with Attius Varus, the governor of Roman Africa, who was occupying their town with a garrison of Pompey''s soldiers. The councilmen explained that they had no interest in imperial politics, but they felt it most unwise to resist the celebrated general Caesar and his veteran army. They urged Varus to consider his own safety and get out of town while he still could. Varus took the council''s advice and quickly fled south. When Caesar learned of their actions, he warmly thanked the councilmen and promised he would not forget their support.
Pompey was near Naples at the time trying to rally his senatorial supporters, raise troops among the local farmers, and even recruit gladiators owned by Caesar from a nearby training camp, all to little avail. It was becoming clear to Pompey, if not to the optimates, that holding Italy was a lost cause. He would have to reach the fortified port city of Brundisium in Italy''s heel as quickly as possible and from there sail to Greece. Pompey was confident he could win the war in the long run if he was allowed time to build an overwhelming force to return and invade Italy. Some of the optimates saw the good sense in this plan, but most detested the idea of yielding control of Italy to Caesar, even temporarily. The mood in Pompey''s camp was accordingly contentious and dispirited as senators and soldiers alike packed their bags.
Meanwhile Caesar was having much better luck as he marched southward along the coast. Another legion from Gaul caught up with him near the town of Cingulum, doubling the size of his army. Cingulum itself threw open its gates and eagerly welcomed him, a deed particularly pleasing to Caesar since the town had recently been founded by his former comrade Labienus.
Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus had been one of Caesar''s most committed enemies for almost twenty years. He had watched Caesar''s victories in Gaul with burning jealousy. His own grandfather had first beaten the Allobroges and Arverni seventy years before, thus he considered the northern lands by right a family fiefdom. The Senate had appointed Domitius the new governor of Gaul, but his plans had been ruined by Caesar''s march across the Rubicon. Although Caesar had beaten him at every turn, Domitius would not back down, even if the rest of the optimates ran away to Greece. Promising rich rewards, he gathered a hearty band of local tribesmen and snakeworshipping Marsi warriors from the mountains of central Italy and set out to meet his nemesis. When Pompey ordered him to withdraw to Brundisium, Domitius refused.
Domitius marched with several thousand men to the strategic river crossing of Corfinium, a town less than a hundred miles east of Rome that had briefly been the capital of the Italian rebels thirty years earlier. Caesar''s army arrived near the town soon after and clashed with soldiers of Domitius, who were frantically trying to tear down the bridge leading to the settlement. Caesar easily drove the men inside the walls of Corfinium. There Domitius drew up his forces and prepared for a long siege after sending a message to Pompey begging for help. Caesar spent the next few days surrounding the town with fortifications and securing his supplies. He also welcomed the arrival of his third legion from Gaul, plus thousands of Gaulish auxiliaries and 300 horsemen donated by the Celtic king of Noricum in the eastern Alps.
Domitius was quickly becoming desperate. He was no coward, but he was experienced enough to know he could not hold off Caesar for long. He called an assembly of his soldiers in the town square and told them that Pompey would soon be sending help and that they should defend the town with all their might. But secretly he had just received word from Pompey that no help was forthcoming. Pompey, in fact, reminded Domitius that he had foolishly acted against orders and advised him to break out of Corfinium before Caesar took the town. According to Plutarch, Domitius was in such despair at his hopeless situation and the shame of being captured by Caesar that he ordered his personal physician to prepare a draft of poison for him. He drank it stoically, then began to regret his action, wondering if perhaps it would have been better to slip out of town secretly or even surrender to Caesar. The physician told him not to worry -- since he thought Domitius might change his mind, he hadn''t actually put any poison in the drink after all.
Domitius knew that escaping with his army would be impossible, so he now decided to flee Corfinium that night with just a few of his officers. But since there are no secrets in an army, his soldiers soon heard of the plans and held a meeting among themselves. They decided that it was ridiculous to die for Roman honor while their general was planning to desert them. They burst into the headquarters of Domitius that very night and arrested him, then sent a message to Caesar saying they were ready to open the town gates and hand Domitius over to him.
Caesar was thrilled at this turn of events, but he was deeply concerned at what might happen if he sent his troops into Corfinium that night. It was imperative to Caesar that he present himself to the Roman world not as an outlaw and sacker of cities, but as a leader who respected law and order. With this in mind, he posted sentries around the gates but did not allow them to enter that night for fear they might sack the town in their eagerness for loot. Throughout the long night the army of Caesar stood waiting, more out of curiosity for the fate of the town and its inhabitants than any craving for booty. Inside the walls, Domitius and his officers waited as well, many contemplating suicide, knowing they would almost certainly be led out of town the next morning and killed. They all remembered how Sulla had treated his enemies and they knew that if the situation were reversed they would show Caesar no mercy.
At dawn Domitius and his followers were marched before Caesar. Many of them were senators, tribunes, and knights who had dedicated themselves to destroying Caesar. Now they stood before him face-to-face for the first time in almost a decade and waited for the ax to fall. Caesar rose to address them briefly, surely a final chance to gloat before he ordered his men to kill them all. But Caesar merely looked on them like a stern father and said they really should have behaved better. Then he turned to his guards and gave the order -- to set them free. Domitius and his followers stood stunned as the words ank in. Surely they had misunderstood or it was some kind of cruel trick. But no, Caesar, declared they were free to go wherever they wanted, even to rejoin Pompey if they wished. Moreover, Domitius could take with him the treasure he had brought to Corfinium to pay his soldiers. Even though Caesar needed cash badly, he wanted ome to know he was no thief. After Domitius and his officers were dismissed, he incorporated the enemy soldiers into his own growing forces. The capture of Corfinium had taken only few days; then Caesar headed south to beat Pompey to Brundisium.
The news of Caesar''s mercy at Corfinium soon spread throughout Italy, just as he had planned. Cicero wrote to Atticus of the new situation on March 1:
Do you see what kind of man we are dealing with? He has moved against the Republic with such cleverness, such care, such preparation. I truly believe that if he continues to spare all lives and property he will convert his most bitter enemies into ardent supporters.
All that remained was to reach Brundisium first and cut off Pompey''s retreat to Greece. Caesar''s legions skirted the east side of the Apennine Mountains as they swept down the coast towards Italy''s heel, while Pompey and his army raced past Mount Vesuvius and down the Appian Way. In spite of Caesar''s legendary speed, Pompey beat him to Brundisium and occupied the well-fortified town. When Caesar reached the port a few days later, he could only watch in frustration as Pompey''s men looked down on him from the high stone walls.
Caesar immediately began to surround the town with siege works, but the mouth of its harbor still opened to the Adriatic Sea. Pompey had already sent half his army to Greece and could sail away with the rest when his ships returned unless Caesar could find some way to block his access to the sea. Caesar had few ships, so a naval attack was out of the question, though it might be possible to seal the neck of the harbor if he could construct a barricade across its narrowest point. But even for men who had bridged the Rhine, blocking a wide, deep channel was an almost impossible challenge. On both sides Caesar constructed piers reaching toward one another across the harbor. When the water became too deep, he anchored huge rafts to the harbor bottom and connected them with a causeway. Each of these rafts was topped with a fortified tower to launch missiles against any ships that tried to break out.
But however weak Pompey was in the political arena, he was still a master of warfare. He commandeered several large merchant ships from the citizens of Brundisium and outfitted them with three-story towers to launch attacks against Caesar''s blockade. Pompey''s troops rowed out daily to tear down the wall across the harbor, while each night Caesar''s troops labored to repair the damage.
Even while his troops were fighting to keep Pompey in Italy, Caesar pressed for a diplomatic solution. He fervently believed that if he could just meet with Pompey face-to-face they could reach an understanding that would allow both men to maintain their dignity and power. Caesar sent a messenger to Pompey asking for a conference to discuss terms for peace. The general stiffly replied that the consuls for the year had already sailed for Greece and he himself, as a humble servant of the Republic, could not negotiate in the absence of the chief magistrates.
After nine days of fruitless siege and failed peace initiatives, the ships that Pompey had previously sent to Greece returned to ferry across the rest of his army. They had no trouble breaking through Caesar''s flimsy blockade and soon stood ready on the docks of Brundisium. Pompey laid his plans carefully and that night had his troops quickly and quietly prepare themselves to leave. He ordered barricades and pits with sharpened stakes constructed inside the gates and throughout the city streets to slow down Caesar''s men once they entered the city. Then he positioned a rear guard of archers and slingers on the walls to cover the escape of his main force. His army was on board the ships and bursting through the harbor barriers before Caesar had time to stop them. Pompey had beaten the siege master at his own game.
Caesar was now ruler of Italy, but it was an empty victory. Pompey''s army, though scattered throughout the Mediterranean, still vastly outnumbered his own. He had almost no navy and no reliable grain supplies for his men. He was threatened by Pompey''s forces -- especially his huge army in Spain -- which could use its mastery of the sea to invade Italy at will. Worst of all in Caesar''s mind, he had almost no senators on his side since most had followed Pompey to Greece. The few that remained in Italy, such as Cicero, offered him only a grudging neutrality. He had hoped to persuade some Roman officials to support his cause and give his actions at least a semblance of state approval. But with the whole Roman government absconded to Greece, he was just another rebel.
Caesar ordered ships to be gathered from Italy and Gaul in preparation for a crossing to Greece, but he knew this would take several months. In the meantime he could not leave Italy exposed to an invasion from Pompey''s veteran armies in Spain. He therefore decided to strike his enemy first, quickly marching his troops all the way to the Iberian peninsula. He also secured his food supply by sending his own men to take Sardinia and Sicily from Pompey''s forces. Pompey had put Cato in charge of Sicily, and Caesar''s most implacable foe was busying governing the island with his usual efficiency. He had expected Pompey to stand fast in Italy and defend the homeland, but now felt betrayed when the general retreated to Greece. When Curio appeared offshore with two of Caesar''s legions, Cato abandoned Sicily, cursing the fact that he had ever trusted Pompey.
Caesar meanwhile proceeded along the Appian Way toward Rome to spend a few days settling the affairs of the city before he continued on to Spain. Along the way he passed Cicero''s country estate on the coast near Formiae south of Rome and decided to pay a personal call on the influential orator. For weeks Caesar had been corresponding with Cicero, trying to woo him from his stubborn position of neutrality. Cicero was no longer in office, but he held immense prestige among the Roman public and many senators. If Caesar could bring Cicero into his camp many others would follow. In early March, Caesar had written to Cicero:
I especially hope to see you when I return to Rome. I''m in great need of your help and sage advice, being the popular and influential man you are.
Cicero had been impressed by Caesar''s restraint at Corfinium. When Caesar heard of this he wrote:
You''re right that cruel revenge is the farthest thing from my mind. Since mercy is so dear to me, I''m glad that you support me in this. It doesn''t bother me that those I released are fighting against me again. All I want is for every man to follow his own conscience.
Now at the end of March, Caesar and Cicero were about to meet in person for the first time in many years. Caesar may have wanted each man to be true to himself, but he very much wanted Cicero on his side.
After warm greetings and the usual inquiries about family, the two men settled down to business. Cicero bluntly informed Caesar that he would only make matters worse by going to Spain or Greece to continue the war against Pompey. He should, instead, submit to the authority of the Senate. In fact, he declared, he meant to put a bill before the senators demanding that Caesar do just that. Caesar quietly suggested that Cicero reconsider the matter. He then left a shaken but resolute Cicero behind at the villa. It was now clear to him that Caesar would never listen to reason and play by the ancient rules of the state. Cicero decided to join Pompey as he now realized the flawed general was the only hope left for preserving the Republic.
On April 1, 49 B.C., Caesar entered the city of Rome for the first time in nine years. Caesar never mentions visiting Calpurnia during his stay in Rome, but of course neither he nor any Roman man would consider it appropriate to write about his wife. He did call together the Senate, but the meeting was poorly attended -- a fact Caesar also neglects to mention in his account. He spoke of his mistreatment by Pompey and the optimates, the injustice the tribunes had suffered, and his eternal desire for peace, He concluded his speech by calling on the senators to help bear the burden of administering the state, but warned that he would act alone if they refused to cooperate. After three days of tense discussions, the senators finally agreed to send a delegation to Pompey seeking negotiations, yet no one was brave enough to volunteer for this duty. In frustration, Caesar abandoned the Senate and went instead to the popular assembly, where he received an enthusiastic welcome after promising plentiful grain and a gift of cash to each citizen.The one man in Rome willing to stand up to Caesar was the tribune Lucius Metellus. Caesar portrays Metellus as a pawn of the optimates, but if so, he was a very brave pawn. When Caesar went to the treasury with his soldiers to withdraw money for his troops, Metellus stood alone before the door and refused him entry. Caesar, as conqueror of Gaul and Italy, was now in the embarrassing position of facing down a single stubborn man in the heart of Rome. Matters were made even worse by the fact that Caesar had portrayed himself as a defender of the sacrosanct tribunes. As the situation quickly degenerated into the absurd, Caesar told Metellus to get out of the way or he would kill him. Metellus then stepped aside, but his point had been made. Caesar broke through the locked gates of the treasury and removed 15,000 bars of gold, 30,000 bars of silver, and millions of bronze coins. The common people, his traditional power base, were furious that he had looted the public treasury and threatened a tribune. His visit to Rome was, all in all, a miserable failure.
On his way to Spain, Caesar stopped at the ancient Greek city of Massalia on the Gaulish coast. Massalia was an old ally of Rome that had received the patronage of both Pompey and Caesar in years past. Caesar had undoubtedly done the most for the city by finally eliminating the barbarian threat and opening all of Gaul to its trading network, but if he had expected a warm welcome he was disappointed. He found the gates of Massalia shut and the walls manned against him. When Caesar demanded an explanation, the citizens sent a delegation to explain that they greatly honored him, but they wished to remain neutral in what was clearly an internal Roman conflict. They promised they would show equal goodwill to both sides and aid neither against the other.
Caesar probably would have accepted the neutrality of Massalia if the inhabitants had been sincere. In truth, the merchants of the city had shrewdly calculated that Caesar was a poor investment. They believed he stood no chance at all against Pompey and the combined might of the senatorial armies. Caesar was therefore not surprised when his old enemy Domitius Ahenobarbus -- whom he had graciously freed at Corfinium just two months earlier -- came sailing into Massalia''s harbor and received a warm welcome from the city elders. The walls of Massalia had withstood attacks for 500 years, and the Greeks were confident that Caesar would fail as well. Caesar realized just how difficult it would be to take the city, but he could not leave such a powerful and strategic town in the hands of his enemies while he fought in Spain. He spent the next month strengthening the siege works and preparing the coming assault, but he knew that finishing the job would take more of his time than he could spare. Thus he left Decimus Brutus, veteran commander of the naval campaign against the Gaulish Veneti, in charge of the blockade fleet and Gaius Trebonius with three legions of infantry to besiege the city while he hurried on to Spain.
Caesar optimistically claimed he was going to Spain to fight an army without a leader and would return to face a leader without an army. In both cases, he was proven wrong. The Pompeian forces in eastern Spain were commanded by Lucius Afranius and Marcus Petreius, two of Pompey''s most capable generals. Pompey, on the other hand, used Caesar''s months in Spain to greatly increase his own forces in Greece. Caesar was familiar with Spain, having served in the western part of the peninsula as quaestor in 69 B.C. and again as governor eight years later, but his enemies were concentrated in eastern Spain, where he had little experience.
In late spring of 49 B.C., Caesar crossed the Pyrenees into Spain and arrived west of modern Barcelona near the town of Ilerda on the banks of the swollen Sicoris River. Afranius and Petreius were camped nearby with five legions of veteran Roman soldiers in addition to thousands of native recruits. Caesar''s infantry was roughly equal in size to the Pompeian force, but he greatly outnumbered them in cavalry. Many of these horsemen were Gaulish nobles Caesar brought along because he did not quite trust them to remain at home. Apparently he had doubts even about his own men since he borrowed money from his tribunes and centurions to give extra pay to his foot soldiers, thus buying the loyalty of his army with cash and the faithfulness of his officers as debt holders -- if they deserted him, they would not be repaid.
Caesar crossed the Sicoris and made camp near the enemy forces. But food for the animals was scarce on the western side of the river and he was compelled to risk his men daily on foraging expeditions to the eastern side. This was made even more difficult when one of the few bridges across the river collapsed in a torrential spring flood. Afranius and Petreius used their strong position to harass Caesar at every turn and wear down his men. When Caesar realized he could not hold out much longer he tried to lure the generals into battle, but they were too clever to take the bait. Only when Caesar attempted to seize a strategic hill between the town and their camp did the Pompeian forces move against him. The enemy legions had learned to fight against the fierce mountain tribes of western Spain and so were not intimidated by Caesar''s bold uphill charge. The Pompeians fought ferociously, throwing Caesar''s troops into confusion and retreat. After hours of combat, Caesar''s men returned to camp battered and bewildered. In Gaul, they had grown accustomed to victory against heavy odds, but facing determined and disciplined Romans they had collapsed in panic. They had lost 70 men, including one of their best centurions, with over 600 badly wounded. The other side suffered heavy casualties as well, but had shown they could stand up to Caesar and win.
When news of Caesar''s difficulties reached Rome a few days later, many of those senators who had remained neutral suddenly became enthusiastic supporters of Pompey. Few now believed that Caesar could win. It was six months since he had crossed the Rubicon, but he commanded almost no followers in Italy, was unable to take Massalia, and would soon be crushed by Pompey''s generals in Spain. To make matters even worse for Caesar, another spring flood had just wiped out the remaining bridges across the Sicoris, cutting him off totally from forage and supplies from Gaul. Rumors also flew through Caesar''s camp that Pompey himself was on his way across Africa to attack them from the south.
But Caesar was always at his best when faced with impossible odds. In Britain he had seen the Celtic natives using wood-frame boats covered with leather. This peculiar sort of craft, known as a currach, was easy to build and surprisingly stable, so he ordered his men to construct a small fleet of them. A few nights later, a convoy of wagons bearing the boats headed north along the Sicoris to a point about twenty miles above his camp. A whole legion was then ferried across and within two days had built a fortified bridge across the raging river. Caesar could now bring men and supplies across the Sicoris at will.
The new bridge set in motion a rapid change of fortune for Caesar. He could use his superior cavalry to attack the Pompeians and limit them to the foraging by night. Caesar then ordered the construction of diversion ditches close by his main camp to lower the level of the Sicoris. This would allow him to ford the river without a forty-mile detour north, then back along the eastern shore. He also began to win over some of the nearby tribes, who supplied him with fresh troops and grain. These Iberians had been among the strongest supporters of the rebel Roman general Quintus Sertorius thirty years earlier. Sertorius had served under Caesar''s uncle Marius, but fled to Spain to lead a guerrilla war against Rome when he fell from favor. He was a gifted general who brought Roman organization to the Spanish natives, impressing them as well with his almost magical ability with animals. As a young man Pompey had unsuccessfully fought against Sertorius before the rebel leader was assassinated. Now the Spanish saw in Caesar a man of similar ability, who might lessen the burdens of Roman rule.
Afranius and Petreius grew uneasy at these new developments and decided to move south to more favorable territory. The Pompeians escaped across the Sicoris in darkness on a pontoon bridge made of rafts, destroying it after they passed. Caesar sent his cavalry after them as soon as they were on the other side, but the river was still so deep that it could be crossed only at great risk, even by men on horseback. There was no time to build a bridge for his infantry if he wanted to catch the enemy, so he rallied his men to cross in the same manner as his cavalry. Some were understandably reluctant to wade into a raging torrent that had almost swept away the horses, so Caesar left these hesitant soldiers as camp guards. The remaining thousands plunged into the freezing river up to their necks with packhorses stationed just upstream to break the force of the current and others below to catch those men who were driven downstream. Remarkably, none of his men drowned. Once across the Sicoris, Caesar found a shortcut and marched his soldiers, now eager for battle, in front of the Pompeian army. Caesar soon trapped the enemy in an unfavorable position where they had no access to supplies.
It was now simply a matter of time until the Pompeian army would be forced to surrender, but Caesar was anxious to see this accomplished with a minimum of bloodshed. He still had a long war to fight and did not want to risk the death of any of his men unnecessarily. Caesar also was determined not to kill any Roman soldiers on the enemy side unless absolutely necessary. If he showed mercy to his fellow citizens, it would greatly increase his standing among the Roman public; if not, he would be seen as a tyrant out to secure power at any cost. Caesar''s men, however, had a different idea. They saw a golden opportunity for victory slipping away because of their commander''s clemency. Some even declared that if Caesar didn''t lead them into battle immediately they would not fight for him in the future.
Tempers calmed the next day when men on both sides took advantage of the lull in fighting to talk across the lines. Pompeians began to visit Caesar''s camp to chat, expressing regret that they had ever signed up with Afranius and Petreius. Some of Caesar''s men wandered over to the enemy camp to visit as well. Soon it seemed as if there was only one army camp instead of two with men from both sides swapping war stories and wineskins. Caesar''s men now realized that their leader had been right not to lead them against the Pompeians -- they were, after all, Roman soldiers one and all.
Afranius looked on the scene in dismay and shrugged, but Petreius ordered his personal guard to drive Caesar''s men out of the camp and kill any they could catch. Then he addressed his disheartened men and begged them not to betray the cause of the Republic to a rebel like Caesar no matter how merciful he might seem. He ordered his men to bring forward any of Caesar''s soldiers still in the camp for immediate execution -- but they, instead, protected their recent guests by hiding them in the tents until they could escape by night. Caesar, in marked contrast, sent the Pompeians in his camp back to their generals unharmed, while many enemy soldiers remained with him of their own will.
Caesar returned to his strategy of patiently waiting for the enemy to give up. It didn''t take long to achieve this result, especially when the Pompeians were reduced to eating their own pack animals for food. Soon Afranius approached Caesar''s camp under a flag of truce and declared before both armies: "We have done our duty...and we confess that we are beaten. All we ask is that you spare our men, if there is any compassion left in your heart." Caesar was only too glad to spare both the men and the generals. The Pompeian army was disbanded, though many chose to join Caesar''s ranks. Caesar then headed west to the Atlantic coast, offering clemency to any Pompeians who surrendered. The scholar Marcus Terentius Varro, whom Pompey had placed in charge of Further Spain, as this area was called, quickly handed the entire province over to Caesar. The town of Gades, where Caesar had once dreamed he would conquer the world, was even promised full Roman citizenship, though Caesar neglects to mention in his own account that he charged them a king''s ransom for this privilege.
In just over a month of fighting, Caesar had beaten the best army the Senate possessed, but he still had not faced Pompey and the forces gathering in Greece. For Pompey, the defeat in Spain was disappointing but hardly decisive. He still commanded the eastern Mediterranean and Africa, along with the loyalty of any Roman who really mattered. As the summer of 49 B.C. was drawing to a close, Pompey and his enormous army were fast preparing to crush Caesar.
Back in Massalia, Caesar''s commanders faced determined resistance in their siege of the ancient Greek town. Decimus Brutus attacked the Massalians in their harbor with grappling hooks of a sort developed during the First Punic War against Carthage, but the Greeks were tenacious in defense of the city. Trebonius used Caesar''s infantry to assault the walls of Massalia with siege works from the land side as well, but to no advantage. Week after week the stalemate dragged on until Pompey sent a relief fleet to help the Massalians,greatly boosting their confidence of victory. But as Caesar says: "Human nature is such that we become either too confident or too fearful when circumstances change."
The Massalians became too confident. The result was an overreaching by land and sea that soon had Pompey''s men in flight and the townspeople prostrate before the gates of the city begging Caesar''s roops not to destroy their city. Caesar had ordered his officers not to allow the men to sack the town since the destruction of such a respected Roman ally would considerably weaken his public image. The soldiers grumbled at his restraint, but Caesar confirmed his previous orders when he arrived on the scene soon after. He forced the city to surrender all its military fleet and weapons of war, its entire reasury, and part of its rich territory, but he did not kill the men and enslave the women and children. Yet just in case the Massalians changed their mind, Caesar left behind two legions to occupy the town as he marched back to Italy.
At the town of Placentia on the banks of the Po in northern Italy, Caesar faced a full-scale mutiny by his troops. Led by malcontents in the ninth legion, the soldiers demanded more pay, but the heart of their complaint was that there were no spoils in this war as there had been in Gaul. They would fight for months to defeat an army or conquer a town, then Caesar would forgive his enemies and march on. His soldiers craved gold, women, and slaves, not clemency for the vanquished.
The whole episode at Placentia is a fascinating study in Caesar''s psychology of leadership. Caesar never mentions it in his own account -- undoubtedly he didn''t want to dwell on any discontent among his followers -- but other ancient sources provide the details. The rebellious army had Caesar in a difficult position. He was waging a civil war against an empire with vast resources at its disposal. All Caesar had to counter Pompey and the Senate was his army. If he ost their backing, the war was over -- and the soldiers knew it. They therefore expected concessions or they would pack their bags and go home. From the soldiers'' point of view, it was a perfectly reasonable request. They were risking their lives and futures to follow Caesar. If he lost this war, they would receive no rewards. Any survivors, in fact, would be lucky to escape with their lives.
Most generals would have called the mutinous leaders together and worked out a compromise -- but not Caesar. Instead, he ordered the whole army to assemble and then began to speak. He said he felt like a father faced by spoiled and unruly children. He had always seen to their needs before his own and had provided them with everything he had promised. Did they really want to see Italy laid waste like Gaul or Germany? Did they think they were better than their fellow Romans on the other side? They were proud soldiers fighting a war of principle, not a horde of ravaging barbarians sacking cities for plunder. They demanded their own way? They would not get it. Armies, he declared, cannot exist without discipline. He would therefore decimate the entire ninth legion, executing every tenth man among them as punishment and a warning to any who might question him in the future.
The whole army begged Caesar to reconsider and spare the ninth legion. They were wrong to defy him, they confessed, and earnestly beseeched him not to kill men who had served him bravely for many years. Caesar reluctantly agreed to show mercy on the condition that he was given the names of the ringleaders of the rebellion, twelve of whom he would choose by lot and execute. This he did, sparing the life of one innocent man and killing in his place the centurion who had vengefully accused him. Caesar had faced down thousands of his own men and won their respect and loyalty by not yielding an inch. The army now put aside all thoughts of insurrection and prepared to move against Pompey.
Caesar was facing other problems elsewhere in the western Mediterranean. He had placed Cicero''s son-in-law, Dolabella, in charge of the Adriatic fleet, but Pompey''s lieutenants now had him on the run. Mark Antony''s brother Gaius rushed to his aid only to find himself besieged by Pompey''s men on a small island off the Illyrian coast. Gaius and his troops soon faced starvation. A few soldiers managed to escape to the mainland on rafts, but Gaius and the rest of his men were forced to surrender.
But by far the greatest setback to Caesar during the first few months of the civil war was the loss of his army in north Africa. Caesar had placed the former tribune Curio in charge of three legions recruited from the Italian hill tribes who had surrendered at Corfinium. With these men the daring but inexperienced Curio had taken Sicily from Cato without a fight. He then landed on the African coast of modern Tunisia to fight Attius Varus, the governor of the province, whom Caesar had earlier driven from Italy. Curio had visions of himself as a second Scipio Africanus defeating Hannibal, but instead found himself battling, along with Varus, the ruthless Numidian king Juba. The king had never forgotten that years before Caesar had publicly humiliated him by pulling his beard during a trial in Rome. Now he was in a position to make Caesar pay dearly for that insult.
Curio established a camp near the shore, but the local tribes poisoned his water supply, leaving thousands of his men debilitated with vomiting and violent convulsions. But even in this deplorable condition, Curio inspired his ailing men to attack the army of Varus in a steep uphill charge and won a stunning victory. Full of confidence, Curio now received a report that a small detachment of Juba''s forces was nearby. He led his men along a hot and waterless coastal road to what he hoped would be an easy victory, only to find the entire army of Juba waiting for him. Curio and his exhausted army were quickly urrounded by the Numidian cavalry and slaughtered like sheep. A few of the men serving under Caesar''s friend Asinius Pollio escaped by ship to Sicily, but those who surrendered to the merciless Numidians were slain. Curio himself fought bravely till the end, but was killed and decapitated, with his head presented to the jubilant king as a trophy.
Caesar could not afford to dwell on his losses in the Adriatic and Africa as Pompey was increasing the size of his army in Greece at a furious rate. Unless Caesar moved fast, Pompey would invade Italy early the next year. One piece of good news that Caesar received during the waning months of 49 B.C. was that his backers in Rome had secured him the office of dictator. With this position, like Sulla before him, he could reorganize the state and act with impunity. All of Rome now trembled as Caesar approached the gates of the capital, fearing that he, again like Sulla, would use his dictatorship to launch a bloodbath against his enemies.
When Caesar arrived in Rome on the way to Brundisium, he had no time to waste on debate or political niceties. Caught between the warring parties, the city was in crisis with critical food shortages and a shattered economy. Caesar spent only eleven days in the capital, but during that time he set the government and financial system on a sound footing. He first had himself elected consul for the following year so that he could pursue the war with at least the veneer of constitutional respectability. As his consular colleague Caesar chose Publius Servilius Isauricus, a one-time supporter of Cato who was also the son of his former commander in the pirate wars. Next, he issued a rapid series of decrees, beginning with a grain distribution to the starving populace. He then assigned new governors to the western provinces, had Juba declared an enemy of Rome in payment for his slaughter of Curio, and allowed those sons of men condemned by Sulla years before to stand for public office. Nor did Caesar neglect his supporters in northern Italy, confirming at last that those dwelling on both sides of the Po River were now and forever Roman citizens. As he was still the chief priest of Rome, Caesar also celebrated the great festival of Jupiter that had been neglected during the turmoil of the previous year. It provided a rare moment of cheer for the people of Rome during those uncertain days.
Caesar''s followers among the indebted knights and upper classes now licked their lips in anticipation of one last measure -- a general cancellation of debts. But instead of wiping the slate clean on loans and throwing the already fragile monetary system into chaos), Caesar passed a sensible law limiting repayments to a prewar level as determined by an impartial commission. Debtors howled that this was unfair, but the economy benefited greatly from Caesar''s moderation.
Most important of all, there were no proscriptions. Caesar did not use his dictatorial powers to order the execution of anyone nor did he condemn Pompey or any of those gathering against him in Greece. The people of the city, as well as Caesar''s enemies in Greece, were shocked that he did not seek revenge.
After less than two weeks in Rome, Caesar further surprised friend and foe alike by resigning his dictatorship. In conscious imitation of Cincinnatus centuries before, Caesar had taken on the mantle of ultimate power only to lay it down when the task was complete. Of course, Caesar had no intention of going back to his plow. As a consul of Rome with thousands of soldiers behind him he could afford a magnanimous gesture. But as he marched through the gates of Rome on the way to Brundisium, Caesar knew that few in the crowd that cold December believed he would return alive to the city. Pompey and his army were waiting for him just across the sea.
Copyright © 2008 by Philip Freeman
Excerpted from Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman Copyright © 2009 by Philip Freeman. Excerpted by permission.
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