Lucius Caienus was a soldier of the 6th Legion. On his gravestone would be inscribed, after his name and before the name of the unit in which he had served his Roman army enlistment, the fact that he had been a velite. This reference to velite must have been stipulated in his will, and been carried out by his executor—in which case, Legionary Caienus seems to have been very proud of that title, one that had fallen into disuse long before his death.
In times past, the velites had one of four classes of citizen serving in a Roman legion. In the centuries before Caesar’s time there had been just four Roman legions, I, II, III, and IIII (the legion number 4 was always written IIII, not IV). The men of these legions were conscripted into service at Rome annually—the name “legion” comes from the Latin word legio, meaning conscript. Every spring, the two consuls for the year took out the muster rolls and summoned the citizens of Rome to serve in the four legions, with each consul commanding two legions in the field. Late each October, the legions were disbanded and the men sent home.
When Rome had to go to war, her four legions were reinforced by units provided by her Italian allies: the Marsi tribe from just outside Rome sent their unit, the Martia Legion, named for Mars, the god of war, the Picenians of eastern Italy sent the Valeria, the “Powerful” Legion, and so on.
In these legions’ battle formations, the velites formed the first line. These were lightly armed men who acted as skirmishers. Their task was to disrupt the enemy before they reached the heavy infantry of the second line. On the march, the velites served as scouts, spies, and foragers. But by Caesar’s time the velites had been phased out, having been replaced in the light infantry role by auxiliaries—noncitizen soldiers provided by Rome’s allies.
When Caesar sailed to Alexandria, he did so without any auxiliary light infantry whatsoever. This meant that once he and his four thousand legionaries and cavalry troopers were encircled in the city, he was devoid of troops he would normally use in the skirmishing role. The fact that Legionary Caienus proudly had the title velite inscribed on his tombstone suggests that at Alexandria Caesar pulled out a small number of men from his legionary cohorts, handpicking them in the same way he chose his centurions, and assigned them the velite role. Certainly he needed men who were quick on their feet to conduct night patrols and keep an eye on Egyptian activities, and to run messages to and maintain contact with his sailors at the harbor.
Another task that fell to these scouts would have been foraging fodder for about nine hundred horses used by Caesar’s cavalry and officers. Caesar’s intent was to eventually break out of the city once the hoped-for reinforcements arrived, and then draw the Egyptians into battle in the open, when he could use his cavalry to best advantage. For this reason he didn’t even contemplate sacrificing some of his mounts—not to cut down on the quantity of horse feed he would require, nor to provide horsemeat for his men.
Not that the legionaries would have appreciated being given horsemeat to eat; their dietary staples were bread and olive oil, with meat used only as a supplement. There would be times in the future when legionaries would go on strike when the grain supply ran out and they were offered meat in its place.
At Alexandria, Caesar kept his horses fed in a novel way. At night, his foragers crept from their lines to the marsh that occupied his southern perimeter. Under the noses of Egyptian guards on the city walls nearby, these foragers cut weeds from the marsh and brought them back inside their lines. In daylight, these weeds were laid out in the sun, on pavements and rooftops in the Roman sector, and dried out. Fortunately for Caesar and his troops, the horses ate this feed and survived.
But this was the least of the Romans’ worries, for the Egyptians were determined to defeat Caesar and his little army within the city. And as the men of the 6th Legion and their fellow Romans soon discovered, the troops facing them were no pushovers. Even Caesar was to concede that the Egyptian army “appeared by no means contemptible either in numbers or in the quality of the men or their military experience.” These men weren’t all Egyptian. In fact, many were foreigners, and there was something of the quality of the latter-day French Foreign Legion about the Egyptian army that now confronted Caesar’s troops.
In addition to General Gabinius’s former Roman troops, who apparently made up the bulk of the Egyptian army’s middle-ranking officers, the men of this army were a mixed bag from throughout the East. Chief among them were Cilicians, men from the Roman province of Cilicia in present-day Turkey, who had two decades earlier plied the Mediterranean as pirates. They had done so in such numbers—there had been tens of thousands of them—that these Cilician pirates had paralyzed Roman maritime trade in the East for years. Pompey the Great, authorized by the Senate to use all necessary means to terminate this pirate threat to free up Roman trade, had loaded his legions aboard 270 warships, trained them as marines, and had gone after the buccaneers on the high sea. He had soon drawn the pirates into battles in which the better-trained, better-equipped legionaries had invariably come off better in boarding operations.
This tactic hadn’t eliminated the pirate menace, but the buccaneers from Cilicia soon discovered that nine times out of ten when they put to sea, Pompey’s pirate-busters would appear on the horizon. Pompey had then employed a tactic for which he was renowned: he cleverly terminated a military problem with a financial solution. Often he very effectively bribed the officers, advisers, or family members of his enemies to murder their generals—both Mithradates the Great and General Sertorius in Spain had ultimately perished in this manner. This time Pompey bribed the entire pirate community to give up the sea and settle on land he gave them in Cilicia.
Skeptics in Rome had been sure this scheme would fail, but twenty thousand pirates had taken Pompey’s offer of a pardon, a bounty, and a plot of land, had sunk their ships, and taken up the plow, becoming model settlers. But not every pirate chose to become a farmer. Some of these Cilicians who were not prepared to lay down their swords had gone in search of gainful employment of their fighting skills elsewhere. In Egypt they had found recruiting officers only too willing to sign up tough men who would fight for any master for money.
In the same way, bandits operating in Syria who had been driven out of their country by Rome’s legions had come south and joined the Egyptian army. And escaped Roman slaves from throughout the East knew that if they reached Egypt they would be welcomed into the Egyptian army’s ranks as fighting men. Likewise, the escaped slaves of wealthy Egyptians were signed up, no questions asked.
Caesar says that the sense of brotherhood among these Egyptian troops was so strong that if a runaway slave in the army’s ranks had in the past been identified and arrested by his master, the man’s comrades in arms had banded together and rescued him. A threat of violence to any one of them, Caesar was told, was considered a threat of violence to them all.
This esprit de corps had kept the Egyptian army welded together for decades. But their loyalty was to themselves, first and foremost, and to whoever paid the best. Many of these men had served Cleopatra’s older sister Queen Berenice and then, for money, had not resisted the restoration of King Ptolemy XII when Gabinius’s legions came marching down from Syria. In the past these troops had successfully demanded the execution of royal favorites they disliked, had succeeded in plundering the homes of certain rich Alexandrians, and had even besieged the royal palace to demand a pay raise.
Now the men of the Egyptian army were being driven by this long-established comradeship and a haughty pride, by a dislike of foreign invaders, and by competing pledges of big bonuses being offered by both Princess Arsinoe and General Achillas, for Arsinoe was not content to be merely a figurehead and to let Achillas run things. Encouraged by her tutor Ganymede, she was intent in taking total control. Recognizing this, Achillas was trying to buy the continued loyalty of his men and sideline the teenager.
Caesar was amused to learn of this competition for the loyalty of the troops on the other side. But he was not amused when several Egyptian prisoners were brought to him. These men had been intermediaries between King Ptolemy’s adviser Pothinus and General Achillas. Betrayed by members of Pothinus’s retinue, the intermediaries were caught red-handed carrying a message from Pothinus to Achillas urging the Egyptian general not to slacken in his efforts to defeat the Romans and not to lose heart. This was all the evidence Caesar needed to rid himself of a sinister snake in the grass and a major detrimental influence on young King Ptolemy. Caesar immediately had Pothinus arrested, and ordered his execution. A burly German trooper of his bodyguard would have soon after cleaved the kneeling Pothinus’s head from his shoulders with a blow from his sword.
Probably in reprisal for Pothinus’s execution, Achillas had his Roman prisoner General Lentulus, former commander of the 6th Legion, also put to death. Achillas was determined to win this contest with Caesar, and as soon as a drawn-out siege became apparent, Achillas dispatched envoys and recruiting officers to every part of the kingdom of Egypt to draft men into militia units for the war against the Romans. Some of these militia-men were used to bolster garrisons at outlying centers such as Pelusium, but most were hurriedly marched to Alexandria to join operations there. Every adult male slave in Alexandria also was drafted and armed for the duration.
By this means Achillas more than doubled and perhaps quadrupled the number of men he had under arms in Alexandria, and this enabled him to use the militia to man the strung-out defense line that zigged and zagged through the city while the Egyptian army’s regulars were based at several points in the most densely populated parts of the city as rapid reaction forces, to be deployed in offensive action when weaknesses in Caesar’s defenses were detected, or to counter assaults by the Romans.
Vast quantities of ammunition were brought into the city by the Egyptians, along with stone-throwing and arrow-firing catapults. Achillas also set up huge workshops in the suburbs to manufacture weapons, ammunition, and siege equipment. The Egyptians had excellent engineers and stonemasons in their ranks, and they flung up barriers blocking off every street and alleyway around the Roman sector. The tallest of their siege walls were forty feet high and used smooth, dressed blocks of stone so they could not be climbed. In the lower-lying parts of the city Achillas’s engineers built giant stone guard towers ten stories tall; from these they could keep an eye on movements in the Roman sector. Other towers they built in wood; these they put on wheels, then hauled them, using manpower and horsepower, from one part of the encirclement to another as and when needed.
Colonel Hirtius gives credit to the Alexandrians engaged in the fighting against the Romans for being both intelligent and quick-witted. As soon as the Romans came up with some initiative or other, Hirtius was to write, the Egyptians would immediately copy it, until the Romans began to wonder whether they weren’t imitating the Egyptians, not the other way around.
Hirtius noted that the opposition also developed novel tactics of their own. One of these was directed at the Roman ships anchored in the Great Harbor. The existence of these vessels and their control of the Great Harbor were sore points for the Egyptians. At first they attempted to send boatloads of troops through the two arches from the Inner Harbor to the Great Harbor to board the Roman cruisers, but the crews of the warships were ready for them, and as the boats came through the arches they were drilled by the concentrated artillery fire of all of Caesar’s cruisers, to devastating affect.
With their boarding parties suffering heavy casualties and many small boats sunk, the Egyptians tried a new variant on the same theme, sending burning boats through the arches, hoping they would set fire to the ships of the Roman squadron. But adverse winds and more accurate Roman artillery fire ended that tactic before it could cause any damage. Cassius Dio indicates that these initial failures didn’t prevent the Egyptians from trying to employ fireboats again later.
Caesar extended the defensive line in his sector here and there, where he felt it was needed. He was especially anxious to secure his southern flank all the way to the marsh, with its supply of unlikely horse fodder, a flank he only partly held to begin with. Using aggressive operations, he demolished buildings and sent assault teams that drove out Egyptian occupiers in the south of his sector, until there were no enemy between him and the marsh. Not realizing how important the marsh and its contents were to Caesar, the Egyptians seemed to be not overly concerned at being driven out of this area, for they still occupied the city wall overlooking the marsh and so still hemmed in the Romans.
Every day, the Egyptians held large public meetings in various parts of Alexandria to keep up the spirits and the resolve of their people. An account of one of these meetings was to reach Caesar’s staff officer Aulus Hirtius, from someone who attended it. Hirtius wrote that the speaker—perhaps General Achillas himself—reminded the people of Alexandria that first General Gabinius had invaded their country several years back. Now, he said, Caesar had come with his army. Yet, “the death of Pompey has done nothing to prevent Caesar from lingering here. If we don’t drive him out, the kingdom will be turned into a [Roman] province.”
To instill a sense of urgency in his audience, the speaker urged his listeners to act quickly to defeat Caesar. The Egyptians knew that Caesar had sent for aid, but the speaker said that the stormy weather now setting in across the Mediterranean meant that the Romans were cut off here for the time being and unable to receive reinforcements by sea. They must defeat Caesar now, he said, while he was isolated. His audience would have gone away nodding in agreement.
Throughout his career, Julius Caesar was notorious for his good luck. And it was now that the goddess Fortune smiled on him once again. The rivalry between Princess Arsinoe and General Achillas had escalated and become lethal. Their competition had split the Egyptian partisans down the middle: the multinational army supported their general, a fighting man, while the members of the militia, being Egyptians all, swung behind their princess. With each leader trying to outdo and outsmart the other, both began to plot the overthrow of their opponent so they would have total command for themselves.
Finally, weeks into this damaging internal conflict, with the help of her tutor Ganymede, Arsinoe was able to terminate the rivalry by organizing the murder of General Achillas, apparently by bribing his guards. With Achillas out of the way, Arsinoe quickly assumed supreme command of all Egyptian forces, giving command of the regular army component to Ganymede.
The fact that the able and determined Achillas was no longer their chief adversary was a definite plus for Caesar and his troops, and a lucky break. Yet Ganymede was no fool. Although he had no military experience, he was extremely shrewd, and even more ruthless than his predecessor. To quell any unrest in the ranks of the army on the death of their general, and knowing that these troops spoke only one language—the language of money—he immediately increased the amount of the bonuses being offered to the troops if they defeated Caesar.
Then, at a council of war not long after taking command of the army, Ganymede proposed a novel way of forcing the Romans to either quit Alexandria or surrender. He reminded the other members of Princess Arsinoe’s Egyptian war cabinet that the water supply for much of the Roman sector of the city ran through part of Alexandria under Egyptian control. Here, said Ganymede, was a weapon they could and should use against the enemy.
Alexandria’s main source of freshwater was the Nile River, and a long, man-made watercourse, the Alexandrian Canal, ran from the Nile east of the city, then along its southern boundary, to enter the built-up area from the west. From that entry point a network of many smaller open channels cut into the bedrock beneath the city, and clay pipes laid by the city’s original builders conducted the water to storage cisterns throughout the city’s five precincts. There were some wells in private houses in the Roman sector, but the majority of the water being used by the invaders was delivered via this canal system. The drinking water delivered into Alexandria by this system was by no means perfect. Unlike Rome’s water, which was channeled many miles to the hilly city from distant lakes and springs by a number of aqueducts, and which was delivered reasonably clean to the population via many fountains spread throughout the city, Alexandria’s canal water was muddy and turbid.
Even in those times it was known that unclean water was not healthy, and in the words of Colonel Hirtius, Alexandria’s water gave rise to many different illnesses. “But the common people had no choice but be content with it,” said Hirtius. In the same way, the men of the 6th Legion and their fellow legionaries had to use this muddy water for drinking and washing. Remarkably, there is no record of dysentery or other similar hygiene-related illnesses or gastrointestinal problems affecting the Roman troops to any extent during this affair.
Water was life, and Ganymede won agreement from his war council to poison the water supply to the Roman sector to force the Romans out. It is probable that General Achillas had thought of this early on, but as poisoning the Romans would also mean poisoning the thousands of Alexandrians also trapped in that part of the city with the invaders, he had decided against that option. Ganymede had no such qualms.
Ganymede wasted no time setting the scheme in motion. First he had all the water channels leading into the Roman sector blocked off. That was the easy part; there were still wells in the Roman sector to counter. To do this, Ganymede had his engineers construct large water pumps operated by handturned wheels, and with these he gradually pumped vast quantities of seawater from the Inner Harbor into the city. The Roman sector occupied lower-lying ground than that flanking it, and from the higher ground Ganymede quietly poured the seawater toward the Roman positions each night, hoping it would contaminate the enemy’s wells.
Before long, the Roman troops occupying the area nearest the influx of seawater began to taste salt in the by now rationed water they were drawing from the few wells in their part of the town. Much discussion took place among the legionaries as to how this increasing salinity was occurring, but no one could come up with an answer—especially when soldiers stationed lower down in their sector said their water was unchanged. Within a few days, water from the northernmost wells was completely undrinkable, while that from wells farther south had become increasingly brackish. The morning that this became apparent, young men of the 28th Legion panicked, sure that either through some natural phenomenon, or the work of the gods, or an Egyptian ploy, their water was being poisoned, and it would only be a day or two before there was no more water left for the Romans to drink.
It was then that panic turned to near mutiny. Some men of the 28th were convinced that the water had been turned bad by divine intervention. More still were sure that the locals trapped in the Roman sector with the legionaries had poisoned the water and were secretly working with the Egyptians on the other side of the defenses to defeat the Romans. Even a number of Caesar’s officers had doubts about the trustworthiness of the locals. “If I had to defend the Alexandrians as being neither deceitful nor foolhardy,” Colonel Hirtius would later say, “I would be merely wasting so many words. In fact, when one gets to know both the nation and its nature, nobody can doubt this breed is most likely to be treacherous.”
The experienced men of the 6th Legion were more philosophical about the situation. They had, after all, been through plenty of desperate situations during their seventeen years in uniform, and had always managed to survive. They had signed up for service with Caesar for one very pragmatic reason: profit. And they knew that Alexandria was reputedly the richest city in the world. They would have told themselves that if they didn’t lose their heads, and once they defeated these stubborn locals, they would find themselves rich men. They had gone through situations where they had been deprived of water before now, most recently with General Afranius in eastern Spain before he’d surrendered them to Caesar. They had survived that drama; they would survive this one.
Just the same, they wouldn’t have kidded themselves that this was going to be easy. These Egyptians were, in Suetonius’s words, “well-equipped and cunning.” The men of the 6th accepted that. The Romans had a saying, “Where honey is, there are bees.” So the men of the 6th would take the stings in their stride; the honey was within their grasp. And while Caesar refrained from panicking, they would refrain from panicking.
When Caesar was brought the news of the upheaval among his own officers and men, and being acutely aware that the troublesome 28th Legion represented something like 60 percent of his manpower, he decided to take the bull by the horns and promptly called an assembly in the royal theater. After the revolt of all his own legions following the Battle of Pharsalus he was tired of revolts in the ranks, and he went to the assembly determined not to budge from his strategy of holding on at Alexandria until Roman reinforcements arrived. The potential rewards were far too great to pull out now. The downside did not even bear thinking about.
There, in the early evening, standing on the theater stage in the light of fluttering oil lamps and torches before the majority of his men of the 6th and 28th Legions, Caesar told them quite emphatically that departure from Alexandria was not an option. As he was to later confide to Colonel Hirtius, he acknowledged that the fighting in Alexandria took place amid great dangers, but to his mind rumors had made those dangers even greater than they were. Now he would counter rumors and revolt by focusing his men’s attention on a remedy to the latest danger. He instructed his centurions to cease all ongoing operations. “You will have the men devote themselves to digging wells,” he commanded the officers. “They will work continuously through the night.”
This solution hadn’t occurred to the rebellious rank and file. It was such a simple answer to the problem that every man gladly took up his digging tools and enthusiastically began digging in basements, courtyards, even in streets and alleys. With each cry of success from one digging site or another as water was found, the digging parties were driven to greater efforts through the night. When the sun rose the next morning and the troops lay down their tools, scores of new wells had generated new sources of untainted water. The crisis had been overcome.
Caesar, who was as much an engineering genius as a brilliant general, had probably thought of this simple and expedient resolution himself. Then again, he seems to have been the recipient of local knowledge throughout his stay in Alexandria. One of his sources of local knowledge would have been the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. From the moment the kidnapping of all four surviving members of the Egyptian royal family had been accomplished and she had lodged under Caesar’s roof, Cleopatra had set about winning Caesar’s confidence, his support, and his heart. She may have been young enough to be his daughter, but she was by now regularly in Caesar’s intimate company. So intimate, that before October was at an end Cleopatra had fallen pregnant—with Caesar’s child.
Two days after the night-long well-digging exercise, a courier slipped through the Egyptian lines with a message for Caesar: Roman reinforcements had arrived by sea from Asia and were just miles away, down the coast.