Mithradates of Pergamum had kept his word to Caesar. After landing in Syria and, from the principal Syrian port of Laodicea, sending Caesar’s dispatches on to General Domitius, he had met the 27th Legion, marching from Asia on Domitius’s orders. Taking over the legion’s command, and probably adding archers he’d recruited from Cyprus to the legion’s column, Mithradates led the 27th as far as Ascalon, on the Idumaean coast of Palestine.
Ascalon was the last port before Egypt, and here Mithradates paused to consolidate his forces, sending out letters to various local leaders in the region, including the king of nearby Nabataea, summoning help for Caesar. It seems that the Nabataeans, who were superb horsemen, subsequently sent a sizable contingent of cavalry. But others weren’t so forthcoming, and, fearing that his relief force was not strong enough to fight its way past the Egyptian garrison at Pelusium, Mithradates had sat there at Ascalon with the 27th Legion for weeks on end, waiting for more troops to materialize.
Ascalon was then a wealthy port city with a sizable Jewish population, and among those Mithradates approached to help Caesar was the Jewish community. Their leader was Antipater, an ambitious and charismatic Idumaean whose children included fourteen-year-old Herod, the future Herod the Great. Antipater had been a good friend to Rome during Pompey’s heyday. When, ten years before, General Gabinius had marched his legions down from Syria to invade Egypt and reinstall Ptolemy XII on his throne on Pompey’s orders, Antipater had provided auxiliary troops, money, weapons, and grain for the expedition.
With Pompey gone from the scene, the farsighted Antipater now recognized that even though Caesar was now in difficulties, his patronage, and through him Rome’s continued patronage, was vital to his own future. Antipater had married Cypros, a highborn Arabian woman, and he had close ties to King Aretas of Arabia—some years back the king had sheltered their four children, including young Herod, while Antipater fought off a rival. Antipater also had good relations with the rulers of the small independent nations and city-states throughout the region that were allied to Rome, states such as Chalcis, which extended up into Syria from the Sea of Galilee. Quickly making contact with his powerful friends throughout the region after learning of Caesar’s plight, Antipater urged them to join him in going to Caesar’s aid.
By the end of February 47 B.C., Antipater had been able to attract large numbers of troops from Arabia and other allied states in the region, among them a significant number of cavalry, and these all joined Mithradates and the 27th Legion at Ascalon. At the same time, Antipater himself assembled three thousand well-armed Jewish foot soldiers, and took his place in Mithradates’ army at their head.
Of equal importance, Antipater organized letters from the Jewish high priest, Hyrcanus bar Alexander, who also was the Jewish ethnarch, or chief magistrate, of Jerusalem. These letters were addressed to the Jewish elders of Egypt, calling on them not to support the Egyptians but instead to throw their support behind Caesar and provide him with money, provisions, and fighting men.
More reinforcements had been promised, but Mithradates, fretting that he had already delayed too long, decided to march on Egypt with the force he now had. With no shipping at his disposal, Mithradates had no choice but take the overland route. This meant having to fight his way past the Egyptian garrison at Pelusium.
In February, Mithradates’s column entered Egypt and marched on Pelusium. The Egyptian fortress quickly closed its gates as Mithradates’s army of perhaps twelve thousand men approached, and the Egyptian commander refused him passage.
While Pelusium dominated the narrow stretch of land between the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Suez, Mithradates could have marched on by. But he knew he would only have been inviting the strong Egyptian garrison originally posted here by General Achillas to emerge behind him, block his supply line and path of retreat, and attack him in his rear. Mithradates decided to lay siege to the Pelusium fortress and eliminate the garrison and the threat it posed.
Led by the Italian legionaries of the 27th, the attacking force swiftly encircled the fort with entrenchments. Once the fortress was cut off, Mithradates immediately sent his troops against the walls with battering rams. Through the day he regularly rotated his men working at the walls under cover of shields and mantlets—wooden siege sheds on wheels—frequently pulling out the wounded and the weary and replacing them with fresh cohorts.
When a breach was first made in the wall by a battering ram, it was a Jewish unit that achieved the success. Jewish historian Josephus writes that their commander, Antipater, personally pulled down part of the wall, opening the way for assault troops, which he then led as they poured into the city. Pelusium took just one day to storm and seize.
Leaving a garrison of his own at Pelusium to safeguard his back and guard his prisoners, Mithradates advanced into the Nile Delta. The Delta, named for the Greek letter whose shape it resembled, was then a lush paradise of wheat fields, vineyards, and orchards irrigated by the Nile and its numerous branches as they flared out to the Mediterranean. Here the Nile “swift parted into sevenfold branching mouths,” in the words of the poet Virgil, and “with black mud fattens and makes Egypt green.”
When the relief column approached a district known as Onias, or Onion, the large local Jewish community here initially resisted its passage. So Antipater, as a Jew, met with the Jews of Onias, and showed them the letters he carried from High Priest Hyrcanus. On reading the letters, the Jews of Onias came over to the invaders, who continued their advance. Once they heard about this, the Jews living in and around the city of Memphis, the pharaohs’ capital of Egypt in centuries past, sent to Mithradates and invited him to come to them in peace. So Mithradates marched inland to the Nile proper and to Memphis, and there, the Jews of Memphis also joined his growing army.
News of the success and approach of the Roman relief force caused great alarm at the royal palace in Alexandria. This was the Roman relief force the Egyptians had been expecting to come by sea. A task force of regular soldiers and militia was swiftly put together and dispatched from the capital by King Ptolemy, with orders to deal with Mithradates and his troops before they could reach Caesar in Alexandria.
According to Colonel Hirtius, this Egyptian force had instructions to either destroy or delay the relief force. Delay would be good enough, in the opinion of the Egyptian leadership, for they felt sure they had Caesar on the ropes in Alexandria. Knowing his supply situation in the city was by now critical, knowing that many of his troops had previously been close to mutiny when their water supply was threatened, and feeling able to prevent convoys reaching him by sea with their larger navy, they were convinced it was just a matter of time before Caesar was forced to capitulate—if they could prevent reinforcements and supplies from reaching him overland.
There are several differing accounts of what followed. Colonel Hirtius, who went out of his way not to be critical of Caesar or his subordinates when he put together Caesar’s memoirs, would have us believe that Mithradates had an easy victory over the Egyptian army sent to intercept him. The Jewish historian Josephus tells a different story, or, to be more precise, the complete story, about what happened:
Mithradates advanced the Roman relief force down the Nile from Memphis toward Alexandria with the river on his left, and in the third week of March made a fortified camp for the night on high ground near the river at a place known locally as Jews Camp. The army sent by Ptolemy approached from Alexandria, and, late in the day, the Egyptian advance party, without waiting for the vanguard of their army to link up with them, crossed the Nile, using riverboats. Overconfident and keen for glory, they immediately attacked Mithradates’ camp.
Seeing that the attackers were concentrating on one sector of his defenses, Mithradates led a sally by a number of his troops, emerging from a rear gate of his camp, out of sight of the Egyptians attacking the wall on the far side. Coming up behind the enemy, Mithradates’s troops surprised the Egyptians and killed a number of them. The remainder fled, using the boats with which they had come to withdraw back across the river. Here Hirtius’s account of this episode ends with just the comment that the Egyptian survivors of the advance party linked up with their main expeditionary army, which launched a new attack on Mithradates.
As Josephus tells us, the day following the first skirmish at Jews Camp, the main Egyptian army crossed the river and built a fortified camp in the Roman style close by Mithradates’s camp, before coming out onto the river flat and forming up opposite the Roman camp ready for battle.
According to the later Roman historian Cassius Dio, whose source is unknown, the commander of the Egyptian forces here was Dioscorides, the envoy of the king wounded by General Achillas months before. This means that young King Ptolemy and his general, Ganymede, remained back in Alexandria with the rest of the army.
Josephus says that Mithradates decided to accept the Egyptian invitation to fight and led his troops out, forming them in battle order. The men of the Roman force apparently had their backs to the river. Allocating the 27th Legion to his right wing, where he stationed himself, Mithradates gave the left wing to Antipater and his Jewish contingent, which, bolstered by the addition of the Jews of Onias and Memphis, would now have contained about the same number of men as the legion, five thousand to six thousand. The other allied infantry were placed in the middle of the battle line, with the cavalry split between the two wings as usual.
Both sides charged simultaneously. On the left, Antipater’s Jewish fighters had a torrid time of it to begin with. Antipater himself was wounded more than once, but, ignoring his injuries, he led from the front, and fighting like a demon, he was able to drive back the Egyptians facing him.
Before long, the unrelenting onslaught of the Jewish troops had forced the Egyptians on the left wing to turn and run. Looking around, Antipater saw that on the right wing the 27th Legion was withdrawing under heavy pressure from a large number of Egyptians, taking numerous casualties in the process. Dead, mutilated, and wounded Roman legionaries lay all over the battlefield on the former Roman right wing.
Going to Mithradates’ aid, Antipater led his Jewish contingent down the riverbank at the run and then swung in behind the Egyptians who were harrying the hard-pressed Mithradates and the 27th, plowing into the surprised Egyptians from the rear. Antipater personally fought his way through the Egyptians to reach Mithradates, who was surrounded and in danger of being overrun. Mithradates would later write to Caesar that Antipater saved his life there beside the Nile.
Antipater’s fighting Jews didn’t stop there. They drove the Egyptians from the battlefield and then overran their camp. It was a victory for the relief force, but a costly one. The 27th Legion lost eight hundred men killed in the battle and suffered an undisclosed number of wounded, while Antipater lost fifty to eighty of his men.
Egyptian losses were not recorded, but they were not sufficient to end the threat this force posed. Their commander, Dioscorides, rallied his troops, regrouped, and built a new camp downriver in Mithradates’ path. Mithradates and Antipater retired to their own camp to patch up their wounded and take stock.
Both sides now sent urgent messages to their respective commanders in chief at Alexandria. Mithradates told Caesar of the Battle of Jews Camp and the mauling he had received, and informed him that the Egyptians still stood in the way of his now bloodied relief force and prevented him from reaching Caesar.
Dioscorides would have informed his young king that the Romans and their allies had been held at the Nile, but there was no telling how much longer they could be contained with the troops available.
Both sides called for urgent reinforcements from their commanders in chief.