Gripping onto the rails, the rigging, the masts, and their comrades, the men of the 6th Legion stood on the unsteady decks of the warships of the small fleet as they plowed through the eastern Mediterranean swell. Above them, the leather mainsails of the battleships and heavy cruisers billowed, filled by the seasonal trade winds from the north, the Etesians. In the ships of the little fleet, belowdecks, under sea-sick soldiers’ feet, oarsmen worked at banks of oars that rhythmically dipped and rose to the beat of the kalustes,timekeepers who relentlessly pounded out the rowing pace with wooden mallets on wooden blocks. It was the fall of 48 B.C., and Julius Caesar, backed by the men of the 6th Legion and a small number of other troops, was taking a large gamble. He was heading for Egypt in search of Pompey the Great.

After leaving the Farsala plain back in August, Caesar had ridden hard for Macedonia, driving his cavalry to make as many miles each day as their mounts would allow. In Macedonia he had found that while Pompey had issued orders for the drafting of troops in the region, he himself had never appeared there. Caesar hurried to the Hellespont, the modern Dardanelles. He was ferrying his cavalry across the strait to the province of Asia in small boats when a squadron of republican warships came up. The officer in command of these ships was Lucius Cassius, no relation to Brutus’s brother-in-law, the General Gaius Cassius of Battle of Carrhae fame, who had become one of Pompey’s admirals. Appian suggests that this junior commander Cassius had been sent to King Pharnaces of the Bosporan Kingdom by the Pompeians seeking support, and he was on his way to complete that mission when he ran into Caesar crossing the Dardanelles.

The number of ships Commander Cassius had with him is put at ten to seventy by Roman writers. From later events it is clear that Cassius had fourteen biremes or triremes detached from the Senate’s seventy-ship Asiatic Fleet commanded by Admiral Decimus Laelius. Commander Cassius, with his fourteen light cruisers, changed sides to Caesar there at the Dardanelles. Giving Cassius the task of fetching him more warships from the island of Rhodes and meeting him with those vessels at the port of Cnidus on the southern coast of Turkey, Caesar had continued his march into the Roman province of Asia.

At cities and towns throughout the province Caesar received such a warm welcome from the locals that he reduced their taxes by a third. At Ephesus he frightened away Pompey adherent Titus Ampius Balbus, a former praetor who’d planned to rob the city’s famous temple of Diana, and for this Caesar received the grateful thanks of the people of Ephesus. At Tralles the inhabitants proudly showed Caesar a statue they had recently consecrated to him. At the large city of Pergamum, close to the present-day town of Bergama, he was told that on August 9, the day of his victory at Farsala, the sound of drums had inexplicably come from deep within the holiest sanctums of the city’s ancient Greek temples.

At Pergamum, too, Caesar’s small staff was joined by a local nobleman, Mithradates of Pergamum. Likely to have been in his late twenties at this point, he was reputedly a son of Mithradates VI, King of Pontus, famous as Mithradates the Great and previously Rome’s formidable enemy in the East on and off for half a century. Mithradates the Great had several wives and numerous children, although some historians suggest Mithradates of Pergamum’s father was actually a noble named Menodotus and his mother a princess from Galatia who may have become a wife of the Pontic king, which would have made the younger Mithradates the king’s stepson.

Either way, he had been plucked out of the city of Pergamum as a child by the elder Mithradates, who at the time controlled all of Asia—because of the boy’s royal blood, according to Caesar’s staff officer Aulus Hirtius, who did not elaborate. The boy had been raised in Mithradates the Great’s court and treated by the king like a son, until the elderly monarch was defeated by Pompey and then murdered by his eldest son and heir, Pharnaces II.

Well educated, intelligent, a skilled and courageous soldier, according to Hirtius, and probably ruggedly handsome, as Mithradates Sr. had been in his youth, young Mithradates had a high standing among the elite of Pergamum at the time Caesar arrived in the city. All that the young Mithradates lacked were a fortune and a kingdom of his own. Looking for both, he threw in his lot with Caesar, who welcomed him into his entourage for the continued pursuit of Pompey.

Here at Pergamum the 6th Legion caught up with Caesar, as did, shortly after, the men of the five cohorts of the 28th Legion who had marched from Achaea in southern Greece. Adding the legionaries to his cavalry, Caesar led his small force of four thousand men down to the coast, to the city of Cnidus. Sitting on an island linked to the mainland by a small causeway at what today is Cape Kriyo, this prosperous trading city founded by Greeks three hundred years before and that had once been controlled by the Ptolemies of Egypt, had two excellent harbors: one for merchantmen, the other for warships. Here, at Cnidus, Caesar was joined by Admiral Cassius.

In addition to his fourteen Asiatic cruisers, Cassius brought ten heavy cruisers from the island of Rhodes, the latter squadron commanded by the Rhodian admiral Euphranor. The Greeks of Rhodes were famous as shipbuilders, seafarers, and businessmen. Their large mercantile fleet, originally developed to export Rhodian wine around the Mediterranean, had diversified to carry Egyptian grain, pitch, and lumber from Macedonia, marble from Paros, and honey, olive oil, and pottery from mainland Greece. In tandem with the expansion of her merchant shipping, Rhodes had built an efficient navy to defend the shipping lanes and to protect wealthy Rhodes itself. Rhodes’s sturdy warships were considered the finest afloat on all the Mediterranean.

This was why both Pompey and Caesar had sought Rhodes’s aid. Greeks in general were considered by Romans to be thinkers, not fighters, but Rhodian sailors were the exception. Euphranor had a reputation as a skillful naval commander and for, in the words of Caesar’s staff officer Colonel Hirtius, a “nobility of spirit and courage” that “challenged comparison with our own [Roman] people rather than merely with the Greeks.”

In late September, while at Cnidus, Caesar received news that Pompey had been spotted at Cyprus, from where, it was said, he had recruited two thousand slaves and sailed due south, for Egypt. Caesar had an impatient streak that impacted on all the major political and military decisions of his life. Now, worried that Pompey might win the support of the Egyptians unless he intervened, Caesar wondered whether he should continue to wait to be reinforced by General Domitius—as yet there was no sign of the 27th Legion or the former POWs Caesar hoped had been signed up by his officers back at Farsala. Caesar was sure he would be too late if he went overland to Egypt, a journey that would take weeks. The Etesian winds were blowing hard and strong down from the north, as they always did at this time of year, making a fast sea voyage to Egypt very tempting. Yet Caesar had only just enough shipping to carry the few troops now with him.

The welcome he had received along his route since he left Farsala had convinced Caesar that now that he had defeated the legendary Pompey the Great, he could rely on his name alone to win his way. Of the decision he now made, he was later to explain, “Relying on the fame of [my] exploits, [I] had not hesitated to set out with weak forces, thinking that all places would be safe to [me].”

Caesar embarked the men of the 6th and the 28th Legions together with his eight hundred cavalry and their mounts and equipment aboard the twenty-four warships he now controlled. Some of these massive battle cruisers were of the quadrireme andquinquereme classes. The latter, based on the standard warship of the Carthaginian navy of a hundred years before, was some 120 feet long with a beam of 14 feet. Like all ships of the era, it didn’t use the overlapping clinker construction method of today but had been built with its timbers nailed edge to edge over a framework—the carvel method.

The classical warship was steered not by a single rudder, but by a pair of steering oars protruding over the stern on the port and starboard sides. Both steering oars were connected by a mechanism of beams, so that a single helmsman could stand amidships in the stern and steer the ship by pushing the steering beam to left or right. Although it was equipped with a single demountable mast and square mainsail, the warship’s principal motive power was provided by 270 oarsmen in several banks of oars belowdecks. In battle, the quinquereme carried 120 marines for close-quarters ship-to-ship fighting and boarding operations, but for this voyage there were no marines; there was room enough only for Caesar’s soldiers and horses to be crowded on deck.

Not only did Caesar possess a limited number of troops for this venture, he also was limited in the number and quality of his officers, having left all his experienced generals back in Greece. Replacing General Cornificius as his quaestor or chief of staff he had promoted a young tribune who had yet to distinguish himself in combat. Brigadier General Tiberius Claudius Nero was only in his early twenties, but Caesar, who had been disregarding republican law as a matter of course since taking control at Rome and making appointments as he saw fit, had ignored the legal requirement that a quaestor be age thirty at a minimum.

Two years back, Nero had courted Marcus Cicero’s popular daughter Tullia. Cicero quite liked the young man, and after Nero had spoken with him and sought Tullia’s hand in marriage, Cicero, who was then in Cilicia completing his term as governor, had sent clients to Rome to see his wife, Servilia, and Tullia to propose a match. To Cicero’s surprise Servilia had written back to say that while she and Tullia had found Nero attentive and engaging, Tullia had given her heart to another—Publius Dolabella, the same Dolabella who later wrote so overconfidently to Cicero from the trenches at Durrës. Dolabella and Tullia had been married that same year, 50 B.C.

By the time young General Tiberius Nero was efficiently cramming Caesar’s men and equipment aboard the warships docked at Cnidus, he was still single. Destined to survive the desperate times that lay ahead for Caesar and his companions, within a few years he would marry Livia, beautiful daughter of former major general Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus. Livia would bear Tiberius Nero two children, Tiberius and Drusus, before divorcing Nero and marrying Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. For a time Tiberius Nero would raise the boys on his own, but he would die when they were still quite young, and Augustus would adopt them. Tiberius, General Nero’s eldest son, would one day become Augustus’s heir and Rome’s second emperor. Drusus would marry a daughter of Mark Antony and have two sons, Germanicus and Claudius. Claudius would become Rome’s fourth emperor. Germanicus Caesar would become one of Rome’s greatest heroes, while his son Gaius (Caligula) and his grandson Nero would each become emperor of Rome. But in 48 B.C., as Caesar’s little fleet made its way toward Egypt, no one could have imagined the impact the young quaestor’s descendants would have on Roman history.

Of Caesar’s other officers on the Egyptian expedition we know little. While his loyal staff officer since the conquest of Gaul, Colonel Aulus Hirtius, didn’t accompany him to Alexandria, Hirtius is credited by most historians with writing The Alexandrian War,one of the chapters attached to Caesar’s memoir of the civil war to round it out—Caesar’s personal account stops in the middle of his time in Egypt.

“I myself did not, as it happens, even take part in the Alexandrian and African campaigns,” Hirtius in 44 or 43 B.C. wrote to Lucius Cornelius Balbus, Caesar’s former chief of staff and subsequently publisher of his writings. “Although they are partly known to me from conversations with Caesar, it is one thing to listen to accounts that captivate one with the novelty and remarkable nature of events described, but quite another to listen with the aim of putting them on record.”

But put them on record he did, collating a number of eyewitness accounts of Caesar’s Egyptian, Pontic, African, and Spanish campaigns, and almost certainly personally writing much of The Alexandrian War. From the perspective of the events described in The Alexandrian War, one of Hirtius’s sources had to be a senior staff officer who was at Caesar’s headquarters at Alexandria, while one or more officers who served with the fleet would also have provided him with accounts of naval actions— accounts that Hirtius managed to jumble somewhat in his rush to meet Balbus’s persistent requests for Caesar’s memoirs to be quickly rounded out for publication.

Hirtius was in his late twenties or early thirties. Deeply superstitious and religious, he often invoked “the immortal gods” in his writings and gave them rather than generals credit for influencing the fortunes of war. He considered himself a man of letters and a gourmet, and was in regular correspondence with Cicero, who made fun of him to others and was not impressed with his editing of or contributions to Caesar’s memoirs. While Hirtius was present at Caesar’s side for several major battles, he himself didn’t shine as a soldier during this period nor later as a general when military command devolved upon him.

Twenty-eight-year-old Colonel Gaius Asinius Pollio, on the other hand, was a dashing officer. It’s probable that he went to Egypt with Caesar, most likely as commander of his cavalry—he had commanded cavalry for Caesar previously—and he may have been Hirtius’s headquarters source. Pollio had crossed the Rubicon with Caesar, after which he’d been sent to Sicily as commander of Gaius Curio’s mounted units and had boldly seized Sicily from Cato the Younger. After Curio had so disastrously invaded the province of Africa and was in the process of losing his legions and his life to prorepublican forces beside the Bagradas River, Pollio had been bringing up his cavalry, arriving too late to save either Curio or the 17th or 18th Legions. Pollio had been one of the few to escape back to Sicily, from where he had hurried to find Caesar in Italy and give him the news of the bloody defeat of Curio and his army. Pollio was absolved from any blame for the disaster in Africa—Caesar laid all the blame at the dead Curio’s feet. Pollio was thereafter constantly at Caesar’s side.

One member of Caesar’s staff who we know definitely accompanied him on this Egyptian expedition was the senior secretary Apollonius, whose participation was recorded by Cicero. Of Greek extraction, Apollonius had been a freedman, a former slave, in the service of Publius Crassus, one of Caesar’s most successful generals in Gaul who had later been killed by the Parthians along with his father at the Battle of Carrhae. Cicero later made Apollonius a client; Apollonius had been a member of his staff when Cicero was governor of Cilicia. Cicero was to commend his loyalty and good sense during that period.

Apollonius subsequently joined Caesar’s staff in the East. “I know him to be a scholar, much devoted to liberal studies since boyhood,” Cicero would write in a recommendation to Caesar. Apollonius, a big fan of Caesar, even had plans to write a biography of the great man. Cicero was to later note that, in Alexandria, Apollonius not only served Caesar with zeal and fidelity but also “saw military service” there at Caesar’s side—so desperate would the situation in the Egyptian capital become for Caesar and his men that his secretary would be forced to lay aside his pen and take up a sword.

On September 28, having bestowed Roman citizenship on all the delighted inhabitants of Cnidus, Caesar had sailed just as dusk was falling. As the two dozen galleys containing the small expeditionary force pulled away from Cnidus, they left the locals wondering where they were heading. Caesar was notorious for keeping his cards close to his chest and not revealing his plans to even his closest confidants. Nor did his deadpan expression or body language betray his thoughts or attitudes. He was like a house without windows; no one could look in and see what was going on inside.

True to form, Caesar didn’t tell his own men where they were going as they departed Cnidus. All he would say to the officers in charge of the other ships of his convoy was that by night they should follow the lantern that hung from the high, curved stern of his ship, and by day his consular standard, which flew in the same place. Once they were out of sight of land, and out of sight of enemy agents who might guess his destination from the direction he took, Caesar ordered the helmsman of his flagship to set a course for Alexandria. A direct course.

To sail directly to Egypt from southern Turkey was in those days considered very risky, even insane, by merchant skippers. Shipping of the day usually “coasted,” following the coast all the way around the Mediterranean from departure point to destination. This was primarily because navigators had neither instruments nor charts to work from. For a mariner to head into the open sea and put the shoreline out of view meant relying on the stars to guide him. It also meant that if a storm sprang up he would most likely be too far from land to seek shelter and could founder.

The men of the 6th Legion would not have been happy about this voyage across the open sea. Perhaps some of their centurions had served in the East before, and one or two may even have been in General Gabinius’s army that invaded Egypt, but as far as the rank and file were concerned, they were heading for a place they knew only from stories, the most southerly place they had ever been in their lives.

That was, if they survived the journey! To Romans, a voyage across the open sea, far from land, only invited disaster. And if their ship went down, they were done for. Few Romans could swim, especially not those among the lower classes. No Roman considered swimming a pastime, let alone a joy or a sport. Caesar himself could swim; Suetonius says he had been known to swim swift-flowing rivers, sometimes unaided, sometimes using an inflated pig’s bladder as a buoyancy aid. But, as with most things, Caesar was the exception. The only place most Romans could tolerate water was in the bathhouse. So the idea of spending days on end on a bucking, standing-room-only crossing of the Mediterranean with water on every horizon was both unnatural and frightening to the legionaries. Many a prayer to Neptune the sea god and to personal deities would have been uttered at various times during this voyage.

The warships did have the advantages of their solid construction and of their oars. Cargo ships were equipped with sails alone, so could only go where the winds blew them. A warship, with its banks of powerful oars, was less reliant on the wind. But because oarsmen couldn’t row forever, it was still always preferable to use the sails where possible.

As the men of the 6th had set sail for their unknown destination, there would have been much talk in their ranks about what Pompey might do once they caught up with him, and what Caesar would do. Caesar had gained a reputation for clemency in these early days of the war, and would soon write to Mark Antony and others at Rome that the greatest pleasure he had gained from his victories to date had come from granting the lives of his defeated adversaries. But, the men would have wondered, would he be so generous when it came to Pompey? None of them knew that on the same day they set sail from Cnidus, Pompey’s luck had run out and he had lost his life to the treachery of the Egyptians of Pelusium.

Caesar, on the other hand, was famous for his luck. He had hoped his luck stayed with him as he chanced the open-sea crossing to Egypt, and sure enough, the Etesians blew strong and uninterrupted, yet not so strong that they threatened the safety of Caesar’s little fleet.

After three full days at sea, the Egyptian coast was sighted. Then Caesar’s luck faltered a little. As, in the early evening, the ships turned to run along the coast toward Alexandria, dropping their sails and reverting to oar power, one of the ten Rhodian cruisers strayed too close to the shore. These big ships had a draft of less than five feet, enabling them to work close to shore, but this vessel was caught by the north wind and driven onto the rocks, where it was wrecked. There seem to have been few if any casualties; apparently the passengers and crew were taken on board the other ships for the last leg of the journey.

As October 2 dawned, the men of the 6th Legion and their fellow travelers from the 28th Legion donned their helmets and prepared their equipment as the twenty-three cruisers powered along the Egyptian coast. Before long, the city of Alexandria came into view, and legionaries who had laid bets on their destination would have claimed their winnings with a grin or paid up with a grimace.

Questions would have now filled their minds. Had Pompey reached Egypt ahead of them? How would the Egyptians receive them? Would they support Pompey? And if so, would they fight?

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