Julius Caesar

Pompey flies to Egypt

Pompey flies to Egypt.--State of Parties in Egypt.--Murder of Pompey.--His Character.--Caesar follows him to Alexandria.--Rising in the City.-- Caesar besieged in the Palace.--Desperate Fighting.--Arrival of Mithridates of Pergamus.--Battle near Cairo, and Death of the Young Ptolemy.--Cleopatra.--The Detention of Caesar enables the Optimates to rally.--Ill Conduct of Caesar's Officers in Spain.--War with Pharnaces.-- Battle of Zela, and Settlement of Asia Minor.

Annourbis.com > Julius Caesar > Chapter 23


The strength of the senatorial party lay in Pompey's popularity in the East. A halo was still supposed to hang about him as the creator of the Eastern Empire, and so long as he was alive and at liberty there was always a possibility that he might collect a new army. To overtake him, to reason with him, and, if reason failed, to prevent him by force from involving himself and the State in fresh difficulties, was Caesar's first object. Pompey, it was found, had ridden from the battlefield direct to the sea, attended by a handful of horse. He had gone on board a grain vessel, which carried him to Amphipolis. At Amphipolis he had stayed but a single night, and had sailed for Mitylene, where he had left his wife and his sons. The last accounts which the poor lady had heard of him had been such as reached Lesbos after the affair at Durazzo. Young patricians had brought her word that her husband had gained a glorious victory, that he had joined her father, Metellus Scipio, and that together they were pursuing Caesar with the certainty of overwhelming him. Rumor, cruel as usual,

Pompey flies to Egypt

Had brought smooth comforts false, worse than true wrongs.

Rumor had told Cornelia that Caesar had "stooped his head" before Pompey's "rage." Pompey came in person to inform her of the miserable reality. At Mitylene Pompey's family were no longer welcome guests. They joined him on board his ship to share his fortunes, but what those fortunes were to be was all uncertain. Asia had seemed devoted to him. To what part of it should he go? To Cilicia? to Syria? to Armenia? To Parthia? For even Parthia was thought of. Unhappily the report of Pharsalia had flown before him, and the vane of sentiment had everywhere veered round. The Aegean islands begged him politely not to compromise them by his presence. He touched at Rhodes. Lentulus, flying from the battlefield, had tried Rhodes before him, and had been requested to pass on upon his way. Lentulus was said to be gone to Egypt. Polite to Pompey the Rhodians were, but perhaps he was generously unwilling to involve them in trouble in his behalf. He went on to Cilicia, the scene of his old glory in the pirate wars. There he had meant to land and take refuge either with the Parthians or with one of the allied princes. But in Cilicia he heard that Antioch had declared for Caesar. Allies and subjects, as far as he could learn, were all for Caesar. Egypt, whither Lentulus had gone, appeared the only place where he could surely calculate on being welcome. Ptolemy the Piper, the occasion of so much scandal, was no longer living, but he owed the recovery of his throne to Pompey. Gabinius had left a few thousand of Pompey's old soldiers at Alexandria to protect him against his subjects. These men had married Egyptian wives and had adopted Egyptian habits, but they could not have forgotten their old general. They were acting as guards at present to Ptolemy's four children, two girls, Cleopatra and Arsinoe, and two boys, each called Ptolemy. The father had bequeathed the crown to the two elder ones, Cleopatra, who was turned sixteen, and a brother two years younger. Here at least, among these young princes and their guardians, who had been their father's friends, their father's greatest benefactor might count with confidence on finding hospitality.

For Egypt, therefore, Pompey sailed, taking his family along with him. He had collected a few ships and 2,000 miscellaneous followers, and with them he arrived off Pelusium, the modern Damietta. His forlorn condition was a punishment sufficiently terrible for the vanity which had flung his country into war. But that it had been his own doing the letters of Cicero prove with painful clearness; and though he had partially seen his error at Capua, and would then have possibly drawn back, the passions and hopes which he had excited had become too strong for him to contend against. From the day of his flight from Italy he had been as a leaf whirled upon a winter torrent. Plain enough it had long been to him that he would not be able to govern the wild forces of a reaction which, if it had prevailed, would have brought back a more cruel tyranny than Sylla's. He was now flung as a waif on the shore of a foreign land; and if Providence on each occasion proportioned the penalties of misdoing to the magnitude of the fault, it might have been considered that adequate retribution had been inflicted on him. But the consequences of the actions of men live when the actions are themselves forgotten, and come to light without regard to the fitness of the moment. The senators of Rome were responsible for the exactions which Ptolemy Auletes had been compelled to wring out of his subjects. Pompey himself had entertained and supported him in Rome when he was driven from his throne, and had connived at the murder of the Alexandrians who had been sent to remonstrate against his restoration. It was by Pompey that he had been forced again upon his miserable subjects, and had been compelled to grind them with fresh extortions. It was not unnatural under these circumstances that the Egyptians were eager to free themselves from a subjection which bore more heavily on them than annexation to the Empire. A national party had been formed on Ptolemy's death to take advantage of the minority of his children. Cleopatra had been expelled. The Alexandrian citizens kept her brother in their hands, and were now ruling in his name; the demoralized Roman garrison had been seduced into supporting them, and they had an army lying at the time at Pelusium, to guard against Cleopatra and her friends.

Of all this Pompey knew nothing. When he arrived off the port he learnt that the young king with a body of troops was in the neighborhood, and he sent on shore to ask permission to land. The Egyptians had already heard of Pharsalia. Civil war among the Romans was an opportunity for them to assert their independence, or to secure their liberties by taking the side which seemed most likely to be successful. Lentulus had already arrived, and had been imprisoned--a not unnatural return for the murder of Dion and his fellow-citizens. Pompey, whose name more than that of any other Roman was identified with their sufferings, was now placing himself spontaneously in their hands. Why, by sparing him, should they neglect the opportunity of avenging their own wrongs, and of earning, as they might suppose that they would, the lasting gratitude of Caesar? The Roman garrison had no feeling for their once glorious commander. "In calamity," Caesar observes, "friends easily become foes." The guardians of the young king sent a smooth answer, bidding Pompey welcome. The water being shallow, they despatched Achillas, a prefect in the king's army, and Septimius, a Roman officer, whom Pompey personally knew, with a boat to conduct him on shore. His wife and friends distrusted the tone of the reception, and begged him to wait till he could land with his own guard. The presence of Septimius gave Pompey confidence. Weak men, when in difficulties, fall into a kind of despairing fatalism, as if tired of contending longer with adverse fortune. Pompey stepped into the boat, and when out of arrow-shot from the ship was murdered under his wife's eyes. His head was cut off and carried away. His body was left lying on the sands. A man who had been once his slave, and had been set free by him, gathered a few sticks and burnt it there; and thus the last rites were bestowed upon one whom, a few months before, Caesar himself would have been content to acknowledge as his superior.

So ended Pompey the Great. History has dealt tenderly with him on account of his misfortunes, and has not refused him deserved admiration for qualities as rare in his age as they were truly excellent. His capacities as a soldier were not extraordinary. He had risen to distinction by his honesty. The pirates who had swept the Mediterranean had bought their impunity by a tribute paid to senators and governors. They were suppressed instantly when a commander was sent against them whom they were unable to bribe. The conquest of Asia was no less easy to a man who could resist temptations to enrich himself. The worst enemy of Pompey never charged him with corruption or rapacity. So far as he was himself concerned, the restoration of Ptolemy was gratuitous, for he received nothing for it. His private fortune, when he had the world at his feet, was never more than moderate; nor as a politician did his faults extend beyond weakness and incompetence. Unfortunately he had acquired a position by his negative virtues which was above his natural level, and misled him into overrating his capabilities. So long as he stood by Caesar he had maintained his honor and his authority. He allowed men more cunning than himself to play upon his vanity, and Pompey fell--fell amidst the ruins of a Constitution which had been undermined by the villanies of its representatives. His end was piteous, but scarcely tragic, for the cause to which he was sacrificed was too slightly removed from being ignominious. He was no Phoebus Apollo sinking into the ocean, surrounded with glory. He was not even a brilliant meteor. He was a weak, good man, whom accident had thrust into a place to which he was unequal; and ignorant of himself, and unwilling to part with his imaginary greatness, he was flung down with careless cruelty by the forces which were dividing the world. His friend Lentulus shared his fate, and was killed a few days later, while Pompey's ashes were still smoking. Two of Bibulus's sons, who had accompanied him, were murdered as well.

Caesar meanwhile had followed along Pompey's track, hoping to overtake him. In Cilicia he heard where he was gone; and learning something more accurately there of the state of Egypt, he took two legions with him, one of which had attended him from Pharsalia, and another which he had sent for from Achaia. With these he sailed for Alexandria. Together, so much had they been thinned by hard service, these legions mustered between them little over 3,000 men. The force was small, but Caesar considered that, after Pharsalia, there could be no danger for him anywhere in the Mediterranean. He landed without opposition, and was presented on his arrival, as a supposed welcome offering, with the head of his rival. Politically it would have been better far for him to have returned to Rome with Pompey as a friend. Nor, if it had been certain that Pompey would have refused to be reconciled, were services such as this a road to Caesar's favor. The Alexandrians speedily found that they were not to be rewarded with the desired independence. The consular fasces, the emblem of the hated Roman authority, were carried openly before Caesar when he appeared in the streets; and it was not long before mobs began to assemble with cries that Egypt was a free country, and that the people would not allow their king to be insulted. Evidently there was business to be done in Egypt before Caesar could leave it. Delay was specially inconvenient. A prolonged absence from Italy would allow faction time to rally again. But Caesar did not look on himself as the leader of a party, but as the guardian of Roman interests, and it was not his habit to leave any necessary work uncompleted. The etesian winds, too, had set in, which made it difficult for his heavy vessels to work out of the harbor. Seeing that troubles might rise, he sent a message to Mithridates of Pergamus, 1 to bring him reinforcements from Syria, while he himself at once took the government of Egypt into his hands. He forbade the Alexandrians to set aside Ptolemy's will, and insisted that the sovereignty must be vested jointly in Cleopatra and her brother as their father had ordered. 2he cries of discontent grew bolder. Alexandria was a large, populous city, the common receptacle of vagabonds from all parts of the Mediterranean. Pirates, thieves, political exiles, and outlaws had taken refuge there, and had been received into the king's service. With the addition of the dissolute legionaries left by Gabinius, they made up 20,000 as dangerous ruffians as had ever been gathered into a single city. The more respectable citizens had no reason to love the Romans. The fate of Cyprus seemed a foreshadowing of their own. They too, unless they looked to themselves, would be absorbed in the devouring Empire. They had made an end of Pompey, and Caesar had shown no gratitude. Caesar himself was now in their hands. Till the wind changed they thought that he could not escape, and they were tempted, naturally enough, to use the chance which fate had given them.

Pothinus, a palace eunuch and one of young Ptolemy's guardians, sent secretly for the troops at Pelusium, and gave the command of them to Achillas, the officer who had murdered Pompey. The city rose when they came in, and Caesar found himself blockaded in the palace and the part of the city which joined the outer harbor. The situation was irritating from its absurdity, but more or less it was really dangerous. The Egyptian fleet which had been sent to Greece in aid of Pompey had come back, and was in the inner basin. It outnumbered Caesar's, and the Alexandrians were the best seamen in the Mediterranean. If they came out, they might cut his communications. Without hesitation he set fire to the docks; burnt or disabled the great part of the ships; seized the Pharos and the mole which connected it with the town; fortified the palace and the line of houses occupied by his troops; and in this position he remained for several weeks, defending himself against the whole power of Egypt. Of the time in which legend describes him as abandoned to his love for Cleopatra, there was hardly an hour of either day or night in which he was not fighting for his very life. The Alexandrians were ingenious and indefatigable. They pumped the sea into the conduits which supplied his quarters with water, for a moment it seemed with fatal effect. Fresh water was happily found by sinking wells. They made a new fleet; old vessels on the stocks were launched, others were brought down from the canals on the river. They made oars and spars out of the benches and tables of the professors' lecture rooms. With these they made desperate attempts to retake the mole. Once with a sudden rush they carried a ship, in which Caesar was present in person, and he was obliged to swim for his life. 3 Still, he held on, keeping up his men's spirits, and knowing that relief must arrive in time. He was never greater than in unlooked-for difficulties. He never rested. He was always inventing some new contrivance. He could have retired from the place with no serious loss. He could have taken to his ships and forced his way to sea in spite of the winds and the Alexandrians. But he felt that to fly from such an enemy would dishonor the Roman name, and he would not entertain the thought of it.

[B.C. 47.] The Egyptians made desperate efforts to close the harbor. Finding that they could neither capture the Pharos nor make an impression on Caesar's lines, they affected to desire peace. Caesar had kept young Ptolemy with him as a security. They petitioned that he should be given up to them, promising on compliance to discontinue their assaults. Caesar did not believe them. But the boy was of no use to him; the army wished him gone, for they thought him treacherous; and his presence would not strengthen the enemy. Caesar, says Hirtius, considered that it would be more respectable to be fighting with a king than with a gang of ruffians. Young Ptolemy was released, and joined his countrymen, and the war went on more fiercely than before. Pompey's murderers were brought to justice in the course of it. Pothinus fell into Caesar's hands, and was executed. Ganymede, another eunuch, assassinated Achillas, and took his place as commander-in-chief. Reinforcements began to come in. Mithridates had not yet been heard of; but Domitius Calvinus, who had been left in charge of Asia Minor, and to whom Caesar had also sent, had despatched two legions to him. One arrived by sea at Alexandria, and was brought in with some difficulty. The other was sent by land, and did not arrive in time to be of service. There was a singular irony in Caesar being left to struggle for months with a set of miscreants, but the trial came to an end at last. Mithridates, skilful, active, and faithful, had raised a force with extraordinary rapidity in Cilicia and on the Euphrates. He had marched swiftly through Syria; and in the beginning of the new year Caesar heard the welcome news that he had reached Pelusium, and had taken it by storm. Not delaying for a day, Mithridates had gone up the bank of the Nile to Cairo. A division of the Egyptian army lay opposite to him, in the face of whom he did not think it prudent to attempt to cross, and from thence he sent word of his position to Caesar. The news reached Caesar and the Alexandrians at the same moment. The Alexandrians had the easiest access to the scene. They had merely to ascend the river in their boats. Caesar was obliged to go round by sea to Pelusium, and to follow the course which Mithridates had taken himself. Rapidity of movement made up the difference. Taking with him such cohorts as could be spared from his lines, Caesar had joined Mithridates before the Alexandrians had arrived. Together they forced the passage; and Ptolemy came only for his camp to be stormed, his army to be cut to pieces, and himself to be drowned in the Nile, and so end his brief and miserable life.

Alexandria immediately capitulated. Arsinoe, the youngest sister, was sent to Rome. Cleopatra and her surviving brother were made joint sovereigns; and Roman rumor, glad to represent Caesar's actions in monstrous characters, insisted in after years that they were married. The absence of contemporary authority for the story precludes also the possibility of denying it. Two legions were left in Egypt to protect them if they were faithful, or to coerce them if they misconducted themselves. The Alexandrian episode was over, and Caesar sailed for Syria. His long detention over a complication so insignificant had been unfortunate in many ways. Scipio and Cato, with the other fugitives from Pharsalia, had rallied in Africa, under the protection of Juba. Italy was in confusion. The popular party, now absolutely in the ascendant, were disposed to treat the aristocracy as the aristocracy would have treated them had they been victorious. The controlling hand was absent; the rich, long hated and envied, were in the power of the multitude, and wild measures were advocated, communistic, socialistic, such as are always heard of in revolutions, meaning in one form or another the equalization of wealth, the division of property, the poor taking their turn on the upper crest of fortune and the rich at the bottom. The tribunes were outbidding one another in extravagant proposals, while Caesar's legions, sent home from Greece to rest after their long service, were enjoying their victory in the license which is miscalled liberty. They demanded the lands, or rewards in money, which had been promised them at the end of the war. Discipline was relaxed or abandoned. Their officers wore unable, perhaps unwilling, to control them. They, too, regarded the Commonwealth as a spoil which their swords had won, and which they were entitled to distribute among themselves.

In Spain, too, a bad feeling had revived. After Caesar's departure his generals had oppressed the people, and had quarrelled with one another. The country was disorganized and disaffected. In Spain, as in Egypt, there was a national party still dreaming of independence. The smouldering traditions of Sertorius were blown into flame by the continuance of the civil war. The proud motley race of Spaniards, Italians, Gauls, indigenous mountaineers, Moors from Africa, the remnants of the Carthaginian colonies, however they might hate one another, yet united in resenting an uncertain servitude under the alternate ascendency of Roman factions. Spain was ripe for revolt. Gaul alone, Caesar's own province, rewarded him for the use which he had made of his victory, by unswerving loyalty and obedience.

On his landing in Syria, Caesar found letters pressing for his instant return to Rome. Important persons were waiting to give him fuller information than could be safely committed to writing. He would have hastened home at once, but restless spirits had been let loose everywhere by the conflict of the Roman leaders. Disorder had broken out near at hand. The still recent defeat of Crassus had stirred the ambition of the Asiatic princes; and to leave the Eastern frontier disturbed was to risk a greater danger to the Empire than was to be feared from the impatient politics of the Roman mob, or the dying convulsions of the aristocracy.

Pharnaces, a legitimate son of Mithridates the Great, had been left sovereign of Upper Armenia. He had watched the collision between Pompey and Caesar with a neutrality which was to plead for him with the conqueror, and he had intended to make his own advantage out of the quarrels between his father's enemies. Deiotarus, tributary king of Lower Armenia and Colchis, had given some help to Pompey, and had sent him men and money; and on Pompey's defeat, Pharnaces had supposed that he might seize on Deiotarus's territories without fear of Caesar's resentment. Deiotarus had applied to Domitius Calvinus for assistance; which Calvinus, weakened as he was by the despatch of two of his legions to Egypt, had been imperfectly able to give. Pharnaces had advanced into Cappadocia. When Calvinus ordered him to retire, he had replied by sending presents, which had hitherto proved so effective with Roman proconsuls, and by an equivocating profession of readiness to abide by Caesar's decision. Pharnaces came of a dangerous race. Caesar's lieutenant was afraid that, if he hesitated, the son of Mithridates might become as troublesome as his father had been. He refused the presents. Disregarding his weakness, he sent a peremptory command to Pharnaces to fall back within his own frontiers, and advanced to compel him if he refused. In times of excitement the minds of men are electric, and news travels with telegraphic rapidity if not with telegraphic accuracy. Pharnaces heard that Caesar was shut up in Alexandria and was in a position of extreme danger, that he had sent for all his Asiatic legions, and that Calvinus had himself been summoned to his assistance. Thus he thought that he might safely postpone compliance till the Roman army was gone, and he had the country to himself. The reports from Egypt were so unfavorable that, although as yet he had received no positive orders, Calvinus was in daily expectation that he would be obliged to go. It would be unsafe, he thought, to leave an insolent barbarian unchastised. He had learnt in Caesar's school to strike quickly. He had not learnt the comparison between means and ends, without which celerity is imprudence. He had but one legion left; but he had a respectable number of Asiatic auxiliaries, and with them he ventured to attack Pharnaces in an intricate position. His Asiatics deserted. The legion behaved admirably; but in the face of overwhelming numbers, it could do no more than cut its way to security. Pharnaces at once reclaimed his father's kingdom, and overran Pontus, killing, mutilating, or imprisoning every Roman that he encountered; and in this condition Caesar found Asia Minor on his coming to Syria.

It was not in Caesar's character to leave a Roman Province behind him in the hands of an invader, for his own political interests. He saw that he must punish Pharnaces before he returned to Rome, and he immediately addressed himself to the work. He made a hasty progress through the Syrian towns, hearing complaints and distributing rewards and promotions. The allied chiefs came to him from the borders of the Province to pay their respects. He received them graciously, and dismissed them pleased and satisfied. After a few days spent thus, he sailed for Cilicia, held a council at Tarsus, and then crossed the Taurus, and went by forced marches through Cappadocia to Pontus. He received a legion from Deiotarus which had been organized in Roman fashion. He sent to Calvinus to meet him with the survivors of his lost battle; and when they arrived, he reviewed the force which was at his disposition. It was not satisfactory. He had brought a veteran legion with him from Egypt, but it was reduced to a thousand strong. He had another which he had taken up in Syria; but even this did not raise his army to a point which could assure him of success. But time pressed, and skill might compensate for defective numbers.

Pharnaces, hearing that Caesar was at hand, promised submission. He sent Caesar a golden crown, in anticipation perhaps that he was about to make himself king. He pleaded his desertion of Pompey as a set-off against his faults. Caesar answered that he would accept the submission, if it were sincere; but Pharnaces must not suppose that good offices to himself could atone for injuries to the Empire. 4 The provinces which he had invaded must be instantly evacuated; his Roman prisoners must be released, and their property must be restored to them.

Pharnaces was a politician, and knew enough of Caesar's circumstances to mislead him. The state of Rome required Caesar's presence. A campaign in Asia would occupy more time than he could afford, and Pharnaces calculated that he must be gone in a few days or weeks. The victory over Calvinus had strengthened his ambition of emulating his father. He delayed his answer, shifted from place to place, and tried to protract the correspondence till Caesar's impatience to be gone should bring him to agree to a compromise.

Caesar cut short negotiations. Pharnaces was at Zela, a town in the midst of mountains behind Trebizond, and the scene of a great victory which had been won by Mithridates over the Romans. Caesar defied auguries. He seized a position at night on the brow of a hill directly opposite to the Armenian camp, and divided from it by a narrow valley. As soon as day broke the legions were busy intrenching with their spades and pickaxes. Pharnaces, with the rashness which if it fails is madness, and if it succeeds is the intuition of genius, decided to fall on them at a moment when no sane person could rationally expect an attack; and Caesar could not restrain his astonishment when he saw the enemy pouring down the steep side of the ravine, and breasting the ascent on which he stood. It was like the battle of Maubeuge over again, with the difference that he had here to deal with Asiatics, and not with the Nervii. There was some confusion while the legions were exchanging their digging tools for their arms. When the exchange had been made, there was no longer a battle, but a rout. The Armenians were hurled back down the hill, and slaughtered in masses at the bottom of it. The camp was taken. Pharnaces escaped for the moment, and made his way into his own country; but he was killed immediately after, and Asia Minor was again at peace.

Caesar, calm as usual, but well satisfied to have ended a second awkward business so easily, passed quickly down to the Hellespont, and had landed in Italy before it was known that he had left Pontus.

[1] Supposed to have been a natural son of Mithridates the Great. The reason for the special confidence which Caesar placed in him does not appear. The danger at Alexandria, perhaps, did not appear at the moment particularly serious.

[2] Roman scandal discovered afterward that Caesar had been fascinated by the charms of Cleopatra, and allowed his politics to be influenced by a love affair. Roman fashionable society hated Caesar, and any carrion was welcome to them which would taint his reputation. Cleopatra herself favored the story, and afterward produced a child, whom she named Caesarion. Oppius, Caesar's most intimate friend, proved that the child could not have been his--of course, therefore, that the intrigue was a fable; and the boy was afterward put to death by Augustus as an impostor. No one claims immaculate virtue for Caesar. An amour with Cleopatra may have been an accident of his presence in Alexandria. But to suppose that such a person as Caesar, with the concerns of the world upon his hands, would have allowed his public action to be governed by a connection with a loose girl of sixteen is to make too large a demand upon human credulity; nor is it likely that, in a situation of so much danger and difficulty as that in which he found himself, he would have added to his embarrassments by indulging in an intrigue. The report proves nothing, for whether true or false it was alike certain to arise. The salons of Rome, like the salons of London and Paris, took their revenge on greatness by soiling it with filth; and happily Suetonius, the chief authority for the scandal, couples it with a story which is demonstrably false. He says that Caesar made a long expedition with Cleopatra in a barge upon the Nile; that he was so fascinated with her that he wished to extend his voyage to Aethiopia, and was prevented only by the refusal of his army to follow him. The details of Caesar's stay at Alexandria, so minutely given by Hirtius, show that there was not a moment when such an expedition could have been contemplated. During the greater part of the time he was blockaded in the palace. Immediately after the insurrection was put down, he was obliged to hurry off on matters of instant and urgent moment. Of the story of Cleopatra's presence in Rome at the time of his murder, more will be said hereafter.

[3] Legend is more absurd than usual over this incident. It pretends that he swam with one hand, and carried his Commentaries, holding them above water, with the other. As if a general would take his MSS. with him into a hot action!

[4] "Neque provinciarum injurias condonari iis posse qui fuissent in se officiosi."--De Bello Alexandrino, 70.

Back - Next