A while back, in a “shelves” piece on Steven Saylor, friend and commenter Steve Skubinna recommended in the comments section a series of books by Australian historian and researcher, Stephen Dando-Collins, that record the histories of several important Roman legions. I recently purchased Cleopatra’s Kidnappers: How Caesar’s Sixth Legion Gave Egypt to Rome and Rome to Caesar, and finished it this morning. The first thing I need to do is thank Steve Skubinna for the tip (Thanks, Steve!). This is a first-rate historical work, extremely well researched, and written in a fast-paced, non-pedantic style that makes it read almost like a novel.
The 6th Legion originally found itself on what turned out to be the losing side of the Roman civil war in the late 40s B.C. Julius Caesar, filled with ambition to expand his personal power, defeated the head of the republican forces under Pompey the Great at the Battle of Pharsalus in central Greece in 48 B.C. Toward the end of the battle, when it became clear that Caesar had won, the 6th Legion had assumed the orbis formation: a last-ditch defensive ring. Caesar, however, spared the 6th; the legion was one that had been created by Pompey seventeen years before, and Caesar, himself, had commanded it for two years during his battles in Gaul. Made up of tough, experienced Spanish troops, the 6th was a formidable fighting machine, and Caesar calculated that he would need such men to win the civil war. He offered them a pardon and an array of financial incentives to join his army. They came over to Caesar’s side and were instrumental in helping him defeat Egypt’s King Ptolemy XIII, and in placing Cleopatra firmly on the throne she had formerly shared with her brother. While the book focuses on what has sometimes been referred to as Caesar’s “dalliance” in Egypt – in truth, a closely-run, months-long, life-and-death struggle between Caesar’s outnumbered army and a surprisingly well-trained, highly motivated and well-lead Egyptian force – it also follows the fortunes of the 6th in the final battles of the civil war, all the way up to the assassination of Julius Caesar, the pursuit of Brutus and Cassius, and the final showdown between Mark Anthony and Octavian.
Here is a description of Julius Caesar’s fateful decision in the aftermath of the battle of Pharsalus:
And so it happened that among the tens of thousands of Pompeian prisoners on the Farsala plain were the men of the 6th Legion – less than a thousand of them, but veteran Spanish legionaries just the same. What was more, Caesar well remembered that these men had marched for him in Gaul for two years, so he directed his officers to initially concentrate on the legionaries of the 6th. Not only were these men of the 6th Legion the best soldiers among all the surrendered Pompeians, but also if they signed up for Caesar they were so well respected by the other prisoners that many others could be expected to follow their lead.Fascinating history, splendidly written.
It didn’t trouble Caesar that these men of the 6th had previously made a moral choice against him and for Pompey and the republic, and had ignored the bounty he’d given them two years before when they were led back to spain. Suetonius said of him, “He judged his men by their fighting record, not by their morals.”