Chapter 7: the Alexandrine War


The war which ensued as the result of the intrigues and maneuvers described in the last chapter is known in the history of Rome and Julius Caesar as the Alexandrine war. The events which occurred during the progress of it, and its termination at last in the triumph of Caesar and Cleopatra, will form the subject of this chapter.

Achillas had greatly the advantage over Caesar at the outset of the contest, in respect to the strength of the forces under his command.

Caesar, in fact, had with him only a detachment of three or four thousand men, a small body of troops which he had hastily put on board a little squadron of Rhodian galleys for pursuing Pompey across the Mediterranean. When he set sail from the European shores with this inconsiderable fleet, it is probable that he had no expectation even of landing in Egypt at all, and much less of being involved in great military undertakings there. Achillas, on the other hand, was at the head of a force of twenty-thousand effective men. His troops were, it is true, of a somewhat miscellaneous character, but they were all veteran soldiers, inured to the climate of Egypt, and skilled in all the modes of warfare which were suited to the character of the country. Some of them were Roman soldiers, men who had come with the army of Mark Antony from Syria when Ptolemy Auletes, Cleopatra's father, was reinstated on the throne, and had been left in Egypt, in Ptolemy's service, when Antony returned to Rome. Some were native Egyptians. There was also in the army of Achillas a large number of fugitive slaves, --refugees who had made their escape from various points along the shores of the Mediterranean, at different periods, and had been from time to time incorporated into the Egyptian army. These fugitives were all men of the most determined and desperate character.

Achillas had also in his command a force of two thousand horse. Such a body of cavalry made him, of course, perfect master of all the open country outside the city walls. At the head of these troops Achillas gradually advanced to the very gates of Alexandria, invested the city on every side, and shut Caesar closely in.

The danger of the situation in which Caesar was placed was extreme; but he had been so accustomed to succeed in extricating himself from the most imminent perils, that neither he himself nor his army seem to have experienced any concern in respect to the result. Caesar personally felt a special pride and pleasure in encountering the difficulties and dangers which now beset him, because Cleopatra was with him to witness his demeanor, to admire his energy and courage, and to reward by her love the efforts and sacrifices which he was making in espousing her cause. She confided every thing to him, but she watched all the proceedings with the most eager interest, elated with hope in respect to the result, and proud of the champion who had thus volunteered to defend her. In a word, her heart was full of gratitude, admiration, and love.

The immediate effect, too, of the emotions which she felt so strongly was greatly to heighten her natural charms. The native force and energy of her character were softened and subdued. Her voice, which always possessed a certain inexpressible charm, was endued with new sweetness through the influence of affection. Her countenance beamed with fresh animation and beauty, and the sprightliness and vivacity of her character, which became at later periods of her life boldness and eccentricity, now being softened and restrained within proper limits by the respectful regard with which she looked upon Caesar, made her an enchanting companion. Caesar was, in fact, entirely intoxicated with the fascinations which she unconsciously displayed.

Under other circumstances than these, a personal attachment so strong, formed by a military commander while engaged in active service, might have been expected to interfere in some degree with the discharge of his duties; but in this case, since it was for Cleopatra's sake and her behalf that the operations which Caesar had undertaken were to be prosecuted, his love for her only stimulated the spirit and energy with which he engaged in them.

The first measure to be adopted was, as Caesar plainly perceived, to concentrate and strengthen his position in the city, so that he might be able to defend himself there against Achillas until he should receive re-enforcements from abroad. For this purpose he selected a certain group of palaces and citadels which lay together near the head of the long pier of cause way which led to the Pharos, and, withdrawing his troops from all other parts of the city, established them there. The quarter which he thus occupied contained the great city arsenals and public granaries. Caesar brought together all the arms and munitions of war which he could find in other parts of the city, and also all the corn and other provisions which were contained either in the public depôts or in private warehouses, and stored the whole within his lines.

He then inclosed the whole quarter with strong defenses. The avenues leading to it were barricaded with walls of stone. Houses in the vicinity, which might have afforded shelter to an enemy, were demolished and the materials used in constructing walls wherever they were needed, or in strengthening the barricades. Prodigious military engines, made to throw heavy stones, and beams of wood, and other ponderous missiles, were set up within his lines, and openings were made in the walls and other defenses of the citadel, wherever necessary, to facilitate the action of these machines.

There was a strong fortress situated at the head of the pier or mole leading to the island of Pharos, which was without Caesar's lines, and still in the hands of the Egyptian authorities. The Egyptians thus commanded the entrance to the mole. The island itself, also, with the fortress at the other end of the pier, was still in the possession of the Egyptian authorities, who seemed disposed to hold it for Achillas.

The mole was very long, as the island was nearly a mile from the shore.

There was quite a little town upon the island itself, besides the fortress or castle built there to defend the place. The garrison of this castle was strong, and the inhabitants of the town, too, constituted a somewhat formidable population, as they consisted of fishermen, sailors, wreckers, and such other desperate characters, as usually congregate about such a spot. Cleopatra and Caesar, from the windows of their palace within the city, looked out upon this island, with the tall light house rising in the center of it and the castle at its base, and upon the long and narrow isthmus connecting it with the main land, and concluded that it was very essential that they should get possession of the post, commanding, as it did, the entrance to the harbor.

In the harbor, which was on the south side of the mole, and, consequently, on the side opposite to that from which Achillas was advancing toward the city, there were lying a large number of Egyptian vessels, some dismantled, and others manned and armed more or less effectively. These vessels had not yet come into Achillas's hands, but it would be certain that he would take possession of them as soon as he should gain admittance to those parts of the city which Caesar had abandoned. This it was extremely important to prevent; for, if Achillas held this fleet, especially if he continued to command the island of Pharos, he would be perfect master of all the approaches to the city on the side of the sea. He could then not only receive re-enforcements and supplies himself from that quarter, but he could also effectually cut off the Roman army from all possibility of receiving any. It became, therefore, as Caesar thought, imperiously necessary that he should protect himself from this danger. This he did by sending out an expedition to burn all the shipping in the harbor, and, at the same time, to take possession of a certain fort upon the island of Pharos which commanded the entrance to the port. This undertaking was abundantly successful. The troops burned the shipping, took the fort, expelled the Egyptian soldiers from it, and put a Roman garrison into it instead, and then returned in safety within Caesar's lines. Cleopatra witnessed these exploits from her palace windows with feelings of the highest admiration for the energy and valor which her Roman protectors displayed.

The burning of the Egyptian ships in this action, however fortunate for Cleopatra and Caesar, was attended with a catastrophe which has ever since been lamented by the whole civilized world. Some of the burning ships were driven by the wind to the shore, where they set fire to the buildings which were contiguous to the water. The flames spread and produced an extensive conflagration, in the course of which the largest part of the great library was destroyed. This library was the only general collection of the ancient writings that ever had been made, and the loss of it was never repaired.

The destruction of the Egyptian fleet resulted also in the downfall and ruin of Achillas. From the time of Arsinoë's arrival in the camp there had been a constant rivalry and jealousy between himself and Ganymede, the eunuch who had accompanied Arsinoë in her flight. Two parties had been formed in the army, some declaring for Achillas and some for Ganymede. Arsinoë advocated Ganymede's interests, and when, at length, the fleet was burned, she charged Achillas with having been, by his neglect or incapacity, the cause of the loss. Achillas was tried, condemned, and beheaded. From that time Ganymede assumed the administration of Arsinoë's government as her minister of state and the commander-in-chief of her armies.

About the time that these occurrences took place, the Egyptian army advanced into those parts of the city from which Caesar had withdrawn, producing those terrible scenes of panic and confusion which always attend a sudden and violent change of military possession within the precincts of a city. Ganymede brought up his troops on every side to the walls of Caesar's citadels and intrenchments, and hemmed him closely in.

He cut off all avenues of approach to Caesar's lines by land, and commenced vigorous preparations for an assault. He constructed engines for battering down the walls. He opened shops and established forges in every part of the city for the manufacture of darts, spears, pikes, and all kinds of military machinery. He built towers supported upon huge wheels, with the design of filling them with armed men when finally ready to make his assault upon Caesar's lines, and moving them up to the walls of the citadels and palaces, so as to give to his soldiers the advantage of a lofty elevation in making their attacks. He levied contributions on the rich citizens for the necessary funds, and provided himself with men by pressing all the artisans, laborers, and men capable of bearing arms into his service. He sent messengers back into the interior of the country, in every direction, summoning the people to arms, and calling for contributions of money and military stores.

These messengers were instructed to urge upon the people that, unless Caesar and his army were at once expelled from Alexandria, there was imminent danger that the national independence of Egypt would be forever destroyed. The Romans, they were to say, had extended their conquests over almost all the rest of the world. They had sent one army into Egypt before, under the command of Mark Antony, under the pretense of restoring Ptolemy Auletes to the throne. Now another commander, with another force, had come, offering some other pretexts for interfering in their affairs. These Roman encroachments, the messengers were to say, would end in the complete subjugation of Egypt to a foreign power, unless the people of the country aroused themselves to meet the danger manfully, and to expel the intruders.

As Caesar had possession of the island of Pharos and of the harbor, Ganymede could not cut him off from receiving such re-enforcements of men and arms as he might make arrangements for obtaining beyond the sea; nor could he curtail his supply of food, as the granaries and magazines within Caesar's quarter of the city contained almost inexhaustible stores of corn. There was one remaining point essential to the subsistence of an army besieged, and that was an abundant supply of water. The palaces and citadels which Caesar occupied were supplied with water by means of numerous subterranean aqueducts, which conveyed the water from the Nile to vast cisterns built under ground, whence it was raised by buckets and hydraulic engines for use. In reflecting upon this circumstance, Ganymede conceived the design of secretly digging a canal, so as to turn the waters of the sea by means of it into these aqueducts. This plan he carried into effect. The consequence was, that the water in the cisterns was gradually changed. It became first brackish, then more and more salt and bitter, until, at length, it was wholly impossible to use it. For some time the army within could not understand these changes; and when, at length, they discovered the cause the soldiers were panic-stricken at the thought, that they were now apparently wholly at the mercy of their enemies, since, without supplies of water, they must all immediately perish. They considered it hopeless to attempt any longer to hold out, and urged Caesar to evacuate the city, embark on board his galleys, and proceed to sea.

Instead of doing this, however, Caesar, ordering all other operations to be suspended, employed the whole laboring force of his command, under the direction of the captains of the several companies, in digging wells in every part of his quarter of the city. Fresh water, he said, was almost invariably found, at a moderate depth, upon sea-coasts, even upon ground lying in very close proximity to the sea. The digging was successful. Fresh water, in great abundance, was found. Thus this danger was passed, and the men's fears effectually relieved.

A short time after these transactions occurred, there came into the harbor one day, from along the shore west of the city, a small sloop, bringing the intelligence that a squadron of transports had arrived upon the coast to the westward of Alexandria, and had anchored there, being unable to come up to the city on account of an easterly wind which prevailed at that season of the year. This squadron was one which had been sent across the Mediterranean with arms, ammunition, and military stores for Caesar, in answer to requisitions which he had made immediately after he had landed. The transports being thus windbound on the coast, and having nearly exhausted their supplies of water, were in distress; and they accordingly sent forward the sloop, which was probably propelled by oars, to make known their situation to Caesar, and to ask for succor. Caesar immediately went, himself, on board of one of his galleys, and ordering the remainder of his little fleet to follow him, he set sail out of the harbor, and then turned to the westward, with a view of proceeding along the coast to the place where the transports were lying.

All this was done secretly. The land is so low in the vicinity of Alexandria that boats or galleys are out of sight from it at a very short distance from the shore. In fact, travelers say that, in coming upon the coast, the illusion produced by the spherical form of the surface of the water and the low and level character of the coast is such that one seems actually to descend from the sea to the land. Caesar might therefore have easily kept his expedition a secret, had it not been that, in order to be provided with a supply of water for the transports immediately on reaching them, he stopped at a solitary part of the coast, at some distance from Alexandria, and sent a party a little way into the interior in search for water. This party were discovered by the country people, and were intercepted by a troop of horse and made prisoners. From these prisoners the Egyptians learned that Caesar himself was on the coast with a small squadron of galleys.

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