Caesar’s War in Pontus (47 B. C. E.)


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PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Bosporus Cimmerius, under King Pharnaces II, vs. the Roman Legions, under Julius Caesar

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): Pontus (southern coast of the Black Sea in Asia Minor)

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Pharnaces II attempted to re-create the kingdom of Pontus, which his father, Mithradates VI, had lost to the Romans.

OUTCOME: Caesar defeated Pharnaces II.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Romans, 31,500 (seven legions); Pharnaces’s forces significantly outnumbered the legions

With the ROMAN CIVIL WAR of 43-31 B. C. E. raging, Pharnaces II (fl. 63-47), king of Bosporus Cimmerius (the Crimea), saw an opportunity to re-create the kingdom of Pontus, which his father, Mithradates VI (c. 132-63), had ruled along the southern coast of the Black Sea until he suffered defeat at the hands of Rome’s Pompey (106-48) in 66 B. C. E. While the Romans were occupied with their internecine struggle, Pharnaces extended his holdings along the northern coast of Asia Minor. After defeating Domitius Calvinus (fl. 53-40), a lieutenant of Julius Caesar (100-44), at the Battle of Nicopolis in October 48, he pushed into Cappadocia. Caesar responded during April-May 47 by mounting an expedition that left from Alexandria and stopped in Syria to add reinforcements from the Roman garrison. From here, the reinforced army-seven legions- marched overland through Asia Minor.

Caesar paused at Zela (Zile) in north-central Turkey and began making camp on August 2. The forces of Pharnaces suddenly descended on his legions, which, though taken by surprise, quickly formed into devastatingly effective battle groups that overwhelmed the attackers. It was an instance of highly trained and thoroughly disciplined troops acting against an ill-prepared mob. Following the Battle of Zela Caesar was able to dispatch to Rome perhaps the most famous military message in history: “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). He then quickly set about the task of reorganizing the eastern dominions of Rome, giving to his ally Mithradates of Pergamum (not to be confused with Mithradates VI-Mithradates of Pontus) governance of Pharnaces’s realm, subject to Roman dictation.


ARIOBARZANES III (d. 42 B. C.) King of Cappadocia and ally of Julius Caesar in his civil war with POMPEY THE GREAT. After the battle of PHARSALUS in 48 B. C., Caesar gave Ariobarzanes a slice of Armenia, thus removing the territory from the control of King Deoitarus of Galatia. Later that year the Cappadocian king joined Caesar’s lieutenant, Calvinus, in his attempt to defeat the rebellious ruler of Cimmerian Bosporus, Pharnaces. Loyalty was not enough to prevent defeat at Nicopolis in October. Ariobarzanes was present at the battle of Zela (in May 47), when Caesar defeated Pharnaces, and received another portion of Armenia for his efforts. Still loyal to Caesar, in 42 Ariobarzanes refused to settle with Cassius and Brutus in their civil war, and was subsequently arrested and killed by Cassius. He was succeeded by ARIARATHES X.

CALVINUS, GNAEUS DOMITIUS (fl. mid-lst century B. C.) Consul in 53 and in 40 B. C. and a supporter of Julius Caesar and AUGUSTUS. He served as a tribune during Caesar’s consulship and then ran for the post himself in 54 B. C. In some of the worst election campaigns of the era, Calvinus gained his seat by corrupt methods. During the Civil War, he chose the side of Caesar against POMPEY THE GREAT. As a legate in Thessaly during the Dyrrhachium campaign of 48 B. C., he helped defeat the forces of Pompey in that region. After the battle of Pharsalus in that same year, Caesar ordered him to send two legions as support to Alexandria. Meanwhile, with only one legion and some auxiliaries at his disposal, Calvinus tried to stop the advance of Pharnaces, the king of the Bosporus, but was beaten at Nicopolis. Following Caesar’s assassination, Calvinus granted his allegiance to Octavian (Augustus), taking over affairs in Spain around 40 B. C.

MITHRIDATES OF PERGAMUM (d. 41 B. C.) A general and close ally of Julius CAESAR during various campaigns in the CIVIL WAR OF THE FIRST TRIUMVIRATE (c. 48-47 B. C.). Mithridates was the son of a wealthy citizen of Pergamum but received the honor of adoption from Mithridates the Great, who earlier in the 1st century B. C. had fought several wars with Rome. The adopted youth changed his name to that of his new father and became a learned practitioner of war and a friend of Caesar’s. When Caesar chased after Pompey, following the battle of Pharsalus (48 B. C.), he instructed Mithridates to enter Syria and Cilicia and to gather all available reinforcements before setting out for a union with Caesar in Egypt. His efforts, combined with the cooperation of the local governments, produced a sizable army, which was able to arrive in Egypt at the precise moment that Caesar needed help to raise the siege at ALEXANDRIA. The Egyptians had tried to block the advance of Mithridates, but he surrounded Pelusium, a strategic site, and captured it in one day. Setting out immediately for Alexandria, he encountered a large Egyptian force. The resulting battle was brief and bloody, as the Egyptians were no match for the invaders. A short time later, Caesar arrived from Alexandria, and the battle of the NILE, fought between Caesar and King Ptolemy XIII, ended Egypt’s resistance.

Mithridates next accompanied Caesar to Asia Minor, where accounts were to be settled with Pharnaces II, king of the Bosporus, who had defeated Caesar’s general Domitius and was stretching out his hand toward all of the lands once owned by Mithridates the Great. Mithridates clearly had a stake in Pharnaces’ destruction. At the battle of ZELA in May 47, he served as an able lieutenant, aiding in the total defeat of the enemy. As a reward for his victories and his loyalty, Mithridates was granted Pharnaces’ old domain of Pontus, as well as a slice of Galatia. Although it was never expressly mentioned, his titles as granted by Caesar made him eligible for other conquests, specifically at the expense of the Bosporan kingdom. However, there Mithridates ran out of luck, for he found himself facing Asander, the ruler of the Bosporus, who crushed him in battle.

PHARNACES (d. 47 B. C.) King of the BOSPORUS; also called Pharnaces, king of PONTUS. The son of MITHRIDATES VI, who had created the Bosporan domain as a major power in the East, Pharnaces led a revolt in 63 B. C. that caused his father to commit suicide. Grateful that such a gifted opponent had fallen, POMPEY THE GREAT allowed Pharnaces to retain his newly gained throne. Ambitious but cautious, Pharnaces waited until the Romans were engaged in the convulsions of their own civil war (49-45 B. C.), before embarking upon his campaigns of conquest. Using the absence of any major opponents, especially Deiotarus of Galatia, Pharnaces made war upon Caesar’s legate CALVINUS, defeating him at the battle of NICOPOLIS in October 48 B. C., while Caesar was in Alexandria. After negotiations failed to gain him a Roman pardon, Pharnaces gave battle at Zela in May 47. He was routed and later murdered by a governor, Asander.

PONTUS A land situated along the southern shore of the Black Sea; its name derived from the Greek for the vast inland sea, the Pontus Euxinus. Pontus first appeared in the Anabasis of Xenophon but became an actual kingdom during the 4th century B. C. By far its greatest ruler was Mithridates VI, who extended the domain into ASIA MINOR, bringing Pontus into direct confrontation with Rome. He died in 63 B. C. at the hands of his own son, Pharnaces, whose ambitions were destroyed by Julius Caesar at the battle of ZELA in 47 B. C. Thenceforth Pontus was dependent upon the goodwill of Rome. Its most notable later monarchs were POLEMO I and his son, POLEMO n. Polemo I was an ally of Marc Antony but survived the political catastrophe of Actium in 31 B. C. to retain his throne under the auspices of Augustus. Gaius Caligula, in 39 A. D., made Polemo II the king of Pontus and the Bosporan kingdom, but Nero, in 64-65, forced him to retire to a small Cilician realm. Pontus was annexed and attached to Galatia, where it gave Rome not only strategic watch over Armenia but vast mineral wealth as well.

ZELA Town in north-central Turkey, about 75 miles inland from the Black Sea; site of a military engagement fought in May 47 B. C. between Julius Caesar and Pharnaces II, king of the Bosporus, resulting in a complete triumph for Caesar. While the Roman world was engulfed by the civil war of the first triumvirate, Pharnaces II, son of the famed Mithridates the Great (of Pontus), attempted to emulate his father’s achievements. He marched on Caesar’s legate, Calvinus, in Asia Minor, and defeated him at the Battle of Nicopolis in October 48. Caesar, embroiled in the siege of Alexandria, was unable to respond, and Pharnaces extended his conquests throughout Pontus and into Cappadocia. By spring of 47, however, Caesar had finished his Egyptian campaign. The Asian monarch greeted the general’s arrival on the Pontic borders with a delegation that sued for the retention of all lands taken. Two armies were camped near each other and close to Zela, the site of Mithridates’ success in 67 B. C. Caesar had no intention of allowing Pharnaces to keep the lands but allowed the Asian to make new offers and counteroffers while he maneuvered the legions into a position of advantage. Made aware of Caesar’s ploy, Pharnaces ordered his chariots and infantry to the attack, surprising the Romans, who did not expect such a foolhardy advance. Chariots armed with scythes tore through the confused Roman cohorts, but were soon rendered ineffective by massed archery and missiles. The legions, inspired by their tactical victory and by their position at the top of a steep hill, moved into action. The battle raged up and down the line, with the VI Legion, on the right, breaking through first. The rout was on, and Pharnaces fled from the field and was murdered a short time later. Caesar named Mithridates of Pergamum the new ruler of Pontus, now a reduced domain, and then headed for Rome. He summed up the defeat of Pharnaces with the famous words, “Veni, vidi, vici”-“I came, I saw, I conquered.”

Further reading: N. J. E. Austin, Exploration: Military and Political Intelligence in the Roman World from the Second Punic War to the Battle of Adrianople (London and New York: Routledge, 1995); Trevor Nevitt Dupuy, The Military Life of Julius Caesar: Imperator (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1995).

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