Legio II Parthica

It is unlikely that any part of legio II Parthica (Second, Parthian) remained in Italy in AD 306. No mention of this famous legion occurs in the sources concerning the elevation of Maxentius.


Aurelius Mucianus, lanciarius of legio II Parthica. (c) Bernard Gagnon

The legion was raised by Septimius Severus soon after AD 193 and he built a fortress for it at Albanum (Albano), just to the south of Rome. In the first half of the third century AD, II Parthica was very much the personal legion of the emperors and was to be found at the core of the imperial field armies with the Praetorian Guard, equites singulares and Mauri, but in the second half it was deployed as vexillations and the bond with the Castra Albana was gradually broken (e.g. AE 1934, 193).

Epigraphic evidence for the legion in Italy is abundant until the mid-3rd century AD, after which it peters outs. The legion might have maintained its headquarters at the Castra Albana until the mid-AD 280s. The tombstone at Albano of Aurelius Iulianus, who had served in the legion for 33 years, may preserve the honorific title Aureliana, granted by the emperor Aurelian, who reigned ad 270–75 (AE 1975, 171), and a vexillation of II Parthica appears to have defected from Maximian to Carausius in AD 286 (RIC V² Carausius 60–65). The legion reappears in Mesopotamia. Part of it was destroyed when Shapur II stormed Bezabde in AD 360 (Amm. Marc. 20.7.1), and it is later recorded as being based at Cepha on the Tigris (Not. Dig. Or. 36.30). The transfer of the legion from Italy to Mesopotamia may be connected with Galerius’ Persian War (AD 298).

The Castra Albana was certainly abandoned when, shortly after AD 312, Constantine granted the land on which it stood to the Church (Lib. Pont. 34.30). While still based in Italy, II Parthica sent out detachments of stationarii to the highlands of Samnium (ILS 9087). Under Maxentius, this role was performed by legionaries who had defected from Severus or Galerius. Valerius Dizon, whose name indicates his Thracian descent, was a centurion of the Moesian legio IIII Flavia (Fourth, Flavian, after Flavius, the family name of the emperor Vespasian). He probably deserted from the field army of Galerius in the late summer of AD 307 and died sometime later at Venafrum (Venafro), presumably in charge of a detachment of stationarii (CIL X 4874; W. Seston, Scripta Varia (Rome 1980), 491).

This is an excerpt from Milvian Bridge AD 312: Constantine’s Battle for Empire and Faith

Scars, Spoils and Splendour

In 95 BC, Manius Aquillius, a former consul, was tried in Rome on charges corruption and extortion committed during his recent tenure as governor of Sicily. The evidence of numerous witnesses proved that Aquillius was guilty and his condemnation seemed assured. His defence lawyer, however, was not unduly concerned; his client would walk free. The lawyer was Marcus Antonius, grandfather of Mark Antony and one of the most renowned orators in Rome. While addressing the jury, he suddenly ripped open Aquillius’ clothing to reveal a scarred torso. See how all the scars are at the front of his body, declared Antonius, they are the distinguished marks of combat, the wounds sustained by a man who has never turned his back to the enemy. Antonius then directed the jury to examine a scar on Aquillius’ head, and reminded them that it had been received in a desperate single combat with Athenion, leader of a slave rebellion on Sicily. It was a dangerous wound, yet Aquillius had conquered his opponent and saved Sicily for Rome. Aquillius’ corruption was thus made to seem trivial; he was a hero and was duly acquitted.

The exoneration of Aquillius emphasises the fundamentally militaristic nature of Roman society. The Romans believed they were the children of the war god Mars and the field of battle was the arena in which a man showed his true worth. Virtus (manly courage and excellence) and gloria (fame and renown) were won in war. Scars were a symbol of virtus, proudly displayed and giving some men an authority that went beyond the usual confines of their social status. When campaigning for election to the consulship, Rome’s supreme magistracy, Gaius Marius announced that he was nothing like the usual aristocratic candidates. His was not a member of one of the famous Roman clans; he was a self-made man.

“I cannot, to justify your confidence, display family portraits [the wax effigies of accomplished ancestors displayed by nobles] or the triumphs and consulships of my forefathers; but if occasion requires, I can show spears, a banner, horse trappings and other military prizes, as well as scars on my chest. These are my portraits, my patent of nobility, not left to me by inheritance as theirs were [the nobles], but won by my own innumerable efforts and perils.”

Sallust, The War With Jugurtha, 85.29–30

Like the jurors at Aquillius’ trial, the Roman electorate could not resist such proof of courage: Marius was duly elected consul for 107 BC, and subsequently re-elected for five consecutive terms (104–100 BC). It is probable that Marius had loosened his toga to fully expose the scars on his chest and regaled the crowds with tales of how he had won them. This was a standard practice. In 167 BC, Sulpicius Galba, an ambitious young tribune, attempted to deny a triumphal procession to the victorious general Aemilius Paullus. An ancient senator called Servilius Geminus Pulex was disgusted by the political manoeuvrings and spoke in support of Paullus. To establish his authority and seniority, Servilius bared his upper body to display a mass of scars, and he singled out particular wounds and recounted how they had been received. The old warrior got carried away and his toga slipped down to expose his groin:

He accidentally uncovered what should have been kept concealed, and the swelling in his groin raised a laugh among the nearest spectators but Servilius retorted, “Yes, you laugh at this. I got this as well by sitting on my horse for days and nights on end, and I have no more shame or regret about this than about these wounds, since it never hindered me from successful service to the state either at home or abroad. I am a veteran soldier, and I have displayed before these young troops [i.e. the soldiers supporting Galba] this body of mine which has often been assailed by the sword. Now let Galba lay bare his smooth and unblemished body.”

Livy, 45.39.18–19

In the face of this extraordinary display, and with no scars or deeds of bravery to bolster his position, Galba’s motion was thrown out.

The virtus of men like Aquillius, Marius and Servilius was enhanced because they were the victors of single combats. As a young military tribune Marius fought a successful duel with a Celtiberian warrior at Numantia (134/3 BC). His triumph brought him to the attention of the great general Scipio Aemilianus (another famous Roman duellist), who encouraged him to pursue his ambition to be the leading man in Rome. Servilius was perhaps the most accomplished of all Roman duellists: “On 23 occasions I have challenged and fought an enemy. I brought back the spoils from every man with whom I engaged in single combat and I have a body decorated with honourable scars, all of them received in the front!” Such success linked men with the greatest of Roman heroes and demonstrated continuity with the glories of the past.

Romulus himself, the legendary founder of Rome, was believed to have killed Acron, king of Caenina, in single combat. The tradition maintained that Romulus dedicated the weapons and armour he stripped from Acron to Jupiter, king of the gods, in his guise as Feretrius, the bearer of trophies. The spoils taken from an enemy king killed by a Roman in single combat were known as spolia opima, the greatest spoils. Whatever the true origins of the custom (probably deriving from the folk memory that in the eighth, seventh and sixth centuries BC Roman leaders had fought in ‘battles of champions’ with the leading warriors of other Italic cities and tribes in order to settle disputes), it was a potent incentive for Roman bellatores (warriors) of the fifth to first centuries BC to be associated with a deed performed by Romulus.

The first historic example of the taking of the spolia opima occurred in 437 BC, when Cornelius Cossus, a military tribune, unhorsed Lars Tolumnius, king of Veii, at the battle of Fidenae. As the king struggled to get to his feet, Cossus leapt from his own horse, battered Tolumnius back to the ground with his shield, then repeatedly stabbed him with his lance until he was dead. Cossus proceeded to strip the king of his armour and decapitated him. The head was impaled on the end of Cossus’ lance, and he brandished it at the enemy cavalry, who were horrified and fled. Cossus dedicated the spoils to Jupiter Feretrius and they were still to be seen in the god’s temple on the Capitoline Hill in Rome in 30 BC.

Cossus’ decapitation of Lars Tolumnius was probably a key element in the ritual of single combat. The famous single combat between Manlius Torquatus and a Gallic champion in c. 361 BC, culminated with the Gaul’s decapitation. One account of Claudius Marcellus’ duel with Viridomarus, king of the Gaesati (222 BC), tells of the Roman consul taking both the king’s armour and his head. Marcellus’ defeat of Viridomarus allowed him to dedicate the spolia opima to Jupiter Feretrius. This dedication, and that of Cornelius Cossus, may then have included the heads of the defeated kings. Severed heads were certainly used to decorate victory monuments on battlefields. In 45 BC Julius Caesar’s men stacked the corpses and weapons of their enemies to form a tropaeum (trophy) and crowned it with heads impaled on spears and swords.

The spoils from ordinary single combats, and other prizes taken in battle, were customarily displayed on the doorposts of houses and in public rooms. The weapons and armour were inscribed with brief details of where and from whom they had been taken. Once set up the spoils could not be removed, even if the house passed into different ownership. The surviving Roman literary sources indicate that some displays of spolia lasted for centuries.

The symbolism of valour was of course most conspicuous on the field of battle. Roman warriors of all ranks went into combat in their best war gear; it is a common misconception that the most splendid armour was worn only by senior officers or reserved for parades.

When Licinius Lucullus won his famous victory at Tigranocerta in 69 BC, he had 24 cohorts, i.e. two under-strength legions and another four legionary cohorts, totalling 10,000 men. His combined force of cavalry, archers and slingers numbered only 1000. Ranged against Lucullus was the immense army of Tigranes, king of Armenia: 55,000 cavalry, 17,000 of which were heavily armoured cataphract lancers; 10,000 archers and slingers; 150,000 infantry, and 35,000 engineers, smiths and other specialists. No doubt these figures are hugely exaggerated but, nonetheless, Lucullus’ small army was massively outnumbered. Tigranes could not believe that the Romans would dare fight with so few men and quipped to his entourage, “If they come as ambassadors, they are too many; if they come as soldiers, they are too few!”

Lucullus marched on the enemy in line of battle. When a river obstructed his line of advance, the legionary cohorts wheeled into a column to make the crossing. Tigranes saw the Romans begin their manoeuvre and thought they were in the process of turning about. He poured scorn on them for retreating, but the Romans forded the river and came on, and his minister Taxiles, evidently knowledgeable in Roman battle customs, said to the king:

“When these men are merely on the march, they do not put on gleaming armour, nor have their shields polished and helmets uncovered, as they have now taken the leather covers from their armour. No, this splendour means they are going to fight, and are now advancing on their enemies.”

Plutarch, Lucullus, 27.5

And it was in the their splendour that Lucullus’ few warriors routed one wing of Tigranes’ horde and caused the rest of his soldiers to flee in panic.

Other examples make it clear that the splendour of Lucullus’ men was not exceptional. In his account of the battle of the Sabis (57 BC), Julius Caesar remarked that the surprise attack of the Belgae meant his men had no time to put on their usual insignia, meaning helmet crests, plumes which identified the wearer with the war god Mars (especially when worn on either side of the helmet), and military decorations such as torques, armlets, and embossed discs called phalerae. During the Munda campaign (45 BC), one of Caesar’s courageous centurions was killed while covering the retreat of some legionaries. He went to his death in full insignia and was despoiled by the enemy when he fell. During the same campaign, the aristocratic officers Pompeius Niger and Antistius Turpio advanced from their respective armies to fight a single combat ‘with their shields and battle decorations shining’. The hilts and scabbards of the swords and daggers of Caesar’s veteran legionaries were decorated with silver and gold. This was another symbol of their prowess; only victorious warriors who had despoiled their vanquished enemies and taken much plunder could afford such embellishment.

The ancient sources do occasionally reveal instances when commanders criticised the ostentation of their soldiers’ equipment, but the complaints were directed at those whose reputation for valour did not justify such finery, or when decoration came at the expense of practicality. The helmets of Lucullus’ and Caesar’s legionaries may have been highly burnished and crested, but they were always strong defensive pieces of bronze or iron.

Polybius, the Greek solider and historian, was a political prisoner in Rome in the mid-second century BC. He was fascinated by the martial character of his captors and wrote of how the continual retelling of tales about the heroism and great feats of ancestors made young Romans desperate to establish their own reputations. The scars, spoils and splendid war gear of living veterans were another reminder that the young had a duty to seek ‘the glory that waits upon the brave’, not only for themselves, but also for the glory it conferred on the Roman people as a whole. Many were killed or maimed in that pursuit, but it was the way of a warrior people and was a major factor in the process that led them to conquer much of the known world.

Originally published in Ancient Warfare. Click here for a pdf of the illustrated article.

Caesar: Courage and Charisma

Julius Caesar was famous in his own lifetime for his military skill. His celeritas (swiftness) and good fortune in warfare amazed and impressed his contemporaries and later Roman generals wrote admiringly of his battle tactics. But Caesar would have achieved little without an excellent and faithful army. He did so by encouraging a particularly Roman ethos of valour.

The Scarlet Cloak

His coming was known by the colour of his cloak.

Caesar, The Gallic War 7.88

A flash of colour. Scarlet. A scarlet cloak! No ordinary cloak; the scarlet paludamentum of an imperator, the cloak of a general of Rome (Pliny, Natural History 22.3). And no ordinary general: Gaius Julius Caesar had entered the fray. All eyes – Roman and Gallic – were upon him.

His cloak was like a vexillum, the banner that called the legions of Rome to arms. The sight spurred Caesar’s flagging legionaries to new efforts, and the Gauls, sensing that this was the pivotal moment of the epic battle for Alesia (52 BC), surged forward. Here was their enemy, the focus of their fury. Caesar was their oppressor and would-be conqueror, but he was also the instigator, witness and gauge of their virtus, their valour and masculine excellence. It had been so since 58 BC. Could that famous valour, which had triumphed at Aduatuca (Caesar, Gallic War 5.34) and hurled legionaries from the ramparts of Gergovia (ibid. 7.50), win the day at Alesia?

The Gauls roared their clamor, their war cry, as they came on. The Roman legionaries bellowed back at them, dropped their pila (heavy javelins) and drew their swords. Now was the time for close combat, to fight toe to toe, the time to finish it.

There would be no glory for Gaul. Gallic valour was punctured by sharp Roman blades; and when the Gauls noticed the reinforcements – cavalry and legionary cohorts – brought up by Caesar, the last drops of that valour drained away. The Gauls turned and ran but were pursued and cut down by Caesar’s cavalry. The rout of the huge Gallic army attempting to break Caesar’s siege of Alesia was complete (ibid. 7.85-88).


They had learned from their parents and ancestors to fight their battles with virtus.

Caesar, The Gallic War 1.13

Five years before, on the banks of the River Sabis, Caesar had overseen another famous trial of virtus: the battle between the legions and the Nervii, the most bellicose of the tribes of the Belgae (Caesar, Gallic War 2.16-28). The virtus of Caesar’s legions won in the end, but it was a close contest. Charging downhill, the Tenth and Ninth Legions batted aside the Atrebates, while the Eleventh and Eighth Legions quickly worsted the Viromandui. So far, so easy for the legionaries. But the Artebates and Viromandui were unworthy allies to the Nervii, who now swept forward.

Caesar had never seen anything so glorious as the impetus, the running charge, of the Nervii. Nothing could slow their advance: not the River Sabis nor its steep banks, or even the slope upon which Caesar had formed a makeshift battle line in front of his half-built camp. The Seventh Legion shuddered as the wave of barbarians struck; the Twelfth Legion was almost washed away.

Frightened legionaries peeled away from the rear of the Twelfth while their comrades, assailed in front and on both flanks, huddled together so closely that they could no longer wield their weapons effectively. An easy victory, it seemed, for the Nervii.

As far as Caesar was concerned, the virtus of the Nervii was of the purest sort. They rejected the luxuries and culture of Mediterranean civilisation (the Romans obviously thrived on it, but barbarians were unmanned by degrees depending on the period of exposure), and were so certain of their fighting prowess that they disdained the use of cavalry and always fought on foot (ibid. 1.1; 2.15, 17). Who could resist such fierce warriors?

But not all of the legionaries cringed in the huddle. Centurio Romanus, the Roman centurion, held firm.

It was only a matter of time until the Nervii completely surrounded the Twelfth, but the centurions of the legion slowed their progress. Many of the centurions were killed, and all of them were wounded. The principal defiant was Publius Sextius Baculus, the primus pilus (leading centurion) of the legion, who fought on until he collapsed from his many wounds. The bravery and stubbornness of Baculus and his colleagues was born of loyalty to Caesar, an ingrained discipline and duty to stand fast, and a warrior code that preferred glorious death to cowardly flight or ignominious surrender (ibid. 2.25, cf. 6.40).

If the Nervii were symbolic of a pure barbarian valour, Baculus, ‘that bravest man’, as Caesar immortalises him, was the exemplar of Roman virtus. Virtus had resisted virtus, but Baculus had fallen and the jaws of the Nervii were closing around the legion.

Enter Caesar

The situation was critical and there were no reserves.

Caesar, The Gallic War 2.25

Having harangued the Tenth Legion on the left wing, and loosed it against the Artebates (Caesar’s brief speech reminded the legionaries of their long-established reputation for virtus), he rushed to the right wing where the Twelfth Legion was on the cusp of annihilation.

Unlike at Alesia, where reinforcements followed his flashing cloak, Caesar came alone. He did not even have a shield. He seized a scutum from a novice soldier in the rear ranks and then barged his way to the front of the beleaguered legion. All change! Loudly encouraging the soldiers and calling on the surviving centurions by name (one suspects Caesar knew the names and reputations of all his centurions), he ordered the legionaries to open up their maniples (manipulos laxare) so they could use their swords. As Caesar tells it, the transformation was immediate. With their courageous and charismatic imperator among them, the Nervii seemed a little less terrible. The animus – spirit, morale – that had been extinguished sparked again and caught flame. Fear was replaced by a need to impress Caesar, to overcome the daunting odds. The impetus of the Nervii was stalled.

The swords of the Twelfth finally began to ply their bloody trade. The neighbouring Seventh Legion was similarly reinvigorated by Caesar’s dramatic appearance and ordered by him to link up with the Twelfth. Together, with Caesar directing, the legions pushed the Nervii back. Caesar’s cavalrymen, allied Gauls who had fled before the Nervian onslaught, became ashamed of skulking at the rear and returned to the front; the cavalrymen were keen, if not desperate, to erase their cowardice and they vied with the legionaries in feats of virtus. The Tenth Legion, directed by Labienus, Caesar’s ablest lieutenant, had pursued the Atrebates and then captured the enemy camp. It now came up in support of the Twelfth and Seventh. Two other legions, at the rear of Caesar’s marching column, finally reached the battle field. Even the lixae, the camp followers, joined the fight. With the morale and discipline of his army restored, and with all its elements finally present on the field of battle, the fate of the valiant Nervii was sealed.

Yet Caesar does not dwell on the achievement of the Romans and their allies. He does not describe any of the acts in the competition of virtus between the cavalry and the legionaries. It is enough to know that, despite a very serious wobble, Rome had won in the end. But Caesar is almost overwhelmed by the deeds of the Nervii, by the martial magnificence of their last stand.

Even when their hope of safety was at an end, the enemy displayed prodigious virtus. When their front ranks had fallen, the next stood on the prostrate forms and fought from them. When these were cast down, and the corpses were piled up in heaps, the survivors, standing as it were upon a mound, hurled javelins at our troops, or caught and returned our pila. Not without reason, therefore, it was to be concluded that these were men of a very great virtus, who had dared to cross a broad river, to climb very high banks, and to press up over most unfavourable ground. These were tasks of the utmost difficulty, but animi magnitudo – greatness of spirit – had made them easy.

Caesar, The Gallic War 2.27

Such is the commemoration, the epitaph, of the Nervii.

Worthy of Record

Caesar was an attentive witness to the valour of the Nervii. He was, of course, a beneficiary of it: the greater the enemy he defeated, the greater and more famous his victory. There are frequent eulogies in The Gallic War and The Civil War to the virtus, fortis (bravery) and animus of the enemy. Take, for example, the Helvetii who continued to fight without shields at Bibracte and then refused to turn their backs during the retreat (58 BC), or the army of Camulogenus, that old master of ‘military science’, which gave no thought to surrender even when attacked in the rear by the Seventh Legion (52 BC) (Caesar, Gallic War 1.25-26; 7.62).  The selfless heroics of the defenders of Avaricum (52 BC) made a particular impression on Caesar:

There occurred before our eyes a thing which, as it seemed worthy of record, we have not thought it right to omit. A certain Gaul stood before the gate of the town and was hurling lumps of grease and pitch that were handed to him into a siege tower that was on fire. He was pierced by a dart from a scorpio [‘scorpion’, a bolt-throwing catapult] in the right side and fell dead. One of the party next him stepped over his prostrate body and went on with the same work; and when this second man had been killed in the same fashion by a scorpion-shot, a third succeeded, and to the third a fourth; and that spot was not left bare of defenders until the ramp had been extinguished, the enemy cleared away on every side, and a stop put to the fighting.

Caesar, The Gallic War 7.25

Caesar is occasionally dismissive of Pompeian legionaries, questioning their toughness and capacity for hard work, and suggesting their victory at Dyrrhachium (48 BC) was due more to luck than to military prowess and superior tactics (Caesar, Civil War 3.85; 3.68, 72). But he will never conceal bravery or the loss of soldiers worthy of note. The death at Ilerda of Quintus Fulginius, a Caesarian centurion, whose virtus had resulted in his promotion from the lower ranks to the senior post of hastatus of the first cohort of a legion, is matched by the death Titus Caecilius, a Pompeian primus pilus (49 BC) (ibid. 1.46). Despite his role in the betrayal of a Caesarian force at Curicta, Titus Puleio is described as leading the defence of a Pompeian fort at Dyrrhachium with the ‘utmost bravery’ (ibid. 3.67).

At the battle of Pharsalus (48 BC), the ranks of Pompey’s legions were stiffened by 2,000 evocati, veteran soldiers specially recalled to the service of their old commander. The fighting prowess of evocati was renowned. At Pistoria in 62 BC, Catiline’s evocati refused to give any ground and died where they stood, with all their wounds to the front (Sallust, Catiline 59-61). In Caesar’s opinion, however, Pompey hamstrung his evocati by forming a static, defensive battle line:

He is said to have done this on the advice of Gaius [Valerius] Triarius, in order that the first charge (incursus) and impetus of the troops might be broken and their line spread out, and that so the Pompeians marshalled in their proper ranks might attack a scattered foe. He hoped, too, that the pila would fall with less effect if the men were kept in their place than if they themselves discharged their javelins and advanced; also that by having a double distance to run Caesar’s soldiers would be breathless and overcome with fatigue. Now this seems to us to have been an irrational act on the part of Pompey, because there is a certain keenness of animus and impetuosity implanted by nature in all men which is kindled by the ardour of battle. It is the duty of commanders (imperatores) not to repress this feeling but to foster it, nor was it without good reason that the custom was instituted of old that signals should sound in every direction and the whole body of men raise a shout (clamor), by which means they thought that the enemy were terrified and their own men stimulated.

Caesar, The Civil War 3.92

Despite the animus-sapping tactic forced upon them (Caesar strongly implies the veteran soldiers had to be persuaded to fight this way), Caesar notes with approval that the Pompeians withstood the running charge of his legionaries (who paused and rested half-way when they realised the Pompeians were not counter-charging), and fought back vigorously (ibid. 3.86, 92-93).

In contrast to the torrent at the River Sabis, virtus is conspicuous by its absence from the plain of Old Pharsalus in Thessaly. This is because it was problematical for Caesar to apply the highest term of valour to a conflict between Romans. However, there is one exemplar of it: Crastinus, the former primus pilus of the Tenth Legion and ‘a man of singular virtus.’

Like Baculus at the River Sabis, Crastinus is the only ordinary soldier (as in not of equestrian or senatorial rank) to be named in Caesar’s account of the battle of Pharsalus. As he prepares to charge with 120 picked men (electi) from his old legion, he reminds his comrades (manipulares – soldiers of the same maniple) of their loyalty to Caesar and how they are fighting for his dignitas (‘dignity’, Pompeian and senatorial attacks on which were Caesar’s principal justification for starting this civil war), and their own liberty (ibid. 1.7). Then he turned to Caesar: “Today, imperator, I will do things that you will thank me for, whether I live or die.” With that he charged forward with his forlorn hope of manipulares, opening the fighting and cutting deep into the static Pompeian ranks (ibid. 3.91).

Crastinus’ charge does more than set the battle in motion. It serves to underline the justice of Caesar’s cause, despite the fact he is fighting fellow Romans, and demonstrates the extreme devotion of his men. Civil conflict posed a serious dilemma to men of virtus and honos (honour) like Crastinus. When Sextius Baculus fought the Nervii, he met warrior opponents of great and unsullied virtus, but Crastinus was fighting his own kind, even former manipulares because the Pompeian ranks contained legionaries transferred from Caesar’s army prior to the outbreak of the civil war. And yet Crastinus was prepared to shed Roman blood to maintain the reputation and dignity of Caesar; if he did not, the reputation he had won under the auspices of Caesar would be worthless.

As Caesar’s account of the action at Pharsalus opens with Crastinus’ speech and charge, it closes with a notice of Crastinus’ death:

Crastinus, whom we mentioned above, was killed by a sword thrust to his mouth while fighting with the utmost bravery. Nor did the remark he made while starting out for the fight prove false, for Caesar was of the opinion that virtus of Crastinus in that battle had been most remarkable, and he judged that he had rendered him the greatest service.

Caesar, The Civil War 3.99

What Caesar does is effectively make Crastinus and his virtus the principal reason for victory. Caesar’s generalship and tactical genius (the creation of a fourth battle to negate Pompey’s superiority in cavalry was decisive) won it, but Caesar is too savvy to blow his own trumpet, a prime example of him ‘speciously disclaiming tactical ability of his own’ (Cuff 1957, 32). Crastinus, that man of singular valour, chose to die for Caesar, and that says everything Caesar wants us to know about the justice of his cause and the excellence of his leadership. There was no counterpart to Crastinus in Pompey’s army. And no wonder, for Pompey was not worthy of inspiring virtus. His army is full of brave men, notably the centurions who defend the praetorian gate of his camp from the Caesarians’ assault, but Pompey soon abandons those heroes and flees (Caesar, Civil War 3.94-96).


It was my desire for glory that led you into danger.

Caesar, The Gallic War 7.50

Caesar’s recording of such beneficial deeds of valour was not cynical. As a Roman, Caesar’s appreciation is genuine and, as a general, he is deeply interested in the workings, and fluctuations, of courage and spirit/morale on the outcome of campaigns and battles. The first chapter of The Gallic War is a catalogue of the comparative virtus of the peoples of Gaul; the scale of the task in conquering and consolidating Gaul is made very clear to Caesar’s Roman audience.

Virtus and animi magnitudo, greatness of spirit, were to be greatly admired, especially in barbarians, and even in civilised non-Romans like the Massiliote Greeks. But as we have seen, greatness of spirit did not win the battle of the Sabis for the Nervii. In the case of Massilia, excessive animus created over-confidence and resulted in defeat in battle at sea and the reduction of the city by siege (Caesar, Civil War 2.1-16).

The same qualities had to be managed in Roman soldiers. Disaster was courted when excessive virtus, animus and lust for gloria (glory) overwhelmed discipline at Gergovia in 52 BC. Caesar recognised the need for careful management:

Greatly as he admired the high courage of men whom no camp fortifications, no mountain top, no town wall had been able to check, he blamed as greatly their indiscipline and presumption in supposing that they had a truer instinct than the imperator for victory and the final result. He required from his soldiers, he said, discipline and self-restraint no less than virtus and greatness of animus.

Caesar, The Gallic War 7.52.

In his biography of Caesar, Plutarch emphasises that the general ‘inspired and cultivated this spirit, this passion for distinction’ (Caesar 17.1). No wonder, then, that things sometimes got out of hand. At Gergovia, Lucius Fabius, a centurion of the Eighth Legion, said ‘he was spurred on by the rewards at Avaricum [captured and sacked earlier in 52 BC], and would allow no one to mount the wall before him. He got three of his manipulares to hoist him up and climbed the wall. He then in turn took hold of them one by one and pulled them up the wall.’ Caesar looks upon this act of daring with some negativity because it is stimulated by desire for plunder rather than a lust for distinction. Contrast the portrayal of Marcus Petronius, another centurion of the Eighth. Like Fabius, he had led his men into danger, but he did so for gloria, for glory, and he selflessly covers the retreat of his men: ‘he burst into the midst of the enemy… he fell fighting and saved his men’ (Caesar, Gallic War 7.47, 50).

In early winter 54 BC, the camp of Quintus Cicero, one of Caesar’s legates, was besieged by the Nervii. The senior centurion Titus Pullo left the defences of the Roman camp and dared his rival Lucius Vorenus to follow and so prove his virtus. Pullo charged into a band of the enemy, killing a warrior with his pilum, but the Nervii hurled their javelins back, pinning Pullo down. His shield was punctured by one javelin and another missile dented his scabbard temporarily jamming his sword. Pullo was surrounded but Vorenus came to the rescue of his old rival, using his sword to force the Nervii back:

The enemy all turned on him at once, and left Pullo, supposing him to be slain by the javelin. Vorenus plied his sword at close quarters, and by slaying one man drove off the rest a little, but he pursued them too eagerly and he fell headlong into a dip in the ground. He was surrounded in turn, but Pullo came to his aid. They killed several men and returned safely to the ramparts to great acclaim. In the eagerness of their rivalry fortune so handled the two that, for all their mutual hostility, the one helped and saved the other, and it was impossible to decide which should be considered the better man in virtus.

Caesar, The Gallic War 5.44

It may seem strange to us that the centurions were not punished for this act, for having abandoned their centuries to pursue a private vendetta in the most dangerous fashion. But comradeship and virtus had triumphed and that was inspirational.

Things had changed greatly since the mid-second century BC when Polybius, the Greek soldier and historian, noted ‘the Romans do not desire their centurions to be men who will initiate attacks and open the battle.’ But what had not changed was the essential self-sacrifice of the centurion. The centurions of Polybius’ era would ‘stand their ground when worsted and hard-pressed and be ready to die at their posts’ (6.24.9). As Marcus Petronius had sacrificed himself at Gergovia, a number of proud centurions stood their ground to enable the escape of a foraging party when attacked by the Germanic Sugambri at Aduatuca in 53 BC:

Some of their centurions had been transferred, on account of their virtus, from the lower ranks (ordines) of the other legions to the higher ranks of this one. And these, that they might not lose the renown for military prowess won in the past, fell fighting most gallantly. Some of the soldiers [in the foraging party], when the enemy had been thrust aside by the virtus of the centurions, arrived, though they did not expect it, safe in camp.

Caesar, Gallic War 6.40

The desire for distinction promoted by Caesar could lead to defeat (e.g. Gergovia, where 700 legionaries and 46 centurions died – note the hugely disproportionate casualty rate of the latter) and encourage acts of reckless bravado (e.g. Pullo and Vorenus), but more often than not it won, or at least saved, the day.

Caesar the Man

Caesar longed for great power, an army, a new war, to allow his virtus to shine.

Sallust, The War With Catiline 54.4

Baculus’ bravery at the River Sabis buys time for Caesar, but it is Caesar who single-handedly swings the balance. The effects of his personal intervention are immediate. His presence is electrifying. He quells panic and turns fear into courage. He coolly takes control and wins a total victory against the worthiest of opponents. Caesar’s charisma, the force of his personality, and the stimulus of his competence on subordinates cannot be exaggerated. Caesar exemplifies auctoritas – authority.

Later, in the Civil War, hero worship of Caesar stimulates men like Crastinus to die in defence of his honour. The loyalty of the centurions at the very outset of the war was such that they gladly loaned him cash from their own savings to pay a gratuity to the rank and file (Caesar, Civil War 1.39). During the defeat at Dyrrhachium, a mortally wounded aquilifer (eagle-bearer) beseeched his comrades to help save the eagle so that he might die knowing that his honour and loyalty (fides) to Caesar remained intact (ibid. 3.64). Compare the speech of the heroic aquilifer of the Tenth Legion, when his fellows refused to leave their ship and assault a British beach in 55 BC: “It shall be told that I did my duty to the Republic and my imperator”, cried the aquilifer and he leapt into the surf, shaming the rest into following (Caesar, Gallic War 4.25). In 55 BC loyalty to Caesar is as important as service to the state; by 48 BC, as exemplified by the nameless aquilifer and Crastinus, loyalty to Caesar had superseded loyalty to the state.

At the Sabis and at Alesia, the dramatic appearance of Caesar causes a surge in morale. Considering his patrician birth and education, it is not surprising that Caesar was endowed with self-assurance. What marked him out from his aristocratic peers were great eloquence, a swift and brilliant mind, the power of persuasion, amiability, loyalty to his friends, courage, exceptional endurance, ruthlessness, and deep strength of character.

While still in his late teens, Caesar successfully evaded Sulla’s death squads and was granted a pardon when the warlord despaired of ever capturing him. Sulla was not convinced of the wisdom of this. He sensed the latent greatness in the youth. “Caesar has many Mariuses in him,” he remarked. Gaius Marius, the famous general and Sulla’s bitterest enemy, was Caesar’s uncle by marriage (Suetonius, Deified Julius 1.3).

Caesar was considered handsome but he was pale skinned and slightly built (Plutarch, Caesar 71.2). He was not an obvious Roman bellator (warrior) in appearance, but in his first campaign, at the siege of Mytilene (80 BC), he showed his mettle and was awarded the corona civica. This ‘civic crown’, presented to a man who had saved the life of a fellow-citizen in battle, was considered the highest of honours (Suetonius, Deified Julius 2).

Caesar was the product of an expansionist and competitive warrior culture that valued courage above all. His was a world in which the houses of old soldiers were decorated with spolia, the spoils and trophies, they had taken from the enemy; a world in which great men, like his uncle Marius, would appeal to voters by boosting of the scars they had earned in battle. It should come as no surprise that Caesar so admired virtus and should aspire to be an exemplar of it.

Mytilene demonstrated Caesar’s virtus. Four years later, while travelling to Rhodes, he was kidnapped by pirates (Plutarch, Caesar 2). No daring escape for Caesar from the island of Pharmacussa. There was no need. For 38 days this likeable and entertaining Roman bantered with his captors, exercised and played games with them. He wrote speeches and poetry and made the pirates listen. He berated them when their boisterous antics disturbed his rest. He was more like their leader than their prisoner, wrote Plutarch. When his ransom was paid, Caesar told the pirates, he would come back and execute them all. He said it often and always with a smile. They took it as a joke. The ransom was paid and Caesar was released. He returned as promised:

He immediately manned vessels and put to sea from the harbour of Miletus against the robbers. He caught them, too, still lying at anchor off the island, and got most of them into his power. Their money he made his booty, but the men themselves he lodged in the prison at Pergamum, and then went in person to Iunius [Iuncus], the governor of Asia, on the ground that it belonged to him, as propraetor of the province, to punish the captives. But since the propraetor cast longing eyes on their money, which was no small sum, and kept saying that he would consider the case of the captives at his leisure, Caesar left him to his own devices, went to Pergamum, took the robbers out of prison, and crucified them all, just as he had often warned them on the island that he would do, when they thought he was joking.

Plutarch, Life of Caesar 2.5-7

The episode on Pharmacussa may whiff of exaggeration, but as an early example of Caesar’s ruthlessness and, more importantly, his charisma and skill in the handling of tough and dangerous men, it is most striking. If he could so easily bend hostile pirates to his will, Caesar must have wondered what he could achieve with a following of loyal Romans.

Caesar would experience his first tests of command in 74 BC when he raised a militia force to counter a Pontic incursion into the province of Asia, but it was not until 61 BC as governor of Further Spain that he acquired an army of legionaries and a worthy enemy to conquer. It is to be regretted that we know little of Caesar’s Spanish campaign, but the speed with which he enrolled ten new cohorts (i.e. a legion) to reinforce the existing garrison of 20 and then proceeded to defeat the ‘Callaici and Lusitani … and marched on as far as the outer sea, subduing tribes which before were not obedient to Rome’, foreshadow the dynamic, swift-moving and far-reaching campaigns of the Gallic and Civil Wars. (Plutarch, Caesar 12.1).

Considering the speed with which Caesar won over his pirate captors, it is no surprise to find legionaries immediately in awe of him, devoted even, in the first year of his Gallic command (58 BC). Victories over the Helvetii and their allies, especially the great battle of Bibracte, where Caesar sent away his horse to stand with the infantry and his masterful handling of the triplex acies (triple battle line) formation of the legions to meet a flank attack by the Boii and Tulingi, confirmed his willingness to share the hardships of the common soldiers and established his reputation for invincibility (Caesar, Gallic War 1.24-26).

The virtus of the Helvetii was great, surpassing that of other Gauls; Roman virtus was therefore even greater. Yet later that year, on learning the immense reputation of Ariovistus’ Germans for virtus and skill at arms, Caesar’s army became infected with fear. It started with the inexperienced hangers-on in Caesar’s entourage, but it spread even to the veteran legionaries, centurions and cavalry prefects. There were cowardly mutterings that the soldiers would refuse to follow the standards when Caesar moved his camp from Vesontio to face Ariovistus. He summoned a consilium (council) of all ranks of centurion and demanded of them, “Why do you despair of your virtus or of my competence?” If necessary, he would march on the Germans with only the Tenth Legion (Caesar’s favourite). Order was restored (ibid. 1.1, 13, 39-41). Shame was always a great motivator for Romans: how could they have even countenanced abandoning their imperator? And competitiveness, too. Why should the Tenth have all the glory?

In the subsequent battle against Ariovistus, Caesar selected legates to command the legions (tribunes and centurions remained the constant in the legionary command hierarchy; legate was still an ad hoc appointment) and, more importantly, to act as witnesses to the virtus of the legionaries.  The vaunted virtus of Artiovistus’ warriors was no match for the berserk fury of the legionaries. When the Germans formed a testudo (‘tortoise’ – a defensive formation with walls and roof of shields), legionaries, who had recently cowered in the camp at Vesontio, ‘leapt on to the masses of the enemy, tore the shields from their hands and wounded them from above’ (ibid. 1.52).

Not any general could face down and shame a crowd of twitchy centurions. Many years later, the Ninth and Tenth Legions mutinied in quick succession. The veterans had grown weary of battle and demanded the rewards of retirement. Caesar faced them down. Alone. And they returned to discipline (Suetonius, Deified Julius 69-70). He could even divert legionaries Ffrom a camp full of rich plunder to continue the pursuit of a defeated enemy (Caesar, Civil War 3.96-97).

The force of Caesar’s personality was extraordinary. It made him Rome’s greatest general and enabled him to mould Rome’s greatest army, a force of legions that would storm the very heavens ([Caesar], Spanish War 42).

Further Reading

The literature on Caesar is vast, but for the topics highlighted here, virtus and animus, the most important works are J.E. Lendon’s ‘The Rhetoric of Combat: Greek Military Theory and Roman Culture in Julius Caesar’s Battle Descriptions’, Classical Antiquity 18 (1999), 273-329 andits sequel, ‘Julius Caesar, Thinking About Battle and Foreign Relations’, Histos 9 (2015), 1-28; and R.D. Brown’s ‘Two Caesarian Battle Descriptions: A Study in Contrast’, Classical Journal 94 (1999), 329-357. M. McDonnell’s Roman Manliness: Virtus and the Roman Republic (Cambridge 2006), considers virtus throughout the Republican era. See also Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antquity (New Haven and London 2005), 212-232, for the dynamics of virtus in the legions of Caesar, and his Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (Oxford 1997), 237-266, for a wider exploration of the motivations of Roman fighting men in the Imperial era. The Pullo and Vorenus incident is considered in depth by R.D. Brown in ‘“Virtus consili expers”: An Interpretation of the Centurions’ Contest in Caesar, De bello Gallico 5, 44’, Hermes 132 (2004), 292-308. P.J. Cuff’s ‘Caesar the Soldier, Greece & Rome 4 (1957), 29-35 is a concise and elegant introduction to Caesar’s style of personal command. J. Harmand’s L’armée et le soldat á Rome de 107 á 50 avant notre ére (Paris 1967) remains the essential reference to the Roman army in the age of Caesar.

On contemporary recognition of Caesar’s celeritas (swiftness) and fortune in war, see Cicero, Letters to Atticus 7.22.1 and [Caesar], Alexandrian War 43. For appreciation of his tactics by later Roman commanders, note, for example, Frontinus, Stratagems 2.3.22.

For the galvanising effect Caesar had on his legionaries, even when not directly involved in fighting, see Caesar, Gallic War 3.14 (watching a sea battle from land) or 7.62 (for Labienus encouraging to his men fight as if Caesar himself were present). For more on Caesar’s character and qualities, see Sallust, War With Catiline 54 (Sallust served under Caesar in 49-46 BC); Velleius Paterculus 2.41; Suetonius, Deified Julius 72-75; and Plutarch, Caesar 17.

This is a draft of a chapter to be published in Generals, a forthcoming Ancient Warfare special.