2000 Years of Latin Prose | History and Literature

Chapter 7 – Bellum Alexandrinum: The Battle Of The Mole

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Two thou­sand years of Latin Prose is a dig­i­tal anthol­o­gy of Latin Prose. Here you will be able to find texts from two mil­len­nia of gems in Latin. In this sev­enth chap­ter, we will learn about the pseu­do-Cae­sar­i­an work writ­ten in the style of Julius Cae­sar’s De Bel­lo Gal­li­co and De Bel­lo Civile, called Bel­lum Alexan­drinum or De Bel­lo Alexan­dri­no. We will read a pas­sage throw­ing us straight into the war between Cae­sar’s men and the Alexandrians.

If you want to learn more about the anthol­o­gy, you will find the pref­ace here.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this chap­ter: 2000 Years of Latin Prose: Chap­ter 7. Bel­lum Alexandrinum

Bellum Alexandrinum

(c. 47–43 B.C.)

15th century manuscript of De Bello Alexandrino.
Man­u­script of De Bel­lo Alexan­dri­no writ­ten on vel­lum in brown ink. Writ­ten in Italy dur­ing the lat­ter half of the 15th cen­tu­ry, prob­a­bly between 1470–1480.

Bel­lum Alexan­drinum, De Bel­lo Alexan­dri­no, or in Eng­lish The Alexan­drine War is a work much like Julius Caesar’s De Bel­lo Gal­li­co and De Bel­lo Civile that we spoke of in the pre­vi­ous chap­ter of 2000 years of Latin Prose

Bel­lum Alexan­drinum is named after Cae­sar’s cam­paign in Alexan­dria and Low­er Egypt and con­tains events and cam­paigns after this. The work takes the read­er through from Sep­tem­ber 48 B.C. to August 47 B.C., mean­ing we get to vis­it Alexan­dria and Illyr­ia, Spain, and mod­ern Turkey. 

The work belongs to the so-called Cor­pus Cae­sar­i­anum, i.e., a col­lec­tion of texts con­sist­ing of the two books by Julius Cae­sar men­tioned above, as well as the eighth book of De Bel­lo Gal­li­co (which was not writ­ten by Cae­sar), Bel­lum Africanum, and Bel­lum His­paniense. All of these works with­in the Cor­pus Cae­sar­i­anum are com­men­taries relat­ing Caesar’s war cam­paigns and are writ­ten in the same spir­it. How­ev­er, only De Bel­lo Gal­li­co lib. 1–7 and De Bel­lo Civili are gen­uine­ly writ­ten by Julius Cae­sar. The oth­ers are so-called pseu­do-Cae­sar­i­an works but are, since medieval times, reg­u­lar­ly bound with Caesar’s authen­tic works. 

But if Julius Cae­sar did not write the Bel­lum Alexan­drinum, who did?

The sim­ple answer is this: we do not know. 

The author­ship of Bel­lum Alexan­drinum, as well as Bel­lum Africanum and Bel­lum His­paniense, has been debat­ed for cen­turies. It is pos­si­ble that con­tem­po­raries to the works knew, but even in antiq­ui­ty, the author­ship of the works was discussed. 

Sue­to­nius wrote: 

“Nam Alexan­dri­ni Africique et His­panien­sis incer­tus auc­tor est; alii Oppi­um putant, alii Hir­tium, qui eti­am Gal­li­ci bel­li novis­si­mum imper­fec­tumque librum suppleverit.”

— Sue­to­nius, Divus Julius, I.56

“for the author of the Alexan­dri­an, African, and Span­ish Wars is unknown; some think it was Oppius, oth­ers Hir­tius, who also sup­plied the final book of the Gal­lic War, which Cae­sar left unwritten.”

Was Gaius Oppius the Author of Bellum Alexandrinum?

Sue­to­nius men­tioned a cer­tain Oppius to be a pos­si­ble author of the Alexan­drine War, but who was he?

Gaius Oppius was a close friend of Julius Cae­sar. We don’t know much about him, not when he was born, not when he died. We do know that he man­aged Caesar’s per­son­al affairs in Rome when Cae­sar was absent. He sup­pos­ed­ly wrote about the life of Cae­sar, the elder Sci­pio Africanus and Mar­ius, as well as a pam­phlet try­ing to prove that Cleopatra’s son, Cae­sar­i­on, was not fathered by Cae­sar. (ref. Cic. Ad Q. Fr. 3.1.8, Gell. 17.9.1, Plutarch Caes. 15–17, Suet. Jul. 52.3)

Sue­to­nius men­tioned him not only as the author of the Alexan­drine War but the African and Span­ish Wars too. This idea has been dis­card­ed, and most schol­ars have even shot down the claim of him hav­ing authored the Alexan­drine War. 

Did Aulus Hirtius Write Bellum Alexandrinum?

Sue­to­nius also men­tions a “Hir­tius”. The man he refers to was a man named Aulus Hir­tius (c. 90–43 B.C.) who was a con­sul and also a legate of Julius Cae­sar from about 58 B.C.

After Caesar’s death, Hir­tius ini­tial­ly sided with Mark Antho­ny, how­ev­er, as Cicero was a close friend of his Hir­tius was per­suad­ed to switch sides. This side-change is also what killed him as he set out with an army to attack Antho­ny only to fall in bat­tle. The cor­re­spon­dence between Cicero and Hir­tius was pub­lished (in nine books) but has not sur­vived history. 

Hir­tius is believed to have writ­ten the eighth book of the oth­er­wise Cae­sar-authen­tic De Bel­lo Gal­li­co. This is one of the main rea­sons why Hir­tius has been the front run­ner of pos­si­ble authors to Bel­lum Alexan­drinum. How­ev­er, schol­ars are still not sure due to details with­in the text, as well as for lin­guis­tic and styl­is­tic rea­sons. For instance: Parts of the Bel­lum Alexan­drinum clear­ly shows that the author was an eye­wit­ness. How­ev­er, Hir­tius him­self states that he was not present in Alexan­dria at the time. And, the style of the lan­guage changes char­ac­ter mid-work.

Nev­er­the­less, Hir­tius could have writ­ten the work rely­ing eye­wit­ness reports. 

Today, many believe that Hir­tius was the edi­tor of the text, that he forged togeth­er reports writ­ten by oth­ers dur­ing the war for sub­mis­sion to Cae­sar, per­haps even at the request of Cae­sar. He might also have edit­ed Bel­lum Africanum and Bel­lum His­paniense, though today schol­ars are sure they were not writ­ten by the same author/authors as Bel­lum Alexan­drinum

Most like­ly, we shall nev­er know who wrote the book, just as we will nev­er know exact­ly when it was written. 

If it was writ­ten or edit­ed by Hir­tius, it must have been before his death in 43 B.C. The work itself deals with events dur­ing 48–47 B.C. And, it seems to be the con­sen­sus that the work was writ­ten short­ly after the events of the cam­paigns described with­in the text. 

Julius Caesar’s War With Alexandria

Map of Alexandria at the end of Cleopatras reign.
Map of Alexan­dria at the end of Cleopa­tras reign.

In today’s chap­ter of 2000 years of Latin Prose, we shall read a pas­sage that takes place mid-Alexan­dri­an-war. We will be thrown into action as Caesar’s men fight the Alexan­dri­ans on the so-called “mole”, also known as the Hep­tas­ta­dion.

The mole was a long cause­way that led from the main­land and city of Alexan­dria over to Pharos Island. It had two chan­nels with bridges across, to con­nect the harbours. 

At the stage in the war that we will be read­ing about, Julius Cae­sar had just post­ed a gar­ri­son at the bridge clos­est to Pharos Island while the oth­er one, clos­est to the main­land was held by the Alexandrinians.

But, let us first take a step back and briefly take a look at the rea­son for the war and go through a few details from the war itself: 

First and fore­most: Egypt was an impor­tant trade part­ner to Rome, espe­cial­ly when it came to grain, and any dis­tur­bances to the trade could have dis­as­trous con­se­quences for Roman cit­i­zens. Hence Egypt­ian pol­i­tics was rather impor­tant to the Romans. 

Read on.

It all began when the Pharaoh Ptole­maios (Ptole­my) XII Auletes sought the help of the tri­umvirs Julius Cae­sar, Pom­peius Mag­nus (Pom­pey), and Mar­cus Licinius Cras­sus to be rein­stat­ed after hav­ing been expelled. They sup­port­ed him and made his case in the Sen­ate. Ptole­my even stayed in Pompey’s house dur­ing his exile from Egypt. Ptole­my was rein­stat­ed but died in 51 B.C. with­out hav­ing paid back his debts to Roman cred­i­tors (he had bor­rowed a lot of mon­ey to use for bribes).

Ptole­my gave his throne to his old­est son, also called Ptole­my, and his old­est daugh­ter to share – that would be the famous Cleopa­tra. He made the peo­ple of Rome execu­tor of his will in order to secure his heir’s hold on the Egypt­ian throne and to ensure that his wish about the split regency was observed after his death.

It was not. 

Cleopa­tra was dri­ven out by her broth­er. Thus, she went to Syr­ia and raised an army. 

Mean­while, back in Rome Pom­pey and Cae­sar were busy with the civ­il war. Pom­pey fled to Egypt only to be killed on sight by for­mer sol­diers from his own army at the propo­si­tion of Pharaoh Ptole­my XII­I’s advi­sors (that would be Cleopa­tra’s brother). 

This did not sit well with Cae­sar who despite wag­ing war with Pom­pey, still cared for him hav­ing been for­mer friends, allies, and relat­ed (through mar­riage). Cae­sar mourned his old friend and then decid­ed that it was time that the mon­ey Ptole­my’s father Ptole­my had bor­rowed was paid back to Rome. He also decid­ed to set­tle the dis­pute between Ptole­my and Cleopatra. 

Cae­sar famous­ly sided with Cleopatra. 

In the end, Ptole­my drowned in the Riv­er Nile, pass­ing the “pharaohship” to his younger broth­er – also named Ptole­my – and his sis­ter Cleopa­tra was rein­stat­ed as his co-ruler. 

Painting of Caesar placing Cleopatra back on the throne of Egypt from 1637.
Cae­sar plac­ing Cleopa­tra back on the Throne of Egypt, by Pietro da Cor­tona, 1637.

Further reading and resources

Why not read, if you haven’t already, the pre­vi­ous chap­ter in the Anthol­o­gy about Julius Cae­sar.

Oth­er­wise, I can high­ly rec­om­mend read­ing The cam­bridge com­pan­ion to the writ­ings of Julius Cae­sar, ed. Luca Gril­lo, Christo­pher B Krebs (2017) that not only dis­cuss Cae­sar’s texts but the pseu­do-Cae­sar­i­an writ­ings as well.

Also inter­est­ing are the fol­low­ing articles:

If you want to learn more about the lan­guage, style and nar­ra­tive tech­nique in the Alexan­drine War: 

Audio & Video in Latin

Click below to read and lis­ten to a pas­sage from Bel­lum Alexandrinum. 

Video with English subtitles

Audio of Latin text

Latin text

Below you will find the orig­i­nal text of the pas­sage in Latin. 

Bel­lum Alexan­drinum, 20

In his rebus occu­pa­to Cae­sare militesque hor­tante remigum mag­nus numerus et clas­siar­i­o­rum ex longis nav­ibus nos­tris in molem se eiecit. Pars eorum stu­dio spectan­di fere­batur, pars eti­am cupid­i­tate pug­nan­di. Hi pri­mum navi­gia hostium lapidibus ac fundis a mole repelle­bant ac mul­tum profi­cere mul­ti­tu­dine telo­rum vide­ban­tur. Sed postquam ultra eum locum ab lat­ere eorum aper­to ausi sunt egre­di ex nav­ibus Alexan­dri­ni pau­ci, ut sine sig­nis cer­tisque ordinibus, sine ratione prodier­ant, sic temere in navis refugere coepe­runt. Quo­rum fuga inci­tati Alexan­dri­ni plures ex nav­ibus egredieban­tur nos­trosque acrius per­tur­batos inse­que­ban­tur. Simul qui in nav­ibus longis remanser­ant scalas rap­ere nav­isque a ter­ra repellere prop­er­a­bant, ne hostes nav­ibus potiren­tur. Quibus omnibus rebus per­tur­bati milites nos­tri cohor­tium tri­um quae in ponte ac pri­ma mole con­stit­er­ant, cum post se clam­orem exaudirent, fugam suo­rum vider­ent, mag­nam vim telo­rum adver­si sustiner­ent, ver­i­ti ne ab ter­go cir­cum­veniren­tur et disces­su nav­i­um omni­no red­i­tu inter­clud­er­en­tur muni­tionem in ponte insti­tu­tam reli­querunt et mag­no cur­su inci­tati ad navis con­tenderunt. Quo­rum pars prox­i­mas nac­ta navis mul­ti­tu­dine hominum atque onere depres­sa est, pars resistens et dubi­tans quid esset capi­en­dum con­sili ab Alexan­dri­nis inter­fec­ta est; non nul­li feli­ciore exi­tu expe­d­i­tas ad anco­ram navis con­se­cu­ti incol­umes discesserunt, pau­ci all­e­vatis scutis et ani­mo ad conan­dum nisi ad prox­i­ma navi­gia adnatarunt.

You can down­load a pdf here Get a print-ready PDF ver­sion of this chap­ter: 2000 Years of Latin Prose: Chap­ter 7: Bel­lum Alexandrinum.

Vocabulary & Commentary

These fol­low­ing words are key to under­stand­ing the text, if you already know them — great! — if not, make a men­tal note of them.

remex, ‑igis, m.a row­er, oarsman

clas­siar­ius, ‑i, m. a marine

temere adv. rash­ly

ut…sic: (com­par­a­tive­ly) as…so

potior, ‑itus sum, ‑iri dep. (reg­u­lar­ly with abl.) to take pos­ses­sion of

mag­nam vim: a large num­ber of

quo­rum pars: Releative pro­nouns are com­mon­ly used to refer back­wards like this: “some (a part) of them (i.e.) Romans”.

prox­i­mas nac­ta navis: hav­ing reached the near­est ships. Note. nac­ta is nom­i­na­tive sin­gu­lar of the per­fect par­tici­ple of the verb nan­cis­cor (“to reach”). Since the verb is depo­nent, the per­fect par­tici­ple is active. Nāvīs is the accusative plur­al here.

nīsī: nom­i­na­tive plur­al of per­fect par­tici­ple of nitor to rely on, strive 

all­e­vatis scutis: abla­tive absolute “having/with the shields lift­ed up” 

English translations

Below you will find an Eng­lish trans­la­tion of the text. 

The Alexan­dri­an war

While Cae­sar was occu­pied with this sit­u­a­tion, and as he was encour­ag­ing the troops, a large num­ber of row­ers and sea­men left our war­ships and sud­den­ly land­ed on the mole. Some were inspired by their anx­i­ety to watch the fray, oth­ers also by the desire to take part in it. They began by dri­ving back the ene­my ves­sels from the mole with stones and slings, and it seemed that their heavy vol­leys of mis­siles were hav­ing great effect. But when a few Alexan­dri­ans ven­tured to dis­em­bark beyond that point, on the side of their unpro­tect­ed flank, then, just as they had advanced in no set order or for­ma­tion and with­out any par­tic­u­lar tac­tics, so now they began to retire hap­haz­ard­ly to the ships. Encour­aged by their retreat, more of the Alexan­dri­ans dis­em­barked and pur­sued our flus­tered men more hot­ly. At the same time those who had stayed aboard the war­ships made haste to seize the gang-planks and ease the ships away from land, to pre­vent the ene­my from gain­ing pos­ses­sion of them. All this thor­ough­ly alarmed our troops of the three cohorts which had tak­en post on the bridge and the tip of the mole; and as they heard the clam­our behind them, and saw the retreat of their com­rades, and sus­tained a heavy frontal bar­rage of mis­siles, they feared they might be sur­round­ed in rear and have their retreat entire­ly cut off by the depar­ture of their ships; and so they aban­doned the entrench­ment they had begun at the bridge, and dou­bled fran­ti­cal­ly to the ships. Some of them gained the near­est ships, only to be cap­sized by the weight of so many men; some were killed by the Alexan­dri­ans as they put up a for­lorn and bewil­dered resis­tance; some proved luck­i­er in reach­ing ships at anchor cleared for action, and so got away safe­ly; and a few, hold­ing their shields above them and steel­ing their res­o­lu­tion to the task, swam off to ships near by.

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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