Thursday, June 24, 2010

Caesar and Pompey in Albania

I've recently returned from taking a group on a cultural heritage tour of Albania, and it was good to see that there have been lots of positive changes since the last tour. The most important change is the upgrading of several main roads, and in particular the beautiful coast road from Saranda to Vlore. 



Our group was quite small, but some of them had a particular interest in the Roman Civil War, so I made sure to point out as many of the pertinent places as possible. There are quite a few - Caesar and Pompey played cat and mouse up and down the coastal plain of Albania before heading East to meet up at Pharsala in Thessaly.

The stretch of coast where Caesar landed his troops is today a long, white almost deserted beach between Saranda and Vlore, and I suppose pretty it looked much as it would have done two thousand years ago - apart from the fact that Caesar landed in the midst of winter. You can imagine the ships coming in to the beach with the waves lashing the sterns and the wind howling into the ears of the troops as they stood on deck. Nor was there respite when they reached dry land - they then had to face a climb of awe-inspiring steepness up into the hills and across the quarry-pitted Karaburuni peninsula to reach the relatively safe harbour of Orikum. You can still see the path the estimated 30,000 troops took, and the narrowness of the track makes you wonder how many hours it took for the whole army to wind its way over the heights of LLogara. 
 (You can just make out the horizontal track in this photograph)

Having left a garrison at Orikum, and ships in the harbour, Caesar headed north to meet up with Marc Antony who had landed at Shengjin, the harbour of ancient Lissus. They would join up, or else they would make a pincer movement on Pompey's forces, which were stationed near Dyrrachion (Greek Epidamnus), where Pompey taken his troops on hearing that Caesar had crossed the Rubicon. Pompey headed back to try and stop the two forces joining up, but (as often happens in ancient warfare) bypassed the two armies and was then forced to make camp in Asparagium (Rroghozina) in order to regroup and re-assess. However, he did receive the good news that his son Pompey Junius had taken Orikum and destroyed 30 of Caesar's ships.  There was no turning back for Caesar.

Caesar, inland from Dyrrachion, ordered his troops to build earthworks, hoping to immobilise Pompey, but Pompey realised that he could not allow himself to be trapped and so, in a bold move, broke through the newly erected earthworks and fortifications and gave battle somewhere near Petra (Kavaje?). It was a hard fought engagement, but with no definite conclusion, and Caesar withdrew his men, leaving 690 of them dead on the field of battle. He led his troops south east and into Macedonia, passing Apollonia, a town famed for its School of Rhetoric, which was staunchly pro-Caesar.

Pompey, buoyed by Caesar's haste to get away, calmly took the Via Egnatia, the famous road leading from Dyrrachion all the way to Byzantium, and also crossed the mountains into Macedonia, thence down into Thessaly to meet his fate. Albania's role in the Civil War was over.

There is a post-script to the story, however. Later, when Caesar had defeated not only Pompey but Marc Antony too, he sent his heir Octavian away from Rome, to toughen up a bit and to gain some experience abroad. He sent him to Apollonia, and it was in that city that the young Octavian heard of the assassination of Julius Caesar and returned to Rome to take up his destiny.

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