Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The 6th Legion...who were they?

The Sixth Legion is one of those bits of history that typically take one and one to get three. The whole story of the Sixth gets very confusing between the late Gallic wars and the subsequent Civil Wars (52BC-46BC) - where it famously became the legion Caesar took to Alexandria and then later Pontus. However a lot of the confusion appears to extend to the fact that at certain points in time the Sixth seemed to be fighting on both sides. While the obvious answer implies there were two Sixth legions at the same time - one being a Gallic legion raised by Julius Caesar and the other, one of Pompey's - some quite elaborate alternatives have been created that often almost need time travel to explain. However I'm a keen proponent of the obvious answer. Let's go to the beginning.

Pompey began numbering his legions in 65BC when he had seven legions established in Spain - 1 to 7 - as logic would have it. Obviously a Spanish 6th was one of these. The 8th and 9th were drafted the following year and in 61BC Julius Caesar raised the 10th while he was a Spanish Governor. As Caesar's Gallic campaign began in April 59BC, the 7th, 8th, 9th & 10th were moved to Gaul, leaving the Legions 1 to 6 still in Spain. Then Caesar has a major set back losing almost two legions in 54BC resulting in him 'borrowing' the 1st from Spain. And this is where things get interesting...I promise. At the end of 53BC - having already raised six Gallic legions (the 14th twice) - Caesar began recruiting for a seventh while he was wintering in his eastern Gallic province of Cisapline Gaul. However the Great Rebellion of Vercingetorix began before this legion was fully formed and it departed with Caesar known only as the 'Italian Draft'. After joining with a provincial garrison in southern Gaul this 'draft' dug its way through snowdrifts to reach the majority of the wintering legions and then it disappears from Caesar's writings. What happened to the Italian Draft? As far as most historians seem to think, nothing...it just up and disappeared. The thing is, it didn't of course.

A Roman legion was formed at one moment in time...the new recruits signed up and retired on the same day sixteen years later...there were no new recruits added later on, which meant a fighting legion could start off with 4800-men but only a few hundred might be left at the end. So the Italian Draft had to become their own legion at some point during 52BC - and after the battle of Gergovia where Caesar lost the best part of another two legions, it certainly did. Filling out the rest of its numbers with Roman refugees or local Roman militia from central or southern Gaul, the 'Draft' legion was most likely named at Agendencum during August 52BC - prior to the Caesar's planned evacuatation of the province. Failing that he named it and the end of the year before winter quartering - and, yes, it was named the '6th'. The fact this was his newest Gallic legion from the Gallic wars and he knew what they had achieved single-handedly during winter of January 52BC probably explains why Caesar used this legion for the Alexandrian and Pontic campaigns. And quite frankly, suggestions of him using Pompey's 6th Legion captured after the battle of Pharsulus instead of one his own trusted legions bends credibility a little too much.

Yep, you read it right...there were two 6th Legions in the Greek campaign - on different sides. So why did Caesar create this clash in numbers? It was probably unintentional, the 'Spanish 6th' was due to retire in 50BC and Caesar's intention appears to have been filling in the lower numbered legions as they
retired - he was going to have to do the same with the 7th as well. It may even have been a bit of insurance to force the retirement of the older legion on time. Pompey probably did retire this legion in early 50BC, reforming it again at the beginning of 49BC when the Senate decreed some 170,000 Italian men were to drafted for the civil war against Caesar, and as the numbered legions were his idea, Pompey probably didn't care if Caesar had already used the number 6, as only a Pompeian 6th would be the real 6th. Chances are Pompey's enormous Greek army had several legions with the same numbers as Caesar's.