The 1st century BC wasn’t exactly peaceful for Rome. Apart from the wars it had to wage against external enemies, it found itself embroiled not in one but in two civil conflicts. The first was a power struggle between Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Gaius Marius, from 88 to 81 BC. The second came just thirty-two years later, when the duel was replayed with Julius Caesar and Pompey. As we know, the former prevailed, achieving victory after brilliant triumphs in one of the main battlegrounds, Hispania, where the victory at Munda against Pompey’s son ended the conflict. But before that, he had defeated his father in another battle fought on Spanish soil: the Battle of Ilerda.

Ilerda, the ancient Iltiŕta (or Ildiŕda), was a city of the Ilergetes, an Iberian people who lived in Tarraconensis, a northeastern province that stretched from Bajo Urgell to the Ebro River, in what are now the provinces of Huesca and Lleida. The original capital was in the unlocated Atanagrum, but in Roman times it was moved to Ilerda, located on Roca Sobirana, a hill that rises next to the Sicoris River (Segre) and now bears the name Turó de la Seu Vella (or Turó de Lleida).

That city had already played a role in an episode of the Second Punic War, in 215 BC, when Hasdrubal, the brother of Hannibal Barca, was defeated by the Romans in the Battle of the Ebro, and a few years later the local leaders Indibil and Mandonius suffered the same fate. It revealed itself as a strategic point in the Hispanic geography as it served as a passage to (or from) Narbonensian Gaul (southwest of present-day France), which extended between the Pyrenees and Massalia (Marseille), with its capital in Colonia Narbo Martius (Narbonne). A territory that, as a result, would be highly contested by Caesar and Pompey.

Former friends and relatives (the former was married to the latter’s daughter), as well as colleagues in the triumvirate alongside Marcus Licinius Crassus, upon the latter’s death in campaign against the Parthians, and thus with the disappearance of the man who maintained the precarious balance of government, the other two openly or less openly sought power. Given that both had personalities and charisma as strong as their ambition, they were bound to clash, especially since they respectively embodied the two political positions that in the previous civil war had been represented by Sulla (the optimates, the aristocracy) and Marius (the populares, who were not actually the people but a wealthy faction trying to exploit the assemblies against their rivals).

Thus, the popular Julius Caesar faced the traditionalist Pompey. In practice, it was a confrontation between the threat of a personalist dictatorship and the republican legality of the majority of the Senate. This was put into practice with the hidden struggle of Caesar to maintain his position as proconsul of Gaul and add that of consul, which Pompey held, something the Senate refused unless he gave up his Gallic governorship because otherwise the candidate would strengthen his proconsular army with the corresponding consular one and would pose a serious danger of becoming a de facto dictator.

In 49 BC, while Caesar was buying the tribunate of the plebeians for one of his men, Gaius Scribonius Curio, the senators elected two of his enemies, Gaius Claudius Marcellus and Lucius Cornelius Lentulus Crus, for the consulship. Caesar then made an offer: to discharge his troops except for a couple of legions in exchange for keeping Gaul and being a candidate for consul the following year. The Senate split, even among his adversaries: among them, Marcus Tullius Cicero found it acceptable while Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger considered it unacceptable.

They insisted on demanding the dissolution of the army and his return to Rome to stand trial, something Caesar was not willing to do because he risked being declared an enemy of the Republic and incapacitated, leaving the path open and unobstructed to Pompey, whom Cicero had requested help from. Pompey played his cards, and, like his counterpart, he had not dispensed with his legions, with the advantage that the Senate did not reproach him because the majority of its members were his supporters.

Finally, Caesar was declared an outlaw; there was no turning back, and crossing the Rubicon – the Italian border – with his forces to march on Rome – as Sulla had done – was a symbol of it all. Pompey, misinformed about the strength of his rival, chose to retreat, embarking his fleet to Greece and thus leaving the Italian peninsula in the hands of Caesar’s forces. Unable to pursue him by sea, Caesar oriented his strategy towards Hispania, where the Pompeians were strong and could threaten Gaul. He embarked on the coastal route, leaving his loyalists Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and Marcus Antonius in charge of Rome and Italy respectively.

His first obstacle was Massilia (Marseille), where a squadron under the command of Pompey’s Lucius Domitius Enobarbus had reinforced the city’s defenses, also supplying it to withstand an expected long siege. Caesar left the siege tasks to Decimus Junius Brutus Albinus and Gaius Trebonius, while he continued his way to Hispania. There awaited him the combined armies of the proconsul Lucius Afranius and the propraetor Marcus Petreius, totaling five legions plus five thousand cavalry and eighty cohorts of auxiliaries; in total, about forty thousand men. Additionally, there were the two legions of Marcus Terentius Varro, who remained on standby.

Caesar had six legions (some proconsular and others recruited ad hoc in Italy), three thousand cavalry, and five thousand auxiliaries, which he augmented with Gallic mercenaries to match the enemy’s total. But he also had the three legions of Gaius Fabius, his legate in Gaul, who had advanced to clear the way through the Pyrenees and gather supplies. Unable to block the mountain range, Afranius and Petreius camped at Ilerda, hindering Fabius’s position. Fortunately for him, Caesar had realized the risk and, hastening his march, reunited with him in the second half of June, after a forced twenty-seven-day march.

He immediately deployed his soldiers in a triple line and advanced towards Ilerda, camping very close to Afranius’s camp, which was in front of the city, on a hill with the river behind. Between them was a plain that Caesar deemed appropriate for the inevitable pitched battle. The two armies observed each other for a couple of days, without attempting to attack, while Caesar’s forces built suitable defenses for their camp. The battle began on June 27, 49 BC, when both sides maneuvered to try to occupy a hill in no man’s land. The initial advantage was for the Pompeians, who surprised their enemies by unexpectedly fighting in the Hispanic manner: with a succession of charges and retreats.

Caesar countered by sending the Ninth Legion, which pushed Afranius’s troops towards Ilerda, behind whose walls they easily repelled the Caesarians and then counterattacked. After several hours of fighting, the hill was in Pompey’s hands, who the next day gained a new advantage when a flood cut off Caesar’s and Fabius’s camps, depriving them of foraging capability. Meanwhile, Afranius enjoyed plentiful reserves in the city and aggravated the rival’s situation by attacking a supply convoy, putting it to flight.

Caesar’s situation became desperate, isolated and with hunger in his ranks. He couldn’t resolve it until a few days later when he restored the supply by river and by a stroke of luck from his cavalry, who, sent to forage, encountered their Pompeian counterparts and annihilated them in the resulting skirmish. From then on, Afranius’s soldiers did not venture far from their positions, showing a fear that increased when news arrived that Massilia had fallen, causing many local tribes to begin switching sides to Caesar’s.

With the momentum now in his favor, Caesar changed the course of the river to better operate his cavalry. That dissuaded Afranius and Petreius from the danger of remaining there, so they opted for a retreat to Celtiberia, where they would join Varro and gain numerical superiority. They began that movement on July 25, leaving some auxiliary cohorts to protect Ilerda. Caesar’s cavalry tried to reach them but failed, and everything seemed headed for a decisive pitched battle, which was what Caesar desired.

After inspecting the route, scouts from both sides informed their commands of the existence of a nearby defile that would provide an obvious advantage to whoever occupied it. Caesar’s cavalry advanced and exterminated the Pompeian contingent hastily sent to try to prevent the operation; another morale blow fell upon the increasingly demoralized soldiers of Afranius and Petreius, who had seen the tables turn and now found themselves isolated on a hill, without water or supply capacity.

The situation was so dire that the proconsul and the propraetor of Hispania personally led a supply sortie without imagining that, in their absence, the officers of their army, seeing the game lost, would send envoys to Caesar to negotiate. He accepted to negotiate, and his delegates were received in the camp, where they heard the offer from the Pompeian tribunes and centurions: to join him if they received the promise of no reprisals. The talks ended violently when Petreius, who had returned, burst in with his guard and executed the Caesarians he caught.

In contrast, the cunning Caesar respected the lives of the opposing negotiators, who chose to stay with him. That only underscored the precarious situation of the Pompeians, who remained surrounded and with barely enough rations for the legionaries but none for the auxiliaries, who therefore deserted in increasing numbers. The only solution was to return to nearby Ilerda, but Caesar’s cavalry stood in their way and inflicted a massacre when they tried to force the route. There seemed to be no way out but to either present a pitched battle or surrender.

After several failed attempts to ford the river and reach the city, Afranius and Petreius threw in the towel and surrendered on August 2. Caesar showed generosity and imposed his proverbial cunning over the desire for vengeance for the death of the envoys Petreius had killed, sparing the lives of the commanders and even authorizing them to join Pompey if they wished. He also fed the surrendered soldiers, disbanded the Hispanic auxiliaries, and dissolved some of the legions, incorporating others into his army.

The Battle of Ilerda had ended less bloodily than expected, but there was still an epilogue: Varro had received erroneous news about a victory of Afranius and Petreius, so he abandoned his ambiguity and reinforced all the cities with garrisons, preparing to set out to aid his Pompeian comrades. When he learned the truth, he stopped all the fuss and set off for Gades (Cádiz), where he planned to entrench himself with his fleet and whatever provisions he could gather.

He never arrived because the authorities of the city closed their gates to him, taking sides with Caesar, who had summoned all the Roman governors of Hispania to Corduba (Córdoba). The alternative was to go to Italica, near Hispalis (Seville), although he found no refuge there either, so he had no choice but to negotiate with Caesar. His cousin, Sextus Julius Caesar, was in charge of receiving Varro’s surrender, who, like his comrades, was pardoned and would later lay down his arms to become one of the great figures of Latin literature.

Before that, like Afranius and Petreius, Varro would join Pompey and the three would fight alongside him in the Battle of Pharsalus, which effectively ended the civil war and from which the first two did not survive. Meanwhile, thanks to the victory at Ilerda, Hispania was won for the Caesarian cause. Returning to Massilia, Caesar learned that Lepidus had finally succeeded in having the Senate of Rome appoint him dictator, and moreover for an unprecedented term of ten years. He would not fulfill it, for while that was the successful culmination of his ambition, it was also going to be a death sentence in the medium term.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on February 22, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Ilerda, la batalla con la que Julio César arrebató Hispania a Pompeyo


Cayo Julio César, Guerra Civil | Dion Casio, Historia romana | Plutarco, Vidas paralelas | Suetonio, Vidas de los doce césares | Veleyo Patérculo, Historia romana | Apiano, Historia romana. Guerras civiles | Gerard Walter, Julio César | José Manuel Roldán, Césares. Julio César, Augusto, Tiberio, Calígula, Claudio y Nerón. La primera dinastía de la Roma imnperial | Mary Beard, SPQR. Una historia de la antigua Roma | Wikipedia

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