The Gabiniani (in English Gabinians) were 2,000 Roman legionaries and 500 Roman auxiliary cavalry left in Egypt by the general Aulus Gabinius after his military restoration of Ptolemy XII on the Egyptian throne in 55 BC. The soldiers were left to protect the king, but they soon adopted the manners of their new country and became completely alienated from the Roman Republic. After the death of Ptolemy XII in 51 BC they helped his son Ptolemy XIII in the power struggle against his sister Cleopatra VII and even involved Julius Caesar, the powerful supporter of Cleopatra, in the Alexandrinian war (48-47 BC) in violent battles.
Protecting power of Ptolemy XII in Egypt
In 58 BC Ptolemy XII had to leave Egypt and went into exile in Rome. Three years later Aulus Gabinius, the Roman proconsul of Syria, restored the king after a short campaign to the throne. Then he left a part of his army, the Gabiniani, in Egypt for the protection of the future reign of the king. These Roman troops also included Gallic and German horsemen.
Because Egypt was nominally independent, the Gabiniani were not a Roman occupying army but mercenaries of Ptolemy XII. According to the report of Julius Caesar, they soon adopted the dissipated way of life of the Alexandrians, while they neglected Roman discipline. Nevertheless they still possessed a great fighting strength because Caesar described them as very dangerous enemies in the Alexandrinian war. They married Egyptian women and had already fathered children with them before the arrival of Caesar in Egypt (48 BC). So they lost more and more the ties to Rome and became a loyal protecting power of Ptolemy XII, who used them in fights against rebellious subjects.
Conflict with Cleopatra VII
After the death of Ptolemy XII (51 BC) his two oldest surviving children, Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra VII, were supposed to jointly succeed him on the throne as husband and wife, but the young queen soon ousted her brother and husband from the power and ruled alone. She quickly came into a serious conflict with the Gabiniani. In 53 BC the powerful Parthians had inflicted a devastating defeat on the Romans in the Battle of Carrhae, and three years later – at the beginning of the year 50 BC – the governor of Syria, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, sent two of his sons to Egypt to recruit the Gabiniani for the war against the Parthians. The Gabiniani, however, did not want to give up their comfortable life in the Ptolemaic Empire to fight against the dangerous Parthians, and killed the sons of Bibulus.
Cleopatra continued the pro-Roman policies of her father and did not hesitate to have the murderers arrested and handed over in chains to Bibulus, because a simple averment of the queen not to be guilty of the crime would surely not have been enough for the mourning father. This action turned the Gabiniani into bitter enemies of the queen, but it was more important for Cleopatra to maintain good relations with Rome. Valerius Maximus claims that the Syrian proconsul sent the murderers back because not he but the senate in Rome was responsible for the punishment of the criminals, who were still Roman citizens. The German historian Christoph Schäfer does not believe this version and assumes instead that the proconsul himself did pronounce the judgement, since on the one hand he had the legal authority and on the other, he should have sent the murderers to Rome and not to Egypt if he really thought that only the senate had the necessary competence. Christoph Schäfer believes that Cleopatra’s break with the Gabiniani was the main cause of her loss of power that soon ensued. At this time at the latest the Gabiniani joined the party of Ptolemy XIII and his three influential guardians and advisors, Pothinus, Achillas, and Theodotus of Chios.
In the spring of 49 BC Gnaeus Pompeius, the oldest son of the triumvir Pompey, came to Egypt to ask for military aid in the civil war against Julius Caesar that had just broken out. At this time Ptolemy XIII had succeeded in sharing the power with his older sister Cleopatra and both rulers complied with the petition. Among other things they sent 500 horsemen of the Gabiniani to Pompey. This time the Gabiniani did not refuse to go to war.
At the end of 49 BC Cleopatra was driven out of Alexandria at the instigation of Pothinus. Probably in connection with this action, Caesar accuses the Gabiniani that they were so much used to the old customs of the Alexandrinian soldiers that they demanded the execution of friends of kings, tried to raise their pay by besieging the palace and that they deposed kings and brought other men to power.
After his decisive defeat in the Battle of Pharsalus, Pompey fled to the coast of Egypt and demanded help and support from the Ptolemaic government. The advisors of Ptolemy XIII were not willing to get involved into the Roman civil war and decided the murder of Pompey in an attempt to please the victorious Caesar. Pothinus and his companions allegedly also feared that Pompey would try to incite the former Roman soldiers in the Ptolemaic army – who partly had earlier fought under his command – to gain control over Egypt. It is very doubtful, however, whether the Gabiniani could have been convinced to take part in such a step because they were already so deeply rooted in Egypt. Indeed two leading members of the Gabiniani, the former tribune Lucius Septimius and the centurion Salvius, participated in the assassination of Pompey (25 July 48 BC according to the Julian calendar).
War against Caesar
Caesar arrived in Egypt a few days after the assassination of Pompey. In spite of the elimination of his enemy, he did not leave the country and supported the expelled Cleopatra in the Ptolemaic power struggle. Pothinus organized military opposition against Caesar. In the Alexandrinian war that followed, the Gabiniani played an important role: they were the core divisions of Achillas' army that comprised 20.000 infantrymen and 2000 cavalrymen. The forces of Caesar were one-fifth the size of his opponent's. Caesar relates in his Commentarii de Bello Civili that fugitive criminals and exiles from the neighbouring Roman provinces had joined the Gabiniani because the government recruited them to swell the ranks of their army.
After the successful conclusion of the Alexandrinian war, Caesar replaced the Gabiniani by three reliable legions, the XXVII, XXVIII and XXIX, that served as the Roman occupying army of Egypt. These troops were to protect the reign of Cleopatra but also to ensure the queen's loyalty to Rome.
- Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili 3.4.4; 3.103.5; 3.110.2; Valerius Maximus 4.1.15; Appian, Civil Wars 2.24.90; Cassius Dio, Roman History 42.5.4
- Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili 3.110.2 and 3.110.6
- Valerius Maximus 4.1.15; compare Cicero, epistulae ad Atticum 6.5.3; Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili 3.110.6; Seneca the Younger, dialogi 6.14.2; compare also Christoph Schäfer, 2006, p. 42-43, and Michael Grant, 1998, p. 74-75
- Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili 3.4.4; Appian, Civil Wars 2.49
- Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili 3.110.5; compare Christoph Schäfer, 2006, p. 43
- Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili 3.104.1 and 3.104.3; compare Christoph Schäfer, 2006, p. 50-51
- Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili 3.110.1-4
- Michael Grant, Cleopatra, 1972 and 1974 (here used a German edition of 1998), pp. 35–36, 74-75, 78, 86, 102.
- Christoph Schäfer, Kleopatra, Darmstadt 2006, pp. 28, 41-43, 50-51.