1 August 47 BCE

A statue of the Roman general Julius Caesar stands in the corner of the Piazza Tre Martiri in Rimini. The statue was presented to the city by the dictator Benito Mussolini in 1933. Mussolini’s Fascist movement often used heroic imagery from ancient Rome.

Every schoolchild knows the phrase made famous by Julius Caesar: ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’. However, the battle at which he is supposed to have uttered the immortal words is all but unknown. At the town of Zela (now Zile in modern-day northern Turkey), Caesar’s legions faced a very much larger enemy on the very site where, 20 years earlier, a Roman army had been comprehensively beaten. The Battle of Zela was a much riskier venture than Caesar’s brief epigram suggests, but in the end it was indeed a short, sharp victory for the Roman side.

The battle was prompted by events during the civil war that had raged between Caesar and Pompey (his erstwhile colleague in the First Triumvirate). The war ended with Pompey’s defeat at Pharsalus and his subsequent murder in 48 BCE on the orders of Ptolemy XIII, one of two claimants to the throne of Egypt. Caesar arrived in Alexandria shortly after Pompey’s death and began a notorious affair with Cleopatra VII, the other claimant to the throne. After summoning Roman reinforcements and allies from the garrisons of the Middle East, Caesar defeated Ptolemy, and Cleopatra became queen (as co-ruler with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV). With Egypt secure as an ally, Caesar left with just 1,000 men to settle affairs in the Roman provinces in the Middle East and Anatolia, where some of the local rulers had supported Pompey. One province in particular took his attention. While the civil war distracted Roman commanders, Pharnaces II, who had been installed by Pompey as king of the Crimea, arrived in Anatolia to claim back the kingdom of Pontus, taken from his family by the Romans a few years after the first Battle of Zela. Pharnaces defeated Caesar’s local commander Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus, seized the region, castrated and enslaved all Roman citizens and murdered Roman tax collectors. This was a challenge Caesar could not allow to go unpunished.

As Caesar approached, Pharnaces tried to buy him off with the offer of his daughter and a heavy golden crown in return for the right to rule his ancestral lands, but Caesar was not to be appeased. The details of the battle that followed are scanty. The number of men on each side is at best an estimate: perhaps 20,000 with Pharnaces, while Caesar brought four badly depleted legions, one composed of local troops from neighbouring Galatia, which Caesar had compelled the ruler, Deiotarus, to provide as penance for supporting Pompey. It is likely that the seasoned troops with Caesar were greatly outnumbered.

Pharnaces made camp on a hilltop at Zela, confident that he would repeat the victory over the Romans won by his father Mithridates in 67 BCE. Caesar was camped 8 kilometres (5 miles) away, but during the night of 31 July moved his force to the opposite side of the valley from Zela to await the probable battle. While Caesar’s troops began to fortify their hilltop, Pharnaces moved to catch them unprepared.

The chief account of the battle, in The Alexandrian War, was written by an anonymous Roman officer. According to this source, Pharnaces massed his forces together, including a cohort of scythed chariots, and set them off down the hill to cross the valley floor and rush up the far slope towards the Romans. Caesar thought this was simply a display, since no sane commander would send his troops and horses uphill to fight a battle, but the enemy rolled on until the chariots reached the surprised Roman line. Caesar hastily assembled his legions and showers of javelins blunted the impact of the first wave of chariots.Despite the confusion and the unequal numbers, the disciplined Roman army drove the enemy back, killing and capturing a great many, until they reached and occupied the camp at Zela.

Pharnaces fled back to the Crimea where he was later killed in a fight with one of his governors. Caesar, it must be assumed, had the tactical skill and inspiration lacking in the two Roman commanders already defeated in Pontus, though too little is known of the battle to be certain of how the odds were overcome, save the tactical ineptitude of the tiring charge uphill against veteran Roman legionaries.

Caesar wrote to a correspondent in Rome after the battle that he had come and seen and conquered, a phrase borrowed, so it is thought, from the Greek philosopher Democritus. The campaign against Pharnaces completed the pacification of Asia Minor. Caesar sailed back to Italy, where he landed in September 47 BCE. Three years later he planned another major expedition to the east to punish the Parthians for the defeat of Crassus at Carrhae, hoping to take 16 legions and 10,000 archers and cavalry with him. Shortly before he was due to depart, on 15 March 44 BCE, he was stabbed to death in the Senate by a group of men alarmed by his appointment as ‘Perpetual Dictator’. Though Caesar fought back, these were odds even he could not overcome.