A leader without an army Greece January August

The report of Curio's defeat was not the only bad news reaching Caesar in late 49, for Mark Antony had suffered a lesser defeat in

Illyricum. Even more serious was a mutiny involving four of his legions, and in particular Legio IX, at Placentia (modern Piacenza) on the river Po. The troops complained that many who had served throughout the Gallic campaigns were now long overdue for discharge, and that no one had yet received the donative of 500 denarii per man (double their annual salary) promised by Caesar at Brundisium some months before. Caesar's response was harsh, berating them for their impatience and declaring that he would decimate Legio IX, which meant executing one man in ten. In the end he relented, and only had the 12 ringleaders killed.


Caesar spent a short time at Rome, having been appointed dictator before he arrived and held the post for 11 days, using his powers to hold elections in which he was voted to the consulship. He was eager to move against Pompey, and near the end of the year went to join the army of some 12 legions along with 1,000 cavalry which had been assembled at Brundisium. Attrition meant that it was unlikely any of the legions mustered more than 3,000 men, and some units were closer to the 2,000 mark. Nevertheless, this was still a formidable total to ship across the Adriatic and to supply once there. Caesar exhorted his soldiers by saying that this next campaign would be the culmination of their labours, and then told them to carry only the absolutely essential baggage and to leave nearly all servants, slaves and families behind. On 4 January 48, there were sufficient ships to embark seven legions and 500 cavalrymen. The crossing was a great gamble, for Caesar had no significant naval force with which to oppose the vast Pompeian fleet, currently commanded by his old enemy and consular colleague in 59, Bibulus. Yet the enemy did not expect him to move in winter when the weather was poor, and Caesar landed without opposition at Paeleste in Epirus. Bibulus was alerted by the time the transport ships headed back to Brundisium and intercepted some of them. For the moment it proved impossible for Mark Antony to run the blockade and bring the remainder of the army across to join Caesar.

Caesar was isolated and severely outnumbered by the enemy. Pompey had had more than nine months to muster his forces, and by this time they amounted to nine legions, supported by over 5,000 light infantry and 7,000 cavalry. A further two legions under Scipio were on their way from Syria. Pompey, always a great organiser, had taken care to gather plenty of food and fodder to supply his troops even in the winter months. Caesar's men had to make do with the little they had brought with them and whatever could be gathered from local communities. The situation was increasingly desperate, but Caesar was not really strong enough to open a full-scale offensive. Some manoeuvring took place, along with further attempts at negotiation, but there was no serious fighting. At one point he put to sea in a small ship during appalling weather, hoping to reach Brundisium and hurry his reinforcements over, but the weather proved so bad that he was forced to return to the shore. In was not until 10 April that Mark Antony managed to bring the remaining legions across the Adriatic. Pompey responded too slowly and failed to prevent the union of the two forces.

Caesar had all 11 legions, but was still outnumbered and continued to have supply problems. Nevertheless he immediately resolved to make a bold attack on one of the enemy's major supply dumps at the port city of Dyrrachium. Outmarching the enemy, he managed to get between Pompey and the city, although he was not able to seize the latter. Pompey camped on the coast on a hill called Petra, overlooking a natural harbour which continued to allow him to receive supply shipments. Caesar's main camp was on a hill further north, but he continued to have supply problems as the harvest was not yet ripe and the region had been thoroughly plundered by the enemy. A line of hills ran around Pompey's camp and Caesar began construction of a line of forts connected by a ditch and wall, which were intended

Julius Caesar Military Camps Forts

This scene from Trajan's column shows the Emperor Trajan and a group of his senior officers planning for their campaign.The general's council (consilium) was an important opportunity for him to explain his intentions and issue orders. These were held frequently during a campaign and always preceded a battle. (Author's collection)

eventually to surround the enemy completely. This provided some protection for his patrols and foraging parties from the more numerous enemy cavalry, although in part the rugged ground made the operations of the enemy cavalry less effective. More importantly the willingness of Pompey, with a numerically superior army, to be hemmed in by the enemy would be a public humiliation, perhaps weakening the loyalty of his allies. Pompey replied by beginning his own line of fortifications parallel to Caesar's. There was considerable skirmishing between the two sides as they fought for possession of key positions or simply to hinder each other's progress. Pompey's more numerous army had the advantage of being on the inside and so having to build a shorter line, which eventually measured only some 15 miles to the more than 17 miles of the Caesarean works. In effect two armies were conducting a siege instead of the more normal forms of open warfare which, for Caesar's forces, were reminiscent of some of their conflict in Gaul.

Both armies, and especially the Caesareans, were on very short rations, but Pompey's army had a very large number of animals, both cavalry mounts and baggage animals, which began to suffer. Priority went to the cavalry and soon pack and draught animals were dying in great numbers. Caesar managed to dam the streams that carried water into the enemy positions. For a while Pompey's men survived by digging wells, but these did not really provide sufficient quantities and after a while the bulk of his cavalry and their mounts were shipped out. In the meantime, Caesar's legionaries dreamed of ripening crops and survived by eating barley rather than wheat, consuming far more meat than usual, and using a local root called charax to make a kind of bread.

On seeing an example of this bread, Pompey is said to have declared that they were fighting beasts and not men.

The work went on as each side extended its fortifications further and further south. Pompey's army mounted a heavy attack which was easily repulsed by the troops led by Publius Sulla. The enemy retreat was so

Enemy Retreats

precipitate that some of Caesar's officers felt that an immediate all-out attack might have won the war there and then. However, Caesar was not present and praised Sulla for not going beyond his orders, feeling that such an important change of plan was the responsibility of the commander, not that of a subordinate or legate. On the same day a series of diversionary assaults were also made in some force. All failed at the cost of some 2,000 casualties, but especially heavy fighting occurred around a small fort held by three of Caesar's cohorts under Volcatius Tullus. Heavily outnumbered, the defenders suffered many wounds from the vast number of missiles shot into the camp by

46 Essential Histories • Caesar's Civil War


0 2 km Caesar's occupied by

Caesar's siege line L'iuiuoi Caesar's uncompleted siege work ■ i i ■ i i m 11. i Pompey's siege line

Caesar's unsuccessful attack on his abandoned camp ^ Pompey's successful counterattack

The battle of Dyrrachium


0 2 km Caesar's occupied by

Caesar's siege line L'iuiuoi Caesar's uncompleted siege work ■ i i ■ i i m 11. i Pompey's siege line

Caesar's unsuccessful attack on his abandoned camp ^ Pompey's successful counterattack the hordes of slingers and archers supporting the attacking legion. Nearly all the defenders were wounded, four out of six centurions in one cohort losing their eyes, but somehow they held on. Caesar rewarded his officers and men lavishly, and they were granted extra rations, which at the time may have seemed even more satisfying than promotions and medals.

Soon after this success, two Gallic chieftains, Roucillus and Egus, defected to Pompey, along with their closest followers. Caesar claims that they had been caught claiming pay for non-existent cavalrymen

LEFT This early 2nd-century AD relief from Adamklissi in Romania shows a legicinary in the uniform of the period fighting a half-naked barbarian.The Roman has punched his opponent with the boss of the shield to unbalance him and then stabbed him in the stomach. (Author's collection)

and feared punishment. The desertion raised enemy morale and provided Pompey with considerable intelligence about Caesar's dispositions. Using this information, he planned a powerful attack on an incomplete section at the southern end of Caesar's fortifications, the main body striking from his own lines, while detachments of light troops were taken by sea and landed behind the enemy. The attack achieved some initial success, but as Antony and then Caesar himself led up reserves the tide was turned and the enemy driven back. To regain the initiative, Caesar replied with a heavy counter-attack against a camp originally built by Legio IX, subsequently abandoned and now occupied by the enemy. His troops moved through dead ground and woodland and achieved initial surprise, breaking into the camp, but then things began to go wrong. One of the attacking columns got lost, mistaking another wall for the rampart of the camp and following it towards the sea. Pompey shifted reserves to the area. The leading attackers began to flee and the panic spread rapidly as most of the 33 cohorts involved dissolved into rout. Caesar tried to stop standard bearers as they fled past him -a common gesture used by Roman commanders to rally their men - but all rushed on, some leaving the standard in his hands, and one even trying to stab him with its butt-spike, prompting a bodyguard to slice off the man's arm. Losses amounted to over 960 men and 32 tribunes and centurions killed and more taken prisoner. Fortunately, Pompey failed to follow up his advantage so soon after the failure of his own attack, prompting Caesar to declare that he would have lost if only the enemy commander had known how to win. Labienus was allowed to take charge of the prisoners and had them all executed. Parading his army, Caesar publicly punished several of the standard-bearers and tried to inspire the rest. Judging that their morale was at a low ebb, he decided that they needed to be encouraged before he risked a major action. Evacuating his sick and wounded, Caesar decided to withdraw, sending his baggage train out of camp at night to conceal his intention from the enemy. The main column was then able to withdraw with little hindrance. Only a few Pompeian cavalry managed to catch up with the retreating army and these were defeated by Caesar's cavalry, closely supported by a picked unit of 400 infantry.


Caesar headed into Thessaly, hoping to join up with a detachment under Domitius Calvinus which he had sent to intercept Scipio and his two legions. His army began to recover its strength as they passed through unplundered land and were able to harvest the now ripening grain. However, the reverse at Dyrrachium made some communities doubt Caesar's prospects of victory and the city of Gomphi refused to admit him or provide food. Caesar stormed the place and, for one of the very few times during the Civil War, allowed his men to sack the town. Some sources claim that the next day's march was more like a drunken revel, but also that the overindulgence appeared to cure much of the sickness from which many soldiers were suffering.

Pompey now had several options. One would have been to use his fleet to cross to Italy, now largely unprotected, but this would still mean that Caesar had to be defeated at some future date, and might be seen as running from his opponent. His personal belief was that they ought to shadow Caesar's army, but avoid open confrontation, hoping to wear him down by depriving him of supplies. This was a well-recognised Roman strategy, often known by the nickname of 'kicking the enemy in the belly'. However, there was massive pressure from the senators with the army to bring matters to a swift conclusion by bringing the enemy to battle. In early August the two armies camped near each other on the plains of Pharsalus. Several days were spent in the manoeuvring and formal challenges to battle that so often preceded the battles of this period. The pressure on Pompey to fight grew stronger and stronger. Many of the senators were so confident that arguments broke out over who should receive Caesar's post of Pontifex Maximus, one of the senior priesthoods in Rome, as well as what punishment was appropriate for those who had supported him or tried to remain neutral.

On the morning of 9 August Caesar was preparing to move his camp to another position where the army could more easily find food, when he noticed that the Pompeian army had advanced much further from the rampart of their camp than was usual, and had come fully onto the level ground by the river Enipeus. Quickly, the order was passed for Caesar's men to take off their packs and then re-form in columns, wearing only the equipment necessary for battle. Then the army marched out and formed up facing the enemy. Altogether

Sckipio Roman Leader

This relief shows a Spanish warrior carrying a long oval shield and wielding a curved sword or falcata. He appears to wear some sort of crested sinew cap. As with the cavalryman shown on p. 42, it is uncertain to what extent the Spanish infantry in the Civil War were dressed in this traditional fashion or had adopted Roman equipments. (Museo Arqueologico Nacional, Madrid/AISA)

The battle of Pharsalus, phase one

Legiones VIII & IX

i antony domitius calvinus



Legio X

Cilician Legion & Spanish Cohorts

Syrian Legions

Legio III

Legio I

aa. no afranius scipio




1. Labienus and cavalry attack.

2. Fourth line counterattacks.

3. Caesars cavalry driven off.

Caesar had 80 cohorts totalling 22,000 men and 1,000 cavalry. He formed the legions into the usual three lines, with the most experienced units on the flanks. Legio ix had suffered heavily at Dyrrachium, so it was combined with the almost equally depleted but veteran Legio viii into a single command and placed on the left, next to the river. On the right flank was Caesar's favourite unit, Legio x. The entire army was split into three commands, Mark Antony on the left, Cnaeus Domitiius Calvinus in the centre and Sulla on the right. Caesar was free to move to wherever a crisis developed, but in fact was to spend nearly all the battle with Legio x. The cavalry were all massed on the right.

Pompey's army was significantly larger, with the 110 cohorts in its three lines totalling 45,000 men and an enormous force of 7,000 cavalry on the left flank, supported by significant numbers of archers and slingers. Next to the cavalry were the two legions that had once served with Caesar, I and xv (now renumbered iii). In the centre were the legions from Syria and on the right nearest the river the legions from Cilicia, plus some troops from Spain. The army was

The battle of Pharsalus, phase two

River Enipus

Legiones VIII & IX

antony domitius calvinus



Legio X

Spanish* |AFRANIUS| Cohorts

Legio III

Legio I

Legio X

1. Caesar commits third line and enemy collapses

2. Fourth line attacks infantry flank.

3. Pompey's cavalry routs.



also divided into three commands, with Ahenobarbus on the left, Scipio in the centre and Afranius on the right. The main line was formed very deep by Roman standards, with each cohort deploying in ten ranks. Caesar's men must have been in four or five ranks, much closer to the Roman norm. Pompey had also given his infantry an unusual order, telling them not to advance to meet the enemy, but to remain stationary and throw their pila as soon as the enemy came within range. Both of these decisions suggest that

Pompey doubted the effectiveness of his own legionaries compared with Caesar's more experienced soldiers. Instead of relying on them, he planned to win the battle with his cavalry. Concentrated on the left flank, they outnumbered Caesar's horsemen by around seven to one. They would advance to open the battle, smashing their opponents and then wheeling round to take Caesar's infantry from the flank and rear. Labienus was in charge of this attack, and may even have devised the plan.

The enemy's deployment made the massive superiority of their cavalry obvious. To counter this, Caesar took a single cohort from the third line of each of his legions and stationed this force behind his own cavalry, probably echeloned back from the infantry line. This fourth line was concealed behind the horsemen and Legio X and not observed by the enemy. Both armies were now ready for battle, though some delay may well have elapsed as the commanders encouraged their men. For the battle Caesar's army were given the password 'Venus, Bringer of Victory' and Pompey's men 'Hercules, Unconquered'.

The battle began with an advance all along Caesar's line. Most of the Pompeians remained in position, but their cavalry surged forward against Caesar's horse, which gave way. During the charge and subsequent combat the Pompeians seem to have fallen into some disorder, the individual squadrons losing formation and merging into one great mass. Many of these horsemen were relatively recent recruits and neither officers nor men had much experience of operating in such large numbers, but there was always a tendency for this to happen if cavalry became too crowded. Suddenly, Caesar gave the signal for his fourth line to attack. The legionaries charged forward, yelling their battle cry and sounding their trumpets, and then using the pila as spears. The result was almost immediate panic, which spread throughout the mass of enemy cavalry until there was a great stampede to the rear. The supporting light infantry were abandoned and massacred or dispersed by the legionaries. Pompey's main attack had failed.

In the meantime the main infantry lines had come into contact. Caesar's men had begun their charge at the usual distance, turning their steady forward march into a run preparatory to throwing their pila, but had then noticed that the enemy was not moving. To prevent the cohorts from running too far, losing their formation and maybe wasting their missiles, the centurions halted the line. The nonchalance with which Caesar's men paused and redressed their ranks such a short distance from the Pompeians was another indication of their superb discipline. Re formed, the attack went in, the legionaries waiting until they were within 50 feet or so of the enemy before throwing a volley of missiles and charging sword in hand into contact. The Pompeians replied with their own pila - though it is doubtful if the men in the rear ranks of each cohort can have thrown their weapons effectively. A hard struggle developed, the second line of each army, which always acted as close supports to the first line, soon being drawn in. However, the fourth line followed up its success by attacking the exposed left flank of the Pompeian infantry, throwing that section of the line into disorder. Caesar gave the signal for his third line to advance and renew forward momentum in the fighting line. The pressure on the enemy was too much. At first the Pompeians went back slowly, but more and more units began to dissolve into rout. Caesar sent officers out to ensure that enemy legionaries were permitted to surrender, although his men were allowed to massacre the foreign auxiliaries.

Pompey had left the battlefield almost as soon as his cavalry had been swept away. He had ridden back to his camp, instructing the guards there to maintain a careful watch, and then gone to his tent. Later, as the rout of his army became obvious, he laid aside his general's cloak and left for the coast. If these accounts of his behaviour are accurate - and there must be some doubt, as they all come from hostile sources - his command at Pharsalus was remarkably spiritless, and his behaviour, being the first rather than the last to despair, utterly inappropriate for a Roman general. Caesar also claims that his men were astounded by the luxuries that they discovered in the Pompeian camp, items more suitable for effete Orientals than true Romans, although again this could well be propaganda.

Pompeian prisoners numbered 24,000, with supposedly another 15,000 killed. Nine eagles (the standard of an entire legion) and 180 signa (the standard of a century) were among the trophies. Once again most Pompeians were pardoned by Caesar, and he is supposed to have been especially pleased when his men brought in Marcus Brutus, son

Leaders Helmet Julius Caesar

This iron helmet, known to modern scholars as the Agen type, was one of several Gallic designs adopted and developed by the Roman army. Such helmets were certainly in use with many of the Gallic auxiliaries in the Civil War and may also have been worm by some legionaries, especially in Caesar's legions, which had been serving in Gaul for some years. (Schweisz Landesmuseum, Zurich)

of one of his former mistresses and later leader of the conspirators who would murder him. Many other Pompeians escaped, but Ahenobarbus died in the pursuit. Some fugitives went to north Africa, but Pompey travelled to Egypt. Caesar's own loss was comparatively light at 200 men, along with 30 centurions. Such a disproportionately high loss among these officers was not uncommon, the result of their aggressive and inevitably dangerous style of leadership.

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