Caesar’s Civil War (Part 2/2) – The Battle of Pharsalus

Caesar’s Civil War (Part 2/2) – The Battle of Pharsalus

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(9-10 JULY 48 B.C.E)Julius Caesar is retreating,
it is something that he rarely did during his illustrious career, his plan to trap the
Pompeians close to Dyrrhachium backfired spectacularly and now his options were running out. The misfortunes for the Caesarians though
did not end there and it was around the same time that the Pompeians managed to catch half
of Caesars fleet at Messana(sicily) and burn every single ship .
Back in Epeirus, Caesar was attempting a rapid retreat during the night, at dawn the next
day he had almost finished the crossing of the river Genusus when his rear guard clashed
with the pompeians who were hot on their hills, the Caesarians fought bravely and managed
to give Caesar enough time in order to finish the crossing
Once more the 2 armies faced each other across the same river occupying the same old camps
from months before, but Caesar did not intend on staying, he conducted a speedy retreat
and managed to slip from Pompeys grasp, marching towards Apollonia in which he left a small
garrison.(1=1min) His Plan was to force Pompey to march inland away from his all-conquering
fleet and his supply bases and to unite with the remaining forces of Domitius Calvinus
who was facing off Pompeys reinforcements commanded by Scipio. Pompey and Caesar were simultaneously marching
against time, Caesar took a southern road up the valley of the river Aous and Pompey
took his familiar main roman road of Via-Egnatia with quite opposite objectives from each other,
Caesar was trying to link up with his general while Pompey was attempting to surprise and
annihilate him via a series of forced marches. By a struck of luck and just 4 hours before
Pompey could trap him, Calvinus was informed of his arrival and immediately made a U turn
towards the south barely escaping the Pompeian iron grip
Caesar and Calvinus united their armies near the city of Aeginium. The plain of Thessaly with its fertile fields
lay before them, Caesars main strategic goal was clear, capture the near by cities and
incorporate them to his supply lines, marching southwards the first city his legions encountered
was Gomphi, the inhabitants of the city were encouraged by overinflated rumours of his
defeat at Dyrrhachium, “ to share Pompeys victory rather than be a part of Caesars misfortunes”
as he himself put it in his commentaries, this defiance could not remain unpunished
and Caesar decided to make an example of the city by unleashing his veterans who ransacked
it, it was a practise that proved to be quite an effective incentive for the locals to collaborate
since after that almost all of Thessaly decided to side with Caesar.The
next city in his way Metropolis, surrendered to Caesar with a little encouragement by some
captives from Gomphi, the caesarean legions advanced further towards Thessaly reaching
the river Enipeus, near the city of Pharsalus. Meanwhile Pompey who advanced from Via engatia,
made a right turn and headed southwards to the city of Larissa, in which the two legions
commanded by Scipio were stationed. The Pompeian contingents united near the city
and marched towards the plain of Pharsalus, when the army reached the hills overlooking
the plain of Pharsalus Pompey immediately understood that any further advance was pointless
since Caesars army was blocking the road. The monumental clash of the two generals was
imminent, it was a battle that would eventually decide the future of a whole empire and the
course of western civilization for the next centuries. While Caesar was already encamped in a convenient
position near the bridge controlling the passage to the city of Pharsalus, Pompey marched his
army on a slope at the north edge of the plain from which he could overlook the Caesarian
positions and upon which his legions were favourably placed in a strong defensive position. Caesar was running out of time, his supply
situation was precarious and his reputation had suffered a critical blow after the unfortunate
conclusion of the Battle of Dyrrhachium, he still needed to force a swift conclusion to
the hostilities and his trust in his veterans did not budge at all even after the debacle
at Dyrrhachium and he also had one distinctive and unique advantage in comparison to his
enemy, while Pompeys word and command was in no way absolute and undisputed since he
was just first among equals with temporary and limited authority over the republics aristocrats
who were always trying to mingle and intervene with his command, Caesars word and authority
over his army and his generals was absolute, undisputed and complete. Caesar would attempt to force a battle every
day, marching out of his camp and arranging his legions in an aggressive manner, hoping
that would convince his enemy to leave his defensive position and face him in a single
decisive engagement, but Pompey not willing to abandon the safety of his hills would draw
out his army but just at the end of the slope bordering the northern part of the plain. The great rogue general demonstrated his elaborate
thinking into his own account of the battle, proving that each move that he made was totally
deliberate and nothing was left to chance, by marching daily his legions closer and closer
to Pompeys camp he slowly boosted the morale of his men and made them accustomed to this
kind of battle, he specifically knew that if he was to succeed in a potential clash
with the republican forces, his men would have to face the by many degrees numerically
superior cavalry of the Pompeians so he intermixed with his own cavalry a selected group of the
youngest and most active men of the vanguard and instilled them, by this daily practise,
with a lack of fear and a contempt for Pompeys numerical superiority. After many days of this military ballet, Caesar
gave up hope and he did not believe that Pompey was willing to risk everything in a single
battle against his hardened veterans, nonetheless against his better judgement and at the exact
day that he intended to brake camp and march out something unexpected happened,on the morning
of August 9th or 7th of june by the modern calendar, Pompeys arrangement shifted from
its usual alignment and advanced further than usual from his entrenchments. Caesar after no long deliberation understood
that the time had come, he immediately addressed himself to his soldiers when they were at
the gates of the camp ready to march out. (Caesars speech=We must defer, our march
at present and set our thoughts on battle, which has been our constant wish, let us then
meet the foe with resolute souls, We shall not hereafter easily find such and opportunity
) On the other side of the field Pompey was
confident that his all conquering and massive cavalry )force would be the key for victory. “I have persuaded our cavalry, and they
have engaged to execute it, as soon as the two armies have met, to attack Caesar’s right
wing on the flank, and inclosing their army on the rear, throw them into disorder, and
put them to the rout, before we shall throw a weapon against the enemy”
The two armies treaded towards each other in a machine like manner, Pompeys army was
composed of 47.000 legionaries or a 110 cohorts at their full strength, some auxiliaries and
a few cohorts remained to guard his camp, his cavalry was commanded by a Caesarian former
officer who defected to the Pompeian side, Titus Labienus , his left wing was commanded
by him personally, there he placed 2 legions that were delivered over by Caesar at the
beginning of his disputes with the senate in compliance with one of their decrees, Scipio
with the Syrian legions commanded the centre, and his right wing was commanded by Afranius,
there pompey placed what he deemed as his most trusted legions that would include the
Cilician legion in conjunction with some cohorts that he managed to salvage from Spain. Caesars order of battle was the following,
on his left wing he placed the 9th and 8th legion eventhough the 9th was so weakened
by the battle of Dyrrhachium that he placed the eighth legion pretty close to the ninth,
as to almost make one of the two and he gave the command to Antonius, the centre was under
the command of Calvinus and the right wing was under the direct command of Sulla, Caesar
himself was positioned just behind the right wing opposite to his rival and close to his
best and most reliable legion the 10th, his small cavalry force together with all of his
slingers and light troops were placed opposite to Pompeys cavalry, and at the last moment
Caesar drew a single cohort from every legion in his third line and made a concealed 4th
line with the task to stab the cavalrymen of Pompey with their Pilla once they broke
through, here he knew the outcome of the battle would be decided, in total 80 cohorts made
up 9 legions or 22.000 men arranged in the typical triplex acies Roman formation of the
period, a couple of cohorts were left behind to guard their camp. Moments after Caesar gave the signal to charge,
a centurion of renown bravery from his elite X legion named Crastinus, saluted him and
said “General, I will act in such a manner to-day, that you will feel grateful to me
living or dead. And with such high spirits Caesars outnumbered
veterans charged against Pompeys numerically superior but mostly inexperienced recruits,
but the Pompeians would not move and decided to stand their ground and receive Caesars
charge with their lines unbroken, the Caesarian veterans were accustomed to this and being
practised in former battles they halted almost midway, redressed their ranks and renewed
their charge threw their Pila and instantly drew their swords clashing against the Pompeian
line. At the same time Pompeys cavalry began its
charge, almost 7000 horses followed by archers and slingers, were moving as a single block
against the massively outnumbered Caesarian cavalry, the Caesarians did not withstand
their charge but expectedly gave ground a little, at that moment Julius Caesar gave
the signal to his 4th hidden line and they charged holding their Pila high and stabbing
the Pompeians into their faces, in Caesars words “they rushed with such fury that not
a man of them stood; but all wheeling about, not only quitted their post, but galloped
forward to seek a refuge in the highest mountains. By their retreat the archers and slingers,
being left destitute and defenceless, were all cut to pieces”
It was the turning point of the battle, Pompeys plan had completely backfired and his “hammer”
was now being chased off the field, the victorious 4th line wheeled about upon Pompeys unprotected
left wing while it was still engaged, and it was now that Caesar gave the order to his
3rd line to advance. The Pompeians fought bravely but without the
support of their cavalry, being pushed from the front and attacked from their flank and
rear,and with the arrival of Caesars fresh third line they broke and began to flee for
their lives, it was really like rolling a carpet after that with the republican left
flank being the first to brake the rest followed. Pompey would not stay to share the fate of
his legionaries and he fled towards the camp, he gave orders to some cohorts and auxiliaries
to protect the ramparts and withdrew to his tent waiting for the outcome of the battle. The victorious Caesarians pushed on towards
the camp and made short work of the defenders who could not withstand the multitude of projectiles
that were thrown against them, the defenders and the survivors abandoned any further effort
to protect the camp and fled to the near by hills leaving the victorious Caesarians to
occupy it, when Pompey heard that Caesars troops were able to force the gates he Is
supposed to have exclaimed “What, into the very camp?”. It was a total victory for Julius Caesar,
the magnitude of his triumph would only become obvious until after the casualties from both
sides were accounted, Pompeys army was completely devastated with 15.000 dead and 25.000 captured
the republican army was essentially wiped out, while Caesar himself informs us that
he only lost two hundred and thirty men, amongst which there lay the Valliant Crastinus who
was killed fighting bravely by a sword thrust in his mouth. The remaining republicans who fled to the
near by hills were surrounded by the Caesarians and surrendered the next day. Pompey who had fled towards the coast boarded
a ship and sailed to Alexandria, he would be assassinated within a few months, while
Caesar was left the absolute master of the Roman Empire.

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