The Battle of Pharsalus

The Battle of Pharsalus

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Pharsalus, in eastern Greece, was the site of a decisive battle in 48 BCE between two of Rome's greatest ever generals: Pompey the Great and Julius Caesar. After several previous encounters, Pharsalus, the biggest ever battle between Romans, would finally decide which of the two men would rule the Roman world. Outnumbered in infantry and cavalry, Caesar employed daring strategies which won him a resounding victory and, in so doing, he cemented his reputation as one of the greatest commanders in history.


The immensely popular Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, otherwise known as Pompey the Great, had enjoyed great military successes in Sicily and Africa, he had emphatically swept the Mediterranean clear of pirates and, most impressively of all, he had defeated Mithradates VI in the east. Ruling as a triumvirate with Julius Caesar and Marcus Licinius Crassus, Pompey governed Rome's Spanish provinces whilst Caesar, now rich from his own glorious conquests, controlled Gaul. In the final years of the Roman Republic and following Crassus' untimely death in 53 BCE, the two remaining rulers became set on a collision course to disaster.

Pompey, always big on preparation and wary of the inevitable confrontation with Caesar, decided that his best strategy was to abandon Italy. Loyalties there were divided and the two legions present could not be trusted to face their old commander Caesar. Instead, Pompey chose to gather his legions in Greece in 49 BCE. Caesar almost caught Pompey's army before it left Brundisium in southern Italy but, escaping a partial blockade of the harbour, Pompey fled to fight another day. There still remained the problem of seven legions loyal to Pompey in Spain, but now Caesar controlled the treasury of Rome and, after making a few select appointments of who governed where in the provinces, he turned his attention to this dangerous threat to his rear. Within seven months these legions had been subdued, and on the way back to Italy the siege of Massilia was completed as an added bonus. Nominated as dictator by Lepidus, Caesar had now built himself both a formidable reputation on the field of battle and a secure platform from which to launch a final and devastating attack on Pompey.

There had been, however, some significant setbacks for Caesar's commanders in Africa, the Adriatic, and Dolabella, and Pompey used his time well to assemble at Beroea in Thessaly nine Roman legions and an impressive multi-national force of 3,000 archers, 1,200 slingers, and 7,000 cavalry. And if that was not enough, he also had up to 600 ships at his disposal. As was typical, these were drawn from across the eastern Mediterranean and separated into smaller fleets, Marcus Bibulus being given the responsibility of overall command. The numbers were impressive but the exotic mix of nationalities, their preparedness, and their loyalty to the Republic when it came to the crunch were questioned, notably by Cicero.

With the support of the Roman upper classes, Pompey was officially made commander-in-chief of the Republic's armies, and he marched to establish a winter camp on the west coast of Greece. Late in the season, it now seemed that an engagement would have to wait until the following spring but then Caesar did the unthinkable. Despite the threat of Pompey's navy and the risks of a winter crossing, Caesar, true to his own maxim 'the mightiest weapon of war is surprise', mustered as much of his army as possible and, without the usual baggage or slaves, sailed to Greece on the 4th of January. He landed at Palaeste right under the nose of Pompey's fleet stationed on Corcyra. With the navy slow to react, Caesar wasted no time and started sacking cities while Pompey was forced to head him off at the river Apsus, where each side stationed themself on opposite river banks.

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Mark Antony, Caesar's trusted second-in-command, finally arrived in April with a second force which boosted Caesar's legions to eleven. Both sides now moved around Thessaly trying to control the region and prevent more reinforcements arriving to their opponent until they faced off again, this time at Asparagium. The legions now facing each other were seven with Caesar and nine with Pompey, who, confident he could harass Caesar's supply lines, was in no rush for an all-out battle. Eventually, he set up camp at Dyrrachium, but Caesar immediately began an audacious project to construct an enclosing wall to ensure Pompey was boxed in against the sea. Tempting Caesar into an attack by using false traitors who promised to open the camp gates, Pompey threw all he could at his opponent, including naval artillery fire. Caesar managed to retreat but was attacked again, and this time Pompey went for the weak points in the siege walls, information given to him by two defecting cavalry commanders. In the confusion which followed, Pompey established a new camp south of Caesar's walls. However, on the 9th of July, at the moment Pompey's forces were split between the old and new camps, Caesar attacked the former, forcing Pompey to send five legions to extricate their comrades. Caesar's troops took a battering but Pompey did not press home his advantage, and he would never again get such an opportunity against his nemesis. Caesar famously judged Pompey's lack of initiative as evidence that, 'he does not know how to win wars'.

Regrouping and finally recognising that his blockade was futile, Caesar withdrew to the south. Pompey sent his cavalry in pursuit, but Caesar managed to escape to the plain of Thessaly in Greece where he set up camp on the north bank of the River Enipeus between Pharsalus and Palaepharsalus. Pompey and his army arrived on the scene shortly after, setting up his own camp one mile to the west in the nearby low hills - a good strategic position which ensured a safe route for supplies. The stage was finally set for a decisive resolution to just who would control the Roman Empire.


Julius Caesar was noted for his use of speed (celeritas) and surprise (improvisum) in his military conquests. Often choosing to attack with the troops at his disposal rather than waiting to amass a larger force and establish secure supply lines, Caesar stored great faith in his own leadership skills and the fighting prowess of his legions. Fortunately, time and again, his enemies obliged Caesar with exactly what he wanted - make or break set-piece battles - and Pharsalus would follow the same pattern.

Mark Antony was Caesar's able and experienced second-in-command, and he would lead the left wing at Pharsalus. Domitius Calvinus, the one-time tribune and consul, took the centre. Publius Cornelius Sulla (nephew of Sulla), who had skillfully contained Pompey at Dyrrachium, would lead the right wing.

Pompey enjoyed a great reputation as a military leader following his string of successes and was particularly noted for his meticulous planning.

Pompey enjoyed a great reputation as a military leader following his string of successes and was particularly noted for his meticulous planning and attention to detail. He had perhaps, though, become too cautious on the battlefield in his later years, and he lacked the dash and daring that could grasp a victory when things were not going well or according to plan, skills his opposing commander was all too accomplished at.

Pompey's command was bolstered by the inclusion of Titus Labienus, Caesar's second-in-command for much of the Gallic campaign but who had since defected to the Republican side; he would command the large cavalry force at Pharsalus. Leading the centre at Pharsalus was Scipio Metellus, a past consul who had enjoyed success in Syria, whilst Africanus would command the right wing and Ahenobarbus the left.

Battle Positions

Caesar was keen to settle the issue immediately, but Pompey proved unwilling to abandon his advantage of high ground. After several days and seeing the stalemate, Caesar decided to pack up camp and leave in the hope of engaging Pompey somewhere else. However, early in the morning of the 9th of August, Pompey inexplicably moved his troops onto the plain. Here was Caesar's chance. Abandoning their baggage and even knocking down their own defences to better allow the troops onto the battlefield, Caesar's troops marched post-haste to finally meet the enemy.

Perhaps Pompey had finally tired of the cat-and-mouse game, maybe he wanted to capitalise on his men's good morale following the victory at Dyrrachium, or perhaps he thought it intolerable to lose face and watch his enemy march off only to create havoc at a later date. Pompey would also have been under pressure from senators eager to free the Republic from Caesar's menace. Whatever the reason, he had given away his advantage of high ground and now the two armies met on the plain below.

Pompey fielded eleven legions, a total of 47,000 men. 110 cohorts lined up in the triplica acies formation - four cohorts in the first line, three each in the second and third line. The bulk of the cavalry, archers, and slingers held the far left flank up against the low hills, while a smaller cavalry and light infantry force was stationed on the far right up against the river Enipeus. The best troops took their place on the wings and in the centre, with veterans being dispersed throughout in order to support troops new to battle conditions. The full length of the front line would have been around 4 km. Pompey's plan was to send his cavalry around the enemy flank and attack from the rear. Meanwhile, the infantry would press forward and Caesar's army would be crushed between the two movements. Pompey himself commanded the field from his position to the rear of the left wing.

Caesar lined up his troops to mirror Pompey's positions but to do so he had to thin out his lines. At his disposal were only 9 legions totalling 22,000 men divided into 80 cohorts, significantly fewer than his opponent. Caesar positioned himself opposite Pompey, behind his best legion, the X, on the right wing. His light infantry were placed right of centre. As a precaution against Pompey's superior cavalry numbers (6,700 against 1,000), Caesar moved six cohorts (2,000 men) from his rear line to act as a reserve on his right flank, placing them at an oblique angle.


Pompey attacked first using his cavalry and he drew a countercharge from Caesar's cavalry. Meanwhile, Caesar's front two infantry lines attacked and engaged all three lines of Pompey's infantry who stood their ground rather than employing the traditional advance to meet the oncoming enemy. This tactic may have been to tire Caesar's infantry by making them cover more ground, to ensure his own cavalry had less ground to cover in going behind the enemy, or simply because Pompey wanted to maintain good battle order. However, seeing that Pompey's lines were not advancing, Caesar's legions halted, regrouped, and, after a quick breather, carried on their charge. Caesar deliberately kept back his own third line of infantry. The first weapons thrown were the javelins (pila), a volley from either side. Then the enemies met with a clash of shields and thrusting swords.

Through sheer weight of numbers Pompey's cavalry overwhelmed the enemy cavalry and got behind Caesar's infantry. Now, as Pompey's cavalry were reorganising into smaller squadrons, Caesar took the opportunity to attack. Having withdrawn what was left of his own cavalry (perhaps this was a pre-meditated strategy) he sent in his six reserve infantry cohorts telling his men to aim their javelins at the enemies' faces. The unexpected attack threw the republican cavalry into a panic and they bolted from the field in confusion. This left Pompey's slingers and archers at the rear open to attack. In the confused cavalry retreat, the attack of Caesar's reserve and possibly also the re-introduction of Caesar's reduced cavalry force, resulted in a complete rout and left Pompey's left wing entirely exposed. Having engaged all three lines of his infantry Pompey had no contingency force to deal with this new threat and it was precisely at this moment that Caesar unleashed his third line of infantry into the battle.

Pompey's troops initially resisted the onslaught and kept a disciplined formation but eventually, and not helped by the probable desertion of their multi-national allied troops, the legions gave way and retreated headlong for the hills. Pompey retreated to his camp in dismay and then left the field completely, riding for Larissa with a small loyal escort, rather ingloriously disguising himself as an ordinary soldier. Caesar pressed home his advantage and wiped out Pompey's camp causing the rest of Pompey's army to flee to the Kaloyiros hill. Caesar besieged the hill and with four legions cut off the army when it also tried to retreat to Larissa. On the morning of the 10th, Pompey's army surrendered their arms. Caesar claimed to have wiped out 15,000 of the enemy, but the figure was more likely around 6,000 dead on the Republican side for the loss of 1,200 of Caesar's legionaries. Most of the republican leaders fled the battlefield, hoping to carry on the war from Africa, but victory was Caesar's.


Arriving by way of Cyprus, Pompey tried to convince the Egyptians to be his ally, but he was callously murdered on 28th September 48 BCE. Egypt had hoped to win Caesar's favour by presenting the head and signet ring of his once great enemy but, in fact, Caesar was said to have been moved to tears when he saw the fate of his rival. Restoring Cleopatra VII to the throne of Egypt and defeating the last republican armies in Africa, Caesar returned to Rome in triumph in 46 BCE. Then, when the last remnants of opposition were defeated in Spain, Julius Caesar stood alone, the most powerful individual in the Roman world and, the final cherry on the cake, in February 44 BCE the Senate voted him dictator for life.

Roman world in 56 BC, when Caesar, Crassus and Pompey meet at Luca for a conference in which they decided: to add another five years to the proconsulship of Caesar in Gaul to give the province of Syria to Crassus and both Spains and Africa to Pompey. Image Credit.

The Great Roman Civil War, also known as Caesar’s War, was the culmination of a long-running political conflict within the Roman elite. The Populares, a group of leaders from the senatorial class, had taken to using people’s assemblies and popular support to achieve greater power and forward their policies. This alarmed the Optimates, the conservative group within the Senate, who saw the power of the Senate and the aristocracy being eroded by this combination of demagoguery and popular will.

This came to a climax with the falling out of Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, remembered by history as Pompey the Great. The two had previously been political allies within a three-man group that unofficially ruled Rome. With the end of that triumvirate, Pompey sided with the optimates to curb Caesar’s power.

Caesar responded by marching his army on Rome. The optimates fled to Roman possessions in Greece, to give them time to assemble an army. After asserting control over other Roman territories, Caesar followed them.

The Battle of Pharsalus

By 49 BC, Julius Caesar had spent ten years conquering Gaul, with side expeditions across the English Channel to Britain and across the Rhine into Germany. At this time, his enemies in the Roman Senate were conspiring not only to deprive Caesar of his Proconsular powers that allowed him to govern his provinces, but to bring him to trial in Rome on charges that he considered to be trumped up. It was Caesar’s desire to return to Rome unmolested in order to run for a second term as Consul, or supreme magistrate in Rome.

Caesar arrived in the town of Ravenna in Northern Italy accompanied by a single legion to await events and to negotiate an agreement with the Senate, as well as with his former partner in the First Triumvirate and now rival Gnaeus Pompey. Caesar’s enemies in the Senate would not budge. When their measures were vetoed by the Tribunes, who were allies of Caesar, the Tribunes were driven from Rome.

Seeing no other choice, Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the river that was the traditional barrier between the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy proper with his single legion, sending word that other legions now in Gaul would also march south. Upon crossing the Rubicon, Caesar is said to have shouted, “Alae iacta est!” or, “The die is cast!”

Alarmed by the approach of Caesar with an army, the Senate charged Pompey with the defense of Rome. Pompey, believing that he had insufficient troops of dubious quality to face Caesar’s army of battle hardened veterans, choice a strategic withdraw, first south to Brundesium and then across the Adriatic into Macedonia where he could gather more troops. Most of the Senate followed him.

Caesar swiftly overran Northern Italy and entered Rome unopposed. While organizing the governance of Rome, Caesar still faced the problem of dealing with Pompey’s forces, not only in Macedonia, but in the west, in Spain in particular. Caesar decided to strike first in the west, besieging and taking the city of Massila (modern Marseille) and then defeating enemy forces under Pompey’s lieutenants in Spain.

Now, Caesar decided to face Pompey directly. His task was daunting. Pompey had superior numbers as well as a fleet and the support of most of the eastern provinces. Nevertheless, Caesar crossed the Adriatic with two legions and set out in pursuit of Pompey.

Though his forces greatly outnumbered Caesars army, Pompey declined to give battle. Pompey knew that his troops were not up to the quality of Caesar’s veterans and his army had a large number of cavalry, light infantry and missile troops that were difficult to handle. Pompey instead chose to wait Caesar out, cutting off his supplies, and attempting to starve him.

Caesar marched north toward Pompey’s fortified camp at Dyrrhachium. Caesar attempted to invest Pompey, in order to starve him out. Instead, Pompey attacked Caesar’s left, caving it in, forcing Caesar to flee the field. Caesar retreated toward Thessaly, picking up some reinforcements from Italy led by Marc Antony. Finally, Caesar turned to give battle at Pharsalus.

Caesar anchored his troops with the River Enipeus on the left. He deployed his legions in three lines, with a fourth in reserve, and his cavalry on the right flank. Caesar had 23,000 legionaries, 5-10,000 auxiliaries, and about 1,400 cavalry. Pompey confronted him with three lines of legionaries and his cavalry on the left facing Caesar’s cavalry. He had 50,000 legionaries, 4,200 auxiliaries, and 4-7,000 cavalry.

The legionaries on both sides closed with one another and locked in combat, producing a stalemate. While auxiliaries skirmished on Caesar’s left, Titus Labienus, who had once been one of Caesar’s closest friends, but was now one of Pompey’s Generals, led a cavalry charge that routed Caesar’s cavalry and auxiliaries on Caesar’s right. But Caesar sent in the fourth line to halt the envelopment and, using their javelins as thrusting spears, routed Pompey’s cavalry in turn.

Caesar’s fourth line gave chase, driving Pompey’s cavalry into the foothills of Dogandzis. Then the fourth line wheeled and took Pompey’s main army in the rear. Caesar’s main forced renewed its attack from the front and in short order, Pompey’s army was all but destroyed or captured. Pompey and a few followers fled the field.

Pompey fled to Alexandria in Egypt, closely pursued by Caesar. Before Caesar could catch up to Pompey, he was murdered at the orders of King Ptolemy. Ptolemy, a teenager who was controlled by his court ministers, was locked in a civil war with his sister, Cleopatra for the throne of Egypt. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria, he set about to put an end to the civil war, which turned out to include putting an end to Ptolemy and putting Cleopatra on the throne as sole ruler of Egypt. Caesar and Cleopatra became lovers and had a son, named Caesarion.

Caesar then set about mopping up the rest of his opposition, in campaigns in Africa, Asia Minor, and finally Spain. By the beginning of 44 BC he was the absolute master of the Roman world. He began to make plans for massive reforms of the Roman Republic, as well as a campaign against the Parthian Empire to the east of Roman territory. The reforms included expanding the Senate and various public works projects.

Caesar was not to enjoy his power for very long. On the Ides of March, March 15th, in 44 BC he was set upon and murdered during a meeting of the Senate in the Theater of Pompey. The assassins, all of them Senators, many of whom who had received pardons from Caesar for supporting Pompey, thought to restore the Republic by killing Caesar. Instead, they were all dead within two years and a new order was created, under a triumvirate that included Marc Antony and Caesar’s great nephew, Octavian, who was later to become the first Emperor of Rome.

Pharsalus Battlefield today

The exact location of Pharsalus Battlefield has been the subject of much debate and there is no definitive setting which is universally accepted. Likewise, today there are no monuments to the battle and there is nothing to see at the most accepted location, marked on the map, which is just outside the modern Greek city of Farsala.

The prevailing thought places the battlefield at the north bank of the Enipeus River, around 10 miles northwest of the modern town. You can visit without cost, letting your imagination play out the decisive battle across the plains and low hills of the area.


Pompey, after losing the battle 2 immediately fled to allied Egypt, where he wanted to rebuild his army and lead the remaining legions. However, he could not implement the plan, because immediately after disembarking in Alexandria, he was murdered by the young pharaoh Ptolemy XIII, and his head was sent as a gift to Caesar. The ruler, still a child, did so under the influence of his regents: his guardian, the eunuch Pothinus, his teacher and the rhetoric Theodotus of Chios. In this way he wanted to win Caesar’s favour, hearing about the winner’s good nature 3 .

The death of a rival in such circumstances infuriated Caesar more than it pleased him. Plutarch reported that “Caesar refused to look at him, but he took Pompey’s signet ring and shed tears as he did so” 4 . After all, the death of the main opponent in the Empire meant an easier road to reign. Caesar lost his rival to the throne, but Pompey left behind two sons: Gnaeus and Sextus, who were supported by the followers of Pomeyus, with Scipio Metellus and Cato the Younger at the helm.

Caesar spent the next years defeating his opponents, strengthening his power and subjugating the political scene, including the senate. An indefinite dictatorship and Caesar’s power as power, led to his murder on March 15, 44 BCE.


The Battle of Pharsalus was the decisive engagement of the War of the First Triumvirate, and one of the most important and famous battle in all of Rome’s many civil wars. Pitting the followers of Julius Caesar against the armies of his former ally Pompey and the Roman senate, the battle was immortalized in both history and classical literature. More importantly, it marked a critical turning point in Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire, as it set the stage for the for the rise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which would rule until the middle of the next century. The Battle of Pharsalus was one of the most important engagements fought in Greece after the Classic age.


During the first half of the 1st century BC, political power in Rome was being accumulated into the hands of fewer and fewer families, as the government began the slow but unstoppable transition from republic to empire. For the better part of two decades starting around 70 BC, three men, Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey and Marcus Crassus, essentially ran the republic from behind the scenes. However, by 52 BC political realities and egos caused the three-way alliance to fall apart.

In 49 BC, Julius Caesar and the legions loyal to him invaded Central Italy, which was Pompey’s territory. After famously crossing the Rubicon River, Caesar’s army marched on the city of Rome. In response, Pompey and most of his allies fled to Greece. Thanks to his control of the fleet, Pompey hoped to be able to raise fresh forces in the safety of the east while blockading aid to Caesar. However, Caesar successfully managed to sneak an expeditionary force into Greece during winter.

Throughout much of 48 BC, the two forces squared off against each other. One brief engagement almost led to Caesar’s defeat. The cautious Pompey was leery of direct confrontation. After failing to finish off Caesar’s army, he tried to defeat his enemy by blockade and starvation. This led to several months of stalemate, and eventually his allies and officers pressed him to seek a decisive conclusion to the standoff.

On August 9, Pompey’s army marched out to meet Caesar in the field. Pompey held advantageous ground, outnumbered Caesar two-to-one, and was very aware of Caesar’s ability as a field commander but all of this was not enough to avail him. Once out in the open, Caesar outmaneuvered Pompey, taking Pompey’s cavalry by surprise and defeating them. Seeing this, Pompey panicked and fled the field, abandoning his army, which crumbled soon thereafter. The victory secured Julius Caesar as the sole remaining power of the triumvirate. Pompey escaped to Egypt where he was assassinated a month later.


The Battlefield of Pharsalus took place on the Plain of Pharsalus, although there is some dispute as to whether the fighting took place on the north or south side of the Enipeus River. The prevailing thought puts the site of the battle along the north bank. Both sides of the river consist of plains and low hills that look much as they did at the time of the battle.

Battle of Pharsalus

After his defeat at Dyrrhachium in July of 48 BC, Caesar moved swiftly into Thessaly, incorporating the towns of the region under his control. His exhausted and poorly supplied army was able to secure new sources of food and essentially become re-energized for the continuing campaign.

After Dyrrhachium, Pompey and the Senators squabbled over the next course of action, and they pressed Pompey hard to finish Caesar as quickly as possible. Pompey preferred a course of action similar to that of Fabius against Hannibal keep Caesar from becoming secure in a single location, constantly threatening his supply and resisting major battles whenever possible.

With their success at Dyrrhachium, however, Pompey's initially fearful legions were now filled with confidence against the vaunted conqueror of Gaul. This exuberance, coupled with Senate pressure, and Pompey's own lack of decisiveness, was to prove a fatal mix.

Meanwhile, as the two armies marched and jockeyed for position, Pompey was joined by Metellus Scipio's legions from the east. Domitius Calvinus, who was detached by Caesar earlier in the year to stop Scipio, returned to Caesar as well, putting both armies at full strength.

On the plains of Pharsalus, just north of the Enipeus River, the two armies moved into position opposing one another. Pompey vastly outnumbered Caesar with some 45,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry to Caesar's 22,000 and 1,000 respectively. It is important to note, however, that a considerable part of Pompey's forces were allied auxilia sent from his eastern clients, and not fully trained Roman legions.

Pompey arranged his forces and offered battle on a hill called Mount Dogantzes, and Caesar was certainly elated. This is exactly what he needed, the opportunity to face the enemy on open ground in a battle where his men were well supplied and in good order.

After several days skirmishing and jockeying for position, Caesar so effectively taunted Pompey that he eventually forced him into taking up position on level ground. On 9 August 48 BC, the pivotal battle for control of the Roman world was set to begin. Finding his army in the best of circumstance, Caesar inspired his men and prepared his lines: "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 an opportunity."

Pompey's army was arranged with his right wing, Cilician legionaries and Spanish auxilia, protected by the river under the command of Cornelius Lentulus. In the center, Syrian and African troops were led by Scipio. On his left is where Pompey hedged all his bets and hoped for victory by sheer force of numbers. The infantry was commanded by Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, and on the flank, Pompey placed his entire cavalry, archers and slingers under Caesar's former legate, Titus Labienus. Outnumbering Caesar's cavalry 7:1, Pompey and his army were confidant that they could easily outflank Caesar's right and win the war swiftly with minimal bloodshed.

Caesar, however, saw a grand opportunity to counter Pompey's seemingly all or nothing plan. Marcus Antonius was placed on the left, Calvinus in the center, and Publius Sulla on the right. Caesar's infantry was thinned out to match the length of Pompey's numerically superior lines, decreasing the depth of his lines, but protecting the flanks. Caesar's plan only required his infantry to hold firm, not be the force that broke through. His much smaller cavalry was placed on the right to counter Pompey's cavalry, but the weakness in numbers was a serious threat. Caesar, however, also realized that this would obviously be what seemed to be the vulnerable target and would be irresistible. He then further reduced his main infantry lines, drawing 3,000 of his best men from among the various cohorts. These men he positioned somewhat concealed behind his cavalry and right flank infantry. This unit was to be the key to the battle. If they were able to use the element of surprise to counter Labienus' cavalry, it would be Pompey's wing which would be routed and flanked, not Caesar's.

With both armies set, it was Caesar and not Pompey who ordered the initial advance. Pompey hoped the long charge would tire Caesar's army, but the veterans understood the danger and stopped when they noticed that the enemy wasn't coming out to meet them.

The battle slowly developed as an infantry skirmish in the center, until Pompey finally unleashed Labienus and the cavalry. Pompey's horsemen hit Caesar's Germanic and Gallic cavalry hard, buckling their resistance. Pompey ordered his archers and slingers to fill in behind the cavalry to push the assault and provide a heavy blanket of covering fire.

Just as Caesar's cavalry was beginning to retreat, and Labienus was starting to turn the right flank, Caesar ordered his reserve infantry to launch their surprise assault. Using their pila much like medieval pikes, Caesar's 3,000 infantry attacked the 7,000 Pompeian cavalry with ferocity, targeting the riders exposed faces. The effect was devastating, and Labienus was overwhelmed. The cavalry routed and turned towards its own lines, not only leaving their own vulnerable archer units completely exposed, but likely trampling many as they went.

Caesar now wheeled around on Pompey's exposed left flank. Cutting the archers and slingers to pieces, they hit the Pompeian lines hard, crumbling the flank. Pompey, still with a vast numerical superiority, seems to have panicked and failed to engage his right wing to stem Caesar's momentum. Instead, he simply quit the battle rather than attempt to rally or salvage what he could. Pompey retreated and retired to his fortified camp while his army was routed, waiting for the imminent arrival of the victor.

Caesar, meanwhile, pressed his advantage. He encouraged the remaining Pompeian legionaries to withdraw without more bloodshed, while instilling in his men not to attack their fellow Romans provided they offered no resistance. Instead, he smashed what remained of Pompey's auxiliary allies, leaving a devastating wake as he approached Pompey's camp.

At this point, Pompey seems to have regained his senses, but still he didn't act with the honor of a noble Roman. Rather than fall upon his own sword in the Roman tradition, Pompey fled the camp, leaving his army to the enemy.

Caesar entered the camp to find that the command tent had been arranged in such a manner to receive an elegant feast and laurels of victory, clearly indicating the supreme confidence of his opponents. Conveniently taking advantage of this gift, Caesar also captured his rival's personal papers and effects. In a shrewd political move - yet an unfortunate event for historians - Caesar burned Pompey's papers supposedly without reading them, in order to bring closure to the matter and restore a sense of unity in Rome.

As the battle closed, Caesar reviewed the field and was likely shaken by the effects of civil war. He claimed that 15,000 enemy soldiers were killed, including 6,000 Romans, whilst losing only 200 of his own men, though both numbers are likely either over or under exaggerated. Still, the sight of the field apparently had a profound effect on the new master of the Roman world. In surveying the carnage, Caesar supposedly said, "They would have it so, I, Gaius Caesar, after so much success, would be condemned had I dismissed my army."

The following day, the remaining Pompeian forces surrendered to Caesar, and the major part of the war was essentially over. Though some Senators fled to Africa or other Republican strongholds, many of Caesar's most vocal enemies were killed in the campaign. Pompey himself fled to Egypt, where his own horrible fate awaited him.

Respected as the conqueror of the east, Pompey certainly felt comfortable heading into Egypt. Whilst waiting off-shore to receive word from the boy-king, Ptolemy, Pompey was betrayed and assassinated. Stabbed in the back and decapitated, his body was burned on the shore and his head was brought to the king in order to present as a gift to Caesar. On 24 July 48 BC, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was dead, just short of 58 years old.

Despite Pompey's prestige in the east, the legend of Caesar must have been incredible. The man had conquered Gaul, crossed the Rhine, crossed into the farthest reaches of the known world in Britannia, and now utterly destroyed the Great Pompey with a far inferior force. When Caesar arrived in pursuit of Pompey, to certainly, by all accounts, grant him a pardon and welcome him back to Rome, Ptolemy presented Caesar with Pompey's head and his signet ring. Caesar, despite realizing Pompey's death made him the master of Rome, was overcome with grief. Turning away from the slave who presented Pompey's head, Caesar wept at the sight of his rival, former friend, and son-in-law.


The location of the battlefield was for a long time the subject of controversy among scholars. Caesar himself, in his Commentarii de Bello Civili, mentions few place-names Ε] and although the battle is called after Pharsalos by modern authors, four ancient writers – the author of the Bellum Alexandrinum (48.1), Frontinus (Strategemata 2.3.22), Eutropius (20), and Orosius (6.15.27) – place it specifically at Palaepharsalus ("Old" Pharsalus). Strabo in his Geographica (Γεωγραφικά) mentions both old and new Pharsaloi, and notes that the Thetideion, the temple to Thetis south of Scotoussa, was near both. In 198 BC, in the Second Macedonian War, Philip V of Macedon sacked Palaepharsalos (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 32.13.9), but left new Pharsalos untouched. These two details perhaps imply that the two cities were not close neighbours. Many scholars, therefore, unsure of the site of Palaepharsalos, followed Appian (2.75) and located the battle of 48 BC south of the Enipeus or close to Pharsalos (today's Pharsala). Ζ] Among the scholars arguing for the south side are Béquignon (1928), Bruère (1951), and Gwatkin (1956).

An increasing number of scholars, however, have argued for a location on the north side of the river. These include Perrin (1885), Holmes (1908), Lucas (1921), Rambaud (1955), Pelling (1973), Morgan (1983), and Sheppard (2006). John D. Morgan in his definitive “Palae-pharsalus – the Battle and the Town”, Η] shows that Palaepharsalus cannot have been at Palaiokastro, as Béquignon thought (a site abandoned c. 500 BC), nor the hill of Fatih-Dzami within the walls of Pharsalus itself, as Kromayer (1903, 1931) and Gwatkin thought and Morgan argues that it is probably also not the hill of Khtouri (Koutouri), some 7 miles north-west of Pharsalus on the south bank of the Enipeus, as Lucas and Holmes thought, although that remains a possibility. However, Morgan believes it is most likely to have been the hill just east of the village of Krini (formerly Driskoli) very close to the ancient highway from Larisa to Pharsalus. ⎖] This site is some six miles (10km) north of Pharsalus, and three miles north of the river Enipeus, and not only has remains dating back to neolithic times but also signs of habitation in the 1st century BC and later. The identification seems to be confirmed by the location of a place misspelled "Palfari" or "Falaphari" shown on a medieval route map of the road just north of Pharsalus. Morgan places Pompey's camp a mile to the west of Krini, just north of the village of Avra (formerly Sarikayia), and Caesar's camp some four miles to the east-south-east of Pompey's. According to this reconstruction, therefore, the battle took place not between Pharsalus and the river, as Appian wrote, but between Old Pharsalus and the river.

An interesting side-note on Palaepharsalus is that it was sometimes identified in ancient sources with Phthia, the home of Achilles. ⎗] Near Old and New Pharsalus was a "Thetideion", or temple dedicated to Thetis, the mother of Achilles. However, Phthia, the kingdom of Achilles and his father Peleus, is more usually identified with the lower valley of the Spercheios river, much further south. ⎘] ⎙]

Battle of Pharsalus, 9 August 48 BC

The battle of Pharsalus (9 August 48 BC) was the decisive battle of the Great Roman Civil War, and saw Caesar defeat Pompey and the Senate&rsquos main army. Although the war continued for another three years, Pharsalus ended any realistic chance that Caesar could be defeated, and the war would have ended soon if Caesar hadn&rsquot become entangled in Egyptian affairs.

At the start of the civil war Pompey decided that he couldn&rsquot defend Rome against Caesar&rsquos rapidly advancing veterans, and decided to retreat to the Balkans. After failing to catch him at Brundisium, Caesar decided to deal with his army in Spain first, eventually defeating it at Ilerda. Only then did he turn back to deal with Pompey&rsquos increasingly powerful army in the Balkans. Although Pompey commanded a powerful fleet, he was unable to stop Caesar crossing to the Balkans. A long stalemate then developed at Dyrrhachium (on the coast of modern Albania). This ended with a rare battlefield defeat for Caesar (battle of Dyrrhachium, 20 May 48 BC), after which Caesar decided to end the siege and adopt a new policy.

Caesar&rsquos new plan was to advance east into Thessaly, where his legate Domitus Calvinus was being threatened by a Senatorial army under Metellus Scipio, newly arrived from Syria. Pompey was left with the choice between taking the war back to Italy or pursing Caesar, and chose the later option. For a few days Pompey attempted to catch Caesar&rsquos retreating army, but soon gave up and followed at a more leisurely pace.

The two armies ended up camped close to Pharsalus in Thessaly. Caesar was in a difficult position - outnumbered, short of supplies and surrounded by hostile locals. Pompey realised this, and would have preferred to besiege Caesar and starve him out. However Pompey wasn&rsquot entirely in command of his own army, which was accompanied by a crowd of senators who saw him as &lsquotheir&rsquo commander and complained whenever he delayed. Eventually the pressure got to Pompey, and he agreed to risk a battle.

This decision came just in time for Caesar. On the morning of the battle Pompey drew up his army at the foot of the heights he was camped on, and offered battle. Caesar decided that it wasn&rsquot worth risking an attack on this strong position, and decided to break camp and move off, in the hope that Pompey would make a mistake in the pursuit. Just as Caesar&rsquos men were preparing to move off, he realised that Pompey had moved further out from the mountains and there was now a chance for a battle on more equal terms.

Caesar reported that Pompey had 110 cohorts, or 45,000 men in his army, along with two cohorts of volunteers. He also had 7,000 cavalry. His right flank was protected by the Enipeus River. He posted a Cilician legion and his surviving Spanish troops on his right. Metellus Scipio commanded in the centre with the army he had brought from Syria. Pompey himself commanded on the left, where he posted two legions that Caesar had given to him before the outbreak of the civil war, when the Romans were planning to fight the Parthians in Syria. The cavalry, slingers and archers were all placed on the left.

Pompey&rsquos plan was to use his superior cavalry to outflank and defeat Caesar&rsquos right wing, and from there role up the rest of the army.

Caesar had eighty under-strength cohorts, a total of 22,000 men. He only had 1,000 cavalry. He placed the 9th and 10th legions on the left, commanded by Mark Antony. Domitius Calvinus was in the centre and P. Sulla on the right, as was Caesar, who placed himself at the head of the 10th legion, facing Pompey. Pompey&rsquos disposition made it clear that his plan was to attack around Caesar&rsquos right flank, and so he took six cohorts from his rear line and placed them on the right, with orders to stop Pompey&rsquos cavalry.

Pompey ordered his men to stand their ground and wait for Caesar&rsquos attack to reach them, instead of taking the normal step of a counter-charge. His theory was that this would leave his men fresher than Caesar&rsquos, and reduce the power of his javelins, but Caesar believed that it reduced the enthusiasm of Pompey&rsquos men, who had to passively stand and wait to be attacked. In the event this plan had little impact, as Caesar&rsquos men simply paused for a rest after marching halfway across the gap between the two armies.

The battle began with a clash between the two lines of infantry. Once Caesar&rsquos men were committed, Pompey ordered his cavalry to attack. They were able to push back Caesar&rsquos smaller cavalry force as planned, but were then attacked by Caesar&rsquos six reserve cohorts. Pompey&rsquos cavalry was caught out of formation, defeated and forced to flee from the battle. The archers and slingers were left without protection, and were also defeated. The six cohorts then outflanked Pompey&rsquos left flank and attacked it from the rear. At this point Caesar ordered his third line to join the battle. Pompey&rsquos left wing was now close to defeat. According to Caesar Pompey himself retired to his camp, and took shelter in his tent. Pompey&rsquos infantry now retreated into their camp, with Caesar&rsquos men close behind. Caesar convinced his men to attack the enemy camp before they had time to restore order. The camp was defended by the cohorts that had been left behind for that purpose and Pompey&rsquos Thracian allies, but the defeated troops from the main army didn&rsquot contribute much. Soon Caesar&rsquos men were able to break into the camp, and the survivors of Pompey&rsquos army fled into the mountains.

Caesar claimed to have only lost 200 men during the battle, amongst then 30 centurions. In contrast he gave casualty figures of 15,000 for Pompey, along with 24,000 prisoners. Amongst the dead was Domitius Ahenobarbus, but many of the surviving Senators were forgiven by Caesar. Most famous of these was Marcus Brutus, later one of the leaders of Caesar&rsquos assassins. Cicero, who had not been present at the battle, also decided to seek Caesar&rsquos forgiveness. Cato, who had also not been with the army, escaped to Africa, where he joined up with Metellus Scipio. Between them they raised the last significant Republican army, eventually forcing Caesar to move against them. Eventually he caught and defeated them at Thapsus (47 BC).

After a day or two most of the survivors surrendered to Caesar, and were treated with his normal mercy. Some of the surviving noblemen fled, and either escaped into exile or joined the remaining Republics back on the west coast.

In the aftermath of the battle Pompey fled to the coast, where he found a friendly ship. He fled to Lesbos, where he joined with his wife. From there he moved to Egypt, where he expected to receive aid from his client Ptolemy XIII. Instead he was murdered on the beach. Caesar was close behind, and reached Alexandria three days later. Caesar was greatly angered by the Egyptian treachery, and soon got dragged into Egyptian politics, siding with Ptolemy&rsquos sister Cleopatra VII. Caesar ended up being besieged in Alexandria for sixth months, giving his enemies one last chance to unite against him, but without success.

Works Cited

Ardant, Charles-Jean, Battle Studies. New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Dando-Collins, Stephen. Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002.

“Historical Map of the Roman Civil War 49-45 BC.” Map. Emerson Kent: History for the Relaxed Historian. 2010. Web. < >.

Leoni, Manuela. In Caesar’s Rome with Cicero. Tarrytown, NY: Marshal Cavendish, 2009.

McCarty, Nick. Rome: The Greatest Empire of the Ancient World. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2008.

Rice, Rob and Anglim, Simon. Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World 3000 BC – AD 500: Equipment, Combat Skills and Tactics. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

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