The Great Roman Civil War: 48 B.C. The Year of Jockeying Supremacy

Caesar found success in the first year of the Civil War, but the second year proved to be a true challenge. After all, he was not in barbarian Gaul anymore. He was going up against one of Rome’s greatest heroes.

By the time the ultimate battle of the Civil War neared, the loyalty of most of Rome’s territories had been won over by Julius Caesar. As far as the Republic was concerned the lands that Caesar and Pompey were fighting over were already official provinces of the Republic. So, people were not concerned about Rome losing its land and power. They were concerned with which direction the Republic would head politically. And Caesar offered a much more tangible promise.

The battles between Caesar and Pompey were fought as an outburst of the internal conflict that existed between the leaders of Rome. On one side, the side of the “people,” was the self-proclaimed democrat, Julius Caesar. The people could expect more assistance for the poor, like surplus food rations from Roman grain reserves; more liberal policies to foster economic growth; and more glorious wars, victories, and territorial expansion under Julius Caesar. On the other side was Pompey, who represented the old, dynastic tradition of ruling aristocrats in the Roman Senate. Their traditionally conservative governance to maintain the status quo would have fostered peace and stability at the expense of a individual’s ability to raise their status in society as political positions and economic opportunities would have more often been handed out to the friends and family of people already in power. Now, we know Caesar became a grandiose dictator and the man who set up the Roman Empire, but left unchecked Pompey would have likely done the same but with a more heavy-handed despotic rule.

Battle after hard fought battle, both sides suffered losses of ground and soldiers. Caesar ended up driving Pompey’s armies and supporters out of cities they controlled throughout the Republic’s territory. Caesar had already won over Gaul himself. And upon crossing the Rubicon River, he made quick work of winning over Italy as most of the Italian peninsula supported him anyway, especially north of Rome. After then driving Pompey out of Southern Italy with an assault on the citadel at Brundisium (modern: Brindisi, Apulia, Italy), from which Pompey fled without fighting a battle or accepting Caesar’s request for peace, Caesar won over Hispania (modern: Spain). He then turned to Sicily, amassed a navy there, and secured the island and surrounding sea for his faction. A bungled effort in Africa near the site of old Carthage (modern: Gulf of Tunis, Tunisia) fought by Caesar’s and Pompey’s allegiant generals resulted in no considerable victory for either side.

The next year, in 48 B.C., Caesar and Pompey began jockeying up and down the Italian and Dalmatian Coasts for supremacy over the Ionian Sea and Illyria (modern: Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina). At the Greek city of Dyrrachium (modern: Durres, Albania), a long drawn out conflict resulted in Caesar suffering a critical loss, losing a relatively drastic number of men and safe ground to retreat to. He had been trying to siege the coastal city Pompey was holed up in–and was successfully starving Pompey’s army out–when two traitorous Gallic noblemen in Caesar’s camp defected to Pompey’s side and revealed the layout of Caesar’s camp and plans. With this information, Pompey led an attack and outnumbered Caesar’s forces two to one until eventually, through a series of counterattacks, feints, and outmaneuvering, Caesar was able to avoid a complete defeat and leave for Thessaly in northeastern Greece where he would resupply and reunite with the rest of his army. But Pompey would follow not far behind.

At every stage of this war, in nearly every locale, Pompey was levying more soldiers to his side through forced conscription and was depleting local treasuries by imposing exacting taxes on the cities he rolled through. This was all done to support himself, recoup his losses, and mount the challenge against Caesar. Taxes were so extreme and ridiculous that some towns were charged according to how many columns they had standing in their city. In some instances, the treasuries of religious temples were outright pilfered by Pompeian armies. And in nearly each of these places, Caesar would later restore the towns of their money and conscripted youth.  It is evident that Pompey had for himself a taste for dictatorship. He was a cold powermonger that took whatever he needed from Rome’s provinces. His reign would have been harsh, despotic, and ultimately would have deprived us of the forthcoming reign of Augustus Caesar, the man whose legacy is our modern world.

Understand that Pompey was not some measly villain, though. To many, he was a hero, a friend, and a truly great Roman general and statesman. He and Caesar were even allied for some time as intimate members of the First Triumvirate, the famed three-way alliance with Marcus Crassus. And it was Crassus and Pompey who, as consuls during Caesar’s first year as proconsul, or governor, of Gaul, passed a law specifically allowing Caesar to continue his campaign there for five more years much to the chagrin of the Roman Senate. And much of Rome supported Pompey. Even the brilliant military tactician, Titus Labienus, Caesar’s once trusty and ever-reliable lieutenant-general, chose to fight for Pompey in this civil war. Neither was Pompey some fat cat slouch with just the money and clout to pay off supporters and buy more soldiers. He had conquered for the Republic the last regions of Hispania (modern: Spain) left remaining from Scipio Africanus’s legendary conquests a century prior. And the great patrician, or upper class senatorial families of Rome such as the Scipios, lent him their political and military support. So, when Caesar faced Pompey for the final time at Pharsalus in Greece, the two sides were not evenly matched. Caesar may have won over the western half of Rome’s territories, but he had just rebounded from a serious defeat at Dyrrachium and was about to face a giant who had the backing of Rome’s elite.

The Triumph of Pompey (1765) by Gabriel de Saint-Aubin

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