The End of the Great Roman Civil War: The Battle at Pharsalus

With eyes like a hawk, the Roman eagle that was Julius Caesar foresaw Pompey’s battleplans in the way he arrayed his troops for battle. This foresight granted him a fighting chance against his superiorly positioned and outnumbering enemy.

The battle at Pharsalus (modern: Farsala, Thessaly, Greece) in west-central Greece was the final encounter between Caesar and Pompey. It occurred in the August of 48 B.C. The season for war was near its end. The end of summer marked the end of a year’s military campaigns. While Caesar had fought against many of Pompey’s generals up to this point and had engaged in various skirmishes and wargames with Pompey, the two had yet to fight a pitched battle on an open field.

Thessalians, people of Thessaly, Greece, a great and prosperous province, initially in support of Caesar at the start of the war, now pledged allegiance to Pompey as rumors spread after the preceding battle at Dyrrachium that Caesar was close to defeat, on the run, and heavily outnumbered by Pompey.

The location of the battle cannot be ascertained with full confidence. But it is certain that Pompey set up camp on favorable ground high up on the foothills of a mountain with one side protected by the River Enipeus and on the other by the rockface of a mountain. The only means of accessing his camp was up a narrow slope that led directly to the front of its gates.


Caesar, after giving some time for his army’s health and morale to be restored, set up camp as best he could below Pompey. Day in, day out, Caesar inched his army forward hoping to entice Pompey to battle. But Pompey would not budge. He intended to outlast Caesar on the basis of starvation.

Meanwhile, Pompey was being told by the senators in his party, and some of this by lieutenant-general Titus Labienus as well, that Caesar’s present army was not the glorious legionary force that he won over Gaul with, moreover that they were weakened, outnumbered, and that they possessed a totally inferior cavalry.  

There was certainly some truth to this all, but there was also a key distinction between the two commanders-in-chief: hard work versus indulgence. Pompey’s camp, for example, was decorated with cascading drapes of ivy and silver emblems and ornaments, full of men puffed up on laurels and more concerned with who would receive what roles and titles back in Rome rather than who would assume what roles in the forthcoming battle, as if the war was already over and their victory secure. Caesar, however, had a constant obsession with practice. Using forced marches and the willingness to work till nightfall, he kept his men in shape and accustomed to stress. This enabled them to outpace Pompey back in Dyrrachium where they pulled off a daring escape when Pompey figured they would retire to their old camp after the end of a hard fought day. And Caesar had been quietly addressing his cavalry’s inferiority by engaging them in minor skirmishes so to build their experience and confidence. While all this seemed like futile resistance to Pompey, it was in reality a form of practice and training for Caesar’s horsemen and troops.

Caesar was also able to ride his men a little harder than most other generals could because he had their respect by virtue of his genuinely impressive military acumen, his victorious battle record, his ability to pick the right strategies to win, his quick and sure decision-making during the heat of battle in which he was ever-present with his scarlet red cloak on horse-back constantly seen flying over battlefields as he rallied and led his men and fought where needed, and perhaps because of a countenance and voice he possessed that inspired his men with words of truth and hope – like a god, which he later claimed to be.

Pompey was swayed by the greedy, inpatient senatorial fools in his camp to launch an offensive and commence the final battle to give Caesar a finishing blow–they being unaccustomed to the rigors of war and wanting to end the conflict as soon as possible. So, when an opportunity to attack Caesar arose, Pompey succumbed to this pressure and lined his army up outside of his camp.

One morning, thinking Pompey–being an elite Roman general–would not give up his a favorable high ground, Caesar decided to break camp and roam Thessaly with the intention of winning over some local townships and securing more supplies for his army. As the bell in camp rang, indicating that camp was to be broken down and an exit march would soon begin, Caesar caught sight of Pompey’s army coming out of their camp.

Caesar turned and prepared his men for battle with a quick speech announcing that the day had finally come–though unexpectedly–that they had been waiting for: a pitched battle pit on an established battleground in which soldiers could prove their might as men without the tricks of stratagem.

It was noon, relatively late to start a fight, and the sky burned with the bright rays of Roman glory.

The Battle Lines

The opposing armies were arranged as such:

Pompey placed two legions on his left wing to go against Caesar’s exposed right. Pompey himself was on this left wing. Right wings were always vulnerable because Roman soldiers carried their shields on their left hand and so protected their own left and had their brother’s shield on guard to their right; but at the rightermost edge of a Roman infantry line, there would be nobody to your right to rely on. Thus, the right wings of a Roman army were exposed.

Caesar himself would fight on that vulnerable right to give that side all the support he could because he really wanted to win.

The two legions Pompey had placed there on his left wing, directly opposing Julius Caesar there, were the two legions that he had misappropriated from Caesar under the false pretense of needing them to join a campaign in Parthia back before the start of the civil war, which by the way he abandoned to leave Crassus, the third member of the their Triumvirate, to undertake alone and die so that he could pursue his assumption of dictatorship of Rome unfettered. Such was character of Pompey, the true instigator of the Civil War. Also, on his left wing were Pompey’s cavalry about 7,000 strong, and his archers, led on by the traitorous Titus Labienus, Caesar’s old lieutenant-general. A greater affront could not be wrought against a commanding general in war than to use his once own soldiers and officers against him.

On Pompey’s right wing were two legions from Cilicia and Spain commanded by worthy Afranius, who had proven to be a difficult foe against Caesar back in Spain at the start of the Civil War. In the center of the formation was Scipio Nasica, a powerful senator, with a legion pulled from Syria. Interspersed throughout these three columns were 110 cohorts, for an estimated total of 45,000 men.

To this, Caesar placed his famed Tenth Legion on his right wing. The recently diminished Eighth and Ninth Legions were combined into one legion and placed on his left wing. And lined up in between were approximately 80 cohorts. His total force consisted of a reported 22,000 men. He personally accompanied the Tenth Legion on the right. And when his keen eye caught the heavy hand of Pompey’s left wing across from him, he pulled cohorts from his third line and created a fourth line on the right to bolster that side and counter the opposing cavalry and archers.

In a peculiar note, the writer of this Caesar’s Civil War (for Caesar himself only wrote the Commentary on the Gallic Wars; the rest of Caesar’s Commentaries were written by two of his men) commented that he pulled cohorts from the “third” to create a “fourth” line. Caesar was likely occupying a narrow field of battle, so situated at the foothills of mountain beside a river that he’d have arranged his three lines (or triple acies, a common Roman formation) rather deep than wide, or vertically as columns lined up beside each other rather than wide as three horizontal rows behind each other. So, at the expense of extra reinforcements to refresh his third line, which was likely the rear of his right wing as Latin reads left to right, he shortened its depth and formed a fourth line – that is, a fourth column – adjacent to the Tenth Legion to cover his dangerously exposed right flank.

Whether he had his army arrayed wide in three principle rows or deep in three principle columns, the point is he pulled men from the back to address the vulnerability he so keenly caught at the front-right.

The Battle

Pompey kept a defensive approach to this by battle by not making a further approach once arrayed outside his camp. Standing his ground, he let Caesar initiate the combat and come up to him.

Upon Caesar’s command, Caesar’s front line commenced the attack. Seeing that Pompey’s army was not meeting the attack, Caesar’s men paused to catch their breath in middle of the field because it was hot and they had now twice the distance to run as they expected to meet the enemy in the middle there. They then charged again. The first to lead the charge was the brave Centurion, Gaius Crastinus, who gained his due glory upon a heroic death in this battle. But Pompey’s army successfully blocked the Caesarean shower of javelins with their shields. Once the two armies clashed with swords, Pompey sent out his cavalry and archers ahead and around Caesar’s exposed right flank, as Caesar foresaw. The archers began to devastate Caesar’s infantry while the cavalry wheeled around and surrounded the whole right side of Caesar’s army, pressing Caesar’s men and taking their ground.

But then Caesar brought up that fourth line he had just created prior to battle and had them go around the backs of the Pompey’s cavalry and infiltrate the enemy archers’ ranks.

This counter effectively destroyed Pompey’s cavalry because the weakness of a cavalry unit is the pressing of infantry into its close quarters after the cavalry has ended its charge and is rendered relatively immobile until it can back out and charge again. Without this cavalry to come to its rescue, Pompey’s archers were now left vulnerable to their subsequent destruction.

And so, with Pompey’s strength on which his expectations of victory lied now laid to rest, the tide of battle turned to overwhelm the Pompeians. Much of his army routed and fled, those who were not killed of course by Caesar’s men who were now surging with fresh morale and the call of victory. Pompey himself fled, and continued in flight throughout Greece, to Macedonia, then to Cyprus, until trying for Alexandria in Egypt where he was assassinated by the faction of child-king Ptolomaeus, Cleopatra’s brother.

The Aftermath

Having thus defeated all opposition and chased Pompey to Alexandria only to learn of Pompey’s death, Caesar, finding himself amidst a civil strife between the Ptolemaic Dynasty heirs, Cleopatra and Ptolomaeus, whose father had left a copy of his will in Rome for the Roman Senate to act as executor of his royal will, which governed the succession of his kingdom in Alexandria, Caesar – as he had also been one of the two consuls of Rome all this time, legally elected since the end of his campaign in Gaul – found it appropriate and necessary to adjudicate this issue between the two royal siblings.

The delivery of Pompey’s head by Ptolomaeus’s men to Caesar when Caesar landed in Alexandria disturbed Caesar greatly. Though he had been trying to defeat Pompey’s faction in the Civil War, he did not want his old friend killed and beheaded for his sake. This drew his ire against Ptolomaeus. Meanwhile, Cleopatra began her campaign of seduction on Caesar. So, it was easy for Julius Caesar to choose a side. Hereafter began the Alexandrian War.

3 replies

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s