Julius Caesar - Ada Russell

The Year of Pharsalus

When Caesar returned to Rome from Massilia in 49 as Dictator he held the consular elections, the reason for which he had demanded the office; and he and Publius Servilius Isauricus were elected consuls for the year 48. As Dictator he dealt with the clamorous debtors and creditors and bitterly disappointed the former. As the advanced democratic leader he was expected to cancel all debts, and usurers were going about with very heavy faces; but he showed at once that he was no demagogue. He had determined to establish good government in Rome, and though he deprived the State of its republican liberties, he gave it something very good in return. Once Rome had lost the memory of its olden freedom it was to acquiesce gladly in the orderly rule of the Caesars. He was bound to relieve the debtors who expected such great things of him, and had, many of them, paid their principal over and over again; and, besides cancelling the interest due from them, he appointed commissioners to decide on the value of their possessions before the war, and allowed them to pay their debts by handing over their effects at this estimation. As prices had gone up during the war, this was a great relief, and, moreover, pleased the creditors, who had expected worse. All exiles but Milo were allowed to return to Rome, and those who had fled in Pompey's third consulship came back. Having held the dictatorship only eleven days, Caesar laid it down, and, not waiting for his consulship of 48 to begin, set forth for Brundisium.

He had been able to gather together barely enough ships to convey his army over to Greece, while Pompey had now had a year of peace in which to increase his fleet. He had collected ships from Asia Minor, Athens, and the Greek islands, Syria, Phoenicia, and Egypt, and every dockyard was busy in building more, his fleet now comprising 500 war-ships, 200 of which were manned by Romans. He had levied large sums of money from every king, prince, and tetrarch in the East, and from the city-states of Greece, and he compelled all Roman tax-gatherers to render their accounts to him. He had nine legions of Roman citizens, and expected the arrival of Scipio from Syria with two legions. Archers from Crete, Sparta, Pontus, Syria, and other parts amounted to 3000; 1200 slingers were formed into two cohorts; and there were 7000 cavalry from Galatia, Cappadocia, Thrace, Macedonia, Egypt, and other parts, 800 of them being slaves and dependents of himself and his friends. Corn in immense quantities had been stored in Dyrrachium. Dyrrachium, Apollonia, and all the towns on the Adriatic at which Caesar might try to land were garrisoned, and Pompey's great fleet was stationed all along the coast under the supreme command of Caesar's old colleague Bibulus.

No one imagined that Caesar would attempt to leave Brundisium until the spring, as even in peace it was a dangerous thing to do in the winter; but on the 4th of January 48 (sometime in November 49 according to the reformed calendar) he sailed with seven legions and 600 cavalry. It was known that the great Pompeian fleet was watching, and the crossing was made in fear, but on the following day the army landed unopposed at Palaeste, just north of the island of Corcyra. The transports were sent back to Brundisium to bring over the rest of the army, and Bibulus, enraged at having let Caesar slip, was now on his guard. He seized thirty returning vessels and burned them, with their captains and crews, thus showing the blood-thirsty spirit in which his side intended to carry on the war. Henceforth he slept on board, despite the rough weather, and watched at all points for the crossing of Caesar's reinforcements.

Caesar then sent a new embassy to Pompey, saying that both parties had fought long enough, and had each suffered great disasters. Soon one of them would obtain a decided pre-eminence, and then would not submit to equal terms. Now he wished that both of them should disband their armies and submit their differences to the Senate and people at Rome. It was from this messenger that Pompey first heard of Caesar's landing, and he hastened by forced marches to the coast to prevent him taking the maritime towns. On the very day he landed Caesar had started to do this, and all the cities of Epirus had submitted to him, thus giving him a large tract of pastoral land, where he could get little corn but a plentiful supply of cattle. Moreover, at Apollonia, one of the first towns to receive him, the great roads from Thessaly and Macedonia terminated. He then went northeast on the road from Apollonia to Dyrrachium as far as the river Apsus, halting there on hearing that Pompey held this road (the Via Egnatia) farther north; he made his camp here, so that he could protect the cities which had submitted to him and at the same time be near at hand when the rest of his army arrived from Italy. Pompey thereupon marched south to the Apsus, and encamped on the other bank.

Caesar was so anxious for the rest of his army to cross from Italy that, legend says, he attempted to go and bring it over. Dressed like a slave, he went aboard a small boat, without any one's knowledge, and when the sailors were terrified by the great storm that rose, he discovered himself and cried: "Fear nothing! You carry Caesar and his fortune!" It is one of those tales that have almost become history, but we must not think them true.

While Bibulus kept his legions from sailing, Caesar prevented Bibulus from landing for firewood or water, or even anchoring in the harbours, and he was soon in the utmost want of necessaries. The fleet was compelled to drink the night-dew gathered in the skins that sheltered the ships during the stormy nights. Unused to cold and hardship, Bibulus fell seriously ill and, refusing to leave his post, succumbed. He was the first of the Pompeian martyrs to give lustre to the republican cause. His leader, Pompey, however, was out for merely personal reasons, and rejected Caesar's last embassy because he felt that he had been driven from Italy by Caesar and could not return with honour until he fought his way back.

As the winter was drawing to a close, and it would be still more difficult for the troops to cross in the face of the Pompeians in the mild weather, Caesar sent peremptory orders to Mark Antony at Brundisium to cross with the first suitable wind; and, aided by the weather and the false tactics of the enemy's fleet, most of the troops sailed and managed to get in to Nymphaeum, a port north of Dyrrachium. Caesar and Pompey heard the news at the same time, and both left the Apsus and hurried north, Caesar to join Antony, Pompey to attack him before Caesar came up. Pompey was foiled, for Antony learned of his approach and stayed in his camp until Caesar appeared, and then Caesar, by forced marches, cut Pompey off from Dyrrachium, his arsenal and storehouse. Pompey then occupied a height called Petra, to the south of Dyrrachium and close to a small harbour, to which supplies from Dyrrachium could be brought. He was no sooner established here than Caesar began to draw great lines of circumvallation round him.

Caesar had caused a fleet to be built this winter in Sicily, Gaul, and Italy, but it had not yet appeared, and he depended for supplies on Epirus. When he had arranged his commissariat and sent his lieutenants to Macedonia, Thessaly, and Aetolia to win over new allies, he started his blockade of Pompey by land. Round Pompey's camp were many lofty, rugged hills which Caesar occupied, fortified with redoubts, and joined with a continuous rampart and trench seventeen miles long, running from his camp in the north in a wide sweep east, south, and west to the coast. Caesar has been much blamed by authorities on the art of war for making these long lines, which he could not hope to defend against Pompey's superior numbers; but he thought to prevent Pompey's cavalry from foraging and make it easier for his own to do so, and although he brought great disaster on himself by his boldness, he won two decided advantages: he showed the world the spectacle of Pompey hemmed in for a long time by his lines and not daring to fight, and in the end he drew Pompey away from the neighbourhood of Dyrrachium, where his stores were.

Pompey in his turn began to occupy the hills, and made a rampart and trench inside that of Caesar and parallel to it, thus enclosing several miles of good pasture land for his cattle. Moreover, ships came in every day to Petra, and Pompey had for a long time every necessary, while the Caesarians were in great want. The latter, however, were used to privations and bore these without murmuring, even when, after a diet of barley or pulse, they had to fall back on meat. They found a sort of root which, ground and mixed with milk, looked like bread and kept off hunger. They made loaves of it, and when the Pompeians taunted them with starvation, they threw them these, to show that they had plenty. Pompey was told of this meagre diet and the cheerfulness of his opponents notwithstanding, and exclaimed, "Are we fighting with wild beasts?" The Caesarians frequently shouted to their opponents that they would live on the bark of trees before they would let Pompey slip out of their hands. Soon Pompey fell into a worse condition than his enemy, for Caesar turned aside all the rivers and streams that ran out to the coast, or obstructed their courses. The Pompeians had to drink marsh water or dig wells, and as summer approached the springs dried up. The horses and cattle died, while disease broke out among the men, confined in great numbers in a narrow circuit and having large numbers of corpses to dispose of. Caesar had plenty of water, and corn was soon—as the summer drew on—to be plentiful. No regular battle was waged in this time, but there were many fierce skirmishes, and one day every soldier in one of Caesar's redoubts was wounded; 30,000 arrows were picked up after the engagement, and the shield of one of the centurions had 120 holes in it.

At last Pompey, whose horses were feeding on barley or even leaves or crushed roots, was compelled to end the blockade. It was quite simple for him to put a number of troops in boats and land them secretly to the south of Caesar's lines, ready to attack on that side, while other forces from the camp attacked at the same point from the north. The defenders fled in panic, and Caesar, summoned by smoke signals, came up to find that Pompey had broken his lines and spoiled his whole plan of campaign. An attack on a Pompeian position later in the same day led to an ignominious defeat, which might have been annihilation if Pompey had dared to follow it up. Caesar remarked that Pompey did not know how to use a victory.

It was a signal success, and Pompey was saluted as 'imperator'  by his soldiers, but he never used the title, as he never recognized this strife with traitors as war. The captives were given to Labienus, at his request, and all slain in the presence of the army. The Pompeians were so overjoyed that they exaggerated their success. They did not think, says Caesar, of the smallness of his force and the terrible position in which it was placed, or consider the chances of war. He restored the spirits of his soldiers by a wonderful harangue, and made this defeat seem a small incident in the course of their triumphs. At the same time he chid several individuals and deprived several standard-bearers—he had lost thirty-two standards—of their positions. Collecting his forces from the various redoubts he marched off with unlooked-for speed, and, although he led a beaten army, raced Pompey to Apollonia. He arrived first and encamped himself, and then sent to warn his officer Domitius Calvinus that Pompey was abroad. Domitius had been dogging Scipio, who had arrived in Macedonia from Syria, but had come short of supplies and just left him. He was travelling along the Via Egnatia into Pompey's jaws, for Pompey was now on his way to Macedonia to join Scipio. It was only by the most fortunate chance that he learned of Caesar's defeat and his own danger, and, turning south, went to Aeginium, a town on the borders of Epirus and Thessaly, in the upper valley of the River Peneus. To this town Caesar now hastened from Apollonia by the valleys of the Aous and Peneus. Joining their forces they marched over the pass of Mezzovo into Thessaly, where they had had many allies before the late defeat. Now all the towns were closed to them. Caesar started with the siege of Gomphi, took it and gave it up to his soldiers to sack, and the result was that every city in Thessaly but Larissa, where Scipio had placed a strong garrison, submitted to him. He established his army to the south of Larissa, among fields full of ripening corn, and determined to wait there at his ease for Pompey and Scipio.

Pompey and Scipio arrived a few days later, Pompey still wishing to avoid a battle and starve Caesar out, but his army bent on fighting again the enemy they had defeated so signally at Dyrrachium. The magnates were talking publicly of the honours soon to be theirs. At their supper parties they decided who should be killed. They assigned the consulship for years ahead, wrote to Rome to hire houses in the Forum for the elections, and disputed over the property of prominent Caesarians. Scipio, Lentulus, and Domitius Ahenobarbus quarreled every day as to which of them should be Pontifex Maximus in Caesar's place. They placed their camp near that of Caesar, on a hill northeast of Pharsalus, and on the 7th of August 48 Pompey gave way to the clamours of his staff and led out his troops. He and Scipio were now joint commanders, but his warlike reputation was so great that he decided on the plan of the battle. He drew up the united army in a strong position, with the steep bank of the River Enipeus (probably dried up with the heat) on its right side. Here Afranius commanded; Scipio was in the centre; and Pompey was on the left, where the two Gallic legions taken from Caesar were placed. To the left of this far-stretching line of about 45,000 infantry were the 7000 cavalry, and all the archers and slingers. These were directed to ride round Caesar's line when the battle began, and attack him in the rear, a piece of strategy on which Pompey rested his every hope.

Caesar, whose army numbered about 22,000 legionaries and 1000 horse, arranged them to face the corresponding arms in Pompey's army. With the cavalry he mixed, as he had learned to do from the Germans, a number of foot-soldiers, who were trained to clutch the horses' tails and so keep the pace. On the right of his infantry stood as usual the famous Tenth legion, where Caesar was, opposite to Pompey. Publius Sulla commanded on the right, Domitius Calvinus in the centre, Mark Antony on the left. Caesar expected that an attempt would be made by Pompey's cavalry to outflank him, and prepared to meet it. His soldiers were usually arranged in three lines (the Roman triplex acies), but he now detached six cohorts from the third line to stand behind the others and form a fourth line. He told these troops to sally forth on the right flank when he gave the signal, and bade them earnestly do their duty, since the whole fortune of the day would depend on them. He then gave the usual address to his troops, first setting before them his position with regard to the State, and his vain attempts to negotiate terms with the opposite party. He bade the fourth line not to direct their javelins at the legs of their opponents as they generally did, but at their faces, and this may have been because they were infantry going to attack cavalry; but tradition said that it was because there were so many young dandies in the opposite cavalry force, and this would make them take flight at once. Then he gave the signal, and the minute the fateful trumpet was blown, a superannuated centurion of the Tenth legion cried out:

"Follow me, you who were in my maniple, and do for your general the great deeds you have made up your minds to do! This is our last battle, and when it is over he will have secured his honour, and we shall receive our discharge." Then he turned toward Caesar: "My general," he cried, "to-day you shall thank me, living or dead!" Then he dashed forward at the head of the legions to lose his life in performing very valiant deeds. We should dismiss this stirring story, as it seems an impossibly disorderly way of beginning a battle, but Caesar's soldiers always showed a wonderful amount of initiative (he had often to reprove them for it), and the fact is recorded in his own Commentaries. The first two lines, at Caesar's signal, followed the old hero and those who had darted forward at his words. It was usual for the opposing force of infantry to dash forward at the same moment, both sides shouting their war-cries. When they came near enough they hurled their javelins at each other and then drew their swords. Now, however, the Pompeians made no move. Pompey had directed them to let the Caesarians come all the way, and arrive breathless and perhaps in disorder. Caesar, criticizing his enemy's tactics afterward, condemns this action of Pompey's. It damped the soldiers' spirits, he said. They should be roused to ardour with eloquent speeches, trumpets, and war-cries, then dispatched against the enemy before their inspiration was lost. Such an onset, moreover, helped to frighten the foe. Since Pompey's time his tactics have been used with success often enough, but only with very enthusiastic soldiers against ill-disciplined troops; and we are told that his gloomy spirits had disheartened his whole force. Caesar's perfectly trained soldiers, too, eager as they were, did not rush right up, but halted of their own accord half-way, rested, and then dashed forward again to hurl their javelins. Then they drew their swords and engaged at close quarters in a fierce and equal combat with the Pompeian infantry. At the same time, the Pompeian cavalry started on its errand to outflank Caesar on his right. His small body of cavalry was bound to give way before the attack, and the victorious foe began to ride round to the rear. But from his vantage-point between the infantry and cavalry he signed to the fourth line, and the reserve cohorts of infantry darted forward so fiercely that not a single rider stood his ground. They all fled from the field, never stopping, in their panic, until they had reached the highest hills nearby. The archers and stingers, left unprotected, were slain, and the six cohorts held on their way round by Pompey's left, and attacked the enemy in the rear. Caesar then ordered his third line, hitherto inactive, to march forward; and the simultaneous attack of these fresh soldiers and the force in the rear created a panic in the whole Pompeian army, which turned in a general flight. Pompey had already departed, riding back to his camp, and thus striking dismay into the heart of the army he deserted, while he frightened the guard in the camp by his sad face and cheerless words. Caesar, meanwhile, was going from rank to rank of his army, bidding the men spare the lives of their fellow-citizens. When the enemy had entirely disappeared, he urged his soldiers, despite the scorching midday sun, to storm the republican camp. They found it an easy task, for the Thracian troops alone showed any courage. Soon all the defenders had followed the defeated army in flight.

The soldiers, after they had made their entrance, saw with amazement and scorn tents covered with laurel, paved with new-cut turf, and furnished with quantities of silver plate. It was clear that defeat had never been thought of. Pompey had remained in the camp until he saw the besiegers on the point of entering. Then, tearing off his scarlet cloak, he leaped on a swift horse and galloped out by the main gate in the rear. With his son Sextus, Lentulus, and some others, he made for Larissa. At Larissa they cried no halt, but sped on throughout the night, through the dark pass of Tempe and along the coast, and came at last to the Macedonian port Amphipolis, where they took ship for a. farther flight, with Caesar at their heels.

Before Caesar would allow his soldiers to rest or even to sack the enemy's camp, he ordered them to perform the further labour of making an earthwork round a hill to which many of the enemy had gone. When they came up the enemy had flown, and were making for Larissa, but, seeing that they were chased, they sped up another hill, with a stream at its foot. Caesar thereupon caused the work to be dug between the hill and the stream, so that they could get no water. At this they sent to offer submission, and at dawn they descended into the plain, and made formal surrender. He then sent the four legions with him back to rest, and ordered four others to come in their places and go on with him after Pompey to Larissa. He himself was tireless.

[Illustration] from Julius Caesar by Ada Russell


At Pharsalus the Caesarians only lost 200 common soldiers, though about thirty of the bravest centurions were slain. On the other side the loss was very heavy. We are told that when Caesar saw the field strewn with dead bodies, many of them those of Roman citizens, he cried:

"They would have it! I who had conquered in so many wars should have been destroyed if I had not sought aid from my army."

One hundred and eighty inferior standards and nine of the eleven Pompeian eagles were captured. No one fell except on the field, and numbers of magnates were not even fined. Among those to whom mercy was extended was Marcus Brutus, who was to join in murdering Caesar four years later.

The conqueror now made it his only care to run to earth Pompey, who could easily get together another army against him if he had enough time. He in his turn galloped with his cavalry to the Macedonian coast, one of the legions following. At his approach Pompey sailed to Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, where his wife Cornelia joined him, and thence to Cilicia and Cyprus, and was about to go to Syria, when Antioch sent to threaten with death any Pompeians who approached. The same thing happened to Romans of consular rank at Rhodes, and so Pompey, who had obtained a considerable sum of money and some troops from the publicans, left for Egypt. The youthful Ptolemy, who now ruled Egypt, was at war with his sister, the celebrated Cleopatra, joint ruler with him until he deposed her a few months before. When Pompey neared Pelusium, he sent to beg for Ptolemy's protection in the name of his friendship with his father. The King's advisers did not desire Romans of any party in Egypt, as they wished to give Rome no pretext for the annexation of the country, and they did not want to aid Pompey, as it seemed probable that his was a lost cause. Yet, if they refused help, and he were victorious over Caesar, he might revenge himself on them. They decided, therefore, to murder him. A small boat put out to meet him; he was decoyed into it and pulled into the harbour, conning his Greek address to King Ptolemy as he went, and was stabbed in the back as he stepped on shore. Cornelia, watching from the ship, gave a cry of agony that was heard on the beach, and immediately the Roman vessels trimmed their sails and fled. Pompey's head was cut off and carried away, and a slave seems to have found his trunk on the beach and given it to the flames.