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Battle of Pharsalus

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Battle of Pharsalus

Battle of Pharsalus
Part of Caesar's Civil War
Date 9 August 48 BC
Location Palaeopharsalos (Greece)
Result Decisive Caesarian victory
Forces of Julius Caesar, including representatives of the Populares Forces of Pompey, including many of the Optimates
Commanders and leaders
Gaius Julius Caesar
Mark Antony
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus
Approximately 22,000 legionaries (elements of 9 legions), 5,000–10,000 auxiliaries and allies, and allied cavalry of 1,800 Approximately 40,000–45,000 legionaries (12 legions), 4,200 auxiliaries and allies, and allied cavalry of 5,000–8,000
Casualties and losses
~230 (according to Caesar) 6,000-15,000[1]

The Battle of Pharsalus was a decisive battle of Caesar's Civil War. On 9 August 48 BC at Pharsalus in central Greece, Gaius Julius Caesar and his allies formed up opposite the army of the republic under the command of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus ("Pompey the Great"). Pompey had the backing of a majority of the senators, of whom many were optimates, and his army significantly outnumbered the veteran Caesarian legions.

The two armies confronted each other over several months of uncertainty, Caesar being in a much weaker position than Pompey. The former found himself isolated in a hostile country with only 22,000 men and short of provisions, while on the other side of the river he was faced by Pompey with an army about twice as large in number. Pompey wanted to delay, knowing the enemy would eventually surrender from hunger and exhaustion. Pressured by the senators present and by his officers, he reluctantly engaged in battle and suffered an overwhelming defeat, ultimately fleeing the camp and his men, disguised as an ordinary citizen.


A dispute between Caesar and the optimates faction in the Senate of Rome culminated in Caesar marching his army on Rome and forcing Pompey, accompanied by much of the Roman Senate, to flee from Italy to Greece in 49 BC where he could better conscript an army to face his former ally. Caesar, lacking a fleet to immediately give chase, solidified his control over the western Mediterranean – Spain specifically – before assembling ships to follow Pompey. Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, whom Pompey had appointed to command his 600-ship fleet, set up a massive blockade to prevent Caesar from crossing to Greece and to prevent any aid to Italy. Caesar, defying convention, chose to cross the Adriatic during the winter, with only half his fleet at a time. This move surprised Bibulus and the first wave of ships managed to run the blockade easily. Now prepared, Bibulus managed to prevent any further ships from crossing, but died soon afterwards.

Caesar was now in a precarious position, holding a beachhead at Epirus with only half his army, no ability to supply his troops by sea, and limited local support, as the Greek cities were mostly loyal to Pompey. Caesar's only choice was to fortify his position, forage what supplies he could, and wait on his remaining army to attempt another crossing. Pompey by now had a massive international army; however, his troops were mostly untested raw recruits, while Caesar's troops were hardened veterans. Realizing Caesar's difficulty in keeping his troops supplied, Pompey decided to simply mirror Caesar's forces and let hunger do the fighting for him. Caesar began to despair and used every channel he could think of to pursue peace with Pompey. When this was rebuffed he made an attempt to cross back to Italy to collect his missing troops but was turned back by a storm. Finally, Marc Antony rallied the remaining forces in Italy, fought through the blockade and made the crossing, reinforcing Caesar's forces in both men and spirit. Now at full strength Caesar felt confident to take the fight to Pompey.

Pompey was camped in a strong position just south of Dyrrhachium with the sea to his back and surrounded by hills, making a direct assault impossible. Caesar ordered a wall to be built around Pompey's position in order to cut off water and pasture land for his horses. Pompey built a parallel wall and in between a kind of no man's land was created, with fighting comparable to the trench warfare of World War I. Finally the standoff was broken by a traitor in Caesar's army, who informed Pompey of a weakness in Caesar's wall. Pompey immediately exploited this information and forced Caesar's army into a full retreat, but ordered his army not to pursue, fearing Caesar's reputation for setting elaborate traps. This caused Caesar to remark, "Today the victory had been the enemy's, had there been any one among them to gain it."[2] Pompey continued his strategy of mirroring Caesar's forces and avoiding any direct engagements. After trapping Caesar in Thessaly, the prominent senators in Pompey's camp began to argue loudly for a more decisive victory. Although Pompey was strongly against it—he wanted to surround and starve Caesar's army instead—he eventually gave in and accepted battle from Caesar on a field near Pharsalus.

Date and location

The date of the actual decisive battle is given as 9 August 48 BC according to the republican calendar. According to the Julian calendar however, the date was either 29 June (according to Le Verrier's chronological reconstruction) or possibly 7 June (according to Drumann/Groebe). As Pompey was assassinated on 3 September 48 BC, the battle must have taken place in the true month of August, when the harvest was becoming ripe (or Pompey's strategy of starving Caesar would not be plausible).

The location of the battlefield was long a subject of controversy among scholars. Caesar himself, in his Commentarii de Bello Civili, mentions few place-names;[3] and although the battle is called after Pharsalos, 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 Palaepharsalos. 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. Until the early 20th century, unsure of the site of Palaepharsalos, scholars followed Appian (2.75) and located the battle of 48 BC south of the Enipeus or close to Pharsalos (today's Pharsala).[4]

The “north-bank” thesis of [7] arguing for a site closer still to Krini, where he places Palaepharsalos, writes: “My reconstruction is similar to Lucas’s, and in fact I borrow one of his alternatives for the line of the Pompeian retreat. Lucas’s theory has been subjected to many criticisms, but has remained essentially unshaken.”

The opposing armies

The Caesarian army

Caesar had the following legions with him:

However, all of these legions were understrength. Some only had about a thousand men at the time of Pharsalus, due partly to losses at Dyrrhachium and partly to Caesar's wish to rapidly advance with a picked body as opposed to a ponderous movement with a large army.[8] According to his accounts, he had 80 cohorts on the battlefield, about 22,000 men.[9]

The Pompeian army

In total, Caesar counted 110 complete cohorts in the Pompeian army, 11 legions consisting of about 45,000 men, although Orosius, following Livy and Pollio, only counted 88 cohorts, and Hans Delbrück suggests that Caesar's count includes detachments at Dyrrachium and elsewhere, leaving only 88 cohorts in the Pompeian army.[10]


Battle formations as described by Plutarch in his Life of Caesar c. 44


Pompey had every tactical advantage an army could hope for; he held the higher ground, had superiority of numbers, and was better supplied from his many allies in Greece. This caused him to act conservatively. Pompey deployed his army in the traditional formation of three lines with a depth of ten men. Again according to convention he posted his most experienced legions on the flanks (the first and the third legion on his left with Pompey himself commanding, the Syrian legions in the center with Scipio, the Cilician legion and the Spanish cohorts on the right with Afranius), dispersing his new recruits along the center. Pompey's right was protected by the River Enipeus, therefore he massed all his cavalry on Caesar's right. He had given command of the cavalry to Labienus, the former commander of Caesar's favourite X legion. He deployed the rest of the army on his left together with his auxiliary troops. Pompey's plan was to allow Caesar's infantry to advance, have his cavalry attack and push back the numerically inferior Julian horses, and then attack Caesar's infantry from behind.

Caesar knew this would be his last stand as his army had run out of supplies, and with no lines of retreat they would be at Pompey's mercy and likely to be slaughtered if they lost the battle. This "nothing to lose" mentality was played up by Caesar to his men as he explained that defeat meant nothing less than death. Caesar also deployed in three lines but could only set them to six men deep if he was to match the length of Pompey's line. Like Pompey he was protected by the river on his left allowing him to position all his cavalry to the right as a counter. As was typical of Caesar he gambled and began discreetly thinning his already depleted ranks of men then repositioned them as a fourth line to support his cavalry against the inevitable assault by the much larger Pompeian cavalry. Caesar himself commanded the cavalry, he posted the renowned tenth legion on his right under Sulla, with the undermanned eighth and possibly the ninth on his left under Marc Antony. In the center he designated Domitius as the commanding officer.

Progress of the battle

There was significant distance between the two armies, according to Caesar.[11] Pompey ordered his men not to charge, but to wait until Caesar's legions came into close quarters; Pompey's adviser Caius Triarius believed that Caesar's infantry would be fatigued and fall into disorder if they were forced to cover twice the expected distance.[12] But seeing that Pompey's army was not advancing, Caesar's men, without orders, stopped to rest and regroup before continuing the charge;[13] Caesar, in his history of the war, would praise his own men's discipline and experience, and questioned Pompey's decision not to charge.[14]

The heavy infantry then engaged. Pompey's legions could take the attack due to their deep formations. Labienus then ordered the Pompeian cavalry to attack; as expected they successfully pushed back Caesar's cavalry until his hidden fourth line joined in, using their pila to thrust at Pompey's cavalry and turn them to flight. After this, Caesar threw in his last line of reserves[15] —a move which at this point meant that the battle was more or less decided. Pompey could see this; after observing his cavalry routed, Pompey retreated to his camp and left his troops to their own devices, ordering the garrison to defend camp as he gathered his family, loaded up gold, and threw off his general's cloak and fled.

Caesar urged his men to end the day by capturing the enemy camp. They complied with his wishes, furiously attacking the walls. The Thracians and the other auxiliaries who were left in the camp, in total seven cohorts, defended bravely, but were not able to fend off the assault.

Caesar had won his greatest victory, claiming to have only lost about 200 soldiers and 30 centurions.[16]


Pompey fled from Pharsalus to Egypt, where he was assassinated on the order of Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. Ptolemy XIII sent Pompey's head to Caesar in an effort to win his favor, but instead secured him as a furious enemy. Ptolemy, advised by his regent, the eunuch Pothinus, and his rhetoric tutor Theodotus of Chios, had failed to take into account that Caesar was granting amnesty to a great number of those of the senatorial faction in their defeat. Even men who had been bitter enemies were allowed not only to return to Rome but to assume their previous positions in Roman society.

Pompey's assassination had deprived Caesar of his ultimate public relations moment — pardoning his most ardent rival. The Battle of Pharsalus ended the wars of the Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus.


Paul K. Davis wrote that "Caesar's victory took him to the pinnacle of power, effectively ending the Republic."[17] The battle itself did not end the civil war but it was decisive and gave Caesar a much needed boost in legitimacy. Until then much of the Roman world outside Italy supported Pompey and his allies due to the extensive list of clients he held in all corners of the Republic. After Pompey's defeat former allies began to align themselves with Caesar as some came to believe the gods favored him, while for others it was simple self-preservation. The ancients took great stock in success as a sign of favoritism by the gods. This is especially true of success in the face of almost certain defeat — as Caesar experienced at Pharsalus. This allowed Caesar to parlay this single victory into a huge network of willing clients to better secure his hold over power and force the Optimates into near exile in search for allies to continue the fight against Caesar.

In popular culture

The battle gives its name to the following artistic, geographical, and business concerns:


  1. ^
  2. ^ Plutarch Pompey 65.5, Dryden translation: p. 465.
  3. ^ Bellum Civile 3.81–98
  4. ^ Map with conjectured locations, Annual of the British School at Athens, No. XXIV, 1921 [1]
  5. ^ F. L. Lucas, 'The Battlefield of Pharsalos', Annual of the British School at Athens, No. XXIV, 1919–21, pp.34–53
  6. ^ Holmes, T. Rice, The Roman Republic and the Founder of the Empire (Oxford, 1923); Fuller, J. F. C, Julius Caesar: Man, Soldier and Tyrant (London, 1965); Sheppard, Simon, Pharsalus 48 B.C.: Caesar and Pompey – Clash of the Titans (Oxford, 2006)
  7. ^ The American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 87, No. 1, Jan. 1983
  8. ^
  9. ^ Julius Caesar, Commentarii de Bello Civili,III 89,2
  10. ^ Hans Delbrück, Warfare in Antiquity, p. 545.
  11. ^ Caesar, BC III 92,1.
  12. ^ Caesar, BC III, 92,2.
  13. ^ Caesar, BC III, 93,1.
  14. ^ Caesar, BC III, 92,3.
  15. ^ Caesar, BC III, 93,4
  16. ^ Caesar, BC III 99,1.
  17. ^ Paul K. Davis, 100 Decisive Battles from Ancient Times to the Present: The World’s Major Battles and How They Shaped History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 59.

Further reading

  • Caesar's account of the battle
  • , No. XXIV, 1919–21Annual of the British School at AthensFrank Laurence Lucas, 'The Battlefield of Pharsalos',
  • , Vol.3, No.4, 1955Historia: Zeitschrift für Alte GeschichteMichel Rambaud, 'Le Soleil de Pharsale',
  • , Vol. 87, 1956Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological AssociationWilliam E. Gwatkin, Jr., 'Some Reflections on the Battle of Pharsalus',
  • , Vol. 87, No. 1, Jan. 1983The American Journal of ArchaeologyJohn D. Morgan, 'Palae-pharsalus – the Battle and the Town',
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