Battle of Pharsalus (48 B.C.)Battle of Pharsalus (48 B.C.) - The Battle of Pharsalus was, for all intents and purposes, the climactic event that brought an end to the Roman Republic. After Caesar defied the Senate and crossed the Rubicon, Rome was at war...with itself. It also saw the longstanding rivalry between Caesar and Pompey come to a head. Pompey himself had been at odds with the Senate over the years, but both saw in Caesar a greater threat. So the two formed a mutual alliance against a common foe. The Senate needed an able general to defend its interests and Pompey was the only one qualified.


When Caesar arrived in Rome with his legion, Pompey had no troops with which to defend the city and had to flee. Many of the Senators did the same. Pompey went to Greece, and while Caesar wanted to give chase, he lacked a fleet. Pompey, on the other hand, had a navy and blockaded the Adriatic Sea at its narrowest point. So Caesar used the time to secure his position in Rome, while Pompey used his time to raise an army. By the time he had ships, Caesar was so eager to pursue Pompey that he did so without fully considering the consequences. He only had enough ships to transport half his army, but decided to gamble and crossed the sea in winter, while the enemy ships were docked.


Battle of Pharsalus (48 B.C.)He landed in Greece in early 48 B.C. and established a beachhead in Epirus. Pompey re-established the blockade preventing the rest of Caesar's troops from joining him. This left Caesar in a precarious position. He was stuck in Greece, a province almost entirely loyal to the Republic, and was now unable to supply his troops by sea. The only thing he could do is fortify his position and forage off the land. By now, Pompey had raised an army, much larger than Caesar's. The only advantage Caesar had was experience. Most of his men were veterans while most of Pompey's were raw recruits. But he hoped to defeat Caesar by starving him out. Rather than engage, he simply kept Caesar pinned down. At this point, Caesar thought his chance for victory had slipped away and tried to negotiate peace with Pompey. He was rebuffed. But then a bit of good fortune befell Caesar. Had he attacked, Pompey probably could have finished him off.


But his strategy of waiting it out provided Caesar with an opening. Back in Italy, Marc Antony, one of Caesar's commanders, fought through the blockade and crossed the Adriatic with the rest of his army. This provided Caesar with much needed men and morale. He was now confident enough to take on Pompey's army. Pompey won the initial battle, though, at Dyrrhachium. Caesar's men retreated inland, but Pompey, apparently confident of ultimate victory, let them escape. This caused Caesar to remark, "The day was theirs had there been anyone among them to take it." This demonstrated Caesar's lack of respect for Pompey and is reminiscent of Alexander the Great's statement to Parmenio after Darius III offered Alexander half his kingdom (see Alexander conquers Persia). Pompey returned to his waiting strategy, but several Senators who were among his party, grew impatient and implored him to finish Caesar. His troops who were filled with confidence after Dyrrhachium, were also anxious to fight.


Battle of Pharsalus (48 B.C.)Finally, in August 48, Pompey relented and met Caesar at Pharsalus. His army was twice the size of Caesar's and he had almost four times as many cavalry. Marc Antony led the infantry, while Caesar commanded the cavalry. Despite inferior numbers, Caesar stretched his line as wide as possible to avoid being out-flanked. This meant fewer ranks, but again, his troops had been battle hardened, and Caesar relied on that experience to hold the line. Pompey, with his inexperienced infantry, intended to win the battle with his cavalry. He placed them on his left flank (Caesar's right) and planned to break through the enemy line and attack it from behind. Caesar recognized this, however, and placed his most experienced men on his right, with his cavalry just in front. It was a ruse however. When the battle began, Caesar ordered his cavalry to drop back and he placed his infantry in front. This was the decisive moment of the battle. Caesar's infantry stood like a wall and Pompey's cavalry failed to penetrate it. It fell back and attempted to regroup. At that point, Caesar charged and attacked Pompey's disorganized cavalry. It was all he needed to win the battle. Pompey's men panicked and retreated. Pompey himself fled and went to Egypt with Caesar in pursuit. When he arrived in Egypt, he was murdered by Ptolemy XIII's men. When Caesar arrived, he was presented with Pompey's head and signet. He did not accept them with the enthusiasm Ptolemy had hoped. Caesar mourned his one-time ally and had Ptolemy's men put to death. But he was now the undisputed ruler of Rome. A status he would hold until his own death in 44 B.C.. For all of Pompey's military genius over the years, Caesar proved to be the superior commander when they faced each other in battle.