Roman army was maybe the most efficient war machine ever! It dominated European battle fields nearly thousand years. I guess typical for Romans was good equipment, discipline, good organization and systematic practice. It is said that training of legionaries was like battles with no blood and battles like training where blood run. Meaning of the sentence is that Romans were so well trained that they did not get scared at all when they met enemy – they were always ready. It seems to me that when Roman army had good leaders like Ceasar they were unbeatable. But when arrogant generals led the army could happen like in Carrhae or Teuroburg. But good example is Gaius Julius Caesar. He did not loose any battles against his enemies. Always he was ready to set troops on right places and make sure that they were ready for everything. Once he withdraw against Pompei in their first class but in good order. Basically Roman troops could be divided in three different groups. The iron heart of it was legionaries. They were well equipped trained soldiers and first always Romans. They had of course cavalry which was more like tactical weapon. They they were auxiliaries which were either light armed troops (bowmen, slingers etc) or experienced builders who take care when bridge, walls, towers or something else was needed. Later on little bit more about Roman troops.
When Rome was just young and growing city state Alexander the Great planned a new crusade to west. There he would have met Carthagians and their future enemy – Rome. We know that this crusade never happened because still rather young Alexander died before it. Maybe poisoned. If he would have attacked to west from Greece maybe our history could be different. He could have beaten small Rome and wiped it away, but maybe Carthage could have been good opponent. Anyway it was the destony of Rome to grow world power and fine generals like Scipio Africanus, Caesar, Marc Antony, Agrippa, Germanicus, Trajan and Constantine changed the world.
Roman legionnaire was the iron heart of any Roman army. This foot soldier – legionaire – had everything that was needed. Typical weapon was short sword, special spear called pilum, big shield and protective helmet. When legionnaires fought together in one line – side by side – it was very difficult for their enemies to hit through that line and penetrate through them. Roman shield – Scutum – gave a very good protection and it was difficult to hit through or over it. Imagine a line of Scutum shields side by side. And now and then short swords -Gladiuses – were stabbing forward trying to reach enemy bodies behind the shield line. This Roman line was compared as a circular saw! It was an iron line of shields where regularly short swords were stabbing forwards – like circular saw. Scattered enemy had no chance against it. Of course also enemies had different tactics. Gaul’s used very heavy and long swords but also these blows could be rejected with Scutum. Sarmatian’s had a curve sword blade called Sica. With it’s curve blade there was some chance to hit enemy behind Scutum. But Roman’s had developed many good equipments to protect their legionaries. All soldiers had a very protective helmet which prevented hit’s on one’s neck. Also their upper body had an efficient protection. First in the time of Republic legionaries hold mainly chainmail shirts. Then at the time of invasion to Gaul legionaries started to use Lorica Segmentata. It was a kind of armor which was consisting of flexible steel plates and it gave a good protection but did not prevent fast movements. Legionaries were also using leather skirts over their tunics. It gave also a good guard for lower body parts. In leather skirts there were also steel staples to add efficiency against sword blows. And of course soldiers march with their feet. Romans used sandals which were strengthened with steel staples and they were called Caligulas. These sandals make them famous and still we can found them in ancient excavations. These galiculkas were extremely strong and let Romans to march long and fast every day. So in the end Roman armies had an efficient and equal gears which let them work – march and fight – as a one homogenous unit. This was much more in ancient days than many of their opponents. Many of armies of their enemies fought as scattered groups where every body was searching personal glory. And a legion – 5120 legionaries – consisted from different tactical units. The smallest was a Centuria which had about 80 men and they were commanded by a Centurion who were assisted by Optio. The next bigger was then Cohort which had either 6 Centurias or 12 Centurias. First Cohorts had always 12 Centurias and the rest only 6. A Cohort was a smallest tactical unit and for example in the text of “Conquest of Gaul” Caesar sometimes relocate Cohorts in key positions. A legion had ten Cohorts which were led by experienced Centurions. Depending on one’s service time and bravery Centurions were placed to command troops. The most important was the Centurion of first Cohort and he was called Primus Pilus. He reported straight to Legates and War tribunes. Especially Caesar gave high value for Centurions and knew them by name, because they were the ones leading battles in front lines. The good point was that every man could raise higher ranks depending on their bravery and valour. Especially Caesar gave high rewards and promoted commendable Centurians.
Here a nice picture from older type chainmail shirt which gave a very good protection. The drawback was that it was rather heavy, so it took time to get used to it in log marches. Later on game Lorica Segmentata. At time of republic also kind od scale armor was used. There small iron plates were placed one by one over each others. It was also very flexible.
Roman helmet is well known everywhere and after Republican time in maintained very much the same. Early versions were probably influenced mainly by Creeks, Macedonians and Etruscans. Typical for Roman helmet was the good protection for head, neck and cheeks. During different campaigns they improved helmets. For example against Sarmatians they strengthened the top of the helmet against enemies strong new type sword blows.
Scutum was a traditional Roman shield which was also used in gladiatorial combats by some fighter types. The Republican type shield’s were little bit more oval and not so convex. This type shield fit well for Gladius-sword and could be used either as protection or as a hit tool. The knob in the middle of the shield could be used for hammering of the enemy. Strong blow with it would certainly hurt in body, shoulder or arm…
Short Gladius sword was originally from Hispania – Spain. But Roman find it useful and took it as their main weapon. It was very useful and fit well with other Roman equipment. On the contrary Roman used short stab sword and not long and heavy blow swords as many of their enemies.
Romans had also another sword called a Spatha. It was much heavier and longer than Gladius. It weighed about ten kilos and was more than 1 meter length. Idea was that it was used to cut running enemies from horseback downwards. Therefore it was so long that the equites soldiers could reach their target. I have one myself and I have to say it has respectful weigh. I am not weak myself but I must admit that ancient Roman cavalry was not weaklings either. Other ways one can not use so heavy sword…
Maybe legionaries are even better known from their spear – Pilum. It is maybe the oddest spear in European battle fields. It had a long thin iron rod before the actual spear head. Half of the rod was wooden and half of thin iron. But it had a special reason to be as it was. idea was that when legionaries throw it towards enemy, it either kills the enemy or makes their shield useless. Because it had a long thin iron rod, it penetrated easily throw enemy shields. It was therefore a lethal weapon. If it didn’t kill the enemy it was stacked on the shield. This was because it also easily twisted when it met something hard. This ment that the enemy have throw their shield away and thus they were easier to kill. After battles many twisted pilums needed to be repaired to be able to throw them again accurately. So it was a cunning weapon which Roman used efficiently.
Often Roman armies used well organized battle-orderBecause they trusted their training and equipment. Thus troops were led into battle on plains – enemy on downhill if possible – to be able to control troops well. Very often Romans used so called triple-axes formation. For examples Caesar used it on Pharsalus with some tactic modifications. Look picture. In the system legions were spread on line over battle ground. Of course both armies tried to avoid being flanked so both stretched their lines on same length. Practically this means that the depth or lines is shorter for smaller army – Like Caesar had thinner lines than Pompey in Pharsalus. In Roman system Legionaries, cohorts and legions were the iron heart where every commander put their trust. For example in Cannae Roman consuls led a vast army of legionaries against Hannibal and Carthagians. They counted that about 70 000 men in iron would be enough in plain of Cannae. But it was not! Hannibal was smarter and first drove Roman cavalry back and then attacked on Roman rear. Suddenly vast roman army was attacked on every side and they were like fish in the net. Cavalry was seldom used in consuming close combat but instead it was used as a tactical weapon. maybe the most magnificent example was Alesia. When last men were sent to close combat against Celts, Caesar knew something had to be done. Otherwise so much larger Celtic army would have destroyed them one by one. Therefore he sent his cavalry outside fortification to circle behind enemy by using forests as a cover. Then suddenly roman cavalry attacked on rear of Celtic army with high speed and scattered their lines and will – they turned ad fled away…
Gauls were the long lasting enemy of Rome until Caesar end the wars. Here in the picture maybe the most notable feature is the long and heavy sword. Gauls invaded Rome several time and once it is said that they even sacked Rome. Also there were significant Celtic tribes in Po-river area. After struggle of hundreds of years Rome succeeded to win whole Gallia Cis-Alpina.
Two Roman commanders and their confrontation
There are two commanders which are often known from Roman world – Gaius Julius Caesar and Pompei the Great. Their destony was linked together and when they met in Pharsalus the first one was a rising star and the latter on setting star. And after Pharsalus only first one was anymore left. Let’s see their path…older first.
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (29.9. 106 BC – 28.9. 48 BC) did not have a extremely magnificient family backround or very famous forefathers. However his family have had a consulship at 141 BC. His family was rich and they had many clients which proved to be important. His family origin was in Picenum, where he stepped to gloryHis father Pompey Strabo was living on Marius time and was ally of Marius and Cinna. Strabo probably gave his son a good education and military experience in his staff. In civil war 88-87 BC between Marius and Sulla Strabo favored Marius. When his father died, he joined Sulla and either straight or indirect caused mutiny and death of Cinna – general of Marius. The Pompey raised three legions and marched to Rome to clear town from supporters of Marius. One must say that in this campaign Pompey was together with Sulla mutinying against real rulers of the Roman world. This means that as a real Roman noble he was aiming to lift his own virtus – not to save Rome. He also executed those Marian leaders that got into his hands. Therefore he got a nickname – Sulla little murderer. After Sulla took power and defeated Marius, he send Pompey to take over Sicily and north Africa. Tasks he took well care. After that he came to home and did not disband his army as he should have done. He wanted to be send as a proconsul to Hispania. he wanted to slay old Marian supporter Sertorius. Sulla sent Pompey to Hispania but it took a long time for him to defeat Sertorius, because he was a capable and old fox. After several years fighting and bribery Sertorius was killed by his own hand and Pompey could claim a victory. He came then back with his troops to Italy and defeated the rest of Spartacus slave army. Earlier Crassus had already destroyed main slave army. So again Pompey claimed a win and he was rewarded together with Crassus as a consulship. For some reason Sulla seemed to like this cockerel. His ambition of honor seemed to amuse Sulla.
As a consul he did some political renewals which mainly helped him in his future career. After consulship he was sent to destroy sea pirates which task he again took care swiftly. In those times Lucius Licinius Lucullus was widening Roman borders in East. He had defeated middle east kingdoms like Great Armenia. His success was great but he could not great a lasting peace. For some reason his troops were not also to keen of him but repelled. So suddenly he was replaced by Pompey and his great achievements were ignored. So Pompey came and defeated what was rest of Roman enemies and again held a triumph in Rome – a third one already. After putting east in order and placing friendly kings to eastern states – for Rome and himself – he was in top of his career. Now also nobles – not just his tropps – called him Pompey the Great. Everybody looked him when something needed to be done. But as it happened always in Rome, you get too many enemies if you are too bright star. So other nobles joined against him and prevented him to give state lands to his veterans. But then tables turned. Caesar came to Rome from Hispania and started his campaign to high priest and for consulship. With money of Crassus and support of Pompey he managed to get consulship and they formed a first triumvirate. Now Caesar took care of the veteran matter for Pompey and benefits of Crassus. For the time of Caesars consulship everything seemed to be in balance. Then with support of Pompey and Crassus Caesar was given an office of proconcul in Gallia. There he reached enormous success and won Gallic tribes one by one. Now Pompey started to worry. He saw how Caesar came more and more popular because of his wins – and gifts and money he gave to Rome. Soon he was even more popular than Pompey. To seal his alliance Caesar had given his daughter for Pompey’s wife. After she died the paths of these two men went apart. When Crassus took a big campaign in east against Parthia he met a total disaster. His army was destroyed and he was killed. Now there was no more triumvirate. There happened a fast division when most of nobles turned against Caesar and asked Pompey to support them. First Pompey was not willing to this but when Caesar got more richer and popular, he turned his back to his former ally. Nobles – especially Cato – were terrible worried about Caesar, who seemed to succeed in everything and now Caesar star was shining too bright. He was to rise too high above others. And Caesar was a popular – not an optimate. He wanted to give state land to poor and limit privileges of nobels. And they hated him from that. During Caesar Gallic wars Pompey got however some merits ending political street violence which had come too great. But in the end Pompey needed to take side and he turned to join Roman nobles. And they gave an ultimatum to Caesar. But his reply was sharp. He took his best legions and marched over Rubicon and started to take cities – one by one.
Soon troops of Caesar stormed down Italy and took easily city by city – all opened their gates to Caesar. Very soon Pompei understood that he had lost the game in Italy. He had promised to his followers that by stumping his foots on the ground he will raise new legions if needed. But Caesar was too quickly when he started his attack on beginning of year – at winter. Pompei understood – as a older general – that he could not face caesar’s veteran army with rookies. He had one legion near Rome but it was actually recruited by Caesar and handed to Pompei as a peace act. But Pompei could not have trusted that legion anyhow so he needed time. So he fled with his supporters in Greece to raise new armies because all east was organized by him earlier times, so he had friends there. Some say it was a big mistake because with that act he let Caesar took all the threasures in Rome – all state gold to pay his troops. So by taking all Italy he had money again to keep his troops loyal. So Pompei spent his time gathering money from east and recruiting new legionaries from eastern provinces. Same time when Caesar conquered Hispania, Sicilia and attacked north Africa, Pompei trained his new troops, which were now remarkable size some 80 000 men and 10 000 cavalry. Much more than Caesar had. Also Pompei had with him most of the senate and noble families. Senators like Cato, Scipio Metellus, Cicero and yes Marcus Brutus also went with Pompey to exile. Especially Caesar has sought friendship of Cicero and wanted him to stay at least neutral. It is little bit difficult to understand but only thinking that in the end also Cicero sought for his personal glory. Because Cicero should have shown greater philosophical knowledge and courage than others. Later on his writings he told that these noblemen aside Pompey where not “goo at all” also because they wanted toi start execution of their enemies of the won the war. The second man of Caesar in Gallic wars had also fled to join Pompei – Titus Labienus. Pompei believed that Labienus could beat Caesar because he knew him well in battle. Because Caesar knew that he could not end civil war but beating Pompei in battle, he shipped his troops finally to Greece to met Pompei in Battle. In Dyrrachium they met first time at 10 July 48 BC.
Path of Gaius Julius Caesar
Caesar was born in 13 July 100 BC and died 15 March 44 BC. He still is maybe the best known Roman General and statesman. He has also written memories about his battles in Gallia which still is largely read. He was born – as any Roman noble – in patrician family of Julia. According family Julia their roots went all te way to Troyan Aeneas and Venus-goddess herself. In earlier years of Rome family Julius had had some success but Caesar’s time his family was not significant. Still his father was a governor of province of Asia some time and his father’s sister was wife of Gaius Marius. This was important for Gaius because Marius was long time the first man of realm. When his father died in 85 BC Caesar found himself as a head of family at an age of 18. So he had to take responsible at young age – still it was not odd in those times. Same time started the first civil was between consul Gaius Marius and his general Sulla. In those circumstances Caesar married Cornelia – daughter of Cinna. Marius and Cinna Controlled city of Rome and Caesar was named as high priest of Jupiter. Because of family tights to Marius and his wife’s family, it was obvious that Caesar faced problems when finally Sulla won civil war. He had to give up everything and hide from new government – Sulla would have like to kill him! Sulla said that he can see in Caesar much more many men than in Marius. So he really could see in the future. Finally his wifes family and Vestal virgins convinced Sulla to let Caesar live. Still feelin threat from new rules, Caesar recruited to army and went to serve to Asia Minor. Under command of Marcus Minucius Thermus in Asia and Servilius Isauricus in Cilicia he reached his first experiences and victories in army. When Sulla finally died in 78 BC he felt safe to return to Rome. However because he had lost all of his heritance because of Sulla he had to start with modest life. He started also a new career as becoming an legal advocacy for poor people faced of extortion and corruption of governors and nobles. So in this time he developed and trained his oratoria and speech in addition of showy gestures. From these times comes the famous story when Caesar was kidnapped by sea pirates and he told them he was worthy of high ransom. So pirates keep him as a prison and at that time Caesar amused pirates with his sharp tongue and high witty. He said pirates he would come back and hang them. Finally ransom was paid but Caesar really came back with soldiers and slayed pirates and killed them. It was an act of courage and principals. After returning Rome Caesar was elected as a military tribune – an old Roman post. At that time he also organized funerals to his aunt Julia – husband of Marius – and his wife Cornelia. Next step was to come a questor in 69 BC and he left Rome to hold his quaestorship in Hispania. But after his period he came back to Rome and took route on the top. When new Pontifex maximus was to be elected, he took part to election. His rivals were high ranked senators and competition was hard – probably all sides used bribery. How ever maybe his oratory talent to keep speech and support of normal people gave him the vacancy in 63 BC. He was a popularis – a member of party who aimed to cut the power of nobles and therefore he got support of common man. In 62 BC he was also appointed as a praetor to Hispania ulterior where he held propraetors powers in his hands. This was also to extend his military experience and he achieved military success. He conquered two tribes and was called by his men as an imperator. In practice this would have meant a triumph in Rome, which was kind of fulfilment of army career. But Caesar had a problem – huge debts! Caesar had always spent lot of money to guarantee support for himself and he was in huge debts. To avoid being free citizen he left Hispania before his term ended and took part for consul election. However if he would have had a triumph in streets of Rome, he should not enter Rome before triumph. But Caesar wanted to take part consul-election and that meant that he needed to enter Rome soon to try to convince Roman voters. So he decided to give up triumph and put everything on one card. He made an agreement with Rome’s richest man – Marcus Licinius Crassus – and promised to support cause of Crassus against Pompey. In 59 BC Caesar was elected as a consul with Marcus Bibilus and these two men did not make well together. Caesar know that together with his position, Crassu’s money and Pompey’s reputation they could have a control of politics. And so he convinced all three to form a first triumvirate. It was an success. To make it last Caesar gave his daughter Julia to Pompey who actually felt very strongly towards her. So things were now going well for Caesar. Also Caesar took a third wife named Calpurnia in those times. Now Caesar fulfilled his first promise and made a law which gave Pompey’s veterans land – surely earn. But Caesar had still lot of enemies in senate especially amongst nobles. They plotted continuously against Caesar and hoped to sue him in court after his consul period. But again Caesar won and was appointed as a proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum. Now he had four legions under his command. His term there was five years which also gave him immunity against his enemies. So when his consulship ended he went quickly to Gaul and started maybe the most interesting part of his career.
Very soon after arriving Gaul Caesar heard that Helvetians were on their road to Southern France from todays Switzerland. On their journey they needed to travel through Roman Gaul and Caesar saw his future here. Soon he recruited more legionaries and marched towards Helvetians
and won the tribe and pushed them back. Soon afterwards here attacked against king of Germans – Ariovistus – who had invaded eastern Gaul and took reasonable land as their own. Again Caesar triumphed an destroyed whole German army. Two battles had pointed out that Caesar had capabilities as an army commander and his men were coming experienced. After some months break Caesar heard that a big army of Belgians (called Belgae) were coming to charge him and his allies – Aedue tribe. He let his men to rest sometime and then marched on north to face the new enemy. Soon he heard that Belgians had attacked to smaller Roman ally tribe – Remies – and he hurried to meet them. So a big and hard battle took place on shores of river Sambre. Several Belgae tribes attacked Caesar and his army partly ambushing Romans. It was said that from Gallic tribes Belgae’s were the most brave. Here Caesar proved his courage and skills by gathering his right wing when is was to collapse when Attrbates pressed it heavily. After a very hard battle Belgaes suffered a total defeat and they escaped to their villages. Caesar followed them and forced them to peace one by one. Now big part of Gaul was in Caesar’s hands but he continued to defeat last tribes in north-east and also showed german tribes that it was better for them to stay in Germania – another side of Rhone. After some months Caesar took a campaign in west against coastal tribes. With some difficulties he triumphed again. As a first Roman he also took a campaign in Britain where he took southern coast on his control. But then he came back to Gaul to strengthen his possession. And it was needed because several mutinies took place and especially in north-east Romans experienced bad defeat in snow storm. But afterwards Caesar came personally to destroy totally tribe of Eburones who had betrayed his officers. He also led then an expedition to Germania where he defeated german tribes so badly that even Cato felt sorry for them in Rome. After mutinies there came penalties for ruling class of Gauls. Some did not took that easily but started to carry hate against Rome. The fact was that they could not anymore decide when they wanted to go war or they could not do decisions without Roman accept. So they waited and finally Vercingetorix – an Arvern noble – raised whole Gaul to mutiny against Caesar. It started with surprise on winter and soon Vercingtorix had forced all tribes to same line with him. After some difficulties Caesar mobilized his army and went to charge Vercingetorix. He surprised Bitureges and destroyed their hillside city. Vercingetorix was too clever to charge Romans straight forward so he burned everything around Romans. But Romans had their supply line system and they chased Vercingetorix. In Gergovia Vercingetorin got his first and only victory of Romans. But chase continued and finally Vercingetorix was in trap inside Alesia – a hillside city. He sent messengers all over Gaul to get help from other tribes. And indeed about 200 000 men came to destroy Romans. But Caesar built two fortifications line – one against city of Alesia and one against Gaul attacking outside. Three days fighting stormed until Gauls have to accept that even with twenty times more men was not enough to free Vercingetorix against 30 000 Romans. So they gave up and went to their villages and Vercingetorix surrended. He was sent to jail in Rome and whole Gaul was now Roman. There were no more significant mutinies to come.
Now whole Gaul was conquered which was a remarkable achievement. It also meant that with a was spoil Caesar was now rich and he gave money again his supporters and Roman people. He also organized festivities for Romans and take care that also in Rome people heard his conquest in Gaul. This all meant that he was no more the third man but the first. Also Pompey had to face the fact that he was not anymore the most famous general and people’s favorite – it was now Caesar. And Pompey came jealousy. When Crassus raised and army to destroy Parthia he was beaten totally and lost even his life. Now there was to big men in Rome Caesar and Pompey.
Marcus Licinius Crassus
And when Caesar daughter and Pompey’s wife died in childbirth these two men became enemies. Nobles of Rome – Cato, Ahenobarbus and many more sided Pompey and asked him to defeat Caesar. Caesar was now too famous and too big for others. Therefore they feared him. In Rome it was an ancient custom that if somebody’s honorus cursus – personal aura – came too big, others joined together to tear that man down. So after winning Gaul to Rome Caesar noticed that whole Roman nobility was accusing him and wanted to destroy him – all expect those whose debts Caesar had paid. After several try outs Caesar find out that he could not made any agreement with Senate. It did not help that he would stayed in Illyricum with only one legion. Senate wanted him to enter Rome as a civil person to be arraigned and sentenced for his crimes. Caesar knew well that many nobles in his shoes were earlier either executed or exiled. Even famous Scipio Africanus.Therefore he decided to defend himself by marching over border of Rubicon to Italy with his excellent army. The fact was that his army was now experienced, efficient and loyal to him. His army had always won when he had commanded it – so why worry. And as a winter storm he took one by one Roman cities when he marched towards Rome. After cities well to him he let his noble opponents to leave unharmed if they promised not to attack him. Always the legionaries took his side and joined his army. So Italy was him. And in Rome Caesar found what he needed – states gold treasure! Now he could pay to his legionaries and his supporters. After taken Rome he decided to clean his backside and gathered legions from Gaul and Italy to attack Hispania. Experienced and loyal troops to Pompey still existed there, so they had to be eliminated. After gathering his troops into Northern Spain he attacked towards south and big battle took place in Ilerda. There Caesar won Afranius and Petreius – generals of Pompey – with only half of their men. Even before Ilerda Caesar had conquered Massilia where Ahenobarbus had resisted him and escaped with luck.Now wesr was free and him so Caesar was ready to put his attention to Greece. So Caesar shipped some parts of his troops to Greece to meet Pompey. Because Pompey and his allies had stole whole Italian fleet they controlled see which made difficult for Caesar to land with his men – some soldiers were really lost because attack of Pompeyan fleet. However Master of the Horse – Marc Antony – was able to bring some reinforcement. Finally after some strategic movement took place the opposing armies met in Dyrrachium in 10 July 48 BC.
There in the seaside city of Dyrrachium (modern days Albany) Pompey with his 45 000 men met Caesar with his 15 000 veterans. So advantage was no way on Caesar’s side. Caesar had difficulties to have supply lines for his army, because his enemies controlled Adriatic sea. He decided to make it difficult for Pompey also and starve Pompey’s horses. To make that happen Caesar started to build fortification lines across Dyrrachium to circle Pompey against sea. Pompey understood Caesar’s idea and both started to build fortifications lines and skirmish each others on meantime. It seamed to be stalemate but maybe Caesar on the end could feel more comfortable because harvest time was coming and he could have the supply he needed. Luckily for Pompey he got two deserters from Caesar camp – two Gauls convicted from robbery. They told Pompey the weak points of Caesar’s fortification lines. So Pompey’s took grasp for this chance and put his troops with six legion to attack yet unfinished fortifications on Caesar’s line. First Pompey’s troops managed to surprise opponent and they were able to capture some part of fortifications. Then Caesar counterattacked with Marc Antony and actually was able to do it with success. However some detachments of Caesar’s army got lost in the thick of fight. Finally this fact together with Pompey’s 3:1 outnumbering Caesar’s forces led Pompey’s side to win. Soon Caesar’s men were pushed in chaos backwards and Caesar understood it was time to withdraw and wait another day. So Caesar organized his army on march to inland to find more supply and gather strengths.
So first match went to Pompey and strengthened his belief to finally win. Instead of making his victory sure, Pompey and highly distinguished republican nobles started to execute captured enemies. They wanted to tell Caesar’s men what was waiting them. If Pompey had at once chased withdrawing men of Caesar he could have finished Caesar’s story. But he was not a man for that – he was too unsure. Of course the reason why Pompey won in Dyrrachium was his three times bigger numbers, betrayl of Gauls but maybe mainly the confused battle chain. Everything happened in chaos and there were no plans nad time to organize – at least Caesar’s side. The interpretation that Caesar was slayed and could be beaten again easily would costs a lot for Roman nobles later on.
Caesar continued his retreat to Greece inland and on his way occupied city of Gomphi. City denied to open it’s gate and Caesar occupied and robbed it as an example for others – and it worked. They marched on but Caesar took care that his men got rest and food to be ready for second clash. And Caesar continued forward to Thessaly and Pompey followed on his tail. Pompey knew that time was on his side. If he refused to fight against Caesar he could wear Caesar’s army too weak. Fact was that Caesar was no in hostile enemy land were all eastern provinces were aiding Pompey. Now and then Caesar offered Pompey possibility to solve matter in open plains. But Pompey refused. So it happened that again in Pharsalus Caesar had camped and one morning before going on his way, he stretched his legions as lines on plain and invited thus Pompey to skirmish. Same time Pompey had camped on high hills opposite plain and they looked down the valley. Pompey probably waited that Caesar would have attacked against hills but Caesar was not stupid. Caesar waited some hours and then understood that there would not come battle on that day. So he ordered his men to gather their staff and start march to next camping location. After men were already forming march colon something happened. Suddenly Pompey’s men started to get down from hills and form battle lines on other side of plain. Caesar noticed that and was not first believing his good luck. This was what he had hoped all the time. Clear match face to face – no tricks but just man to man. On open field. Caesar believed his troops and his men’s experience and thus was happy to meet Pompey on open field. And Caesar had his X legion – mounted – which had never failed him! I guess it is good to have some thoughts why Pompey accepted Caesar’s invitation. Most certainly Pompey was not stupid and starving and wearing Caesar’s army was certainly wise. Pompey was not fool and he knew from his experience that veterans were much more worth in fighting that rookies. One could only get used to fighting in real battles. Caesar’s men had many of those but main core of Pompey’s men had nothing. Just excellent equipment. And he had time because Caesar was in hostile land. Probably the reason were republican nobles in his army. They had already bought land and houses from palatine because they were so sure they gonna win. But they wanted to win with glory – in away that their “honorus cursus” could shine bright. So senators like Cato, Ahenobarbus and Metellus Scipio keep nagging even though they had no experience of real battles. Probably also Titus Labienus wanted to show he was at least same level that Caesar – or even better. So probably Pompey was forced to battle against his own will… who knows…
Roman military fortification in British museums
So Spring 9 August 48 BC to armies organized in lines on typical Roman formations. Left wing, center, right wing and another side cavalry. Here are the lines and formation of troops in the battle so far as it is known. Some words about commanders. Here one can see that Pompey (left) and Caesar (right) were facing each others. Of course both had highest command on their sides, but especially Caesar took right side to his control. He wanted personally effect what will happen on right side on X legion. Reason is obvious – cavalry of Pomepy was superior compared to Caesars. Because battlefield was limited to river on other side, it was obvious that decisive clash will be on right side of Caesar’s army. Maybe Pompey guessed Caesar’s point of view and wanted to be on the point where winner is solved. Interesting fact is also that Pompey’s legions I and III were originally recruited from Caesar in Gallia Cis-Alpina. Were Pompey Suspicious about their loyalty?
Some comments about Pompey’s commanders. Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus was a noble man and an optimate. He hated Caesar and wanted to kill everybody who were not on Pompey’s side. But he was miserable commander as we know from Corfinium, Massilia and from Pharsalos. Also Metellus Scipio was merely arrogant political optimate with no remarkable success in battles – and he lost them all against Caesar – Pharsalus and then Thapsus. From three of Pompey’s commanders only Afranius had some successful military experience because he had travelled with Pompey in his eastern expeditions. Interesting fact is also that both Afranius and Ahenobarbus had already once lost for Caesar and surrendered. Caesar had forgiven them and let them live with a promise not to attack him again. But both broke their oath – not very honorable! So it is easy to say Pompey’s rookie army was not in good hands. On the other those men were leading optimates and thus very difficult to push away. Anyway Cato was even worse choice and it is obvious that Pompey would not have liked him anyway near his battle – he was pushed on fleet command far away. Interesting figure is commander of cavalry – Titus Labienus. When one reads Caesar’s Gallic wars, he is shown in good fashion. And indeed he was the most experienced and successful in battles in Gaul. He even fought very hard and bravely in Alesia when battle was in it’s very critical point. So he was a serious opponent for Caesar. Maybe because that he was named as cavalry commander. On can also wonder would he had been ever better commanding I and III legions on Pompey’s left. He was the most experienced and Labienus must have known that Caesar will use his X-legion as a spear head.
So total army was on Pompey side 45 000 + 8000 cavalry and on Caesar’s side 21000 + 1000 cavalry. So numbers again were clearly on Pompey’s side. But – as never – this seemed not to worry Caesar. He was confident. He had his veterans and if he could see the whole battlefield to arrange and guide his troops, he knew he could win. Pompey’s plan was simple but traditional – maybe even too much. He was counting on his ten times more numerous cavalry. Idea was that his cavalry would charge Caesar’s tiny cavalry and drove them away from plains. Meantime Pompey’s legions would tie Caesar’s legions on their place for heavy fight. Then Pompey’s cavalry would come back and attack the back of Caesar’s legion. Usually with this tactic one win’s the day and it was used a lot by Carthagians. And when one looks figures there seems to be no reason why it would not work… Tactic was obvious. But I guess also Caesar kept it self-evident. Therefore he made some quick decisions and acts. Even though his cohorts were already outnumbered in comparison to Pompey, he took six cohorts from his legions third lines away and put them on army’s right side. Probably in 45 degrees backwards behind is cavalry. So it formed kind of protective wing for his right wing. Some say that plain had at that place little hollow where 4. line could hide them from enemy vision. On the other hand on enemy line there were some 8000 horses running so any way there must have been lot of dust in the air. So maybe they could have not seen them anyway. But the fact was that now there was something extra what Labienus did not know to wait.
We can assume that it took some two hours for all the troops take their position and stretch their lines on the wide plain. Then commanders kept their normal speeches to give courage for their men. Caesar said later that he told his men that they have suffered wrong and he was accused for vain. He told his men that their war-cry would be “Venus the bringer of victory”. So when he had rode all the way on his line (from river/left wing to right wing) he gave sign and his legions started to approach Pompey’s legions. First walking speed, then faster. Probably distance was at least more than kilometer. Usually when armies clashed they run with high speed against each others. Idea was to push over enemy line with the energy of speed. Also this time Caesar’s legions thought so. When distance shortened enough the first line was to throw their pilum-spears against enemy. Now when first line started to run and were planning to throw their pilums, they understood that the enemy lines would stay on their place. For some reason Pompey had ordered that his lines would not run against enemy but stand still and wait. Very strange and maybe it also told that Pompey expected cavalry to bring the day. Now when Caesar’s Centurion saw that enemy will not move they shouted their lines to stop and straighten their lines again. They knew that if men were to run too long distance lines would get uneven and this would made the first hit weaker. Sounds like magic in the field where battle of tens of thousands is going to start and enemy is standing just some 30 meters before you. But this happened and that is any tells how professional Caesar’s men were. Even in this scale crucial battle Caesar’s men acted as in training field. They straighten their lines again and then from command started to advance towards enemy. After some rapid walking they started to run and first line throw their pilums and draw their swords and stormed over Pompey’s first lines. Still Pompey’s men stood on their feet and did not proceed. Soon first lines were totally in thick fight. Pompey wanted to prevent Caesar’s lines to get any further. Soon Labienus with cavalry would attack on their back.
Everything was now happening fast. When legionaries were already in thick of fight cavalries charges each others. Very soon Caesar’s Cavalrymen – equites – gave up and Labienus lead his troops on hot pursuit. So about 8 000 – 9 000 horsemen started to ride very fast forward in narrow space. Maybe excitement was too much or maybe Pompey’s cavalrymen were also too unexperienced and somehow Labienus lost totally control of them. They just pushed forward in mixed bunch. This meant that there were not any lines and there was not any battle order inside thick dust clouds. After Labienus’s mixed group had drove Caesar’s cavalry away they met suddenly inside dust clouds a new challenge. Lot of Caesar legionaries were stabbing advancing horses and their riders with their pilum heads. It must have been total surprise! Suddenly first horses stopped and caused whole cavalry charge to end sudden stop. probably some horses stopped so suddenly that their riders fell down. Maybe some rode into pilum heads and some were lucky enough to turn back again. Anyway suddenly retreating and advancing horses were mixed together and Labienus lost total control what happened. Suddenly more and more Pompey’s cavalrymen started to flee back when Caesar led his fourth line forward. They stabbed with their pilums and shouted and soon Pompey’s whole cavalry flee totally out of order backwards. Some of auxiliaries were stamped under fleeing mass and when fleeing from the plain, they left whole left wing open. So Caesar led his fourth line further until he was able to attack side of Pompey left legions – I and III. In many battles this phase pursuing legionaries pushed too far or started to rob enemies camp – but not Caesar’s! The first and second lines of X legion were already fighting heavily and pushing forward. Now when Caesar’s fourth line opened new battle front towards Pompey’s left wing’s side the I and III were heavily pressed and they needed to reorganize their lines. Again Caesar showed excellent eye because now he ordered his only reserves third line cohorts to advance in fight on battlefront. When Caesar attack get new strength and Pompey’s left wing was weakening when it partly turned to confront Caesar’s fourth line. Then it happened. Pompey’s left wing achieved the point were fear and los of faith took win. They started to flee one by one until whole left wing collapsed. It is still good to remember how big numerical advantage Pompey had. But especially X legion was so experienced and it had win so many battles that it’s belief for their own capabilities was infinitive. It was the legion who also destroyed German king Ariovistus and won Belgae. So it was not wonder that it was in right wings and also as happened later on in Thapsus it pressed their opponent legion to collapse un run away. Now the table was served. Pompey’s cavalry had already run from battlefield and also left wing was collapsed and running back. Of course the center and little later right wing of Pompey saw what was happening and started also to flee. So in the end Pompey’s vastly bigger army smelted away like snow in hot summer. This was the difference between rookies and veterans. When things get bad rookies throwed their weapons on the ground and tried to save their own neck – this started mass flee. So in the end Caesar took victory rather fast and rather easily.
Gaius Julius Caesar in Vienna
Of course history was written more or less by Caesar’s men but on the other hand also many republican leaders were saved when they surrendered to Caesar – e.g. Cicero and Brutus. Still Caesar gave pardon for those who surrendered. Even though he knew that some like Afranius and Ahenobarbus would brake their oath. Therefore it is amazing that after battle there is really none known action by Pompey’s commanders. Seemed like they were not able to react anyway what happened into battle. Like they were dead piece of wood in the river current. What is even worse nearly all commanders escaped and left their men alone. Pompey is said to leave battlefield very soon – maybe in the phase where his cavalry fled from battle and he saw that his left wing was doomed when pressed from two sides. Afranius, Varus, Metellus Scipio, Labienus and Cato escaped to North Africa to continue resist. Only Ahenobarbus was among dead and it is said that even Marc Antony himself gave the deadly blow. Pompey still thought that he had friends in east and he took a ship to sail to Egypt. He was planning to start building a new army because Egypt was rich. However we know that it did not work. Ptolemaian king did not like the idea or his court. They make an ambush and Pompey was stabbed to death in boat on a way to palace. Rulers of Egypt cut Pompey’s head off and gave it later to Caesar. It is sais that assasination was done by former centurion in Pompey’s army at the time of mid-east campaign. At that time same man was working for Egyptian palace. So Pompey’s end was not brilliant but very sad. But the civil war continued still some years until in Thapsus Cato, Metellus, Afranius and some other died on their own hand and in Munda Titus Labienus was killed. Pompey’s older son Gnaeus was able to flee from Munda but was caught soon and executed. Only Pompey’s younger son Sextus lived longer and hold Sicilia as a kind of sea pirate kingdom.
Pompey died at age of 58 years and he was three times consul and hold three times a triumph. Not bad at all! So he was magnificient. At the time of Pharsalus Caesar was 52 – so little younger than Pompey. When these two commanders met at Pharsalus Pompey was still hold probably more capable than Caesar. His merits were better. But after Pharsalus things were different – Caesar took the day totally. And again in his manner as being creative and surprising. I have to admire his way of leading his troops from front. He was there were things took place and therefore he was able to change battle order and give new commands. He wanted to see the battlefield to be able to do new and right decisions. I guess it is something you got or not. Of course many battles in Gaul had made him experienced and trustful. Commander and his troops trusted each others and this was vital. One fact that is not usually understood is the truth that in his ciwil war campaign he was alone – nearly all senators where against him. At least those who were influential. Only very young, poor, or hopelessly in debts were on his side. Like Curio who took care of Caesar’s defend in Rome when he himself was in Gaul. Caesar was alone – he was the brain, will and courage of his campaign. One by one he swept away all obstacles. Only one lost would have destroyed his cause but he won every time. This as any tells how special character he was. After taking Egypt Caesar marched to Pontos (modern Turkey) to defeat Pharnaces who had attacked romans on this disorderly land. In Zela he won easily opposing army and it is told that he said then – Pompey was lucky to fight against these soft eastern men. He probably also meant that maybe Pompey’s achievement were not that big in military scale. Probably Caesar was right. Conquering wild Celtic tribes was certainly heavier. What ever we think about Pompey’s military capability, we can say that he was at time of Pharsalus too old and lost his touch for battles. It was already more than ten years when Pompey had been in real battles in Asia-minor. So it is clear he had lost the touch for creative fighting at battlefield. The fact that he so easily gave up and could not create any better plan tells something. Maybe he also knew himself that at that time Caesar was better tactician and commander as he was. Maybe because that he lost his guts so easily. Of course he had also too heavy burden to deal with all Roman nobles. Maybe without them he could even had won – not in Pharsalus but somewhere else. Pompey was jealousy for Caesar to his achievements and the fact that common Roman people admired already more Caesar than him. That was his main reason to turn his back to Caesar. Without Pompey’s figure noble optimates would not have dared to challenge Caesar. But with Pompey they did not feared Caesar’s legion enough. Maybe then some agreement would have been possible. So because of Pompey’s jealousy Rome was driven to series of civil wars which finally ended about twenty years later – and hundred of thousands Romans died because of it. Could Pompey and Caesar been good friends? Surely. Pompey even admired Caesar win in Alesia and told that he would really liked to experience that. Of course Caesar wanted to be the first man – and there could not be two… or could it have been?