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Battle of Pharsalus

(9 August 48 BCE)

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Battle of Pharsalus
Battle of Pharsalus

Battle of Pharsalus (48 BCE) took place between Caesar and Pompey’s army. The battle decided about Caesar’s victory in the civil war.

Background of events

After displacing Pompey from Italy and defeating the Pompeian troops in Spain, Julius Caesar finally had to move the civil war plan to Greece and Macedonia – where Pompey gathered his main troops. Knowing that Pompey had superiority in numbers, he took every risk. The first problem was to transport around 40,000 soldiers to the Balkan Peninsula. The peninsula was densely planted on the shore by Pompey’s strong fleet. For this, Caesar decided to transport his troops in three waves.

In the first there was Caesar himself with 15,000 armies, in the second there was Mark Antony with 20,000, and in the third, the rest of the army. However, the transport itself turned out to be very heavy and difficult, as a result of which Caesar lost some of the soldiers and transporters. After the entire army found itself on the Peloponnesian Peninsula, Caesar set off against Pompey. They had many convenient places to solve the war, but each of them was afraid to make the first move. Finally, after smaller clashes between cavalry and auxiliary troops and a clash at Dyrrachium, the two armies faced each other information at Pharsalus1. The battle of Pharsalus was inevitable. The only thing Pompey feared was Caesar’s battle-hardened infantry, whom he wanted to oppose by outnumbering his army.


Gaius Julius Caesar confirmed that he was an outstanding strategist of ancient times.

As a result of the losses suffered during the transfer of the army and skirmishes, Caesar lost a large part of the army. Another reason for the reduction in numbers was the desertion of some of his soldiers who went over to Pompey’s side.

Army of Caesar

Julius Caesar’s forces were about 22,000-foot soldiers (9 legions depleted), 5,000 to 10,000 auxiliary troops and allies, and about 1,000 cavers. It is worth noting that most of Caesar’s legions were recruited in the Iberian Peninsula, and recruits from those areas enjoyed a very good reputation. The cavalry, in turn, were the Iberians and 300 excellent Germanic riders whom Caesar recruited during the Gallic War. Sometimes they were also his protection because the Germans had the best horses and the best-trained riders.

On the right wing of Caesar’s army was positioned the bravest and best legion – the X. It was to be supported by a unit of 1000 cavalry and auxiliary units. General Sulla was to command the right side of the army. The centre was commanded by General Domitius Calvinus at the head of the Spanish legions (VI, XI, XII, XIII legions). The left wing (VIII, IX legions) was taken under the command of Mark Antony, among which the IX legion enjoyed a good reputation. Caesar himself got off his horse and entered the formation of “ten” on the right wing. Seeing the enemy’s advantage on this wing, he instructed the soldiers not to throw javelins, but to use them to inflict stab wounds on riders.

Army of Pompey

Pompey’s forces are hard to pin down. Then, along with new volunteers and the incorporation of a part of Caesar’s army into the army, Pompey had a considerable advantage over his rival. It is estimated that it had approx. 40,000 soldiers (12 legions), 4,200 auxiliary troops and allies, and 3,000 to 6,700 cavalry. The cavalry was commanded by Titus Labienus a former Meritorious General Caesar during the Gallic Wars who had gone over to Pompey’s side at the start of the Civil War. Pompey the Great’s cavalry also had Germanic and Gallic cavalry which he brought with him to the army of Labienus, in the size of a thousand horsemen. Pompey’s great advantage was to bring him victory and eliminate Caesar’s infantry experience. The right flank, in turn, consisted of Pontic cavalry (500-600 horsemen) and Cappadocia light infantry.

Pompey entrusted his left flank to Labienus, who headed most of the cavalry, and Domitius Ahenobarbus, who commanded the infantry. The cavalry, which was farthest to the left, was supported by the first legion. The centre was ruled by Pompey Scipio (battle-hardened Syrian legions) along with Pompey (1st and 3rd legions), and the right side was ruled by Lucius Lentulus. Pompey’s plan was that the cavalry of Labienus would destroy Caesar’s cavalry, and then draw Caesar’s best legion – the “ten” from the formation, isolate him from the main forces and attack Caesar’s army from the rear.

Formations before the Battle of Pharsalus, according to Plutarch’s message in “Lives of Famous Men”.

The troop numbers are based on Caesar’s memoirs, and some historians believe that the imbalance between the two armies may have been smaller.


On August 9, 48 BCE, Pompey first led out his troops and arranged them in the traditional triple formation (triplex acies) on the wide plain between the camps on which he wanted to use his advantage in riding. He also strategically leaned his right flank against the Enipeus River so that all driving force was concentrated on one side. Pompey’s cohorts were very “thick” (10 men down the ranks), which was to resist the impetus of Caesar’s legionaries and prevent any escapes. Additionally, the front legions were reinforced with Pompey’s 2,000 recruited veterans to consolidate discipline. The main goal of Pompey’s infantry was to stop Caesar’s attack and hold out until Labienus dealt with the enemy cavalry.

Caesar, realizing the advantage of the enemy’s cavalry, also placed his troops in a three-row formation, except that for the rear cover he assigned 6 to 8 cohorts (about 2,000 people) placed in the back of his right-wing (the so-called fourth row) and increased spacing between their cohorts so that the length of their own lines would equal the length of Pompey’s army lines. The third line of main forces was to be a reserve for the first two.

Plan of the Battle of Pharsalus

The space between the two armies was important and Pompey hoped that by forcing Caesar’s infantry to march, he would effectively tire and weaken her – hence he did not move his own troops first. What’s more, he believed that standing legionaries would better “endure” the impetus of the piles thrown by Caesar’s legionaries.

Course of fight

The clash began with the march of the heavy infantry of Mark Antony and Gnaeus Domitius Calwinus. After covering most of the distance, they allowed the troops to rest before the main charge. After regaining their strength, Caesar’s legionaries reached the right distance, threw the piles and charged at the enemy line.

During the course of the infantry clash, Labienus set off at the head of his cavalry. Caesar reports that the enemy ignored his army. According to Caesar, this is how Labienus said to Pompey:

Think not, Pompey, that this is the army which conquered Gaul and Germany; I was present at all those battles, and do not speak at random on a subject to which I am a stranger: a very small part of that army now remains, great numbers lost their lives, as must necessarily happen in so many battles, many fell victims to the autumnal pestilence in Italy, many returned home, and many were left behind on the continent. Have you not heard that the cohorts at Brundusium are composed of invalids? The forces which you now behold, have been recruited by levies lately made in Hither Spain, and the greater part from the colonies beyond the Po; moreover, the flower of the forces perished in the two engagements at Dyrrachium.

Julius Caesar, Civil War III.87

Pompey’s ride at a brisk trot was not far from Caesar’s line. Then Caesar sent his cavalry headed by Sulla. Initially, neither side had the upper hand, but over time Caesar’s ride began to thin and retreat. When the right flank of Caesar’s “ten” was exposed, Labienus, at the head of his cavalry, proceeded to the next phase of the plan – to draw the most seasoned legion out of formation. After the cavalry attack, however, the soldiers began to defend themselves by hitting the Labienus cavalry with javelins and wounding the riders in the necks; moreover, there was a strike of the hidden infantry and the remnants of the cavalry, making up the reserve fourth line, under the personal command of Caesar.

Pompey’s cavalry thinned out at an alarming rate, causing her to panic and run away. Labienus, unable to contain his companions, rode away with them. Caesar’s advancing infantry began to make their way through Pompey’s less experienced centre. In addition, the “ten”, infantry and cavalry entered the rear of Pompey’s lines from the left flank, which could be considered the final victory.

Pompey’s infantry began to flee, as a result of which they were massacred by Caesar’s troops after them. After catching up with them in the camp, Caesar presented them with an alternative. He promised them not to punish them, provided Pompey’s legionaries joined his victorious army. The soldiers agreed with relief. Below is a description of the event:

At break of day, Caesar ordered all those who had taken post on the mountain, to come down from the higher grounds into the plain, and pile their arms. When they did this without refusal, and with outstretched arms, prostrating themselves on the ground, with tears, implored his mercy: he comforted them and bade them rise, and having spoken a few words of his own clemency to alleviate their fears, he pardoned them all, and gave orders to his soldiers, that no injury should be done to them, and nothing taken from them.

Julius Caesar, Civil War, III.98

According to Caesar himself, his army was to lose only 200 soldiers and 30 centurions. The commander praised the discipline and experience of his legionaries and rebuked Pompey for his lack of initiative and for leaving the infantry in the place.


Pompey, after losing the battle2 immediately fled to allied Egypt, where he wanted to rebuild his army and lead the remaining legions. However, he could not implement the plan, because immediately after disembarking in Alexandria, he was murdered by the young pharaoh Ptolemy XIII, and his head was sent as a gift to Caesar. The ruler, still a child, did so under the influence of his regents: his guardian – the eunuch Pothinus – and his teacher and the rhetoric Theodotus of Chios. In this way he wanted to win Caesar’s favour, hearing about the winner’s good nature3.

Theodatus, orator, shows Caesar the head of the murdered Pompey. According to some accounts, Caesar was supposed to mourn his rival and show his corpse great respect.

The death of a rival in such circumstances infuriated Caesar more than it pleased him. Plutarch reported that “Caesar refused to look at him, but he took Pompey’s signet ring and shed tears as he did so”4. After all, the death of the main opponent in the Empire meant an easier road to reign. Caesar lost his rival to the throne, but Pompey left behind two sons: Gnaeus and Sextus, who were supported by the followers of Pomeyus, with Scipio Metellus and Cato the Younger at the helm.

Caesar spent the next years defeating his opponents, strengthening his power and subjugating the political scene, including the senate. An indefinite dictatorship and Caesar’s power as power led to his murder on March 15, 44 BCE.

  1. The exact location of the battle of Pharsalus has been the subject of disputes for many centuries. Some ancient sources (Hircius, Frontinus, Eutropius and Orosius) place north of the Enipeus River near Palaifarsalos (Appian of Alexandria, Plutarch, Polyaenus and Suetonius.
  2. Caesar describes the battle as the battle at Thessalia (proelium in Thessaliā), not at Pharsalus.
  3. Caesar guaranteed amnesty to many senators who opposed him, and allowed his enemies to return to the capital and take up their lost offices.
  4. Plutarch, Caesar, 48.2
  • Appian, Roman history
  • Gaius Julius Caesar, Civil War
  • Gallo Max, Cezar, Poznań 2004
  • Holland Tom, Juliusz Cezar kontra Rzym, Warszawa 2005
  • Krawczuk Aleksander, Gajusz Juliusz Cezar, Warszawa 1972

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