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Siege of Brundisium

(49 BCE)

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Portrait of Caesar of Tusculum
Portrait of Caesar of Tusculum

In 49 BCE Julius Caesar besieged the armies of Pompey and himself at Brundisium, in the south of Italy. Gnaeus Pompey needed his ships to be able to evacuate to the Balkan Peninsula.

The genesis of the clash

There are many different versions of the history of Brundisium. According to Strabo, it was a colony founded by the Cretans. According to mythology, the city was founded by the legendary Diomedes. One thing is for sure. Brundysium was founded by the ancient Greeks (it was called Brindisi during Greek rule).

The later name “Brundysium” comes from the Greek word for the deer head. After the Punic Wars, it became an important port and centre of commerce. During Rome’s war against Rome’s allies acquired Roman citizenship and was established by Sulla as a “free port”.

At the beginning of the civil war in 49 BCE, the senate ordered Pompey to defend Italy against the approaching Caesar in the hope that he would be able to win Caesar with it additional legions to join his army. However, in Rome, Caesar was underestimated.

Before Pompey could react, Caesar had already crossed the Rubicon and came dangerously close to Rome. Pompey the Great realized that he would not be able to defend the city in such a situation and decided to flee from Italy to Epirus, where he intended to gather the legions loyal to himself and only then stand for the battle. Escaping from Rome, he took with him, among others the treasure of the city and two incumbent consuls: Lucius Cornelius Lentulus and Gaius Claudius Marcellus. Contrary to predictions, Caesar did not take the city but moved south after fleeing Pompey, still increasing the size of his army. On the way, he besieged and eventually captured Corfu.

Busts Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, major Roman politicians the political scene of the middle of the 1st century BCE

The Siege

At the moment when Caesar found himself under the walls of Brundisium, most of Pompey’s forces – including both consuls already left the city and sailed to Dyrrachium. Only Pompey with twenty cohorts remained in the city. Caesar became concerned that Pompey was going to make Brundisium his foothold in Italy, while in fact, he was only waiting for ships to take him to Dyrrachium.

To cut the city off from the outside world, Caesar started building a blockade. He ordered to build wooden piers on the sides of the bay. The space that remained between them was obstructed by drifting wooden structures manned by legionaries. Pompey, in order to unblock the bay and allow his fleet to get to the city, ordered to build giant towers on the largest ships that could be found in the port. These towers filled with Pompey’s troops were sent against the blockade. There was a series of skirmishes during which Caesar’s people tried to finish the blockade and their opponents to stop them. During the siege, Caesar sent several messengers to the city with a proposal for a truce. Pompey rejected all of them on the grounds that he could not make such a decision without the consent of the consuls.

The siege had been going on for nine days when Pompey’s fleet returned to the city. She managed to break Caesar’s blockade, which made it possible to evacuate. In preparation for it, Pompey ordered barricades to be built in the streets of the city and the gates to be blocked. He also left a rearguard on the walls made up of his army’s archers.

In the end, the evacuation was a success, despite the open hostility of the city’s population, which signalled Caesar to begin the evacuation. Caesar faced a considerable challenge. To end the war, he had to follow Pompey immediately. However, Caesar did not have ships nearby. He would have had to summon ships from Gaul which would have caused delays he could not afford. So instead he decided to attack Spain, where there were troops loyal to Pompey. Thus, he started another stage of the civil war.

Author: Kacper Walczak (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Julius Caesar, Civil War
  • John Leach, Pompejusz Wielki
  • Steven Saylor, Rubikon
  • William Smith, Dictionary of Roman and Greek Geography

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