The Battle of Pharsalus was fought between Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. It took place near Pharsalus in Central Greece on August 9 48 BC and it was a decisive battle of Caesar’s Civil War. It led to Pompey suffering a great defeat and fleeing his camp and men.
After having conquered the Gallic tribes, Julius Caesar's relationship with the Roman Senate was a tense one, as the latter had ordered him to relinquish command of his legions. Caesar knew that obeying the Senate’s demands would mean the end of his political career, but not doing so would also lead to war. In the end, he opted for war and on January 10-11, 49 BCE, he took his legions into Italy. During his march toward Rome, he gained the support of many towns and cities, and the Senate quickly became aware that they didn't have as much power as they thought they had.
Pompey, who was the sole consul at that time, urged the other senators to evacuate the capital, since the Senate lacked the military force to defend themselves. Soon afterwards, Caesar took control of Rome, where he installed a new Senate and raised around 14 legions.
In the meanwhile, Pompey and the loyalists, who were set in Dyrrachium, managed to muster a considerable army to invade Italy and save it from Caesar’s despotism. However, Caesar planned to kill this plan from its infancy and marched towards Dyrrachium, seizing Apollonia and Oricum along the way and building fortifications around the city to blockade it. Eight months later, in August, Caesar and his army left their camp and crossed into the province of Macedonia, where he settled in a valley to wait for Pompey’s army.
Pompey’s army positioned itself on a high point of the valley for several days until it suddenly descended onto the plain on August 9. Pompey was supported by 47,000 legionaries, a much larger fighting force than Caesar’s, who had only 22,000. However, most of the latter's troops were veterans, whereas Pompey’s counted with little experience.
Following Caesar’s command, the first and second lines of the army charged forward and launched their javelins. Still, Pompey’s legions did not change their position and waited for the enemy to rush forward and engage in sword combat. Then, Pompey’s cavalry joined the fight and forced Caesar to retreat a little. Nevertheless, they failed to notice the eight cohorts that Caesar had planted behind them. Pompey's horsemen were taken aback by this attack and quickly left the battlefield seeking safety. Caesar then reinforced the first and second lines and was able to break Pompey’s legions. Eventually, Pompey ordered a retreat. Caesar’s army pursued them to Lárissa, where four legions surrendered. However, Pompey managed to escape.
Caesar’s victory at Pharsalus was decisive for the Civil War, as it gave him a boost in legitimacy. Moreover, the Senate was left with little chance to mount an offensive due to the great casualties that Pompey’s army had suffered. On one side, Caesar returned victorious to Rome in 45 BCE as dictator of the Roman Republic, a title which he would bear until his assassination a year later. On the other, Pompey fled to Egypt hoping that Ptolemy XIII would protect him and give him refuge. Nevertheless, Ptolemy’s advisors had him killed as soon as he reached Egypt. Soon afterwards, Caesar travelled there and is said to have mourned Pompey’s murder.
- julius caesar
- pompey the great
- civil war
- roman senate
- ptolemy xiii
- roman republic