Ancient History & Civilisation



The Civil War (49–45 BC)

All this has made Caesar so strong that now hope of resistance depends on one citizen. I wish that citizen [Pompey] had not given him so much power rather than that he now resisted him in the hour of his strength.1


CAESAR’S GALLIC VICTORIES GAVE HIM THE MILITARY GLORY AND WEALTH HE had craved in 59 BC, but there was now a question as to whether he would be permitted to assume a position of importance in public life at Rome. He knew that he had made many bitter opponents during his turbulent career and expected to face prosecution, not least from Cato who had wanted to hand him over to the Germans. Innocence or guilt played only a minor part in determining the outcome of Roman political trials and by the autumn of 50BC he was not sure just how many friends he could count on in the Senate. Crassus had been killed by the Parthians in 53 BC, having invaded their country in an unnecessary war inspired largely by his desire to rival the military achievements of the other two triumvirs. Julia had died in childbirth the year before, severing the closest of all links between Caesar and Pompey. Although a marriage dictated by political convenience, the union appears to have been a genuinely happy one for both parties. Pompey seems always to have craved and responded well to devotion, whether from a wife or an army.

Although he had not desired a province after his second consulship held with Crassus in 55, Pompey had gained massive power when repeated outbreaks of politically motivated rioting caused chaos in Rome and led to his appointment as sole consul for 52. He was given all of the Spanish provinces and their garrisons to command for five years, but was permitted to remain in Rome and govern through legates. In many ways this was a greater subversion of the traditional Republican system than any of his earlier activities. In the same year he took another bride young enough to be his daughter, when he married Cornelia, daughter of Quintus Caecilius Publius Metellus Scipio, a prominent critic of Caesar. The two allies seemed to be drifting apart.

Caesar announced that he wished to go straight from his Gallic command into a second consulship, standing for election in absentia and remaining in Gaul until he could enter Rome to celebrate his triumph and become consul on the same day, just as Pompey had done. As a magistrate he would be immune to prosecution and he could then take another province and military command to win further glory. There was much talk of the need to avenge Crassus’ defeat at Carrhae and the subsequent Parthian raids on Syria, and it was felt that either Caesar or Pompey should be given control of this war. However, Caesar’s bitterest opponents were determined to prevent his escaping prosecution in this way and set in hand measures to ensure that he had to return as a private citizen. Pompey’s attitude remained ambiguous, but he seems to have expected that his former ally, who in 59 had been very much the junior of the three, should simply trust to his protection.

Caesar was unwilling to do this, in part because Pompey’s record in defending his friends against political enemies was somewhat patchy. He had done nothing to prevent Cicero’s exile in 58, although he had assisted his recall in the following year. Caesar was also reluctant to admit that he required the assistance and protection of any other senator. As far as he was concerned, his Gallic victories had earned him a place of influence as high as or higher than that held by Pompey. The latter had been Rome’s greatest military figure for thirty years and was unwilling to accept a man whose fame was so recent as his peer. It may also be that he feared being overshadowed if Caesar were allowed to return to public life at Rome, for even he probably realized that the younger man was a far more gifted political schemer. Caesar’s frequent pronouncements that he would rather be the first man in the tiniest village than the second man in Rome, or that it would be far easier to push him down from second to last place in the Republic than from first to second, may even have made Pompey uneasy.2

The politics in the months leading to the Civil War were extremely complex, with a range of proposals being presented but nothing actually being done. Some asked for Caesar to lay down his command and his army, others for Pompey to do the same, and then it was suggested that both men give their troops up, which only led to bickering over which one should go first. Pompey’s failure to support Caesar’s requests encouraged Cato and his other opponents in the Senate in the belief that they could use one man against the other. Pompey was certainly the lesser of two evils, since he was a less capable politician and might more easily be disposed of in the future. In return he doubtless considered it useful to appear as the champion of the ‘best men’ (optimates) in the Senate against a man intent on flouting the laws of the Republic. It is difficult to know whether the numerous offers of conciliation made by the partisans of either Caesar or Pompey were anything more than attempts to gain the moral high ground in the struggle which both now viewed as inevitable. Caesar believed that he was faced with a choice between laying down his command and facing trial and political extinction or fighting a civil war. His opponents wished to destroy him, one way or the other, and so a war began to protect one man’s status, or dignitas – no English word quite embraces the full power of this concept for a Roman aristocrat. The rival sides did not have significantly different ideologies, or even policies. Instead it was personal pride, and in the case of Cato and some other senators deep personal emnity, which plunged the Roman Republic into another civil war, spread devastation all around the Mediterranean and costs many tens of thousands of lives.

In the early hours of 11 January 49 BC, a two-horse carriage approached the little River Rubicon which marked the boundary between the province of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy proper. Some distance behind were 300 cavalrymen and, further back again, Legio XIII. On one side Caesar still legally held imperium and had the right to command troops, but as soon as he crossed over at the head of soldiers he would be violating the law. The Commentaries pay no attention to the moment, but other sources, which may draw upon the accounts of some of the officers with him, claim that Caesar got down from the carriage and hesitated for a long time. Finally, he appeared to make up his mind and, employing the gamblers’ expression ‘the die is cast’ (usually quoted as the Latin alea iacta est, though he may in fact have spoken in Greek), continued his journey across the Rubicon. In this way the Civil War openly began, although since a party of centurions and legionaries wearing civilian clothes had already crossed into Italy and seized the nearest town of Ariminum (Rimini), in some ways it had already started.3


The pretence on both sides of hoping for a negotiated settlement had prevented either leader from overtly massing troops. In previous months Pompey had blithely declared that all he had to do was stamp his foot and legions would spring up from the soil of Italy. There were only two trained and experienced legions at his immediate disposal, but both had recently served under Caesar in Gaul and their loyalty was somewhat questionable. Pompey left Rome in mid January, announcing that it could not be defended, and he and his allies set about raising levies. Whilst this decision made military sense, it helped to create a mood of panic amongst senators such as Cicero who were sympathetic rather than devoted to his cause. Caesar had only a single legion and a few auxiliaries, with no other units nearer than Transalpine Gaul, but decided to launch an immediate offensive. Over the next weeks small forces of Caesarean troops drove deep into Italy, taking towns and defeating or forcing the surrender of any Pompeian cohorts which opposed them. At this stage training and experience, allied with aggression and boundless confidence, proved more than a match for sheer numbers.

From the beginning Pompey was hindered by the refusal of many of his allies to follow orders. A number of senators whose pride greatly outweighed their ability, and whose political influence demanded that they be given responsible roles, all too boldly rushed to meet Caesar with inadequately trained or prepared forces. Victory followed victory as Caesar’s reinforced, but still outnumbered, troops overran the entire peninsula in just two months. With the situation growing ever more hopeless, at least one senator tartly suggested that perhaps it was time for Pompey to start stamping his foot. Yet Pompey was not especially concerned by his former ally’s successes, for he had already resolved to transfer the war to another theatre. He concentrated all of his newly raised legions at Brundisium and, after fighting a skilful rearguard action, embarked them on ships and took the army across the Adriatic to Macedonia. Caesar had won control of Italy for the moment, but his victory was far from complete and the war would go on.4

It is difficult to say when Pompey decided that Italy could not be defended and that it was better to shift his forces to Macedonia, but he may even have been toying with the idea before Caesar crossed the Rubicon. He knew that it took time to train men and fit an army for battle, especially when they would be facing legions hardened by years of successful campaigning in Gaul. Caesar’s support was limited to a few of the younger and more disreputable senators, whereas the bulk of the Senate and the provinces actively favoured, or were at least well disposed towards, Pompey and his allies. An immediate encounter was likely to favour Caesar, but a longer war would give more scope for his own talents as an organizer and planner to come into play. Moving to Macedonia gave him ready access to the massive resources of eastern provinces of the Empire. It was an area where virtually every community and ruler was personally bound to him as a result of his settlement of the region in the 60s and soon troops, money and supplies were flooding into his camp. A great fleet of warships was also assembled. The 57-year-old Pompey showed all the energy of his youth as he threw himself into marshalling these forces and training his soldiers, showing off his own skill at arms and as a horseman as he joined in the men’s exercises. The rest of the year was spent in creating a large and effective army, strong enough to face Caesar should he choose to attack, but the long-term aim was always a return to Italy. As Pompey himself frequently remarked, ‘Sulla did it; why shouldn’t I?’5

In March 49 Caesar was in no position to follow his enemy. Many of his legions had still not reached Italy and anyway he had no fleet to transport them across the Adriatic. To have done nothing would simply have played into Pompey’s hands as he built up his strength, so Caesar chose to turn west and attack the Pompeian armies in the Spanish provinces. These consisted of seven legions, all of them properly equipped and trained, and at least as many Spanish auxiliaries. The rival commanders seem almost to have spent the Civil War dreaming up dramatic pronouncements, and Caesar declared that he was going to fight ‘an army without a general’, before returning to beat ‘a general without an army’. The campaign lasted from April to August and culminated in the surrender of the Pompeian legions. Caesar had deliberately chosen to avoid a pitched battle to prevent unnecessary loss of Roman lives. Instead he had outmanoeuvred his opponents, eventually cutting them off from a water supply and compelling them to give up. Caesar then followed his practice from the beginning of the war of releasing his aristocratic prisoners and allowing them to go wherever they wished, whilst demobilizing or recruiting their soldiers. It was a considerable success, and an operation which had demonstrated the determination of his troops and his own tactical skill. However, although Pompey had lost some of his best legions – his defeated legates soon rejoined him, but this was a somewhat questionable reinforcement – the campaign had bought him much precious time. The utter defeat of an initially successful expedition to Africa led by one of Caesar’s subordinates helped in part to balance the loss.

By the end of 49 Caesar’s position was still extremely precarious and news that four of his legions had mutinied at Placentia in Northern Italy was especially discouraging. These units, chief amongst them the veteran Legio IX which had served throughout the Gallic campaigns, complained that many soldiers were overdue for discharge and that none of them had received the donative of 500 denarii (more than two years’ salary) per man which Caesar had promised to them in the spring. The general’s reaction was stern as he told the men that they would receive everything when the war was won and that he had never reneged on any promise to them in the past. He then declared that he would decimate Legio IX, but allowed himself to be ‘persuaded’ by the pleas of officers and men only to execute twelve of the 120 soldiers seen as ringleaders. The mutiny – like so many others throughout history – had been partly the product of a period of idleness which had allowed minor discontent to fester, but was another reason why Caesar could not afford to go onto the defensive and wait for Pompey to return.6

On 4 January 48 BC, Caesar embarked seven of the twelve legions he had concentrated in Brundisium in the small fleet of merchant ships he had managed to gather. It is unlikely that any of these units were much above half strength – by the end of the year Legio VI would muster fewer than 1,000 effectives – so that his force probably numbered significantly under 20,000 men with 500 auxiliary cavalry. With them went the barest minimum of servants and baggage to pack in the maximum number of fighting troops. The small number of cavalry reflected the much greater space required for transporting horses more than the Roman emphasis on heavy infantry. Only a handful of warships were available to protect the transports from the vast Pompeian fleet commanded by Bibulus, Caesar’s old consular colleague from 59 and a man with a personal score to settle. However, the decision to set sail outside the normal campaigning season surprised the enemy, and Caesar’s luck held as usual so that he was able to land unopposed at Paeleste on the coast of Epirus.

Bibulus managed to catch some of the empty ships on their return journey, and soon imposed a blockade which effectively cut Caesar’s army off from both reinforcements and supplies. Food was the most critical problem, for the season – at this time January in the Roman calendar fell in late autumn – meant that it would be several months before significant quantities of food and fodder could be foraged from the land itself. Caesar’s army was also significantly outnumbered. In a short time Pompey was able to concentrate nine legions – each at something like full strength – supported by 5,000 light infantry and 7,000 cavalry. Two more legions were on the way to join him from Syria under the command of his father-in-law, Scipio.7

On the night after he had landed, Caesar force-marched to Oricum, a town where Pompey had massed some of his great store of supplies, and forced its surrender. Although a Pompeian convoy of grain ships managed to escape with or destroy their cargo, this was still an important prize. Even more valuable was the larger city of Apollonia which surrendered soon afterwards. These successes prompted Caesar to launch an immediate attack on the biggest of all Pompey’s supply dumps at the great trading port of Dyrrachium (in modern-day Albania). Pompey’s scouts reported the enemy’s march and a race developed, which he narrowly won. Caesar was not strong enough to risk a battle and withdrew to guard Apollonia and Oricum.

As the weeks passed he became ever more desperate for reinforcement from Mark Antony who had remained with the rest of his troops at Brundisium. Several attempts to cross the Adriatic were thwarted and most of our sources maintain that Caesar grew so desperate that he became convinced only his own presence would hurry up the shipment. Setting out in a small boat in bad weather, blithely telling the nervous captain not to be afraid because he carried ‘Caesar and Caesar’s good fortune’, he ordered them to hold their course in spite of the storm. Yet in the end, even such determination had to give way to the elements and he was forced to return to the shore. These months were a desperate time, with expeditions seeking food having to go ever further away. Pompey was content to let starvation do his work for him, especially since even his well-prepared army could only operate with difficulty in this season. It was not until 10 April that Antony was able to bring the rest of the army – four legions and 800 cavalry – over to Greece, and even then the operation was extremely fortunate to succeed with only minor losses to the enemy fleet. Pompey responded too slowly to prevent the two parts of the Caesarean army from uniting.8

Caesar now had eleven legions, each probably smaller in size than the enemy but more experienced. However, he was still heavily outnumbered in cavalry and light troops. It was certainly no easier to feed this increased force off his meagre resources, for no substantial quantities of food were likely to make it across the sea from Italy and spring was still some weeks away. Once again, staying on the defensive was likely to prove of more benefit to the enemy, and Caesar decided to attack Dyrrachium. He managed to outmarch Pompey and get between his army and the city, but failed in his attempt on Dyrrachium itself. The Pompeian army fortified a camp on a hill named Petra, which dominated a bay forming a natural harbour. He was thus able to bring in sufficient food for his men, whilst Caesar’s army, camped on high ground inland and to the north, continued to go short.

In order to make it easier for his patrols and foraging parties to go about their business unmolested by the enemy cavalry, Caesar ordered the construction of a line of fortifications running along the line of hills facing Pompey’s position. He swiftly decided to extend the line with the object of completely enclosing the enemy, effectively besieging the larger army. To prevent this, Pompey set his own legionaries to constructing a line of fortifications facing Caesar’s, and a number of skirmishes were fought as the sides struggled to control key positions. Caesar’s men hurried to extend their wall and ditch to meet the sea, whilst Pompey’s soldiers tried to construct their own line so that it would stop this from happening. Pompey had the advantage of greater manpower and a shorter distance – some 15 miles as opposed to 17 – to cover as he was hemmed in nearer the coast.

The use of lines of fortification to wholly or partially surround an enemy and restrict his movements and access to supplies had been used by Roman armies in the past and most notably by Crassus against Spartacus, Pompey against Mithridates, and Caesar against Vercingetorix. It was another reflection of the engineering skill and tenacity when undertaking massive projects which were the hallmark of the professional legions. In many respects it was also an extension of the traditional days or weeks of tentative manoeuvring between armies before fighting a battle. The defensive advantages offered by field works should not distract from their use on these occasions in a highly aggressive manner to restrict the enemy’s activities and force the opposing commander to fight when he did not wish to, to withdraw, or, in the most extreme cases, to watch the slow destruction of his army by hunger.9

Both armies had supply problems as they toiled to extend the lines of fortification to the south and eventually to the sea. At times Caesar’s men were living almost exclusively on meat, instead of the balanced grain, vegetables and meat ration which was normally issued – the claim that the legions were vegetarian and ate little or no meat is a myth based on a misreading of this and another passage in Caesar. Some of them foraged for the roots of a plant called charax and managed to turn this into an unpleasant, but edible substitute for bread. On seeing one of these Pompey is supposed to have declared that he was fighting animals rather than men. Morale does not seem to have suffered, and many of the veterans will have recalled similar privations at Avaricum. Pompey’s army suffered more from a shortage of water than of food itself, for the main streams leading into their positions had been dammed by Caesar’s men. Wells were dug, but could not offer a complete solution to the problem. Apart from his soldiers, his army had a very large number of cavalry mounts and baggage animals. The former were given priority after the men, and the train mules and horses soon began to die or had to be slaughtered in considerable numbers. Disease – possibly typhus – also began to spread amongst the soldiers.

The pitch of fighting increased as Caesar’s men made a last, unavailing effort to complete the enemy’s encirclement. Antony led Legio IX to secure a vital hill, but was driven from this by a Pompeian counter-attack, although he managed to withdraw with only minimal losses. Pompey then launched a series of attacks against the forts in one sector of Caesar’s lines. Some initial headway was made, but the extremely stubborn resistance of the garrisons gave time for reserves to arrive and beat the enemy back. Pompey’s attacking troops were supported by very large numbers of archers and slingers who laid down a barrage of missiles on the ramparts. In one fort the majority of men in the three-cohort garrison was wounded and four out of six centurions in one cohort lost an eye. The shield of a centurion called Scaeva was later found to have been hit by 120 missiles and he too was wounded in the eye. Feigning surrender, he waited until two Pompeian legionaries came towards him, before suddenly lopping the arm off one and killing the other. Somehow the position held and by the end of the day the attackers were fleeing in disorder. Many of Caesar’s officers are supposed to have believed that had they might have won the war if they had followed up this advantage with an all-out attack, but Caesar’s legate Sulla decided against this, feeling that it was not a subordinate’s duty to take such a critical decision. Caesar, who was at a different sector of the line, fully concurred with this attitude in his account.10

The heroic defenders of the fort were lavishly rewarded with extra pay, a number of promotions, and, which at the time may have been most satisfying, extra rations for all. The desertion to Pompey of two Gallic noblemen along with their personal warriors and retainers provided him with information which inspired a fresh attack on what they assured him was a weak spot in the enemy lines. This time the main column of legionaries advancing from the Pompeian lines was supported by a force of light infantry which had been taken by sea and landed behind Caesar’s positions. Their target was the unfinished section of fortifications and once again the assault made some headway before bogging down. As Caesar and Antony both led reserves up to the threatened sector, the enemy began to collapse into rout.

This time the commander was present to order his own counterattack, which focused on a camp originally built by his own Legio IX, but subsequently abandoned and now occupied by the enemy. Concealed in woodland and dead ground, the Caesarean legionaries were able to approach unobserved and storm the position in a sudden onslaught. Yet, as the Pompeians themselves had found, such success often led rapidly to disorder and confusion. One column of Caesar’s men got lost, mistaking a wall leading off in another direction for part of the camp’s rampart and following it. Now it was Pompey’s turn to hurry all available reserves to the area and overwhelm the attackers. Beginning with the most advanced units, panic spread through the bulk of the thirty-three cohorts Caesar had committed to the attack. Caesar himself was on the spot and tried to stop the rout by grabbing at standard-bearers as they fled. Seizing a standard or its bearer and trying to persuade the routers to rally around this symbol of their unit pride and identity was a common gesture for a Roman commander faced with such a situation. Sulla once did this successfully when fighting Mithridates’ army in Greece. Two years later during the African campaign Caesar would take hold of one of his own signifers and physically turn the man round, telling him, ‘Look! That’s where the enemy are!’ This time his presence had no such steadying influence. At least one man left the standard in his commander’s hands and ran on. Other accounts, though not the Commentaries, even maintain that one of the fleeing men tried to stab Caesar with the heavy iron butt of his signum (standard), and was only stopped when the general’s bodyguard sliced his arm off.

The losses in this action were very heavy, amounting to 960 men and thirty-two tribunes or centurions killed and others captured. Pompey did not follow up his advantage, prompting Caesar to declare that the enemy ‘would have won today, if only they were commanded by a winner’. However, the speed with which initial success had degenerated into heavy defeat for both sides suggests that Pompey was right. Lines of fortifications staunchly defended and closely supported by strong reserves were exceedingly difficult for even another Roman army to capture. The already uneven and broken ground, divided further by walls and ditches, made it difficult for a commander to control any attack and so introduced an exceptionally high level of chance into the outcome of any combat. Pompey had won a victory and, as from the beginning of the campaign, time was on his side and there was no real advantage in seeking a rapid decision. The captured Caesarean soldiers were executed, although even Caesar says that this was not ordered by Pompey himself, even if he did not overrule the decision. Instead it was his old legate Labienus who harangued the captives and then had them killed. Labienus had switched sides at the beginning of the Italian campaign – whether through dissatisfaction with the rewards and praise he received from his commander, an older loyalty to Pompey, or sheer political conviction is unclear. Caesar had ordered his personal baggage sent after him, but however lightly he treated the defection in public, it was a major blow which had deprived him of the ablest of his commanders. Labienus appears as a far more brutal figure in The Civil War than in The Gallic War, and was especially loathed by the officers who added books to Caesar’s account.11

On the following day, just as he had done at Gergovia, Caesar assembled his soldiers and tried to restore their morale. Several standard-bearers were very publicly demoted for cowardice. Caesar made no effort to offer battle to the enemy as he had done in Gaul, probably judging that this was too risky in case the enemy accepted. It was now clear that he had no prospect of blockading Pompey into submission, and he resolved to march away into central Greece and rebuild his army’s confidence and health. Sending the wounded and sick ahead, he sent the baggage train out of camp at night and then followed with the main army. A few Pompeian cavalry noticed the retreat quickly enough to harass the rearguard, but these were soon driven off. The numerically inferior Caesarean cavalry were closely supported by a cohort of 400 picked legionaries marching ready for battle rather than weighed down with packs. Caesar had skilfully disengaged from close contact with the enemy, which was never an easy operation, but this and his own confident tone in the Commentaries should not hide the fact that he had suffered a serious defeat.12

Crops were by this time beginning to ripen and as Caesar’s army marched through land which had not been subject to the rampages of campaigning armies the men were able to harvest sufficient grain to meet their needs. To some Greek communities Caesar’s legions looked like a beaten force and they were reluctant to offer them any aid lest it earn them the antipathy of the victors. After Gomphi had shut its gates to his officers and refused to hand over any food, Caesar stormed the city and put it to the sack. According to some of our sources the army’s progress on the next day was more a drunken revel than a disciplined march. After this brutal object lesson, most towns and cities did not dare to refuse him anything.13

Pompey followed, but kept at a distance, and seems to have wanted to continue his strategy of wearing his enemy down by depriving him of supplies. Many of the eminent senators in his camp were loud in their criticism, demanding that he get the war over with quickly by defeating Caesar in battle. Caesar, who obviously was not an unbiased source, claimed that they were already squabbling over who would receive the offices and honours currently in the possession of his own supporters. The pressure on Pompey was considerable, but it is by no means clear whether it was this which finally persuaded him to seek battle. It was now August, and both the season and freedom to move meant that Caesar’s supply situation had greatly eased. The Pompeians had a marked superiority in infantry and an even greater one in cavalry, which made a battle, especially a battle in open country, an attractive prospect. At the beginning of the month the rival armies were near Pharsalus and spent several days in the familiar offers of battle and tentative manoeuvring. On the morning of 9 August 48 BC Caesar was about to march to a new campsite, for his men had largely exhausted the forage immediately available to them in their current position, when he noticed that the Pompeian army was once again offering battle. For the first time they had advanced beyond the high ground in front of Pompey’s camp and were deploying in the level plain bordered by the River Enipeus. It was a sign of determination to risk an action which Caesar welcomed. Issuing an order for the men to down packs and prepare for battle, he led his troops out to face the enemy.

Caesar had 22,000 legionaries divided into some eighty cohorts – a further seven cohorts were left to guard the camp – and 1,000 cavalry. Resting his left flank on the river, he deployed the legions in the usual triplex acies. His best unit, the veteran Legio X, took up the place of honour on the right of the line, flanked by all the cavalry supported by some light infantry. On the left he placed a composite unit formed from Legio VIII and Legio IX, both heavily under strength, for the latter in particular had suffered heavily at Dyrrachium. Dividing the line into three sectors, Caesar placed Mark Antony in charge of the left, Cnaeus Domitius Calvinus in the centre and Publius Sulla on the right. The commander himself was free to move to any section of the front, but was in fact to control the battle from the right wing, spending much of his time with his favourite Legio X.

Across the plain Pompey’s eleven legions were also deployed in three lines. Altogether they mustered some 45,000 men, and each of his cohorts was formed ten ranks deep – Caesar’s units, barely half their size, were probably in only four or five ranks. The best legions were stationed on the flanks and in the centre, and the entire line was divided into three commands, with Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus on the left, Pompey’s father-in-law Scipio in the centre and Lucius Afranius on the right. Pompey himself joined Ahenobarbus and the troops immediately opposite Caesar. According to Frontinus, 600 cavalrymen were placed on the right flank next to the river. The remaining 6,400 horsemen – or in all other sources the entire mounted arm – were concentrated on the left with large numbers of slingers, archers and other infantry skirmishers in support. Placed under the command of Labienus, it was this force which was to deliver the main, and Pompey hoped decisive, attack, sweeping aside Caesar’s outnumbered cavalry and then turning to take his legions in the flank and rear. The plan was not especially subtle, as the concentration of so many thousand cavalry in one section of the plain could not be concealed, but that did not mean that it would be easy for Caesar to devise a countermeasure. His response was to take one cohort from the third line of each legion and station them as a fourth line behind his own cavalry and probably echeloned back to the right. The Caesarean horsemen will have prevented the enemy from observing this move.

Both armies were confident. Passwords were issued on each side to reduce the confusion inevitable when fighting against opponents wearing the same uniforms and speaking the same language. Caesar’s men had ‘Venus, the Bringer of Victory’ in a reference to his divine ancestor, whilst Pompey’s soldiers took ‘Hercules the Unconquered’. In an exchange similar to those which were to shape the Napoleonic legend, a former chief centurion of Legio X now serving as commander of an ad hoc unit of 120 veterans called out to Caesar that ‘Today, I will earn your gratitude whether I live or die.’ This man, Caius Crastinus, was in the front line, which now opened the battle by beginning to advance towards the Pompeians. The latter did not move. This was an unusual tactic, for Roman infantry normally advanced to meet enemy foot soldiers. Even Marius’ men at Aquae Sextiae and Caesar’s when he faced the Helvetii, although they had waited as the enemy wore themselves out attacking uphill, had at the last minute hurled their pilaand then immediately charged some 10 or 15 yards into contact. Caesar says the order to remain stationary originated with Caius Triarius, who had persuaded Pompey that it would prevent the cohorts from falling into disorder and would permit them to gain the best possible protection from their shields against enemy missiles. The belief that their formations would break up if they moved may have been a reflection of the perceived inferior quality of the Pompeian legionaries compared to Caesar’s men. On the other hand Pompey may simply have wanted to bring Caesar’s infantry as far forward as possible so that it would be easier for his cavalry on the left wing to envelop them. In the Commentaries Caesar is highly critical of the decision, arguing that an advance helped to encourage the soldiers and that a passive defence was detrimental to morale.

Before the lines of legionaries clashed, Labienus’ cavalry charged against their Caesarean counterparts, driving them back after a brief struggle. In the process the Pompeian horsemen fell into disorder. It was rare to concentrate so many cavalrymen on such a narrow frontage and most of the units were very inexperienced. Neither Labienus nor his subordinate officers had much experience of leading and controlling so many mounted troops, and their task can only have been made harder by the thick clouds of dust stirred up by so many hoofs. These factors, combined with the natural tendency for a large number of horses packed so closely together to grow excited, seems to have turned the Pompeian left wing from ordered lines of individual squadrons into a single unwieldy mass. Before they could rally and re-form, Caesar ordered his fourth line to counter-attack. These cohorts suddenly appeared from the dust and confusion and advanced towards the stationary crowd of milling cavalry. The legionaries were ordered to use their pila as spears. On other occasions when Roman infantry tried to panic enemy cavalry they yelled and clashed weapons against shields. In one of the very rare instances where infantry have successfully charged cavalry in the open, Labienus’ men began to give way, confusion turning to rout as the entire mass of horsemen stampeded to the rear. We do not know whether Caesar’s own horsemen had rallied and were able to pursue the enemy, but it is clear that the enemy cavalry played no further part in the battle.

Pompey’s main attack had failed and exposed the left flank of his heavy infantry, providing yet another reason why it might be unwise for these to advance. Caesar’s cohorts had advanced and, in the usual fashion, accelerated into a running charge preparatory to throwing their pila when they were at most some 30 or 40 yards from the enemy line. When the Pompeians failed to conform to normal legionary tactics and finally advance to meet them, Caesar’s soldiers checked and did not waste their own missiles when still out of effective range. For a while the entire line halted, the centurions and their subordinates re-forming the ranks which had become ragged during their abortive charge. The coolness of this manoeuvre when the enemy was so close testified to the quality, training and experience of Caesar’s legionaries and their officers. Then, after this pause, the line moved forward again. It closed to within 15 to 10 yards, threw a volley of pila, and charged home, the men raising their battle cry and drawing their swords. To their credit, and to some extent in confirmation of Pompey’s tactics, the Pompeians met them steadily enough and delivered a volley of their own pila. The fighting was fierce, the extra depth and tight formations of the Pompeian cohorts keeping them in the fight against their more experienced opponents. Crastinus was killed by a sword thrust to the mouth which was so powerful that the tip of his opponent’s gladius emerged from the back of his neck. The cohorts of Caesar’s second line, which always operated in very close support of the first, were soon fed into the fighting.

For a while neither side gained any marked advantage in this combat, until Caesar’s fourth line turned to attack the left flank of Pompey’s line. The Pompeian fighting line started to edge backwards and Caesar gave the signal which ordered his third line – fewer in numbers than was usual owing to the creation of the fourth line, but composed of fresh troops – to advance and join the combat. The pressure was too much and Pompey’s legions collapsed into flight. Caesar claims that 15,000 enemy soldiers were killed and 24,000 captured along with nine legionary eagles and 180 signa (standards). He is supposed to have given orders for his men to spare fellow citizens whenever possible, but to slaughter the foreign auxiliaries. His own losses amounted to 200 soldiers and thirty centurions – a proportion which reflects the aggressive and therefore risky style of leadership encouraged in the legions.14

Pompey seems to have played little role in the battle after the failure of his cavalry attack. Caesar even maintains that he left the field before the fighting was over, despairing of his eventual victory in a manner unworthy of a Roman, and returned to his camp. When he saw that his own army was about to collapse, he took off his general’s insignia and galloped away. Even in accounts favourable to him there is no trace of the vigour he had shown in earlier campaigns. As far as the Commentaries are concerned it was clear that the better man – certainly the better Roman – had won.

Joining his wife, Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered by the courtiers of King Ptolemy XII, who hoped to gain favour with the victor. The first blow was actually struck by a centurion who had served under Pompey during his eastern campaigns, but was now with one of the two legions left in Egypt for some years who were generally believed to have ‘gone native’. When Caesar arrived on 2 October 48 BC he was presented with Pompey’s head, but refused to look upon it and granted his former ally honourable burial. Publicly he claimed that he regretted not being able to extend his famous clemency to his most distinguished opponent. This may simply have been for public consumption, but it is also possible that he still retained considerable affection and respect for his old friend.15


Caesar spent the next six months in Egypt, thus giving time for the surviving Pompeians to form a new army in North Africa. The long delay before he returned to Rome baffled many of those such as Cicero who hoped that the Civil War was now over. Perhaps Caesar believed that without Pompey opposition to him would collapse, or maybe for the moment he found less satisfaction in his victory than he may have hoped. He became involved in the dynastic struggle between the teenage Ptolemy and his 21-year-old sister Cleopatra. The latter – lively, intelligent, charismatic and attractive if not strictly beautiful by the standards of the day, and well educated in both Hellenistic and the older Egyptian culture – is famously supposed to have had herself delivered to Caesar’s headquarters hidden in a carpet or blanket, which was then unrolled to reveal its remarkable passenger. The pair, who matched each other in great wit, learning and massive ambition, were soon lovers, and the Egyptian queen made a far greater impression upon the promiscuous middle-aged Roman than perhaps any of his other paramours with the possible exception of Servilia, the mother of Brutus and great love of Caesar’s youth.

Caesar defeated Ptolemy, who died in the confusion, and installed Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne. Even then he did not want to leave Egypt and the lovers are said to have gone for a long and luxurious cruise along the Nile. It was only the arrival of bad news from around the Mediterranean that finally forced Caesar to disturb his reverie. Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates who had turned against his father and been permitted by Rome to keep a much reduced kingdom, had invaded the Roman province of Pontus and defeated a Roman army. At the end of May 47 Caesar mustered a small force from the legions immediately available and marched against him. The Pontic army was utterly defeated at Zela on 2 August and the swiftness of his victory prompted the famous comment ‘I came: I saw: I conquered’ (veni, vidi, vici). Yet for a moment the issue had seemed in doubt when Pharnaces broke all the rules of generalship in this period and attacked Caesar’s army whilst it was constructing a camp on high ground. Attacking an enemy in a strong position gave the Pontic army the initial advantage of surprise, but the legions recovered quickly and swiftly destroyed the enemy. In a jibe at Pompey, Caesar commented on how fortunate a general was who won his reputation fighting such fragile opponents.16

Returning to the west and his Roman enemies, Caesar’s conduct of the remainder of the Civil War was energetic, impatient and increasingly ruthless. In December 47 he led an ill-prepared invasion of Africa, which was in some ways even bolder than the landing in Macedonia two years before. Once again his talent for improvisation and his refusal to question his ultimate success, combined with the high quality of the officers and men under his command, allowed the Caesarean army to survive its initial weakness until reinforcements arrived and the supply situation improved. In April 46 he faced the Pompeian army outside the town of Thapsus. The author of The African War for once suggests that Caesar was not in full control of his army:

Caesar was doubtful, resisting their eagerness and enthusiasm, yelling out that he did not approve of fighting by a reckless onslaught, and holding back the line again and again, when suddenly on the right wing a tubicen [trumpeter], without orders from Caesar but encouraged by the soldiers, began to sound his instrument. This was repeated by all the cohorts; the line began to advance against the enemy, although the centurions placed themselves in front and vainly tried to restrain the soldiers by force and stop them attacking without orders from the general.

When Caesar perceived that it was impossible to restrain the soldiers’ roused spirits, he gave the watchword ‘Good Luck’ [Felicitas], and spurred his horse at the enemy front ranks.17

In another, even less favourable tradition Caesar had to leave the field altogether because of an epileptic fit. Whatever the truth of these accounts, Caesar’s legions won a rapid and decisive victory. It was not quite the end of the war, however, for Pompey’s son Cnaeus Pompeius took control of Spain and had to be defeated at Munda in 45 BC.18

Caesar had won the Civil War, spreading devastation throughout Italy and the provinces to defend his personal honour, but it remained to be seen whether or not he could win the peace. As dictator for life he held power equalled in the past only by Sulla, whom he declared a political illiterate for retiring from public life. The honours voted to him were greater than those ever granted to any one individual and the scale of his planned projects truly staggering. Throughout the Civil War Caesar had paraded his clementia, pardoning captured opponents, in some cases more than once. Many had feared that this was simply a cynical ploy, remembering how Sulla had at first acted in a conciliatory manner until victory allowed him full rein to his brutal vengeance. Fears that Caesar would do the same proved unfounded, for there were no proscriptions and the Senate came to include a large number of his former opponents, some of whom were even given high office. Yet if the dictatorship was not repressive, it was also clear that elections were closely controlled and the Senate had no real power or independence. Rumours were rife claiming that Caesar wished to be made a king – a title which was still an anathema to the Romans centuries after the expulsion of the monarchy – and to be deified. Sometimes it was said that he wished to rule with Cleopatra, whom he had brought to Rome, as his queen and establish a new dynasty. The motives of the conspirators led by Brutus and Cassius were many and varied, but had more to do with fears about Caesar’s future plans than anything he had so far done.

The dictator’s intentions cannot now be established, for the sources for the period were thoroughly muddied by the propaganda put about by both his supporters and his enemies after his death. It is, for instance, impossible to know whether the boy Caesarion was in fact the illegitimate offspring of Caesar and Cleopatra. Caesar himself may not have been clear about his ultimate objectives, for his immediate plan was to revert to what he did best, leading an army in war. When he was stabbed to death at a meeting of the Senate on 15 March 44 BC, having publicly dismissed his bodyguard some time before, he was just about to depart for a campaign against the Dacians and then a further war with Parthia. The latter in particular was a task which would inevitably have taken several years to complete, and we cannot know what he expected to happen at Rome during his absence. With Caesar’s assassination Rome was once again plunged into civil war. By a final irony the dictator’s corpse fell at the foot of a statue of Pompey, for the Senate was on that day meeting in a temple attached to Pompey’s theatre complex.19


In the last chapters we have dealt with generals – Marius, Sertorius, Pompey and Caesar – all of whom at some point led their legions against other Roman armies. From the earliest days of the Republic, Roman politics had been fiercely competitive, but it was not until the first century BC that squabbles between rival senators erupted into civil war. It seems extremely doubtful that Scipio Africanus ever dreamed of fighting against the regime which forced him into premature retirement from public life. Had he done so, it is hard to imagine that any of his former soldiers – now retired and dispersed to their homes – would have been willing to use force in defence of their old commander. The legions were recruited from a cross-section of the propertied classes, all of whom were able to contribute to the political life of the Republic through voting in the Assemblies.

Yet within a century the relationship between the army, its commanders and the Republic had altered, so that in 88 BC and on many subsequent occasions generals both could and did lead their legions against other Roman armies. The change was profound and connected to the rise of the professional army, where the majority of legionaries were recruited from the poorest elements in society. For such men military service was not a duty owed to the State which interrupted their normal life, but a source of employment and a steady, if low, income. When they were discharged from the army the proletarii had nothing to go back to in the way of property or work in civilian life. Successive commanders such as Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar all at times pressed for the establishment of colonies and the grant of farmland to their veteran soldiers. In each case the plan was bitterly unpopular, largely because no senator wanted another to place so many citizens in his debt. The Senate as a whole was also reluctant to acknowledge that the legions were now recruited from the poor and refused to take responsibility for their welfare after discharge. This encouraged a closer bond between commander and troops so that the legionaries’ loyalty focused far more in the person of their commander than in the Republic which offered them so little. The legions in effect became ‘client’ or private armies of popular and powerful commanders.

This traditional view of the changes brought about as a result of the Marian Reform is a little simplistic, and has been widely criticized, especially by those scholars who believe that the evolution of the army was gradual and that there was no sudden change under Marius. They note, for instance, that it is certainly untrue that every Roman general in the first century BC was capable of turning his legions against rivals in the State. Lucullus led his army in years of highly successful campaigning in the east and yet never succeeded in winning his soldiers’ affection, so that they refused all his pleas to resist his replacement by Pompey. On numerous occasions during the civil wars unpopular generals were deserted or even lynched by their own men. Yet if many, perhaps even most, Late Republican generals could not hope to persuade their legions to fight against other Romans, the essential point is that some of them both could and did. Such an action had been impossible in the heyday of the militia/conscript army which had won Rome dominance in the Mediterranean and, though perhaps the intensity and high stakes of political competition had increased, civil war only became a possibility with the new nature of the legion. This is something which the advocates of a gradual change rather than sudden military reform have failed adequately to explain, although really there is no reason why the former should have any less powerful an impact than the latter.20

Since some Roman commanders were able to build up such a close bond with their legionaries that the latter were willing to fight other Romans on their behalf, it is important to consider how they did this. Pompey was able to raise an army at his own expense and largely from his own family’s estates in spite of his youth and lack of any legal authority. Few other men had the wealth to attempt such a venture, but a good deal of his success rested on personal charisma and traditional attachment of the local population to his family. In 88 Sulla was able to persuade his men to march on Rome because they were afraid that Marius would take other legions to the lucrative war in the east. However, although occasionally a man was able to rally the support of soldiers before they had campaigned with him, a shared period of successful active service did most to tie legionaries and general together. Pompey’s and Sulla’s men were confirmed in their loyalty in this way, whilst ten years of shared hardship and victory in Gaul ensured that there was never any question that Caesar’s army would refuse to follow him across the Rubicon. Usually long and successful campaigning created a strong bond between general and soldiers, although Lucullus’ experience shows that occasionally this did not prove to be the case. One of the chief reasons for his unpopularity was the belief that he was miserly in his distribution of plunder captured from the enemy. Marius, Sulla, Pompey and Caesar all rewarded their men, and especially their officers, lavishly. At some point, possibly during the Civil War, Caesar doubled the pay of his legionaries to 225 denarii a year.

In the Commentaries Caesar repeatedly justifies his cause, often in passages claiming to recount addresses he made to his troops. This was a way of reinforcing his message for his literary audience, but similar appeals feature in most historians’ accounts of the civil wars. To a greater or lesser extent, all the soldiers in an army during a civil war probably had some knowledge of the nature of its causes. Centurions and more senior officers such as tribunes certainly do appear to have taken an active interest in politics and needed to be persuaded of the justification and legitimacy of their commander’s actions. Army officers, and especially the ordinary soldiers, doubtless had a different perspective on political disputes to the senatorial class, but that does not mean that their concerns or ideas of legitimacy were any less deeply held. It seems often to have been an army’s officers who initiated widespread defections to the opposing side or the assassination of a general. Early on in the Civil War each of Caesar’s centurions formally offered to pay for and equip a cavalryman at their own expense, identifying themselves strongly with his cause.21

Marius was noted for introducing a less rigid form of discipline, except when actually on campaign; and on occasions, as at Gomphi, Caesar allowed his men licence to celebrate in the most disorderly manner. He is supposed to have boasted that his men fought just as well ‘if they were stinking of perfume’.22 Neither man overlooked serious offences and both were perceived to be very fair in their treatment of offenders regardless of their rank. A number of officers were publicly humiliated and dismissed when they failed to meet Caesar’s standards. Marius, Pompey and Caesar were all also noted for the rigorous training programmes which they imposed upon their troops. Suetonius tells us that Caesar

never gave advance warning of a march or battle, but always kept them [his troops] ready and prepared for a sudden move whenever he chose. He often turned them out even when there was no emergency, particularly in wet weather or during festivals. And he would warn them to keep a close eye on him, and would then suddenly slip out of camp at any hour of the day and night, and make an especially long and hard march, to wear out those who followed too slowly.23

Like Sertorius he equipped his men with impressive armour and weapons, the latter or their scabbards often inlaid with gold and silver, wanting them to take a pride in themselves and their appearance. The legionaries were encouraged to feel that their general, or senior officers who would report to him, always watched their behaviour and would as rapidly reward the brave as he would punish the cowardly. When Caesar addressed his men he always called them commilitones or ‘comrades’. In Gaul he is said to have had flagstones carried with the baggage train so that his tent could be provided with a paved floor, but in spite of such luxuries, which may in part have been intended to impress local chieftains, he tried to share the hardships of his men. Suetonius mentions how he

showed remarkable powers of endurance. On the march he led his army, usually on foot but sometimes on horseback, bareheaded in the sun or rain, and could travel very fast over great distances in a light carriage, taking minimal baggage; he would swim unfordable rivers or float across on inflated animal skins, frequently arriving at his destination before the couriers he had sent to announce his coming.24

Although the Commentaries describe the heroic actions of many individual soldiers, it is very rare for ordinary legionaries to be named. Most often their courage is praised collectively and specific legions often singled out for praise. We have already noted Caesar’s talent for manipulating unit pride, as when he announced that he would advance against Ariovistus with only Legio X if the rest of the army was too timid. Following an incident in which part of this legion was temporarily given horses to ride so that they could act as Caesar’s bodyguard, the unit adopted the informal title of equestris or ‘knights’, and soldiers joked that they would be elevated to the equestrian order by their generous commander. Soldiers identified strongly with their legions, especially in the best units, and the rivalry to prove that they were superior to the rest of the army was intense and actively encouraged.25

Caesar’s narrative pays particular attention to the deeds of his centurions. Successes are often attributed in no small part to their courage and inspirational example and defeats mitigated by their heroism. The praise they received in his formal accounts of the campaigns was matched by tangible rewards and promotions bestowed on them immediately. During the Gallic campaigns Caesar’s army more than doubled in size, creating many opportunities for promotion to higher grades of the centurionate. Little is known about the origins of centurions in this period and it is uncertain whether most were directly commissioned or promoted from the ranks, although the latter course is never explicitly mentioned in the Commentaries. It is possible that they were mainly drawn from what might loosely be called the ‘middle classes’ in Roman society – families which owned some property and possessed some education and may even have been quite prominent in smaller Italian communities. Certainly, once they became centurions they enjoyed pay and service conditions massively greater than those of the ordinary legionaries. The potential for advancement and reward was also on a greater scale. Scaeva, the centurion who distinguished himself defending one of the forts at Dyrrachium, was promoted to the rank of primus pilus and given a bounty of 50,000 denarii (100 years’ pay for an ordinary legionary). An inscription which probably dates to the 30s BC refers to a Gallic auxiliary cavalry unit known as the ala Scaevae (Scaeva’s regiment) and it seems very likely that this is the same man. A handful of Caesar’s centurions were even enrolled in the Senate during his dictatorship. Centurions were rewarded lavishly but suffered disproportionately high casualties in their desire to win distinction. Appian claims that Caesar ordered his men to search carefully for the body of Crastinus amongst the carnage of Pharsalus and had him buried in a tomb away from the mass grave. He is also supposed to have laid a number of decorations for valour on the corpse, which, if true, would be an extremely powerful gesture since the Romans did not normally issue posthumous medals.26

Caesar praised and rewarded his men, shared their dangers on campaign, and trained them hard. Successive victories, broken only by a handful of defeats, all of which were swiftly avenged, confirmed his legionaries’ faith in his skill as a commander. Caesar himself continually reminded the world that he was not simply a gifted general, but also a lucky one. Only a few commanders in history have been able to win comparable devotion from their troops. Occasionally the relationship wavered from the absolute obedience depicted in the Commentaries, and the Civil War witnessed two major mutinies. In late 49 Legio IX protested that many men were overdue for both pay and discharge, but quickly gave way when their general arrived and berated them for ingratitude and lack of faith. Caesar put on an act of such fury, announcing that he would decimate the legion, that the soldiers were almost relieved when he ultimately ordered the execution of only twelve ringleaders.

His performance when much of the army, including his beloved Legio X, mutinied before the African campaign was even more overpowering. Once again it was probably inactivity and an absence of purpose whilst Caesar had been away in Egypt as much as anything else which had caused old discontents to come to a head. Sallust, the future historian and then one of Caesar’s officers, narrowly escaped lynching as the mutineers angrily demanded back-pay and bounties. Then their commander arrived suddenly and appeared on the tribunal. An invitation to state their grievances shocked the assembled troops into silence, until voices yelled out that they wished to be discharged from service. Caesar, who was about to embark on a major campaign and so was obviously in great need of troops, replied without any visible emotion that they were demobilized, that he would win the war with other troops, but still give them everything he had promised after his victory. There does not seem to have been any real desire for discharge and the legionaries’ mood swung from hostility to a sense of sorrow and shame that their old general did not appear to value their services.

Caesar said nothing more, until some of his senior officers – quite possibly instructed in their role before the confrontation began – loudly begged him to forgive the men who had endured so much under his command and excuse a few rash words. Hopes that he might relent were dashed when he spoke again and began by addressing them as ‘Civilians’ (Quirites) instead of his habitual ‘comrades’. The mutineers started to shout out their repentance and begged to be allowed back into his service. When Caesar turned to leave the platform the shouts grew even louder, and the legionaries pleaded with him to punish the ringleaders in the disturbance and take the rest with him to Africa. The general made a show of indecision, letting the men grow ever more desperate, until he finally announced that he would take all of them on campaign apart from Legio X, whose ingratitude after his repeated favours could not be excused. Men from this unit now went so far as to beg him to decimate them if only he would take the legion to war. In the end, he decided that the flood of emotion was so strong that it was unnecessary to take any further steps. Legio X fought with distinction at Thapsus and made the critical breakthrough at Munda. After Caesar’s assassination the remnants of this veteran unit remained loyal to his memory and fought for years and with great effectiveness on behalf of his adopted son Octavian.27

Caesar knew how to play on his soldiers’ emotions, most of all on their pride in their units and their own status as good and brave soldiers. Success in public life required all Roman senators to develop some skill in dealing with and winning over people, whether as individuals or in crowds in the Forum or military camp. Caesar through instinct and experience developed the knack of winning over and inspiring soldiers to a degree unrivalled by any of Rome’s other great commanders, with the possible exception of Pompey.

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