The Battle of Pharsalus

Historical Information and Dates

Conditions under which the citizens of the Roman Republic had to live. The beginning of the first century BC was not the most successful period for the Roman Republic (McCarty 56). The development of the political crisis made the vast majority of leaders proved their powers and abilities to be supported by the citizen and get the necessary positions to rule the world. Still, it was hard to define those powers were more appropriate to the conditions under which the Romans had to live.

There were three evident leaders during the period under analysis: Marcus Licinius Crassus, Gaius Julius Caesar, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Leoni 42). To provide favorable conditions for Rome, these three people signed the political alliance known as the First Triumvirate; and though this step did not have some official status, it was an influential step in the history.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

However, the death of one of the leaders, Crassus, changed considerably the development of the events as a result of which, Caesar and Pompeius found it obligatory to get power due to their own achievements and possibilities. In fact, it was evident that certain changes had to be made to define the leader and distribute powers.

Events before the Battle of Pharsalus. Caesar and Pompeius could not reach the necessary agreement to divide their powers in Rome, this is why they decided to start a fight at the end of which the citizens could see whose powers were greater. Rome was divided into those who supported the activities by Pompeius (they were the representatives from the Senate aristocracy) and those who believe in Caesar’s power (they were the plebs or the plebeians, the representatives of not famous Roman families).

Due to the evident supremacy in the army, Pompeius achieve positive results of his activities, and Caesar was deprived of his rights in the Senate and had to dismiss his army in Gallia. Still, it was unacceptable for Caesar to lose the power and accept Pompeius as the leader of Rome. This is why, in the middle of the 49th century BC, Gaius Julius Caesar declared the war to Rome and began his activities to reduce the power of Pompeius.

The history behind the two commanders. The authority of Pompeius was justified by his activities during the war with Spain in 77th BC. Though he did not achieve the desirable laurels, he understood his personal priority and abilities to convince people around. Within a short period of time, Pompeius gained recognition in the East, celebrated his victory in the Temple of Jerusalem, and returned to Rome as a definite leader. In his turn, Caesar was known as one of the most thoughtful and artful figure in the history.

Before the First Triumvirate, Caesar’ activities with Catilina demonstrated how mature his actions could be in order to gain the desirable power. Frankly speaking, the backgrounds of the two leaders were great indeed, and both of them had special priorities in particular spheres which made them the two worthy opponents to each other.

What the two great leaders fought for. In fact, the purpose of why Caesar and Pompeius supported the idea of was similar: to get the power of the Roman citizens and conquer the whole world (Leoni 43). However, the conditions under which this power had to be gained were different for the figures. Till that moment, Pompeius had the support of the Senate, and Caesar was supported by poor people, the plebeians.

The events in the Italy helped Caesar to prove how wrong the choice of the Roman citizens was; within a short period of time, Caesar returned to Rome with the victory and made the troops by Pompeius leave the city. At the end of the 49th BC, Caesar was proclaimed as the dictator (McCarty 59).

However, to prove his maturity and possibilities to control Rome, it was necessary for Caesar to pass through one more fight with Pompeius. It was the main event in 48th BC that had to define what leader was able to rule in Rome and spread powers over the whole world. It was the fight known as the Battle of Pharsalus due to the fact that the events were developed near the city. This Battle finally proved the powers of one leader and diminished the possibilities of the other leader.

The Battle of Pharsalus: The Beginning

Commanders who made a decision to fight. As it has been mentioned, there were two main leaders who participated in the Battle of Pharsalus: Gaius Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus. Taking into consideration the achievements of both figures, they made an attempt to rely on personal strategies.

Caesar realized that there was no need to wait and take some steps to improve the living conditions of Rome. It was very important to fight with Pompeius till they had some provisions, food, and weapons.

Under the current conditions, it was hard to enlarge the amounts of the existed supply, this is why Caesar made a decision to shorten the terms of the attack and started the necessary preparations soon. Pompeius, in his turn, realized that he had greater army, this is why it was possible to win due to the number of people (McCarty 59). Everything that was required was to organize the activities correctly.

Place to be chosen for the fight. Due to the recent events and the necessity to take considerable steps, the place for the fight was chosen. The plains of Pharsalus seemed to be a perfect location for both opponents: the right flank of the Pompeius’ troops (they were more than 600 horses) and the left flank of Caesar’s army were placed close to the River Enipeus so that soldiers got the necessary access to water.

It was August 9, 48 BC, the date when the battle between the troops of Caesar and Pompeius began (Dando-Collins 114). Pharsalus was the town in Phthia in the southeastern part of Thessaly. Though the battle was called in the name of this town, it did not take place right in the town. All the events were developed close to the river where the leaders made a decision to place their troops. Much attention was paid to the disposition of the armies of both leaders.

Armies offered by the leaders. Different sources identify different number of people who participated in the battle under analysis. In spite of numerous controversies, it was still defined that Pompeius had more people in his army (Dando-Collins 123). The most powerful side of Caesar’s army was his famous 10th Legion.

Its people took the steps with the help of which Caesar achieved success in Spain and other fights before the Battle of Pharsalus. To protect his bets people, Caesar made a decision to put the 9th Legion on the first lines so that Pompeius’ army could not hurt the representatives of the Legion Ten. The army of Caesar consisted of numerous veterans who had certain experience and knowledge about the development of the strategies.

The peculiar feature of those troops was the ability to focus on the quality but not on the quantity. In spite of small numbers of cavalry and infantry, each soldier was loyal to Caesar. The decision of Caesar about the commanders of the troops was almost evident: the River of Enipeus was under the cover of Marc Antony, and the center of the battle was supported by Domitius Calvinus, “who had previously led the screening force in eastern Greece.

As was the custom, the weakest troops took the center. In this case the central division was made up of three of the new legions” (Dando-Collins 115). The right wing of the Caesar’s army was controlled by General Sulla.

The army offered by Pompeius was obviously bigger, still, it was hard to be confident about its maturity. There were 6 legions used by the commander: one legion was formed from the veterans, two legions were of the average level, and the rest three legions were rather poor as their experience was not that bright as the one got by the Caesar’s troops.

The vast majority of Pompeius’ hopes were connected to his cavalry that consisted of more than 7000 people properly trained and experienced. The commander of the cavalry, Titus Labienus, was the former member of the Tenth Legion. It was planned to mount a kind of two-front attack in order to defeat Caesar: certain attention was obligatory for the right side of Caesar’s army as there was the famous Tenth Legion. Assistance had to be expected from light forces like archers and slingers.

The Battle’s Development: The Most Important Step Was to Begin the Attack

When the armies were formed and the purposes were set, it was very important to take the first steps and take the leading positions from the very beginning. The decision made by Pompeius was hard to predict still easy to justify: he allowed Caesar’s troops to begin the attack in order to promote his own troops with more time and to save their powers.

This is why the fight was closer to the Pompey’s camp (Image One), and the army of Caesar had more place to change positions, to return, and to control the situation. So, taking into consideration the conditions and decisions made, it is right to say that the Battle of Pharsalus was started by the troops of Julius Caesar on August 9, 48 BC in order to prove their rights and abilities to rule in Rome.

(Image One: Historical Map of the Roman Civil War 49-45 BC)

Tactics Chosen by the Leaders in the battle of Pharsalus

Achievements by Pompeius: ideas which helped to begin with dignity. The field was divided into two: the side of Pompey and the side of Caesar. Due to the decision to allow Caesar troops to attack first, Pompey deprived himself of the possibility to have more space for the battle and for departure. Still, all his ideas and strategies were based on the idea that he had more people in all lines.

“His thirty-six hundred archers and slingers dashed out from behind the lines and formed up in the open to the rear of their charging cavalry. On command, the bowmen let loose volleys of arrows that flew over the heads of their galloping troopers and dropped among Caesar’s charging cavalry.” (Dando-Collins 123)

What was decided was to create the army of 3 lines which were 10 men deep and to make the most experienced legions responsible for the right and the left flanks. In fact, the chosen tactics seemed to be an effective idea from the very beginning. Within a short period of time, the right flank of Caesar’s army was defeated and had to give up and move back. Though the Pompey’s army was a bit surprised, they did not find anything suspicious and moved to defeat the last group of people.

The right flank of Pompey was followed by the left flank of Caesar and pressed by the right flank where the soldiers used pilums to act without sound and not to attract other soldiers’ attention. Inability to predict the moves of the enemy was the first reason of Pompeius’ defeat.

However, there was another mistake made. Before the battle, Pompeius created a powerful plan on how to defeat Caesar: he wanted to attract his attention by means of personal infantry and allow his auxiliary troops to attack from the behind and use the quantity as the main benefit.

However, his plan was disclosed and Caesar was aware of possible actions by the enemy and was ready to oppose them. “Caesarian auxiliary scattered from the path of the cavalry, and the men of the 10th Legion on the extreme right were forced to swing around and defend themselves as Labienus’s troopers surged up to them” (Dando-Collins 123).

alking about the weapons used in the battle, the troops by Pompey did not take good positions. All they had were the javelins which were inherent to the Roman army and the bows with arrows to kill the enemy on long distances. Still, much attention was paid to personal protection of each soldier: special Roman helmets called galeas and huge shields called scuta. Roman legionaries carried heavy issues to be confident in protection; still, it was not always easy to make some fast and urgent moves which led to death.

August Julius Caesar: the activities of the winner. One of the most interesting issue to be studied from a pure historical perspective were the activities and ideas offered by Caesar. Without having a huge army and a number of heavy and safe weapons, this leader was able to organize his troops and achieve the victory. The activities demonstrated during the Battle of Pharsalus proved as another great evidence of Caesar’s maturity and talent. Evaluating the steps taking, it was evident that Caesar’s tactics was based on mutual support of each legion:

“Caesar, keeping his battle order, had placed the 10th Legion on the right wing, and on the left, the 9th, which was much weakened by the combats of Dyrrachium. To the latter he added the 8th in order to form something like a full legion from the two, and ordered them to support on another. He had eighty very completely organized cohorts in line, approximately twenty-two thousand men.” (Ardant 42)

As it has been already admitted, the troops in the Caesar’s army were much more experienced and trained in comparison. This is why each step and each attack was properly planned by the best strategists and the outcomes were predicted. The peculiar feature of this troop was their attention to the weapons which made no sounds in order not to attract the attention and astonish the enemy.

In this particular battle, the legions made use of the already mentioned pilums which were two meters long and made of iron shanks and wooden shafts. The soldiers in the battle did not find it necessary to use some heavy weapons to get abilities and move fast.


Used weapon in the battle. The auxiliary troop consisted of 3000 men who had to stand behind the right cavalry. It was very important to make use of some heavy weapon to promote quick moves and reflect the reactions of the enemy properly. In fact, this troop helped to win the battle and defeat the enemy.

The point is that the strategic move of Caesar differed from the one of Pompey by the decision to use auxiliary forces at first and then make use of heavy cavalry to defeat the enemy. And Pompey used all his heavy army first and then tried to save the situation by means of the part of auxiliary forces like it is described on the Image Two.

(Image Two: The Battle of Pharsalus)

Finally, the success of the chose campaign was predetermined by the weapons used. The Roman Legions were the first who made used of detached artillery in the battle. “In addition to auxiliary archers and slingers, each legion had a detachment of artillery, intended to support a siege of defend the legion’s camp, but sometimes used in field battles” (Rice and Anglim 50).

Success in weaponry technology. The army of Caesar seemed to be more advanced in the usage of the offered weaponry technologies. The leader understood that his people were not enough to cope with the quantity used by Pompey, this is why it was obligatory to rely on some unpredictable measures and steps. The results were amazing: unpredictable use of simple pilums with the help of which it was easy to kill the enemy as well as the means of transportation and prevent the attack.


Gaius Julius Caesar Victory and the reasons of his success. The results of the battle of Pharsalus were the following: the army of Julius Caesar won the fight and Pompey run away to Egypt in order to find some protection and support. In fact, it was not difficult to predict the results of this battle as the maturity is usually more important in regard to quantity.

To win the battle, it is necessary to take the right steps and to make the necessary conclusions. Caesar made use of his tactical moves: he used more trained soldiers; he paid more attention to hand-to-hand combats; and he used less heavy weapons to promote the soldiers with space and possibilities to move.

The mistake of Pompey was the choice of new soldiers who did not know anything about group fights and attacks. Though many young people were eager to participate in battle, their experience was not as great as it should be. This is why the success was on Caesar’s side. Respect to veterans and their practical skills played an important role in the outcomes of the battle. And the power was offered to a person who chose tactics instead of rude and definite power.

Effect on History

The effect of the Battle of Pharsalus is great on Roman history as well as the history of the whole world. The results of the battle determined the rights of Julius Caesar and made him the most influential figure in Rome. His future actions and fights made him a great political figure.

It was the end of the wars connected to the First Triumvirate and an awesome beginning of the dictator who made Rome the greatest republic in the world. There was no other enemy for Caesar in Rome. He proved that his ideas and his steps deserved attention and recognition.

He was a powerful man and could use this power to promote the development of his land, to improve the relations with different countries, and to admit the fact that there was always place for loyalty, respect, and betrayal that could destroy the whole nation within a short period of time.


Pompey and Caesar had rich past and experience to create the army and lead a number of soldiers to the desirable victory. In spite of the fact that the conditions under which the leaders should organize their activities were almost the same, a variety of techniques and ideas used was rather impressive.

Pompeius made one single mistake that was inability to consider Caesar tricky moves and tactics. Pompeius infantry should play an important role according to the leader’s plan: Caesar’s troops were not too big, and it was possible to attack them the flank and from the rear. Pompeius truly believed he could win the war and proclaim himself as the imperator of Rome. Still, all his plans and ideas were frustrated by the tactics chosen by Caesar.

Works Cited

Ardant, Charles-Jean, Battle Studies. New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2004.

Dando-Collins, Stephen. Caesar’s Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar’s Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002.

“Historical Map of the Roman Civil War 49-45 BC.” Map. Emerson Kent: History for the Relaxed Historian. 2010. Web. 15 Dec. 2010. .

Leoni, Manuela. In Caesar’s Rome with Cicero. Tarrytown, NY: Marshal Cavendish, 2009.

McCarty, Nick. Rome: The Greatest Empire of the Ancient World. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, 2008.

Rice, Rob and Anglim, Simon. Fighting Techniques of the Ancient World 3000 BC – AD 500: Equipment, Combat Skills and Tactics. New York: Thomas Dunne Books.

“The Battle of Pharsalus.” Map. Wildfire Games. 2004. Web. 15 Dec. 2010.


I'm Simon!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out