Charismatic leadership and brilliant tactics gained Caesar an empire and made him ruler of Rome.
PHARSALUS, GREECE, 48 B.C.
For several days, Julius Caesar had watched the army of his fellow Roman but bitter enemy Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) forming near Pharsalus in the central region of Roman-ruled Greece. Pompey’s 50,000-man army greatly outnumbered Caesar’s 20,000 soldiers; yet Caesar’s troops were seasoned veterans of the years-long, hard-fought campaigns that had conquered Gaul (modern-day France) and greatly expanded Roman-ruled territory.
Under Caesar’s charismatic leadership, these war-hardened legionaries had often won battles while fighting greatly outnumbered by fierce Gallic warriors. At Pharsalus, however, Caesar’s soldiers confronted other disciplined Roman legionaries in a battle certain to decide the outcome of a brutal civil war.
The roots of this conflict reached back to 50 B.C., when the Roman Senate, feeling threatened by Caesar’s popularity with the Roman people in the wake of his Gallic conquests, ordered Caesar to disband his army in Gaul and return to Rome to face prosecution for several claimed offenses. Instead, Caesar marched from Gaul with the XIII Legion. In January 49 B.C., he led his legion across the shallow Rubicon River and entered Italy – a virtual declaration of war against the Roman Republic. Led by Pompey and his optimates (conservative supporters), the Senate fled Rome, first to Brundisium in southern Italy and then across the Adriatic Sea to Rome’s Greek provinces.
Unopposed, Caesar marched triumphantly into Rome, where he was declared dictator; but he had still to defeat the optimate force. He pursued Pompey and was almost conquered in July 48 B.C. at Dyrrhachium (in modern-day Albania). Surviving that near defeat, Caesar marched inland and at Pharsalus again met Pompey and his army.
The tactical advantages seemed greatly in Pompey’s favor. Caesar’s army was almost out of supplies and had no clear line of retreat, while Pompey’s soldiers held the high ground, were far more numerous and better supplied. Caesar knew that the imminent battle was his last chance, warning his men that if they lost at Pharsalus they would be at Pompey’s mercy and probably slaughtered. It was August 9, 48 B.C.
Caesar’s fate – and that of the Roman Republic – hung in the balance as the Battle of Pharsalus began in earnest.
RISE OF JULIUS CAESAR
Gaius Julius Caesar was born in July 100 B.C. into a patrician family that claimed to be descended from Julus, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas, who in turn was the supposed son of the goddess Venus. Caesar’s father, also named Gaius Julius Caesar, had served Rome as the city’s praetor (military or civilian commander) and as proconsul (governor) to Asia, while his mother, Aurelia Cotta, came from an influential Roman family.
From 82 to 80 B.C., Lucius Cornelius Sulla made himself dictator of Rome and purged the city of his political enemies. Sulla’s victims included Caesar’s uncle, the general and seven-time consul Gaius Marius. Because of Caesar’s relationship with Marius, Sulla stripped Caesar of his inheritance and his wife’s dowry, forcing him to flee Rome and join the Roman army in Asia Minor. Intervention by the family of Caesar’s mother and Rome’s Vestal Virgins lifted the threat against Caesar; but it was not until he heard of Sulla’s death in 78 B.C. that he returned to Rome, where he practiced as a lawyer and polished the oratorical skills that served him well for the rest of his life.
Years later, Cicero, himself a famous orator, asked: “Do you know any man who, even if he has concentrated on the art of oratory to the exclusion of all else, can speak better than Caesar?”
Caesar later served as questor (a treasury and legal official) in the Roman province of Hispania Ulterior (Further Spain), where he led military expeditions against the native tribes and in 59 B.C. became a Roman consul, the city’s highest elected official. Following his year as consul, Caesar engineered his appointment as proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul (the region between the Alps, the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea) and Transalpine Gaul (present-day Switzerland and Alpine France). Although the proconsular term of office normally was one year, Caesar was able to secure his post in Gaul for an unprecedented five years, a term later increased to 10 years.
Caesar had absolute authority within these two Gallic provinces, and the Senate entrusted him with four legions to enforce his authority. He also was authorized to levy additional legions and auxiliary forces as needed.
CONQUEST OF GAUL
For most of the next decade, Caesar worked to pacify the unruly Gallic tribes and make Gaul a Roman province. He cleverly exploited the tribes’ endemic factionalism, made allies by showing mercy to the tribes he defeated, and bribed others with the fruits of Roman civilization – and when necessary, he waged war against them.
At the time, Roman legions were noted for their tactical flexibility, disciplined fighting, ability to adapt to changing circumstances and superb organization; but “what ultimately made the Romans unbeatable,” one historian wrote, was “the Roman genius for fighting as a unit.” To this proven mix, Caesar added his charisma, daring and ability to inspire.
Before Caesar had even left Rome to take up his duties in Gaul, he received word that the Helvetii tribe had begun migrating west toward the Atlantic coast, burning their villages behind them. They were moving to escape harassment by Germanic tribes and to seek plunder of their own, something that was missing in their mountainous homeland. To help their plans, they made alliances with the Sequani, the Aedui (Roman clients) and two other Gallic tribes. The Romans rightly feared that the Helvetii would pillage other tribes as they migrated, and that once settled in southwest Gaul they would pose a threat to Roman territory. Moreover, the Germanic tribes likely would move into the abandoned Helvetii homeland, posing another threat to Roman interests.
Caesar moved quickly into Gaul, creating auxiliary units as he went. When he reached the town of Geneva, near the planned route of the Helvetii, he began destruction of a bridge over the Rhone River in territory belonging to a Roman client tribe, the Allobroges. Caesar, who throughout his military career relied heavily on his engineers, then began fortifying his position behind the river with a 16-foot-high rampart and a parallel trench lined with ballistae (large missile weapons). He warned the Helvetii that any attempt to cross the river would be opposed.
Caesar then hurried to Cisalpine Gaul, where he took command of three legions and enrolled two new ones, the XI and XII. At the head of these five legions, he passed through the Alps, crossing the territories of several hostile tribes and fighting some skirmishes en route.
Meanwhile, the Helvetii had begun pillaging the land of tribes aligned with Rome. Turning to aid the Roman-allied tribes, Caesar met the Helvetii as they were crossing the River Arar (modern-day Saône River, in eastern France). When he reached the river, three-fourths of the Helvetii force had already crossed. He routed those remaining on his side of the Arar, killing many of them and driving the rest into the woods. He then built a bridge over the river and pursued the main Helvetii force for two weeks until a lack of supplies caused him to end the chase.
In a quick reversal, the fleeing Helvetii suddenly turned and began to pursue the Romans, harassing their rear guard. Caesar chose to stop and fight at a hill near a Gallic oppidum (fortified city) at Bibracte. He sent his cavalry to delay the enemy and placed four legions in the traditional Roman three-line formation partway up the hill. He stationed himself at the hill’s summit with two other legions, his auxiliaries and his baggage train. About midday, the Helvetii force, said to be tens of thousands of experienced warriors, appeared and stood facing the smaller and far less combat-experienced Roman force. Bibracte was the first great battle of Caesar’s military career.
Caesar sent away his horse – a signal to his troops that he would stand with them. Then, rather than use the high ground for a defensive stand, he moved forward against the Helvetii. His legionaries first threw their iron-pointed, long-shanked pila (javelins), which stuck firmly in the Helvetii warriors’ wooden shields, weighing them down (the pila could not be easily removed since their thin shanks usually bent upon impact). Soon, many of the warriors found themselves all but helpless to lift their now heavily laden shields. They simply cast them aside and prepared to meet the Roman assault without them.
Caesar’s legionaries drew their gladii (short swords) and attacked the disadvantaged tribesmen, breaking the enemy’s line and forcing the Helvetii back almost to their baggage train. While this happened, the Boii and Tulingi, Helvetii allies who had been held in reserve, joined the battle by hitting Caesar’s right flank. When the Helvetii saw their allies attack, they returned to the battle. This forced the Romans to divide their already outnumbered force to fight the Helvetii to their front and the enemy reserves to their side. The battle turned into a desperate fight for survival that continued into the twilight hours.
Finally, Caesar’s legions were able to collapse the Helvetii defense, with some of the tribesmen escaping to the north and others making a last stand at the Helvetii baggage train, which was soon overwhelmed. Due to his many wounded and the need to bury his dead, Caesar had to wait three days before he could pursue the fleeing Helvetii, but he finally caught them. They surrendered and begged for mercy. In what would become his trademark, Caesar spared the Helvetii survivors and ordered them to return to their original homeland. He gave them grain to eat and seed to begin a crop, but he insisted on hostages to insure their obedience.
In the Gallic camp, Caesar found records indicating that more than 300,000 Helvetii men, women and children had begun the trek west. Less than a third survived to make their return. “The contest [was] long and vigorously carried on,” Caesar wrote in his Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.
Caesar next pacified the Suebi, a Germanic tribe, killing most of the 120,000-man force sent against him. Then in 57 B.C., he marched with eight legions, archers and cavalry against the Belgae (who occupied an area roughly comprising modern-day Belgium) after they attacked a tribe allied with Rome. “[The Belgae] never gave up even when there was no hope of victory,” Caesar wrote. He met them at the River Sabis (today’s Sambre), where he almost lost the battle that raged along its shore. He only was able to turn the conflict when he commandeered a shield from a soldier and personally rallied his legions, forming a large defensive square to protect his wounded and calling for reinforcements. Caesar’s use of projectile weapons (such as ballistae) along with archers and peltasts enabled him to turn the battle in his favor.
Caesar followed this victory with a series of punitive raids against tribes along the Atlantic seaboard that had assembled an anti-Roman confederacy, and he fought a combined land-sea campaign against the Veneti. In 55 B.C., Caesar repelled an incursion into Gaul by two Germanic tribes, and followed that by building a bridge across the Rhine. He led a show of force into Germanic territory before returning across the Rhine and dismantling the bridge.
That same year, Caesar launched an amphibious campaign that took his forces to Britain. However, the campaign nearly ended in disaster when bad weather wrecked much of his fleet and the sight of massed British chariots caused confusion among his men. He withdrew from Britain but returned in 54 B.C. with a much larger force that successfully defeated the powerful Catuvellauni, whom he forced to pay tribute to Rome.
Most of 53 B.C. was spent in a punitive campaign against the Eburones and their allies, who were said to have been all but exterminated by the Romans. “There was such a passion among the Gauls for liberty,” Caesar wrote, “that [nothing] could hold them back from throwing themselves with all their heart and soul into the fight for freedom.”
However, a larger and more serious uprising erupted in 52 B.C. involving the Arverni and allied tribes led by the Arverni chief Vercingetorix. The fighting began when another Gallic tribe, the Carnutes, slaughtered a group of Romans who had settled in what they considered their territory. Vercingetorix, a young nobleman, raised an army, made alliances with several other tribes and seized control of what was developing as an all-out revolt against Roman authority. He also fomented an outbreak of tribes along the Mediterranean, forcing Caesar to turn his attention to the south.
Caught on the wrong side of the mountains from Vercingetorix when winter hit, Caesar crossed the “impassable” Massif Central with a small force of infantry and cavalry to link up with two of his legions quartered near the southern edge of Arvenni territory. In his Commentaries, he remarked, “No single traveler had ever crossed [these mountains] in winter.”
The Romans pursued Vercingetorix and captured Avaricum (modern Bourges, in central France), the capital city of the allied Bituriges, killing the entire population. But at Gergovia, Vercingetorix defeated Caesar, inflicting heavy losses including 46 veteran centurions (commanders of an 80-100 man unit in a Roman legion). Yet Vercingetorix also suffered serious losses and after losing another minor engagement to Caesar was forced to seek refuge in the hilltop city of Alesia (near modern-day Dijon, France).
SIEGE OF ALESIA
The Aedui, a tribe Caesar had saved from Germanic deprecation, had turned against him, joining the revolt and capturing his supplies and Roman base at Soissons. But by moving to Alesia, Vercingetorix had played to his enemy’s strength – Caesar was a master of siege warfare. One historian wrote: “Caesar, next to Alexander, was the outstanding director of siege operations of the ancient world.” Caesar proved that claim at the siege of Alesia.
In September 52 B.C., Caesar arrived at Alesia and laid siege to a combined Gallic force that may have numbered 80,000 warriors, four times greater than Caesar’s force. Knowing the city was immune to direct attack and again relying on his engineers, Caesar began construction of an encircling set of fortifications (circumvallation) around Alesia. Approximately 10 miles of 12-foot-high palisades were built in about three weeks. On the Alesia side of this rampart, two 15-foot-wide ditches were dug, with the one nearest the fortification filled with water from surrounding rivers. Sharpened stakes were jammed into the ground near the wall, and guard towers were erected every 80 feet. Caesar then ordered the construction of a second line of fortifications facing outward (contravallation), enclosing his army between it and the inner set of fortifications. The second wall, designed to protect the Roman besiegers from attacks from outside the city, was the same as the first in design but included four cavalry camps.
Vercingetorix’s cavalry unsuccessfully raided the construction several times, but his men were unable to stop the work. Enough of the Gallic horsemen escaped, however, to ride for help.
On October 2, Vercingetorix’s Gauls launched a massive attack from inside the Roman fortifications while a relief army hit the Romans from outside. Caesar personally rode along the perimeter inspiring his legionaries as the two-sided battle raged. He was finally able to counterattack and managed to push back Vercingetorix’s men. He then took 13 cavalry cohorts (about 6,000 men) to attack the relief army, forcing it to retreat. The day’s fighting was over.
Inside Alesia, Vercingetorix gave his men a day’s rest before again throwing their might against the Roman wall with scaling ladders and grappling hooks. Again the Gauls were beaten back. Caesar’s enemy, however, had one last card to play.
Vercingetorix moved a large part of his force by night to a weak spot in the northwest portion of the Roman fortifications that Caesar had tried to conceal; the area featured natural obstructions where a continuous wall could not be built. In the morning, Vercingetorix sent a diversionary attack against the wall to the south and then struck the Roman weak spot with men he had hidden there and remnants of the relief force. Again, Caesar personally rode to the spot to rally his troops and his inspired legionaries were able to beat back the Gallic attack.
Facing starvation and plummeting morale inside Alesia, Vercingetorix was forced to surrender. The next day he presented his arms to Caesar, ending the siege in a Roman victory.
The city’s garrison was taken prisoner, as were the survivors of the relief army. All were either sold into slavery or given as booty to Caesar’s legionaries, except for the members of the Aedui and Arverni tribes. The latter were freed to secure their tribes’ alliance with Rome. Vercingetorix was taken to Rome, where he was held for six years before being put on display during Caesar’s 46 B.C. triumph celebration – and then executed by strangulation.
The siege of Alesia, which Caesar recounted in his Commentaries, is considered one of his greatest military achievements as well as being a classic example of successful siege warfare.
Alesia marked the end of organized resistance to Rome in Gaul, which became a Roman province. Caesar’s next campaign, however, was against his fellow Romans.
BATTLE OF PHARSALUS
On August 9, 48 B.C., nearly four years after Caesar won Gaul with his victory at Alesia, he stood surveying Pompey’s much larger army at Pharsalus in Roman-ruled central Greece. The outcome of the bitter civil war that began with Caesar’s January 49 B.C. crossing of the Rubicon River with his XIII Legion in defiance of the Pompey-led Senate’s order would be decided by this day’s battle.
For the past several days, Pompey had brought his more numerous troops to the field, and Caesar had formed his smaller army against them. Although several brief cavalry engagements had been fought, the mass of the two armies had only stood and glared at one another. Finally, however, on August 9 Pompey and his army seemed ready to fight – and with a glance Caesar realized what his enemy was planning. Pompey’s infantry would hold Caesar’s opposing infantry in place while the Pompeian cavalry swept around the end of the Roman line in an outflanking maneuver.
Caesar responded by thinning the traditional Roman three-line infantry formation and creating a fourth line hidden behind the other three. Then he ordered his legionaries to charge.
When the 20,000 seasoned veterans of Caesar’s infantry line charged, Pompey’s 50,000 infantrymen held their positions awaiting the collision. This allowed Caesar’s soldiers to have, as one historian wrote, “the impetus of the charge inspire them with courage.” Caesar’s men threw their pila, pulled their gladii and crashed into the Pompeian shield wall. As Caesar had foreseen, when the lines collided Pompey loosed his 7,000 cavalrymen at the end of the Roman line. The Pompeian cavalry quickly overwhelmed the outnumbered Caesarian horse but then ran into Caesar’s favorite legion, the X, which Caesar had purposely stationed at the end of the line to meet the enemy cavalry.
The X’s men, rather than hurl their pila at the cavalry attack and then chop at the horses’ legs with their gladii (the traditional Roman defense against a cavalry attack), stabbed at the faces and eyes of the horsemen with their pila as Caesar had drilled them to do. The charging cavalry, meeting this unexpected and terrifying menace, pulled up short and then panicked. Caesar’s cavalry and the six cohorts that made up his hidden fourth line then rushed forward to outflank Pompey’s left and worked their way behind his lines to attack from the rear. Caesar sent in his yet uncommitted third line to reinforce the fatigued troops, and Pompey’s remaining soldiers fled the field. Caesar’s men then focused on Pompey’s camp.
Pompey gathered his family, loaded as much gold as he could, threw off his general’s cloak and fled. Seven cohorts of Pompey-allied Thracians and other auxiliaries defended the camp as best they could but were unable to fend off Caesar’s legionaries.
According to figures claimed at the time, when the day was over 15,000 of Pompey’s men were killed and another 20,000 were captured, while Caesar lost only 200 men. Later and more reliable estimates judge that Caesar lost about 1,200 soldiers and 30 centurions, while Pompey’s losses totaled about 6,000. After the battle, 180 stands of colors and nine eagle standards were brought to Caesar as trophies of his victory.
Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated on the order of Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII. Pompey’s two sons, Gnaeus and Sextus, and their supporters tried to continue the civil war, but the effort was futile.
Caesar spent the next few years “mopping up” remnants of the Pompeian faction and then returned to Rome and was reaffirmed as Rome’s dictator. He later went to Egypt, where he became involved in the Egyptian civil war and installed Cleopatra on Egypt’s throne. Caesar then went to the Middle East, where he annihilated the king of Pontus.
Julius Caesar ruled Rome as unquestioned dictator until his assassination March 15, 44 B.C.
Historians have praised Caesar for his innovative military tactics, his use of skilled military engineers and his natural gifts as a military leader. Yet he was aware of the role that luck played in his victories. “In all of life,” Caesar wrote, “but especially in war, the greatest power belongs to fortune.”
Caesar also knew, as all great generals know, “if fortune doesn’t go your way, sometimes you have to bend it to your will.” And bend it he did.
Chuck Lyons is a retired newspaper editor and a freelance writer who has written extensively on historical subjects. His work has appeared in numerous national and international periodicals. Lyons resides in Rochester, N.Y., with his wife, Brenda, and a beagle named Gus.
Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Armchair General.