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Pharsalus and the Campaign in Greece

Posted September 19th, 2017 at 11:18 PM by Duke Valentino
Updated January 11th, 2018 at 02:01 AM by Duke Valentino


This is being written and changed constantly. I'm posting it then adding to it as I go along since I'm hoping people can help me in the writing process in correcting me and providing feedback, sources, alternative thoughts etc. Any such feedback would be greatly appreciated


The purpose of this paper is to serve as an in-depth military analysis of Caesar's campaign in Greece against Pompey, which culminated at the Battle of Pharsalus. It seeks to reconcile the sources to create a likely reconstruction of the campaign and the battle, and attempt provide a reasonable account of the armies of the generals, their numbers, movements and losses, and ultimately, seeks to provide the most likely course of events based on the limited sources available. This text has been written to conclude that Caesar, in his commentaries, was fabricating to a significant extent, the size of his own army, and that of Pompey's at Pharsalus. In order to prove this point, a military evaluation of the Greek campaign was conducted with the following results.

That Caesar, at Pharsalus, contrary to his claims, had on hand some 30,000 legionaries to Pompey's 40,000. His claim that he had 1,000 cavalry on hand cannot be fully verified; yet the claim for Pompey's cavalry, 7,000, is false and can't have been much more than 3,600.

Chapter I
The Preliminaries

After conquering Gaul, Caesar fought four brilliant campaigns against his Roman adversaries during the Civil War. He first went to Spain, where he defeated Pompey's own legions at Illerda. He then went to Greece to face and defeat Pompey himself at Pharsalus, as is the topic of this essay. After that, he went to Africa and defeated one of his top generals from the Gallic war, Labienus, and finally, he went back to Spain to defeat the remnants of the Republican party at Munda.

Both Napoleon and Delbruck astutely point out that Caesar's campaigns against the Romans, as opposed to the barbarians, was where Caesar really showcased his military genius.[1] The Civil War was on another level for Caesar and his men, now veterans of a ten year campaign that added the entirety of Gaul to the Republic. Instead of facing the tribal warrior class of the Gauls and their levies, they were now instead fighting other Romans. To face an opponent with the same type of army, same understanding of strategy and maneuver, and the same logistical system as yourself is what made Caesar one of the greatest generals of all time, along with the likes of Alexander, Napoleon and Hannibal.

Caesar crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC with one legion, the Legio XIII Gemina, beginning the Civil War. He possessed 11 legions under his personal command. In order to understand how we got to that number, we must first note that this number is not provided to us in the sources. In opposition to Goldsworthy's opinion that Caesar had 10 legions along with the equivalent of two legions in the shape of 22 independent cohorts raised in Caesar's province;[2] I am more inclined to favor Delbruck's assertion of 11 legions, based on Caesar's own words. He points out that Caesar only mentions 10 in his campaign against Vercingetorix, 11 in the following year in winter quarters, and had given up from these 2 legions that were lent to him by Pompey. This makes for a total of 9 legions. It is entirely possible that that Caesar, having foreseen the oncoming war, raised two new legions as replacements for the ones that he gave up. Delbruck believes that an even more reasonable alternative is that the 5th and 6th legions were formed from these 22 cohorts and served with Caesar against Vercingetorix.[3] With this considered, we come to a total of 11 legions under Caesar's command when he crossed the Rubicon.

On hand in Italy, apart from the 2 legions received from Caesar, Pompey had a third newly formed of both previous veterans and new recruits, and in Spain were his 7 veteran legions giving him a total of 10 legions. We must consider now why Pompey did not make any attempt to halt Caesar in Italy. There was no possible way he could extract his veteran legions from Spain, and his strength in Italy was extremely quaky. Of the three legions under his command, two had been fighting for Caesar, causing their loyalty to be questionable, at least for the time being, and with only one other legion, which was not ready for deployment as a proper fighting force, Pompey was in no position to fight against his adversary in Italy itself, especially since Caesar could call the rest of his forces from across the Alps.[4]

After his daring crossing of the Rubicon, Caesar began his advance into Italy with the 13th legion, which Plutarch reports as 5,000 strong in legionaries at the time, along with 300 horsemen.[5] Plutarch tells us:
"He saw, however, that the beginning of his enterprise and its initial step did not require a large force at present, but must take advantage of the golden moment by showing amazing boldness and speed, since he could strike terror into his enemies by an unexpected blow more easily than he could overwhelm them by an attack in full force." [6]
Caesar also around this time called upon his other legions to cross over from Roman Gaul, who had been wintering there.[7] Caesar's first act was to capture the city of Arminium. Meanwhile, Pompey had shown the senate that he had 10 legions, presumably this would mean the 3 he had in Italy plus the 7 in Spain. He also called for a levy in Italy as well as requesting a sum of money from the treasury.

Chapter I Endnotes

1. Colson, Napoleon: On War, x
Caesar had three wonderful campaigns: the civil war, the African war, which was his masterpiece, the Spanish war against Pompey, and even the one against the Gauls. but if he had only had the latter, it would not have sufficed to justify his great reputation. They were barbarians, armed multitudes, brave but undisciplined, without knowledge of the art of war, whereas in the other three campaigns he was fighting against skillful, disciplined armies like his own.
Delbruck, Warfare in Antiquity, 515.
Strategy, as we have come to know it in Gaul through Caesar, consists of avoiding the enemy's strength and pitting one's own strength against the enemy weakness. Caesar did the same thing in the Civil War, but the same principles called for another kind of execution, since the military conditions were different. Laying out fortified camps, providing systematically for resupply, occupying favorable positions, maneuvering - Caesar's opponents understood all these activities just as well as he did.
2. Goldsworthy, Caesar, 466.

3. Delbruck, Warfare in Antiquity, 525-6
"In the year 52 B.C., in addition to the above-mentioned 10 legions, Caesar also had 22 cohorts that were defending the province (7. 65) and that had been levied in the province itself, so that not all were composed of Roman citizens. The Fifth Legion, Alauda, was such a legion of noncitizens. According to Suetonius (Caesar, Chapter 24), Caesar had already formed it during the Gallic War and not, as Domaszewski believes, as late as the year 50 B.C. There is nothing more natural than for use to assume that it belonged to those 22 cohorts of the year 52 B.C., and the same for the Sixth Legion, although of course Suetonius speaks of only one barbarian legion. If we consider however, that the Sixth Legion now appears in the Commentaries for the first time... it arrived before Alesia as part of the main army; that Caesar cannot possibly have still had a veteran legion in Cisalpine Gaul at that time; that nothing would be more natural than for Caesar, after he had defeated Vercingetorix and the province was no longer in need of protection, to order up to his main force... in preparation for the decisive battle - under these circumstances we can hardly reach any other conclusion than that the legion was also a part of those 22 cohorts."
4. Caesar (1.3) says that
"Everywhere a number of reserves from the old armies of Pompeius are called out to serve by the prospect of prizes and promotion; many are summoned from the two legions handed over by Caesar."
Inferring that the third legion contained a mix of new recruits and veterans.

5. Plutarch, Caesar, 32.1
"Now, Caesar had with him not more than three hundred horsemen and five thousand legionaries; for the rest of his army had been left beyond the Alps, and was to be brought up by those whom he had sent for the purpose."
6. Ibid, 32.2
"He saw, however, that the beginning of his enterprise and its initial step did not require a large force at present, but must take advantage of the golden moment by showing amazing boldness and speed, since he could strike terror into his enemies by an unexpected blow more easily than he could overwhelm them by an attack in full force."
7. Ibid, 32.1 and Caesar (1.8)

Works Cited

Colson, Bruno, Napoleon: On War.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1st ed., 2015.
Delbruck, Hans, History of the Art of War, Volume 1:Warfare in Antiquity, trans. Walter J. Renfroe, Jr (Reprint, 2010)

Goldsworthy, Gabriel, Caesar.
London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 2007.
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