The Battle of Pharsalus

The Roman Civil War.
The Battle of Pharsalus.
29th of June, 48 B.C.

The Roman Civil War was started by Julius Caesar when in January 49 B.C. he crossed the River Rubicon, the boundary between Italy and Cisalpine Gaul. He quickly over-ran Italy and entered Rome. Pompey (his rival) and the Consuls made their escape to Greece where they began to raise their Armies. Pharsalus was just one of the many battles fought between these two great Romans.


After Caesar was defeated at the Battle of Dyrrachium in May of that year, he proceeded to Thessaly where he positioned two Legions (the XI and the XII) and 500 cavalry under Calvinus; with orders to stop the Syrian Governor, Metellus Scipio from linking up with Pompey. Metellus was bringing with him 2 Legions and 200 mounted Syrian archers.

Calvinus just avoided being trapped between Pompey and Metellus thus allowing their two forces to unite. The two armies now faced each other on the Plains of Pharsalus. Caesar always wanted a decisive battle, while Pompey was content to see his enemies army slowly fade away due to supply problems. But Pompeys’ Commanders, after a Council of War, decided that it was the right time to stand and fight.

The Army of Caesar: There were elements of the VIII, IX, X, XI, and XII Legions, about 80 understrength cohorts. This amounted to about 22,000 Legionaires, 1000 cavalry and a small number of light troops.

The Army of Pompey: 110 cohorts of Legionaires and Auxiliaries gave Pompey a force of 45,000 men. They were supported by 3,000, archers, 1,200 slingers and about 7,000 Cavalry. Some of the cavalry, especially the 800 strong force of Pompeys’ herdsmen and slaves, would not be of the highest quality.

The Battlefield: The battle itself was fought on the Plain which was surrounded on three sides by hills. On Pompeys’ right there flowed the River Enipeus. The hills saw the final scenes of this battle.

The two Armies faced each other for several days at a distance of 4 miles. Each day both Commanders marched their troops out and formed line of battle, only to return back to camp. Each side was trying to get the other to commit himself. However Caesar was running short of supplies, and was forced to take the offensive. On the morning of June 29th, Caesar as usual, came out with his Army; but this time it was to fight. While Caesars’ Army formed the normal three lines, he surveyed Pompeys’ own battlelines.

Pompey was using the steep banks of the River Enipeus to protect his right flank. All his cavalry, slingers and archers were on the left except for 600 Pontic and Cappadocian cavalry which were on his right.
His extreme right was held by a Cilician Legion supported by Spanish cohorts. The Syrian Legions were in the centre and the rest of the cohorts were placed between the two wings. Some cohorts were with the Auxiliaries to act as light infantry. Seven cohorts were left behind to protect the camp and some smaller forts that were in the hills.
Pompeys’ Army was about 42,000 infantry and 7,000 cavalry against Caesars’ 21,500 infantry and 1,000 cavalry. This meant that Pompeys’ frontage would overlap his enemy’s.

Caesar united his two weakened Legions (IX and VII) and placed them on his left and personally took command of the X Legion on his extreme right. Seeing that he could be outflanked by the enemy’s’ cavalry and lights, he withdrew 6 cohorts (some sources quote 3,000 men) from the reserves of the third line and placed them out of sight behind the X Legion. The reserves of the third line were not to attack unless ordered to do so by Caesar himself.

Pompey ordered his men to stay firm and to let Caesars’ force attack them. The plan was for the enemy to tire themselves out by charging the distance between the two Armies. But the Legionaires of Caesar were battle hardened Veterans. When they saw that the enemy were not moving to meet them, they stopped at about half way, pausing only to regain formation and to get a short rest. Once ready, they charged forward, threw their javelins and drawing their swords they attacked.

The Pompeians received the charge without any problems. At the same moment the cavalry on Pompey’s’ left attacked and they were followed by over 4,000 archers and slingers.

Caesars’ cavalry, mixed with light infantry were overwhelmed almost immediately and were forced to fall back rapidly. The Pompeian light troops attacked Caesars’ right while the cavalry tried to get round Caesars’ exposed flank. Caesar seeing the danger, ordered the hidden 4th rank behind his X Legion to attack the cavalry. Taken by surprise, and as many of them were fighting their first battle, the cavalry at first sheered away from the infantry. However this very quickly turned into a panic and then a rout. The entire force headed for the hills. The Pompeian archers and slingers without the support of the cavalry were slaughtered.

Meanwhile the main Pompeian Army was standing firm. Neither side was gaining an advantage. Once the 4th line had dealt with the archers and slingers, it then began to sweep around the left flank of the enemy and attack it in the rear. Caesar at this point ordered the 3rd line forward to replace the first2, who by now were exhausted. For the Pompeians this was the final straw. Fighting fresh troops to the front and now being attacked in the rear, the left flank began to break up.

The centre fought on, but Pompey seeing how the battle was going, left the field. At around mid-day his defeated cohorts began to drift into the camp. The cohorts guarding the camp put up a good fight, but were forced to abandon the ramparts and head for the safety of the high ground that was above the camp.
The Pompeians were on the high ground and Caesar was between them and the only source of water, the River Enipeus. Although exhausted, Caesars’ troops built a line of defences between the river and the high ground, thus cutting off the enemy from the water. The next day, at dawn, the remaining enemy surrendered.


Conclusion: This battle was the most bloody battle in the Civil War in terms of Romans killing Romans.

According to Caesar, he lost 230 officers and men, but other sources state 1,200. Pompey lost about 15.000 men, but as with most ancient battles, the slaughter probably occurred during the pursuit. About 6,000 were killed in the attack on the camp. 24.000 surrendered to Caesar the day after the battle.
Shortly afterwards, Pompey was killed in Egypt as he was about to try and raise another Army. Caesar was declared Dictator for Life, and everyone thought that the Civil War was over.

Wargaming the Battle: If you tried to refight this as a proper refight, the size of table and the amount of figures required would be prohibitive. So lets go for a Scenario that gives the flavour of the battle.

Caesar will be outnumbered almost 2-1. To have any chance of success his troops must be of a better quality.
I will not be going into different the classifications as found in several Rules and Lists, instead I will give a broad outline of the two Armies. You can include the finer details about Types, Morale Weapons etc yourself. You can adjust the size of the Armies as well as the size of the Units. If you feel that the light infantry should be javelin armed, then change it.

Caesars Army: All the Legions are Veterans. This also applies to the Cavalry. The light infantry are Average.
I use 24 figures to a Legion. This gives Caesar three Legions, 12 Cavalry (Medium), 6 Cavalry (Light) and two Units of light troops; both 12 strong; these are archers and slingers. In the camp there are 12 Legionaires.

Pompeys’ Army: There are six Legions, one Veteran, two Average and three Poor, Raw etc. There are two Units of light infantry archers, each 12 strong and one Unit of slingers, also 12 strong. These lights are all Average.
The Cavalry are, Cappadocian and Pontic: Heavy, Veteran, 12 Figures. The others were Gauls, Numidians, Macedonian, Thracian and Syrian to name a few. This mass on the left would be 50% Average, the rest being of a poorer class. These are 8 Heavy, 12 Medium and 24 Light Cavalry. I would class the Light Cavalry as poor.
In the camp there are 18 Legionaires. These do not leave the camp and are classed as Veterans. This is because of the fight they put up when they were attacked.

I am not saying that this is a Historical representation of the fighting abilities of the troops involved, but in order to give Caesar a chance, History must be bent a little. Pompey, in order to win, must use his numbers to overlap Caesar and then sweep around his flanks. Caesar must time his attack perfectly, as Pompey thins out his line to advance, Caesar launches his attack. His Veterans should at first succeed, then it’s a race against time whether or not he can achieve victory before Pompey can bring his flanks round to bear.

Good Luck to both sides.

The Battle of Pharaslus

The Battle of Pharaslus