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Battle of Pharsalus Area Today

A map of the area around the battle positions

Battle of Pharsalus summary

The Battle of Pharsalus was a decisive battle of Caesar's Civil War. On 9 August 48 BCE at Pharsalus in central Greece, Gaius Julius Caesar and his allies formed up opposite the army of the republic under the command of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus ("Pompey the Great"). Pompey had the backing of a majority of the senators, of whom many were optimates, and his army significantly outnumbered the veteran Caesarian legions.

  1. Caesar deployed in three lines but could only set them to six men deep if he was to match the length of Pompey's line. Like Pompey he was protected by the river on his left allowing him to position all his cavalry to the right as a counter.
  2. Caesar gambled and began discreetly thinning his already depleted ranks of men then repositioned them as a fourth line to support his cavalry against the inevitable assault by the much larger Pompeian cavalry.
  3. There was significant distance between the two armies. Pompey ordered his men not to charge, but to wait until Caesar's legions came into close quarters. Pompey's adviser Caius Triarius believed that Caesar's infantry would be fatigued and fall into disorder if they were forced to cover twice the expected distance.
  4. Seeing that Pompey's army was not advancing, Caesar's men, without orders, stopped to rest and regroup before continuing the charge. Caesar, in his history of the war, would praise his own men's discipline and experience, and questioned Pompey's decision not to charge.
  5. When the lines joined, Labienus ordered the cavalry to attack. As expected they successfully pushed back Caesar's cavalry until his hidden fourth line joined in.
  6. Using their pila to thrust at Pompey's cavalry the hidden line of legionaries turned the enemy to flight.
  7. Caesar ordered his six cohorts from his left flank to attack the flank of Pompey's army.
  8. After observing his cavalry routed, Pompey retreated to his camp and left his troops to their own devices. He ordered the garrison to defend it as he gathered his family, loaded up as much gold as he could, threw off his general's cloak and fled.
  9. Caesar urged his men to end the day by capturing the enemy camp and they furiously attacked the walls.
  10. The Thracians and the other auxiliaries who were left in the camp, in total seven cohorts, defended bravely, but were not able to fend off the assault.