NFB’s 30 Decisive Battles Of The World: Pharsalus

Chronological order? Boring!

So how are we going to do this? Through some short, quick headings namely:

Name, When, Where, Type, Forces/Commanders, Quote, What Happened

and then, the important part, why it is decisive in each of my own four interpretations:

1. It’s immediate effect on that war or conflict.
2. It’s technological or tactical innovations.
3. It’s macro-historical effect.
4. It’s role in a nation (or people’s) history and culture.

Let’s begin, shall we?

Name: The Battle of Pharsalus
The War: Caesar’s Civil War, the first phase of the extensive Roman Republic Civil Wars.
When: 9 August, 48 BC.
Where: Pharsalus, Eastern Greece (the exact site is disputed, but it is in this general area).
Type: Land
Force/Commanders: Circa 30’000 Legionnaires, Auxiliaries and cavalry of the Populares faction under Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony against 60’000 Legionnaires, Auxiliaries and cavalry of the Optimates faction under Pompey Magnus.


Wars worse than civil on Emathian plains,
and crime let loose we sing; how Rome’s high race
plunged in her vitals her victorious sword;
armies akin embattled, with the force
of all the shaken earth bent on the fray;
and burst asunder, to the common guilt,
a kingdom’s compact; eagle with eagle met,
standard to standard, spear opposed to spear.

-Pharsalia, Lucan.

What Happened: 

The Roman Republic was gripped by Civil War, a conflict between two great military minds. Pompey Magnus, leading the Senatorial faction, had attempted to play a waiting game, retreating to consolidate his power in Greece while Caesar dealt with matters in recently conquered Italy and the west. Arriving in Greece to face Pompey, Caesar faced setback after setback, most notably a near decisive defeat at Dyrrhachium, followed by an extensive period where Pompey delayed another engagement, seeking to starve the Populaires out.

Eventually, at the urging of less militarily capable Senators, Pompey moved to engage Caesar at Pharsalus, outnumbering his adversary at least 2-1, maybe more.

Caesar correctly guessed (or learned beforehand) that Pompey would attempt to use his greater cavalry numbers to try to flank him. While the main forces met in the centre (Caesar’s men wisely refrained from a long charge, meeting the Optimate army fresh and ready), he had his own smaller cavalry force retreat from Pompey’s horse. When they pursued, he unleashed a hidden force of light troops, spear throwers and other missile experts. The Optimate cavalry panicked and routed from the unexpected assault.

Caesar was able to flank Pompey’s force himself, and with his clever interchanging of troops at the front of the deployment, advanced with a less tired army. Pompey’s force broke and fled.

The Optimates abandoned the area en masse. Pompey was soon dead at the hands of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt and Caesar was left as the most powerful force in the Roman world.

Why It’s Decisive – Impact On That War

It effectively ended the first phase of the Republic Civil War in Caesars’ favour. The Optimates couldn’t assemble another force to really challenge Caesar, and they either fled into exile permanently, committed suicide, or requested amnesty from the new ruler of Rome (usually granted). The result allowed Caesar to become the only power of Rome, dictator for life. He wouldn’t hold it very long, thanks to Brutus and co., but his family line wasn’t done yet.

Technological/Tactical Innovations

Little, though it was a good example of the way Caesar could cycle through his troops during a battle.

Macro-historical Importance

Immense. By defeating the Optimates, Caesar effectively ended the Roman Republic. No military force could challenge him. When he was assassinated, his heir, Octavian, carried on his work and position. Though Julius Caesar is not considered the first Emperor of Rome, he certainly made sure the position came into being. Hie heirs became the executive of the perhaps the greatest Empire in European history, one whose legacy is defined by its change in governance around the turn of the millennium.

The Roman Republic fell and the Empire rose. An Empire that advanced outwards in all directions, became the cradle of Christianity, and inspired artists, militaries and rulers to this day. What would have happened if Pompey had carried the day? Who knows. The Republic might have endured, or maybe Magnus would have been dictator. Either way, a big difference.

In National Consciousness

In the time period, Pharsalus was considered Caesar’s greatest victory and a titanic clash of Roman heroes. It was immortalised by the poet Lucan in his Pharsalia (quoted above.) But it was overshadowed by future battles in the Civil War, most notably Phillipi and Actium.

Today, the battle itself means little, though its effect doesn’t. Modern Italy makes sure to play up its ancient history, for tourism purposes if nothing else. The brutal civil war period is a large part of that, a time of larger than life figures, the downfall of the republic, a nation torn apart. And Pharsalus was at its heart.

For more of NFBs Decisive Battles check out the index here.

This entry was posted in History, NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World, War and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to NFB’s 30 Decisive Battles Of The World: Pharsalus

  1. Pingback: NFB’s 30 Decisive Battles Of The World: Pharsalus « zapjens'

  2. Pingback: NFB's 30 Decisive Battles Of The World: Pharsalus « zaptext

  3. Pingback: NFBs Decisive Battles Of The World: Index | Never Felt Better

  4. Pingback: NFB’s 30 Decisive Battles Of The World: Pharsalus « jensens

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