THE BATTLE OF PHARSALUS I

Gaius Crastinus moved among his men, checking their equipment. He was no longer chief centurion of the 10th. That role had gone to a younger centurion the previous year, on Crastinus’s retirement. But on his recall, Caesar had welcomed Crastinus back to his legion with the rank of first-rank centurion, and for this operation had placed him in charge of 120 volunteers of the 1st Cohort of the 10th Legion, putting them in the front line. Caesar had once more placed the 10th Legion on his extreme right wing, the attacking wing. Much would depend on the 10th today.

Crastinus assured his comrades that they had just this one last battle to face as he moved along the line. He would have noticed a change of attitude among the men of the 10th since his return to its ranks. A lot of them had probably complained that Caesar no longer valued the 10th, that he treated it no better than the new Italian units with their raw, weak-kneed recruits. He’d broken his promise, and used the Germans as his bodyguard, not the 10th.

Now aged between thirty-four and thirty-seven, Crastinus had served Caesar for twelve of his seventeen years with the legions and was fanatically loyal to his general. He would have been quick to remind his comrades that Caesar had chosen the 10th to accompany him in the invasion’s first wave and now given them place of honor on the right wing. But there were apparently many in the 10th who sympathized with their countrymen in the 7th, 8th, and 9th, who were now eighteen months past their due discharge date and yet, as they complained, Caesar had not said a word about when they could go home.

“Remember what Caesar told us at Brindisi before we embarked,” Crastinus would have been telling his men. “One last campaign, one last battle.” Caesar himself records Crastinus saying: “After today, Caesar will regain his position, and we our freedom.”

It was midmorning on August 9, 48 B.C. As Centurion Crastinus took up his position on the extreme left of his front-line detachment, he faced across the field of swaying, ripening wheat to the army of Pompey the Great formed up some 450 yards away. Ever since the two sides had arrived on the plain of Farsala several weeks earlier, each had felt the other out, with cavalry skirmishes bringing a handful of fatalities on both sides, including one of the Allobroges brothers who’d defected to Pompey. More than once, Caesar had formed up his army in battle order in the wheat field, encouraging Pompey to come down off his hilltop and enter into a contest. Each time, Pompey stayed put. And each time, Caesar edged a little closer to the hills.

Then, early this morning, Caesar had broken camp. According to Plutarch, he was planning to march to Scotussa. Caesar himself says he’d decided to keep constantly on the move, seeking supplies for his army and leading Pompey a merry dance until the ideal opportunity for a battle presented itself. Even as his legions’ tents were being folded away and packed onto the baggage train, cavalry scouts came to Caesar to tell him that there was movement at Pompey’s camp. And as the lead elements of Caesar’s column marched out the front gate of his camp, more scouts arrived with the news that Pompey’s troops were beginning to come down from their hill and line up in battle formation—on the plain, giving up the advantage of higher ground. This was an obvious invitation to Caesar, and he accepted it.

“Our spirits are ready for battle,” Caesar says he declared. “We shall not easily find another chance.” He quickly issued orders for his red ensign to be raised as the signal for battle, and for the army to wheel about and form up on the plain opposite Pompey’s troops. According to both Appian and Plutarch, Caesar called out to his men, “The wished-for day has come at last, when you shall fight with men, not with famine and hunger.”

Summoning his senior officers to a brief conference, he’d ordered the same dispositions as the last time the army formed up for battle. Then, turning to General Publius Sulla, who would command the division on the right wing of the battle line, he told him to call for volunteers from the 10th to form the front line and lead the charge, knowing the untried legions in the center would be inspired by the performance of the famous 10th.

Some 120 men had quickly volunteered, among them Centurion Crastinus, which was why they now stood at the front of the 10th Legion’s formation on the extreme right of Caesar’s army, the cohorts stretching back in a total of three battle lines. Beside the 10th, making up the rest of the right division, stood the men of the 11th and 12th Legions. General Sulla had already taken up his position on the right with his staff.

Caesar’s center was commanded by General Domitius Calvinus, who had previously led the screening force in eastern Greece. As was the custom, the weakest troops took the center. In this case the central division was made up of three of the new legions raised in Italy the previous year, the 25th, 26th, and 29th.

The left wing was commanded by Mark Antony, once again holding the post of second-in-command of the army. With him stood the experienced Spanish legions he’d brought over from Brindisi and commanded at Durrës. The 9th was on the extreme outside, with auxiliaries and slingers filling the gap between them and the Enipeus River. The 8th was stationed next to the 9th. Both legions had been so depleted by the flu epidemic and then the casualties at Durrës that Caesar had ordered them to work together during this action and operate as one legion. Next to them stood the men of the 7th Legion, adjacent to the central division. All told, leaving just two cohorts guarding his camp and the baggage, with his 27th and 28th Legions absent in southern Greece, now under General Fufius, and eight assorted cohorts garrisoning three towns on the west coast, he was able to field nine legions in eighty understrength cohorts, totaling twenty-one thousand foot soldiers.

To counter Pompey’s cavalry massing on his right, Caesar deployed his own thousand-man cavalry, Germans and Gauls, supported by auxiliaries, extending from the 10th Legion’s position. His mounted troops and the auxiliaries had cooperated well in skirmishes against Pompey’s cavalry in the week or so leading up to the battle, and Caesar was hoping they would do the same again today to counteract Pompey’s significant superiority in cavalry.

Facing him, at Caesar’s estimation, Pompey had forty thousand infantry and seven thousand cavalry. As he came down onto the plain that morning, Pompey left seven cohorts drawn from a number of his least experienced legions to guard his camp, supported by auxiliaries from Thrace and Thessaly. General Afranius, who’d escaped from Spain to join Pompey, had come under severe criticism from Pompey’s other generals for losing seven legions to Caesar in Spain, despite the fact that he’d managed to bring thirty-five hundred men of the 4th and the 6th with him to Greece, and he’d been given the humble job of commanding the defenders of the camp, accompanied by Pompey’s eldest son, Gnaeus, who was probably in his midtwenties at this point.

Young Gnaeus would have been hugely frustrated at being left in the comparative safety of the camp, with the second-rate troops and thousands of noncombatants. He’d proven his bravery and military skill when he’d commanded the fleet from Egypt that had destroyed Caesar’s shipping along the Adriatic coast during the winter. But his father was obviously anxious to protect his son and heir. This act is indicative of the negative mind-set of Pompey on the day of the battle. Forced to agree to the battle by his impatient supporters at the meeting two days before, he still had little confidence in most of his infantry.

According to both Plutarch and Appian, Pompey had been awakened by a disturbance in his camp in the early hours of that morning: just before the last change of watch, excited sentries had witnessed a fiery-tailed meteor race across the sky from the direction of Caesar’s camp and disappear beyond the hills behind their own. Once awake, Pompey confided to his staff that he’d been dreaming he was adorning the temple of Venus the Victorious at Rome. Julius Caesar’s family claimed descent from the goddess Venus, and Pompey’s supporters were delighted by the dream, seeing it as an omen that Pompey soon would be celebrating the defeat of Caesar. Pompey wasn’t so sure; the dream could also be interpreted that he was saluting Caesar as victor.

Unbeknownst to Pompey, the previous evening Caesar had issued as his army’s watchword, or password, for August 9, “Venus, Bringer of Victory,” quite unaware that Pompey planned to bring on a battle next day.

A new watchword was issued every day in Roman military camps. Polybius tells us the watchword was issued for the next twenty-four hours by the commanding officer just before sunset. The tribune of the watch then distributed it on wax sheets to his legion’s guard sergeants, who in turn passed it on to the duty sentries in a strictly regulated process that required the prompt return of the wax sheets. Anyone trying to enter a Roman camp without knowing the watchword for the day was in trouble.

In battle, especially at times of civil war like this, with both sides similarly equipped, as well as in night fights, a watchword was often the only way to identify men from your own side. There are several instances of watchwords being hurriedly changed just before a battle in case deserters had passed on the latest watchword to the enemy overnight.

Watchwords could be a single word or a phrase. In imperial times, the emperor always issued the watchword to the Praetorian Guard if he was at Rome or to the army if he was in camp with them. Claudius frequently gave lines from epic poems. Nero famously issued “The Best of Mothers” in honor of the mother he later murdered. Dio and Seutonius say Caligula teased a particularly macho Praetorian tribune who came to dread the days when it fell to him to ask the emperor for the watchword; Caligula would call him a girl and give him watchwords such as “Love” and “Venus”— goddess of love. Dio also says that the night before Emperor Marcus Aurelius died in A.D. 180 he gave as the next day’s watchword “Go to the Rising Sun, I Am Already Setting.”

On August 8, 48 B.C., Pompey the Great, knowing the new day would bring the battle he’d been avoiding for a year and a half, had issued “Hercules, the Unconquered” as his watchword for August 9. Like mighty Hercules, Pompey had never been defeated in battle, and he was hoping it would stay that way.

Now that the day had arrived, despite his misgivings, Pompey made his troop dispositions with care. Marshaled by their centurions, the men of his elite 1st Legion confidently took up their assigned positions as the first heavy infantry unit on his left wing. Like Napoleon’s Imperial Guard 1,860 years later, the men of the 1st considered themselves the crème de la crème of their general’s army. Yet, as Pompey knew, despite the 1st’s proud record, most of the men of this enlistment of the legion had never been involved in a major engagement.

Beside the 1st stood Caesar’s former 15th Legion. The men of the 15th had six years’ experience behind them, four of those fighting for Caesar in Gaul, and were probably Pompey’s best troops in terms of experience. Since being given to Pompey by the Senate two years back, the legion had served him without question. Caesar now refused to call it the 15th. Instead, being rather petty, he would refer to it as the 3rd—because, it seems, the 15th came from the same recruiting ground in Cisalpine Gaul as the 3rd, which was one of Pompey’s legions that Caesar had captured in Spain and disbanded. But, deep in his heart, Pompey must have wondered whether, when it came to the crunch, the 15th could be trusted, whether the legion’s old association with Caesar would impact on its reliability in the heat of battle.

Next to the 15th stood two of the newly recruited legions that Pompey had brought out of Italy the previous year, made up mostly of youths in their late teens. This left-hand division of four legions came under the command of General Domitius Ahenobarbus. This was the same General Domitius who had lost Corfinium and Marseilles, but Pompey was a great respecter of rank, and Domitius outranked just about everyone else in his party, so he’d been given this command despite his past failings.

Pompey’s father-in-law, Scipio, held the middle of the line with his two Italian legions, raised five years earlier, survivors of Carrhae who had subsequently been stationed in Syria, plus the third of the new legions made up of untried Italian recruits which had escaped from Brindisi with the 1st and the 15th.

Commanding the division on Pompey’s right wing, General Lucius Lentulus, a consul the previous year, had long been a violent opponent of Caesar and was a dependable commander. Pompey had stationed auxiliaries and 600 slingers all the way to the Enipeus River. The riverbanks dropped down sharply to the Enipeus, like small cliffs, and couldn’t be scaled by either infantry or cavalry, so Pompey knew that he couldn’t be outflanked on his right, allowing him the luxury of leaving this wing without cavalry cover. The veteran soldiers of the seven Spanish cohorts of the 4th Legion and the 6th Legion that had escaped from Spain to join Pompey now held his right wing, behind their own eagles but working together, facing their countrymen of Mark Antony’s 8th and 9th across the wheat field, units that had been similarly combined because of their lack of numbers.

Beside these Spanish cohorts stood the Gemina Legion, the “twin,” so called by Pompey after he’d made up a single legion from two raised in Italy by Cicero in 51 B.C., and taken by him to Cilicia when he was governor there for a year, then left behind on garrison duty after he returned to Rome in 50 B.C. The remaining cohorts of those two original legions were still stationed in Cilicia. Between the Gemina Legion and Scipio’s troops, the seventy-five hundred men of the 24th and 28th, the former Italian legions of Gaius Antony that had come over to Pompey with Centurion Puleio and performed well at Durrës, formed up behind two eagles. Caesar, stung by their defection, would never refer to these two legions by name, simply calling them “some of Gaius Antony’s old troops.”

Pompey had called up another two thousand men, retired veterans who’d settled in Macedonia and on the island of Crete, originally thinking of forming them into a separate legion; but they were no longer young men and were out of practice, so he split them into cohorts and spread them among his other units.

On paper, Pompey had 12 legions made up of 110 cohorts. Caesar would have only considered several of these any threat—the 1st, 15th, the Spanish cohorts of the 4th and 6th, perhaps the Gemina, and probably the two battle-hardened Italian legions Scipio had brought from Syria. Pompey had even less faith in these units than his opponent, and was pinning his hopes of victory solely on his cavalry. He had told his supporters that the cavalry would bring them victory before the infantry could even come to grips. This was wishful thinking. Pompey dreaded the prospect of pitting his infantry against Caesar’s, as he was certain his were not up to the task. So now all seven thousand of his cavalry formed up on his left wing, ready to undertake the tactical strike he had planned for them.

As Pompey and his staff prepared to take their position on the left, behind the 1st and 15th Legions, he and General Labienus parted company. Labienus rode to where his massed cavalry waited on Pompey’s far left wing. He would not have been surprised to see the 10th Legion allocated to Caesar’s right, facing him. He may have even thought that Caesar was becoming predictable. But he would not have taken the 10th lightly. The 10th Legion was by now universally considered, in the words of Plutarch, the stoutest of Caesar’s legions. Labienus had personally led the 10th in Gaul, and he knew what the Spanish legion was made of. Who could forget the day Labienus had sent the 10th splashing back across the Sambre to save Caesar from the Nervii? Overcome the 10th, he knew, and the rest of Caesar’s legions would be likely to buckle. In fact, Plutarch tells us that Pompey’s cavalry were given the explicit task of cutting off the 10th Legion from the rest of Caesar’s army and destroying it.

Behind General Labienus spread his massive mounted force. The twenty-seven hundred long-haired German and Gallic cavalrymen Labienus had brought over to Pompey from Caesar’s army formed the core of his cavalry. Five hundred Italian troopers had been brought up to Greece by sea by Gnaeus Pompey from where they’d been stationed in Egypt as a part of the bodyguard of young King Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra. King Deiotarus of Galatia had brought Pompey six hundred cavalry. The remaining cavalrymen had been supplied by various rulers from throughout the East, and both their quality and their loyalty were questionable. The main responsibility for the success of the operation lay with Labienus’s own men.

As had become his usual practice, Caesar had decided to station himself on his right wing, usually the hottest place in any battle, the place where victory and defeat were most decided. As he was moving to his position, he saw Pompey’s cavalry spreading directly opposite, saw Pompey himself on that wing, with six hundred slingers and three thousand auxiliary archers from eastern states forming up behind him. Colonel Pollio and other staff officers would have warned their commander that Pompey was aiming to outflank him on the right, but Caesar had already seen the danger for himself. He immediately devised a counter.

“Have one cohort taken from each of the legions in the third line,” he instructed. “Form them into a fourth line, behind the Tenth, where they are to await the order to charge the enemy’s cavalry.” He passed on a particular tactic he wanted this fourth line to employ, then added that the day’s victory would depend on their valor.

The exact number of men taken out of the third line for this special reserve is debatable. The implication, from Caesar himself, is that nine understrength cohorts were involved, one from each of his legions. Plutarch says there were six cohorts, and both he and Appian say they totaled 3,000 men; but in their day six full-strength cohorts numbered close to 3,000 men—2,880, to be precise—and none of Caesar’s units was anywhere near approaching full strength. It’s probable that about 2,000 men were actually involved. From what Appian says, it’s likely that these men were ordered to lie down to conceal their presence, in the same way the Duke of Wellington would, at the 1815 Battle of Waterloo, order his Foot Guards to lie down behind a ridge and await his signal to rise to the charge, a tactic that turned the battle against Napoleon’s advancing Old Guard.

Now, as Centurion Crastinus stood with his men of the 10th Legion in the front line, a familiar voice away to his right called him by name.

“What hopes for victory, Gaius Crastinus? What grounds for encouragement?”

This incident is recorded by several different classical sources, including Caesar himself. The centurion’s head whipped around, to see Caesar riding along the front line toward him accompanied by his staff officers. “Victory will be yours, Caesar,” said Crastinus. According to Plutarch, he reached out his right hand toward his general in a form of salute, adding, “You will conquer gloriously today.”

Caesar would have smiled in response to the centurion’s confident prediction and wished the men under Crastinus’s command good luck, then spurred his horse on. In his memoirs he relates how several times he stopped along the front line to give a short speech, moving on to repeat the same sentiment several times, making separate reference to the glorious record in his service of the individual legions in front of him, then adding, “My soldiers, I call on you, every man, to witness the earnestness with which I have sought peace up till now.” He went on to list the missions of various peace envoys and his failed attempts to negotiate a settlement with Pompey, then said, “It has never been my wish to expose my troops to bloodshed, nor to deprive the state of this army or of that which stands across the field from us today. But I have been given no choice.”

Then he issued his battle orders. The first two lines were to charge on his signal. The third line was to wait for his flag to drop a second time. Men of the front line were to let fly with their javelins as soon as the enemy was within range, then quickly draw their swords and close with the other side. Each time he gave his speech, it was met by a roar from the legionaries within earshot.

Across the wheat field, Pompey the Great was doing the same, pumping up his troops as he rode along their front line, with a speech he likewise would repeat several times. At their council of war two days earlier he’d told his officers that the battle they had all urged on him was at hand and it was up to them to bring the victory they so eagerly sought. According to Appian, he now told his troops, “We fight for freedom and for homeland, backed by the constitution, our glorious reputation, and so many men of senatorial and equestrian rank, against one man who would pirate supreme power.” He urged them to picture their success at Durrës as they advanced to the battle they had been demanding, with high hopes for a final victory. And here, too, the roar of thousands of soldiers rent the air of the summer’s morning in response to their general’s harangue.

As he returned to his position on the right wing, Caesar passed Centurion Crastinus once again. “General,” Crastinus called out as he went by, “today I shall earn your gratitude, either dead or alive.”

Caesar acknowledged him with a wave and cantered on. In Caesar’s mind was probably the morning’s sacrifice to the gods, prior to ordering his army to march, prior to Pompey inviting him to do battle, when the priest conducting the ceremony had informed him that the entrails of the first sacrificial goat indicated that within three days he would come to a decisive action. A little later, the augur had added that if Caesar thought himself well off now, he should expect worse, while if unhappy, he could hope for better.

With the departure to the rear of his commander in chief, Crastinus would have fixed his gaze on the soldiers immediately opposite—men of the 1st Legion, men from Cisalpine Gaul. He would have been glad of that, glad the 10th wasn’t facing the 4th or the 6th. He would not have enjoyed killing fellow Spaniards. But he’d killed plenty of Gauls in his time. He could kill these fellows quite happily, even if they were Roman citizens.

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