Never before had so many Roman troops faced each other on a single battlefield. Never before had two of Rome’s greatest generals fought it out like this. Pompey, conqueror of the East, fifty-seven, a former young achiever who had made history in his twenties, a multimillionaire, an excellent military organizer, a master strategist, coming off a victory, with the larger army. Caesar, conqueror of the West, who had celebrated his fifty-second birthday only three weeks before in the month that would eventually bear his name, who had been nearly forty before he made his first military mark, an original tactician and engineering genius with a mastery of detail, a commander with dash, the common touch, luck, and the smaller but more experienced army.
Plutarch was to lament that, combined, two such famous, talented Roman generals and their seventy thousand men could have conquered the old enemy Parthia for Rome, could have marched unassailed all the way to India. Instead, here they were, bent on destroying each other.
It probably occurred to Centurion Crastinus that he might know some of the 1st Legion centurions across the field, might have served with them, might have drunk with them and played dice with them somewhere on his legionary travels. He would have watched them talking to their men, animatedly passing on instructions. They were easy enough to spot; like him, they wore a transverse crest on their helmets. It made them easy to identify for their own men, and marked them as targets for the opposition. Centurions were the key to an army’s success in battle. Crastinus knew it, and Caesar knew it. The 10th Legion’s six tribunes were back between the lines. Young, rich, spoiled members of the Equestrian Order, few had the respect of the enlisted men. From later events it is likely that one of the 10th’s tribunes, Gaius Avienus, had done nothing but complain since they set sail from Brindisi that Caesar had forced him to leave all his servants behind.
This day would be decided by the centurions and their legionaries, the rank and file, and as Crastinus had told Caesar, he was determined to acquit himself honorably. Four hundred fifty yards away, men of the first rank of the 1st Legion would have been looking at Crastinus and setting their sights on making a trophy of his crested helmet. The man who took that to his tribune after the battle, preferably with Crastinus’s severed head still in it, could expect a handsome reward. Without doubt they looked confident, these legionaries of the 1st. Crastinus may have imagined they thought they were something special, Pompey’s pets. Crastinus would see how confident they looked in an hour or so.
Around the centurion, his men would have been becoming impatient, knowing in their bones that this day would not be like the others when they’d stood and stared at their opponents for hours on end before marching back to camp at sunset. This day the air was electric, and the tension would have been getting to some of them, wanting to move, to get started.
As if in answer, trumpets sounded behind the ranks across the field. Many of Pompey’s men were more than nervous; the centurions of the newer units were having trouble maintaining their formations, so Pompey decided not to waste any time. Moments before, the thousands of cavalry horses banked up on the extreme left of Pompey’s line had been waiting restlessly, some neighing, some pawing the ground, some fidgeting and hard to control. Now, with a cacophony of war cries, their riders were urging them forward. Within seconds, seven thousand horses and riders were charging across the wheat field.
Behind Crastinus, trumpets of his own side sounded. In response, Caesar’s German and Gallic cavalry lurched forward to meet the Pompeian charge, with their auxiliary light infantry companions running after them. The Battle of Pharsalus had begun.
On Pompey’s side, his thirty-six hundred archers and slingers dashed out from behind the lines and formed up in the open to the rear of their charging cavalry. On command, the bowmen let loose volleys of arrows that flew over the heads of their galloping troopers and dropped among Caesar’s charging cavalry.
The infantry of both sides remained where they were in their battle lines, and watched with morbid fascination as their cavalry came together on the eastern side of the battlefield. General Labienus would have been at the head of his German and Gallic cavalry, cutting down any Caesarian trooper who ventured near him, and issuing a stream of orders.
For a short while Caesar’s cavalry held its ground, but with their men falling in increasing numbers, they began to give way. At least two hundred of Caesar’s cavalrymen were soon dead or seriously wounded, and Labienus saw the time had come to execute the maneuver that Pompey had planned. Leaving the allied cavalry to deal with Caesar’s troopers, probably under the direction of his colleague General Marcus Petreius, he led his German and Gallic cavalry around the perimeter of the fighting and charged toward the exposed flank and rear of the 10th Legion.
Caesarian auxiliaries scattered from the path of the cavalry, and the men of the 10th Legion on the extreme right were forced to swing around and defend themselves as Labienus’s troopers surged up to them. As Labienus urged more squadrons to ride around behind the 10th and as they came to the legion’s third line, Caesar, not many yards away, barked an order.
Trumpets sounded, and the reserve cohorts of the fourth line suddenly jumped to their feet and dashed forward behind their standards, slamming into the unsuspecting cavalrymen before they even saw them. The men of the reserve cohorts had been given explicit instructions not to throw their javelins but to use them instead like spears, thrusting them overarm up into the faces of the cavalrymen. According to Plutarch, Caesar said, when issuing the order for the tactic, “Those fine young dancers won’t endure the steel shining in their eyes. They’ll fly to save their handsome faces.”
Now Caesar’s shock troops mingled with the surprised Germans and Gauls at close quarters, pumping their javelins as instructed, taking out eyes, causing horrific facial injuries and fatalities with every strike. The congested cavalry had come to a dead stop, compressed between the rear ranks of the 10th and the reserve cohorts. There were so many of them there was nowhere for the riders to go; they merely provided sitting targets for the men of the reserve cohorts as they swarmed among them.
As many as a thousand of Labienus’s best cavalrymen were killed in this counterstroke. The panic that was created quickly spread to the allied cavalrymen behind them. Seeing the carnage, with Labienus’s big, longhaired riders falling like ninepins or reeling back and trying to protect their faces from the javelin thrusts instead of pressing home the now stalled attack, the allied riders disengaged from Caesar’s cavalry, turned, and galloped from the battlefield, heading in terror for the hills.
This allowed Caesar’s cavalry to join the reserve cohorts against Labienus’s men, and despite the general’s best efforts to rally his troopers, the combination of infantry and cavalry was too much for them and they broke and followed the allied cavalry toward the high country. Labienus had no choice but to pursue his own men, with hopes of trying to regroup.
As Caesar’s cavalry chased Labienus and his troopers all the way to the hills, Pompey’s left flank was exposed. With a cheer, Caesar’s reserve cohorts spontaneously rushed forward to the attack in the wake of their victory over the cavalry. All that stood in their way were Pompey’s archers and slingers. These men of Caesar’s strategic reserve, high on their bloody success against the mounted troops, quickly crossed the ground separating the two groups, neutralizing the effectiveness of the archers’ arrows and the slingers’ lead shot. The slingers were armed merely with their slingshots. The archers, men from Crete, Pontus, Syria, and other eastern states, were armed, apart from their bows and arrows, only with swords. In close-quarters combat they were no competition for legionaries whose specialty was infighting. As the slingers ran, the archers bravely stood their ground and tried to put up a fight, but they were soon mowed down like hay before the scythe.
Now Caesar issued another order. His red banner dropped. The trumpets of the first and second infantry lines sounded “Charge.”
In the very front rank, on the right of Caesar’s line, Centurion Crastinus raised his right hand, clutching a javelin now. Caesar would later be told of his words. “Come on, men of my cohort, follow me!” he bellowed. “And give your general the service you have promised!”
With that, he dashed forward. All around him, the men of Caesar’s front line roared a battle cry and leaped forward, javelins raised in their right hands for an overarm throw when the order came to let fly.
Ahead, to the surprise of Crastinus and his comrades, Pompey’s front line didn’t budge. Pompey’s men were under orders to stand still and receive Caesar’s infantry charge, instead of themselves charging at Caesar’s running men, as was the norm in battles of the day. According to Caesar, this tactic had been suggested to Pompey by Gaius Triarius, one of his naval commanders. Pompey, lacking confidence in his infantry and anxious to give them an edge in the contest, had grabbed at the idea, which was intended to make Caesar’s troops run twice as far as usual and so arrive out of breath at the Pompeian line.
Caesar was later scathing of the tactic. He was to write that the running charge fired men’s enthusiasm for battle, and that generals ought to encourage this, not repress it. In fact, Pompey’s tactic did have something going for it, as his troops would present a solid barrier of interlocked shields against Caesar’s puffing, disorderly men, who had to break formation to run to the attack. It may have been effective against inexperienced troops, but in the middle of the battlefield Centurion Crastinus and his fellow centurions of the first rank drew their charging cohorts to a halt. The entire charge came to a stop. For perhaps a minute the Caesarian troops paused in the middle of the wheat field, catching their breath; then, led by Crastinus, they resumed the charge with a mighty roar.
On the run, the front line let fly with their javelins. At the same time, in Pompey’s front line, centurions called an order: “Loose!” The men of Pompey’s front line launched their own javelins with all their might, then raised their shields high to receive the Caesarian volley. Then, with javelins hanging from many a shield, they brought them down again, locking them together just in time to receive the charge. With an almighty crash Caesar’s front line washed onto the wall of Pompeian shields. Despite the impact of the charge, Pompey’s line held firm.
Now, standing toe to toe with their adversaries, Caesar’s men tried to hack a way through the shield line. On Caesar’s right wing, Centurion Crastinus, repulsed in his initial charge, was moving from cohort to cohort as his men tried to break through the immovable 1st Legion line, urging on his legionaries at the top of his voice above the din of battle. Crastinus threw himself at the shield line, aiming to show his men how to reach over the top of an enemy shield and strike at the face of the soldier on the other side with the point of his sword. As he did, he felt a blow to the side of the head. He never even saw it coming. The strength suddenly drained from his legs. He sagged to his knees. His head was spinning. Dazed, he continued to call out to his men to spur them on.
As he spoke, a legionary of the 1st Legion directly opposite him in the shield line moved his shield six inches to the left, opening a small gap. In a flash he had shoved his sword through the gap with a powerful forward thrust that entered the yelling Gaius Crastinus’s open mouth. According to Plutarch, the tip of the blade emerged from the back of Crastinus’s neck. The soldier of the 1st withdrew his bloodied sword and swiftly resealed the gap in the shield line. His action had lasted just seconds. No doubt with a crude cheer from the nearby men of the 1st Legion, Centurion Crastinus toppled forward into the shield in front of him, then slid to the ground.
It was a stalemate at the front line. Neither side was making any forward progress. But on Caesar’s right, the reserve cohorts, fresh from the massacre of Pompey’s archers and slingers, were swinging onto the flank and rear of the 1st Legion.
Pompey had seen his cavalry stroke destroyed in minutes, had seen the cavalry he’d been depending on for victory flee the field. And now his ever-dependable 1st Legion was in difficulty. If the 1st couldn’t hold, no one could. Without a word, he turned his horse around and galloped back toward the camp on the hill. A handful of startled staff rode after him.
Plutarch says that as Pompey reached the camp’s praetorian gate, looking pale and dazed, he called to the centurions in charge, “Defend the camp strenuously if there should be any reverse in the battle. I’m going to check the guard on the other gates.”
Instead of going around the other three gates of the camp as he’d said, he went straight to his headquarters tent, and there he remained. He hadn’t wanted this battle, he had known the likely outcome, especially if it came down to a pure infantry engagement. But expecting something and then actually experiencing it are two different things. In a military career spanning thirty-four years Pompey the Great had never once experienced a defeat. And never once, in all probability, had he put himself in the shoes of men he’d defeated, and imagined what defeat might feel like. It would have made the emptiness of failure all the more difficult to comprehend.
The men of the 1st, fighting now on three sides and outnumbered, were in danger of being surrounded and cut to pieces. No orders came from Pompey—he’d disappeared. None came from their divisional commander, the useless General Domitius. Pompey had failed to maintain a reserve, which might have been thrown into support the 1st now in its time of need. With no hope of reinforcement, and with self-preservation in mind, the officers of the 1st decided to make a gradual withdrawal, in battle order, in an attempt to overcome the threat to their rear. Orders rang out, trumpets sang, and standards inclined toward the rear. Their pride and their discipline intact, the 1st Legion began to pull back in perfect order, step by step, harried all the way by the 10th Legion and the reserve cohorts.
Beside the 1st, the 15th Legion did likewise. Away over on Pompey’s right, General Lentulus, seeing the left wing withdrawing, and with his own auxiliaries and slingers already in full flight, ordered his legionaries to emulate the 1st Legion and make an ordered withdrawal, for if they attempted to hold their ground, the center would give way and the right wing would be pressed against the Enipeus and surrounded. Like their comrades of the 1st, the Spanish veterans of the 4th and 6th Legions maintained their formation as they slowly edged back, pressed by their countrymen of the 8th and 9th. But in the center, the inexperienced youths of the three new Italian legions began to waver. They tried to follow the example of the legions on the flanks, but their formations, like their discipline, began to break down.
Now Caesar issued another order. Again his red banner dropped. Again trumpets sounded “Charge.” Now the men of his third line, who had been standing, waiting impatiently to join the fray, rushed forward with a cheer. As the fresh troops of the third line arrived on the scene, the men of the first and second lines gave way and let them through. The impact of this second charge shattered what cohesion remained in Pompey’s center. Raw recruits threw down their shields, turned, and fled toward the camp on the hill they’d left that morning. Auxiliaries did the same, and the entire center dissolved. It was barely midday, and the battle was already lost to Pompey’s side. It was now just a matter of who lived, and who died, before the last blows were struck.
The 1st Legion stubbornly refused to break, continuing to fight as it backpedaled across the plain pursued by the men of the 10th Legion and reserve cohorts. The 15th Legion appears to have broken at this point, with its men turning and heading for the hills. Over by the Enipeus, General Lentulus deserted his men and galloped for the camp on the hill. The 4th and 6th Legions, cut off from the rest of the army, withdrew in good order, fighting all the way, following the riverbank, which ensured they couldn’t be outflanked on their right. Mark Antony pursued them with the 7th, 8th, and 9th, and, apparently, with a charge was able to separate two cohorts of the 6th from their comrades. Surrounded, these men of the 6th, a little under a thousand of them, resisted for a time, then accepted Antony’s offer of surrender terms.
Meanwhile, two cohorts of the 6th and three of the 4th continued to escape upriver, with their eagles intact. Antony would later break off the pursuit and link up with Caesar at Pompey’s camp. These five cohorts of Pompey’s Spanish troops later found a ford in the river, slid down the bank, crossed the waterway, then struggled up the far bank. That night they would occupy a village full of terrified Greeks west of the river before continuing their flight west the next day.
At the camp on the hill, several thousand more experienced legionaries of the 15th, the Gemina, and the two legions from Syria had been regrouped by their tribunes and centurions to make a stand outside the walls. But as tens of thousands of Pompey’s newer troops and auxiliaries swamped around them, a number without arms, their standard-bearers having cast away their standards, and with Caesar’s legions on their heels, they abandoned their position and withdrew to make a stand on more favorable ground in the hills. Behind them, many of the men flooding through the gates began looting their own camp. It seems that the camp’s commander, General Afranius, had already escaped by this time, spiriting away Pompey’s son Gnaeus, probably as prearranged with Pompey.
While Pompey’s guard cohorts and their auxiliary supporters from Thrace and Thessaly put up a spirited defense of the camp, the overwhelming numbers of the attackers forced them to gradually withdraw from the walls. With fighting going on inside the camp, young General Marcus Favonius found Pompey in his headquarters tent. A friend of Marcus Brutus and an admirer of Cato the Younger, Favonius, who’d been serving on Scipio’s staff and just been made a major general, was a fervent supporter of Pompey. Now, horrified by the state in which he found his hero, the young general tried to rouse his commander from his stupor. “General, the enemy are in the camp! You must fly!”
Pompey looked at him oddly. All authorities agree on Pompey’s words at the news: “What! Into the very camp?”
Favonius and Pompey’s chief secretary, Philip, a Greek freedman, helped their commander to his feet, removed their general’s identifying scarlet cloak, replacing it with a plain one, then ushered him to the door. Five horses were waiting outside the tent. According to Plutarch, three of the four men who accompanied Pompey as he galloped from a rear gate before Caesar’s troops could reach it were General Favonius; General Lentulus, commander of the right-wing division; and General Publius Lentulus Spinther. The fourth man would have been Pompey’s secretary, Philip.
The five riders galloped north toward the town of Larisa, whose people were sympathetic toward Pompey. On the road, they encountered a group of thirty cavalrymen. As Pompey’s generals drew their swords to defend their leader they recognized the cavalry as one of Labienus’s squadrons, intact, unscathed, and lost. With the troopers gladly joining their commander to provide a meager bodyguard, the thirty-five riders hurried on.
Many of the men who had found a temporary haven in the camp now burst out and fled toward Mount Dogandzis, where a number of their colleagues were already digging in. The 1st Legion, in the meantime, appears to have withdrawn east. With Caesar summoning the 10th Legion to help him in the last stages of the battle at the camp, the 1st was able to continue to make its escape. It appears to have swung around to the south in the night and then, substantially intact and complete with most of its standards, including its eagle, marched west to the coast and Pompey’s anchored fleet.
Leaving General Sulla in charge of the continuing fight at the camp, Caesar regrouped four legions, his veteran 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th, and set off after Pompey’s men who had fled to the mountain. Upward of twenty thousand in number, mostly armed, and well officered still, these Pompeians continued to pose a threat. As scouts reported that these survivors had now left the mountain and were withdrawing across the foothills toward Larisa, Caesar determined to cut them off before they reached the town and its supplies.
Caesar took a shortcut that after a march of six miles brought his four legions around into the path of the escaping troops in the late afternoon. He formed up his men into a battle line. Seeing this, the Pompeians halted on a hill. There was a river running along the bottom of the hill, and Caesar had his weary troops build a long entrenchment line on the hillside above the river, to deprive the other side of water. Observing this, the men on the hill, all exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, and not a few wounded, sent down a deputation to discuss surrender terms. Caesar sent the deputation back up the hill with the message that he was willing to accept only an unconditional surrender. He then prepared to spend the night in the open.