Battle of Dyrrhachium 48 BC
Commanders: Caesar v Pompey
Numbers: Caesar: c25000 legionaries; a few cavalry and auxiliaries. Pompey: c36000 legionaries; a strong cavalry force.
1 Pompey mobilises in the East (500 war galleys plus unspecified number of other craft).
2 After subduing Pompey’s legions in Spain Caesar crosses Adriatic in winter with 7 legions.
3 Caesar surrounds Pompey’s larger force at Dyrrhachium with a circumvallation.
4 Pompey continuously reinforced and supplied by sea.
5 Early Spring: Mark Antony crossing the Adriatic reinforces Caesar with 4 legions.
6 Pompey succeeds in breaking through Caesar’s lines.
7 Caesar’s counter-attack is repulsed with heavy loss.
8 Pompey fails to take advantage.
9 Caesar raises siege and marches eastward to Thessaly.
10 Pompey imprudently follows him to Pharsalus.
At last, Pompey’s legati, Afranius and Petreius, were themselves cut off from supplies and forced to capitulate. After much fighting, Massilia (Marseille) also surrendered. Caesar returned to Italy, ready for an offensive against Pompey himself. In January 48 risking everything, for Pompey’s ships controlled the Adriatic, Caesar crossed the Adriatic Sea from Brundisium with 12 understrength legions totaling perhaps 25,000 men. Successfully evading Pompey’s fleet, Caesar landed on the coast of Epirus (present-day Albania), south of Pompey’s base at Dyrrhachium (presentday Durres, also known as Durazzo) in what is today western Albania. Caesar then ordered his ships to return to Brundisium to bring back an additional 20,000 men under Mark Antony, but Pompey’s fleet blockaded Antony’s ships at Brundisium. Learning of Caesar’s landing, Pompey marched there from Epirus, forestalling Caesar’s attempt to seize Dyrrhachium.
Caesar had brought with him Pompey’s officer Vibullius Rufus, whom he had captured for a second time in Spain, and he sent him to Pompey with a renewed peace proposal. Caesar pointed out that both sides had suffered serious reverses – himself in the loss of Curio and his army in Africa, and C. Antonius’s army in Illyria, and Pompey in being driven from Italy and Sicily, and losing his army and provinces in Spain – so that it would be wise to arrive at a compromise settlement before either side was harmed further. He proposed that both sides should swear to lay down arms and disband their armies within three days, and that they should let the Senate and people of Rome settle the differences between them. That amounted to a return to politics as normal before the creation of Caesar’s and Pompey’s great commands; but this proposal was dismissed out of hand by Pompey. Since the two armies were stationed not far from each other, however, and soldiers from both were in the habit of going down to the Apsus river on their respective sides for water, a certain amount of fraternizing arose between men on each side, which Caesar encouraged. It culminated in an exchange of harangues between Vatinius on Caesar’s side, and Labienus on Pompey’s, at which Labienus had his troops suddenly fire a volley of missiles at Caesar’s men and closed things by declaring that the only acceptable peace terms were Caesar’s head on a platter
In March 48 able to slip past Pompey’s blockading fleet, Antony delivered Caesar’s remaining legions north of Dyrrhachium. Informed of Antony’s arrival, Pompey moved to defeat Caesar’s forces in detail before they could unite, but Caesar was as usual quicker and managed to link up with Antony at Tirana and cut Pompey off from Dyrrhachium by land. Because his forces dominated at sea, however, Pompey was still able to communicate with his base of Dyrrhachium.
Realizing that the countryside was largely bereft of supplies and yet able to secure plentiful stocks for his own men from Dyrrhachium, Pompey decided to remain quiescent in the hopes of starving Caesar into submission. Caesar was able to secure sufficient food supplies, however. Always offensive minded, he initiated a bold siege of Pompey’s beachhead with a force half the size of that of his adversary. Both sides constructed extensive fortifications.
The armies of Caesar and Pompey confronted each other at Dyrrhachium (Durazzo). Caesar’s force was the smaller, perhaps three-quarters the size of Pompey’s, but it was the better army. Pompey realized this and wisely avoided a pitched battle, choosing instead to fortify an enclave on the Adriatic coast, 15 Roman miles (13.8 miles, 22.2 km) in perimeter. Caesar characteristically enclosed this enclave with his own outer circumvallation.
Pompey had fortified a position along the coast south of Dyrrhachium, thus securing his resupply by sea. Caesar interposed his army between Dyrrhachium and Pompey and set about investing Pompey’s army with his own, smaller army. The two sides raced to occupy and fortify the hills-Caesar to close Pompey in, Pompey to force Caesar to spread his forces out as thinly as possible-and then to connect the hill forts with walls. Pompey built twenty-four forts and enclosed an area large enough to graze animals. Caesar had to construct trenches and walls fifteen miles long, that is, about one legion for every two miles. Each construction put his men in extreme danger as Pompey would occupy an adjacent hill with archers, slingers, light-armed troops, and artillery.
Caesar’s troops had to fight and build at the same time. If Pompey could bring enough force to bear, he would assault their position. Attack provoked counterattack, and Caesar’s troops were fighting continuously, they were outnumbered, and their supplies ran short, but their morale was high because they were working for victory, and they considered that they had the moral edge over their more numerous opponent, who avoided open battle. Caesar’s soldiers on sentry duty called to Pompey’s troops that they would sooner eat the bark from the trees than let Pompey slip from their hands. Deserters brought the news to Caesar that Pompey’s horses were at the point of death, the rest of the animals were being slaughtered, and the men were not in good health because of the confined space, the noxious odor of rotting corpses, and the daily labor of those unaccustomed to labor, and-since Caesar had diverted or dammed all the rivers and streams that made their way to the sea through Pompey’s zone-they were affected by lack of water.
As the siege worked its effects on Pompey’s army, Pompey ordered a general attack all along the line. Six battles were fought in one day, three at Dyrrhachium, three along the line of fortifications. Pompey lost some 2,000 men, many centurions, and six military standards. Caesar lost only twenty men, but in one fort every man was wounded, four centurions in one cohort lost an eye, 30,000 arrows were fixed in the fort, and the shield of one centurion had 120 holes in it. Pompey’s situation continued to worsen until two Gallic deserters brought to him the complete details of Caesar’s dispositions, commanders, and units and revealed that the lower end of Caesar’s line of fortifications had not been completed. Pompey sent sixty cohorts by land and sea in a dawn attack on the exposed fortifications. He drove Caesar’s troops back, and only Caesar’s personal intervention saved the situation. Caesar’s counterattack failed, and he decided to break contact and march inland.
Military history in general tends to familiarize us with battles which are decided on a fateful day and battlefields which are reminiscent of playing fields. By contrast, Caesar’s mode of fighting, with its reliance on earthworks and ditches, anticipates protracted twentieth century struggles amid extensively prepared positions. At Dyrrhachium, Pompey’s determination not to be drawn into a pitched battle was in every way wise. He had access to seaborne supplies and reinforcements, while Caesar, without a navy, was cut off from Italy. The besiegers grew hungrier than the besieged, but lacking corn they resorted to digging up a local root which could be mixed with milk and made edible.
Caesar’s strategy at Dyrrhachium· thus ended in fiasco, and he marched away into Thessaly, perhaps threatening Thessalonica or perhaps mainly in search of corn.
DYRRHACHIUM: LESNIKIA R (48) – Second Civil W ar
When Caesar heard that Pompey was at Asparagiurn, he moved there and camped nearby. The next morning he offered battle. Pompey was anxious to avoid this in spite of his overwhelming numerical superiority as his troops were inferior in training to Caesar’s veterans. When the offer was refused, Caesar decided to make for Dyrrhachium [Durres], Pompey’s base. By heading off in a different direction and making a detour, Caesar outwitted his foe and got there first as Pompey appeared in the distance. Pompey, excluded from the town, built a strong camp south of the town on a hill called Petra close to the Bay of Dyrrhachium, where he established a well-stocked base. Caesar camped further inland and started blockading Pompey by constructing a line of forts with entrenchments between them, stretching from sea to sea over a distance of about 12 miles. Pompey retaliated by making a similar but shorter line of fortifications inside Caesar’s line. Military activities in the early stages were confined to harassment and attempts to confine the other and deny access to supplies and provisions. Caesar mentions that in one day alone there were six engagements which accounted for enemy losses of about 2,000 casualties. When Pompey decided to attempt a break-out, a bigger battle did ensue.
In the middle of the night he led 60 cohorts to the southern end of the encircling fortifications where they joined the sea. At the same time he embarked a large force of archers and light-armed troops, whom he sent to the same shoreline accompanied by his warships. At this point Caesar’s line was a double wall consisting of two parallel lines of ramparts and trenches a few hundred yards apart. They extended from the sea for about 2 miles inland at which point there was a camp, occupied at the time by Lentulus Marcellinus. These fortifications had been built by Caesar in the early stages of the campaign but had not been quite completed. The cross wall connecting the two ramparts by the sea had never been built, and Pompey had heard about this deficiency from deserters. At the time of Pompey’s attack, two cohorts of Caesar’s Ninth legion were camping by the sea. The attackers started hurling missiles from outside the outer rampart while others attacked the inner rampart from the other side. The defenders, between the walls, had only stones with which to retaliate. They were already suffering badly when the enemy noticed that there was no cross wall and managed to get into the space between the ramparts from the shore. Taken on the flank as well as in the front and rear, the defenders turned to flight. Some cohorts which were sent to the rescue from Marcellinus’ camp failed to achieve anything except to increase the confusion and to get in the way. Finally, Antony arrived with 12 cohorts and drove the enemy back. The final disgrace was avoided when a legionary standard bearer just managed to hand on his eagle, the supreme emblem, before he expired. After his victory Pompey built a new camp, situated on the shore to the south of the circumvallation, outside the blockade.
This battle consisted in fact of two distinct engagements and what has been described was only the first. The second phase took place in the same area and centred round an old camp of Caesar’s situated in the plain between his double fortification and the southern end of Pompey’s line of works to the north. A river, the Lesnikia [Gesnike], ran on the north side of this camp through the plain to the sea. Caesar heard that Pompey was moving troops into this camp and he sent 33 cohorts in two columns to attack it. The left column got into the camp and forced the occupants back; but the right column encountered a rampart which they thought was the camp wall. In fact, it ran from the camp to the river. Unable to find a gate, they broke through the rampart near the river and got into the plain on the other side. Pompey then led five legions and some cavalry to the relief of the camp. When Caesar’s right column tried to retire they came up once more against the rampart which led to the river. Unable to get through en masse, many of them jumped from the top of the rampart into the trench and were trampled down by those that followed. When the left column saw that the right was in rout, it too turned and fled. Caesar himself attempted to halt the headlong flight but no one paid any attention to him. A chastened Caesar admitted to losing 960 legionaries, the majority of them from the 9th Legion, as well as 36 officers-4 of the rank of general and 32 tribunes and centurions. And he had hundreds more wounded; Caesar never revealed exactly how many, but the number was substantial enough, together with the fatalities, to reduce the effectiveness of the 8th and 9th Legions to the point that Caesar later combined the two. But had Pompey followed up on his success, Caesar could have lost the war. Yet again, Julius Caesar’s luck prevailed.
These encounters are now known as the Battle of the Lesnikia. Caesar, however, does not name the river and neither Appian nor Dio Cassius mention a river at all.