Farsala, Greece (48 BC)
The Battle of Pharsalus was the decisive engagement of the War of the First Triumvirate, and one of the most important and famous battle in all of Rome’s many civil wars. Pitting the followers of Julius Caesar against the armies of his former ally Pompey and the Roman senate, the battle was immortalized in both history and classical literature. More importantly, it marked a critical turning point in Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire, as it set the stage for the for the rise of the Julio-Claudian dynasty which would rule until the middle of the next century. The Battle of Pharsalus was one of the most important engagements fought in Greece after the Classic age.
During the first half of the 1st century BC, political power in Rome was being accumulated into the hands of fewer and fewer families, as the government began the slow but unstoppable transition from republic to empire. For the better part of two decades starting around 70 BC, three men, Julius Caesar, Gnaeus Pompey and Marcus Crassus, essentially ran the republic from behind the scenes. However, by 52 BC political realities and egos caused the three-way alliance to fall apart.
In 49 BC, Julius Caesar and the legions loyal to him invaded Central Italy, which was Pompey’s territory. After famously crossing the Rubicon River, Caesar’s army marched on the city of Rome. In response, Pompey and most of his allies fled to Greece. Thanks to his control of the fleet, Pompey hoped to be able to raise fresh forces in the safety of the east while blockading aid to Caesar. However, Caesar successfully managed to sneak an expeditionary force into Greece during winter.
Throughout much of 48 BC, the two forces squared off against each other. One brief engagement almost led to Caesar’s defeat. The cautious Pompey was leery of direct confrontation. After failing to finish off Caesar’s army, he tried to defeat his enemy by blockade and starvation. This led to several months of stalemate, and eventually his allies and officers pressed him to seek a decisive conclusion to the standoff.
On August 9, Pompey’s army marched out to meet Caesar in the field. Pompey held advantageous ground, outnumbered Caesar two-to-one, and was very aware of Caesar’s ability as a field commander; but all of this was not enough to avail him. Once out in the open, Caesar outmaneuvered Pompey, taking Pompey’s cavalry by surprise and defeating them. Seeing this, Pompey panicked and fled the field, abandoning his army, which crumbled soon thereafter. The victory secured Julius Caesar as the sole remaining power of the triumvirate. Pompey escaped to Egypt where he was assassinated a month later.
The Battlefield of Pharsalus took place on the Plain of Pharsalus, although there is some dispute as to whether the fighting took place on the north or south side of the Enipeus River. The prevailing thought puts the site of the battle along the north bank. Both sides of the river consist of plains and low hills that look much as they did at the time of the battle.
The Battlefield of Pharsalus is located approximately ten miles northwest of the modern-day town of Farsala (the side of the river notwithstanding). It is an open site. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.visitgreece.gr (official tourism website of Greece).