The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging


by Hamish Paterson

Address to SAMHS Jhb branch on 10 June 2010

The main lecture Pharsalus 48 BC Caesar vs Pompey was presented by Hamish Paterson, Committee Member and past chairman of the Society. After indicating to those who had expected Irish VCs that they would get two equivalents to the VC and a host of Celts but not Irish ones. The Roman world barely touched Ireland even a hundred years later.

Hamish began his lecture with a brief and simplified description of the Roman constitution. This was essential to understanding the events that led to Pharsalus. He emphasized that one of the problems was that the Romans believed that their constitution was perfect which made change or modification difficult if not impossible. Rome's problems began with the Carthaginian Wars.

Firstly the Roman Army was designed for summer campaigns. A man was supposed to serve for sixteen campaigns between sixteen and 60. However beginning with the Carthaginian Wars men could be away for ten years (This happened to the men who cut their way out of Hannibal's encirclement at CanQae). The result was the family farm was sold and was often absorbed by a vast estate. The family then ended up in Rome living by their wits.

For the nobles (those with a family member who had held the consulship) the wars brought wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. To aggravate the situation the Senate had gained considerable prestige by its management of the Carthaginian Wars and failed to meet its own standards. What was even worse it failed utterly to police its members. They quickly came to define corruption. The question was not that its members had a price but how much.

There were those who saw that the situation was reaching a crisis and that the shrinking recruiting base of the Roman Army needed attention. Hamish then dealt with the attempts of Gracchi brothers to deal with the situation. They failed with fatal consequences to themselves. The crisis occurred with the war Jurgurtha (King of Numidia). First Jurgurtha bought senators and then out-manoeuvred the Roman armies sent against him. At this point Marius, a new man, (first person in his family to be elected consul) was appointed to command the Roman forces against Jurgurtha Marius did away with the property qualification creating a force that depended on its commander for reward. Then Rome was threatened by German tribes fro.m beyond the Alps. Marius was elected consul five more times and defeated the Germans. Significantly, he married Julius Caesar's aunt and proved so politically inept that he retired into private life.

Then King Mithridates, King of Pontus murdered Roman merchants in Asia Minor and an army was sent against him. Sulla was appointed to command which would make his fortune. Marius arranged for the command to transferred to him which triggered the 1st Roman Civil War. When it ended many Romans were dead and Sulla was master of Rome.

Hamish then outlined the careers of Caesar and Pompey who came to the fore at the end of the 1 st Roman Civil War. The notable aspect of Julius Caesar's career was that he won the civic crown. This was the Roman equivalent of the VC and was awarded for saving the life of a fellow citizen. Hamish then showed who the careers of Caesar and Pompey were intertwined from their alliance to their falling out.

Having given the background Hamish described the war which began with the hounding of the tribunes from Rome. This was followed by the crossing of the Rubicon (the boundary between Caesar's province of Gaul and Rome territory proper). Then came the race for Rome and Brundisium. Incredibly Caesar did not follow Pompey to Greece. He moved west to deal with Pompey's forces in Spain. This done he returned Italy. In winter he moved to Greece taking Pompey's Navy by surprise. Once there both sides tried to out manoeuvre one another. Pompey fell back on Dyrrachium where Caesar, with a weaker army, tried to pin him with a network of entrenchments. Pompey broke out and Caesar moved south to Pharsalus.

Here Pompey followed him. Then followed a week of both sides deploying for battle. Then just as Caesar's army was about to withdraw Pompey offered battle. His cavalry outnumbered Caesar's six to one and his infantry two to one. Pompey's plan was that his cavalry would overwhelm Caesar's and then roll.up Caesar's infantry. However Caesar concealed six cohorts behind his third and they surprised and routed Pompey's cavalry. They then rolled up Pompey's infantry. After moping in his tent Pompey fled to Egypt where he was murdered. Caesar went on to meet his destiny at the Ides of March.

Return to Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /