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Pompey’s tactical failure is, again, easy for us to judge in hindsight. We can argue that he was defeated by the better strategist overall or that indecisiveness and inaction forced Caesar to do what he did best, seize the initiative. Historians to this day debate whether it was military skill or luck that won Caesar the battle, and without Pompey to lead the optimates, the civil war was all but a foregone conclusion. Later campaigns in Africa and Spain saw an end to the fighting as Metellus Scipio and Cato were defeated at Thapsus and Utica and Pompey’s sons in Spain. At Pharsalus in Greece, Pompey did not need to defeat Caesar in the field of battle; starvation could have likely won the war for him.
However, he was aware of the growing resentment that his ‘allies’ in the Senate held for him. If they were so willing to cast Caesar out as a renegade and enemy of the state, how long would it be before they treated him in the same manner? With growing political pressure on him, Pompey ultimately failed as he did not have the same supreme authority over his forces as Caesar did over his. Pompey’s every action was questioned and belittled by his senatorial supporters, who demanded immediate results. As such, Caesar, who was a far more intuitive general and able to adjust his plans following setbacks, was able to continue fighting and keep the loyalty of his legions high even after a defeat at Dyrrhachium. Pompey, on the other hand, lost the support of his own army, and they all but disbanded, surrendered to Caesar, or fled. With no choice left, Pompey made his final fatal mistake.
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Believing himself to be safe in Egypt as Ptolemy XIII owed him a debt through his father, it never occurred to Pompey that he might be betrayed by those he had cultivated his patronage with. Ironically this was the same mistake that Caesar himself was to make as many of his assassins, the liberators, were men whom he himself had pardoned and had attempted to reconcile with after the civil war. The battle lines were drawn with Caesar protecting his left flank against the River Enipeus to avoid being encircled by Pompey’s superior cavalry force. Expecting a strong attack on his right flank, Caesar deployed in secret a fourth line of infantry, hidden at an angle behind his own cavalry. As was a proper military strategy, Pompey ordered his superior cavalry to engage Caesar.’ and drove them from the field.
However, the hidden fourth line of infantry was able to surprise and rout Pompey’s entire cavalry force. Rather than march his army in a coordinated attack at the same time as his cavalry Pompey remained in place and let Caesar come to him. This gave Caesar the time to reform his army and meet Pompey’s own deeper formation. Once the battle lines were locked, Caesar’s fourth line and remaining cavalry were able to flank Pompey’s left flank and collapse his entire army into a rout. Caesar won a decisive victory that utterly crushed the optimates army and forced Pompey to flee to Larissa and leave Greece, eventually arriving in Egypt. Caesar had roughly half the manpower that Pompey commanded, with estimates of around 22,000 feet and 1000 cavalry, compared to Pompey’s force of 45,000 feet and 7000 cavalrymen. Once again, Pompey’s natural instinct was not to press an attack but to allow attrition to weaken Caesar sufficiently so that surrender would be forced on him. However, the members of the Senate who were with him urged greater aggression, such as Cato and Domitius Ahenobarbus, who both loathed Caesar and wanted to see him utterly crushed in battle.
Other historians have raised the point that many of Pompey’s supporters were no less fond of him than Caesar and called into question Pompey’s willingness to end the conflict by decisively defeating Caesar in battle. After several days of refusing Caesar’s battle, Pompey finally relented and deployed his army. Once more, with hindsight, we can see this as a serious error of judgment on Pompey’s part as he risked everything on a single gamble. To the contemporary of the time, however, the odds were certainly in Pompey’s favor. His troops were well-supplied and greatly outnumbered those of Caesar. Had he remained patient and used his authority to keep the bickering senators under control for a short time longer, Caesar’s supplies would have been completely exhausted. As it was, Caesar’s forces still had the effort for one last decisive push. As the war continued over the Adriatic to Greece, Pompey and Caesar fought several battles, sieges, and skirmishes, with neither side the obvious victor.
At Dyrrhachium in 48 BC, Pompey was successfully able to lift Caesar’s siege on the coastal city and force his rival’s legions, who were unable to win the siege and forced them into a rout. Here despite his military victory, Pompey made yet another mistake that we can see in hindsight. With Caesar’s troops demoralized, disorganized, and low on supplies, he decided to remain in the city rather than give chase and crush his enemy whilst Caesar was at his most vulnerable. Pompey had assumed that his rival was decisively defeated, but this was not the case. Although the battle ended in a rout, thanks again to Pompey’s indecisiveness Caesar was given a chance to regroup and resupply his army, now reinforced by Mark Antony’s legions. The truly decisive battle would now be fought at Pharsalus, an area in mainland Greece far away from the coast, and Pompey’s superior naval support. The speed of Caesar’s advance into Italy caught Pompey and the Senate by surprise, which was even more foolish on their part as Caesar had written often in his dispatches of numerous times he had forced marched his legions to take his Gaulish and German enemies by the same trick to great effect.
Pompey had firmly allied himself with the optimates, who made up much of the Senate. He relied on them to secure the treasury of Rome to pay for the legions he must raise. Unfortunately for Pompey, in their panic over the speed of Caesar’s advance, they fled the city to their estates without the money, leaving it for Caesar. Caesar used his access through Gaul to defeat Pompey’s legions stationed in Hispania whilst Pompey and his supporters procrastinated before finally fleeing to Greece, where he assembled his main forces and prepared for war. It is with some hindsight that we call this a failure on Pompey’s part to prepare for war. Many historians argue that neither man wanted armed conflict and that each was calling the other’s bluff or was too stubborn to lay down their Imperium at the same time, thus dismissing their armed forces.
As neither man was willing to do this before the other, an ultimatum was sent to Caesar from the Senate to stand down was rejected as an affront to his dignity along with that of the tribune of the plebs who had fled Rome in disguise and gave Caesar the pretext to march on Rome to restore his honor. In other words, Caesar used the pretext that he was the victim of a corrupt Senate and that the Senate had overreached itself by denying the voice of the people, as symbolized by the tribune of the plebs, in this case, Mark Antony and his colleague Cassius Longinus, as the consulted ultimatum was used to override their power of a veto. Pompey’s failure here was to call Caesar’s bluff or at least put him into an unacceptable position whilst Caesar had the manpower available to attack, yet he did not have enough to defend.
Plutarch writes that Pompey acted with overconfidence during the build-up to his confrontation with Caesar. Rather than preparing his legions for a military campaign, once Caesar crossed the Alps, he toured Italy and reveled in the support he felt he had from the people. Plutarch claims that a great overconfidence came over Pompey, and he arrogantly claimed regarding Caesar “that he would pull him down much more easily than he had raised him up.” As historians, we must accept that Plutarch was writing with considerable hindsight to the fact that Pompey was too experienced as a military commander to just dismiss the threat of Caesar out of hand. However, it is true that he did not raise his considerable number of legions through his many years of patronage until after Caesar crossed the Rubicon River. Pompey had only two legions available, both of which had fought for Caesar in Gaul, and whilst he claimed he could raise another thirty thousand men, this would take considerable time.
These two actions of procrastination and underestimation of the threat Caesar, a man who had spent the previous decade in military campaigns, were the first of Pompey’s mistakes in the following Civil War. During Caesars Gaulish and British expeditions, Pompey was busy in Rome sorting out severe grain shortages under the position of praefectus annonae along with proconsular powers, which he was awarded for a period of five years in 58 BC. Pompey was accustomed to the adoration of the plebeians of Rome due to the military achievements of his past; however, he was now overshadowed by Caesar, whose own exploits in Gaul and further afield were praised by the mob. As such, seeds of jealousy were planted in Pompey’s mind, and under the influence of optimates who opposed Caesar, such as Cato The Younger, would eventually turn to full-blown hostility against Caesar. Following the death of his wife Julia, who was Caesar’s daughter and the third member of the Triumvirate, Crassus in Parthia, there were no more ties to bind the two men.
Caesar and Pompey, at various stages in their respective careers, were both political rivals and allies. Along with Marcus Licinius Crassus, they formed a political union of mutual cooperation known as the Triumvirate, which according to Suetonius, was an agreement that “nothing should be transacted in the government, which was displeasing to any of the three”. In doing so, these powerful men exerted near-total control over the Roman Republic, dividing the governorship of the republic between them and ensuring that men whom they supported were given positions of power and authority to work on their behalf. Cato the Younger, a lifelong rival of Caesars, referred to the Triumvirate as a conspiracy to seize power for themselves and, in Caesar’s case, insinuated that he was a tyrant trying to make himself a monarch, the gravest sin a man could make in the Roman Republic due to their memory of the Tyrant Kings of old.
In 49 BC, Gaius Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River in Northern Italy with his legions and began a civil war between his faction, the popular, and those of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and many members of the Senate of Rome, the optimates. These two men were the greatest generals and politicians of their generation in the Roman Republic. Both had received acclaim for their military careers and their cursus honorum of senatorial service. In a brief period of war, Caesar eventually won the decisive battle of Pharsalus in Greece, forcing Pompey to flee to Egypt, where he was murdered. This paper shall examine just how Pompey lost this war with his former colleague, what mistakes, if any, were involved by both generals, and finally, how much we can claim that Caesar did ultimately succeed.
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