Caesar’s Civil War (Part 1/2) – The Battle of Dyrrachium


The year is 48 BCE. Julius Caesar is stationed at the city of
Brundisium, waiting to cross the Adriatic sea. He is after the republican forces that retreated
across the sea to Greece, led by his arch-rival, Pompey Magnus. A pivotal conflict of ancient history was about to take place… The
previous year was a busy one for Julius Caesar. He had declared war on the senate, marched
on Rome and proceeded to capture most of the Italian peninsula, constantly chasing after
the senate’s forces. His civil war was a characteristic outcome
of his personality, he was a man of an overgrown sense of worth and self-importance and he
would not allow a bunch of old bureaucrats to tell him what to do and when to do it,
let alone willingly deprive himself of his political power by handing over his legions
and rendering himself defenseless in the face of certain persecution and marginalization,
or even imprisonment and murder. Because this was the situation he faced just
before he embarked on his civil war, when the Senate specifically ordered him to disband
his legions and forbade him to run for consul for the second time, something that would
have stripped him of his legal immunity. Back at Brundisium Caesar was contemplating a crossing with two glaring problems in his mind. The first being his significantly inferior
fleet in comparison with that of his enemies who were patrolling the area and the second
being the fact that sailing in winter was pretty risky in antiquity since ancient ships
could not cope well with severe weather conditions. On the other hand a passage through Illyricum
would have been next to impossible. The delay would have been great and the route was treacherous, full of perils and hostile local tribes. So on the night of 4th of January (or 6th
of November according to the modern calendar) Caesar, with 7 legions and 500 cavalry, crossed
the Adriatic sea and successfully avoided the patrols of the republican navy, landing
somewhere to the south of Palaeste. Meanwhile Pompey, who was stationed at the
city of Beroia, was declared the supreme commander of the republican forces, an appointment that
gave him supreme authority over the forces of the Roman state. And it was at this stage
that he left Beroia and began his march towards Epirus in order to station his legions within
the winter quarters of the area. Caesar had pushed on through the ragged ground
of the area in which he landed and came down upon two completely unsuspecting cities, Apollonia
and Oricum. The surprise was such that he captured them
without any bloodshed. Moving northwards Caesar’s strategic goal
was becoming clear. He was trying to deprive Pompey from his western
coastal provinces and cut off the supply depos which were vital for his Adriatic fleet, an
Adriatic fleet that was seriously hindering his army’s own communications and supply
routes, forcing him to live by foraging the rocky and scarce land of Epirus that barely
sustained its local population. Pompey must have heard about Caesar’s landing
and immediately understood his intentions. He forced marched his army in order to cut
Caesar’s northward advance, eventually managing to insert himself between Caesar and Dyracchium
at Asparragium a critical crossroad that controlled the Roman Via Egnatia. The two armies faced each other on the opposite
banks of the River Apsus, modern day Seman. Caesar had significantly inferior forces in
comparison to Pompey’s so naturally Pompey tried to force the Caesarians into an unwanted
and unfavorable engagement against his legions, but while he was attempting a crossing the
bridge collapsed. The stalemate was inevitable. Of course Caesar was not being idle, he repeatedly
appealed to his generals to send him re-enforcements but his generals had to face the same unfavorable
and tricky conditions plus the assiduous patrolling of the republican fleet. Finally Marc Antony, with 4 legions and a
detachment of light troops and cavalry, managed to cross the Adriatic but due to unexpected
conditions his transports were blown further north than he intended into the bay of Nymphaeum. This delicate and complicated maneuvering,
the chess of war , continued by the two masters of the “game”. Pompey would not allow Marc Antony to link
up with Caesar without attempting an interception. He immediately broke camp and forced marched
his troops towards Antony while Caesar marched his legions up the river until he found a
point which was fordable. The rapid pace of Caesar ultimately deterred
Pompey from continuing his attempt to intercept Marc Antony. So in order to avoid being trapped between
the two contingents of his enemy he retreated westward, camping his army north of the river Genusus close to Asparagium in a convenient situation. This war of movement would continue and be expanded upon by Caesar who dispatched three of his subordinates to other operating theaters across the Greek
mainland, one in Aetolia and the other to Thessaly where they could organize vital grain
convoys for their severely undersupplied legions. The third commander Domitius Calvinus was
sent to intercept 2 legions who were fast approaching via Macedonia in order to reinforce
Pompey. Caesar and Pompey were now facing each other
across another river, these delaying tactics were immensely beneficial for Pompey who could
afford to fight a war of attrition since his supply situation was far superior and his
control of the sea routes was uncontested and complete. On the other hand Caesar needed to force a
swift conclusion to the hostilities and to entrain a striking and decisive blow to his
enemy. Time was running against him. In typical Caesarian fashion he adopted a
diversionary tactic which was based on speed and surprise. He broke camp and marched his army eastwards
with the intention to deceive Pompey and hide his true destination who thought that he was
simply trying to relocate his legions towards an area that would be supplied more easily. But when Caesar found a fordable area he crossed
his legions and immediately headed towards Dyrrachium through a ragged and concealed
path, his objective to cut off Pompey from the city he already knew was his main supply
depot. The subterfuge was successful and Caesar managed
to beat Pompey to the coast, cutting off his enemy’s communications and he then proceeded
to build a fortified camp to guard the road towards Dyrachium. In this game of warfare Caesar seemed to always
be a step in front, in comparison to his enemies. The two generals seemed to have settled down
for a new and protracted stalemate. It was at that point that Caesar demonstrated
his ability to think outside the box when he was up against a numerically superior enemy
who was better supplied but currently in no position and intention to engage with him
in open battle. He needed to force Pompeys hand and simultaneously
secure his position in order to be able to advance against the depot in Dyrrachium, so
he resorted to a tactic that he had used before in Gaul with tremendous success. Taking into consideration the fact that Pompey’s
position was surrounded by rough and high hills he occupied them, fortified key areas
and then began to draw a line of circumvallation around Pompey’s position. We need not wonder about his intentions here
and why he would choose such a complicated and labor intensive method to deal with his
enemy, since we are lucky enough to have Caesar’s own account. His reasons were the following, Pompey was
significantly stronger in cavalry and he could use it to forage for grain and provisions
without running any risk because of its superior mobility, so by confining his army within
a narrow space Caesar would both negate the ability of Pompey’s cavalry to forage and
render it militarily useless and difficult to sustain. And also there was another reason that was
both psychological but also practical – Pompey’s reputation throughout the empire would suffer
deeply if it became known that he was confined and besieged by Caesar while he did not dare
to hazard a battle. While Caesar was being busy trying to expand
his line of fortifications to confine Pompey within a compass as narrow as possible, Pompey
saw and realized what was going on and immediately set into digging a line of fortifications
within the line of Caesar in order to occupy as many hills as he could in as large a circuit
as possible to prevent Caesar from blocking or surrounding him. As a result the two armies fought a series
of skirmishes while they were contesting certain areas or hills. Even though Pompey was determined not to come
to a general engagement he nonetheless frequently send light troops in order to harass the Caesarians. By the time the two armies completed their
fortifications Caesars lines were stretched to 24km and Pompey’s lines were stretched
just under 13km, even though Pompey managed to finish them first since he had greater
manpower and a smaller compass to enclose. The two generals faced completely opposite
situations now, Caesar was attempting to enclose a well-supplied and larger army with a smaller
and thinly stretched one, while Pompey was hemmed in within an enclosed area without
being able to maneuver or arrange his army as he saw fit. Of course Pompey’s large cavalry force and
pack animals meant that the fodder was running out quickly and soon his horses would be out
of the battle even though his ships were supplying him daily, plus there was a water shortage
since Caesar had diverted the course of every river or stream that was running through Pompey’s
lines. The sporadic skirmishing did not cease especially
at night during which the Pompeians were frequently emerging from their trenches to pepper with
arrows areas that were lighted by fires of Caesarians who were on guard. After a while the Caesarians were accustomed
to this and learned to light their fires at one place and keep guard at another. By the beginning of June Pompey needed to
break the stalemate. He somehow misinformed Caesar to believe that
there was a faction within Dyracchium that was ready to surrender the city to him. Caesar with a detachment marched towards Dyrrachium
but fell straight into a Pompeian ambush. Attacked from three sides simultaneously he
was forced to conduct an orderly retreat, at the same time Pompey launched an all out
assault across Caesar’s line of fortifications. It was a magnificent plan and it probably
would have worked if he wasn’t up against an army of grizzled veterans who were defending
a well-entrenched position on favorable ground. The Ceasarians held until their General managed
to return unharmed back to their lines. The whole struggle was desperate as Caesar
admits, even though his legions suffered superficial loses (20 men in comparison with Pompey’s
2000). In one fort they counted 30.000 arrows which
had been thrown and in the shield of one centurion were found 230 holes! Caesar would attempt to force a battle every
single day afterward, he drew up his army on a level ground and offered Pompey battle,
being careful to advance his legionaries just before the range of Pompeys siege engines
and light troops, Pompey would try to save face and would draw his legions within the
range of his siege engines and light troops in front of his fortifications but so close
to them that his rear line would almost touch the rampart. At some point something unexpected happened. Two officers of Caesar’s Gallic cavalry defected
to Pompey and informed him of a certain weak position in Caesars fortifications. At the southern end of his entrenched lines
of ramparts there was a gap and a place that wasn’t connected with a transverse line
between them. Pompey decided to strike there and he would
initiate what would prove to be the decisive engagement of the battle. At dusk of 9 July Pompey prepared an amphibious
assault against the vulnerable position of the Caesarian fortification. He boarded a multitude of light and missile
troops on board light galleys and attacked the position from three sides simultaneously. Backing this assault were six legions who managed
to dislodge the defenders who were scattered and fled facing overwhelming odds. The rest of the Caesarian army was alarmed
by the system of smoke that was established for just such occasions. Marc Antony, followed by Caesar himself, arrived
at the scene after a while. In between the now contested double ramparts
and the Pompeian line of fortifications there was an abandoned camp which was now occupied
by the Pompeian assailants which they expanded by adding an outer rampart and in addition
Pompey had ordered the construction of a new camp outside the Caesarian enclosure. Seeing this Caesar realized that he needed
to act rapidly if he wanted stop his opponent from securing and fortifying an opening from
his enclosure from which his cavalry could easily forage and find fodder. He secretly gathered 33 cohorts, arranged
them into two columns and charged the fortified position of his enemy. The left wing of his attack column fell upon
the unsuspecting Pompeians and managed to push them back, but the right wing followed
along an extended palisade which led towards the river Lesnikia. That delay was crucial for the outcome of
the engagement. After a while they realized that the palisade
was not an extension of the fortified camp and they broke through within the narrow space
between the camp and the river. Pompey, seeing the critical situation his
army was facing gathered 5 legions from the outer camp and immediately send them to relieve
his cornered defenders, ordering his cavalry to charge head on the right wing of the Caesarian
attack column while it was squeezing itself through the levelled palisades. The Caesarian cavalry which was the first
to break through the palisade noticed the significantly stronger Pompeian cavalry charging
straight towards them. Fearing they were going to be trapped between the palisades and the camp they broke and fled. The panic spread to the infantry and soon
the right wing of the Caeasarians was routed. The left wing that was being successful up
until that point noticed what was happening and fearing that it will be overwhelmed broke
and fled also. This cascade of panic was the critical point
of the battle. Caesar’s legionaries were crushed and squeezed
through the choke points from which they came. The first legionaries who fell down a 10 feet
high ditch were trampled to death and the rest fled for their lives. Even Caesar himself failed to stop the rout
of his veterans personally holding the legion’s standard and urging them to stand their ground. According to Appian, the panic was so widespread
that one signifier inverted his standard and tried to kill Caesar with it! A legionary from his German bodyguards was
there and sliced off his hand thus saving the general and changing the course of history. By the end of the engagement the strategic
initiative had shifted drastically in favor of Pompey, and Caesar now realizing that his
plan had failed and his siege lines were broken, ordered an immediate withdrawal so that his
legions would be able to regroup. The casualty count was 32 centurions and tribunes
and 960 irreplaceable veterans for the Caesarian side. This would probably be the direst and most
severe situation that Caesar ever faced. That day the Caesarians abandoned their extensive
fortifications and retreated southwards to regroup. The situation looked bleak for Caesar but
he wasn’t over yet…

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