Greatness Evolved, Pompey v Caesar Conclusions

Well there it is. What did we just experience over the past several months? If you recall it all started about here:

We looked at the maturation of 2 great Roman Generals, taking a sample of their battles and engagements to see what we can learn. While the Great Battles of History series from is a fair representation for what it is, clearly nothing we have is a complete model.

Suffice to say many battles did not turn our historically nor did the “best man” always win.  Some engagements were doomed, regardless of hindsight being applied. Many of Pompeys conflicts were situations where no matter what, Sertorius’s wily approach was going to beat out the younger Pompeys efforts.

We see this handily at the Baetis River engagement in 80 B.C. Little is known of Pompey as a fighter or a general prior to this time. We do know his self raised and privately funded army that rode to Sullas aid at the outset of the !st Roman Civil War involved combat. We however are unclear as to his role in direct combat or the totality of his involvement.  Suffice to say at Baetis River, the outnumbered Sertorius used terrain and his better trained troops to beat Pompey in what should have been a victory for Pompey.

This battle went so horribly wrong we replayed it. The same net result, even after juggling forces around, and trying some non traditional approaches.

This battle does not involve Pompey, however it illustrates the thinking Sertorius uses, deception, maneuver, and entrapment. Our recreation did not result in a successful ambush for Sertorius but we took away a key lesson. Sertorius was going to use guile and misdirection as much as the pointed end of a pila against his opponents. This is a lesson that Pompey failed to learn in the short term, and in fact we can imagine that this colored his approach to battle in the future.

In 78 B.C. Sertorius used his forces well to force Pompeys hand at Lauron. Pompey was led to believe one thing, and experienced another! His brash approach to the situation once again failed him. Sertorius launched a stinging ambush, causing heavy losses to Sullas army and some level of disgrace to Pompey. The misdirection and subterfuge forced upon Pompey could well be one of the reasons why Pompey was exceedingly cautious with Caesar.

It took Rome several years to corner Sertorius and eventually defeat him. Sadly in the end it was more a treasonous act than any battle that won the war for Pompey, with Sertorius’s own Generals betraying him.

Crossing the Rubicon – a brief diversion, no lesson or relevance here ;).

With the growing pains of Pompey past us we turned to Caesar, who by 58 BC we know had escaped Pirates, returned to capture them, and fought valorously enough to earn awards of distinction from Rome.

Right at the outset we have a man who appears to be at the pointy end of every part of the battle field and knows where to be and how to encourage and support his men. The Gaulish campaigns all had a similar feel to them. Not a lot of subtly on either side, no quarter asked for nor given, and often Caesar was outnumbered depending on which historian you trust.  Bibracte was one of the closest run battles Caesar led as a General in his earlier days, aside the Siege of Alesia. Yet even here, the Barbarian forces really stand no chance against a careful and determined force of Veteran Roman Legions. Caesar appears to be honing his leadership in his encounters where as we take the sense that Pompey was learning from one disaster to the next.

The battle of Sambre followed a similar path for Caesar as well, even when ambuscades were wrought upon him, his opponent Generals lacked the finesse and skill to make good upon them.

Pompey v Caesar

As the 2nd Civil War blossoms into a full scale war the fighting moves to Greece, as a result of a strategic withdrawal by Pompey. Caesar, ever eager to follow and to crush his opponent and restore his version of order upon Rome manages to transport under difficult circumstances enough forces to attempt to Siege Pompey.

The battlefield at Dyrrahcium was Pompeys first victory over the Caesarian forces and brought some interesting elements to the fore. Deserters brought information that allowed  Pompey to launch a heavy sortie into Caesars weakened line. This forced Caesar to retreat, and cast a pall over his army. In the Pompey camp, Generals wanted to pursue and crush Caesar as rapidly as possible.  Pompey refused.  This caution is perhaps a result of Pompeys life lessons at the hands of Sertorius, concerned about force preservation and image back in Rome, Pompey played it safe.

In our recreation, Caesar takes the initiative by boldly striking the weaker conscript level forces of Pompey, and forcing Pompey to fight on two fronts. While Caesars forces behind the breastworks were being mauled they were carefully rotating out to preserve their overall morale.  Pompeys weaker Macedonian and other conscript level Legions were massacred in what became a very lopsided battle.  In this instance the boldness of Pompey should have paid off, but our historical hindsight  and scenario structure allowed for a bit of revisionist history.

Pharsalus is a battle that we all  have read about, thought about and possibly desired to play for a long time. This is a large battle. The confrontation is mostly evenly matched across the length of the battlefield, except for Pompeys Left Wing. Whereupon sat a horde of mercenary and conscripted cavalry led by Labineous who had a major hard on for Caesars head to be served upon a platter.

In many of the 2nd Civil War battles it is easy to source a mis match and exploit it. At Pharsalus this is more difficult. Each side appeared to line up equivalent forces in terms of experience opposite each other. Plus Pompey had a definite edge in numbers. Numbers are one thing, appetite for destruction another. Caesar was confident that his army could beat Pompey. why? We don’t really know. He had drawn up for battle in advantageous terrain several times, ready to face off, only to be declined by Pompey. Yet on this day he sees Pompey, line up for battle on the plain and decides to engage. Why?

More importantly,  what drove the cautious Pompey to offer battle? Internal wrangling? Pressure from Rome? Morale?  While he had superior numbers Pompey knew that overall his force was less well trained, consisted of less experienced fighters. He did however have a real edge in Cavalry a key element if able to be used effectively.  From what history tells us while Caesar stripped away the traditional 3rd line from his legions and moved cohorts to a refused line behind a screen of Caesars own Cavalry and skirmishers.

Historically the weight of Cavalry could not be brought to bear and the surprise of the Pila laden forces of Caesar routed the Cavalry…well that is what the books say. On the map with Great Battles of History, there are some similar design for effect constraints. The end result however is a swirling mass of cavalry that have a hard time taking on the cohorts front on. All Caesar needs to do is fight for time, if his other forces in the middle of the line and left most wing can inflict enough damage these softer  Pompey Legions will eventually crumble. By careful use of the Veterans from each legion, and some of the more seasoned forces, Pompeys line was chipped away at. Caesars overall command and control favored more activations for the Caesarian Legions, allowing them to remove themselves from difficult situations or press the advantage.

After a long struggle the battle was indeed won by Caesar. If played again I wonder if a very different strategy would be worth trying? Such as taking teh majority of the cavalry and supporting a stronger attack in the center? Or shifting cavalry down to the right flank. Mainly as an effort to draw out that refused line and bring it either into the fight on better terms or block it from impacting the Cavalry.

So with more of a whimper than a bang the series of battles ended. Hard wired into these games is the leadership benefit of each leader, but Caesar is just that much better and as it proved time and time again, his ‘rolls’ for continuation carried him or more aggressive play took the day. Pompey whether consciously or unconsciously was more tentative in his fighting. More readily aware of his forces shortcomings. Even with the upper hand Pompey struggled to repeat history.

A battle like Pharsalus really place two almost equal forces into a true battle of attrition. One can imagine the shoving, stabbing, thrusting going on and the desperate passage of lines, shields and boss on boss.

One my beef here is that the die rolls in combat which offer very few DRM’s become critical when to equally capable cohorts face each other. Thus a 1 is tragic for the attack but a 9 is glorious.  That is a big spread, in which most of Caesar losses occurred to less than average rolls either on defense or attack.

What we can take away here is that despite superior forces, sometimes ideal terrain, Pompey was beaten on many occasions by lesser forces due to either bold strokes or subterfuge. The reading into this is of course all inconclusive, we don’t know and shall never know. It is not however hard to Pompey in is early years being brash and bold,  failing in several battle then learning from these errors. In fact when he fought the Parthians he used similar tactics that were used upon him is Iberia. As he matured we can imagine the brashness softening, and his perspective migrate to one of more cautious battle plans and a willingness to retreat and fight another day.

Caesar according to himself, was a genius, a born leader, a gifted general and a fighter. His was a destiny to win, and if we look at his ‘gambling’ nature, big spending habits and voracious appetite for flesh, perhaps we see that luck favors the bold, and the brave.



The Rise of Macedon, Phillip II in a linked campaign.

1 thought on “Greatness Evolved, Pompey v Caesar Conclusions

  1. Pingback: Rise of Macedon regional background history « The Big Board

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