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Julius Caesar by  Jacob Abbott

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THE BATTLE OF PHARSALIA

[154]

T
HE gathering of the armies of Cæsar and Pompey on the opposite shores of the Adriatic Sea was one of the grandest preparations for conflict that history has recorded, and the whole world gazed upon the spectacle at the time with an intense and eager interest, which was heightened by the awe and terror which the danger inspired. During the year while Cæsar had been completing his work of subduing and arranging all the western part of the empire, Pompey had been gathering from the eastern division every possible contribution to swell the military force under his command, and had been concentrating all these elements of power on the coasts of Macedon and Greece, opposite to Brundusium, where he knew that Cæsar would attempt to cross the Adriatic Sea. His camps, his detachments, his troops of archers and slingers, and his squadrons of horse, filled the land, while every port was guarded, and the line of the coast was environed by batteries [155] and castles on the rocks, and fleets of galleys on the water. Cæsar advanced with his immense army to Brundusium, on the opposite shore, in December, so that, in addition to the formidable resistance prepared for him by his enemy on the coast, he had to encounter the wild surges of the Adriatic, rolling perpetually in the dark and gloomy commotion always raised in such wide seas by wintery storms.

Cæsar had no ships, for Pompey had cleared the seas of every thing which could aid him in his intended passage. By great efforts, however, he succeeded at length in getting together a sufficient number of galleys to convey over a part of his army, provided he took the men alone, and left all his military stores and baggage behind. He gathered his army together, therefore, and made them an address, representing that they were now drawing toward the end of all their dangers and toils. They were about to meet their great enemy for a final conflict. It was not necessary to take their servants, their baggage, and their stores across the sea, for they were sure of victory, and victory would furnish them with ample supplies from those whom they were about to conquer.

The soldiers eagerly imbibed the spirit of con- [156] fidence and courage which Cæsar himself expressed. A large detachment embarked and put to sea, and, after being tossed all night upon the cold and stormy waters, they approached the shore at some distance to the northward of the place where Pompey's fleets had expected them. It was at a point where the mountains came down near to the sea, rendering the coast rugged and dangerous with shelving rocks and frowning promontories. Here Cæsar succeeded in effecting a landing of the first division of his troops, and then sent back the fleet for the remainder.

The news of his passage spread rapidly to all Pompey's stations along the coast, and the ships began to gather, and the armies to march toward the point where Cæsar had effected his landing. The conflict and struggle commenced. One of Pompey's admirals intercepted the fleet of galleys on their return, and seized and burned a large number of them, with all who were on board. This, of course, only renewed the determined desperation of the remainder. Cæsar advanced along the coast with the troops which he had landed, driving Pompey's troops before him, and subduing town after town as he advanced. The country was filled with ter- [157] ror and dismay. The portion of the army which Cæsar had left behind could not now cross, partly on account of the stormy condition of the seas, the diminished number of the ships, and the redoubled vigilance with which Pompey's forces now guarded the shores, but mainly because Cæsar was now no longer with them to inspire them with his reckless, though calm and quiet daring. They remained, therefore, in anxiety and distress, on the Italian shore. As Cæsar, on the other hand, advanced along the Macedonian shore, and drove Pompey back into the interior, he cut off the communication between Pompey's ships and the land, so that the fleet was soon reduced to great distress for want of provisions and water. The men kept themselves from perishing with thirst by collecting the dew which fell upon the decks of their galleys. Cæsar's army was also in distress, for Pompey's fleets cut off all supplies by water, and his troops hemmed them in on the side of the land; and, lastly, Pompey himself, with the immense army that was under his command, began to be struck with alarm at the impending danger with which they were threatened. Pompey little realized, however, how dreadful a fate was soon to overwhelm him.

[158] The winter months rolled away, and nothing effectual was done. The forces, alternating and intermingled, as above described, kept each other in a continued state of anxiety and suffering. Cæsar became impatient at the delay of that portion of his army that he had left on the Italian shore. The messages of encouragement and of urgency which he sent across to them did not bring them over, and at length, one dark and stormy night, when he thought that the inclemency of the skies and the heavy surging of the swell in the offing would drive his vigilant enemies into places of shelter, and put them off their guard, he determined to cross the sea himself and bring his hesitating army over. He ordered a galley to be prepared, and went on board of it disguised, and with his head muffled in his mantle, intending that not even the officers or crew of the ship which was to convey him should know of his design. The galley, in obedience to orders, put off from the shore. The mariners endeavored in vain for some time to make head against the violence of the wind and the heavy concussions of the waves, and at length, terrified at the imminence of the danger to which so wild and tumultuous a sea on such a night exposed them, refused to [159] proceed, and the commander gave them orders to return. Cæsar then came forward, threw off his mantle, and said to them, "Friends! you have nothing to fear. You are carrying Cæsar."

The men were, of course, inspirited anew by this disclosure, but all was in vain. The obstacles to the passage proved insurmountable, and the galley, to avoid certain destruction, was compelled to return.

The army, however, on the Italian side, hearing of Cæsar's attempt to return to them, fruitless though it was, and stimulated by the renewed urgency of the orders which he now sent to them, made arrangements at last for an embarkation, and, after encountering great dangers on the way, succeeded in landing in safety. Cæsar, thus strengthened, began to plan more decided operations for the coming spring.

There were some attempts at negotiation. The armies were so exasperated against each other on account of the privations and hardships which each compelled the other to suffer, that they felt too strong a mutual distrust to attempt any regular communication by commissioners or embassadors appointed for the purpose. They came to a parley, however, in one or two in- [160] stances, though the interviews led to no result. As the missiles used in those days were such as could only be thrown to a very short distance, hostile bodies of men could approach much nearer to each other then than is possible now, when projectiles of the most terribly destructive character can be thrown for miles. In one instance, some of the ships of Pompey's fleet approached so near to the shore as to open a conference with one or two of Cæsar's lieutenants who were encamped there. In another case, two bodies of troops from the respective armies were separated only by a river, and the officers and soldiers came down to the banks on either side, and held frequent conversations, calling to each other in loud voices across the water. In this way they succeeded in so far coming to an agreement as to fix upon a time and place for a more formal conference, to be held by commissioners chosen on each side. This conference was thus held, but each party came to it accompanied by a considerable body of attendants, and these, as might have been anticipated, came into open collision while the discussion was pending; thus the meeting consequently ended in violence and disorder, each party accusing the other of violating the faith which both had plighted.

[161] This slow and undecided mode of warfare between the two vast armies continued for many months without any decisive results. There were skirmishes, struggles, sieges, blockades, and many brief and partial conflicts, but no general and decided battle. Now the advantage seemed on one side, and now on the other. Pompey so hemmed in Cæsar's troops at one period, and so cut off his supplies, that the men were reduced to extreme distress for food. At length they found a kind of root which they dug from the ground, and, after drying and pulverizing it, they made a sort of bread of the powder, which the soldiers were willing to eat rather than either starve or give up the contest. They told Cæsar, in fact, that they would live on the bark of trees rather than abandon his cause. Pompey's soldiers, at one time, coming near to the walls of a town which they occupied, taunted and jeered them on account of their wretched destitution of food. Cæsar's soldiers threw loaves of this bread at them in return, by way of symbol that they were abundantly supplied.

After some time the tide of fortune turned. Cæsar contrived, by a succession of adroit maneuvers and movements, to escape from his toils, and to circumvent and surround Pompey's [162] forces so as soon to make them suffer destitution and distress in their turn. He cut off all communication between them and the country at large, and turned away the brooks and streams from flowing through the ground they occupied. An army of forty or fifty thousand men, with the immense number of horses and beasts of burden which accompany them, require very large supplies of water, and any destitution or even scarcity of water leads immediately to the most dreadful consequences. Pompey's troops dug wells, but they obtained only very insufficient supplies. Great numbers of beasts of burden died, and their decaying bodies so tainted the air as to produce epidemic diseases, which destroyed many of the troops, and depressed and disheartened those whom they did not destroy.

During all these operations there was no decisive general battle. Each one of the great rivals knew very well that his defeat in one general battle would be his utter and irretrievable ruin. In a war between two independent nations, a single victory, however complete, seldom terminates the struggle, for the defeated party has the resources of a whole realm to fall back upon, which are sometimes called forth with renewed vigor after experiencing such re- [163] verses; and then defeat in such cases, even if it be final, does not necessarily involve the ruin of the unsuccessful commander. He may negotiate an honorable peace, and return to his own land in safety; and, if his misfortunes are considered by his countrymen as owing not to any dereliction from his duty as a soldier, but to the influence of adverse circumstances which no human skill or resolution could have controlled, he may spend the remainder of his days in prosperity and honor. The contest, however, between Cæsar and Pompey was not of this character. One or the other of them was a traitor and a usurper—an enemy to his country. The result of a battle would decide which of the two was to stand in this attitude. Victory would legitimize and confirm the authority of one, and make it supreme over the whole civilized world. Defeat was to annihilate the power of the other, and make him a fugitive and a vagabond, without friends, without home, without country. It was a desperate stake; and it is not at all surprising that both parties lingered and hesitated, and postponed the throwing of the die.

At length Pompey, rendered desperate by the urgency of the destitution and distress into [164] which Cæsar had shut him, made a series of vigorous and successful attacks upon Cæsar's lines, by which he broke away in his turn from his enemy's grasp, and the two armies moved slowly back into the interior of the country, hovering in the vicinity of each other, like birds of prey contending in the air, each continually striking at the other, and moving onward at the same time to gain some position of advantage, or to circumvent the other in such a design. They passed on in this manner over plains, and across rivers, and through mountain passes, until at length they reached the heart of Thessaly. Here at last the armies came to a stand and fought the final battle.


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ROMAN STANDARD BEARERS

The place was known then as the plain of Pharsalia, and the greatness of the contest which was decided there has immortalized its name. Pompey's forces were far more numerous than those of Cæsar, and the advantage in all the partial contests which had taken place for some time had been on his side; he felt, consequently, sure of victory. He drew up his men in a line, one flank resting upon the bank of a river, which protected them from attack on that side. From this point, the long line of legions, drawn up in battle array, extended out upon [165] the plain, and was terminated at the other extremity by strong squadrons of horse, and bodies of slingers and archers, so as to give the force of weapons and the activity of men as great a range as possible there, in order to prevent Cæsar's being able to outflank and surround them.

There was, however, apparently very little danger of this, for Cæsar, according to his own [166] story, had but about half as strong a force as Pompey. The army of the latter, he says, consisted of nearly fifty thousand men, while his own number was between twenty and thirty thousand. Generals, however, are prone to magnify the military grandeur of their exploits by overrating the strength with which they had to contend, and under-estimating their own. We are therefore to receive with some distrust the statements made by Cæsar and his partisans; and as for Pompey's story, the total and irreparable ruin in which he himself and all who adhered to him were entirely overwhelmed immediately after the battle, prevented its being ever told.

In the rear of the plain where Pompey's lines were extended was the camp from which the army had been drawn out to prepare for the battle. The camp fires of the preceding night were moldering away, for it was a warm summer morning; the intrenchments were guarded, and the tents, now nearly empty, stood extended in long rows within the inclosure. In the midst of them was the magnificent pavilion of the general, furnished with every imaginable article of luxury and splendor. Attendants were busy here and there, some rearranging [167] what had been left in disorder by the call to arms by which the troops had been summoned from their places of rest, and others providing refreshments and food for their victorious comrades when they should return from the battle. In Pompey's tent a magnificent entertainment was preparing. The tables were spread with every luxury, the sideboards were loaded with plate, and the whole scene was resplendent with utensils and decorations of silver and gold.

Pompey and all his generals were perfectly certain of victory. In fact, the peace and harmony of their councils in camp had been destroyed for many days by their contentions and disputes about the disposal of the high offices, and the places of profit and power at Rome, which were to come into their hands when Cæsar should have been subdued. The subduing of Cæsar they considered only a question of time; and, as a question of time, it was now reduced to very narrow limits. A few days more, and they were to be masters of the whole Roman empire, and, impatient and greedy, they disputed in anticipation about the division of the spoils.

To make assurance doubly sure, Pompey gave orders that his troops should not advance [168] to meet the onset of Cæsar's troops on the middle ground between the two armies, but that they should wait calmly for the attack, and receive the enemy at the posts where they had themselves been arrayed.

The hour at length arrived, the charge was sounded by the trumpets, and Cæsar's troops began to advance with loud shouts and great impetuosity toward Pompey's lines. There was a long and terrible struggle, but the forces of Pompey began finally to give way. Notwithstanding the precautions which Pompey had taken to guard and protect the wing of his army which was extended toward the land, Cæsar succeeded in turning his flank upon that side by driving off the cavalry and destroying the archers and slingers, and he was thus enabled to throw a strong force upon Pompey's rear. The flight then soon became general, and a scene of dreadful confusion and slaughter ensued. The soldiers of Cæsar's army, maddened with the insane rage which the progress of a battle never fails to awaken, and now excited to phrensy by the exultation of success, pressed on after the affrighted fugitives, who trampled one upon another, or fell pierced with the weapons of their assailants, filling the air with their [169] cries of agony and their shrieks of terror. The horrors of the scene, far from allaying, only excited still more the ferocity of their bloodthirsty foes, and they pressed steadily and fiercely on, hour after hour, in their dreadful work of destruction. It was one of those scenes of horror and woe such as those who have not witnessed them can not conceive of, and those who have witnessed can never forget.

When Pompey perceived that all was lost, he fled from the field in a state of the wildest excitement and consternation. His troops were flying in all directions, some toward the camp, vainly hoping to find refuge there, and others in various other quarters, wherever they saw the readiest hope of escape from their merciless pursuers. Pompey himself fled instinctively toward the camp. As he passed the guards at the gate where he entered, he commanded them, in his agitation and terror, to defend the gate against the coming enemy, saying that he was going to the other gates to attend to the defenses there. He then hurried on, but a full sense of the helplessness and hopelessness of his condition soon overwhelmed him; he gave up all thought of defense, and, passing with a sinking heart through the scene of consternation and [170] confusion which reigned every where within the encampment, he sought his own tent, and, rushing into it, sank down, amid the luxury and splendor which had been arranged to do honor to his anticipated victory, in a state of utter stupefaction and despair.


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