History in a novel: The Battle of Pharsalus

In my previous post, I discussed the problem of the training of a Roman officer, which occupied part of the plot of my ebook, Athene’s Prophecy. The critical training involved teaching by a General sent by Tiberius, and at first, Scaevola (my protagonist) studied previous battles and was challenged what to do in imaginary battles. In these, he started off getting most of what he did wrong, but he gradually improved. At the end, he had two exercises to prove to the General that he had learned something. This naturally creates something of a problem for the writer, because effectively the writer has to show he has learned something, and there are a number of critics out there. Nevertheless, the plot requires Scaevola develop into a skilled military strategist, so something had to be done. The question was, what?

 The first problem the General set was for Scaevola to “fight” in place of Pompey against Caesar at Pharsalus. Historically, Pompey lost. Scaevola immediately wanted to change history at Dyrrachium, but that was ruled out of order because it involved no real strategy, although the General conceded that was the right thing to do. What happened at Dyrrachium was that Caesar attacked Pompey in a fortified position, they battled for some length of time, and eventually Caesar had to give up and withdraw. Pompey let them go. This, in my opinion, was clearly a mistake because the strength of Pompey was cavalry, and the cavalry had done nothing from within a fortified position. Of course we do not know what really happened, but to me it is incomprehensible that Pompey would not seize the opportunity. There is nothing more difficult for a tired retreating army than to be attacked by fresh troops that outnumber you, and can move far faster. Caesar had some cavalry, but his main strength lay in the veteran heavy infantry.

 Anyway, Pompey eventually chased, and met Caesar at Pharsalus. Pompey took the advantage of terrain by occupying a hill, but Caesar refused to fight, and instead faced him with his left flank protected by a river/swamp. What should you do? Pompey still greatly outnumbers Caesar in infantry, although they are not of such high quality. Cavalry preferred to attack around the right flank so they can use the horse to guide the lance, assuming the cavalrymen were right-handed. What should Scaevola do?

 What Pompey did was to march out and send cavalry and light foot around to the left. His heavy infantry did well, with numbers making up for quality, but Caesar had kept two cohorts at the back, hidden. When Pompey’s cavalry came around Caesar’s right flank and began to engage, these two cohorts peppered the cavalry with pilii, and the cavalry turned and fled, trampling the light foot.  Caesar now came around the flank and attacked Pompey’s men from the side, and they turned and ran. This shows the value of Caesar’s strategy. Simply being where he was provoked Pompey into what was a weak deployment, while the two hidden cohorts were placed to take advantage of what was likely to happen. Excellent work by Caesar, but that does not answer the question.

 So what did I have Scaevola do? Simply march out diagonally to the left, and if Caesar stayed where he was, wheel and face him then advance. Now the river/swamp is behind Caesar, and he has two flanks. With greater numbers, Pompey can broaden his line, and either Caesar matches or he does not. If he does, because he is outnumbered his line is weaker, and can be attacked through the centre; if he does not, then heavy infantry can attack either flank. The cavalry is deployed once the battle suggests a good spot. Would that work? As my General said, battles are won through a lot more than strategy, and Caesar now has to do something, and should have done something once it is clear Pompey is not obliging. However, whether it would have changed the outcome is not important. The point was to show that my protagonist was learning. Whether the reader thinks he is learning properly remains to be seen. What do you think Pompey should have done?


2 thoughts on “History in a novel: The Battle of Pharsalus

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.

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