The Battle of Pharsalus

Yes, it’s horrible, but it’ll be over soon. Guys like him don’t end well. Read history. Consider the battle of Pharsalus, of August 9, 48 B.C. — exactly 2,066 years ago, give or take a day.

On that day, the troops of Julius Caesar — outnumbered 2-to-1: hungry, battered, reduced to eating bread made of weeds and roots, cut off from the sea, which his enemy controlled — defeated the troops of Pompey the Great, setting the course of Western Civilization on what we know as history.

Consider how Caesar won that battle, and why the United States of America could never win such a battle today, under this administration.

Caesar had crossed the Rubicon in January 49 B.C., returning home from military assignment without permission. He had been at war with Pompey ever since. In battle after battle, in Spain, Africa, the modern Balkans, Caesar had triumphed — then let Pompey’s troops go, to fight him again, if they wished.

“When you rejoin your comrades, if you do, tell them what I did,” Caesar told his defeated enemies. We must assume that the “losers” did that.

In this way, Caesar established a record of mercy, temperance and justice.

In the moments before the decisive battle at Pharsalus, Caesar told his troops that when the fighting began they should ignore Pompey’s allies — tens of thousands of soldiers from dozens of vassal kingdoms — because this was a civil war, and the only enemy troops who were fighting for anything but money were their Roman kinsmen.

All of the Classical historians — Sallust, Cicero, Suetonius, Cassius Dio, Appian, Plutarch, Caesar himself — have described this battle. It’s taught at West Point: how Caesar saw that Pompey was sending his cavalry to attack Caesar’s right flank, so Caesar sent 3,000 picked infantry troops to hide and wait for it, then point their long spears at the cavalrymen’s faces. And when Pompey’s cavalry broke, to save their eyes, Caesar’s infantry enveloped Pompey’s left and overwhelmed the entire army.

But that’s not how Caesar won. He won by ordering his troops, as the rout began, to tell their enemy countrymen: Lay down your arms and stand still. You will have mercy.

And Pompey’s troops obeyed their enemy’s word: because they trusted Caesar. Because he had done this before.

Pompey retreated to his tent, and, if we can believe Appian, sat there speechless for hours, until his generals forced him to flee. Caesar’s troops, meanwhile, were slaughtering Pompey’s allies. But for Pompey, and Caesar, those deaths were not important.

Pompey’s Roman troops, and many of their commanders, were pardoned, and Caesar soon appointed many of them to important offices. Some of them would kill Caesar 4 years later.

The lesson for us today?

Caesar won the battle of Pharsalus because his enemies knew that he was truthful, and merciful and just.

Caesar’s enemies knew that because Caesar had proved it, time after time.

His enemies knew they could depend upon Caesar’s word.

In short: Julius Caesar won the battle of Pharsalus because his enemies knew he would not kill them when it was over, and dance on their graves.

The lesson for us today?

After less than two short years, does the United States of America have any real allies today? England? Europe? Even Canada?

Has our head of state ever shown himself to be honest, or merciful, or just?

Can anyone — enemy or ally — depend upon his word?

Does he just want to dance on the presumed graves of his presumed enemies?

Why would anyone want to be his ally?

Appian wrote on page 2 of his Civil Wars: “Many individuals would not relinquish power, and faction leaders aspired to sole rule. Some … even recruited foreigners, without public authority, to fight against their rivals. If one side took power, the other made war, in theory, against the rival faction, but in fact against their own country; they attacked it as though it were the enemy.”

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