Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career
Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career

Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career

Patrick Lynch - January 19, 2017

Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career
A bust of Pompey. Classicconnection Prezi

3 – Battle of Pharsalus (48 BC)

If Alesia was the best victory of Caesar’s career, Pharsalus was arguably his most important. A civil war broke out between Caesar and the Senate when the latter wouldn’t allow the conqueror of Gaul to run for consul. Caesar was furious, and on January 10, 49 BC, he led his army across the Rubicon River on the border of Gaul and Italy. Traditionally, crossing this river was considered an act of war. He is said to have briefly lingered before saying “Alea iacta est.” (the die is cast) and completing the crossing.

Caesar’s great rival Pompey chose to fight for the Senate. The Patrician faction led by Pompey was known as the Optimates while the populist faction led by Caesar was referred to as the Populares. After crossing the Rubicon, Caesar, with the aid of Mark Antony, captured several Italian towns. On January 17, Pompey ordered all senators in Rome to flee the city to Greece or else they would be classified as enemies. Caesar entered Rome unopposed and plundered its treasury. Instead of biding his time, however, he chose to chase after Pompey and took six legions to Spain.

After initial success, Caesar suffered a defeat at Dyrrhachium in modern-day Albania in July 48 BC. The Optimates commander failed to build upon the victory and ordered a halt. Caesar later criticized his enemy for that decision by saying it would have been a triumph had there been anyone there to take it. He avoided Pompey’s pursuing forces using various stratagems and captured a few towns before finding new supplies and moving towards Pharsalus.

This crucial battle took place in Greece on 9 August, and Caesar was in a weak position. His army probably featured no more than 22,000 soldiers while Pompey commanded a force of approximately 45,000. Pompey’s initial plan to wait until the enemy starved was a sound one, but he allowed senators to talk him into launching an attack. Even so, with superior numbers and higher quality cavalry, he should have earned a victory.

Pompey told his men that the right flank would be at the Enipeus River and the left side would be comprised of almost his entire cavalry force which was tasked with destroying the enemy cavalry. Caesar initially wanted to retreat to find more supplies, but when he saw Pompey’s forces lining up for battle, he believed his enemy was being forced into battle, so he changed his mind and stayed. He ordered 2,000 of his oldest soldiers to stay and guard the baggage, placed auxiliaries on the left under the command of Mark Antony, his best men on the right, cavalry on the extreme right and a couple of legions in the middle. He knew his line was stretched thin and ordered his experienced men not to engage unless requested.

Caesar knew his right-wing was likely to be overwhelmed, so he had a surprise in store for Pompey when the Optimates leader’s cavalry broke through. Awaiting them were 2,000 of Caesar’s best warriors who used their pila to stab the enemy cavalry and force a retreat. These men outflanked Pompey on the left and Caesar ordered his reserves to attack. Pompey’s legions disintegrated and fled while their leader escaped to Larissa. It was a remarkable victory and crucial in the context of the civil war although it was not decisive.

Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career
Cato the Younger. Wikiwand

4 – Battle of Thapsus – (46 BC)

Much to Caesar’s chagrin, Pompey was assassinated in Egypt by the men of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII. The remaining Optimates refused to give in however and assembled a resistance in the African provinces led by Caecilius Metellus Scipio and Marcus Cato (also known as Cato the Younger). Caesar chased his enemies to Africa and landed at Hadrumetum in modern-day Tunisia in December 47 BC. The Optimates had a powerful army and were apparently able to field 72,000 soldiers at Thapsus, Tunisia. Caesar besieged the city and forced Scipio into battle.

Caesar had at least 50,000 men and 5,000 cavalries and blocked the southern side of Thapsus. Scipio was forced to circle the city to approach it from the north. He expected Caesar to approach and stayed in tight battle order with 60 elephants. Caesar adopted his usual strategy; he commanded the right side with the archers and cavalry flanked. The Roman leader also reinforced the cavalry with several cohorts to deal with the additional threat of the elephants.

The danger of using elephants in battle was brutally exposed when Caesar’s archers attacked them. The elephants panicked and trampled Scipio’s men. Nonetheless, elephants charged at the center of enemy lines but were repelled by Legio V Alaudae. The tide of the battle turned with the loss of the elephants, and Caesar’s cavalry outflanked the enemy and forced a retreat. An estimated 10,000 men wanted to surrender but were massacred instead. This was unusual for Caesar who was known to be somewhat merciful in victory. Plutarch claims the Roman commander suffered an epileptic seizure during the battle and was not present for the slaughter.

Caesar was free to renew his siege on Thapsus, and the city fell quickly. Scipio escaped the battle only to commit suicide several months later. Caesar moved on to Utica where Cato the Younger was located. Cato committed suicide once he learned of the events at Thapsus as he would rather die than surrender. Although it was yet another important win for Caesar, the civil war was not yet over.

Veni, Vidi, Vici: 5 Greatest Military campaigns of Julius Caesar’s Career
Mark Antony.

5 – Battle of Munda – (45 BC)

Munda was the last battle in the civil war between Caesar and the Optimates and took place in modern-day Spain on March 17, 45 BC. After Caesar’s victory at Thapsus the previous year, the only remaining opposition to his rule lay in Hispania (modern-day Spain and Portugal). A couple of legions declared their loyalty to Pompey’s son Gnaeus Pompeius (and his brother Sextus) and soon, they took control of much of Hispania Ulterior. Two of Caesar’s generals in the region, Maximus and Pedius, decided to stay at a place called Oculbo rather than engage the enemy in battle.

They asked Caesar for help, and their leader responded by arriving in Hispania in quick time. He took just one month to travel 1,500 miles from Rome to Oculbo and came in December 46 BC. Caesar retook Ulipia and crucially, he captured the city of Ategua. Gnaeus’ native troops lost heart after Ategua and a few defected. The Optimates had their hand forced and could no longer delay battle, so they met Caesar at Munda. Gnaeus had up to 70,000 men and 6,000 cavalry against Caesar’s 8,000 cavalry and 40,000 troops.

Caesar tried to trick his enemy into moving off the hill, but when this failed, he ordered a frontal assault. A stalemate was reached after several hours of brutal fighting, but Caesar turned the tide by taking command of X Legion on the right-wing and forcing the enemy back. Gnaeus tried to strengthen his faltering left flank by moving a legion from his right but this only made matters worse. Caesar seized the opportunity by getting his cavalry to storm the newly weakened right side of the enemy.

The Optimates line was under severe pressure and King Bogud of Mauritania, an ally of Caesar, attacked the enemy rear with cavalry. Labinus, who was in command of the Optimates cavalry, tried to block this attack by leading the men back to camp. Unfortunately for him, Gnaeus’ soldiers believed Labinus was retreating and followed suit. It was a complete disaster as they were overwhelmed and crushed by Caesar’s men. Up to 30,000 of Gnaeus’ soldiers died, and he was executed. Sextus survived and started another rebellion but was eventually defeated and killed by Marcus Agrippa and Mark Antony in 35 BC. Caesar returned to Rome, but the ensuing triumph he celebrated was viewed as distasteful since he had killed tens of thousands of Romans. He became dictator for life but was assassinated less than a year after winning at Munda.