Melee Lessons from the Battle of Pharsalus (48 B.C.E.)

Recently stumbled across the Historia Civilis Youtube channel, which has a slew of ancient military battles animated in that history book “Xs & Os” style illustrations (which I love).

On Friday night I watched one of his newer videos on the Battle of Pharsalus, which was a battle in Greece between the Caesar and Pompey.

Now onto the lessons from the battle:

Lesson #1: Don’t give up your advantages

There are four advantages in melee, according to His Grace, Duke Edward Grey of the East Kingdom  — Superior Terrain, Superior Skill, Superior Numbers and Superior Command.

Pompey’s army had Superior Terrain and Numbers, and they gave them both up.

TerrainWisely, Pompey and his men  — knowing they had superior numbers — took to the hills of Palaeopharsalos by Mount Dogantzis, giving them a strong position to right in. When Caesar refused to fight from the bottom up (and why would be?), Pompey and his officers left their spot on the high ground to meet on more neutral territory, giving up his advantage.

Battle of PharsalusI will give Pompey credit for using the river to shield his right flank. That was smart. Though we don’t usually fight by rivers in the SCA, we sometimes fight by other barriers that act as natural shields for our flanks. Commanders and troops need to be mindful of these natural barricades and find ways of using them to their advantage.

Likewise, SCA commanders need to be aware of the terrain they’re fighting on — be it an open field battle, a broken field battle or the woods — and figure out where they’re strongest and where their enemy is weakest.

Numbers. Pompey’s army outnumbered Caesar to the rough tune of 33,800 to 57,200. As the video explains, Pompey had two options since he grossly outnumbered Caesar — go wide or go deep. Pompey decided to go deep, which was good at stopping a direct charge, but meant they didn’t have the reach to hit Caesar’s left infantry flank.

This happens in the SCA, too, though not at a conscious effort. Units often get bunched together like sardines, making it hard to move. Even armies that outnumber their opponent’s make this mistake of being packed in too tight and fighting giant line battles instead of enveloping on the end and crushing Caesar’s army into itself.

Pompey had the numbers. He could’ve afforded to send some legionaries or auxiliaries to hit Caesar’s right flank while still being strong in the middle.

The second two lessons show that Caesar and his men had the Superior Skill and Command.

Lesson #2: A well trained army is worth its salt

One of the highlights of the video that makes my little commander heart sing is when Caesar’s army marched at Pompey’s, expecting their adversaries to charge at them. When they didn’t, they realized something was amiss and regrouped.

This shows some Superior Skill and Command. The Skill came in the form of a sage and well-discipline army. The Command came in to recognize they were marching into a bad situation, adapted and changed their battle plan on the fly.

It’s one of the reasons why I try to train the Calivers and the East Kingdom rapier army as often as I can. The more they see battle and the more we work on specific scenarios, the more likely the soldiers will see the trouble spots and the weak spots and adapt correctly. Similarly, commanders need to practice seeing situations unfold in the middle of mass chaos, analyze the situation and make changes appropriately. It’s trial-&-error at first, but better to screw it up at practice than during a War Point.

Lesson #3: Flanks, baby!

This comes back to Superior Terrain & Skill. Pompey’s army leaving the high grounds for the flats put them at neutral ground, giving up their Superior Terrain and working off Numbers alone. However, Caesar’s army still had Skill & Command on their side, and it played out on Caesar’s right flank.

Knowing his cavalry was weaker than Pompey’s, Caesar placed a line of infantry (using javelins like spears). So as Pompey’s cavalry pushed back Caesar’s, they ran right into this wall of spikes. Pompey’s cavalry then dispersed (the commanders couldn’t get them to reform), it exposed Pompey’s left flank, which Caesar promptly made sweet dinner out of.

It also shows Caesar’s genius and foresight to even plan an ordered cavalry retreat and have “spearmen” at the ready.

In the end, instead of trying to outflank Caesar’s men, Pompey’s men were outflanked and soundly beaten to a pulp. Their Superior Numbers meant nothing on the flank, and they had given up their Superior Terrain. Meanwhile, Caesar never lost control of his men’s Skill and Command.

BONUS: Also, this is also a good reason why you shouldn’t overextend either.


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