Battle of Dyrrhachium

Battle of Dyrrhachium : 10 July 48 BC

Roman Empire

“Today the victory had been the enemy’s, had there been any one among them to gain it.” (Julius Caesar)

Portrait of Gauis Iulius Caesar (Vatican Museum).

49 BC had begun with the fragile alliances that held the Roman Republic finally collapsing as the great power of the Mediterranean plunged into civil war. The 60s had seen the meteoric rise of Pompey Magnus, the great general often shunned by his contemporaries in the Senate for his Gallic lineage having quashed the revolt of Sertorius in Hispania to then launch his epic campaign in the east. Pompey had risen to ascendancy under the dictatorship of Sulla, fully entrenching himself in the camp of the conservatives as he fought against the populist Marius and crushed the last hold out of his movement long after his death. His eastern campaign would see much of Asia Minor (modern Turkey) and the Levant come under Roman dominion as he campaigned up to the Caspian Sea and assumed control of the plethora of smaller states, dissolving the Seleucid Empire to leave Rome’s eastern frontier with the mighty Parthian Empire and essentially doubling the republic’s annual income with the wealth of the east.

Roman statue putatively depicting Pompey, at the Villa Arconati a Castellazzo di Bollate (Milan, Italy), brought from Rome in 1627 by Galeazzo Arconati

Control of the state had been contested by Pompey and his great contemporary rival Marcus Crassus, a man who had grown obscenely wealthy under the proscriptions of Sulla to see his fortune match that of Rome’s annual income. The two agreed to a power sharing deal with a third junior party to balance this fragile triumvirate – Gaius Julius Caesar. This agreement held and froze many of the Senators out of having any say in the republic’s operation, and was cemented by the marriage of Caesar’s daughter to Pompey. The death of Crassus at the disastrous Battle of Carrhae in 53 BC, coupled with the death of Caesar’s daughter in childbirth, left the two remaining triumvirs in a state of opposition. While Pompey became yesterday’s news despite his dominion in Rome, Caesar became the new man with his epic conquest of Gaul and campaigns into Britannia and Germania. The conservative faction around Pompey made increasingly absurd demands for Caesar to return to face charges of treason and be stripped of his titles. Caesar was protected from prosecution so long as he maintained he consular imperium, and to return to the city of Rome would see him stripped of it and powerless against the scheming of his rivals, with Pompey already having his legions camped around the Eternal City to quell the rising tide of political violence. The stalemate that developed was shattered when the bold Caesar crossed the Rubicon, the river which marks the boundary of Rome and thus no mobilized armies can be brought with, on 10 January with a single legion. Panicked, Pompey and the Senate fled east across the Adriatic to Illyria, leaving behind the treasury in the rush to evacuate the city as more and more men swarmed to Caesar’s banners on his march south.

Caesar now faced Pomepy’s veterans to his west in Hispania and to his east as the great general himself gathered a huge army of all the veteran legions in Greece plus the promises of huge payments and levies from all his clients in the east. First was a lightning march and swift campaign to defeat the leaderless rebel legions in Hispania at Ilerda, before a year spent consolidating his position in Rome. Caesar crossed the Strait of Otranto in Winter 48 BC to surprise his opponents by landing in Greece with seven legions. Speed was Caesar’s hallmark, and while it served him well on campaigns like Ilerda, it could also be his undoing. While he had reached Illyria and dodged Pompey’s blockade, it was with just half an army and little hope of receiving reinforcements. He realized that his situation was dire as the juggernaut of Pompey’s army loomed large, though offers of negotiation were rebuffed.

After several attempts, Caesar’s adjutant Mark Antony penetrated the blockade and landed with four more legions in Illyria. Caesar and Pompey now raced to reach Antony, and though Pompey reached him first, he moved his army to the town of Dyrrachium to avoid being trapped between Antony and Caesar, who was close behind. Pompey had found a strong defensible position, guarded by the sea and hills, and thus Caesar set about to besiege his army as he had the great Gallic leader Vercingetorix at Alesia. There were constant skirmishes between the two sides, to little avail, and although Caesar held the surrounding lands, Pompey’s army had already foraged them clean and were now resupplied by sea. Pompey feared facing disease through the Winter and attempted to trick Caesar with news of a betrayal by the town folk. When he launched a three-pronged attack on the fortification, this was beaten back with the loss of half a legion.

Fortuna favored Pompey when two of Caesar’s Gallic cavalrymen were caught stealing pay, and managed to evade capture to defect to Pompey instead. They thus informed him of the weakest point in Caesar’s wall, at the end closest to the sea where Caesar was building a second wall to defend from a naval attack, though it was unfinished. Pompey sent six legions against this point with another ferry around them, breaking through the fortifications and forcing the retreat of Caesar’s Ninth Legion, with heavy casualties. Caesar quickly reinforced this section, with Antony counter attacking, though Pompey’s legionaries were too many. Pompey proceeded to build a camp south of Caesar’s wall, manning it with five legions, while a sixth occupied the camp Caesar’s legions had abandoned between the walls.

ancient map for Caesar’s operation against Pompey near Dyrrhachium in 48 BCE

Caesar looked to counter, though Pompey moved his cavalry to outflank him. Seeing the danger, Caesar attempted to manage a retreat, though it soon became a disorganized rout. The counterattack had failed completely, and Caesar himself was unable to prevent the flight of his legionaries. Pompey believed the retreat was a feigned one by Caesar, so refused to give chase to destroy his army. Caesar later remarked: “Today the victory had been the enemy’s, had there been any one among them to gain it.”

Dyrrachium was one of just a trio of defeats for Caesar’s largely impeccable record.
process of the battle of Lesnikia river in Julius Caesar’s operation against Pompey near Dyrrhachium in 48 BCE

Caesar’s army managed to retreat south into Greece and avoid being caught by Pompey’s cavalry, which outnumbered his own around four to one. He entered Thessaly and regrouped with the forces under his adjutant Calvinus, capturing the town of Gomphi while reinforcing the towns he held. Pompey joined his force with the legions under his lieutenant Nasica, so he now had a force of almost ten legions, 7,000 cavalry, and light auxiliaries. Caesar’s army was around half the size of Pompey’s and, rather than being the aggressor, he now found himself retreating east, though he would soon reach the Aegean. Pompey remained loath to attack Caesar, preferring to mirror him and starve out his army, though he was coming under increasing pressure from the senators with him to restore Roman honor and crush Caesar in a decisive battle. With his options running out, Caesar would choose to turn and make his stand to determine who would be master of Rome upon the plains of Pharsalus.

Written by Jack Tappin

Roman Empire

Battle of Dyrrhachium