Great Roman Civil War, 50-44 BC

The Great Roman Civil War (50-44 BC) was triggered by the rivalry between Julius Caesar and his conservative opposition in the Senate, and saw Caesar defeat all of his enemies in battles scattered around the Roman world, before famously being assassinated in Rome on the Ides of March, triggering yet another round of civil wars.


Sulla vs Marius

The Great Roman Civil War was the middle part of a series of civil wars that rocked, and eventually destroyed, the Roman Republic. Roman politics was often quite vicious, but the almost normal low level of violence was first tipped over into civil war by the rivalry between Marius and Sulla.

Marius was one of the great military heroes of the Republic, consul for five consecutive years from 104 BC to 100 BC, and responsible for the defeat of the Cimbri and Teutones, two Germanic tribes who defeated Roman armies in Gaul and attempted to invade Italy, and the Roman commander early in the Social War (91-88 BC).

Sulla war an upcoming commander. He had served under Marius in Africa and against the Cimbri and Teutones, and made his name in independent command during the Social War. Although Sulla and Marius had originally worked together, by the end of the Social War they were bitter rivals.

In 88 BC Sulla was one of the two consuls. One of the rewards of that post was that it would be followed by a military command, and Sulla was given the command of the war against Mithridates the Great of Pontus (First Mithridatic War). However Marius also wanted the command, and he found an ally in the tribune P. Sulpicius, who had fallen out with Sulla over the integration of the new Italian citizens into the Roman voting system. When Sulpicius attempted to have the Italians distributed between all thirty five Roman tribes, so that their votes would have some significance, Sulla opposed him. Sulpicius and Marius formed an alliance, the consuls attempted to suspend all public business and riots broke out. Sulla was forced to take shelter with Marius, and agreed to support the Italian laws. He then returned to his army, which was besieging Nola. Once Sulla was out of the city, Sulpicius used his powers to transfer the eastern command from Sulla to Marius.

Marius and Sulpicius had badly misjudged Sulla. When the news reached him, Sulla decided to lead his army to Rome, a momentous decision, breaking a taboo as old as the Republic. All but one of his officers deserted him when the decision was made public, but the troops sided with Sulla, and murdered a group of military tribunes sent by Marius to take command. Marius and Sulpicius had no soldiers at their disposal - none were allowed in Rome - and the makeshift forces they were able to gather were unable to stand up to Sulla's men (battle of the Esquiline Forum, 88 BC). Sulpicius was betrayed and killed, but Marius managed to escape to Africa.

Sulla's settlement unravelled in 87 BC. One of the consuls for the year, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, opposed Sulla's reforms. After an attempt to introduce voting reform failed he was expelled from the city, raised an army, and returned to besiege Rome. He was supported by Marius, who returned from Africa, and the city fell. Marius rather sullied his reputation with a massacre of his perceived enemies, but died early in 86 BC, just after starting his seventh consulship. This left Cinna as the dominant figure in Italy for the next few years.

While this was going on, Sulla campaigned in the east, where he managed to expel Mithridates from all of his conquests. A Marian army sent to oppose Sulla campaigned against Mithridates instead, after its original commander was overthrown by one of his tribunes. By 85 BC Mithridates was ready to make peace, ending the war, and freeing Sulla to return to Italy. Cinna was killed in a mutiny amongst troops who didn't want to risk the sea voyage to the Balkans to face Sulla, leaving Carbo to lead the resistance to Sulla.

In 83 BC Sulla returned to Italy. The campaign of 83 BC was indecisive, and the war continued into 82 BC. The main focus of the war in that year was a long siege of Praeneste, where the younger Marius was forced to take refuge after suffering defeat at the battle of Sacriportus. The Marians made several attempts to lift the siege, all of which failed. Their Samnite allies even attempted to attack Rome, and were defeated in a desperate battle outside the Colline Gate. Soon after this the defenders of Praeneste gave up. Marius committed suicide, while Carbo fled from Italy, and died soon afterwards. Pompey the Great was sent to deal with the Marians in Sicily and Africa, only leaving the forces of Sertorius in Spain.

Sulla's rule began badly, with the infamous proscriptions. A series of lists of his political opponents were posted in the Forum, and it was legal to kill anyone who was on the list. Several of his allies, most notoriously Crassus, used the proscriptions to become rich, getting the names of innocent but wealthy men added to the lists. Eventually Sulla ended the bloodbath, but it was a permanent stain on his reputation.

Next came his constitutional reforms. Sulla believed that the popular assemblies and the Tribunes of the Plebs were largely responsible for political instability in Rome (rather ignoring the role of ambitious aristocrats such as himself). First he made himself 'Dictator for the Reconstitution of the State', giving his actions a veneer of legality based on ancient precedent. He eliminated the powers of the Tribunes to veto or put forward laws, and barred anyone who had served as tribune from holding any further offices, in an attempt to make the post less attractive. The popular assemblies were only allowed to vote on laws that the Senate had already approved. The career structure for Roman aristocrats was more firmly controlled. Each post would have to be held in turn, from quaestor to praetor to consul, and age limits were imposed - 30 for quaestor, 42 for consul. The number of quaestors was increased to twenty, and they were given automatic entry into the Senate, reducing the power of the censors. The number of normal praetors was increased to eight. Nobody could hold the same post twice within ten years. The aim was to produce a stable system dominated by the aristocracy, but Sulla failed to address the biggest problem that would be faced by the Republic over the next few years - the power of the army. After setting up his new constitution Sulla stood down as dictator, and returned to private life. His constitution didn't last terribly long after his death in 78 BC.

Rise of Pompey

The period between the death of Sulla and the outbreak of the Great Civil War saw some of the most famous names in Roman history come to the fore. Julius Caesar is of course the most famous of them, but at the start of the period he was a fairly junior name. The two leading figures were Pompey the Great, who first gained fame by raising a private army to help Sulla during his second civil war, and the famously wealthy Crassus, who mainly used his influence behind the scenes, taking advantage of his financial power over many of his fellow Romans. Only slightly below them in influence was Cato the Younger, an uncompromising conservative whose single minded defence of what he believed was the status-quo probably played a major part in the fall of the Republic by backing his opponents into increasingly difficult positions. The orator, lawyer and politician Cicero was less influential than he believed, but his writings provide an invaluable view of the period, and he did serve as Consul. A confusingly large cast of aristocratic figures filled out the political scene, often changing sides with bewildering speed.

The first challenge to Sulla’s constitution began almost as soon as he gave up power. The consuls for 78 BC were Q. Catulus, a supporter of Sulla and M. Lepidus, one of his noisiest opponents. Lepidus began to campaign for the repeal of some of Sulla’s laws almost as soon as his term of office began, possibly even while Sulla was still alive. The two consuls clashed openly after they were sent to put down a revolt in Etruria, where Lepidus decided to side with the rebels. The Senate was unwilling to stand up to him and risk another civil war, and instead gave him the province of Transalpine Gaul in an attempt to get him out of Rome. However they then summoned him to Rome to hold the elections for 77 BC, but Lepidus chose to march on the city at the head of the Etrurian rebels and demand a second term as Consul.

After wavering for a moment, the Senate regained its nerve and commissioned Catulus and Pompey to put down Lepidus’s revolt.  Lepidus reached Rome, where he was defeated by Catulus and Pompey near the Mulvian Bridge and the Janiculum. Catulus pursued Lepidus as he retreated to Etruria, while Pompey moved further north and besieged Lepidus’s legate M. Brutus at Mutina. Mutina soon fell, and Brutus was killed (rather controversially). Pompey pursued his defeated forces to Liguria, where he captured and killed Lepidus’s son Scipio. Pompey then joined Catulus in time to take part in the final battle of the brief civil war at Cosa in Etruria. Lepidus fled to Sardinia where he soon died. His surviving supporters fled to Spain under the command of Perperna, where they soon joined Sertorius, the last of Sulla’s opponents still in arms against his new constitution.

With civil war averted, Pompey was ordered to disband his army, but much to the Senate’s alarm he refused. Luckily for them, Pompey had no interest in seizing power. Instead he wanted to be sent to Spain, where Sertorius had won a series of victories over Senatorial armies, and was currently holding his own against Metellus Pius. Neither of the consuls for 77 BC were willing to go to Spain, and eventually the Senate gave in and sent Pompey. Once in Spain he worked fairly well with Metellus Pius, and by 72 BC Sertorius had been killed and the Sertorian War was over.

Over the next few years Roman domestic politics were dominated by attempts to restore the power of the Tribunes, greatly reduced by Sulla. However this was overshadowed in 73 BC by the outbreak of Spartacus’s revolt. This began with the escape of a band of gladiators led by Spartacus from a school in Capua, but soon expanded into a full-blown revolt. Spartacus ended up with a massive army, with which he was able to roam up and down the Italian peninsula seemingly at will, defeating every army that was sent against him. Eventually the command was taken away from the Consuls and given to Crassus, who raised a massive army of his own, and trapped Spartacus in the far south of Italy. An attempt to escape to Sicily failed, and Spartacus was finally defeated by Crassus during his third attempt to escape from the far south. Much to Crassus’s annoyance, Pompey had just been recalled to Italy and defeated 5,000 fleeing rebels, allowing him to claim a part in the defeat of the revolt.

In the aftermath of the revolt Pompey gained a third Triumph, for his victories in Spain, but Crassus had to make do with an Ovation, as crushing a slave revolt didn’t justify a full triumph. A more significant reward was that the two men were elected as the consuls for 70 BC. They cooperated to restore the powers of the tribunes, but otherwise spent most of their year in power opposing each other. The two men staged a public reconciliation at the end of their year of office, but it isn’t clear how genuine it was.

Pompey wasn’t a terribly effective politician in normal times, and rather faded into the background between periods of crisis. On this occasion it was the growing threat of the Mediterranean’s fleets of pirates that brought him back into the limelight. Many of the naval powers that had kept the pirates under control had been weakened by Rome, and they even threatened the Italian coast. After a series of ineffective attempts to deal with the problem, in 67 BC Pompey was given the command of the campaign against the pirates, with sweeping powers. He was given proconsular powers across the Mediterranean, and as far as fifty miles inland, with power equal to any proconsul in the area.

Pompey’s campaign against the pirates was one of his most impressive achievements. He raised a massive fleet, which he divided into separate divisions that each patrolled part of the sea. Pompey himself took his main fleet to Cilicia to deal with the main pirate bases. The campaign only took three months, and by the end of the summer of 67 BC the pirates had been defeated.

Pompey’s next command was against Mithridates, who had been at war with Rome since 73 BC (Third Mithridatic War). Lucullus, the Roman commander during most of the war, successfully expelled Mithridates from his kingdom of Pontus then chased him into Armenia, where he inflicted a series of defeats on the Armenians of Tigranes the Great. However he was unable to actually complete his victory, and in 67 BC Mithridates defeated the Roman forces that had been left behind in Pontus at the battle of Nicopolis and briefly regained command of his kingdom. By this time Lucullus had lost much of his political support in Rome, and in 66 BC Pompey was given command of the war. Once again Pompey moved quickly, and by the end of the year Mithridates had been defeated and forced to flee into exile. In 65 BC he reached Crimea, where he seized power from his disloyal son Machares, and began to plot for his return. However this time he was unable to keep hold of power, and was eventually forced to commit suicide after his son rebelled against him.

Over the next few years Pompey reorganised large parts of the East. He stripped away Tigranes’s conquests, and claimed authority over Syria, where the last remnants of the once-mighty Seleucid Empire were swept away without any difficulties. Pompey finally returned to Rome in 62 BC, coming back as a conquering hero who had defeated one of her most persistent enemies, and gained vast new provinces for her. Unfortunately for Rome, many of the more conservative figures in the Senate distrusted Pompey because of his success, because of the irregular nature of his career, and because he wasn’t ‘one of them’. Their unwillingness to compromise with Pompey and their persistent attempts to block his proposals would soon force him into an unexpected alliance with Crassus and Caesar.

The First Triumvirate

Pompey returned to Italy towards the end of 62 BC. Many of the Senate’s conservatives had feared that he would march on Rome with his army and seize power, but instead he disbanded his troops as soon as he landed, and made a peaceful progress towards Rome. He then stopped at his villa in Alba where he waited to celebrate his triumph). Pompey managed to get one of his supporters, M. Piso, elected as one of the consuls for 61 BC, but he turned out to be a great disappointment. Instead of focusing on getting Pompey’s settlement of the east and land settlement for this troops approved, Piso focused on his own feud with his fellow consul M. Messalla.

Pompey eventually gave up on Piso, and managed to get another of his supporters, L. Afranius, elected as one of the consuls for 60 BC. This electoral success was probably helped by the celebration of Pompey’s magnificent two-day long triumph in September 61 BC, which will have reminded the Roman people of the vast increase in wealth he had won for them. An attempt to pass a land bill in 60 BC ended in farce, with the other consul, Metellus Celer, conducting official business from prison. In the end the bill failed.

Events were now rushing towards the formation of the first triumvirate, although until the very last moment the idea that Pompey and Crassus might cooperate in such a way seemed impossible. The catalyst for this transformation of the political scene was Julius Caesar. He had just won a small war in western Spain, and had been awarded a triumph. He was also determined to stand for election as one of the consuls for 59 BC. Caesar was another of the people that Cato the Younger was bitterly opposed to. In an attempt to stop him standing for consul, Cato convinced the Senate to refuse to all Caesar to declare his candidacy without crossing the sacred boundary of Rome. Caesar was now faced with a clear choice - stay outside the boundary, celebrate his triumph but lose the chance to stand for Consul, or cross the boundary, stand for consul but lose his triumph. Caesar chose the second option, entered the city, and stood for election. Cato and his faction attempted to reduce the potential damage by suggesting that instead of being giving overseas provinces to rule, the consuls of 59 BC should be given the task of clearing the brigands out of Italy. Finally the conservatives spend large amounts of money to make sure that Cato’s son-in-law M. Calpurnius Bibulus was elected at Caesar’s co-consul, in an attempt to make sure that Caesar would be unable to achieve anything during his year in power.

While all of this political manoeuvring was going on, Caesar approached Pompey and Crassus to try and gain their support. Both men had found their own political ambitions blocked by the same group of aristocratic senators who now opposed Caesar. At some point they came to an agreement to support each other’s laws and requirements in the following year.

At first Caesar attempted to win over the optimates, acting in an apparently reasonable way. He put forward a new land bill, but attempted to remove those aspects that the conservatives had complained about in previous laws. The new land bill would be administered by a board of twenty men, and Caesar was banned from taking part. All land required would be purchased from willing sellers at its official value, using money won by Pompey. Despite all of his best efforts, his opponents still opposed the law, some because it had been proposed by Caesar and would thus win him popularity. Cato opposed it largely because it was an innovation, and others because Cato had opposed it. Caesar attempted to have Cato thrown into prison for obstructing the law, but had to back down.  Finally, Caesar brought the law before the popular assemblies. Once again Bibulus refused to allow it to pass. Caesar called on Pompey, who unsurprisingly supported it. He then called on Crassus, who might well have been expected to oppose it, but apparently to most people’s surprise Crassus publicly supported the bill, finally bringing the triumvirate into the open. On the day of the vote Bibulus attempted to use technical measures to make the vote invalid, while Cato attempted to protest against it, but they were removed by violence and the law passed. On the following day Bibulus was unable to get the senate to veto the law. After this failure Bibulus retired to his house, from where he attempted to declare bad auspices for every possible day on which public business could be carried out, but without any great impact. Caesar was effectively left to act as the sole consul for the year.

For the rest of the year Caesar ruled through the popular assembly. Pompey’s eastern settlement was finally approved, while Crassus got the financial measures he had requested. The alliance between Caesar and Pompey was strengthened by the marriage of Pompey to Caesar’s daughter Julia. A new, more radical land law was passed. Finally the previous distribution of the provinces was cancelled, and Caesar was granted Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum for five years, with three legions. The Senate, on this occasion led by Pompey, added Transalpine Gaul and a fourth legion, in the hope that this would keep Caesar further away from Rome.

By the end of the year the triumvirs had got most of what they had wanted, but at great cost. Pompey had his eastern settlement and his land law, although had lost much of his popularity. Caesar had his year as consul and his command in Gaul, but had made permanent enemies in the Senate, who spent the entire time he was in Gaul preparing to bring him down on his return.

In 58 Caesar finally departed for Gaul, where he soon became involved in the famous Gallic War, using his provincial posting to launch one of the great wars of conquest of the Roman Republic. While he was away the politics of Rome remained as poisonous as ever. In 58 BC the main destabilising factor was the tribune Clodius, officially a supporter of Caesar, but in reality an immoral figure. During his time in office he forced Cicero into exile, using the events of Cicero’s year at consul against him. However he was also a fairly skilful political operator. Clodius’s election as Tribune was only legitimate if Caesar’s laws from 59 BC were legitimate, as it had been Caesar who had allowed him to become a plebeian. The conservative opposition had attempted to have them declared illegal, but in 58 BC Cato agreed to accept a post as commissioner to take over the kingdom of Cyprus, which was to be taken over by Rome. By accepting this post, which he believed was in the best interests of Rome, Cato had effectively admitted that Caesar’s acts of 59 BC were legal. However Clodius then turned against his patrons. He freed Tigranes, the son of the king of Armenia, a move that humiliated Pompey. The consul Gabinius protested and was attacked. Clodius then turned on Caesar, attacking the validity of his acts at consul!

In 57 BC Clodius was no longer tribune, but he was still popular and influential, and a member of the senate. The year was largely dominated by attempts to recall Cicero, and by a grain shortage, probably caused by the incompetence of the man Clodius had placed in charge of the grain commission. Clodius’s actions in 58 BC had turned Pompey against him, and he campaigned in Italy in support of Cicero. Enough Italian voters came to Rome in the summer to ensure that Cicero was recalled. Cicero reached Rome in September, and was present when Pompey was given command of the grain supplies. This time he struggled to make an immediate impact, as there was a genuine shortage of grain at the time.

By 56 BC the triumvirate appeared to be in trouble. Pompey and Crassus were once again open rivals, and Caesar’s enemies were gathering against him. Caesar appears to have taken the lead in restoring the alliance. In the spring he visited Crassus at Ravenna and Pompey at Luca and suggested that they should stand for the consulate in 55 BC. He would send some of his soldiers to support their candidacy. Cicero abandoned his opposition to Caesar, and Clodius fell into line, at least for the moment. The elections were held early in 55 BC, and as planned Pompey and Crassus were duly elected. They quickly dealt with their provinces for the following years. Crassus was given Syria and Pompey Spain, both for five years, while Caesar’s command was extended for five years.

Collapse of the Triumvirate

The triumvirate had reached the peak of its success, and events now forced the three men apart. In 54 Crassus left for Syria, suddenly determined to revive his military reputation by conquering Parthia. Caesar was still in Gaul, so this only left Pompey in Rome. His bonds with Caesar were weakened when his wife Julia died, breaking the family connection between the two men. One of the consuls for the year was Ahenobarbus, one of the men Pompey and Crassus had stood to keep out of office in the first place, while Cato was elected at praetor. They attempted to undermine the triumvirs, but were unable to compete with the glamour of Caesar’s military successes and Cicero’s speeches. Their moral authority was also badly undermined when they accepted bribes from one of the consular candidates for 53 BC.

The first really serious blow came in 53 BC. Crassus finally began his invasion of Parthia, only to be defeated and killed at Carrhae. The year also began without any consuls in place, and a prolonged and violent rivalry between Clodius and Milo, both of whom raised private armies. Pompey eventually returned to the city and held the elections in the summer, by which time most people’s attention had turned to the elections for 52 BC. Clodius decided to stand, and once again violence on the streets prevented the elections from happening as normal.

The rioting continued in 52 BC. Early in the year Clodius and Milo ran into each other near Bovillae outside Rome, and Clodius was killed after taking refuge in a nearby tavern. Clodius’s funeral pyre was built inside the senate house, and the entire building burnt down. In response the Senate asked Pompey to restore order. Some suggested that he should be made dictator, but instead he was made sole consul. Pompey used this call to switch his support to the conservative faction. L. Domitius Ahenobarbus was put in charge of an investigation into the bribery and violence of recent months. Pompey turned down an offer to marry Caesar’s great-niece and instead chose to marry Crassus’s son’s widow Cornelia, the daughter of Q. Metellus Scipio, an important member of the aristocratic faction. Pompey was also able to quickly restore order, and make sure that the elections for 51 BC went more smoothly.

The consuls for 51 BC were M Marcellus, an orator who had been opposed to Caesar, and Ser. Sulpicius Rufus, reputedly an honest man. Marcellus announced that he would raise the issue of replacing Caesar in Gaul, making him vulnerable to prosecution. Sulpicius opposed the plan, fearing that it would trigger another civil war. The debate on Gaul eventually took place in September 51 BC, and it was agreed that new governors would be allocated in the spring of 50 BC. Caesar would thus lose his army and his immunity months before the consular elections for 49 BC, leaving him vulnerable to prosecution. Pompey supported this measure.

The consuls for 50 BC were C. Marcellus, a cousin of M. Marcellus, and L Aemilius Paullus. Marcellus was related to Caesar by marriage and Paullus owned him a favour after Caesar lent him 1,500 talents to help complete the rebuilding of the basilica in the Roman Forum. One of the tribunes was Curio, one of Caesar’s opponents during his year as consul, but soon to turn out to have changed sides. When the date allocated for the discussion of the new governor for Gaul, Curio made sure that it was delayed. Pompey suggested that Caesar should give up his command on the Ides of November, 46 days before the start of the next consular year. This would still have left him vulnerable to prosecution. Pompey now had an army of his own, ready to lead it east to deal with the Parthians, but late in the year they withdrew from Syria to deal with a civil war. Caesar was at Ravenna, still within his province, but dangerously close to Rome. However most of his army was still in Gaul, and the Senate believed that it had the stronger military position.

The final crisis began with an attack on Curio in the senate. He responded by proposing that both Caesar and Pompey should give up their commands, although he didn’t specify when (he was still Caesar’s man). The motion passed by 370 votes to 22. The consul C. Marcellus believed that this vote meant it was inevitable that Caesar would bring his legions to Rome, and went to Pompey to ask him to take command of the two legions ready for the Parthian War and defend the Republic. Pompey agreed to do so, ‘if all else fails’.

On 10 December Curio’s period of office ended, and he departed to join Caesar at Ravenna. He was then chosen to bring Caesar’s peace offer to the Senate. Caesar suggested that both he and Pompey should lay down their commands, and submit to the judgement of the Roman people. If Pompey didn’t agree then Caesar threatened to ‘come quickly and avenge his country’s wrongs and his own’. The Senate refused to debate this suggestion. Instead Metellus Scipio put forward a proposal that if Caesar didn’t disband his armies by a fixed date then he would be declared an enemy of the state. The motion was passed, but vetoed by two of the tribunes.

One final compromise was suggested. Caesar would give up almost all of his provinces, but keep at least Illyricum and one legion until the start of his second consulship. Pompey was willing to go along with this plan, but Cato and the other conservatives blocked it. On 7 January they passed an emergency degree that the officers of the government should see that the Republic suffers no harm. Caesar’s two supporters amongst the Tribunes, Antony and Cassius, were told that their safety could no longer be guaranteed. They decided to seek refuge with Caesar, joined by Curio and Caelius. When the exiled tribunes reached Caesar, he finally decided to break with the Senate and march on Rome, feeling that he had been given no choice.

The Outbreak of War

On 10 January 49 BC (by the Roman calendar, which at the time was some way out of sync with the seasons) Caesar led his single legion (Legio XIII Gemina) across the Rubicon, the river that marked the north-eastern boundary of Italy proper. By doing this he broke the law that stated that only a current magistrate could exercise Imperium, the right to command troops, in Italy. Caesar, as a proconsul and governor of Gaul, had the right to command troops within his province. Caesar recognised that he was taking a massive gamble, and was famously believed to have said 'let the die be cast',

Battles of the Great Roman Civil War, 49-45 BC
Battles of the
Great Roman Civil War,
49-45 BC

The collapse of the Republican institutions was clearly demonstrated by the response to Caesar's invasion. It should have been the two consuls for the year, Lentulus and C. Marcellus, who led the Republican response, but instead that task was given to Pompey the Great. Caesar moved too quickly for the Republicans. He split his army in two. Antony was sent inland to Arretium, on the Via Cassia, while Caesar moved down the Adriatic coast to Ancona, on the Via Flaminia. Caesar's rapid movement caused a panic in Rome. On 17 January the news that he was already at Ancona reached the city, and Pompey decided to Rome. He ordered the consuls and senate to move south to Campania. In the meantime Caesar occupied Picenum, the area opposite Rome on the Adriatic coast.

The first resistance came at Corfinium, a crossroads town to the east of Rome. The newly appointed proconsul for Transalpine Gaul, Domitius Ahenobarbus, didn’t see himself as bound to obey Pompey, who he saw as simply another proconsul. He raised an army equivalent to three legions, and attempted to defend the town. When Caesar's men turned up, Ahenobarbus's troops refused to fight and forced him to surrender. Caesar showed the clemency for which he would soon become famous, and allowed all the prisoners of senatorial or equestrian rank to go free. Ahenobarbus' troops  were taken into Caesar's service, and then sent to Sicily.

Pompey had no intention of fighting in Italy. He only had access to two legions, both of which had served under Caesar and were thus of doubtful loyalty. As Caesar's army moved south, Pompey and the consuls moved to Brundisium, close to the eastern tip of Italy. On 4 March the consuls set sail for Epirus. Caesar arrived a few days later with three veteran and three new legions. He attempted to trap Pompey in Brundisium, but on 17 March Pompey managed to slip past Caesar's planned blockade, heading for Epirus.

In just over two months Caesar had forced his enemies to abandon Italy, and with it Rome. This was an impressive achievement, although his enemies still occupied large parts of the Empire - Pompey's men ruled in Spain, while the main Republican forces were now in the east. Pompey's decision not to at least attempt to defend Rome was almost certainly a mistake, abandoning the heart of the Republic to Caesar.

After failing to trap Pompey at Brundisium Caesar returned to Rome. He stayed there for two not entirely successful weeks. His attempts to at least appear to be acting legitimately were spoilt by L. Metellus, one of the tribune of the plebs, who used his right of veto to block all of Caesar's proposals. Caesar had to cross over the pomoerium, the sacred boundary of Rome, to threaten Metellus and seize the money in the treasury. This was another breach of Roman tradition, as any proconsul who crossed the pomoerium was considered to have lost his imperium, and with it his command.

Spain (49 BC)

Caesar's next move was to march to Spain to deal with Pompey's supporters in that area. On his way he faced opposition at Massilia, which decided to side with Pompey and the Republicans. The resulting siege of Massilia actually lasted longer than Caesar's campaign in Spain, and the city only surrendered when Caesar reappeared on his way back to Italy. Caesar couldn't afford to stop and conduct the siege in person. He left Decimus Brutus to conduct the siege (winning two naval battles outside Massilia in the process), and continued on to Spain.

Spain was the location of one of Pompey's earliest military successes, the defeat of the Roman rebel Sertorius (Sertorian War), and Spain had been his proconsular province for some years. He had three armies in Spain - L. Afranius and M. Petreius were in Hispania Citerior (eastern Spain), the scholar M. Varro was in Hispania Ulterior (southern Spain). Varro remained in his province, while Afranius and Petreius united their forces in Citerior. Caesar's forces were easily able to cross the Pyrenes, but a standoff soon developed at the town of Ilerda. For a time Caesar suffered from a lack of supplies, but eventually he had the best of the fighting, and in the summer Afranius and Petreius asked for surrender terms. Once again Caesar was generous. The two commanders were allowed to leave (going to join Pompey) and their army was dissolved. Caesar them moved against Varro, but his army also collapsed as Caesar approached, and Varro was forced to surrender.

Elsewhere things didn't go quite as well for Caesar. One of his supporters, G. Scribonius Curio, expelled Cato from Sicily, and then invaded Africa, which was held by Attius Varus. Curio won an initial battle at Utica, and then besieged the city, but he was then defeated and killed by King Juba of Numidia at the battle of the Bagradas River (24 July 49 BC). The province of Africa remained in Republican hands until the final battle of the war. 

In the autumn of 49 BC Caesar returned to Rome, forcing the surrender of Massilia on the way. His main task at Rome was to make sure that he was elected as one of the Consuls for 48 C. His first problem was that only the existing consuls could run the election, and they were with Pompey in Greece. M. Lepidus found a solution. Caesar was made dictator for a few days, and conducted the elections himself. Unsurprising he was elected, alongside P. Servilius Isauricus. Caesar then restored the rights of the sons of the victims of Sulla's proscriptions, and recalled a number of people who had been condemned by Pompey. He also attempted to deal with a debt crisis, before after eleven days leaving for Brundisium to resume the war against Pompey.

Pompey and Greece, 49-48 BC

While Caesar had been campaigning in Spain, the senate in exile had moved to Thessalonica. Pompey focused on raising as large an army as possible. Two legions were raised by Lentulus Crus in Asia, and two were coming from Syria under Metellus Scipio. More troops were provided by Rome's client kings in the east, many of whom owed their position to Pompey. Pompey also had a powerful fleet, under Bibulus, Caesar's co-consul and rival in 59 BC. Pompey's troops were able to capture Curicta in Illyria, which was being held by Caesar's men, but were repulsed at Salonae.

Despite Bibulus's best efforts, Caesar managed to cross to Greece with seven legions, but the rest of his army, under Mark Antony, was trapped at Brundisium. Only after the death of Bibulus of natural causes early in 48 BC was Antony able to cross over to Illyria to join Caesar, but his fleet was swept past Caesar and Pompey, and had to land on the far side of Pompey's men. The two armies then became involved in a 'race to the sea' around Dyrrhachium, Pompey attempting to secure as large an area as possible. The two sides then settled down into the siege of Dyrrhachium (March-May 48 BC). This ended in a rare setback for Caesar. Pompey made two attempts to break through the siege lines, the second of which was successful enough to force Caesar to lift the siege (battle of Dyrrhachium, 20 May 48 BC).

Caesar's next move was to head east across Greece, to support his legate Domitius Calvinus, who was threatened by Metellus Scipio's legions coming from Syria. Pompey had two choices - he could have taken the chance to return to Italy and attempt to regain Rome, or he could follow Caesar. He decided not to risk taking the war back to Italy, and followed Caesar.

Caesar and Calvinus soon met up, and then headed east into Thessaly. On the way they quickly besieged Gomphi, on the western border of Thessaly, where their troops sacked the town. The other towns in Thessaly opened their gates to Caesar.

Pompey now came under pressure from the optimates, his more conservative supporters, who didn’t entirely trust him. Pompey was aware that Caesar was still in a difficult position in Greece, and would have preferred to wear him down, but instead he was forced to offer battle. The resulting battle of Pharsalus (9 August 48 BC) effectively ended any realistic chance of a Republican victory in the civil war. Despite being outnumbered Caesar won a major victory. Pompey escaped, but Domitius Ahenobarbus was killed in the battle. In the aftermath of the battle Caesar burned Pompey's correspondence and offered to pardon anyone who asked his forgiveness. Amongst those who chose to chance sides was M. Brutus, later to be one of his assassins. Cicero also decided to give up, and returned to Italy, where he was delayed at Brundisium for some time.


The few remaining Republican leaders fled to North Africa. Cato and Pompey's sons went to Cyrenaica, just to the west of Egypt, where they hoped to meet up with Pompey. Pompey himself went to Lesbos, where he joined his wife and then decided to head for Egypt, where he expected to be supported by the young king Ptolemy XIII. Instead he was murdered on the orders of the young king's advisors as he landed on the Egyptian shore.

Three days later, on 2 October 48 BC, Caesar arrived in Egypt, at the start of a fateful stay. He arrived in the middle of a vicious dispute between the co-rulers, the 21-year old Cleopatra VII Philopater and her younger brother-husband Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator (the Ptolomies had adopted the Egyptian custom of marriage within the Royal family). Caesar moved into the Royal palace and announced that he was going to arbitrate in the civil war. At first he shared the palace with Ptolemy, while Cleopatra was denied access to him. Famously she gained access to Caesar by hiding inside a rolled up carpet, which was presented to him.

Caesar was won over by the dramatic gesture, and sided with Cleopatra (nine months later their son Caesarion was born). Ptolomy was furious, and stormed out of the palace. Caesar's two under-strength legions were soon besieged by Ptolomy's larger army, supported by the populace of Alexandria, then the most impressive city in the world. The siege of Alexandria dragged on until March 47 BC, when reinforcements finally reached Egypt. This was an Allied army led by Mithridates of Pergamum. The combined Roman forces were able to defeat the besieging forces (battle of the Nile). Ptolomy was drowned during the battle.

Caesar probably stayed in Egypt for another couple of months after the battle, going on a river tour down the Nile with the by now heavily pregnant Cleopatra. Cleopatra was given another co-monarch, her even younger brother Ptolomy XIV, supported by three legions.


During the long siege of Alexandria the situation in the rest of the Roman Empire had turned against Caesar. Cato had moved west to the province of Africa, where he and the other surviving Republican leaders had managed to raise a powerful army. In Italy Mark Antony was making himself unpopular. After Pharsalus Caesar had been appointed dictator for a year, to cover 47 BC. Antony served as his deputy (master of the horse). He had to leave Rome to deal with a mutiny in Campania, and while he was away Dolabella, then one of the tribune of the plebs, began to campaign for debt relieve, causing disorder in Rome. Antony restored order violently, losing a great deal of his earlier popularity.

The most immediate problem was in Asia Minor. At the end of the Mithridatic Wars, Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates the Great had been left as rule of the Cimmerian Bosporus (the Crimea). He now decided to take advantage of the Roman Civil War to invade his father's old kingdom. He defeated Domitius Calvinus at Nicopolis, and briefly appeared to pose a threat to Roman authority.

Caesar quickly eliminated the threat. From Egypt he moved to Antioch and Syria, and then into Asia Minor. At Zela he easily defeated Pharnaces, leading him to make one of his most famous comments - Veni, Vidi, Vici (I came, I saw, I conquered). He would later use the ease of his victory over Pharnaces to undermine the significance of Pompey's victories over Mithridates.

After defeating Pharnaces, Caesar returned to Rome. He quickly dealt with the mutiny in Campania, partly by pointedly referring to the soldiers as citizens and not fellow soldiers. He dealt with the elections for 47 BC (rather late) and for 46 BC (rather early), and made himself Consul for 46 BC. 

Africa, 46 BC

The Republicans now had a sizable force in Africa. Cato was its leading spirit, but the former consul Metellus Scipio was the official leader of the Republicans, and Labienus the main military figure. They also had access to Pompey's naval squadrons, and the support of King Juba. The Republicans were in contact with supporters in Spain, where Caesar's governor Q. Cassius had made himself almost universally unpopular.

Late in 48 BC Caesar prepared to depart for Africa. One attempt to delay him was made by a haruspex, one of Rome's diviners, who claimed that disaster would follow if Caesar left before the solstice. Caesar ignored this, and departed from Rome on 25 December, several weeks before the solstice on the then current calendar.

Caesar had a difficult arrival in Africa. He was soon attacked by a larger army under Labienus, in a costly drawn battle at Ruspina. Caesar was helped by Bocchus of Mauretania and P. Sittius, a Roman serving under Bocchus, who invaded Juba's kingdom. Caesar was also able to use propaganda, portraying his enemies as the tool of a barbarian king, to convince some of the Republicans to desert to him. Caesar then besieged the town of Thapsus. The Republicans attempted to lift the siege, but instead suffered a heavy defeat in the resulting battle of Thapsus.

After taking Thapsus, Caesar advanced towards the Republican base at Utica. Cato now realised that his cause was hopeless. After making sure that anyone who wanted to escape had got away, he committed suicide, denying Caesar the chance to pardon him. Metellus Scipio was intercepted while attempting to reach Spain and committed suicide. Juba committed suicide after the battle of Thapsus. However Labienus and Pompey's two sons escaped to Spain, where they managed to establish themselves.

Caesar spent a short time reorganising Africa. Juba's kingdom was split, with part going to Sittius and the Mauretanians, and the rest becoming a Roman province. Several prisoners, who had been pardoned but broken their word not to fight again were executed. He then returned to Rome.

Spain, 45 BC

Caesar was back in Rome by the end of July, at the start of his longest stay during the Civil War. Part of his time was spent preparing for the celebration of four triumphs in succession, to mark his victories in Gaul, Egypt, Pharnaces and Juba. Amongst the enemy leaders on display were Vercingetorix, Cleopatra's younger sister Arsineo and Juba's four year old son. Only Vercingetorix was executed after the triumph.

Towards the end of 46 BC Caesar left for Spain once again, taking one veteran legion with him. This time he was less forgiving. The rebels were treated as unforgivable enemies, and both sides committed atrocities. On one occasion Caesar's men lined their fortifications with the severed heads of their enemies.

Cn Pompeius, Pompey's elder son, caused Caesar some problems by refusing to risk a battle. However eventually he was force to fight, at Munda. This was one of Caesar's hardest fights, but he was able to motivate his men to fight on, and ended up winning a crushing victory. Labienus was killed during the battle, and Cn Pompeius a few days later. Sextus Pompeius managed to escape, and would later prove to be a thorn in the side of the Second Triumvirate, but the battle effectively ended the Great Civil War.


Caesar returned to Rome in October 45 BC. By now his political judgement appears to have been slipping. He celebrated another triumph, this time for his victory over fellow Romans. There were hints that he was considering making himself King, and he had himself appointed Dictator for Life. His actions began to worry many of his former supporters, as well as his pardoned enemies. On the Ides of March, 15 March 44 BC, Caesar was assassinated during a Senate Meeting, three days before he was due to leave for an invasion of Parthia.

The immediate result of the assassination was the renewed outbreak of Civil War. This fell into two clear stages. The first saw the Senate, supported by Caesar's heir Octavian, fight Mark Antony, Caesar's master of the horse. Although Antony was defeated, both of the consuls for the year were killed. In the aftermath of the fighting Octavian changed sides. Antony, Octavian and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate, a much more formal arrangement than the First Triumvirate.

The second stage saw Octavian and Antony cross to Greece to attack the Liberators, Caesar's assassins who had been forced to flee from Italy after their actions didn't meet with the universal approval they appear to have expected. The two main Liberators, Crassus and Brutus, committed suicide after the First battle of Philippi and Second battle of Philippi respectively, leaving Octavian, Antony and Lepidus to split the Roman world between them.

The third stage saw Octavian and Antony clash for control of the entire Roman world. Eventually this rivaly erupted into open warfare. Octavian crossed to the Balkans and defeated Antony and Cleopatra's armies at the naval battle of Actium. Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt, where they eventually committed suicide to avoid falling into Octavian's hands. This gave Octavian undisputed control over the Roman world. He proved to be a far more skillful politician than Caesar, or indeed most of his rivals, and managed to set up a system in which he had the reality of power, while keeping the Senate on his side. He was rewarded with the title of Augustus, and became the first Roman Emperor.

Brutus - Caesar's Assassin, Kirsty Corrigan. A well balanced biography of Brutus, one of the more consistent defenders of the Roman Republic, and famously one of Caesar's assassins on the Ides of March. Paints a picture of a man of generally high moral standards (with some flaws in financial matters), but also an over-optimistic plotter, who failed to make any realistic plans for the aftermath of the assassination. Does a good job of tracing Brutus's fairly obscure early years, as well as distinguishing between later legends and historically likely events [read full review]
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Mark Antony - A Plain Blunt Man, Paolo de Ruggiero . Nice to have a biography devoted to Mark Antony in his own right rather than as part of someone else's story, but be aware that the author is very biased in favour of Mark Antony and rather stretches the evidence to make his case. Readable and the author knows his sources, but would be better without the bias. [read full review]
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (6 August 2018), Great Roman Civil War, 50-44 BC ,

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