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Sunday, February 05, 2012

ET TU Part Three A Bloody Drill

I know little about the soldier Crastinus, except that he died on June 7, 48 B.C.E. of a sword wound to the mouth. I know that on this day, as he was about to face the 45,000 men in Pompey's army, Crastinus swore an oath to his own general. “General, I will act in such a manner today that you will feel grateful to me, living or dead.” This is not to say that Crastinus was happy to be on the plain that day, just north of the central Greek town of Pharsalus (modern Farsala). But we can be certain he had already proven his bravery and his ability to inspire men, else he would not have achieved the rank of Centurion, entrusted this day with directing 80 of the men in a 22,000 man army. The men in his Century depended upon Crastinus. He was the second most important man in their lives, after Julius Caesar.
Caesar had crossed the Rubicon on January 11th  49 B.C. with just 5,000 men. His primary opponent, Pompey the Great, had more than twice that many men defending the walls of Rome. But less than a week later, without even offering battle, Pompey, most of his army and most of the Senate aristocrats fled Italy, sailing for Epirus, in north western Greece. That left the stage to Caesar. First he got his hands on the treasury. Then, what remained of the Senate voted him dictator for a year. Caesar ordered all government posts abandoned by the aristocrats to be filled by his allies. That gave him political control of Rome. Still, he was caught between Pompey's Spanish legions and Pompey himself, gathering legions and allies in Greece.
The Latin word for a Roman soldier, “legionnaire”, meant a military conscript, who was drafted under the Republic to serve for 6 years. The professionals, who were beginning to dominate the Roman Army, signed 25 year contracts. For non-Romans, such as the Gauls in Caesar's army, an honorable discharge meant Roman citizenship and a plot of farmland upon which they could retire. And most who signed up, made it to retirement - for every hour a legionary spent on a battlefield like Pharsalus he spent years drilling. It was said of Caesar (but could have been said of any good Roman general) that his drills were bloodless battles and that his battles were bloody drills.
In late March of 49 B.C.Caesar left Rome and crossed the Alps, where he met three of his legions from Gaul Without pausing, he now forced the passes through the Pyrenees mountains, and outside of the Spanish village of Illerda confronted Pompey's legions. Caesar had covered the 800 miles so quickly – just 27 days – that Pompey's troops were caught unprepared and were defeated. On August 2nd all five of Pompey's Spanish legions had surrendered, and rather than being disbanded were integrated into Caesar's forces.
The core formation of the Roman Army was always the squad of 8 men, called a contubernium, who shared a barracks room or a tent, and a mule to carry their supplies. Ten such groups, or 80 men, formed a century (a company) , six centuries formed a cohort (a battalion), and a legion (a division) was made up of 10 cohorts. Everything they did was a standardized drill. They even ended each day's march by building a standardized camp. A legionary could walk into any camp from Judea, to Britain, to Africa, and walk directly to the armory, the barracks, or the stables. The basic plan for European and American cities grew out of the standardized design of Roman Army camps.
By early 48 B.C. Caesar had gathered three legions in Brundisium, at the heel on the Italian boot. He still lacked enough ships to carry all his men across the Adriatic to Greece, but so eager was he to come to grips with Pompey, that Caesar sailed with just half his force. For once, Pompey moved quickly. His ships cut Caesar off from reinforcement, and his larger army forced Caesar’s men into battle at Dyrrhachium, in what is today Albania. Caesar lost 1,000 men and would have been destroyed, had Pompey not become cautious, and Mark Anthony not finally slipped the rest of Caesar’s legions through Pompey's blockade. The two Roman armies now began a dance, southwestward, down the Greek peninsula, until, by late May they had reached the plain of Pharsalus, where Caesar’s men grew so hungry, they could march no further.
At Pharsalus Caesar’s legionaries were facing fellow legionaries and neither side had a technological advantage. Pompey's larger army held the high ground. That meant that Caesar’s hungry men would have to attack uphill. Pompey formed each of his legions as usual, three ranks deep, with three feet between each man. But Caesar thinned out his men to add a fourth line. It was a minor alteration.
After throwing their spears, each Century battered into the enemy with their shields, strapped to their left forearm. The overlapping shield walls pushed and shoved the enemy, the enemy pushing and shoving back. A Roman battle was mostly a brutal shoving match, both sides looking for an opening to thrust in their 2 foot long gladius (sword) with their right arms. Every 90 seconds the Centurion would blow his whistle. The front rank would sidestep right and backward. The fresh second rank would surge forward, pushing and shoving. The exhausted rank would then fall back to the third line, to rest. As long as both armored sides maintained their discipline, the causalities in ancient battles were few. But the instant either side broke formation, showing their backs, the slaughter would begin
On Caesar’s right, Pompey's cavalry scattered their weaker opponents. But this uncovered Caesar’s fourth line of legionaries. Ceasar's incessant drilling allowed his men to smoothly swing to their right, and thrust at the enemy cavalry. And here Caesar displayed a new tactic, developed to deal with the Gaulic cavalry. Instead of throwing their spears, Caesar’s legionaries used them as five foot long spikes. The enemy's horses would not hold formation, and were scattered and driven off the field. Caesar’s fourth line swung through the opening and outflanked Pompey's troops. Now the fourth line pulled their gladius, and the slaughter began.
Pompey saw what was happening and panicked. He rode back to his camp, gathered up his wife and servents. urged his soldiers there to resist Caesar to the death, and then rode for the coast, some say dressed as a peddler. Meanwhile, on the battlefield, Caesar’s 22,000 man army lost just 200 legionnaires killed, and 30 Centurions – including the brave Crastinus. Another 800 legionaries were wounded. But from Pompey's army of 45,000, because their formation had been broken, the field was littered with 15,000 of their dead.
Once again, Caesar chose to be magnanimous. He separated the soldiers from their Centurions. He put his men in command of Pompey's legions, and he transferred Pompey's officers to positions in his loyal legions, where junior officers and superiors could keep watch over them. Pompey sailed for Egypt, intending on moving on to his allied forces in Tunisia and what is today Libya. He would never make it. But with each step Ceasar took to follow Pompey, he took one step closer to his own murder.
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