The Battle of Pharsalus: Animated Sequences

Pharsalus Battle

This is a preliminary animation of the Pharsalus battle. It represents the first 10 minutes of the battle. The first two frames are 20 and 40 seconds, after that the frames are on 1 minute intervals. The frames for 0 20 and 40 seconds and 5 and 10 minutes appear in the Pharsalus Battle page, the frames for 2,3,4,6,7,8 and 9 minutes have been interpolated to fill in the animation.

Critique of the Animation

Starting Distance


The animation begins with the two armies 300 feet apart. This comes from an analysis done in the Pharsalus Battle page where it was felt that Caesar's men could not have started their final approach from 600 feet without becoming aware quite early on that Pompey's men were not moving as well. The narrative clearly states that they began their running charge, realized that Pompey's line was not coming to meet them and then came to a stop half way. Based on that, an initial separation of 600 feet seems too great. In a normal attack both sides would march 225 feet until the separation between them was about 150 feet and then charge. If Caesar's men had to march not the "normal" 225 feet but the full 450 feet to close to charging distance the argument was that they would be aware of Pompey's strategy and would make the necessary adjustment before nor during their running charge.

The difficulty is that in the section on cavalry actions it was determined that they should begin with a separation of 450 to 600 feet. If one side were to have time to wheel away before actual physical contact it would need a minimum of 200 feet of separation to do so. Less than that and there would not be sufficient time for the maneuver. At 600 feet of initial separation each side would move 200 feet, presumably at a trot. That would take about 25 seconds. Within that time the weaker side would have to come to a realization that it is overmatched, decide that flight is better than fighting, and come to a decision to turn away. Whether the "decision" is spontaneous (panic spreading from man to man) or formal (a command issued and communicated) it would take time to disseminate along the line. 25 seconds seems minimal for this to happen.

The problem is how to reconcile these two conflicting ideas.


Several solutions may be possible.

An obvious one is to position the cavalry back from the infantry so that it has more separation. This does not seem like an attractive solution and is merely noted here to indicate that it was considered but rejected.

The solution adopted in the Pharsalus Battle model was to place both armies at 300 feet. Upon further consideration of the battle plan and the dynamics of cavalry fighting, this may not be the best alternative. Pompey is said to have claimed that his cavalry would rout Caesar's cavalry, turn and attack the flank of Caesar's legions and rout them before the two main bodies got within pilum range. If the infantry lines were already at 300 feet separation, ready to begin their running charge, there would not be sufficient time for the cavalry action Pompey planned. And, as noted, the dynamics of cavalry action would seem to require more initial room for maneuver and more time that 300 feet of separation provides.

The best solution may simply be to begin the cavalry action when the lines are about 600 feet apart and to re-think the issue of the infantry charge.

It was not uncommon for one side to establish a position on favorable ground and more or less hold to it while the other advanced. So the fact that Pompey's line did not move forward during the early maneuvering stage of the battle would not necessarily have surprised Caesar's men. Caesar's lines, therefore, could have marched to the 300 foot distance while Pompey's men held their position without it seeming exceptional. What was different was that Pompey's men did not finally run to meet the charge as was apparently customary (Caesar spends some time remarking on this exceptional strategy). And it is this oddity that Caesar's men noticed during their charge, then came to a halt to rest and finally to resume their attack.

Implications for the Animation

What this means for the animation is that the cavalry action begins before the infantry action. The two opposing cavalry lines, accompanied by the light infantry and skirmishers, begin their attack at a separation of 600 feet. Trotting (the skirmishers can easily jog to keep pace) to meet each other the cavalry wings close to 200 feet in 25 seconds. In this time the infantry march 104 feet at the standard march cadence. It will take Caesar's men another minute to come to the 300 foot "jumping off" distance. The infantry will pause at that point while the centuries dress their ranks and files and the officers coordinate the timing of the charge. One can imagine the centurions bringing their centuries to a halt and then stepping out in front to look up and down the mile-long battleline to see if everyone else is in place. Perhaps signals (audial or visual) are sent from the left side to the right so that ultimately Caesar, positioned behind the right end of the line, is advised that everyone is in place and then gives the order for the attack. If not that, then signals have to be sent to someone who decides that the army is ready and gives the attack command, probably a horn signal. There also needs to be some courage-building -- the front line troops have psychologically ready themselves for the ensuing battle. One can imagine the individual centurions encouraging their men, getting their blood up for the charge.

All of this takes time. How much?

It took a minute and a half for the army to march to the 300 foot line. A mile long army of marching men cannot maintain straight lines. It would take at least a few minutes for the entire formation to get into place and restore something like a straight line. Add another 5 minutes for communications back to a central point and another five minutes for the general to reconnoiter the enemy dispositions and assure himself of his own army's readiness. The infantry attack may come as much as 15 minutes after the cavalry began its approach.

What is the cavalry doing in this time?

One would prefer that neither side's cavalry break and run from the field of battle before the infantry have even begun to fight. It would seem to be a real morale destroyer for the infantry to see its cavalry routed and know it is vulnerable to flank and rear attacks.

Therefore the model would like to keep the cavalry in action at least until the infantry have begun their attack.

On the other hand, Pompey bragged that his cavalry would rout Caesar's army before they even threw their pila. This clearly implies extensive cavalry action before the running charge began.

Caesar's narrative places the cavalry action eodem tempore, at the same time, as the infantry attack. However the entire battle narrative is compressed. Even if Caesar had intended to present a minute by minute accurate narrative (and we know that was not his intention) he could not have been aware of the precise sequence of events all over the enormous battlefield. Pompey only surmised the outcome of the cavalry action from noting the dust clouds raised by the horses. No direct information was available to anyone on the battlefield. Neither Caesar nor anyone could have known just exactly when and in what sequence events happened. Therefore a model that has the cavalry action starting some 15 minutes before the infantry charge does not necessarily conflict with the narratives.

Nature of the Cavalry Action


How visualize the attack -- head on charge at a gallop, trot, wheel and whirl, stop and engage?

How long to fight -- limits on horses and men

What type of formations

How far do they run

What's the documentary evidence


to keep on field 15 minutes have to stop lines and skirmish fight in place for awhile
then push back slowly

Implications for the Animation

The four pages listed below developed the model for the cavalry charge in some detail. The links are provided below. There are no return links to this page from either the Site Map or these 4 Cavalry pages.

Cavalry: Overview
Cavalry: Standard Model
Cavalry: Improved Model
Cavalry: Turmae Fighting Model

The page titled "Cavalry:Improved Model" developed several key ideas.

It showed how the cavalry formation would spread out as the horse paces changed to trot, easy gallop and full charge.

The page began: " . . .the cavalry trotted 75 feet at an average speed of 9 mph. It then galloped 150 feet at an average speed of 13 mph and charged the final 75 feet at 22 mph. The variations for each of the gaits is trot: 7-13 mph; easy gallop: 9-18 mph, all out gallop: 15-28." It then noted the spread of the formation over these distances and times. When walking a line of horses, with good discipine, could be maintained at 12 feet in depth (a standard allowance for horses in many armies, it seems). Because of the different speeds of individual horses a single line would spread to 18 feet deep during a trot; 32 feet during an easy gallop; and 46 feet during a full charge. To add two more lines is not simply a matter of adding 12 more feet for each additional horse. In the second and third lines some fast horses will be behind slower horses, and vice versa. With a random distribution of fast and slow horses the depths of the three line formation for the different paces would be 47 feet, 64 feet and 71 feet deep respectively. Over longer distances it is thought that the unit could maintain the 47 feet spread for the trot because faster horses can be held back to the pace of the group.

There would be a natural tendency for the unit to try to stay together. The slower horses would be urged on, the faster horses held slightly back. In this way the spread would not be quite as large as the pure speeds of the horses might allow.

The following three images of the trot, easy gallop and full charge were given to illustrate the spreading out. The trot and charge are modeled after 75 feet, the easy gallop is after 150 feet. The spread would become larger at greater distances, though perhaps not in a linear way considering the units natural desire to stay together as well as its training in how to maneuver and keep coehesion.

When running away, however, the situation may be very different. If it were an "every man for himself" situation then the spread in the formation would be at the maximum.

and it developed three possible types of cavalry engagements -- running away before contact, limited contact and then retreat, and intermingled lines. It also notes that the cavalry charge should begin at a distance of no less than 450 feet.

Movement Animation showing the changes in shapes for charge and easy gallop

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© 2003, Gary Brueggeman. All rights reserved world wide. No part of this work may be reproduced in part or whole, in any form or by any means, without permission from the author.