To escape from the death and mayhem of the Battle of Pharsalus, Marcus Junius Brutus had waded through reed-filled swampland north of Mount Dogandzis that hid him from Caesar’s foot soldiers and prevented cavalry from pursuing him, then walked all the way to the ancient citadel city of Larissa, today’s Greek town of Larisa, on the plain near the eastern coast of Thessaly, traveling without stop through the night of August 9-10.
This was the Brutus who would be made famous by historians and play-wright William Shakespeare as one of Caesar’s chief assassins. The thirty-seven-year-old Brutus, whose family was descended from Junius Brutus, one of the revered founders of the Roman Republic, was a nephew of the famous philosopher Marcus Cato, the so-called Cato the Younger, one of the Senate’s senior commanders in the civil war being waged against Caesar. Brutus’s mother, Servilia, Cato’s sister, was reputedly one of Rome’s most beautiful women. His father—officially, at least—was Marcus Junius Brutus Sr., Servilia’s husband at the time Marcus was born. But it was widely rumored that young Marcus’s father was in fact Julius Caesar.
That Caesar and Servilia had a teenage affair was well known, but with Caesar aged fifteen at the time of the younger Marcus’s birth, later historians would say that he was much too young to be the father. Yet, Romans began their sex lives young—while Servilia had been just thirteen when she gave birth to Marcus, under Roman law women could become engaged at ten and could marry at twelve, and Roman men officially came of age at fifteen. And Caesar was notoriously virile. He was to have three wives; the first died young; the next, Caesar divorced. His last marriage was, by 48 B.C., more than a decade old. And through all his marriages he’d had numerous amorous affairs, including, reputedly, an incautious fling with Mucia, a wife of his then friend and now opponent Pompey the Great.
While Caesar’s paternity of Brutus was never officially acknowledged, Caesar treated Brutus like a son, and it had been assumed at the outbreak of the civil war that Brutus would side with Caesar, especially as Pompey had some years before executed Marcus Junius Brutus Sr., the man who raised Brutus as his son. But the younger Brutus was a passionate believer in the Roman Republic. So, rather than support the rebel autocrat Caesar, Brutus had thrown his loyalty behind Pompey and the Senate—in the words of Plutarch, “judging Pompey’s to be the better cause.”
In 49 B.C., while the civil war was spinning out its early, murderous months in Italy, then in Spain and the south of France, Brutus had accepted a posting from the Senate to join the staff of Major General Publius Sestius, governor of the province of Cilicia—Anatolia in modern-day Turkey. By the end of 49 B.C. Brutus had quit his job in Cilicia and brought himself to Macedonia to join Pompey’s army.
Though Pompey greeted Marcus warmly—the highly intelligent and famously ethical Brutus was a popular and respected figure, and his involvement with the cause was good for the army’s morale—the Senate’s commander had no post for Marcus. There were upward of four hundred senators and hundreds more knights in Pompey’s camp, all offering Pompey advice and clamoring for military appointments, and Brutus had no military experience to speak of.
So, unemployed, he’d spent the days leading up to the Pharsalus battle keeping out of the way, reading and studying in the vast senatorial camp on the hillside overlooking the plain and Caesar’s distant camp. On August 8 Brutus had remained in his tent all day, writing a condensed Latin version of a work by Greek writer Polybius, keeping to himself as the army readied for combat the next day after the Senate’s war council had decided to bring Caesar to battle.
As Pompey’s army had marched down the slope from their camp on the morning of August 9 and lined up in battle order on the plain, like Pompey’s eldest son, Gnaeus, Brutus had remained in camp on the hill, along with a camp guard of seven cohorts of legionaries and Greek auxiliaries under General Lucius Afranius, the 6th Legion’s former commander in chief in Spain. Unbeknownst to Brutus, as Caesar gave orders for the disposition of his troops for battle that morning, he had also ordered that should his soldiers come across Brutus on the battlefield, they must allow him to surrender and then bring him to Caesar. But if Brutus refused to surrender, said Caesar, his troops were to allow the young man to escape, unharmed.
Brutus had watched the events of August 9 unfold from the ramparts of the senatorial camp’s earthen walls, while thousands of servants laid out tables in the massive, almost deserted encampment and set up decorations—for the victory feast that was expected to soon follow.
When the battle turned against the republicans and General Afranius had hustled Pompey’s heir Gnaeus Pompey from the camp, heading west, Brutus also had escaped, in his case heading north. He had seen enough at Pharsalus, in the senatorial camp with its bickering knights and senators, and then on the battlefield, to know that the republican cause was doomed. Despite his exhaustion, as soon as he arrived at Larisa he wrote a letter to Julius Caesar, then sent a mounted messenger to find Caesar and deliver the letter.
Pompey had escaped, too. Dragged in a daze from the camp by a loyal subordinate as Caesar’s troops were breaking in, he had ridden north, also heading for Larisa, accompanied by just his secretary and three generals, including the 6th Legion’s divisional commander, General Lentulus. Picking up an escort of a fleeing thirty-man republican cavalry troop along the way, Pompey had reached Larisa well before Brutus arrived.
By the morning of August 9, Caesar also was heading for Larisa, chief city of Thessaly, determined to track down Pompey and eliminate him from the picture—either through his capitulation or his death. At dawn, Caesar had accepted the surrender of many thousands of Pompeian troops sheltering on a hillside to the north of the Pharsalus battlefield, having surrounded the hill with his four Spanish legions, the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th, the previous evening. Learning from prisoners that Pompey had headed north, he then prepared to march his troops on his opponent’s trail. But at that point, Caesar’s Spanish legions refused to take another step for him.
This action began, most likely, with the 9th Legion, which had mutinied against Caesar once before in this civil war and suffered the punishment of decimation as a result. But the strike soon spread to the three other units. The 9th, 8th, and 7th were all now eighteen months past their due discharge date. They’d beaten Pompey, as Caesar had asked them to do, and now they wanted the financial rewards that Caesar had promised them, and their discharges, so they could finally hang up their swords.
Furious with his mutinous legions, Caesar had ordered them to escort the republican prisoners back to their camp six miles away on the Farsala plain, telling them he would address their grievances once he returned. At the same time he sent orders for another four legions at the camp to join him, with his now reassembled cavalry. The four replacement legions and cavalry had arrived in the middle of the morning. By that time Brutus’s letter had reached Caesar, who was overjoyed to hear that Brutus was alive and well. Taking the cavalry with him, Caesar set off at a gallop for Larisa, for Brutus’s letter also had told him that Pompey had come through the city.
In fact, Pompey had spent only a few hours in Larisa before continuing his flight. Commandeering an empty grain ship he found anchored off the town of Paralia, Pompey had sailed for the island of Lesbos, where his wife, Cornelia, and youngest son, Sextus, were waiting.
When Caesar reached Larisa, a community that had enthusiastically supported Pompey, he found that the city fathers had decided that resistance was futile and, probably at the instigation of Brutus, they opened the city gates as Caesar approached and sought his pardon. Caesar wasn’t so much interested in the surrender of Larisa as in finding Brutus. Caesar and Brutus soon reunited, apparently there at the city gates, and Caesar embraced Brutus. Caesar immediately forgave him for siding with his enemies, and welcomed him into his fold. Together the pair then rode a short distance from Caesar’s staff and bodyguards. Dismounting, they then walked through the countryside, deep in conversation.
The fifty-two-year-old Caesar, short, slight, long-faced, with his hair combed forward to hide his increasing baldness, listened as Brutus, an earnest man with handsome features, a small chin, and his thick, straight hair cut in a severe fringe across his forehead, pleaded for a pardon for his brother-in-law, Gaius Cassius Longinus, who was married to Brutus’s half sister Junia. Cassius had been chief of staff in Marcus Crassus’s doomed army at Carrhae in 53 B.C., and through his tough determination and calm leadership had been responsible for saving the two legions that ultimately had joined Pompey’s army at the Battle of Pharsalus from Syria. Siding with the Senate in the civil war, Cassius was at this time commanding a powerful senatorial fleet somewhere in the Aegean Sea.
Agreeing to pardon Cassius, Caesar then plied Brutus with questions about Pompey’s likely future course. What had Pompey said to Brutus? Where would Pompey go from Thessaly? To Asia? Or farther afield, to Syria? Would he perhaps try to win the support of the Parthians? As members of Pompey’s party later revealed, the Parthian option actually did occur to Pompey as he fled Greece, until his companions talked him out of involving Rome’s old enemy in her internal affairs.
No, said Brutus, in his estimation Pompey would head for Egypt. Pompey had strong connections with Egypt. He had been responsible for cementing King Ptolemy XII, father of the current rulers of Egypt, on his throne, and could rightfully expect those current corulers—a teenaged King Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra VII—to repay him with military and financial support as he set about building a new army for a second tilt at Caesar. After all, the Egyptian royal house was fabulously wealthy, and they had a well-equipped and well-trained army, which included Roman troops stationed in Egypt some years back by Pompey—Pompey’s son Gnaeus had brought five hundred Roman cavalry from Alexandria, where he had been stationed with the Roman forces assigned to Egypt, to join his father’s army at Pharsalus.
Caesar agreed that it would make sense for Pompey to head south for Egypt, although he could not afford to discount the possibility that he was making for the East, where many local potentates also owed him favors and had money and troops—both of which Pompey was in dire need of. Thanking Brutus, Caesar mounted and headed back to the Pharsalus battlefield with his large cavalry escort. Pharsalus beckoned because before he could set off in pursuit of Pompey, Caesar had to resolve the mutiny of his four best legions.