In 48 BCE, while the civil war between Julius Caesar and Gnaeus Pompey was still in full swing, the two brilliant generals found themselves in a stalemate at Dyrrachium, located in modern day Albania. Pompey was the first to set up camp at Dyrrachium. When Julius Caesar arrived, he naturally decided to implement one of his specialties—siege warfare. Despite Caesar having far fewer men than Pompey, the Caesarian forces began construction of a large messy, semi-circular wall around Pompey’s position, cutting him off from all land-based escape routes. In response, Pompey created his own defensive wall.
With the armies of Caesar and Pompey positioned behind opposing fortified walls, a waiting game ensued. Both sides hoped that their rations could last until their enemy began to starve, or a breach in the wall was found or created. The stalemate caused trouble for both Pompey and Caesar. In Pompey’s camp, food had been well stocked, but fodder for horses began to run low and safe water became scarce. On Caesar’s side, securing food was the main issue hindering the troops.
In his Commentaries on the Civil War, however, Julius Caesar recounted how one of his camps along the wall at Dyrrachium alleviated their food crisis with some clever cooking. The men under the command of one of Caesar’s officers, named Valerius, were fairly well off—they had access to cattle and milk. In addition, the soldiers discovered a nearby source of edible roots, which Julius Caesar called chara. With milk and chara roots present in ample quantities, some curious soldier mixed the two ingredients in a culinary experiment and found that the chara roots could be baked into something resembling a loaf of bread.
With the production of their chara bread, Caesar’s men were kept reasonably well fed. They also seemed to have loaves to spare, for Caesar wrote that his men would sometimes throw the chara bread at Pompey’s forces (sometimes tossing loaves over Pompey’s walls) to prove that they still had food and the siege would not be ending anytime soon.
Nevertheless, in walling off Pompey’s camp, Caesar had to spread his men thin, creating vulnerabilities. Pompey attacked a weak point in his enemy’s wall—a part still under construction—and broke free from the siege, dealing Julius Caesar one of his most clear defeats of the Civil War.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
- War Commentaries by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, 2014.
- Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2008.