The Battle of Pharsalus, which took place near the Enipeus River of Greece, was the decisive battle in 48 BCE that marked the victory of Julius Caesar over Pompey the Great in the Roman Civil War fought between the two genius generals. It was a day of great significance to both sides of the war—either as the day that Julius Caesar defeated his greatest opponent, or as the day that Roman Republic lost and was forever changed. On days of note such as the Battle of Pharsalus, the gravity of the moment often causes the people involved to store in their collective memories curious details about the day in question that might have otherwise been overlooked. One such ancient recollection involved a warrior named Crastinus, who was remembered by both sides of the war as the first infantryman to commence battle at Pharsalus.
Julius Caesar mentioned Crastinus by name in his Commentaries on the Civil War, which is also simply known as Caesar’s Civil Wars. Speaking in a third-person viewpoint about his own accomplishments, Caesar wrote that Crastinus proudly led the charge when the attack was signaled. The text stated:
“There was in Caesar’s army, a volunteer named Crastinus, who the year before had been first centurion of the tenth legion, a man of pre-eminent bravery. When the signal was given, he said, “Follow me, my old comrades, and display such exertions on behalf of your general as you have determined to do. This is our last battle, and when it shall be won, he will recover his dignity, and we our liberty.” At the same time he looked back to Caesar, and said, “General, I will act in such a manner today that you will feel grateful to me, living or dead.” After uttering these words he charged on the right wing, and about 120 chosen volunteers of the same century followed” (Julius Caesar, Commentaries on the Civil War, 3.91).
Supporters of Pompey, as well as later Romans who were hostile to the advent of emperors, understandably did not give such glowing reviews for Crastinus’ eagerness to lead the charge. One such critic was the Roman poet Lucan (c. 39-65), whose poem, Bellum Civile (Civil War), included a jab at Crastinus’ battlefield legacy. Lucan’s biting verses read:
“Crastinus! May the gods
damn you not to death (the punishment waiting for all)
but to feel pain after death, because your hand heaved
the lance that started the battle and first stained Thessaly
with Roman blood. Sheer madness! As long as Caesar
restrained his weapons, did any hand prove more eager?”
(Lucan, Civil War, Book 7, between lines 466-488).
With such hostility to Caesar (and the Julio-Claudian Dynasty that came after him), it may not come as a surprise to the reader to learn that Lucan’s death in the year 65 came after he was caught in a failed plot to assassinate Emperor Nero (r. 54-68). As for the fate of the eager warrior, Crastinus, he died fighting in the Battle of Pharsalus. Julius Caesar wrote that he was “slain by a sword-stroke in his face while fighting with the utmost bravery” (Commentaries on the Civil War, 3.99). Although Crastinus died fighting, the army that he died for won the day. Pompey the Great fled from the Battle of Pharsalus and escaped to Egypt, where he was assassinated before the end of 48 BCE.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Roman Soldiers Fighting the Dacians, by Nicolas Beatrizet (c. 1515 – 1565+), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the National Gallery of Art).
- War Commentaries by Gaius Julius Caesar and Aulus Hirtius, translated by W. A. McDevitte and W. S. Bohn, 2014.
- Civil War by Lucan, translated by Matthew Fox. New York: Penguin Classics, 2012.