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PHARSA´LUS (Φάρσαλος: Eth. Φαρσάλιος: the territory is Φαρσαλία, Strab. ix. p.430), one of the most important cities of Thessaly, situated in the district Thessaliotis near the confines of Phthiotis, upon the left bank of the Enipeus, and at the foot of Mt. Narthacium. The town is first mentioned after the Persian wars; but it is probable that it existed much earlier, since there is no other locality in this part of Thessaly to be compared to it for a combination of strength, resources, and convenience. Hence it has been supposed that the city was probably named Phthia at a remote period, and was the capital of Phthiotis. (See Leake, Northern Greece, vol. iv. p. 484.) Among its ruins there are some remains which belong apparently to the most ancient times. On one side of the northern gateway of the acropolis are the remnants of Cyclopian walls; and in the middle of the acropolis is a subterraneous construction, built in the same manner as the treasury of Atreus at Mycenae. Leake observes that Pharsalus “is one of the most important military positions in Greece, as standing at the entrance of the most direct and central of the passes which lead from the plains of Thessaly to the vale of the Spercheius and Thermopylae. With a view to ancient warfare, the place had all the best attributes of a Hellenic polis or fortified town: a hill rising gradually to the height of 600 or 700 feet above the adjacent plain, defended on three sides by precipices, crowned with a small level for an acropolis, watered in every part of the declivity by subterraneous springs, and still more abundantly at the foot by sources so copious as to form a perennial stream. With these local advantages, and one of the most fertile plains in Greece for its territory, Pharsalus inevitably attained to the highest rank among the states of Thessaly, and became one of the largest cities of Greece, as its ruined walls still attest.” The city was nearly 4 miles in circuit, and of the form or an irregular triangle. The acropolis consisted of two rocky tabular summits, united by a lower ridge. It was about 500 yards long, and from 100 to 50 broad, but still narrower in the connecting ridge. Livy speaks of Palaepharsalus (44.1), and Strabo distinguishes between Old and New Pharsalus. (Strab. ix. p.431.) It is probable that at the time of these writers the acropolis and the upper part of the town were known by the name of Palaepharsalus, and that it was only the lower part of the town which was then inhabited.

Pharsalus is mentioned by Scylax (p. 25) among the towns of Thessaly. In B.C. 455 it was besieged by the Athenian commander Myronides, after his victory in Boeotia, but without success. (Thuc. 1.111.) At the commencement of the Peloponnesian War, Pharsalus was one of the Thessalian towns that sent succour to the Athenians. (Thuc. 2.22.) Medius, tyrant of Larissa, took Pharsalus by force, about B.C. 395. (Diod. 14.82.) Pharsalus, under the conduct of Polydamas, resisted Jason for a time, but subsequently formed an alliance with him. (Xen. Hell. 6.1. 2, seq.) In the war between Antiochus and the Romans, Pharsalus was for a time in the possession of the Syrian monarch; but on the retreat of the latter, it surrendered to the consul Acilius Glabrio, B.C. 191. (Liv. 36.14.)

Pharsalus, however, is chiefly celebrated for the memorable battle fought in its neighbourhood between Caesar and Pompey, B.C. 48. It is a curious fact that Caesar has not mentioned the place where he gained his great victory; and we are indebted for the name to other authorities. The exact site of the battle has been pointed out by Leake with his usual clearness. (Northern Greece, vol. iv. p. 475, seq.) Merivale, in his narrative of the battle (History of the Romans under the Empire, vol. ii. p. 286, seq.), has raised some difficulties in the interpretation [p. 2.591]of Caesar's description, which have been commented upon by Leake in an essay printed in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature (vol. iv. p. 68, seq., 2nd Series), from which the following account is taken.

A few days previous to the battle Caesar had taken possession of Metropolis, a city westward of Pharsalus, and had encamped in the plain between these two cities. Meantime Pompey arrived at Larissa, and from thence advanced southwards towards Pharsalus; he crossed the Enipeus, and encamped at the foot of the heights, which are adjacent to the modern Férsala on the east. Caesar's camp, or rather his last position before the battle, was in the plain between Pharsalus and the Enipeus, at the distance of about 3 miles from the still extant north-western angle of the walls of Pharsalus. There was a distance of 30 stadia, or about 4 Roman miles, from the two camps. (Appian, App. BC 2.65.) Appian adds that the army of Pompey, when drawn up for battle, extended from the city of Pharsalus to the Enipeus, and that Caesar drew up his forces opposite to him. (B.C. 2.75.) The battle was fought in the plain immediately below the city of Pharsalus to the north. There is a level of about 2 1/2 miles in breadth between the Enipeus and the elevation or bank upon which stood the northern walls of Pharsalus. Merivale is mistaken in saying that “the plain of Pharsalus, 5 or 6 miles in breadth, extends along the left bank of the Enipeus.” It is true that 5 or 6 miles is about the breadth of the plain, but this breadth is equally divided between the two sides of the river; nor is there anything to support Merivale's conjecture that the course of the river may have changed since the time of the battle. Leake observes that the plain of 2 1/2 miles in breadth was amply sufficient for 45,000 men drawn up in the usual manner of three orders, each ten in depth, and that there would be still space enough for the 10,000 cavalry, upon which Pompey founded chiefly his hopes of victory; for the breadth of the plain being too great for Caesar's numbers, he thought himself sure of being able, by his commanding force of cavalry, to turn the enemy's right.

At first Pompey drew up his forces at the foot of the hills; but when Caesar refused to fight in this position, and began to move towards Scotussa, Pompey descended into the plain, and arranged his army in the position already described. His right wing being protected by the Enipeus, which has precipitous banks, he placed his cavalry, as well as all his archers and slingers, on the left. Caesar's left wing was in like manner protected by the Enipeus; and in the rear of his right wing, behind his small body of horse, he stationed six cohorts, in order to sustain the anticipated attack of the enemy's cavalry. Pompey resolved to await the charge. Caesar's line advanced running, halted midway to recover their breath, and then charged the enemy. While the two lines were thus occupied, Pompey's cavalry on the left began to execute the movement upon which he placed his hopes of victory; but after driving back Caesar's small body of horse, they were unexpectedly assailed by the six cohorts and put to flight. These cohorts now advanced against the rear of Pompey's left; while Caesar at the same time brought up to his front the third line, which had been kept in reserve. Pompey's troops now gave way in every direction. Caesar then advanced to attack the fortified camp of the enemy, which was defended for some time by the cohorts left in charge of it; but at length they fled to the mountains at the back of the camp. Pompey proceeded straightway to Larissa, and from thence by night to the sea-coast. The hill where the Pompeians had taken refuge being without water, they soon quitted it and took the road towards Larissa. Caesar followed them with four legions, and, by taking a shorter road, came up with them at the distance of 6 miles. The fugitives now retired into another mountain, at the foot of which there was a river; but Caesar having cut off their approach to the water before nightfall, they descended from their position in the morning and laid down their arms. Caesar proceeded on the same day to Larissa. Leake observes that the mountain towards Larissa to which the Pompeians retired was probably near Scotussa, since in that direction alone is any mountain to be found with a river at the foot of it.

In the time of Pliny, Pharsalus was a free state (4.8. s. 15). It is also mentioned by Hierocles (p. 642) in the sixth century. It is now named Férsala (τὰ Φέρσαλα), and the modern town lies at the foot of the ancient Acropolis.


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