Battle of Forum Gallorum, 43 BC ️ The Rise of Caesar Augustus (Part 1)
The year is 44 BC, Julius Caesar had just been assassinated by his bitter political rivals in the senate. It was only a few months earlier that the most devastating civil war in the history of the Roman republic was resolved after nearly 5 years of bloodshed, and tensions were still high. This yeasty mixture of political rivalries and opposing parties, needed only a spark to ignite and plunge the Roman world back into the chaos of yet another civil war. The elimination of the colossus that held all the disjointed parts of the empire together and prevented the eruption of boiling pressures, served as the catalyst that would bring about a renewal of hostilities and with the apparent lack of a definitive strongman who would step up to fill the vacuum of power, the wheels of history began to spin. But, even though the old political senatorial aristocracy of Rome was badly battered by Caesar they still maintained a clearly demarcated and defined structure and a uniquely charismatic politician and orator as their natural leader, Cicero. On the other hand, the Caesareans seemingly lacked a clear-cut successor to Caesar, a man who would be able to fill his boots.
And this sentiment would not change even after the opening of Caesar’s will by which he adopted as heir his nephew, an unknown youth of 19 years of age. His name was Gaius Octavius, also known as Octavian… The most likely successor of Caesar seemed to be his co-consul at the time of his assassination. His loyal and capable military commander, Mark Antony who was now the most senior official of the state.
Antony also obtained the documents and decrees of the deceased leader from his wife which meant that he now also inherited the mantle of Caesar’s dictatorship. But, in such volatile times, political balances were extremely delicate. Mark Antony was able to dominate the political situation in Rome for only a short time before a collation among Caesar’s assassins and the senate led by Marcus Tullius Cicero, began to undermine his position as the supreme leader of the state. Trying to strike a balance between appeasing the senatorial faction and the Caesarians who had just won a 5-year long civil war, Mark Antony issued an edict, as consul, to convene a meeting of the Senate, during which an amnesty was declared for the assassins under the condition that the Caesarian status quo would be upheld.
Part and parcel of this deal was the ratification of Caesar’s acts, which meant that Antony would have to abandon Italy and take over the province of Macedonia which was assigned to him, after his one year term as a consul expired. This was a serious problem for Mark Antony because even though the province was rich and manned by six legions that were mobilized by Caesar for a planned campaign, it was far removed from the capital, the epicentre of political developments. He instead preferred the affluent province of Cisalpine Gaul, from which he could oversee Rome and intervene in case of an emergency. The only problem was that a different governor had already been selected for Cisalpine Gaul, Decimus Junius Brutus, who was in possession of the province and had three legions under his command. Antony toiled to change Caesar’s settlement of the provinces, irregularly passing a law under which he would displace Decimus Brutus, who was after all one of Caesar’s assassins, as proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul, instead of Macedonia, for five years while retaining the legions that were currently stationed in Macedonia.
Naturally, Decimus Brutus objected and refused to surrender his province claiming that Antony’s law was illegal. Taking things a step further and in defiance of Antony’s ultimatum, he marched his legions at the edge of his province even winning a few victories against local Alpine tribes. The senate’s stance during all of this was opportunistically passive. Cicero might have not protested Antony’s actions but he was surely biding his time waiting for the right moment to mobilize the Senate against the Caesarean consul.
An imponderable factor that would tip the scales of fortune was lurking just around the corner. It was someone that up until then neither side was taking seriously, the young Octavian. Caesar’s nephew and legitimate heir was an unknown entity, with no connections in the senate and few acquaintances in the army. Armed with an illustrious name and a piece of paper, the young man, despite the counselling of almost everyone around him, put himself in the eye of the storm of Roman politics. While in Rome, Octavian failed to persuade Antony to relinquish Caesar’s money to him. But he managed to win support from Caesarian sympathizers and many of the optimates, including Cicero, who saw Octavian as the lesser evil and was certain that he would be able to manipulate the young man.
Meanwhile , Antony set out for the city of Brundisium to greet four legions arriving from Macedonia. The veterans were to be used as a bargaining chip with the Senate and as a battering ram against Brutus. It was now that Octavian sprang into action, with Antony away in southern Italy, he went down to Campania with a company of wagons loaded with cash, touring the colonies that were established for Caesar’s demobilized veterans. Caesar’s young heir was able to convince almost 3.000 veterans to join his cause
by blatant bribery and by appealing to their general’s memory. The band of carpetbaggers marched on Rome and even occupied the Forum , hoping for a meeting of the Senate that would back Octavian’s cause. But, the young man’s bravado failed to rouse enough support to his side, and he was soon forced to retreat north, while many of his veterans now abandoned him, not prepared to face fellow Caesarean comrades that were fast approaching from the south. Just as everything seemed lost for Octavian he received unexpected news.
Two of Mark Antony’s legions marching north declared for Octavian, turned westwards and took up a position at the town of Alba Fucens. Apparently, Octavian’s official name – Gaius Julius Caesar, was still irresistible to many veterans, who saw the young man as a spiritual successor to their deceased General. And just like that, the fortunes of Roman politics changed in an instance.
Antony tried in vain to convince the defectors to change their decision, eventually resolving to hurry north to Cisalpine Gaul with his remaining three legions in an attempt to force Brutus to abandon the province. The Senate, led by Cicero, now ordered Brutus to stay where he was, who chose to barricade himself with three legions in the city of Mutina, which was soon besieged by Mark Antony. A clash seemed inevitable. The Roman world was once again embroiled in open civil war. On January 1st, 43 BC the Senate voted in favour of Octavian’s former actions, awarding him the imperium of proprietor, thus legalizing his private army. In a stroke, Octavian turned from an opportunist who just attempted a failed coup to the hero of the republic who would save Rome from Antony’s tyranny… It was the end of the year which meant that Antony’s term as consul expired.
Even though a showdown now seemed inevitable, the Senate was cautious and sent envoys, urging Antony to lift the siege of Mutina and abandon Cisalpine Gaul. But, expectedly, Antony’s terms were unacceptable. The Senate declared Antony a public enemy and instructed the new propraetor to co-operate with the newly elected consuls, Aulus Hirtius and Vibius Pansa, two former Caesareans that were now collaborating with the Senate. In February 43 BC, the consul Hirtius with two legions of recalled veterans marched north to Ariminum where they linked up with the two legions of Octavian. From Ariminum, Hirtius and Octavian advanced along the via Aemilia engaging in a series of skirmishes against Antonian forces that they were able to repulse, occupying Claternae.
The two commanders advanced even further along Via Aemilia passing Bononia and camping just a few miles away from Mutina, in early March 43BC. Mark Antony was forced to fall back again, seeking to strengthen the encirclement of Mutina. In the meantime, the other consul, Vibius Pansa, who had recruited and mobilized five legions of conscripts, was marching along the Via Cassia to Arretium. With two armies converging against him from different directions, Mark Antony now faced the imminent danger of getting sandwiched between Brutus and the rapidly approaching Consuls. With pressure mounting, Antony set out to take the initiative and move on to the attack as soon as possible, trying to prevent his enemies from uniting their forces. Taking with him the main bulk of his forces supported by a contingent of auxiliary Moorish cavalry, Antony left a small part of his army behind to keep Brutus in check inside Mutina and began harassing his enemies’ camp. However, Hirtius and Octavian were in no hurry.
They were already informed about Pansa’s imminent arrival and were determined to wait. With time going against Mark Antony, he decided to pre-emptively strike against Pansa’s raw recruits that were marching along the Via Aemilia from Bononia, thinking that he could easily destroy them with his veterans. He left part of his forces behind to continue the feigned attacks on Octavian’s camp and then slipped past them aiming to crush Pansa’s forces that were on their way to aid their besieged colleagues.
The manoeuvre was masterfully executed by Antony and indeed seemed that despite his enemy’s numerical superiority, he was about to have the advantage against Pansa’s green troops that stood little chance against legions of grizzled veterans. Little did Antony know that Hirtius and Octavian were informed about Pansa’s approach, and had already dispatched their own praetorian cohorts, as well as the Martian legion of veterans. They were able to pass through Forum Gallorum under the cover of darkness, before it was occupied by Antony’s forces, and link up with Pansa’s legions. At daybreak of April 14th, 43 BC, Pansa’s reinforced army spotted the first signs of the enemy. It was Antony’s praetorian cohorts that
were blocking the main road near the village of Forum Gallorum. Mark Antony’s army was composed of 2 veteran legions which he placed on both sides of Via Aemilia, to conceal them in the marshy terrain that was covering the area. Both of the army’s wings were occupied by agile Moorish auxiliary cavalry, and Antony himself took position right, in the middle of the formation, with his two praetorian cohorts that were deployed on the raised causeway. On the other side of the field, Pansa deployed his veteran Martian legion on each side of Via Aemilia while his two praetorian cohorts were positioned in the middle of the formation confronting the praetorians of Antony. Pansa’s veterans noticed a suspicious agitation of the bushes in front of them and then spotted the gleaming of shields and helmets. It quickly became obvious that Antony intended to ambush them. Their battlefield experience caused them to have an operational mind of their own, because as soon as they perceived the enemy’s deployment they ordered the new inexperienced levies not to join the battle, lest they cause confusion among their own ranks.
Most of the raw recruits would remain within the marching camp during the engagement. The two armies of veterans began to march at a slow and methodic pace against each other. Both sides were equally motivated. Antony’s men were eager to punish the Martian legion
for its treachery. Meanwhile, the Martians were determined and actuated by ambition that a single legion could overcome the two. Being veterans they raised no battle-cry since they could not expect to terrify each other. Due to the elevated road that ran through the battlefield the right-wing of the army had no visual contact with the left, thus the ensuing clash would devolve into two separate battles.
As the battle lines moved to engage each other, Antony’s right-wing attacked, signalling the beginning of the onslaught. Thousands of pila were exchanged within a few moments, and soon the whole line of indistinguishable legionaries was engaged in ferocious fratricidal combat. Appian describes the ensuing scene: As there could be neither flanking nor charging in the marshes, they stood together in close order. And since neither could dislodge the other they locked together with their swords as in a wrestling match. No blow missed its mark. There were wounds and slaughter, but no cries, only groans. And when one fell, he was
instantly borne away, and another took his place. They needed neither admonition nor encouragement, since experience had made each one his own general. When some of them were fatigued they retired for a brief moment to take a breath, as in gymnastic games, and then rushed again to the encounter. The precision and silence of the veterans were such that amazed the new levies witnessing the scene.
At some point in the battle, Pansa’s right wing began to edge out Antony’s left, pushing forward towards Forum Gallorum. But in the centre, the praetorian cohorts led by Mark Antony prevailed in a vicious fight against the two praetorian cohorts sent by Hirtius and Octavian, which were eventually ground down and annihilated. Meanwhile, on the left-wing, the other cohorts of Pansa’s veterans resisted stoutly but began to disintegrate under the immense pressure of Antony’s numerically superior right wing. Pansa, who fought bravely among his men during this moment of crisis, was mortally wounded by a javelin and carried off the field. The loss of their consul unnerved the cohorts of the left-wing that now began a panicky retreat towards the camp. At the sight of the collapsing veterans and the destruction of the praetorians in the centre, the few new levies that were left outside the camp as reserves, scattered, falling back to the camp in disorder.
All the while, Pansa’s successful right wing was now being threatened by Antony’s cavalry, which was free to flank the isolated cohorts. The veterans were forced to fall back slowly but orderly, while repulsing unrelenting assaults from the Moorish cavalry. Antony’s entire battle line was chasing the retreating foe towards their marching camp.
The survivors of Legio Martia put up stout resistance and actually remained outside the camp for fear of shame. Although fatigued the bruised legionaries were still furious and ready to fight to the bitter end. Casualties are not known but must have been heavy for both sides.
Octavian’s and Hirtiu’s praetorians were completely destroyed, and the Martian legion suffered heavy losses. On the other hand, Antony’s army was battered but victorious. Mark Antony could have probably forced his enemies to surrender in the event of a siege, but time was running for him. Fearing the developments around Mutina while having Hirtius and Octavian at his back, he retreated westwards with his exhausted, army aiming to return to his lines of circumvallation as soon as possible. But the day was not yet over…