Battle of Forum Gallorum, 43 BC ️ The Rise of Caesar Augustus (Part 1)

Battle of Forum Gallorum, 43 BC ️ The Rise of Caesar Augustus (Part 1)

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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…

2021-11-29 22:11

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