From late in 44 BC Cicero lobbied hard to have the Senate name Antony as a public enemy and formally declare hostilities against him. Most senators were reluctant to take this step, and Fulvia and Antony’s mother Julia were very visible expressing their dismay that a consul of Rome should be condemned in his absence and without trial. Some senators had connections to Antony, although his two uncles, Caius Antonius and Lucius Julius Caesar, were never more than lukewarm in their support and at times hostile. Many had no particular sympathy for Decimus Brutus or the other conspirators; almost all feared the return of civil war and felt that any compromise would be preferable. To Cicero’s disgust, the Senate sent a delegation of three former consuls – Caesar’s father-in-law Calpurnius Piso, Octavian’s stepfather Philippus and Sergius Sulpicius Rufus – to negotiate with Antony.
The fear of civil war was the most powerful emotion, made worse because it remained so uncertain what the sides would be and who was likely to win. Lepidus was now proconsul of Transalpine Gaul and Nearer Spain, and Asinius Pollio governed Further Spain. Both were Caesareans, but that did not mean they would automatically ally themselves with Antony, and the latter was in any case busy enough trying to contain the resurgent Sextus Pompey. On 1 January 43 BC, the new consuls Hirtius and Pansa took office. They were also Caesareans, although they had not been especially close to Antony in recent months.
Antony’s brother Caius had gone out to Macedonia, but the legion left there had been subverted by Brutus. Caius was placed under arrest and Brutus took his place as governor and was soon recruiting more soldiers. More violent confrontations had already erupted in the eastern provinces. On his way to Syria, Dolabella had visited Asia, the province allocated by Caesar to Trebonius. Feigning friendship, Dolabella had taken the proconsul by surprise and had him killed. Cicero claimed that Trebonius was tortured first and there were grisly stories of his severed head being thrown about like a ball until the face was unrecognisable. While Dolabella enthusiastically plundered Asia, Cassius went to Syria and brought the army there under his control. He and Brutus now led armies and governed provinces without any authority to do so. At Rome, Cicero struggled and eventually succeeded in getting this recognition for them.
Sulpicius died on the way back from meeting Antony. The other two delegates returned in February and reported that the latter was willing to give up Cisalpine Gaul, as long as he kept the other Gaul and retained command of his six legions for five years. Antony was insistent that before this period lapsed, Brutus and Cassius must have given up their own commands, tacitly accepting that they held them. He also demanded formal recognition of all his acts as consul and, in due course, discharge bonuses for his soldiers equal to those promised by Octavian.
Since the beginning of the year, the consuls had led the Senate in making preparations for war. Both gathered armies and Octavian was awarded propraetorian Imperium, although he was still a private citizen. A man with his own fiercely loyal army simply could not be ignored. Decimus Brutus was also confirmed in his command. The Senate rejected Antony’s terms, but only after a fierce debate. Lucius Caesar blocked the move to name Antony as a public enemy. The senatus consultum ultimum was passed, but rather than a formal declaration of war, the crisis was termed a tumultus – something closer in sense to a state of emergency. In many ways the situation was similar to the build-up to war in 49 BC. Both sides were reluctant to commit themselves irrevocably and still hoped that the other would make concessions. There was another attempt to form a delegation to go to Antony, but this came to nothing. Lepidus sent letters urging compromise. Yet while all this went on, Decimus Brutus’ army was steadily consuming its stocks of food and would starve or surrender if not relieved within a few months.
By the start of spring, Hirtius, Pansa and Octavian were ready to. move – two former Caesareans and Caesar’s son marching against Antony to save one of the dictator’s murderers. Cicero had decided that the dangers of recognising Octavian were outweighed by his usefulness. He provided three of the seven legions marching to relieve Mutina, the only experienced troops in an army that otherwise was formed of levies. For the moment he placed the Fourth and the Martia under Hirtius’ command, but the soldiers remained loyal to him. Brutus and Cassius both felt that Cicero and the Senate were unwise to trust the young Caesar, but as was so often the case they did not suggest any practical alternative. Three veteran legions could not be ignored and had a fighting power far greater than their numbers. Cicero felt the nineteen-year-old could be used, saying, ‘we must praise the young man, decorate him, and discard him’ (laudanum aduluscentem, ornandum, tollendum).
Hirtius approached Mutina first, but on his own did not have the strength to attack Antony, and this remained true even when he was joined by Octavian. To let Decimus Brutus know that relief was on the way, they tried lighting beacons, but in the end the news was carried by a man who sneaked through the lines and then swam a river. The same method was used to reply and in the coming days Decimus also employed carrier pigeons with some success. In April, Pansa led the four newly raised legions to join them.
Antony had word of his coming and saw an opportunity to destroy these inexperienced troops before the enemy forces combined. It was similar to the bold attacks he had led in Judaea and Egypt, if on a much larger scale. He decided to take the Second and Thirty-Fifth legions, along with two elite praetorian cohorts (one his own and the other raised by one of his supporters), and some of his enrolled veterans, as well as supporting cavalry and light troops. Yet unlike Judaea and Egypt, this time his opponents were a lot more capable. Hirtius and Octavian moved first, sending the Martia and their own praetorian cohorts to rendezvous with Pansa’s column. On 14 April the combined force advanced towards the town of Forum Gallorum, moving along the Via Aemilia, which at this point ran on a causeway through patchy marshland. Patrols spotted some of Antony’s cavalry and then noticed the gleam of helmets and equipment amongst the long reeds.
The Battle of Forum Gallorum
Remembering the executions of the previous summer, the men of the Martia boiled over with rage and attacked immediately, supported by the two praetorian cohorts. As yet they had only spotted Antony’s cavalry and skirmishers, for the Second and Thirty-Fifth were concealed in Forum Gallorum itself. It was a confused, unplanned engagement and the broken terrain produced several separate combats. Pansa sent two of the raw legions up in support, but the battle was already well advanced before these arrived.
The commander of the Martia was another of Caesar’s former officers named Servius Sulpicius Galba, and he later reported that they had formed the ten cohorts of the Martia and the two of praetorians in a single line – an unusually shallow formation for a Roman army. On the right, he led eight cohorts of the Martia and drove back the Thirty-Fifth no less than half a mile. This left his flank exposed and Antony’s cavalry led by the Moors began to envelop the line. In the confusion of this fluid combat, the general found himself riding amongst Antony’s soldiers. Antony himself was some distance behind him, for a Roman commander was expected to direct and encourage from just behind the fighting line. Galba was spotted as he fled back to his own troops. Chased by the Antonians, he had to sling his shield behind him to stop himself being killed by his own side when the recruits coming up in support mistook him for a bold enemy leader.
The veteran soldiers of the Macedonian legions fought each other with a grim and, according to Appian silent, savagery. Octavian’s praetorians were ground down as they stubbornly held the Via Aemilia itself. On the left side of the road, there were only two cohorts of the Martia and Hirtius’ praetorians. Before long Antony’s cavalry was threatening their flank. They were forced to retreat and soon the whole line was giving ground. Pansa was wounded by a missile, but the resistance of the experienced troops permitted the whole army to withdraw to its camp without suffering catastrophic losses. Antony pressed them and tried to make the victory decisive by storming the camp. His men were now weary and the enemy still numerous and determined enough to repulse them.
Antony led his men back to their camp some miles away. They were cheered by their success, but physically tired, emotionally drained and hungry after hours of waiting, marching and fighting. Caesar would probably have camped on the spot and brought supplies to them. Antony saw no danger and as the column marched carelessly along, Hirtius led the Fourth and the Seventh in a surprise attack. The Antonian soldiers fled, surrendered or were killed. The eagle standards of the Second and Thirty-Fifth were captured, along with half of their other standards, and the two effectively ceased to exist as units. The survivors spent the night in the houses of Forum Gallorum.
The blockade of Mutina was still intact, but Octavian and Hirtius moved the combined army closer. A week later they tried to break through the siege lines. A battle developed and Antony was defeated, making him abandon the siege and retreat. When news reached Rome, the Senate was finally persuaded to declare him a public enemy. Yet control of events was slipping away from Cicero and the others eager to prosecute the war against Antony. Hirtius had been killed as he led his men into the Antonian camp. Pansa succumbed to his wounds soon afterwards. Octavian was left in command of the entire army and this was clearly very convenient for him. There need not have been anything suspicious about the consuls’ deaths and neither is it certain that he would not have found them sympathetic to him if they had lived. Neither had shown much enthusiasm for the conspirators.
Octavian asked the Senate for a triumph. Cicero tried and failed to get him the lesser honour of an ovation. Caesar’s triumph after the Munda campaign in 45 BC had shocked people for blatantly commemorating a victory in a civil war. Less than two years later it seemed much easier to discuss such things. On the whole, the Senate was relieved to see Antony defeated, but was not inclined to be generous. Rewards to the soldiers of the Fourth and Martia were reduced and Octavian was not included in the commission tasked with providing land for the soldiers on discharge. It was a sign that moves were now under way to discard the young Caesar.
Antony had been outmanoeuvred and out-fought during the campaign. Once again, it is worth emphasising that this was his first campaign in sole command and his military experience of large-scale operations was limited to Italy in 49 BC and Macedonia in 48 BC. The civil wars were fought by improvised armies containing many inexperienced amateurs. Yet he was at his best during the retreat, sharing the same poor rations as his men, even drinking stagnant water and eating wild fruit and roots scavenged during the march into the Alps. There was encouragement when he was joined by Publius Ventidius Bassus with three legions recruited from the colonies set up for Caesar’s veterans. Ventidius had himself served Caesar in Gaul and the civil war, which probably made it easier for him to re-enlist these old soldiers.
Octavian’s veterans were bitterly opposed to serving under Decimus Brutus, whom the Senate now appointed to overall command of the forces in Cisalpine Gaul. The young Caesar himself was scarcely any more enthusiastic. The victors were divided amongst themselves and this prevented any concerted pursuit, helping Antony to escape into Transalpine Gaul, where Lepidus controlled a powerful army that included many experienced soldiers and officers. The former Magister Equitum had proclaimed his loyalty to the Republic on numerous occasions, but Cicero and many others found it difficult to trust him. It did not help the situation that around this time Cassius received formal recognition of his command, while even Sextus Pompey was finally appointed to a naval command instead of being simply a rebel. Caesar’s enemies seemed to be growing strong and little incentive was being offered to former Caesareans to support the Senate. The veterans were frustrated by the failure to punish his assassins. For Lepidus, as for the other leaders at this time, power and security depended ultimately on control of his army. His men struggled to see Antony as the real enemy and his best troops were re-enrolled veterans, for Lepidus had reformed several of Caesar’s legions including the Tenth.
The two armies camped near each other. Antony made no hostile moves, and no doubt encouraged his men to fraternise with those of Lepidus. Plutarch tells us that he had not shaved since the defeat at Mutina — a mark of mourning Caesar himself had employed until he avenged the massacre of fifteen cohorts at the hands of rebels in 54–53 BC — and that he wore a black cloak. Within days, the army defected to Antony en masse. Lepidus claimed to have been forced to follow his men, but it seems more likely that he preferred to join Antony as he had little to gain from fighting him. One of Lepidus’ legates committed suicide, but everyone else seems to have been happy at the change. In Spain, Pollio protested his loyalty for a little longer, but also eventually aligned himself with Antony. Joined by all the governors of the western provinces, Antony and his allies controlled something like eighteen or nineteen legions. Many were small in size, and not all could be safely deployed in the civil war, but the quality of the troops was high. Within months of his defeat, Antony had grown far stronger militarily.
Decimus Brutus was in no position to confront them. Some of his troops defected and he fled, only to be captured and held prisoner by a Gallic chieftain. Octavian had command of his own and most of the legions of Hirtius and Pansa – with new recruits, some eight legions. He sent some of his centurions to Rome, demanding that he be elected to the now vacant consulship. There was a rumour that Cicero would be his colleague. The orator had vainly tried to persuade Brutus to bring his army from Macedonia to Italy and provide forces to face Antony and his allies. The Senate refused to consider a man who was still weeks short of his twentieth birthday. In response, Octavian marched his army south from Cisalpine Gaul, this crossing of the Rubicon no more than incidental.