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January 16, 2021

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Old Soldier’s Story - Servius Sulpicius Galba’s Account of the Battle of Forum Gallorum

Scion of a notable patrician family, S. Sulpicius Galba had served with considerable distinction under Caesar in Gaul. Late in 57 B.C. Galba commanded legio XII and a small force of cavalry in a campaign to subdue the Nantuates, the Veragri, and the Seduni, Gallic tribes in the area between the Rhone and the Lake of Geneva. The tribes submitted, and the legion began erecting winter quarters in the land of the Veragri, at Octodurus (today Martigny), positioned so as to secure the Little St. Bernard Pass. But even as the legion was building its winter camp, the Veragri and Seduni revolted.

Heavily outnumbered, Galba held out for a day within the legionary camp. Then he conducted a powerful sortie, which disrupted the attackers, who drew off. Having thus bought some time, Galba pulled his troops out, conducting an effective withdrawal despite efforts by the tribesmen to overwhelm his forces. Within days Galba’s troops reached the security of a stronger garrison in what is now Provence. Galba’s successful operation elicited unusual praise from Caesar, who in his memoirs commends the general for acting decisively and quickly to avert disaster. In 54 B.C. Galba was elected praetor, and served as city manager of Rome. With Caesar’s help, Galba made a bid for the consulship of 49 B.C., but was soundly defeated. Soon after civil war broke out between Caesar and Pompey the Great, representing the aristocratic faction. Galba naturally supported Cesar during the long war, 49-45 B.C. But Galba was disappointed when Caesar failed to reward him with a consulship. As a result, he appears to have joined the conspiracy that resulted in Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.

Over the next few months, as Rome drifted into a new bout of civil wars, Galba supported the senatorial faction. In Spring of 43 B.C. Galba was appointed to command the legio Martia, a unit loyal to Caesar’s grand-nephew, Octavius, later the Emperor Augustus. In April, the Martia and another legion, under the command of the Consul G. Vibius Pansa, were on the march to join the other Consul Aulus Hirtius, who was closing in on Marc Antony’s legions, near Mutina, the modern Modena. On April 15th a great battle was fought, about which Galba wrote in a letter that Cicero received at Rome on the 20th

[Note that in this account “Caesar” refers to Octavius, using his new adopted name]

Servius Sulpicius Galba to Marcus Tullius Cicero

In Camp near Mutina, 16 April [43 B.C.]

On the 15th of April, the day on which Pansa was to arrive at the camp of Hirtius, with the former of whom I was (for I had gone along the road a hundred miles to hasten his arrival), Antony brought out two legions, the II and the XXXV, and two praetorian cohorts, one his own and the other that of Silanus, and a party of reservists. He confronted us with such a force because he thought that we had only four legions of recruits. But in the course of the night, in order to enable us to reach the camp in greater safety, Hirtius had sent us the legio Martia (which I usually command) and two praetorian cohorts.

As soon as Antony's horsemen came in sight, neither the Martia nor the cavalry could be held back. The rest of us were obliged to follow them, as we could not stop them. Antony was keeping his men under cover at Forum Gallorum, and did not wish it to be known that he had the legions with him. He allowed none but his cavalry and light-armed men to be seen.

When Pansa saw that the Martia was advancing without his orders, he placed himself at the head of two legions of recruits and followed. Meanwhile, as soon as we had got past the narrow ground of marsh and forest, our line was drawn up, consisting of twelve cohorts, as the two recruit legions had not yet come up.

Suddenly, Antony brought his forces out of the village on to the field, and without waiting charged. At first the fighting was as keen as it was possible for it to be on both sides. The right wing, on which I was with eight cohorts of the Martia, had at the first brush put Antony's legio XXV to flight, but in doing so it advanced more than five hundred paces beyond the line from its original ground. Accordingly, when Antony’s cavalry attempted to outflank our wing, I began to retire and to throw my light-armed troops in the way of the Moorish cavalry, to prevent their charging my men in the rear. Meanwhile, I became conscious that I was between two bodies of Antony's troops, and that Antony was himself some way on my rear. I at once galloped towards the legion of recruits that was on its way up from camp, with my shield slung behind my back.

Antony's men set off in pursuit of me, while our own men began pouring in a volley of pila against me[, thinking I was an enemy cavalryman.] It was by a mere stroke of good luck that I got safely out of it, for I was soon recognized by our men.

Meanwhile, on our left wing, on the Via Aemilia itself, where Caesar's praetorian cohort was stationed, the fight was protracted. This wing was somewhat weak, consisting of two cohorts of the Martia and the praetorian cohort, and began to give ground, as it was in danger of being outflanked by the cavalry, in which Antony is exceedingly strong.

When all our lines had retired, I began retiring myself towards the camp on the extreme rear. Antony, regarding himself as having won the victory, thought that he could capture our camp. But when he reached it he lost a large number of men without accomplishing anything. The news having reached Hirtius[, in his camp, he sortied] with twenty veteran cohorts, and met Antony as he was returning to his own camp, and destroyed or put to flight his whole force, on the same ground as the battle that we had just had been fought, at Forum Gallorum.

Antony, with his cavalry, reached his camp near Mutina at the fourth hour after sunset. Hirtius returned to the camp, from which Pansa had issued, where he had left the two legions which had been assaulted by Antony.

Thus Antony has lost the greater part of his veteran forces. This, however, naturally could not be accomplished without some loss in our praetorian cohorts and the Martia. But two eagles and sixty standards of Antony's have been brought in. It is a great victory.

16 April, in camp.

Like most other prominent Romans of the period, almost everyone named in this letter would, in the apt phrase of one historian, end up “spectacularly dead,” many of them before the end of the year. Pansa, badly wounded in the battle, would die within a few days. On the 17th, Hirtius inflicted another reverse on Antony at Mutina, but was himself killed during the fighting. Within a few weeks, Antony and Octavius would form, with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, the so-called “Second Triumvirate.” They initiated a proscription in which both Galba and Cicero perished before the end of the year, along with hundreds of others. Then the triumvirs took on Caesar’s assassins, defeating them in a series of campaigns, before turning on each other. Little more than a decade later, Antony was dead, a suicide along with his paramour Cleopatra, Lepidus had been cut off from all sources of power, and Caesar Octavianus was sole master of the Roman world, and went on to rule the Roman world for more than 40 years as Augustus, first and greatest of the emperors.

Galba was, however, the great-grandfather of the emperor of the same name, who ousted Nero in A.D. 68, but was himself assassinated early the following year.

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