Caesar’s Blitzkrieg

Julius Caesar crossed the river Rubicon. Suetonius says that as his army began to cross Caesar declared, “Alea iacta est!” The die has been cast…

In December 50 BC one of the two consuls, Gaius Marcellus, travelled in the full pomp of his office to Pompey’s villa in the Alban Hills. His colleague, having begun the year as an anti-Caesarian, had been persuaded, much like Curio, and no doubt for similar motives, to switch sides – but Marcellus, spurning all overtures, had remained implacable in his hostility to Caesar. Now, with only days left in office, he felt that the time had come to put some more steel into Pompey’s backbone. Watched by an immense number of senators and a tense, excited crowd, Marcellus handed his champion a sword. ‘We charge you to march against Caesar,’ he intoned sombrely, ‘and rescue the Republic.’ ‘I will do so,’ Pompey answered, ‘if no other way can be found.’ He then took the sword, along with the command of two legions at Capua. He also set about raising fresh levies. All of which was illegal in the extreme – an embarrassment predictably made much of by Caesar’s supporters. Caesar himself, stationed menacingly at Ravenna with the Legio XIII Gemina, was brought the news by Curio, who by now had finished his term and had no wish to stay in Rome to suffer prosecution, or worse. Meanwhile, back in the capital, his place as tribune had been taken by Antony, who occupied himself throughout December by launching a series of blood-curdling attacks on Pompey and vetoing anything that moved. As the tension heightened, the deadlock remained.

Then, on 1 January 49 BC, despite the stern opposition of the new consuls, who were both, like Marcellus, virulent anti-Caesarians, Antony read out a letter to the Senate. It had been hand-delivered by Curio and penned by Caesar himself. The proconsul cast himself as the friend of peace. After a lengthy recitation of his many great achievements he proposed that both he and Pompey lay down their commands simultaneously. The Senate, nervous of the effect that this might have on public opinion, suppressed it. Metellus Scipio then stood up and dealt the death-blow to all the final, flickering hopes of compromise. He named a date by which Caesar should surrender command of his legions or be considered an enemy of the Republic. This motion was immediately put to the vote. Only two senators opposed it: Curio and Caelius. Antony, as tribune, then promptly vetoed the bill.

For the Senate, that was the final straw. On 7 January a state of emergency was proclaimed. Pompey immediately moved troops into Rome, and the tribunes were warned that their safety could no longer be guaranteed. With a typically melodramatic flourish, Antony, Curio and Caelius disguised themselves as slaves, and then, hiding in wagons, fled north towards Ravenna. There, Caesar was still waiting with his single legion. The news of Pompey’s emergency powers reached him on the tenth. Immediately, he ordered a detachment of troops to strike south, to seize the nearest town across the frontier, inside Italy. Caesar himself, however, while his men were setting out, passed the afternoon by having a bath, then attending a banquet, where he chatted with guests as though he had not a care in the world. Only at dusk did he rise from his couch. Hurrying in a carriage along dark and twisting byways, he finally caught up with his troops on the bank of the Rubicon. There was a moment’s dreadful hesitation, and then he was crossing its swollen waters into Italy, towards Rome.

No one could know it at the time, but 460 years of the free Republic were being brought to an end.

In Gaul, against the barbarians, Caesar had preferred to stab hard and fast wherever he was least expected, no matter what the risks. Now, having taken the supreme gamble of his life, he aimed to unleash the same strategy against his fellow citizens. Rather than wait for his full complement of legions to arrive from Gaul, as Pompey had expected him to do, Caesar decided instead to rely upon the effects of terror and surprise. Beyond the Rubicon there was no one to oppose him. His agents had been busy softening up Italy with bribes. Now, the moment he appeared before them, the frontier towns opened their gates. The great trunk roads to Rome were easily secured. Still no one advanced from the capital. Still Caesar struck on south.

News of the blitzkrieg was carried to Rome upon crowds of refugees. The effect of their arrival was to send fresh refugees streaming out of the city itself. Invasions from the north stirred ancestral nightmares in the Republic. Cicero, as he followed the reports of Caesar’s progress with obsessive horror, wondered, ‘Is it a general of the Roman people we are talking about, or Hannibal?’ But there were other ghosts abroad too, from a more recent period of history. Farmers working in the fields beside the tomb of Marius reported sightings of the grim old general, risen from his sepulchre; while in the middle of the Campus Martius, where Sulla’s corpse had been consumed, his spectre was glimpsed, intoning ‘prophecies of doom’. Gone was the war fever, so glad and confident only a few days before. Panicky senators, who had been assured by Pompey that victory would be a walkover, were now starting to calculate whether their names might not soon be appearing on Caesar’s proscription lists. The Senate rose and, as one body, besieged their generalissimo. One senator openly accused Pompey of having deceived the Republic and tempted it into disaster. Another, Favonius, a close friend of Cato, jeered at him to stamp his foot and produce the legions and cavalry he had promised.

But Pompey had already given up on Rome. The Senate was issued with an evacuation order. Anyone staying behind, Pompey warned, would be regarded as a traitor. With that he headed south, leaving the capital to its fate. His ultimatum made final and irreparable the schism in the Republic. Every civil war cuts through families and friendships, but Roman society had always been especially subtle in its loyalties, and contemptuous of brute divisions. For many citizens, a choice between Caesar and Pompey remained as impossible as ever. For some, it was particularly cruel. As a result all eyes were upon them. What, for instance, was a man such as Marcus Junius Brutus to do? Earnest, dutiful and deep-thinking, yet heavily committed to both rivals, his judgement would carry special weight. Which way would Marcus Brutus choose to leap?

There was much to encourage him into Caesar’s camp. His mother, Servilia, had been the great love of Caesar’s life, and it was even claimed that Brutus himself was their love child. Whatever the truth of that rumour, Brutus’ legal father had been one of the young Pompey’s many victims during the first civil war, and so it was widely assumed that he was bound to favour the old flame of his mother over the murderer of her husband. But Pompey, once the ‘teenage butcher’, was now the champion of the Republic, and Brutus, an intellectual of rare probity and honour, could not bring himself to abandon the cause of legitimacy. Attached to Caesar he may have been, but he was even closer to Cato, who was both his uncle and his father-in-law. Brutus obeyed Pompey’s orders. He abandoned Rome. So too, after a night of havering and hand-wringing, did most of the Senate. Only the barest rump remained. Never before had the city been so emptied of its magistrates. Barely a week had passed since Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, and already the world had been turned upside down.

Pompey, of course, could argue that there were sound military reasons for the surrender of the capital – and so there were. Nevertheless, it was a tragic and fatal mistake. The Republic could not endure as an abstraction. Its vitality was nourished by the streets and public places of Rome, by the smoke rising from age-blackened temples, by the rhythms of elections, year on year on year. Uprooted, how could the Republic remain true to the will of the gods, and how were the wishes of the Roman people to be known? By fleeing the city the Senate had cut itself off from all those – the vast majority – who could not afford to pack up and leave their homes. As a result, the shared sense of community that had bound even the poorest citizen to the ideals of the state was betrayed. No wonder that the great nobles, abandoning their ancestral homes, dreaded looters and the fury of the slums.

Perhaps, if the war proved to be as short as Pompey had promised it would be, then none of this would matter – but it was already becoming clear that only Caesar had any hope of a lightning victory. Even as Pompey retreated south through Italy his pursuer was gathering pace. It seemed that the scattered legions summoned to the defence of the Republic might suffer the same fate as Spartacus’ army, pinned down in the peninsula’s heel. Only complete evacuation could spare them such a calamity. The Senate began to contemplate the unthinkable: that it should reconvene abroad. Provinces had already been allocated to its key leaders: Sicily to Cato, Syria to Metellus Scipio, Spain to Pompey himself. Henceforward, it appeared, the arbiters of the Republic’s fate were to rule not in the city that had bestowed their rank upon them, but as warlords amid distant and sinister barbarians. Their power would be sanctioned by force, and force alone. How, then, were they different to Caesar? How, whichever side won, was the Republic to be restored?

Even those most identified with the cause of the establishment showed themselves tormented by this question. Cato, contemplating the results of his greatest and most ruinous gamble, did nothing for his followers’ morale by putting on mourning and bewailing the news of every military engagement, victory as well as defeat. Neutrals, of course, lacked even the consolation of knowing that the Republic was being destroyed in a good cause. Cicero, having obediently abandoned Rome on Pompey’s orders, found himself disoriented to the point of hysteria by his absence from the capital. For weeks he could do nothing save write plaintive letters to Atticus, asking him what he should do, where he should go, whom he should support. He regarded Caesar’s followers as a gang of cutthroats, and Pompey as criminally incompetent. Cicero was no soldier, but he could see with perfect clarity what a catastrophe the abandonment of Rome had been, and blamed it for the collapse of everything he held dear, from property prices to the Republic itself. ‘As it is, we wander about like beggars with our wives and children, all our hopes dependent upon a man who falls dangerously ill once a year, and yet we were not even expelled but summoned from our city!’ Always the same anguish, the same bitterness, bred of the wound that had never healed. Cicero already knew what his fellow senators were soon to learn: that a citizen in exile was barely a citizen at all.

Nor, with Rome abandoned, was there anywhere else to make a stand. The one attempt to hold Caesar ended in debacle. Domitius Ahenobarbus, whose immense capacity for hatred embraced Pompey and Caesar in equal measure, refused point blank to retreat. He was inspired less by any grand strategic vision than by stupidity and pig-headedness. With Caesar sweeping through central Italy, Domitius decided to bottle himself up in the crossroads town of Corfinium. This was the same Corfinium that the Italian rebels had made their capital forty years before, and memories of that great struggle were not yet entirely the stuff of history. Enfranchised they may have been, but there were plenty of Italians who still felt themselves alienated from Rome. The cause of the Republic meant little to them – but not so that of Caesar. After all, he was the heir of Marius, that great patron of the Italians – and the enemy of Pompey, the partisan of Sulla. Old hatreds, flaring back to life, doomed Domitius’ stand. Certainly, Corfinium had no intention of perishing in his defence: no sooner had Caesar appeared before its walls than it was begging to surrender. Domitius’ raw levies, confronted by an army that by now comprised five crack legions, were quick to agree. Envoys were sent to Caesar, who accepted their capitulation gracefully. Domitius raged, but in vain.

Hauled before Caesar by his own officers, he begged for death. Caesar refused. Instead he sent Domitius on his way. This was only seemingly a gesture of mercy. For a citizen, there could be no more unspeakable humiliation than to owe one’s life to the favour of another. Domitius, for all that he had been spared to fight another day, left Corfinium diminished and emasculated. It would be unfair to dismiss Caesar’s clemency as a mere tool of policy – Domitius, if their positions had been reversed, would surely have had Caesar put to death – but it served his purposes well enough. For not only did it satisfy his own ineffable sense of superiority, but it helped to reassure neutrals everywhere that he was no second Sulla. Even his bitterest enemies, if they only submitted, could have the assurance that they would be pardoned and spared. Caesar had no plans for proscription lists to be posted in the Forum.

The point was jubilantly taken. Few citizens had the pride of Domitius. The levies he had recruited, to say nothing of the people whose town he had occupied, had no hesitation in rejoicing at their conqueror’s leniency. News of the ‘Pardon of Corfinium’ spread fast. There would be no popular uprising against Caesar now, no chance that Italy would swing behind Pompey and come suddenly to his rescue. With Domitius’ recruits having crossed to the enemy, the army of the Republic was now even more denuded than it had been, and its sole stronghold was Brundisium, the great port, the gateway to the East. Here Pompey remained, frantically commandeering ships, preparing for the crossing to Greece. He knew that he could not risk open battle with Caesar, not yet – and Caesar knew that if only he could capture Brundisium, he would be able to finish off the war at a stroke.

And so now, for both sides, began a desperate race against time. Speeding south from Corfinium, Caesar was brought the news that half of the enemy’s army had already sailed, under the command of the two consuls, but that the other half, under Pompey, still waited crammed inside the port. There they would have to remain, holed up, until the fleet returned from Greece. Caesar, arriving outside Brundisium, immediately ordered his men to sail pontoons to the harbour mouth and throw a breakwater across the gap. Pompey responded by having three-storey towers built on the decks of merchant ships, then sending them across the harbour to rain missiles down on Caesar’s engineers. For days the struggle continued, a desperate tumult of slingshot, heaving timbers and flames. Then, with the breakwater still unfinished, sails were spotted out to sea. Pompey’s fleet was returning from Greece. Breaking through the harbour mouth, it docked successfully, and the evacuation of Brundisium was at last able to begin. The operation was conducted with Pompey’s customary efficiency. As twilight deepened the oars of his transport fleet began to plash across the harbour’s waters. Caesar, warned by sympathisers inside the city, ordered his men to storm the walls – but they broke into Brundisium too late. Out through the narrow bottleneck left them by the siegeworks, Pompey’s ships were slipping into the open night. With them went Caesar’s last hope of a speedy resolution to the war. It was barely two and a half months since he had crossed the Rubicon.

When dawn came it illumined an empty sea. The sails of Pompey’s fleet had vanished. The future of the Roman people now waited not in their own city, nor even in Italy, but beyond the still and mocking horizon, in barbarous countries far from the Forum or the Senate House or the voting pens.

As the Republic tottered, so the tremors could be felt throughout the world.

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