Caesar Marches on Rome (49 B.C.E.)


In 49 B.C.E., a provincial governor named
Julius Caesar lead an armed insurrection against the Senate and People of Rome. He commanded 10 legions, which was a lot,
and although they remained personally loyal to him, most of them were hunkered down all
the way up in Gaul for the winter. Only one, the 13th Legion, was in any position
to be of use in the short term. At half strength, the 13th only consisted
of approximately 2,500 solders, and the moment these soldiers crossed into Italy, it amounted
to a declaration of war. Way up in Gaul, Caesar’s close friend and
right hand man Labienus had been left in charge of Caesar’s legions in his absence. Labienus knew that there was a political back
and forth going on in the south, but assumed that everything would be fine. Well, everything was not fine. When negotiations broke down, news started
trickling in that Caesar had risen up in open rebellion and was in the process of marching
on Rome. Labienus was shocked. Let’s not forget that up until this moment,
Labienus’s achievements in Gaul had been truly remarkable. He had spent the last 10 years leading semi-independent
military operations in Caesar’s name. Labienus was the only man Caesar trusted to
take command of the Republic’s largest army in his absence. In fact, I would argue that Labienus deserves
half the credit for the conquest of Gaul. Unlike Caesar, Labienus actually lived on
deployment with the legions, and unlike Caesar, Labienus military record was an unbroken string
of victories. Without any exaggeration, Labienus was up
there with Pompey and Caesar as one of Rome’s greatest living generals. And this fact may have caused some animosity. Had Labienus devoted the last 10 years to
his own advancement rather than Caesar’s, he would have been one of the most influential
men in Rome. Now, Labienus was over 50, and if he was ever
going to translate his military success into political power, it was going to be as one
of Caesar’s men. Caesar noticed this shift in attitude. As time went on, he granted Labienus more
and more independence, and gave every indication that the Gallic provinces would be his whenever
Caesar returned to Rome. Finally, Labienus would get an independent
command. Some whispered that the consulship might follow. But then, Caesar rose up in open rebellion
against the Senate and People of Rome. From what we can tell, he didn’t even bother
to consult with Labienus before doing so. Labienus was angry. I would have been angry too. Labienus had hitched his wagon to Caesar,
and now Caesar had decided to foolishly run off a cliff. And it wasn’t all about ambition. If we are to believe Labienus’s surviving
words, which, in fairness, come to us through biased sources, he considered taking up arms
against the Senate morally repugnant. Absent any data to the contrary, I see no
reason not to believe him. This was the most important decision of his
life, and taking his reasoning behind it seriously is the least we can do. Without too much fuss, Labienus immediately
left camp, accompanied by a large contingent of cavalry that were personally loyal to him. He made no attempt to bring along any of Caesar’s
legions. Once free, Labienus publicly denounced Caesar
as a traitor, and pledged his loyalty to the Senate. He would join up with the Pompeians in Italy. This was an unexpected blow to Caesar. The two had been close friends for at least
14 years, probably longer. Labienus had earned Caesar’s absolute confidence. It was a big deal. But, for what it’s worth, Labienus made no
attempt to stab Caesar in the back by stealing his legions. He could have, but he didn’t. That’s worth something. Caesar ordered his men back in Gaul to pack
up Labienus’s personal belongings and have them shipped to Italy. Some historians have described this as a callous
reaction to the loss of a friend, but I don’t see it that way at all. Labienus had lived in Gaul for 10 years, and
then just walked away with nothing. To my eyes it’s a small act of compassion
to be like “sure, follow your conscience if you must, but you’re going to need all your
stuff once you get back to Italy.” When Cicero learned that Labienus had defected
from Caesar, he wrote: “Labienus seems to have condemned a friend of his of a crime
for the sake of the Republic.” Continuing, he wrote: “I judge Labienus a
hero. It has been a long time since a more glorious
political move. If Labienus has accomplished nothing else,
he has caused Caesar pain.” I would add to Cicero’s thoughts. If Labienus had accomplished nothing else,
he had deprived Caesar of skilled lieutenant. In that respect, he was irreplaceable. When news traveled south, there was panic
on the streets of Rome. The Senate was as surprised as anybody. They had been keeping a close eye on Caesar’s
legions north of the Alps. If those legions moved, they told themselves,
that meant that Caesar was gearing up for an invasion. Well, those legions hadn’t moved. Caesar invaded anyways. Now, the recriminations began. The war-hawks in the Senate started pointing
fingers, arguing that Pompey had walked them into this mess. It’s not true, by the way. If anything, it was the other way around. The war-hawks walked Pompey into this mess. There were legions mustering to the south,
but they wouldn’t be ready for some time, and even when they were, these raw recruits
wouldn’t stand much of a chance against Caesar’s hardened legion. There were more experienced legions in Spain
and Greece, but it would take months to get them over to Italy. In the defense of the Pompeians, it was winter,
and they had assumed that they would have months to get ready. They were just wrong. In Rome, those who could packed up their belongings
and fled the city. When Cicero learned that Caesar’s march south
was creating a steady stream of Roman refugees, he remarked: “are we talking about a Roman
general here, or Hannibal?” Pompey could see no way around it. He would not be able to mobilize a resistance
in time. He would have to temporarily abandon the city
of Rome. His reasoning was sound. He had access to the vast resources of Rome’s
provinces. He had more legions. He had more money. He had the Senate on his side. The longer this conflict continued, the stronger
Pompey would become. Caesar’s only hope was to force an early confrontation. By pulling back, Pompey denied Caesar this
opportunity. It was the right call, under the circumstances. But that doesn’t mean it was popular. Being forced to abandon the capital isn’t
a great way to start a war. Rome’s most prominent Senators violently disagreed
with the decision. Cicero was particularly upset. He asked Pompey, whom he had been privately
calling “the Senate’s incompetent leader,” if he intended to make a stand in southern
Italy. Pompey wouldn’t give him a straight answer. Cicero reluctantly agreed to obey the Senate’s
order to abandon the city, but decided not to go with Pompey. He would remain in the Italian countryside,
ready to return to Rome at a moment’s notice. The young Senator Marcus Junius Brutus was
also quite torn. On paper it should have been a no-brainer,
since his beloved uncle was none other than the arch-Conservative Cato. But it was more complicated than that. Brutus’s mother was Caesar’s longtime mistress,
and the two men seemed genuinely affectionate towards each other. Plus, there was an additional wrinkle. When Brutus was a child, Pompey had personally
ordered the death of his father. The hatred ran deep. To this day Brutus could barely bring himself
to speak to the man. After intense period of soul searching, Brutus
decided that the Republic’s integrity was more important than his personal feelings. He pledged his loyalty to his father’s killer,
and accompanied Pompey into southern Italy. Domitius Ahenobarbus, another powerful senator,
was angry. Domitius was the guy who had been selected
by the Senate to replace Caesar in Gaul whenever he resigned his command. Now, Domitius was one of the many that were
furious at Pompey’s decision to abandon the capital. Without bothering to consult with Pompey or
the rest of the Senate, Domitius grabbed 10,000 militiamen and raw recruits, and marched north. He would stop Caesar’s advance, or die trying. This was not as crazy as it might seem. Against Caesar’s one half-strength legion,
Domitius would have outnumbered him 4 to 1. However, things had changed in the last few
weeks. As soon as he crossed the Rubicon, Caesar
split up his tiny legion and captured 5 cities in rapid succession, all uncontested. One of these detachments was lead by Marc
Antony, who I would like to note was still technically a Tribune of the Plebs. Tribunes were forbidden to leave Rome while
in office, and not only had Antony left the city, but here he was returning at the head
of a rebel army. Things were so chaotic at this time that it
never even occurred to anybody to strip him of office. But they should’ve. Now that Caesar had a foothold in Italy, he
ordered his legions north of the Alps to join him. He spent the rest of January capturing cities
in the north. Apart from one tiny skirmish, all of the defending
garrisons either fled or defected to his side. With reinforcements coming down from the north,
and defectors coming up from the south, Caesar’s one legion ballooned into 5 or 6. By early February, Domitius Ahenobarbus arrived
at the town of Corfinium with 10,000 men, which equaled like two legions. Caesar would have to pass this way before
heading further south. Domitius knew that for him, this was probably
a one way trip, but if everything went well it would give Pompey enough time to marshal
his resources and march north, intercepting Caesar before he reached Rome. When Caesar’s legions showed up outside the
walls of Corfinium, the civilians inside the town immediately lost heart, and tried to
surrender. Besieged, with no sign of support from Pompey,
Domitius’s 10,000 recruits and militiamen realized that this was a suicide mission. They mutinied against their commander, opened
the gates to the town, and hauled Domitius before Caesar. Domitius was humiliated. He begged for death, believing that the execution
of a former consul would serve as a rallying cry for the rest of Italy. Instead, Caesar surprised everyone by publicly
pardoning Domitius, and letting him walk away a free man. Caesar justifies his clemency by saying that
he had no interest in alienating politicians or the public with unnecessary brutality. If he was victorious, he wanted his victory
to last, and to do that he would need the cooperation of his former enemies. That’s the reason he gave. The real reason might be a little less high
minded. When Domitius’s 10,000 men discovered that
Caesar had pardoned their former commander, many broke ranks, and volunteered to join
Caesar’s legions. Now, Domitius was angrier than ever. He immediately began planning a second high
risk operation to save the Republic. He’d be back. By now, Caesar now had approximately 6 legions
in Italy, while Pompey was still struggling to rally 2 or 3 legions in the south. Pompey began to seriously consider abandoning
the Italian peninsula. The Pompeians still held the overall advantage,
even though locally, they were outnumbered. In time, the combined strength of the provinces
would surely be enough to overpower Caesar’s rebellion. With his mind made up, Pompey began to evacuate
his army from southern Italy. Pompey marched his legions to the port city
of Brundisium to make the crossing to Greece. It didn’t take long for Caesar to figure out
what he was doing. He abandoned all of his previous plans, and
made a beeline for southern Italy. By the time Caesar arrived, Pompey had occupied
Brundisium, and half of his army had already sailed away. Caesar besieged the city, but a siege wouldn’t
do any good once Pompey’s ships returned. He ordered a small fleet built, and used them
to haul dirt and rocks and wood out into the harbor. They used the material to begin building a
barrier, or a breakwater, to prevent the Pompeians from escaping. Pompey couldn’t let this happen. He responded by sending out ships of his own
to slow down the construction. There was skirmishing back and forth for several
days, and before Caesar could complete his breakwater, the Pompeian fleet returned. Pompey and the rest of his supporters set
sail for Greece. They would live to fight another day. This was a missed opportunity for Caesar,
but nevertheless, the Pompeian flight meant that Italy was now firmly under his control. It had been approximately two months since
Caesar crossed the Rubicon. He was now finally free to enter Rome. The reception was not what he expected. The place was a ghost town. Those who could had fled the city. Those who couldn’t opted stayed indoors. After all, Caesar was a traitor, an enemy
of the Republic, and people had good reason to expect a bloodbath. But Caesar wasn’t here for blood. He needed something else. Upon entering the city, he immediately called
for a meeting of the Senate. Rome’s best and brightest had gone with Pompey,
but there were a few senators still in the city. Caesar told this little makeshift Senate that
he wanted access to Rome’s treasury. He was desperate. He was already paying his legions with I.O.Us,
and he would need to continue paying them for at least another year now that Pompey
had escaped to Greece. Caesar gave some B.S. justification for this
request, saying that since Rome no longer had to worry about fighting the Gauls, the
money previously spent on that should go to him instead. His reasoning didn’t make any sense, but it
didn’t need to. None of the senators objected. In fact, none of the senators said anything. Caesar decided to interpret their silence
as approval, which was not how voting worked, but whatever. Then, one of the few remaining Tribune of
the Plebs, a guy named Metellus, summoned his courage and vetoed Caesar’s request. Caesar stormed out of the Senate house. He ordered his legionaries to occupy the forum,
and lead a group of soldiers up to the Temple of Saturn, which housed the Roman treasury. When he got there, the temple was locked and
boarded up. Metellus stood before the entrance, blocking
Caesar’s path and continuing to exercise his veto. Caesar approached Metellus, and told him that
if he didn’t get out of the way, he would order his men to murder him right there, before
the gods and everyone. After a beat, Metellus decided to step aside. Caesar proceeded to plunder the Republic’s
treasury, and immediately began to settle up on his I.O.Us. Up until this incident, Caesar had consistently
argued that he was on the right side of the law. By coming into Rome and threatening to murder
public officials, he demonstrated how untrue that was. The rule of law was dead. Rome was in the hands of a conquering warlord. Even though Caesar controlled Italy, he was
still beset with enemies on all sides, which meant that he had an important decision to
make. Pompey was in Greece with 2 or 3 legions,
and was already rallying the combined strength of the east to his banner. Pompey also had 7 legions active in Spain,
which were continuing to operate independently. Caesar joked that to his west there was an
army without a general, and to his east there was a general without an army. He could only deal with one of these threats
at a time. But which would it be? East or west? After some deliberation, Caesar decided to
head west, to deal with Spain first. Here was his reasoning. At this moment, Pompey was in no position
to attack. If Caesar spent a year campaigning in Spain,
Italy would be relatively safe. The opposite was not true. If Caesar spent a year campaigning in Greece,
Italy would probably fall to the Spanish legions. Spain was the immediate threat. Greece was the future threat. The immediate threat had to be dealt with
first. This must have been an agonizing decision. Caesar understood that Pompey would become
more and more powerful as the war dragged on. In his absence, Caesar would leave behind
Marc Antony as the informal governor of Italy. Had things gone differently, this would have
been Labienus’s job, but he was with the Pompeians now, and Caesar needed a new #2 that he could
rely on. For the moment, Antony was that man, although
as we’ll discover, good help is hard to find, and Antony was no Labienus. Caesar prepared to split his army. He sent three legions to capture Sicily, with
orders to continue on to Africa if they were successful. He sent another legion to capture Sardinia,
which was close enough to Italy that they could return if something went wrong. Both of these expeditions would require naval
support, which meant that Caesar would travel to Spain with his remaining 3 legions on foot. Finally, he sent orders to his 6 remaining
legions in Gaul, instructing them to break camp and get themselves to Spain as quickly
as possible. They would beat him there, but that was fine,
because time was of the essence. Every day Caesar spent in Spain, Pompey would
be gathering strength in Greece.

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