The heroic stand of Servius Sulpicius Galba

Classic Podcast from Ancient Rome Refocused.

William Glover was a regular contributor to this blog.  I interviewed him for a podcast where he took me through the ins and outs of being an archeologist in the South-Western region of the United States.  He was very insightful on the importance of pig bones, human remains, and the importance of teeth marks.  I quickly learned that his knowledge was deep and encompassing.  William was kind enough to send me a book off his book shelf:  A Guide to Archaeological Field Methods, which I suspect was a book he kept from his college days from the copyright of 1966.  The moment I took it out of the box it smelled of cigarette smoke.  In the last couple of years the smell has changed over to that old book smell of old paper and dust.  Unfortunately, William has passed away.  I suspected that this was the case for he became scarce.  He would call and leave a message or send a comment to my email.  I looked at his Facebook page, and it was there that I got the news of his passing.  His Facebook page is still up.  Left online like a pyramid, in remembrance of his life.  The photo I like the best of him is where he is laid out on his back with his hat over his eyes.  I could imagine it was some well-deserved rest after a long day (I imagine) of laboring in the sun.  I only know him by our conversations over the phone, but I suspect the photo showed that his job of archeology was hard – especially on the knees.   He seemed a kind person and I hope I provided him some distraction through his suffering.   The following is the best compliment I can give him:  “He was a scholar and a gentleman.” 

The following is a long email that he sent me one day.   

The heroic stand and retreat of Servius Sulpicius Galba and the 12 Legion Fulminata

By Archaeologist William Glover

    The 12th Legion was the second formed in Italy for the Gallic Campaigns by Julius Caesar and was active through this series of campaigns and the Civil Wars which followed. The unit is filled with great success and great failures, this is one of many stories which could be told but illustrates determination, luck and experience that saved the legion to fight another day.

    The 12th Legion may have started out with as many as 5000 legionaries and 300 cavalry along with an unknown number of allied troops in 58 B.C. by the time it was to move into winter quarters in 57 B.C. it had been in constant contact with enemy forces, tasked with garrisoning areas, escorting supplies, along with illness, injury or death it was now a much smaller force. It was not an unknown force in the Cisalpine Gaul having campaigned there earlier than 185 B.C. and this was a known recruiting area for this legion. When Servius Sulpicius Galba  (commander) moved his troops and  a detachment of  cavalry (size unknown) into the area he was to control it covered the tribal areas of the Natuates, Veragri, and Seduni. This area geographically covered the frontier of the Allobroges tribe, the Lake of Geneva area, and from the Rhone to the passes over the Alps into Italy.

    The strategic idea was to exert control over these passes which the tribes above controlled and were collecting tolls or what might be called local taxes. Galba had been ordered to detach two cohorts to winter among the Nantuates (on paper one cohort contained 480 men) the two cohorts which were under strength with the rest of the legion were part of an effort to pacify the area (there were battles and strong points taken and likely held) and to focus the control efforts on the Saint Bernard Pass area to insure the safety of traders and to insure this supply route was secure for troops deeper in Gaul. At this point when Roman control was in place several things happen; The lost of physical and economic control of pass traffic and its revenue becomes a major point of friction between the Romans and the tribal groups, the site of the main military fort which seems to be within a major crossroads village or town which identified as Octodurus in Veragri territory. Half of this town had been evacuated of civilians the town itself was divided by a small river which ran within the narrow valley in which the town and fort occupied , why the buildings were not demolished and cleared to give a buffer zone around the fort is unknown it could be a way in the mind of Galba of not alienating the native population too much but from a military perspective create a danger by giving cover to any potential enemy or mask their movements. From the small size of the Roman force itself to the other factors presented above along with the giving of hostages (which is also named a complaint of the natives in Caesar’s work) can be seen as the “who and why” of the conflict. The writings of Caesar does not make clear how long Galba had encamped, aside from “several days” but does note the entrenchments had not been completed nor had the needed supplies been gathered, before being attacked. One other item sticks out, Galba placed his main base in a narrow valley surrounded by high points and mountains, even with his military experience that he gained in the one year fighting for Caesar he had to know how weak a position he was in. Now having dug in Alpine environments I can easily see how tired men meeting one or more large granite boulders might cause the whole process to stop while a work around was being developed, and they would have had what turned out to be a false sense of security (this is a point Caesar makes in Galba’s defense that he was in a peaceful zone) . This false sense of security may have lead to the intelligence failure to see that the surrounding tribes were making preparations to strike in order to remove the Romans from their territory.

    The prelude:  What happened before the battle is not described by Caesar but other similar conflicts included in his book will give an outline of the probable course of events.  The first indications were the kind of things that any soldier from any time when occupying an area the looks from the locals, how conversations stop in their presence, and the normal rhythm of village or town life having changed once by their moving in should have begun to settle. They appear not to have settled, the telltale signs of conspiracy among the local tribes had passed unnoticed (there are many examples in Caesar’s book of his detection of this kind of activity which lead him to take preemptive action) and it was not until the civilian evacuation of their side of the village that the red flags all went up. Galba to his credit called a council of war among his leadership within the legion, for armed men were sighted on all the hillsides. The main questions would be the same now as then; do you hold and hope for relief or pull out, you know you are out- numbered, but you have a well trained and tough unit but they are in a weakened state (they were known as Lighting Throwers) . Then there is the supply issue it seems everything is in short supply so you can only hold for a short time. Remember that the fortifications are not complete so if fortune smiles you may be able to hold for a short time but will it be enough?   If you pull out you are leaving most of your baggage and have the added danger of being ambushed on the march. Galba decides to hold the walls first and then withdraw as the last resort.

    The Battle: The time the battle began is not really given but from the narrative the time from first warning to first contact is less than 24 hours, and the weapon of choice for the natives is the simple to use and abundant stone, thrown by hand or with a sling it can and will kill or incapacitate even an armored opponent, along with spears with fire-harden tips which are easy to make and effective.  There are other items that should be factored in to your thinking about warfare.  The Gaul’s made use of the uncoordinated human wave attacks, the use of axes which are useful against both personal (in the hand or thrown) and walls and gates. It has been said the quality of the metalworking used in creating swords had a tendency to bend or break on the Roman shields (the shield was also an offensive weapon with its large central boss in the center and the metal borders) which is why the shields were bordered with iron or more often brass.  The sword was used as a slashing weapon not a stabbing weapon (the most common way the Romans used the weapon as it presents a narrow cross-section to an enemy attack and is easier to defend). The Roman legionary may have carried the standard two Pilum one a little longer and heavier than the other, five arrows per bow, and possibly one or more spear (which might have looked like some modern Boar spears). It’s unknown if there was use of light artillery such as the Scorpion, and if it was it would have suffered from some handicaps such as the exposed nature of the crews.  Carrying a shield or Scutum is impracticable in operating this weapon at key points, depressing the weapon may cause the charge (bolt, lead or stone ball) to move out of position or simply fall out of the weapon.  A final point is the use of the crew was more valuable on the walls or at possible breakthrough points along the walls or gates. Once the first wave of natives started down from their highpoints the Romans held their positions and gave as good as they got, as most battles of the period lasted one to two hours of close contact things seemed to be going well for the Romans, but they had no reserves.  The natives did, and once they exhausted their ammunition and were wounded or tired they could retire and be replaced by fresh men, the option the Romans did not have and as the continuous combat extended into the six hour range things were really beginning to fall apart defensibly and the outer works were filled (the outer surrounding trench) and as parts of the palisade walls were beginning to break down. Part of the reason was that when a section of wall was threatened another section of wall had to be so thinly defended so that it seemed almost abandoned. 

     The turning point: At or around the sixth hour of combat every Roman who could stand (walking wounded included) were at their posts, Baculus the chief centurion who had been badly wounded in a previous battle with the Nervii earlier in the year approached Galba and the military Tribune Gaius Volusenus Quadratus , who was said to be a man of sound judgment and great courage to report that the desperate hour had come and abandoning the fort was the only hope for the legion. It was at this time the order was passed to the command for all personnel to defend themselves on the wall only, and try to regain as much strength as possible for the coming operation. In order to withdraw the Romans had to break contact with the enemy, this was done by forming the bulk of the command by units near one of the four gates.  With the order given the legion poured out of all the gates, surprized a force of over 30,000 (Caesar’s estimate given) killing in the encirclement 1/3  of the enemy and pursuing the remaining force into the mountains. The Romans returned to their fortifications rested a short time, then packed their equipment, burned the town/village, and moved out to “The Province” Transalpine Gaul during their march it is reported that there was no opposition during that period of time.

    Epilogue: the 12th would continue to serve long past the time of Caesar, even find its self finding a mirror legion formed by M. Anthony and serving much of its time in the eastern half of the Empire. The Galba in the above battle was the great grand father of the Emperor Galba,  the others named may be parts of other histories that are existent and all those who fought had a story to tell for years after.

Mors est A.P. Style dux