Battle of Philippi

Summary

The Battle of Philippi pitted the Caesarian forces of the second triumvirate, composed of Mark Antony, Caesar Octavian, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, against the (so-called republican) forces of Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, the two main conspirators and assassins of Gaius Julius Caesar.

The battle took place in October 42 B.C. near Philippi, a town in the province of Macedonia located along the Via Egnatia on the slopes of Mount Pangeo. There were two phases of the clash, fought on October 3 and 23, respectively. The battle was won by the Caesarian legions of triumvirs, mainly due to Mark Antony while Octavian, in poor health and lacking great leadership skills, played a minor role. Lepidus had instead remained in the West to deal with the situation in Italy.

In the first battle Brutus achieved brilliant success by bursting inside Octavian”s camps, but at the same time Antony got the better of Cassius, who, shocked by the defeat and uninformed of Brutus” success, committed suicide. In the second battle, fought with extreme fury by the veteran legions of both sides, Mark Antony directed his forces with great energy, which ended up completely routing Brutus” army, which in turn preferred to commit suicide.

After the battle, Mark Antony continued with a part of the legions the pacification of the Eastern part of the Roman Republic that had allied with Brutus and Cassius, while Octavian took care of finding land for the legionnaires who demobilized from the army after the battle; the legionnaires demanded land that Octavian expropriated from wealthy landowners.

Constitution of republican forces in the East

After the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar, Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, the two main leaders of the conspiracy, had failed to seize power because of their own lack of determination, the effective action of the surviving consul, the energetic and able Mark Antony, and the hostility of the plebs and Caesar”s veterans.

After much second-guessing and uncertainty, the two Caesarians in the autumn of 44 B.C. had left Italic soil and traveled to the East; Marcus Brutus after spending time in Athens engaged in philosophical studies had gathered many young sympathizers including Gnaeus Domitius Enobarbus, Marcus Valerius Messalla, and the sons of Lucius Licinius Lucullus and Marcus Tullius Cicero. The province of Macedonia was ruled by his kinsman Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, who had only two legions after the transfer to Italy on Antony”s orders of four other veteran Caesarian legions. In November 43 B.C. Marcus Brutus, urged on by his supporters, decided to take the initiative against the Caesarians in Greece: he seized the money that the quaestors of the provinces of Asia and Syria, Marcus Appuleius and Gaius Antistius Vetere, were transporting to Rome, with which he could organize the uprising of the republican forces there; the two quaestors joined the Caesaricides” cause. One of the two legions in Macedonia and a cavalry corps came under Brutus”s control, and he went to Thessalonica where he received the full support of Marcus Hortensius as opposed to the new governor-designate of the province Gaius Antisthenes, the consul”s brother; Brutus immediately recruited a second legion from among the veterans of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus stationed in Macedonia and Thessaly.

Gaius Antonius landed at Durazzo in early January 43 B.C.E. to take control of Macedonia but was practically without troops after the defection in favor of Brutus of one legion and the departure of the other to Asia with proconsul Publius Cornelius Dolabella; he counted on getting help from the governor of Illyricum Publius Vatinus who had three legions, who, however, mediocre and passive, took no initiative. Marcus Brutus therefore had time to rush promptly with his two legions and cavalry from Thessalonica to Durres via rugged mountain roads; the Caesaricides arrived at the end of January and soon put Gaius Antonius in serious difficulty. Meanwhile, Vatinio”s army was disintegrating: two legions defected and went over with Marcus Brutus, while only one legion remained loyal to the governor; in this situation, Gaius Antony was forced to fall back to Epirus but, joined by Brutus, who now had four legions, was repulsed and besieged at Apollonia.

While Marcus Brutus was achieving these important successes in Greece, even more resounding results had been achieved by Gaius Cassius, who had arrived in the province of Asia before the proconsul-designate Dolabella and had immediately received help from the outgoing governor, the Caesaricides Gaius Trebonius, and the quaestor Publius Lentulus. After making on-the-spot recruits and framing into his units a cavalry formation that had defected, Cassius marched into Syria to Apamea where the siege of Pompeian Quintus Caecilius Bassus was being laid by six Caesarian legions led by the commanders of Syria and Bithynia, Lucius Statius Murcus and Quintus Marcius Crispus. Before long all the legions of Staio Murco and Marcius Crispus defected and came under the orders of Cassius, along with the besieged legion at Apamea of Caecilius Bassus. The position of the Caesaricides was further strengthened by the arrival from Egypt of four more legions commanded by Aulus Allienus; these forces also decided to come under the control of Cassius, who was then able to build up a massive army capable of dominating the situation in the eastern provinces.

The appointed proconsul Cornelius Dolabella, isolated in the province of Syria with weak forces, was easily overwhelmed by the legions of the Caesaricides. He had at first attacked and taken prisoner Gaius Trebonius, whom he summarily put to death, but then, attacked by Cassius” superior forces at Laodicea, he was completely defeated. Besieged without hope of help, Dolabella preferred to commit suicide and his two legions passed into the camp of the Caesaricides; by June 43 B.C., after this new victory, Cassius had twelve legions in the East.

Organization of the Triumvirs” forces

In Rome, the protagonists of the political scene (Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) had at first met with hostility from the senate toward their overwhelming power. Finally, however, an agreement was reached both among the three men, who formed the second triumvirate, and between the triumvirs and the senate itself. Thus, Mark Antony, Lepidus, and Octavian-posed at the head of the legions loyal to Rome-were able to turn their sights eastward, where confrontation with the Caesaricides awaited them. Their goal was not only to avenge the dictator”s death, but also to reimpossess the eastern provinces that had become de facto autonomous from Rome”s power.

It was determined that Lepidus would remain in Italy, while Octavian and Antony, at the head of the Roman army, headed for northern Greece. Having ferried the military forces (28 legions) from Apulia to Epirus without too much trouble, the two triumvirs sent forward 8 legions, led by Gaius Norbanus Flaccus and Decidius Saxa, along the Via Egnatia, with the task of finding out where the army of Brutus and Cassius was gathered. Having passed the city of Philippi, Norbanus and Decidius decided to wait for the enemy and placed their forces at a narrow mountain pass of great strategic importance. Antony followed them with the bulk of the army, while Octavian was forced to remain in Durazzo because of his poor health, which would accompany him for the entire military campaign. The situation for the triumvirs, initially favorable, gradually worsened in favor of their enemies, as communications with Italy were increasingly reduced due to the powerful fleet, led by Gnaeus Domitius Enobarbus (Nero”s great-great-great-grandfather and an ally of Brutus and Cassius), blocking supplies from the peninsula.

The Caesaricides had no intention of accepting armed confrontation. Rather, they planned to settle on a good defensive position and then exploit their great advantage on the seas to cut off supply lines to the opposing army. They had spent the previous months stirring the hearts of the Greeks against their enemies and had at their disposal all the legions stationed in the eastern part of the republic plus locally recruited levers.With numerically superior forces, Brutus and Cassius drove the legions of Norbanus and Decidius away from the strategic pass; the Roman troops had to fall back west of Philippi. Brutus and Cassius therefore obtained an excellent defensive position, having deployed along the important Via Egnatia, about 3.5 km west of Philippi, on the two elevated terrains flanking it.To the south they were defended by a vast swampy terrain, difficult for the triumvirs” army to cross; to the north they were defended by some impassable hills. They also had plenty of time to fortify their castrum with ramparts and moats. Brutus placed his camp to the north of the street, Cassius to the south.Antony and Octavian arrived some time later. Octavian placed his camp to the north, corresponding to that of Brutus, Antony to the south, corresponding to that of Cassius.

Forces in the field

The two triumvirs had nineteen legions (the other nine had been left behind).The sources give the name of only one of them (the III legion), but one can easily trace some of the others present in the clash: the VI, VII, VIII, X Equestris, XII, XXVI, XXVIII, XXIX, and XXX, plus, of course, the III. Appian tells us that almost all of these legions were in full ranks. The army of Octavian and Antony could count on a sizeable cavalry, consisting of about 13,000 cavalry for Octavian and 20,000 for Antony.

The Caesaricides” army numbered seventeen legions (the other two were with the fleet). Of these legions, only two were complete; the others were mostly in reduced ranks. However, the troops were reinforced by some levers from the allied eastern kingdoms. Appian reports a total manpower, for Brutus and Cassius, of about 80,000 Roman infantrymen and 17,000 allied cavalrymen, of whom 5,000 were horse archers. The army of the Caesaricides also counted some legions left in the East by Caesar and who had been loyal to the dictator (these were, it is believed, the XXVII, XXXVI, XXXVII, XXXI and XXXIII legions). They were, therefore, corps made up of veterans. But this was precisely what worried Brutus and Cassius: although the XXXVI legion had militated with Pompey and had been incorporated among Caesar”s only after the battle of Pharsalus, the others were certainly loyal to the old leader and, therefore, were not entirely trusted. Recall that Octavian had been named by Caesar as his heir and that, even, the name by which his contemporaries called him was not, indeed, Octavian, but Gaius Julius Caesar. Cassius tried to strengthen the loyalty of his men with some inflammatory speeches (for we were not his soldiers, but our nation”s”). In addition he tried to bring the sympathies of his men to his own side by paying each legionnaire a sum of about 1500 denarii, of 7000 for each centurion.

Although none of the ancient sources report the actual numbers of the two armies, modern historians believe that they were almost equal in numbers (with a slight preponderance, by a few thousand men, of the triumvirs” forces): thus, there must have been about 100,000 men on each side.

First Battle of Philippi

Antony offered opportunities for battle several times, but the Caesaricides did not want to abandon their positions, so Antony attacked Cassius from the west, trying to cross the palisade erected by the enemy and secretly having a road built through the swamp in 10 days. On October 3, 42 B.C., he then divided the cavalry that would cross the swamp passage into two groups: one group was to take the enemy infantry from behind, the second to attack Cassius” camp. Cassius suffered a terrible defeat. In the north, meanwhile, Brutus”s forces, provoked by those of the triumvirs, attacked Octavian without waiting for the watchword “Freedom,” thus by surprise; the enemies, frightened were easily routed. However, Brutus” army did not pursue the fugitives, because they were greedy for the riches the camp offered them. In this attack three legions” insignia were taken in Octavian”s camp, a clear sign of defeat. But he was not found in his tent: he himself recounts in his Res gestae divi Augusti in addition to Suetonius himself, that he had been warned about that day by a dream. It was in fact a good thing because when the enemies took over his camp, they ran en masse to his tent and his bed, hoping that he was asleep, and riddled him with bullets, tearing him to pieces. Pliny reports that Octavian hid in the marshes.

The battle seemed to end in a draw: 9,000 confirmed dead for Cassius, 18,000 dead and wounded for Octavian. However, Cassius, a better general than Brutus, climbed a hill after his own defeat to see what had happened to his comrade, not seeing him and believing him to be put to flight, took his own life at the hands of Pindar, his trusted man. Brutus wept over the body of Cassius, calling him “The last of the Romans,” but prevented a public ceremony before the whole army so as not to lower his morale. Meanwhile, the fleet that Antony had asked Cleopatra to send him for supplies and the conquest of the port garrisoned by the enemies withdrew because of a heavy storm. This happened while in the harbor the fleet of Antony and Octavian was defeated by the enemies.

Some alternative sources believe that it was Brutus” hesitation that made a victory a defeat. In fact, his men did not pursue Octavian”s men, who had plenty of time to reorganize. Thus, in the era when Octavian would take the name Augustus, becoming the first emperor in Rome”s history, it was a somewhat common saying, “Finish the battle once you have begun it!”

Second Battle of Philippi

Brutus was not highly respected by his own soldiers, and they wanted battle immediately. Brutus, on the other hand, relied on the favorable position and the exhaustion of his enemies, who were left almost without resources and stricken by famine. Octavian and Antony, in favor of battle, ordered the soldiers to line up and hurl insults at Brutus” soldiers. Meanwhile, the latter sent a legion southward to seek supplies. Both Brutus and Antony and Octavian gave rewards (or promised them) to the soldiers: the former promised 1,000 denarii per legionnaire to keep the soldiers from attacking those who insulted them; the latter promised an additional 10,000 denarii per legionnaire and 25,000 per centurion to raise the morale of the exhausted soldiers. Despite all his efforts, Brutus” officers were tired of waiting: they feared, as did their general, that the men would be induced to desert by such a long wait.

Plutarch also informs us that nothing had been heard in the Caesaricidal camp about the sinking of the triumvirs” fleet. Therefore, when some of the allies and mercenaries began to leave the camp, Brutus decided to give battle. It was the afternoon of October 23. He found himself saying, “As Pompey the Great, not as a commander but as a commandant I am leading this war, for this reason we are going on the attack, the signal is: Apollo is with us and may he protect us in battle.” Brutus, unable to hold them back any longer, faced his enemies in battle. According to Appian, an ancient historian, Antony is said to have said, “Soldiers, we have flushed out the enemy, we have before us those whom we had tried to get out of their fortifications, let no one prefer starvation, this unbearable and painful evil, to the enemy and his defenses, which will be struck down by your courage, by your swords, by despair, our situation at this moment is so critical that nothing can be put off until tomorrow, but it is today itself that we must decide between absolute victory or an honorable death.” After they had deployed, one of Brutus” best officers surrendered, and he decided to start the fight. The battle was extremely hard-fought from the very beginning; the legionaries on both sides threw themselves into the attack with great impetus after raising the war cries, and the clash was characterized mainly by bitter and bloody close-range fighting. Both sides renounced the long-distance preparatory phase with arrow and javelin launches and immediately engaged in bloody hand-to-hand combat; gladiums were unsheathed and veteran legionnaires began mutual slaughter at the point of a knife. Losses were very high for both sides, which fought with great courage; the fallen were dragged away and new rows of legionaries entered the field and tightened the ranks, continuing the battle. Commanders and centurions roamed the field to incite the legionaries and put fresh reserve forces into the decisive sectors of the battlefront.

Antony, during the battle, after dividing his army into three parts: left wing, right wing and center, had his own right wing proceed to the right, so since the enemy”s left wing necessarily had to proceed to the left so that his own army would not be surrounded, the center of Brutus” array had to widen and weaken to occupy the space left by the displacement of his own left wing. However, a space was also created between Brutus” center and his left wing, which was exploited by the Roman horsemen who entered it by pushing the enemy center toward the Roman left while the enemy infantry pushed it forward. The center then made a 90-degree conversion such that it had a front facing Brutus” left wing. On the front of this division was Antony”s infantry, on the left flank the cavalry, and on the right flank the infantry, which at the same time dealt with the enemy”s right flank, which had been entrusted to it at the beginning of the battle and to which Brutus”s center had overlapped during the twist. This was the main part of Antony”s tactics in this battle. Finally, Brutus” attack was repulsed, his army routed. Octavian”s soldiers reached the gates of the enemy camp before he could close in. Brutus managed to retreat to the surrounding hills with the equivalent of only four legions. Seeing himself defeated, he committed suicide.

After the battle

Plutarch writes that Antony covered Brutus” body with a purple cloak as a sign of respect. They had, in fact, been friends, and Brutus had joined the conspiracy to kill Caesar only on the condition that Antony be left alive. Many other aristocrats lost their lives in the battle: among the greatest were the son of the orator Quintus Hortensius Hortalus and the son of Marcus Porcius Cato Uticense. Some nobles negotiated after the defeat with the victors, but none wanted to do so with the young Octavian. The survivors of the army of Brutus and Cassius were incorporated into that of the triumvirs. Antony remained at Philippi with some soldiers who later founded a colony there; Octavian returned to Rome with the task of finding land for the veterans.Some land in Cremona and Mantua (territories accused of favoring Brutus and Cassius) was expropriated and given to war veterans in lieu of money, due to a severe economic crisis, as a reward for services rendered to the state.One of these lands belonged to Virgil”s family, which will try in every way to regain ownership.

The passage from Plutarch in which Brutus is said to have received a vision of a ghost in a dream, according to some the specter of Caesar himself, is very famous. When the Caesaricide asks the shadow:

It responds to him:

Brutus replies, in turn:

He revisits the ghost on the eve of the Battle of Philippi. It is also one of the most famous scenes in Shakespeare”s Julius Caesar. Plutarch also reports Brutus” last words from an ancient Greek tragedy:

Suetonius adds that, at Philippi, a Thessalian predicted Octavian”s victory because the ghost of the divine Caesar had appeared to him on a lonely street.

Sources

  1. Battaglia di Filippi
  2. Battle of Philippi
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