Battle of Philippi

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Battle of Philippi
Part of Roman civil wars (Liberators' civil war)
Philippi location.jpg
Philippi Location
Date October 3 and 23, 42 BC
Location Philippi, Macedonia (modern Greece)
Result Decisive victory for the Triumvirs
Territorial
changes
Eastern provinces of Roman Republic
Belligerents
Triumvirs, by Lex Titia de jure administering the Roman Republic Liberators, controlling the East
Supported by Egypt and the Parthian Empire
Commanders and leaders
Mark Antony
Octavian
Marcus Junius Brutus 
Gaius Cassius Longinus 
Strength
19 legions, allied cavalry 33,000; total over 100,000 men, up to 223,000 troops if auxiliary numbers matched legionary numbers 17 legions, allied cavalry 17,000; total about 100,000 men, up to 187,000 troops if auxiliary numbers matched legionary numbers
Casualties and losses
? Surrender of entire army

The Battle of Philippi was the final battle in the Wars of the Second Triumvirate between the forces of Mark Antony and Octavian (of the Second Triumvirate) and the forces of Julius Caesar's assassins Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus in 42 BC, at Philippi in Macedonia. The Second Triumvirate declared this civil war to avenge Julius Caesar's murder.

The battle consisted of two engagements in the plain west of the ancient city of Philippi. The first occurred on the first week of October; Brutus faced Octavian, while Antony's forces were up against those of Cassius. At first, Brutus pushed back Octavian and entered his legions' camp. But to the south, Cassius was defeated by Antony, and committed suicide after hearing a false report that Brutus had also failed. Brutus rallied Cassius' remaining troops and both sides ordered their army to retreat to their camps with their spoils, and the battle was essentially a draw, but for Cassius' suicide. A second encounter, on 23 October, finished off Brutus's forces, and he committed suicide in turn, leaving the triumvirate in control of the Roman Republic.

Prelude[edit]

After the murder of Caesar, Brutus and Cassius (the two main conspirators, also known as the Liberatores and leaders of the Republicans) had left Italy and taken control of all Eastern provinces (from Greece to Syria) and of the allied Eastern kingdoms. In Rome the three main Caesarian leaders (Antony, Octavian and Lepidus), who controlled almost all the Roman army in the west, had crushed the opposition of the senate and established the second triumvirate. One of their first tasks was to destroy the Liberators’ forces, not only to get full control of the Roman world, but also to avenge Caesar’s death.

The triumvirs decided that Lepidus would remain in Italy, while the two main partners of the triumvirate (Antony and Octavian) moved to Northern Greece with their best troops (a total of 28 legions). They were able to ferry their army across the Adriatic and sent out a scouting force of eight legions (commanded by Norbanus and Saxa) along the via Egnatia, with the aim of searching for the Liberators' army. Norbanus and Saxa passed the town of Philippi in eastern Macedonia and took a strong defensive position at a narrow mountain pass. Antony was following, while Octavian was delayed at Dyrrachium because of his ill-health (which would accompany him throughout the Philippi campaign). Although the triumvirs had been able to cross the sea with their main force, further communications with Italy were made difficult by the arrival of the Republican admiral Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, with a large fleet of 130 ships.

The Liberators did not wish to engage in a decisive battle, but rather to attain a good defensive position and then use their naval superiority to block the triumvirs’ communications with their supply base in Italy. They had spent the previous months plundering Greek cities to swell their war-chest and had gathered in Thrace with the Roman legions from the Eastern provinces and levies from allies. With their superior forces they were able to outflank Norbanus and Saxa, who had to abandon their defensive position and retreat west of Philippi. Thus, Brutus and Cassius could position holding the high ground along both sides of the via Egnatia, about 3.5 km west of the city of Philippi. The south position was anchored to a supposedly impassable marsh, while on the north to impervious hills. They had plenty of time to fortify their position with a rampart and a ditch. Brutus put his camp on the north while Cassius on the south of the via Egnatia. Antony arrived shortly and positioned his army on the south of the via Egnatia, while Octavian put his legions north of the road.

Opposing forces[edit]

The Triumvirs' army included nineteen legions (other legions had been left behind). The sources report specifically the name of only one legion (IV legion), but other legions present included the VI, VII, VIII, X Equestris, XII, III, XXVI, XXVIII, XXIX, and XXX, since their veterans participated in the land settlements after the battle. Appian reports that the triumvirs’ legions were almost at full complement. Furthermore, they had a large allied cavalry force (13,000 horsemen with Octavian and 20,000 with Antony).

The Liberators' army had seventeen legions (eight with Brutus and nine with Cassius, while two other legions were with the fleet). Only two of the legions were at full strength, but the army was reinforced by levies from the Eastern allied kingdoms. Appian reports that the army mustered a total of about 80,000 foot-soldiers. Allied cavalry included a total of 17,000 horsemen, including 5,000 bowmen mounted in the Eastern fashion. This army included the old Caesarean legions present in the East (probably with XXVII, XXXVI, XXXVII, XXXI and XXXIII legions); thus most of these legionaries were former Caesarean veterans. However, at least the XXXVI legion consisted of old Pompeian veterans, enrolled in Caesar's army after the Battle of Pharsalus. The loyalty of the soldiers who were supposed to fight against Caesar’s heir was a delicate issue for the Liberators. (It is important to emphasize that the name "Octavian" was never used by contemporaries: he was simply known as Gaius Iulius Caesar). Cassius tried in all ways to reinforce the soldiers’ loyalty both with strong speeches ("Let it give no one any concern that he has been one of Caesar's soldiers. We were not his soldiers then, but our country's") and with a gift of 1,500 denarii for each legionary and 7,500 for each centurion.

Although ancient sources do not report the total numbers of men of the two armies, it seems that they had a similar strength. Modern historians put the total at about 100,000 legionaries on each side.

The First Battle of Philippi[edit]

Antony offered battle several times, but the Liberators were not lured to leave their defensive stand. Thus, Antony tried to secretly outflank the Liberators' position through the marshes in the south. With great effort he was able to cut a passage through the marshes, throwing up a causeway upon them. This manoeuvre was finally noticed by Cassius who tried a countermove by moving part of his army south into the marshes and making a transverse dam, trying to cut off Antony’s outstretched right wing. This brought about a general battle on October 3, 42 BC.

First Battle of Philippi

Antony ordered a charge against Cassius, aiming at the fortifications between Cassius's camp and the marshes. At the same time, Brutus's soldiers, provoked by the triumvir’s army, rushed against Octavian’s army, without waiting for the order of attack (given with the watchword "Liberty"). This surprise assault had complete success: Octavian’s troops were put to flight and pursued up to their camp, which was captured by Brutus’s men, led by Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus. Three of Octavian’s legionary standards were also taken, a clear sign of disbandment. Octavian was not found in his tent: his couch was pierced and cut to pieces. Most ancient historians say that he had been warned in a dream to beware of that day, as he had himself written in his memoirs. Pliny bluntly reports that Octavian went hiding into a marsh.

However, on the other side of the via Egnatia, Antony was able to storm Cassius’ fortifications, demolishing the palisade and filling up the ditch. Then he easily took Cassius’s camp, which was defended by only a few men. It seems that part of Cassius’s army had advanced south: when these men tried to come back they were easily repulsed by Antony. Apparently the battle had ended in a draw. Cassius had lost 9,000 men, while Octavian had about 18,000 casualties. However, the battlefield was very large and clouds of dust made it impossible to make a clear assessment of the outcome of the battle, so both parts were ignorant of each other's fate. Cassius moved to the top of a hill, but could not see well what was happening on Brutus’s side. Believing that he had suffered a crushing defeat he ordered his freedman Pindarus to kill him. Brutus mourned over Cassius’s body, calling him "the last of the Romans". However, he avoided a public funeral, fearing its negative effects on the army morale.

Alternative sources credit the avarice of Brutus' troops as the factor that undid their definitive victory on October 3. Premature looting and gathering of treasure by Brutus's advancing forces allowed Octavian's troops to re-form their line. In Octavian's future reign as Emperor, a common battle cry became, "Complete the battle once begun!"

The Second Battle[edit]

On the same day as the first battle of Philippi, the Republican fleet was able to intercept and destroy the triumvirs' reinforcements (two legions and other troops and supplies led by Gnaeus Domitius Calvinus). Thus, the strategic position of Antony and Octavian became quite serious, since the already depleted regions of Macedonia and Thessaly were unable to supply their army for long, while Brutus could easily receive supplies from the sea. The triumvirs had to send a legion south to Achaia to collect more supplies. The morale of the troops was boosted by the promise of further 5,000 denarii for each soldier and 25,000 for each centurion.

On the other side, however, the Liberators’ army was left without its best strategic mind. Brutus had less military experience than Cassius and, even worse, he could not obtain the same sort of respect from his allies and his soldiers, although after the battle he offered another gift of 1,000 denarii for each soldier.

In the next three weeks, Antony was able to slowly advance his forces south of Brutus’s army, fortifying a hill close to Cassius’s former camp, which had been left unguarded by Brutus.

Second Battle of Philippi

To avoid being outflanked Brutus was compelled to extend his line to the south, parallel to the via Egnatia, building several fortified posts. Brutus's defensive position was still secure, holding the high ground with a safe line of communication with the sea. He still wanted to keep the original plan of avoiding an open engagement while waiting for his naval superiority to wear out the enemy. Unfortunately, most of his officers and soldiers were tired of the delaying tactics and demanded another attempt at an open battle. Probably both Brutus and his officers feared the risk of having their soldiers deserting to the enemy if they did not keep their ascendancy on the troops. Plutarch also reports that Brutus had not received news of Domitius Calvinus' defeat in the Ionian Sea. Thus, when some of the eastern allies and mercenaries started deserting, Brutus was forced to attack on the afternoon of October 23. As he said "I seem to carry on war like Pompey the Great, not so much commanding now as commanded."

The battle resulted in close combat between two armies of well-trained veterans. Arrows or javelins were largely ignored; instead, the soldiers packed into solid ranks and fought face-to-face with their swords, and the slaughter was terrible. In the end, Brutus’s attack was repulsed, and his soldiers routed in confusion, their ranks broken. Octavian's soldiers were able to capture the gates of Brutus’s camp before the routing army could reach this defensive position. Thus, Brutus’s army could not reform, which made the triumvirs’ victory complete. Brutus was able to retreat into the nearby hills with the equivalent of only 4 legions. Seeing that surrender and capture were inevitable, Brutus committed suicide.

The total casualties for the second battle of Philippi were not reported, but the close quarters fighting likely resulted in heavy losses for both sides.

Aftermath[edit]

Plutarch reports that Antony covered Brutus's body with a purple garment as a sign of respect. Although they had not been close friends, he remembered that Brutus had stipulated, as a condition for his joining the plot to assassinate Caesar, that the life of Antony be spared.

Many other young Roman aristocrats lost their lives in the battle or committed suicide after the defeat, including the son of great orator Hortensius, and Marcus Porcius Cato (the son of Cato the Younger), and Marcus Livius Drusus Claudianus (the father of Livia, who became Octavian’s wife). Some of the nobles who were able to escape negotiated their surrender to Antony and entered his service (among them Lucius Calpurnius Bibulus and Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus). Apparently, the nobles did not want to deal with the young and merciless Octavian.

The remains of the Liberators’ army were rounded up and roughly 14,000 men were enrolled into the triumvirs' army. Old veterans were discharged back to Italy, but some of the veterans remained in the town of Philippi, which became a Roman colony (Colonia Victrix Philippensium).

Antony remained in the East, while Octavian returned to Italy, with the difficult task of finding sufficient land on which to settle a large number of veterans. Despite the fact that Sextus Pompeius was controlling Sicily and Domitius Ahenobarbus still commanded the republican fleet, the republican resistance had been definitively crushed at Philippi.

The Battle of Philippi marked the highest point of Antony's career: at that time he was the most famous Roman general and the senior partner of the Second Triumvirate.

Quotes[edit]

Plutarch famously reported that Brutus experienced a vision of a ghost a few months before the battle. One night he saw a huge and shadowy form appearing in front of him; when he calmly asked, "What and whence art thou?" it answered "Thy evil spirit, Brutus: I shall see thee at Philippi." He again met the ghost the night before the battle. This episode is one of the most famous in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar.

Plutarch also reports the last words of Brutus, quoted by a Greek tragedy "O wretched Virtue, thou wert but a name, and yet I worshipped thee as real indeed; but now, it seems, thou were but fortune's slave."

Augustus’s own version of the Battle of Philippi: "I sent into exile the murderers of my father, punishing their crimes with regular tribunals, afterwards, when they made war to the Republic I twice defeated them in battle". Qui parentem meum [interfecer]un[t eo]s in exilium expuli iudiciis legitimis ultus eorum [fa]cin[us, e]t postea bellum inferentis rei publicae vici b[is a]cie. Res Gestae 2.

Popular culture[edit]

The battle figures in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (background of the story in Acts 4 and 5), in which there is only one battle, though the information is mostly accurate.

A fictionalised account of the battle is depicted in the sixth episode of the second season of the HBO television series Rome (there is but a single battle and both Cassius and Brutus fall in battle instead of being suicides, though Brutus' death is a lone, suicidal attack on the triumvirs' advancing forces).

P. G. Wodehouse makes at least five references in his novels to Meeting at Philippi in Mike, "Thank You Jeeves", "Uncle Fred In The Springtime", A Damsel in Distress and the Inimitable Jeeves

References[edit]

  • Thomas Harbottle, Dictionary of Battles New York 1906
  • Ronald Syme. The Roman revolution. Oxford 1939
  • Lawrence Keppie. The making of the Roman army. New York 1984

Primary sources[edit]

External links[edit]