OCTOBER 18, 44 B.C.


In the port city of Brundisium, Mark Antony stood on a tribunal overlooking his assembled troops. Before him spread the neat formations of four legions. On arrival in Brundisium, Antony had learned that there was much criticism of him in the ranks “for failing to follow up the murder of Caesar.” When he mounted the steps to the tribunal, it was without the usual accompaniment of applause that Roman generals expected from their legionaries at the commencement of such assemblies.¹

Now, “angry at their silence,” Antony looked around the thousands of stern faces. He then proceeded to give the troops a tongue-lashing, accusing them of not being grateful for transferring them away from a war with the Parthians. He also had heard that agents from Octavian had been mixing in the ranks while these legions had been encamped at Brundisium, trying to undermine their loyalty to Antony, and he berated his legionaries for failing to arrest such men. He would discover these agents himself, he declared.²

Antony then announced that he would lead his legions to the rich province of Cisalpine Gaul, and to each man present he would pay four hundred sesterces. This generated laughter from the ranks, for Octavian’s agents had promised Antony’s men five times as much. This reaction only made Antony angrier. But individual men began to answer him back. Some, disgusted by his “meanness,” simply walked away, leaving the assembly.³

“You will learn to obey orders!” Antony stormed. He summoned the six military tribunes of each of the four legions and instructed them to give him lists of the names of the troublemakers in their units. The officers, with some reluctance, consulted the records of each unit, and provided the list required by Antony. Antony then had the legions reassemble, and ordered the named men to draw lots. One in ten drew a short straw, and was arrested.

In the Roman military, legionaries could be disciplined by having one in ten of their number executed; this was called “decimation.” Julius Caesar had decimated several of his best legions when they became mutinous during the Civil War, notably after those units had refused to obey Antony’s orders on one occasion. Antony now chose a percentage of the one in ten named troublemakers, and put them to death for their disobedience. The condemned men, who included centurions, were executed in front of Antony and his wife. Traditionally, legionaries condemned to decimation were bludgeoned to death by their own comrades—the nine in ten who had escaped capital punishment. Antony’s intention was to bring the remainder of his troops back into line, but this decimation only resulted in making many of his surviving legionaries more resentful.

Ignoring the simmering discontent in some units, Antony selected one thousand soldiers from all four legions, men “who had the best physique and character,” and formed them into a single new Praetorian cohort. This Praetorian unit, which was to become known as the Brundisium Cohort—because of where it was formed—would loyally serve as Antony’s bodyguard for the rest of his career. As for the Praetorians whom Antony had led while in Rome, most appear to have now accompanied his brother Gaius on his mission to Macedonia.

Antony called another assembly. From the tribunal, he declared to his troops that he had been forced to execute a few of their number for the sake of military discipline, but could have punished many more had he chosen to do so. “You know quite well that I am neither mean nor cruel. Let us forget our ill will.” But he did not increase the amount of the bounty he offered them in an attempt to match Octavian. That would have seemed as though he was giving in to the complaints of his men.

He then ordered them to prepare for a campaign north of the Po River, in Cisalpine Gaul. At the same time, he dismissed the six military tribunes of each legion, apparently considering them untrustworthy, and appointed replacements from among young gentlemen of Equestrian rank who supported him. The four legions received their new officers and begrudgingly accepted Antony’s four-hundred-sesterce bounty as they prepared their equipment and gathered provisions for a march up into Cisalpine Gaul. They all knew that Antony was going on the offensive against Decimus Brutus Albinus, to forcibly wrest Cisalpine Gaul from his control.

In Cisalpine Gaul, once Albinus learned that four legions had landed at Brundisium from Macedonia on Antony’s orders, he quickly put two and two together and realized that Antony was serious about challenging him for control of his province. Without seeking or receiving Senate approval to do so, as he was required to do by law, Albinus promptly instructed his deputies to draft six thousand military recruits in Cisalpine Gaul and form them into a new legion, to bring his army up to a total of four legions to match Antony’s force.

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