THE BATTLES OF PHILIPPI
By the spring of 42 B.C., Cassius had joined his army with that of Brutus in Macedonia. With twenty legions they encamped at Philippi, today’s Filippoi, stretching entrenchments between their hilltop camps, which straddled the Agnatian Way, and all the way to their supply base of Neapolis, modern Kavala, eight miles away on the coast.
In the summer, Antony and Octavian landed in Greece with their army. With Octavian ill, Antony advanced into Macedonia with nineteen legions, and in mid-September built two camps facing the Liberators’ Philippi positions. Octavian, too weak to walk, arrived ten days later, in time for his twentieth birthday. Antony built entrenchments toward the Liberators’ lines. Then, one day at the beginning of October, with the armies of both sides lined up on the plain in battle order, Antony led nine legions in an unexpected assault on the defenses below Cassius’s camp.
The 4th Legion, which had fought against Antony at Mutina, now fought for him, on his left wing. It was soon overwhelmed by Brutus’s right wing. Two of Brutus’s legions broke through and took Octavian’s camp. Octavian escaped with his life, having just previously left the camp. Antony, meanwhile, led a breakthrough on his right wing that took Cassius’s camp, forcing Cassius to flee to a hilltop. From the hill, Cassius could see nothing of the hectic battle below because it was obscured by a huge dust cloud raised by the feet of the 250,000 infantry and cavalry involved in the largest battle to that time between Roman armies. Seeing his camp taken, Cassius thought the battle lost. At Cassius’s command, his armor bearer Pindarus killed him.
In fact, the battle ended in a stalemate. Once the dust had literally cleared, Antony had taken Cassius’s camp and Brutus had Octavian’s camp. The Triumvirs had lost 16,000 men; the Liberators, 8,000. That same day, a convoy bringing 2,000 Praetorians and 2 legions, including the Martia, to Greece as reinforcements for the Triumvirs was intercepted on the Adriatic by Statius Murcus with 130 Liberator warships and was almost entirely destroyed. Of the two sides, that of the Liberators had fared the better on both land and sea. But Cassius was by far the better of the republican generals, and his loss was sorely felt by Brutus and his subordinates.
For close to three weeks both sides now faced off, with Brutus prepared to wait it out until the Triumvirs’ growing supply problems weakened them. But his officers urged him to attack, warning him that his confident troops might mutiny if he did not lead them against the enemy. Brutus gave in to his officers, and on October 21 led his legions out to do battle a second time. Octavian and Antony accepted the challenge and also drew up their legions.
Both sides charged simultaneously. The troops on Octavian’s wing eventually drove the opposing line back until it gave way. While Octavian’s troops surrounded Brutus’s camp, Antony chased Brutus and several legions to the mountains. There, Brutus and fourteen thousand surviving Liberator troops were surrounded.
After Brutus’s legionaries refused to execute his plan for a breakout, calling instead for surrender terms from Antony, Brutus said to his friends, “I am no use to my country any longer if this is the attitude even these men take.” He ordered Strato of Epirus to kill him, and as Brutus looked the other way, Strato reluctantly plunged a sword into Brutus’s side, near the left nipple, piercing his heart.¹
So died the leader of the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar. He and Cassius were men of “unchallenged virtue,” according to Appian,² although Plutarch did not believe Cassius to be Brutus’s equal “in proved virtue and honor.”³ In the summation of Velleius, “Cassius was the much better general, as Brutus was the better man. Of the two, I would rather have Brutus as a friend, but would stand more in fear of Cassius as an enemy.” Brutus, he said, had “kept his soul free from corruption until this day”—the Ides of March—when “the rashness of a single act” robbed him of his virtue.⁴ Mark Antony had Brutus’s body reverently cremated and his remains sent to his mother, Servilia.
A number of Caesar’s assassins fought at Philippi alongside Brutus and Cassius. Labeo also committed suicide following the defeat, as did Quintillius Varus, father of the general of the same name who would famously lose three legions to the Germans in the Teutoburg Forest in A.D. 9. Other assassins, and leading supporters of the Liberators including Marcus Favonius, were taken prisoner. Most were immediately executed by Antony and Octavian, among them Quintus Hortensius; months before, after hearing of Cicero’s decapitation, Hortensius had executed Antony’s brother Gaius in reprisal.
Some Liberator supporters escaped and survived, including Cicero’s son Marcus, who, years later, was made a consul by Augustus. Of the men who had physically taken part in the assassination of Caesar, the last to die was another Cassius, Gaius CassiusParmensis.⁵
In the summer of 43 B.C., not long after Brutus fled Italy, his unhappy wife, Porcia, unable to bear separation from the husband she loved, had painfully committed suicide at Rome by swallowing hot coals. Junia Tertullia, Brutus’s sister and Cassius’s wife, lived at Rome for many more years, passing away in her eighties or nineties in A.D. 22. The emperor Tiberius permitted a funeral oration for her in the Forum and other honors, including a funeral procession in which the busts of twenty illustrious Romans were carried before the dead woman. But the busts of her famous husband and brother were banned. And for this very reason, said Tacitus, that day “Cassius and Brutus outshone them all, from the very fact that their likenesses were not to be seen.”⁶
The end of the Liberators spelled the end of the Republic. Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus jointly ruled the Roman Empire until 36 B.C., when Lepidus made a miscalculated grab for power. The legions deserted Lepidus, and Octavian exiled him to a remote Italian village for the rest of his days, permitting him to retain his post of pontiff maximus until he died in 13 or 12 B.C.
Octavian and Antony fell out several years later, after Antony allied himself with Cleopatra and deserted Octavian’s sister Octavia, whom he had married to cement their alliance. They went to war in 31 B.C., with Octavian emerging victorious at the Battle of Actium. After Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide in 30 B.C., Octavian ruled as Rome’s first emperor for the next forty-three years. Like Caesar, Octavian would be offered many honors by a compliant Senate after he became sole ruler, but unlike Caesar he wisely declined most of them. Most notably, he accepted the title of Augustus, or “revered,” rather than that of “king”; took the veto powers of the tribunes of the plebs for himself; and asserted the right to personally appoint all consuls.
Octavian’s rule and the end to hopes of restoring the Republic were inevitable. Julius Caesar had been grooming Octavian to be his successor, and it is not unlikely that had Caesar not been murdered in 44 B.C., Octavian would still have succeeded him, only some years later.