In October 42 BC, one of the largest and most important set of battles in Roman history occurred near the town of Philippi in what is now northern Greece. The fate of these two clashes would decide the future direction of Rome – a vital moment during this ancient civilisation’s transition to one man, imperial rule.
It had only been two years earlier that one of the most recognisable events in Classical history had occurred, when Julius Caesar was assassinated on 15 March 44 BC. ‘The Ides of March’. Many of these assassins had been young Republicans, influenced by the likes of Cato the Younger and Pompey to kill Caesar and restore the Republic.
The two most prominent assassins were Marcus Junius Brutus (Brutus) and Gaius Cassius Longinus (Cassius). Brutus was temperamentally mild and philosophical. Cassius meanwhile was a stellar military figure. He had distinguished himself both during Crassus’ disastrous eastern campaign against the Parthians and during the ensuing civil war between Pompey and Caesar.
Cassius, Brutus and the rest of the conspirators succeeded in assassinating Caesar, but their plan for what would happen next seems to have lacked attention.
Perhaps contrary to expectations, the Republic did not just spontaneously re-emerge with Caesar’s death. Instead, tense negotiations erupted between Caesar’s assassins and those loyal to Caesar’s legacy – notably Caesar’s adjutant Marc Antony. But these negotiations, and the fragile peace they allowed, soon came crashing down with the arrival in Rome of Caesar’s adopted son Octavian.
Unable to stay in Rome, Brutus and Cassius fled to the eastern half of the Roman Empire, intent on gathering men and money. From Syria to Greece, they started cementing their control and rallied legions to their cause of restoring the Republic.
Meanwhile in Rome, Marc Antony and Octavian had cemented their control. A last attempt to co-ordinate the destruction of Marc Antony by the Republican hero Cicero had failed, with Cicero losing his life as a consequence. In its wake Octavian, Marc Antony and Marcus Lepidus, another leading Roman statesman, formed a triumvirate. They were intent on retaining power and avenging Caesar’s assassination.
A clear line in the sand had now been drawn between the triumvirate forces in the west and the forces of Brutus and Cassius in the east. With Cicero’s death, Brutus and Cassius were the central cheerleaders for restoring the Republic. Civil war erupted, with the campaign reaching its climax in late 42 BC.
The Battle(s) of Philippi
And so in October 42 BC the forces of Octavian and Marc Antony came face to face with those of Brutus and Cassius near the town of Philippi in northern Greece. The numbers present at this battle are astonishing. Some 200,000 soldiers in total were present.
The triumvirate forces of Marc Antony and Octavian slightly outnumbered their foe’s, but what Brutus and Cassius did have was a very strong position. Not only did they have access to the sea (reinforcements and supplies), but their forces were also well-fortified and well-supplied. The military man Cassius had prepared well.
In contrast the triumvirate forces were in a less than ideal situation. The men expected rich rewards for following Octavian and Marc Antony to Greece and logistically, their situation was far worse than that of Brutus and Cassius. What the triumvirate forces did have, however, was an exceptional commander in Marc Antony.
The first battle
True to his nature Antony made the first move. Both sides had extended their forces into very long lines opposing each other. To the right of Antony’s line was a swamp, situated behind a group of reeds. Antony planned to outflank the forces of Cassius opposing him by having his men covertly construct a causeway through this marsh, in doing so cutting off Cassius and Brutus’ supply route to the sea.
Antony’s men started constructing this perpendicular line through the swamp, but the engineering feat was soon discovered by Cassius. To counter he ordered his own men to start building a wall out into the marsh, intent on cutting off the causeway before it extended past his line.
His move countered, on 3 October Antony seized the initiative and launched a surprising and bold offensive at the centre of Cassius’ line. It worked.
With many of Cassius’ soldiers away in the marsh constructing the wall, Cassius’ forces were not ready for Marc Antony’s unexpected assault. The attackers bulldozed their way through Cassius’ line and reached the latter’s camp. At this part of the battle Marc Antony had defeated Cassius.
But this was not the whole story. North of the forces of Antony and Cassius were those of Octavian and Brutus. Seeing Marc Antony’s forces succeed against Cassius’, Brutus’ legions launched their own offensive against Octavian’s opposing them. Once again the attacking initiative was rewarded and Brutus’ soldiers routed Octavian’s, storming the latter’s camp.
With Marc Antony victorious over Cassius, but Brutus victorious over Octavian, the First Battle of Philippi had proven a stalemate. But the worst event of the day occurred right at the end of the battle. Cassius, wrongly believing that all hope was lost, committed suicide. He had not realised that Brutus had been victorious further north.
An interlude of roughly 3 weeks followed, weeks that proved devastating for the dithering Brutus. Unwilling to take the initiative, slowly Brutus’ troops became more and more frustrated. Antony and Octavian’s forces meanwhile became more confident, completing the causeway through the marsh and taunting their opponents. It was when one of his seasoned veterans publicly defected to the side of Antony that Brutus opted to launch the second engagement.
The second battle: 23 October 42 BC
At first events went well for Brutus. His men managed to outflank the forces of Octavian and started to make progress. But in the process Brutus’ centre, already overstretched, became exposed. Antony pounced, sending his men at Brutus’ centre and breaking through. From there Antony’s forces began to envelop the remaining forces of Brutus and a massacre ensued.
For Brutus and his allies this second battle was a total defeat. Many of those aristocratic figures, keen to restore the Republic, either perished in the fighting or committed suicide in the immediate aftermath. It was a similar story for the pensive Brutus, committing suicide before the end of 23 October 42 BC.
The Battle of Philippi marked a critical moment in the demise of the Roman Republic. This, in many ways, was where the Republic breathed its last and could not be resurrected. With the suicides of Cassius and Brutus, but also the deaths of many other notable figures desperate to restore the Republic, the idea of restoring Rome to the constitution of old withered away. 23 October 42 BC was when the Republic died.