Battles of Philippi



The first battle of Philippi.


Philippi, the modern Filippoi, was probably already several hundred years old when King Philip II of Macedon fortified the town in 356 b. c. to protect neighboring gold mines. The town lay about eight miles from the port of Neapolis, present-day Kavala, where Brutus and Cassius established their supply base in 43 b. c. The two renegade generals built separate camps for their legions two miles west of Philippi township, each on a hill about a mile apart. They had chosen their positions so they could straddle the Egnatian Way, the military highway from Thessalonika in the east to Durres on the Albanian coast in the west, with their positions partly protected by marshland. Once the camps were completed, they built fortifications from hill to hill that linked the two. And there they waited for the triumvirs and their armies.

In the midsummer of 42 b. c., Antony and Octavian sent an advance force of eight legions across the Adriatic from Italy. Led by Generals Lucius Decidius Saxa and Gaius Norbanus Flaccus, this force skirted around Philippi and occupied the passes east of Brutus and Cassius, cutting them off from reinforcement and overland supply by their supporters in the East. Now, in the last days of summer, Antony and young Octavian chanced their arms against their opponents’ powerful fleet of 240 warships, and, driven by strong winds, successfully brought a second convoy to Greece’s shores and landed a further 20 legions.

Octavian, who would turn twenty-one on September 23, was frequently unwell in his youth, and during the voyage to Greece he fell seriously ill. So, leaving the feverish young man at Epidamnus to recover, Antony took control of their joint forces, including the 10th Legion, and advanced into Macedonia to confront their enemies. Finding the town of Amphipolis occupied by friendly local forces, Antony left one legion there with his heavy baggage, then continued to advance toward Philippi.

In mid-September, Antony came marching up to Philippi, and, to the surprise of his opponents, built a camp on unfavorable ground on the dusty plain not far from their position. The ailing Octavian joined his army ten days later, arriving on a litter, too weak to walk. In the meantime, the two armies had begun facing off, lining up daily to confront each other across the plain. Each day, both sides formed up nineteen legions and twenty thousand cavalry in battle order. Many of the legions confronting each other on the plain at Philippi had until recently fought on the same side. For Antony and Octavian, legions including the 4th, 5th, 7th, and 10th faced legions such as the 27th, 28th, 36th, and 37th fighting for Brutus and Cassius.

Brutus and Cassius were reluctant to join battle, hoping instead that their opponents would run out of supplies, so they kept their troops on higher ground and refused to let them come down onto the plain. For ten days this went on, and all the while Antony had a detachment secretly building a path through the tall reeds of the marsh toward Cassius’s fortifications.

Once the path was complete, Antony sent a unit along it on a commando raid that seized several opposition outposts, to the surprise of Brutus and Cassius. To counter and outflank this pathway they started building a line of entrenchments. Then, one day in early October, close to noon, as their troops were on the verge of cutting off the commando force with their creeping trench line, Antony unexpectedly led his legions forward in a charge at the defenses below the hill occupied by Cassius’s camp. Antony not only surprised the opposition; he also surprised Octavian’s legions, which were lined up in battle order in front of their camp at the time. They stood and gaped as their comrades of Antony’s nine legions charged the enemy.

Like Caesar, Antony would have valued his Spanish legionaries above all others. Almost certainly, Antony followed Caesar’s practice and put the 10th Legion on his right wing this day. The unit charging forward on the extreme left of Antony’s line was the Spanish 4th Legion, which had been given back to him by Octavian after the formation of the Triumvirate. Some of the 4th Legion’s men were former Pompeian legionaries who’d signed on for a new enlistment under Caesar after the legion’s defeat at Thapsus. Most were new recruits raised in Spain since 45 b. c.

In giving the left to the 4th Legion, Antony was paying it a high compliment. The legions on an army’s extreme wings were always considered its best. Appian was to describe the 4th Legion as being of the highest quality at this time, ironically in tribute to the unit’s performance against Antony in the Modena battles the previous year.

Brutus was preparing for battle when the unexpected charge came on his right. He’d placed the legion he considered his best on his right wing-we don’t know its identity-under the command of General Marcus Valerius Corvinus Messalla. Surviving the battle and the war, Messalla would later write of this day’s events in his memoirs. Reconciled with Octavian after Philippi, Messalla served under him at Actium, after which he was made a consul. His memoirs, consulted by classical authors including Plutarch, have not come down to us. According to Plutarch, Messalla noted that when Antony’s charge came, Brutus was busy organizing his cavalry and supporting infantry, while at the same time his orderly sergeants were still going about their legions handing out the tesserae, small wax sheets containing Brutus’s hastily revised watchword for the day. Many of Brutus’s men went into action even before the new watchword reached them.

No one could say that Mark Antony was a coward-he’d proven his courage time and again in numerous battles. Equally, he was to show in numerous battles that he was an inept if not appalling tactician. He could be assessed as a poor general served by excellent lieutenants. Now, in leading this unexpected charge, he certainly grabbed the initiative and had the element of surprise on his side. But in taking his line forward against Cassius’s position he exposed his left wing to Brutus’s troops-the men of the 4th Legion had to run past Brutus’s battle line, inviting the opposition to swing in on their rear.

Brutus’s eager troops on his right wing couldn’t believe their luck. Anticipating General Messalla’s orders, his legion launched an attack on the 4th Legion before he or Brutus even gave the word. They drove in around the 4th, attacking it from the flank and rear and cutting down its men in droves. As more of Antony’s troops came up in support of the 4th, more of Brutus’s legions joined Messalla’s unit and increased the pressure on Antony’s left.

The men of the 4th, conscious of their reputation, put up a ferocious fight, but their wing was eventually overwhelmed by superior numbers. General Messalla’s legion and another fighting beside it excitedly swept on to Octavian’s troops as they stood in their lines watching the battle, outflanked them, and cut their way through legion formations and those of Greek auxiliaries. They reached the camp of Antony’s and Octavian’s army and overran it, killing everyone they found, and looted it.

Appian tells us that Octavian was to write in his memoirs-which were never published but kept in the imperial archives at Rome, where only those with permission to do so could consult them, and where they and all other official records were destined to be destroyed when Rome was sacked by invaders in later centuries-that the night before the battle he’d had a dream that had warned him not to stay in camp. So he had himself removed to a safer place earlier in the day. Plutarch says that it was a friend of Octavian’s, Marcus Artorius, who’d had the cautionary dream. Either way, the fact that Octavian took heed of this dream enabled him to escape the bloody fate of others caught in his camp.

In the meantime Antony, unaware of the disaster on his left, had broken through Cassius’s line on his right. Probably with the 10th Legion in the vanguard of his attack, Antony personally led the assault on Cassius’s camp, driving through three legions in his path and smashing down the camp gates. According to Plutarch, Antony himself now withdrew, leaving his troops to an orgy of destruction and pillage in the camp.

All around him, Cassius’s troops fled in terror. As his cavalry dispersed and galloped off toward the sea to the east, his infantry began to give way as well. Grabbing a standard from a fleeing standard-bearer, Cassius planted it in the ground, determined to become the focal point for a stand. But he had difficulty rallying even the men of his personal bodyguard and in the end was forced to mount up and withdraw up the hill behind his camp. Trying to observe the course of the battle from the hilltop with just a few remaining supporters, Cassius could see little because of a huge dust cloud roused by the feet of 160,000 combatants and 40,000 horses, in what was the largest battle of the era. All he could see with any clarity was Antony’s legions overrunning his camp below and killing everyone in it.

Cassius was no military novice. A little older than Brutus, he’d been quartermaster in Crassus’s army at the Carrhae debacle in 53 b. c., and had been primarily responsible for the fact that some ten thousand Roman troops had managed to survive that battle and escape back to Syria. He’d successfully commanded a fleet for Pompey in the early years of the last civil war. And over the past year he’d defeated two legions led by General Publius Dolabella on an abortive invasion of Syria on behalf of the triumvirs, then invaded and occupied the island of Rhodes in a series of sea and land battles. But now, for all his military experience, Cassius assumed the worst: Brutus was dead, his troops overrun, their mutual cause lost.

Seeing cavalry galloping toward his hill, he sent a staff officer named Titinius riding down to determine their identity. When Titinius reached the cavalry he found they were from Brutus’s forces. Recognizing him, the cavalrymen surrounded him, embracing him, and patting him on the back. But from his hilltop vantage point, it looked to Cassius as though his friend had been overwhelmed and made a prisoner.

Most classical historians agree that there are two accounts of what followed, and none is sure which to credit as the truth. One account has the desolate Cassius ordering his servant Pindarus to kill him with his sword, while the other version says that Pindarus murdered him. Either way, Cassius died there on the hilltop on the day of the battle, which, coincidentally, was also his birthday.

Brutus was neither dead nor defeated. The end result of the battle was something of a stalemate, with both armies losing camps but remaining reasonably intact. According to both Appian and Plutarch, the latter quoting General Messalla, Brutus’s army had the better of the encounter, leaving only eight thousand dead on the field, while Octavian and Antony lost sixteen thousand men. Among the dead were a great many legionaries of the 4th Legion. In Appian’s narrative of the battle, Brutus was to boast to his troops the next day that they had “completely destroyed the famed 4th Legion.” Not quite, but the badly mauled 4th probably played little part in further operations against Brutus. As to the 10th, its casualties are not mentioned.

If anything, Antony and Octavian can be said to have suffered a reverse in the First Battle of Philippi. Not only did they lose twice as many men as their opponents on the battlefield, but also, out on the Adriatic that day, another convoy sailing from Brindisi to bring them reinforcements- the Martia Legion and one other, plus cohorts of the Praetorian Guard-was intercepted by 130 opposition warships, which swarmed all over the heavily laden transports. Many troopships were sunk and thousands of legionaries and Praetorians died, some consumed by flames in burning vessels, others drowning in the Adriatic, others still dying of thirst in succeeding days as they clung to wreckage. Weeks later, a number of survivors were found on deserted islands.

Yet, the republican cause took a body blow with the death of the well-respected Cassius. The morale of the troops opposing the Triumvirate had to be affected, not to mention that of Brutus. And three weeks later, at three o’clock in the afternoon of October 23, Brutus, likening himself to Pompey at Farsala, was dragged unwillingly into a second Battle of Philippi near the location of the first by his officers, who included his close friend and Pompey’s dedicated follower General Marcus Favonius.

This time Brutus’s dispirited forces were routed by Antony and Octavian. At first Brutus led his left wing in a successful charge, but his right wing quickly gave way, allowing Antony’s and Octavian’s legions to swing around into Brutus’s rear and steamroll his troops from behind, much as Brutus had devastated the 4th Legion a few weeks earlier. Among the fatalities were Brutus’s deputy, General Antistius Labeo, and Flavius, his chief of engineers, both of whom died before his eyes, and his cousin Marcus Cato, son of Cato the Younger.

When Brutus’s surviving four legions refused to continue the fight, he was forced to flee with just a handful of supporters. Shortly after, he took the honorable way out. His head was sent to Rome for display on the Gemonian Stairs, the traditional fate of traitors. His chief surviving followers, including Favonius, were led off in chains to an uncertain fate. With the death of Julius Caesar’s “son” and chief assassin, hostilities came to an end.

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