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The Battle of Philippi

Roman legionary standard. Reenactment group XXX Traiana Ulpia Traiana Victrix (Italy). Photo Jona Lendering. Battle of Philippi (42 BCE): decisive battle in the war between the assassins of Caesar and his avengers, the triumvirs, who won. As a consequence, Rome became a monarchy.


In October 42 BCE, two Roman armies approached each other near Philippi: Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar and defenders of the Roman republic, arrived from the southeast, and a bit later, the triumvirs Marc Antony and Octavian arrived from the west, wishing to avenge the murder of Caesar. The first army used Neapolis (modern Kavala) as its supply base, and had to cross mountains to get its food to the battlefield; the second army used Amphipolis, which was far away. Their clash was in the first place a struggle of the supply corpses.

Because Brutus and Cassius had occupied the best positions -two little hills west of Philippi- Marc Antony tried to circumvent Philippi by building a causeway through the wetlands to the south of the city. Had he succeeded, he would have cut off his enemies' line of communication. But Cassius discovered it and built a transverse dam. While his opponent was thus occupied, Marc Antony unexpectedly ordered his men to storm Cassius' camp. They were very successful, and Cassius, believing that all was lost, committed suicide before he had learned that Brutus had at the same time defeated the army of Octavian and had captured the camp of Marc Antony and Octavian. In other words, both sides had won a victory and suffered a defeat.

A second clash was decisive: a couple of days later, Marc Antony and Octavian were able to lure Brutus into a battle that he should not have accepted. In the end, the triumvirs were victorious. Eleven years later, Octavian defeated Marc Antony at Actium and became sole ruler of the Roman world, accepting the surname Augustus. This had been more than just a battle between rival factions: it was about the future of the republic.

The following pages offer the account of the battle by Appian of Alexandria (c.95-c.165), the author of a Roman History and one of the most underestimated of all Greek historians. His history of the Roman Civil Wars survives in its entirety. The fourth book, section 105-138, contains an excellent account of the double battle of Philippi. The translation was made by Horace White; notes and additions in green by Jona Lendering. A satellite photo of the town and its plain can be seen here.

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The first battle of Philipp. Design Jona Lendering.
The first battle of Philippi

Appian, Civil Wars, 4.105-138

[§105] Philippi is a city that was formerly called Datus, and before that Crenides ["wells"], because there are many springs bubbling around a hill there. [King] Philip [II of Macedonia] fortified it because he considered it an excellent stronghold against the Thracians, and named it from himself, Philippi. It is situated on a precipitous hill and its size is exactly that of the summit of the hill. There are woods on the north through which [their guide] Rhascupolis led the army of Brutus and Cassius. On the south is a marsh extending to the sea. On the east are the gorges of the Sapaeans and Corpileans, and on the west a very fertile and beautiful plain extending to the towns of Murcinus and Drabiscus and the river Strymon, about 65 kilometers. Here it is said that Persephone was carried off while gathering flowers, and here is the river Zygactes, in crossing which they say that the yoke of the god's chariot was broken, from which circumstance the river received its name. The plain slopes downward so that movement is easy to those descending from Philippi, but toilsome to those going up from Amphipolis.

The battlefield, seen from the Acropolis of Philippi. Photo Marco Prins.
The battlefield, seen from the Acropolis of Philippi.

There is another hill not far from Philippi which is called the Hill of Dionysus, in which are gold mines called the Asyla. Two kilometer farther are two other hills, at a distance of 3¼ kilometer from Philippi itself and 1½ kilometer from each other. On these hills Cassius and Brutus were encamped, the former on the southern and the latter on the northern of the two. They did not advance against the retreating army of [Marc Antony's deputy] Norbanus because they learned that Antony was approaching, Octavian having been left behind at Epidamnus on account of sickness. The plain was admirably suited for fighting and the hill-tops for camping, since on one side of them were marshes and ponds stretching as far as the river Strymon, and on the other gorges destitute of roads and impassable. Between these hills, 1½ kilometer apart, lay the main pass from Europe to Asia as between gates. Across this space they built a fortification from camp to camp, leaving a gate in the middle, so that the two camps became virtually one. Alongside this fortification flowed a river, which is called by some the Ganga and by others the Gangites, and behind it was the sea, where they could keep their supplies and shipping in safety. Their depot was on the island of Thasos, 20 kilometer distant, and their triremes were anchored at Neapolis, at a distance of 12½ kilometer.

Bust of Marc Antony. Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest (Hungary). Photo Jona Lendering.
Marc Antony (Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest)

[§107] Brutus and Cassius were satisfied with the position and proceeded to fortify their camps, but Antony moved his army rapidly, wishing to anticipate the enemy in occupying Amphipolis as an advantageous position for the battle. When he found it already fortified by Norbanus he was delighted. Leaving his supplies there and one legion, under the command of Pinarius, he advanced with the greatest boldness and encamped in the plain at a distance of only 1½ kilometer from the enemy, and straightway the superiority of the enemy's situation and the inferiority of his own became evident. The former were on elevated ground, the latter on the plain; the former procured fuel from the mountains, the latter from the marsh; the former obtained water from a river, the latter from wells freshly dug; the former drew their supplies from Thasos, requiring carriage of only a few kilometers, while the latter was 65 kilometers from Amphipolis. Still it seems that Antony was compelled to do as he did, for there was no other hill, and the rest of the plain, lying in a sort of hollow, was liable to inundation at times from the river; for which reason also the fountains of water were found fresh and abundant in the wells that were dug there. Antony's audacity, although he was driven to it by necessity, confounded the enemy when they saw him pitch his camp so near them and in such a contemptuous manner as soon as he arrived. He raised numerous towers and fortified himself on all sides with ditches, wall, and palisade. The enemy also completed their fortification wherever their work was defective. Cassius, observing that Antony's advance was reckless, extended his fortification at the only place where it was still wanting, from the camp to the marsh, a space which had been overlooked on account of its narrowness, so that there was now nothing unfortified except the cliffs on Brutus' flank and the marsh on that of Cassius and the sea lying against the marsh. In the center everything was intercepted by ditch, palisade, wall, and gates.

Bust of Augustus as high priest. Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida (Spain). Photo Marco Prins.
Bust of Octavian/Augustus as high priest. Museo Nacional de Arte Romano, Mérida.

[§108] In this way both sides had fortified themselves, in the meantime making trial of each other by cavalry skirmishes only. When they had done all that they intended and Octavian had arrived (for, although he was not yet strong enough for a battle, he could be carried along the ranks reclining in a litter), he and Antony prepared for battle forthwith. Brutus and Cassius also drew out their forces on their higher ground, but did not come down. They decided not to give battle, hoping to wear out the enemy by want of supplies.

There were nineteen legions of infantry on each side, but those of Brutus and Cassius lacked something of being full, while those of Octavian and Antony were complete. Of cavalry the latter had 13,000 and the former 20,000, including Thracians on both sides. Thus in the multitude of men, in the spirit and bravery of the commanders, and in arms and munitions, was beheld a most magnificent display on both sides; yet they did nothing for several days.

Brutus and Cassius did not wish to engage, but rather to continue wasting the enemy by lack of provisions, since they themselves had abundance from Asia, all transported by the sea from close at hand, all the enemy had nothing in abundance and nothing from their own territory. They could obtain nothing through merchants in Egypt, since that country was exhausted by famine, nor from Spain or Africa by reason of [Sextus] Pompeius, nor from Italy by reason of Murcus and Domitius. Macedonia and Thessaly, which were the only countries then supplying them, wouldn't suffice much longer.

Gold piece showing the portrait of Brutus.
Brutus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

Mindful chiefly of these facts Brutus and his generals protracted the war. Antony, fearful of the delay, resolved to force them to an engagement. He formed a plan of effecting a passage through the marsh secretly, if possible, in order to get in the enemy's rear without their knowledge, and cut off their avenue of supply from Thasos. So he arrayed his forces for battle with all the standards set each day, so that it might seem that his entire army was drawn up, while a part of his force was really working night and day making a narrow passage in the marsh, cutting down reeds, throwing up a causeway upon them, and flanking it with stone, so that the earth should not fall away, and bridging the deeper parts with piles, all in the profoundest silence. The reeds, which were still growing around his passage-way, prevented the enemy from seeing his work.

After working ten days in this manner he sent a column of troops by night suddenly, who occupied all the strong positions within his lines and built several redoubts at the same time. Cassius was amazed at the ingenuity as well as the secrecy of this work, and he formed the counter design of cutting Antony off from his redoubts. He carried a transverse wall across the whole marsh from his camp to the sea, cutting and bridging in the same manner as Antony had done, and setting up the palisade on the top of his mounds, thus intercepting the passage made by Antony, so that those inside could not escape to him, nor he render assistance to them.

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