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Against the Assassins

After the purge of Rome, Octavian and Antony travelled East to fight Brutus and Cassius. Since the their flight from Rome, Brutus and Cassius had been making preparations in case the dispute with Antony came to war. When it did, they gathered armies in the East. They initially used these to suppress any Antonians in the East and to secure the loyalty of the various allied kings in the region. Most fell into line, except Cleopatra. When Antony and Octavian began their long march to the East, they were in Syria. They crossed into Europe and the armies met at Philippi, in Thrace.

The accounts of the battle are detailed and  untrustworthy (Appian, Civil Wars 4.91-138; Dio, 47.37-49). They are elaborate in their literariness and contrived for a moral story. Antony is presented throughout as reckless and dangerous, taking undue risk with the lives of his men. Yet, Antony wins the decisive contests, drives Cassius and Brutus from a superior position, and thoroughly out-manoeuvres his enemies.

The accounts were written much later and illustrate a problem we have with Augustan history. We think of Appian (of Alexandria) as a primary source. But Appian was born in about AD 95 in Egypt. Our other main source, Cassius Dio was born in the later second century. These events were remote for them, as remote as, for instance, the Victorian era or pre-Bellum US is for us. How do they know about it and what do they know?

One assumes that there was no shortage of literature on the civil wars. They were momentous, dramatic moments of exactly the kind that attracted historians’ attention. It is these accounts, which we can only imagine, that shaped the traditions coming down to Appian and Dio.

Ancient historians write for many reasons. One might write to understand better politics. Another might be interested in how the Roman Empire grew. Some might have wanted to flatter contemporary rulers, by either praising them or their descendants. Others might want to critique those selfsame leaders. But many were interested in history as a moral tale. And for moral tales, one needs heroes and villains.

Brogi,_Carlo_(1850) Brutus_Roma_-_Museo_Capitolino

Brutus (Capitoline Museum) (Commons)

In these stories, Brutus and Cassius are noble and brave, failing because of errors and the reluctance of the troops to fight. Their suicides are tragic moments, dramatised and romanticised in our sources.  Both of them, but especially Brutus, become martyrs for the Republican cause. Our sources seem reluctant to see him as being in any way at fault for the defeat.

Antony, by contrast, is rash and impetuous. He acts as though filled with a mad daring. His aggression and willingness to sacrifice the lives of his soldiers are worrying. They also fit with the general portrayal of Antony, as we see in Plutarch’s Life of Antony, for example, emotional and unstable. This is the Antony who, supposedly, gives everything up for love (and Cleopatra), a romantic myth which is, well, not credible in so many ways, if a wonderful story. But if you want to focus your history on moral character and show people how noble Republican values and noble and good, in spite of the terrible result, then you need to make neat moral stories which portray the ‘baddies’ as consistently morally weak, even if they win.

Sometimes we are told that history is written by the winners, but in this instance, the seemingly worst general happened to win and the best general happened to lose. The moral lesson is that Brutus and Cassius were admirable in defeat while Antony was reprehensible in victory.

The winners rule. But losers sometimes write books.

At the time, the battle appears to have enhanced Antony’s military reputation. The defeated acknowledged his victory and generalship. Octavian appears to have behaved afterwards with notably brutality. Those members of the aristocracy who surrendered were condemned to death (Suetonius, Augustus 13). There was no sympathy or clemency.

The war ended after the second defeat of the assassins at Philippi. The first defeat was of Cassius. Brutus’ soldiers fought on as Antony and Octavian outflanked them and cut off their supplies from the sea. After the second defeat, the remainder of Brutus’ army was surrounded by Antony, too exhausted to even fortify their camp overnight. Brutus may have wanted to fight on. But the soldiers were unconvinced of the virtues of glorious suicidal defeat. Brutus killed himself. He became a second great martyr to the Republican cause after Cato.

The defeat of the assassins did not bring peace to the Roman world, but it did set the geo-political pattern for the next decade. The triumvirs faced significant problems:

  • Sextus Pompeius, son of Pompey the Great, was in Sicily and using his fleet to raid Italy and across the Western Mediterranean. He had control of the sea and the triumvirs were ill-equipped to oppose him.
  • All three of the triumvirs had huge armies. They needed rewarding as promised and settling on land. The triumvirs were short of land and money to meet their needs. Octavian was faced with the task of sorting the problem. The result was the Perusine War.
  • Brutus and Cassius had taken control over the East, with the exception of Egypt. Their defeat left the East in revolt. Further, Quintus Labienus, who had supported the
    Quintus Labienus Aureus BM

    Gold Coin of Quintus Labienus (British Museum)

    Pompeian cause and then the assassins, rallied resistance in the East with the aid of the Parthians. The Parthian invasion threatened Roman control over the whole of the East (see here for more coins). Antony was sent to deal with him, though he paused on his march East to renew his acquaintance with Cleopatra.

The assigning of duties and provinces left both Octavian and Antony with massive problems to solve. Antony took control over the East, most of which was beyond Roman control. Octavian looked after the North and West, but also had to bring some settlement to Italy. Lepidus was increasingly marginal.

It is tempting to draw lines between Octavian and Antony and think that already in 42 the seeds of the Actium conflict had been planted. But both parties were represented in Italy. They had their supporters and representatives in Italy and although Antony was mostly kept in the East by his campaigns against the Parthians, he was not a figure remote from Roman politics. The two men were able to work together, in spite of everything that divided them.

Acts of the Triumvirs                             Perusine War                     Sextus Pompeius: Pirate King

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