Brutus Commits Suicide

Brutus Commits Suicide

On 23 October 42 BCE, on a plain to the west of the ancient Macedonian city of Philippi, the Second Battle of Philippi took place. It was the decisive battle in The War of the Second Triumvirate, and resulted in defeat for Brutus and Cassius, and triumph for Mark Antony and Octavian.

The roots of the conflict lay in the dramatic murder of Julius Caesar in 40 BCE. Brutus and Cassius, known as the Liberators, were two of the chief conspirators against Caesar. Following the assassination, they fled Rome and headed east where they wrested control of the eastern empire.

In Rome, Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus formed a triumvirate that was determined to avenge the death of Caesar, and at the same time unite the east and west wings of the empire. With Lepidus remaining in Rome, Mark Antony and Octavian marched east, each in charge of a vast army. The Triumvirs, as they were known, eventually caught up with their quarry in Philippi, on the northern shores of the Aegean Sea.

The first battle took place on 3 October and was a model of miscommunication and strategic error. Outside Philippi, the Liberators’ armies took up defensive positions on opposite sides of a great valley. When the forces of the Triumvirs arrived, Mark Antony’s army was set to face that of Cassius, and Octavian’s that of Brutus. Cassius was attacked across what he had assumed was an impassable marsh, and, being caught by surprise, was quickly overrun. Brutus faired better, managing to repel Octavian’s soldiers in a close-fought battle. Unfortunately for Cassius, he was unaware of Brutus’ successes, and believing all was lost, ordered a trusted aide to kill him.

Brutus did not have the experience of the departed Cassius, and was keen to wait for reinforcements before engaging in a second battle. At the behest of his generals, who feared desertion in the ranks if battle was delayed, Brutus reluctantly attacked the combined forces of Mark Antony and Octavian on 23 October. After fierce fighting it became clear the Triumvirs’ armies held the upper hand and Brutus made a retreat with his remaining legions. Soon after, seeing that all was lost, Brutus fell on his own sword.

As a mark of respect, when Mark Anthony recovered Brutus’s body he insisted that it be covered with a purple shroud. They had become sworn enemies on the battlefield, but at one time, before opposing one another over Caesar’s murder, had been friends and allies.

Defeat for the Liberators at Philippi effectively brought to an end the partitioning of the eastern part of the Roman Empire. In the aftermath of the battle Octavian returned to Rome, and Mark Antony remained in the east to oversee the reversion to Roman rule. This included the colonising of the city of Philippi itself.

The assassination of Caesar, followed by the events at Philippi, and the heroic suicides of the Liberators, represent one of the most dramatic episodes in Roman history. This was not lost on William Shakespeare, who used the sensational events as the basis for his play Julius Caesar.

Credit: Alamy BD8NM8
Caption: An illustration depicting Brutus committing suicide, from “The Illustrated History of the World” (c. 1880).