Reading the Roman Revolution 15: Philippi and Perusia

Chapter 15 of Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution is tense. Starting with the Battle of Philippi and concluding in the aftermath of the siege of Perusia, the fortunes of Octavianus wax and wane as the ultimate prize of Rome hangs in the balance. For those modern readers enthralled by the Game of Thrones, the days of the Second Triumvirate offer a historically grounded drama that gives away nothing to the George R.R. Martin’s imagination.

Syme does the narrative justice. The cast of the political drama constricted with the death of so many consulars, Senators, and nobiles of Republican stock and with it the opportunities for single-sentence descriptions of character and standing. Left are the political and military maneuverings of Antonius and Octavianus and their inner circles. Without the letters of Cicero, there are gaps throughout. Nevertheless, Syme offers a tense scene, first at Philippi and then in Italy as it haltingly moves toward Civil War.

At Philippi, the outclassed Brutus and Cassius suffer defeat at the hand of Antonius and both died on their own swords. In the lead up to Philippi: “Brutus at last was calm and decided. After the triumph of the Caesarian generals and the institution of the proscriptions he knew where he stood.” But at the height of the first battle: “Cassius despaired too soon…. deceived, perhaps, as one account runs, through a defect in his eyesight.” Three weeks later the final blow occurred as Antonius defeated the overmatched Brutus.

Syme marks the results of this battle with all of his limited sympathy for oligarchy: “This time the decision was final and irrevocable, the last struggle of the Free State. Henceforth nothing but a contest of despots over the corpse of liberty. The men who fell at Philippi fought for a principle, a tradition and a class narrow, imperfect and out-worn, but for all that the soul and spirit of Rome.” He even spares a thought for Antonius: “As Antonius gazed in sorrow upon the Roman dead, the tragedy of his own life may have risen to his thoughts… he had surrendered himself to Octavianus and he would pay for his folly in the end.”

M. Antonius went East and left to Octavianus the settlement of soldiers in Italy under the watchful eye of his brother, L. Antonius, who served as consul. Things went poorly as both the Italian cities from whom land would be taken and the anxious soldiers (and anxious lieutenants of Antonius with their legions at the ready in Cisalpina Gaul) watched warily.

Things went poorly. Octavianus continued, at first, to suffer the ill-health that made him a marginal actor in the campaign and battle of Philippi. “Rumour freely of his death. The rejoicing was premature…” As his health recovered, he found that the Italian cities resisted the confiscation of property and revolted. The allies of Antonius did little to help with this situation and as Octavianus came to champion the claims of the veterans, Antonius’s allies increasingly sided with the aggrieved cities. Syme puts its bluntly: “War was in the air. Both sides mustered troops and seized temple-treasures.”

The clash between Octavianus’ and Antonius’ legions in Italy largely involved feints and threats except for the siege of Perusia. The consul L. Antonius marched on Rome first before departing with his legions to support various allies throughout Italy and await the arrival of Antonian legion from Gaul. Out maneuvered by Octavianus’s generals, L. Antonius holed up in the city of Perusia and was invested by Octavianus. The other Antonian generals show little interest or ability to break the siege even as supplies ran short. There was dissent among them. Syme was blunt: “The soldierly Ventidius knew that Plancus had called him a muleteer and a brigand; and Pollio hated Plancus. But there was a more potent factor than the doubts and dissensions of the generals their soldiers had an acute perception of their own interests as well as a strong distaste for war: it would be plain folly to fight for L. Antonius and the propertied classes of Italy.” L. Antonius was forced to surrender, but the political and and military consequences of this conflict left Octavianus exposed. “He was master of Italy, a land of famine, desolation and despair.”

Whatever confidence Octavianus gained from surviving the challenge of Perusia, M. Antonius landing and siege of Brundisium made it brief. “The final armed reckoning for the heritage of Caesar seemed inevitable; for Rome the choice between two masters. Which of them had the sympathy of Italy could scarcely be doubted; and, despite the loss of the Gallic legions, the odds of war were on the side of the great Antonius.”


The short essay is part of my Reading The Roman Revolution at 80 project. It’s so awesome that I have two hashtags: #ReadingRomanRevolution and #ReadingRonaldat80. I explain the project here. You can read the rest of the entries here.

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