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The Site of the Battle of Philippi (42 BCE)

Matthew Sears

The Battle of Philippi, in which Antony and Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius in 42 BCE, was one of history’s truly decisive events.  The battle comprised two distinct clashes in which a combined total of nearly forty legions participated.  Despite the battle’s great number of combatants, world-historical importance, and relatively full literary documentation, no certain physical traces of the battle have been found near the ancient city of Philippi.  Nevertheless, there is a scholarly consensus, based on readings of the ancient texts and investigation of the topography, which locates the battle in the plain a short distance to the west and southwest of the ancient city.  Yet, as this poster presentation will demonstrate, a site some ten kilometers to the southeast, near the modern town of Amigdaleonas, on the pass leading from the plain to the coast at Kavala, is much more strategically plausible and ultimately makes better sense of the sources.  This conclusion accords with the speculations of Colonel Leake in the early 19th century.

Surviving literary treatments of the battle are plentiful, though mostly of much later date (Plut. Brut. 38-53; Ant. 22; App. B. Civ. 4.11.86-17.138; Dio Cass. 47.35-49).  Appian, writing in the 2nd century CE, is generally agreed to provide the fullest and most accurate account (Gowing 1992).  He offers a particularly detailed description of the topography of the battle, which scholars have widely accepted and have used to inform their topographical investigations of the area since the late 19th century (Heuzey 1876; Collart 1929; 1937; Kromayer 1931; Koukouli-Chrysanthaki 2006).  The sources describe the camps of the republicans Cassius and Brutus as being built respectively on two hills, with Cassius to the south and Brutus to the north.  Both camps were joined by a common fortification wall, which blocked the Via Egnatia running across northern Greece as the principal route between Europe and Asia.  To the rear of Brutus and Cassius was the sea, from which they were supplied from their base on Thasos.  Antony and Octavian were at a clear disadvantage, forced to encamp on the low ground to the west of the republicans, near the large marsh which then existed on the plain, and a great distance from their own base at Amphipolis.  Most scholars locate the camp of Cassius on a barely distinguishable rise in the plain to the west of ancient Philippi, while the camp of Brutus was on the foothills of the mountain behind and to the north of the city.  Recently, modern technology, including photogrammetry, has supposedly confirmed the location of the camps and the battle by identifying a faint linear trace on the ground, interpreted as a short section of the wall connecting the two camps (Georgoula and Kaimaris 2002).  As Leake pointed out, however, Appian’s topographical description is a jumble, and a site near the city of Philippi makes no strategic sense (Leake 1835).

While Appian does say that the battle took place closer to Philippi than to Kavala (ancient Neapolis), he also describes the republicans has being close to the sea and blocking the “gates” between Europe and Asia.  Dio says that the forces of Cassius occupied the heights of Symbolon, which is the ridge separating the plain from Kavala.  The pass crossing this ridge much more closely fits Appian’s description of the “gates” and allows for the action mentioned by Dio.  Also, two hills flanking the road going from the plain to the coast over this ridge fit the description of the republican camps perfectly.  Only by occupying this pass could the republicans have blocked the road and ensured that their supply lines were protected.  The battle of Philippi, then, seems to have been named after the plain, the Campi Philippi as described by Plutarch, rather than the city.  The sources simply erred in anchoring their topographical descriptions to the city rather than the plain itself.

Session/Paper Number

54.3

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