On October 23 in the year 42 B.C., the forces of Triumvirs Mark Antony and Gaius Octavian Caesar were locked in battle against the soldiers of Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, fighting on a great plain located to the west of the ancient city of Philippi in Greece. Twenty days early, at the First Battle of Philippi, Antony's forces had crushed those of Cassius and the assassin committed suicide. While this would have put the Republicans at a disadvantage, that same day they had been able to intercept and destroy a fleet of reinforcements coming for the Triumvirs, leaving Antony and Octavian in a precarious position. However, Brutus was no brilliant strategist--Cassius was the cunning one. The battle came to full force on the 23rd, and Brutus was outflanked by Antony. Trapped, the camp of Caesar's assassin was stormed by Octavian's forces and captured. After retreating to some nearby hills, Brutus saw that it was impossible for him to escape capture and subsequently ended his life, refusing to return to Rome in chains.
The Battle of Philippi was the last stand of the Roman Republic. The deaths of Cassius and Brutus, joined along with other aristocrats like Marcus Porcius Cato and the great orator Hortensius, left the Republican movement with little leadership. Though Sextus Pompeius, son of Caesar's rival Pompey the Great, still lived, his opposition would be but a thorn in the side of the Triumvirs, and lacked the type of principled opposition given by Brutus and Cassius. With the forces of the Republic exterminated, and high-minded Brutus dead, the Triumvirs would go on to split up their new empire before turning on each other, paving the way for Octavian to become the first emperor, Augustus.
Marcus Brutus was the descendant Lucius Junius Brutus, a nobleman who led a rebellion against the Tarquin Kings, overthrowing the monarchy and establishing the Republic. As the heirs to the founder of the republic, the men who held the name of Brutus throughout its 500-year history were often seen as the guardians of Rome's liberty. Honor and virtue were synonymous with Brutus, and for this the conspirators knew they needed his leadership to stand up to the overwhelming tyranny of Julius Caesar. While Brutus did support liberty and feared tyranny, he was betraying and murdering a good friend. Taking another's life was a big deal, especially the life of a friend. Dante thought that the betrayal was so great a crime that he placed Brutus in the mouth of the Beast on the lowest level of hell--beside his compatriot Cassius and Judas Iscariot. What is worse is that Brutus did this all in vain. By failing to include Cicero in the conspiracy and by refusing to allow the conspirators to kill Mark Antony, Brutus doomed the conspiracy from the start. His high-minded and stubborn refusal to do any of the less-than-noble things necessary to succeed in such vicious politics and war brought him to lose on that field in Philippi.
Nonetheless, the "all-honored, honest, Roman Brutus" probably was the most committed to his cause. So noble was he in fact that he could not stray at all from his strict and Roman sense of virtue, and there is something very admirable about this. His last stand against the forces of Caesarism at Philippi and his nobility were enough for even his great enemy, Antony, to give him due praise. The Bard, as always, captures the sentiment better than any historian can, with these closing lines from Antony in The Tragedy of Julius Caesar:
This was the noblest Roman of them all;
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He, only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, "This was a man!"
Indeed, the last of the Roman men. It would do us well to occasionally dwell on his memory, what it is that moved him to act, and what it is that caused him to lose and end up dead on the plains of Philippi.