The armies of Octavius and Antony had halted on a plain near Philippi and they were meeting to confer. ‘Now Antony,’ said Octavius, ‘This couldn’t be better. You said the enemy wouldn’t come down here but would stay in the hills and the upper ground. They haven’t done that: their armies are on the plain. They intend to defy us here at Philippi, accepting battle before we’ve even challenged them.’
‘Tut,’ said Antony. ‘I can read their thoughts and I know exactly why they’re doing it. They would rather be in a different position but they’re putting on a show of bravery, hoping to frighten us with their courage, but it’s only a show.’
A messenger arrived, out of breath. ‘Get ready, generals,’ he said. ‘The enemy is advancing with a fearful display: their red flag of battle is flying, and you have to do something immediately.’
Antony tightened his breastplate. ‘Octavius, lead your army stealthily on, to the left side of the plain.’
‘I’ll go to the right,’ said Octavius. ‘You go to the left.’
‘Why are you crossing me at this critical moment?’ said Antony.
‘I’m not crossing you,’ said Octavius, ‘but that’s what I’m going to do.’
As Brutus’ and Cassius’ army came within sight of their opponents it was apparent that the enemy was waiting instead of advancing towards them. ‘They’re waiting there and want to talk,’ said Brutus.
‘Wait here, Titonius,’ said Cassius. ‘We have to go out there and talk.’
The two generals rode out towards their opponents. When Octavius saw them coming he turned to Antony. ‘Shall we give the signal to start the battle?’ he said.
‘No Caesar, we’ll wait for them to begin. Let’s go to them. The generals want to talk.’
‘Don’t move until the signal,’ Octavius instructed his captains. They rode out and met Brutus and Cassius halfway.
‘Words before blows, is it, countrymen?’ said Brutus.
‘Not that we love words better, as you do,’ said Octavius.
‘Good words are better than bad blows, Octavius,’ said Brutus.
Antony sneered. ‘You give good words when you make bad blows, Brutus. Remember the hole you made in Caesar’s heart, while at the same time crying, “Long live! Hail Caesar!”’
Cassius shook his head and smiled bitterly. ‘Antony,’ he said. ‘We don’t yet know how good your blows are, but as for your words, they rob the Hybla bees, and leave them without honey.’
‘And stingless too,’ said Antony.
‘And soundless too,’ said Brutus. ‘Because you’ve stolen their buzzing, Antony, and very wisely, you threaten before you sting.’
Antony had had enough of this banter. ‘Villains!’ he exclaimed. ‘You didn’t when your vile daggers clashed against each other in the sides of Caesar. You grinned like apes and fawned like dogs and bowed like slaves, kissing Caesar’s feet, while vile Casca, like a mongrel behind, struck Caesar in the neck. Oh you flatterers.’
‘Flatterers?’ said Cassius. ‘Now Brutus, we have you to thank for this. This tongue would not have offended us like this today if you had listened to Cassius.’
Octavius was getting impatient. ‘Come come, to business. If arguing makes us sweat, proving who’s right will turn it to redder drops.’ He drew his sword. ‘Look, I draw my sword against conspirators. When do you think this sword will be returned to its scabbard? Never, until Caesar’s wounds are fully avenged. Or till another Caesar has been slaughtered by the sword of traitors.’
‘Caesar, you can’t die at the hands of traitors unless you’ve brought them with you,’ said Brutus.
‘I hope not,’ said Octavius. ‘I wasn’t born to die on Brutus’ sword.’
‘Young man, if you were the noblest of your family you couldn’t have a more honourable death,’ said Brutus.
Cassius laughed. ‘A peevish schoolboy, joined with a partying reveller.’
‘The same old Cassius,’ said Antony.
‘Come on Antony, let’s go.’ Octavius turned his horse. ‘We hurl defiance in your teeth, traitors. If you dare fight today, come to the field. If not, come when you have the stomach for it.’
As Brutus and Cassius rode back Cassius shouted out to the empty air. ‘Why now. Blow wind, swell sails and swim ship! The storm is up and everything’s at stake.’
When they got back to their armies Antony called Lucilius aside for a briefing. Cassius went up to Messala. ‘Messala,’ he said, ‘it’s my birthday. On this very day Cassius was born. Give me your hand, Messala. You are my witness that, like Pompey, I’m forced, against my will, to stake all our liberty on a single battle. You know that I’ve always agreed with the philosopher, Epicurus, who rejected portents and fortune telling by dreams. I’ve changed my mind and now I half believe that some things are sent to warn us. As we came from Sardis two mighty eagles swooped down on our foremost banner, and perched there, gorging and feeding from the hands of the soldiers who came with us to Philippi. This morning they were gone and in their place there were ravens, crows and kites flying over our heads, looking down on us as though we were dying prey. Their shadows seemed like a fatal canopy, under which our army lay, ready to die.’
‘Don’t believe in that,’ said Messala. ‘I only half believe it, because I’m in good spirits and determined to meet all perils full on.’
Brutus and Lucilius joined them.
‘Now most noble Brutus,’ said Cassius, ‘the gods are well disposed towards us today, so that, friends in peace, we may live to old age. But since the affairs of men are always uncertain let’s consider what the worst thing is that may happen. If we lose this battle this is the very last time that we’ll talk to each other. What will you do if that happens?’
‘According to the stoic philosophy in which it’s considered cowardly to take one’s own life,’ said Brutus, ‘I criticised Cato for killing himself. I don’t know why, but I do find it cowardly and vile to end the natural course of life for fear of what may happen. I’m arming myself with patience to await the destiny that the powers above us have decided for me.’
‘Then, if we lose this battle you’re happy to be led in triumph through the streets of Rome?’ said Cassius.
‘No Cassius, no. Don’t think, you noble Roman, that Brutus would ever go bound to Rome. He has too proud a mind. But today must end the work the ides of March began, and whether we will meet again I don’t know. So let’s take our everlasting farewell of each other.’ He embraced Cassius. ‘For ever and ever, farewell Cassius. If we do meet again, why, we’ll smile. If not, this parting was properly done.’
‘For ever and forever, farewell Brutus,’ said Cassius. ‘If we do meet again, we’ll definitely smile. If not, it’s true, this parting was properly done.’
‘Well then, lead on. If only one could know the end of this day’s business before it comes. But it’s enough that the day will end and then we will know.’
Brutus mounted his horse. ‘Come! Let’s go!’