In William Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” the most fascinating character isn’t the power-hungry Caesar, but his trusted friend and murderer, Brutus. Caesar’s famous almost-last words in the play, uttered with disbelief as Brutus plunges the final dagger into the Roman dictator, are “‘Et tu, Brute? (You too, Brutus?) Then fall, Caesar!”
Marcus Junius Brutus (circa 85 B.C.E. to 42 B.C.E.) was a real person — a Roman statesman who was torn between his loyalty to Caesar, a longtime protector, and his loyalty to the Roman Republic. Ultimately, Brutus saw Caesar’s tyranny as the greatest threat and, with his co-conspirator Gaius Cassius Longinus, instigated a Senate plot to kill him.
Brutus paid a terrible price for his “noble” betrayal of Caesar. Brutus quickly lost the battle for public opinion — the conspirators wanted to be known as “liberators” for freeing Rome, but they were labeled “assassins” — and then lost the military battle to Caesar’s allies Mark Antony and Octavian.
From then, the name Brutus was synonymous with betrayal and treachery. Dante reserved the ninth and deepest level of hell for Brutus, Cassius and Judas Iscariot, the three ultimate traitors who are eternally consumed by the three mouths of Satan.
But who was the real Brutus, and what drove a respected politician and virtuous nobleman to stoop to such a low act? For answers, we reached out to Kathryn Tempest, author of “Brutus: The Noble Conspirator” and a reader of Roman history, Latin language and literature at the University of Roehampton London.
Defending the Republic Was in Brutus’ Blood
Brutus was born into a noble family that counted among its ancestors some of the earliest defenders of the Roman Republic, a representative form of government dating from 509 B.C.E. that blended monarchy and democracy.
Tempest says that Brutus ultimately descended from Lucius Junius Brutus, who, as one of Rome’s first consuls, made senators swear an oath never to allow a king to rule over Rome. And on his mother’s side of the family, Brutus was related to Servilius Ahala, a fifth-century Roman hero who killed an aspiring tyrant with a dagger.
“Brutus had a lot going for him when he entered politics,” says Tempest. “On top of the aristocratic connections, he had inherited an ideological cache that he used to great effect when it came to cultivating his own political identity.”
Very little of Brutus’ own writing survives, but contemporaries refer to his treatises “On Virtue,” “On Duty” and “On Suffering,” high philosophical values that Brutus seemed to have embodied. In Shakespeare’s play, even Mark Antony admits that Brutus was “the noblest Roman of them all.” And Plutarch, the Roman biographer, wrote that “Brutus was the only man to have slain Caesar because he was driven by the splendor and nobility of the deed, while the rest conspired against the man because they hated and envied him.”
Siding Against Caesar
Tempest says that it’s well-established by ancient sources that Julius Caesar had a long-running affair with Brutus’ mother, Servilia. The Roman historian Suetonius wrote that Servilia was Caesar’s favorite (among many) mistresses and that he once gifted her a massive pearl worth “six millions of sesterces.”
Some ancient sources wondered if Brutus was actually a product of that infamous affair, but Tempest says the math doesn’t add up. Brutus was too old by the time Servilia and Caesar got together, but it does appear that Caesar took a “fatherly” interest in Brutus’ career and looked out for him.
In 49 B.C.E., Caesar refused to hand over his powerful armies to the Senate, provoking the Roman Civil War. His adversary was Pompey the Great, who sources say was responsible for the death of Brutus’ father years before. It would certainly make sense that Brutus would side with Caesar, his mother’s paramour and protector, over Pompey, whom Brutus refused to even speak with, according to Plutarch.
Ultimately, Brutus made the difficult choice to back Pompey, who bowed to the authority of the Senate and relinquished his own powerful army, over Caesar who was selfishly fighting to protect his own dignity.
“It’s hard to get behind that as a motive for war,” says Tempest.
Brutus fought valiantly for Pompey in the decisive Battle of Pharsalus, but as soon as it was clear that Caesar was going to win, Brutus was “the first to defect,” says Tempest. Instead of punishing Brutus for his treachery, Caesar welcomed him with open arms. Part of it might have been fatherly affection, but it was also savvy politics.
“Caesar wanted someone with the reputation of Brutus on his side, because it gave him a form of legitimacy,” says Tempest. “Caesar could say that his side was standing up for the Republic.”
The Plot and Caesar’s Real Last Words
Brutus was back on Caesar’s side, but not for long. Caesar made his kingly ambitions clear, publicly refusing the crown from Mark Antony, but accepting the title of “dictator for life” and ruling from a golden throne.
Something had to be done to save the republic from Caesar’s tyranny, and Brutus was the one to do it. Together with Cassius, Brutus began recruiting allies in a plot to depose Caesar.
“How did they identify suitable conspirators?” asks Tempest. “It’s not something you can just drop into conversation — ‘Hey, do you want to kill Caesar?'”
Instead, it was the custom of the time to ask rhetorical questions to spark philosophical debate. What do you do when a leader has too much power? Is it right to disturb a state of peace, especially if it leads to another civil war? That’s likely how Brutus and Cassius hashed out their 20 or so co-conspirators in the Senate.
What about Mark Antony, Caesar’s right-hand man; should they kill him, too?
“Brutus said, absolutely not,” says Tempest. “If we kill Antony, we can’t justify it on the grounds of murdering a tyrant. Others argued that Mark Antony was too dangerous to keep alive, and that certainly came back to bite Brutus later.”
On the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E., Caesar was fatally stabbed 23 times in the Senate. The historian Suetonius wrote two versions of Caesar’s death. In the first, the dictator accepted his murder in silence, burying his head in his toga and collapsing into its folds. In the second version, Caesar was more defiant and had strong words for Brutus, the almost-son who delivered the final dagger.
In Greek, Caesar says, “Kai su, teknon,” which translates literally as “You too, child.” In Shakespeare’s famous play, the line is written in Latin as “Et tu, Brute?” This literally means “And you, Brutus?” and is often taken as a vulnerable question: “Even you, Brutus?” or “You, too, my child?” But Tempest reads it as a curse along the lines of “Back atcha, kid,” or “What goes around comes around.” No question mark here; rather, an exclamation.
“Teknon means ‘kid,’ and it’s not a biological connection, but derogatory,” says Tempest. “Even though Suetonius favors the first version of Caesar’s death — the one where he falls in silence — the idea that Caesar actually went down cursing Brutus is a Caesar I can believe in.”
A Bad End for Brutus
Brutus and Cassius hoped to be greeted as liberators, but they made some foolish decisions in the wake of Caesar’s shocking assassination. First, says Tempest, they let Cicero strike an amnesty deal with Mark Antony that effectively made the tyrannicides look like criminals begging pardon. Second, they allowed Mark Antony to bury Caesar in a public ceremony in which he “whipped the crowd into an absolute frenzy against the liberators.”
“Effectively, within a month, all of the conspirators had to leave Rome because it was too dangerous for them,” says Tempest. “Soon enough, they had all left Italy, too.”
Once overseas, Brutus and Cassius recruited large armies and went to war against not only Mark Antony, but also Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian. In two decisive battles at Philippi in October of 42 B.C.E., both Brutus and Cassius suffered gutting defeats. Cassius took his own life rather than surrender to the humiliation of Mark Antony and Octavian, and Brutus ultimately decided to do the same.
Brutus wanted his death, like his life, to be noble, and to cement his reputation as a martyr to the cause of liberty and the republic. But his detractors would paint his suicide as the ultimate act of failure and say that Brutus died for a vain and meaningless cause.
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