Kathryn Tempest looks at how history remembers his assassin.
On the Ides of March 44 BC, Julius Caesar was famously assassinated in a crowded meeting of the senate. In the months leading up to his murder, he had increasingly broken with the traditions of the res publica, which held that no one man should hold too much power at Rome. Our ancient sources tell us that he had accepted honours that were more fitting for a god than a man: Suetonius lists a golden throne, a chariot and litter in the circus procession, as well as temples, altars, statues, his own personal priest and more. There were fears that Caesar was planning to be appointed king. But it probably made no difference what title he took: only a month or so before, he had become ‘dictator for life’. To contemporary observers, it was clear that Caesar was in no rush to abandon his power. For those who despised his domination, there seemed only one way to free Rome, and soon a conspiracy involving about 20 men was formed. Leading the plot to kill Caesar were Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus.
Unlike the details of the conspiracy, which were shrouded in secrecy from the start, we can piece together a clear account of what happened on the day of Caesar’s death. But even from Suetonius’ brief description of it, which he may have got from an eyewitness account, we can see that he also had access to alternative versions (Suetonius, Divine Julius 82):
Wherever he turned, he saw that drawn daggers were attacking him, he buried his head in his toga, and at the same, using his left hand, he drew its fold down to his feet, so that he would fall more honourably, with the lower part of his body covered too. And in this way, he was stabbed twenty-three times. He did not utter a word – just a groan at the first blow. Although some have reported that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said kai su, teknon.
In other words: according to which account you believed, Caesar either fell in silence or he went down cursing Brutus; for kai su, teknon (you too, child)was not an expression of shock or despair at Brutus’ betrayal – as Shakespeare’s et tu, Brute? might have us believe. Rather, it was a threat which was intended to predict his killer’s demise. Scholars continue to debate the precise meaning and source of the phrase kai su: it may have been the first part of an ancient Greek proverb, which ended something like ‘will have a bite of my power’; the words also appear on curse tablets, mosaics, funerary inscriptions, and literary epitaphs in epic poetry either to avert evil or, perhaps better, to issue a direct warning or a prophecy. But all agree that kai su means something like ‘Back atcha!’ or ‘You too, die!’. What goes around comes around. Brutus was to have a fate worse than that he inflicted upon Caesar.
This mosaic, from the so-called House of the Evil Eye (second century AD) is one of several examples which suggest that the expression kai su (shown here as KAI CY) served an apotropaic function (Hatay Archaeological Museum, Antakya, Inv.-Nr. 1024)/
As is well known, Brutus did indeed suffer a terrible ending. Within six months of the assassination, the Liberators were forced to leave Italy; little more than a year later, they were making their preparations for the war to come against the men who wanted revenge for Caesar’s death. By the end of October 42 BC, Brutus and Casius had been defeated in two battles at Philippi, together with an estimated 50,000 dead. As we have seen in the accounts of Caesar’s death, so there are competing versions of Brutus’ last words: some say he went out celebrating the reputation for virtue he was leaving behind him, others that he lamented his blind commitment to the ideal. In taking his own life, Brutus’ death was an act of self-sacrifice, but it is one from which he emerges either as a martyr or as a failure to a lost cause. Far from liberating Rome from a tyrant, as he once claimed to have done, the assassination of Caesar had only led to the outbreak of civil war and eventually to the concentration of power in the hands of one man: Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian – the man we refer to today as Rome’s first emperor, Augustus.
Still, history – or at least the version of history we encounter through later writers – has often been kind to Brutus. In one of the most famous lines of the play Julius Caesar, Shakespeare has Mark Antony call Brutus ‘the noblest Roman of them all’ (5.5.69). Nor is the sentiment entirely fictitious. In several places in his biography of Brutus, Plutarch emphasises that even his enemies respected Brutus: ‘in fact Antony once said, and many men heard it,’ he tells us, ‘that in his opinion Brutus was the only man to have slain Caesar because he was driven by the splendour and nobility of the deed, while the rest conspired against the man because they hated and envied him’ (Plutarch, Life of Brutus 29.7). Yet in so doing, both Plutarch and Shakespeare introduce a paradox that lies at the heart of my book on Brutus: after all this was a man who belonged to the highest class of Roman citizen, but in conspiring to kill Caesar, he engaged in the lowest form of political behaviour. So why, we might ask, was Brutus singled out and identified as the only noble conspirator?
To begin with, we can look at the efforts Brutus had gone to in his lifetime to construct a persona based on his virtue and commitment to liberty. For, through a process of conscious self-fashioning, he had minted coins with the images and names of his famous ancestors, Lucius Junius Brutus and Servilius Ahala, both of whom were championed as freedom-fighters in Rome’s historical tradition. Lucius Junius Brutus was the first man to hold the consulship in 509 BC. As soon as he entered office, he took an important step: ‘he made the people swear an oath that they would never allow any man to be king at Rome.’ Livy tells us that he did so ‘while they were still hungry for the new taste of liberty’ (History of Rome 2.1). Meanwhile, on his mother’s side of the family, Brutus claimed descent from Servilius Ahala, who was famous for killing Spurius Maelius in 439 BC on the grounds he was aspiring towards tyranny. “Well done, Servilius!” said the Dictator of the time [Cincinnatus], “You have delivered the republic” (History of Rome 4.14). By putting their images on his coins, our Brutus gave a very clear statement about what he stood for.
RRC 433/2: Brutus publicized his opposition to one-man rule by issuing coins which bore the images of his two famous ancestors: Lucius Junius Brutus and Servilius Ahala. (BM images 00319157001) © The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.
But he did not only tap into his ancestors’ reputations to prove his point; Brutus also created a powerful intellectual legacy through his published works, all of which promoted him as a man of moral fibre. We have titles and occasionally brief extracts from his treatises: ‘On Virtue’, ‘On Duties’ and ‘On Suffering’. Likewise, we have some fragments and testimonia of the speeches Brutus delivered or circulated in the 50s BC. In his work ‘Against the Dictatorship of Pompey’, composed in 52 BC, at a time when Pompey the Great was gaining too much power, he made his feelings on liberty very clear: ‘For it is better to rule no man than to be the slave of any,’ he claimed: ‘for one may live honourably without the former, while the latter [slavery] is no way of living.’ In the same year, when he was dissatisfied with the defence Cicero put up for Milo, who stood accused of murdering the populist politician Clodius, Brutus took it upon himself to circulate his own version of a speech ‘For Milo’. Whereas in court Cicero had mainly focused on the argument that Milo had killed Clodius in self-defence, Brutus went further in his pamphlet and argued that Clodius’ death was justifiable because it was good for Rome. Long before the assassination of Caesar, then, Brutus had savoured his reputation as a freedom-fighter and as a defender of the Republic.
These ideas find further expression in Brutus’ celebrated coin, which was minted in late 43 or early 42 BC. Descriptions of this coin often focus on the portrait of Brutus on the obverse: that is, whether he appears ‘narrow-minded and obstinate’ or whether he has ‘leading-man looks’. The fact that his image appears at all has also drawn comment, since the portrayal of a living man on a Roman coin was a sign of autocratic power. More frequently, historians draw our attention to the images on the reverse, where the daggers and the cap of liberty – the pileus worn by slaves when they were granted their freedom – underscore the message that the Roman people had been liberated. But we can also dig deeper here because these images take us into the heart of the contemporary debate surrounding Brutus’ reputation. For Brutus’ enemies were claiming that, far from being a ‘liberator’, he and Cassius were no more than ‘cut-throat murderers’ (sicarii in Latin); the death of Caesar, they argued, was an act of parricide not tyrannicide, because they had killed the father of the country (the pater patriae), a man constitutionally appointed as their dictator.
In this context, the daggers and the date on Brutus’ coin deserve closer scrutiny: the daggers are straight pugiones, the kind typically associated with soldiers, not the curved sicae carried by assassins. Counter to the attempts of Caesar’s friends to have the 15th March be renamed as the ‘Day of Parricide’ – a black day on which no business should be conducted – Brutus’ side tried to reclaim the Ides as the date of Rome’s liberation. In so doing, this coin issues a bold counterstatement to the propaganda of Mark Antony and his allies. At the same time, the various efforts to own the narrative over Caesar’s murder contributed greatly to the conundrum of how Brutus should be remembered.
isRRC 508/3: The image of Brutus on this coin the only contemporary evidence for what he looked like but modern scholars have disagreed as to what his appearance reveals about him. (BM image 00358779001) © The Trustees of the British Museum. Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) licence.
In the years after his death, memory of Brutus was kept alive by those who wanted to turn him into a martyr and an example of republican virtue. Among these were several writers whom we know Plutarch consulted in the composition of his own Life of Brutus, such as the historian Messalla, who had served under both Brutus and Cassius; or Brutus’ step-son Bibulus, who wrote up his personal reminiscences of his step-father; as well as other eulogistic writers, like Brutus’ friend Volumnius or Empylus the rhetorician. Told from this perspective, virtue and philosophy had joined forces with military strength to remove a tyrant. The assassination of Caesar coupled with the eventual death of Brutus at Philippi hence became part of a larger narrative which recorded Brutus’ self-sacrifice for the greater good – a motif familiar from legendary tales and the Roman exemplary tradition.
Others, however, such as Quintus Dellius, wrote about his campaigns with Antony, while the Caesarian Gaius Asinius Pollio seems to have covered the period from 60 BC, perhaps going down to the battle of Philippi, in his own history of the civil wars. Octavian too attempted to shape the memory of these hideous years. In his Res Gestae, he simply describes Philippi as the war in which he exacted vengeance upon ‘the men who killed [his] father’. But still the language of retribution survives to remind us of the second historiographical tradition which remembered the Liberators in far less positive terms than the ones they used to present their actions. In the eyes of their enemies, Brutus and Cassius were ‘cut-throats’, ‘murderers’, ‘the guilty ones’, and ‘man-slayers’ – all words which have worked their way into the pages of the later Greek historians, Appian and Cassius Dio, who leave us the fullest historical accounts for this period.
Within this negative tradition, the idea that Brutus was a parricide picked up particular momentum. We find the charge repeated in Tacitus, through the mouths of the prosecutors of Cremutius Cordus, and predominantly so in Velleius Paterculus and Valerius Maximus. At some point, the accusation was even turned into a literal charge against Brutus; because the rumour of his mother’s love affair with Julius Caesar was widely known, it was not so great a leap to imagine that Brutus may have been their illegitimate love-child.
Jean-Léon Gérôme – The Death of Caesar (Walters Art Museum). This canvas (c. 1859 and 1867) beautifully captures an impression of the scene moments after the assassination.
Returning to the version of Caesar’s assassination which had him address Brutus as teknon (‘child’) in his dying moments, it might be tempting to jump to the same conclusion. The suggestion may even lie behind the source Plutarch used in his Life of Caesar, which recorded that, when the time came for Brutus to strike Caesar, he took particular aim at his groin. Scholars today widely discredit the attribution of Brutus’ paternity to Caesar. To begin with, teknon does not imply a biological connection; it can just mean ‘kid’. What is more, evidence for the love affair between Servilia and Caesar places it in the 50s BC, when Brutus was already a grown man. However, because Caesar had spared Brutus’ life after Pharsalus and had even rewarded him with political office, the accusation of parricide added further fuel to the argument and emotions behind Brutus’ betrayal of his friend.
This idealisation or vilification of Brutus was handed down to later writers, thinkers and artists, who further contributed to the problem of how to judge Caesar’s assassin. Was he a noble and constant patriot or a cold and traitorous murder, a parricide or a tyrannicide? Was he right to place his country over his friendship and obligations to Caesar, or should he have tolerated Caesar’s domination? When a man’s legacy has been so hotly debated – both among those living at the time and by subsequent generations – any search for the ‘real’ Brutus will invariably end in vain. But what we can do is use this evidence to understand more about the complexity of Brutus, as well as the times in which he operated. From there, there is a more interesting story to be told about how his personality and life can be construed from antiquity to today.
1 The origins and meaning of kai su, teknon are discussed in an excellent article by I. Ziogas (2016), ‘Famous Last Words: Caesar’s Prophecy on the Ides of March’, Antichthon 50, 134-153, who traces the epitaphic resonances of the phrase and suggests there is a Homeric dimension to Caesar’s death scene. I regret that I did not see this article before my own book was submitted for publication, but I welcome the opportunity here to update my bibliography and thinking on the matter.
Dr Kathryn Tempest is Reader in Roman History and Latin Literature at the University of Roehampton. Her research concentrates on the literature, history and political life of the late Roman republic and she is the author of Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome and Brutus: The Noble Conspirator.