The Ides of March

On this day, the 15th of March 2018, it is 2062 years ago that Julius Caesar was murdered by his friends on the floor of the Roman Senate. Most famous of them is Marcus Junius Brutus. For his act, Brutus’ reputation throughout history has been extremely mixed; Brutus is often depicted either as patriotic hero for liberty, or as a devious, sinful man who betrayed his friend. Dante Alighieri placed him in the deepest circle of hell and his co-conspirator Gaius Cassius Longinus in the mouths of Satan alongside Judas Iscariot, while Shakespeare referred to Brutus as “the noblest Roman of them all”. During this essay I hope to show the two views of Brutus and to determine which one is the more correct.

In 44 BCE, Julius Caesar is the undisputed ruler of the Roman Republic. He had just won a civil war for supremacy against his former friend Pompey the Great and the conservative senators, who called themselves the Optimates (the greatest), and returned to Rome where he was elected Dictator for Life. Caesar, known for his clemency, had pardoned most of the Optimates who had defected to him after the Battle of Pharsalus, among them was Brutus. Caesar had been fond of Brutus for years, his mother having been Caesars long-time mistress, and welcomed him back to Rome and became heavily invested in promoting Brutus his career.

Caesar’s opponents, especially Brutus’ uncle Cato, had often accused Caesar of attempting to become king (Rex), a title that was hated by all Romans, because before the founding of the Republic in 509 BCE, Rome had (according to legend) seven kings, the last of whom was especially tyrannical. This king was overthrown by a certain Lucius Junius Brutus who had founded the Roman Republic and was considered a liberating hero for it. The idea that Caesar was attempting to become king was worsened when Mark Antony had offered Caesar a crown repeatedly on February 15th, although Caesar continued to refuse it, it was considered by many to be a test whether the Roman people would accept Caesar as a king. The crowd cheered every time Caesar refused, but that was not enough to comfort his critics, who feared that Caesar was already king in all but name. He controlled who would be appointed to the major magistracies and was consul five times in total, while there was a legal requirement of a 10 year interval between consulships. He was also voted several other titles and honours by the senate, over which he also had the ability to veto any decision. He even had a personal religious cult over which his friend Mark Antony presided as high priest.

Brutus had greatly benefitted from Caesar’s rule, he held a major magistracy (Praetor Urbanus) in 44 BCE, and could be confident that in the future he would become consul. However, Brutus had from his youth onward prided himself on his illustrious ancestry. He claimed descent from two tyrannicides, first the aforementioned Lucius Junius Brutus who had freed Rome from the tyranny of the monarchy and secondly, through his mother and adoption of Gaius Servilius Ahala, who had killed a man who had attempted to become king in the 5th Century BCE. Due to his ancestry there was significant pressure put on Brutus by his friends to emulate the deed of his ancestors by slaying Caesar. Brutus relented and together with Cassius he led a group of conspirators who called themselves “The Liberators” with the goal to assassinate Caesar.

The conspiracy failed to achieve its true goal of restoring the Republic. Although great thought had gone into the assassination itself, there had been little consideration for the aftermath. Brutus had called out to his friend Cicero to restore the republic, but he was not part of the conspiracy and was taken by surprise. Brutus also ensured that only Caesar would be slain, his friend and co-consul Mark Antony would not be harmed. This proved to be a political mistake, as public opinion was in favour of Caesar and Antony took advantage of this. He and Caesar’s posthumously adoptive son Octavian defeated Brutus and Cassius in another civil war, after which they too would turn on each other, leaving Octavian the sole ruler of Rome as its first Emperor, Augustus. A monarchy emerged, the liberation had failed.

In my opinion it is quite certain that the main motivation of Brutus to conspire against Caesar was not personal gain. In actuality, he was risking the position he had, because if Caesar would be declared a tyrant by the Roman senate, Brutus would have lost his position as Praetor Urbanus. He also refused to slay any other political opponents, such as Antony. These actions show that Brutus was not motived for personal gain; he truly believed it was his duty to protect the Roman Republic from tyranny and that slaying Caesar was the only option to achieve this. Though he may not have been “the nobles Roman of them all” he certainly did not deserve to be placed in the deepest circle of hell as Dante proposed.

The major source I used for this essay is Kathryn Tempest’s Brutus: A Noble Conspirator, a marvellous book that delves deeper into the character of Brutus, which I would recommend to anybody who is interested to learn more about him.

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