Great betrayals have held the attention of human beings ever since the beginning of storytelling. In The Odyssey, Antinous and Eurymachus both compete to wed-and-bed Odysseus's wife while he is away; in The Three Musketeers, Nicolas Fouquet double-crosses Aramis after Aramis' nomination to Superior General by the Jesuits; in The Count of Monte Cristo, Fernand Mondego frames Edmund Dantes so that he can be with Dantes' fiancée Mercedes; and finally, in The Last of the Mohicans, the savage Magua betrays the trust of Major Heyward and the daughters of Colonel Monro by leading them away from the British militia into a Huron ambush. But unlike these betrayals in fiction, gut-wrenching and exciting though they are, one particular betrayal stands out in actual history that achieves much the same effect: the murder of Julius Caesar by his most trusted companion Brutus.
Yet in order to understand the motives of the Brutus who conspired to kill Julius Caesar, and did so, one must first look back to another Brutus— Lucius Junius— four and a half centuries prior who also played a role in the overthrow of a ruler: Tarquin the Proud. This was a time when Rome was ruled by kings before it became a republic, and Lucius immediately saw the problem with one man having too much power after the king's son raped his wife while he was away and went unpunished. Upon his leading the overthrow of Tarquin the Proud and his family, Lucius gives a rousing speech to a crowd of Romans about how Rome should never again be ruled by a king. And it was at this moment, we are told, when Rome became a republic.
Fast forward four and a half centuries, and we find the direct maternal descendant of Lucius Junius Brutus, Marcus Junius Brutus. This Brutus is a young man who is proud of his ancestry and seeks to preserve the republic his ancestor had founded. At this time, however, another man with ambition existed who had gained respect throughout the Roman republic for his military triumphs and had recently been elected consul: Gaius Julius. It was not long before Julius became the richest man in Rome, and in 50 B.C.E. he set his sights on ruling the civilization entirely. A civil war in Rome breaks out between Julius and another military leader named Pompey, and Brutus, wanting to prevent the dictatorship of Julius, takes the side of Pompey in the conflict.
But when Pompey loses and Julius crosses the Rubicon and eventually takes Rome, the new emperor does a mysterious thing: he personally intervenes to pardon Brutus, and, in addition, makes the young man one of his closest advisers. Over time Brutus develops a genuine love and appreciation for the ruler who saved his life, but at the same time he harbors fears about what Julius will do to the republic and still strongly believes in the legacy of his ancestor Lucius.
As it would turn out, the reign of Julius would not assuage Brutus's fears. Julius establishes his own police force, seizes massive amounts of land and redistributes it to whomever he wishes, gives himself censorial powers, forced the senate to give him the titles "Father of the Fatherland" and "Imperator", and prepares to start two wars with the Dacians and Parthians. At last, Brutus and other conspirators from the senate agree that Julius has to go.
On March 15th 44 B.C.E., Julius Caesar enters the Theater of Pompey expecting to meet with the senate. But greeting him there instead is a group of men with daggers who surround the ruler and plunge their blades into him 23 times.
If you are like me, you feel that the death of a tyrant is always a glorious thing. Even if the process of getting to that point is steeped in controversy— like the Iraq War for instance— the noose around Saddam's neck was still a good sight, as was the footage of Qaddafi being chased down and killed by rebels, as is the old World War II footage of Mussolini being hung upside down and paraded through the streets of Milan. These spectacles are good to behold because it's good to see the message being sent that those who terrorize and intimidate have reaped what they've sown. Too many dictators unfortunately escape their deserved fates, dying instead in peace (such as Amin, Franco, Castro, and Milosevic). Yet, when I read the account of the assassination of Julius Caesar, I can't say I feel the same way as I do toward the demises of modern monsters.
A big reason for this is probably because the distance in time between Julius Caesar's existence and the existence of you and I is so vast as to make the event seem somehow not real, whereas we've lived to see the deaths of Saddam and Qaddafi and are not far removed— historically speaking— from the death of Mussolini. But another reason why I feel different reading of Julius Caesar's assassination is because, according to historians, the Romans loved Julius and despised the senate. They viewed Julius as efficient and benevolent (mainly because he had distributed many of the seized lands to the poor and had won scores of military victories) and viewed the senate as a corrupt aristocracy.
There's a moving moment in the middle of Julius's assassination where he's fighting off his killers as they come at him with their daggers... until he sees Brutus among them. According to the ancient historian Suetonius (70 C.E.-130 C.E.?), when Julius saw Brutus holding a dagger he covered his eyes and stopped fighting. The grief that Brutus's betrayal had brought was too much for Julius to bear. The emperor stood still as the assassins closed in one last time and killed him.
In the Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar, the emperor utters in disbelief as he's being killed "You too Brutus?" But ancient sources write that Julius said nothing at all, which somehow makes the moment of betrayal even more painful. The perception of Brutus, in turn, has been a mixed bag throughout the centuries. In Inferno, Dante puts Brutus in the ninth circle of hell (which is right in the middle), and he writes rather glowingly about the fact that Brutus's punishment for murdering Julius is that he gets chewed-up daily in the mouth of the devil himself along with Judas Iscariot. But in Jonathan Swift's classic Gulliver's Travels, Brutus is portrayed as kind, patriotic, intelligent, and virtuous.
Much suspicion has surrounded Julius's tenderness toward Brutus up until the time he died. Why would an emperor not only pardon a person who sided with Pompey and against him in the civil war before he took power, but go on to make that person one of his closest advisers? Why would Julius do this, especially to a person who was the nephew of his arch-political enemy in the senate, Cato?
And it is here that we come to the fact that Julius and Brutus's mother Servilia were long-term passionate lovers.
In fact there is an account of a heated exchange between Cato and Julius during a meeting of the senate, and in the midst of this exchange a servant interrupts to give Julius a note. Cato demands that the note be read aloud, suspecting Julius of conspiring against the senate, and when Julius reluctantly obliges, Cato finds that it's an erotic letter from his sister to Julius and is humiliated before his colleagues. Could Julius have fathered Brutus with Servilia? It's certainly a possibility, and would explain the incredible leniency shown to Brutus in the aftermath of the civil war that wasn't shown to others (Pompey had his head cut off and his naked body was thrown into the sea, while most of his men were also put to the sword). The main objection to this claim is that Julius would have only been 15-17 years old when Brutus was born. But boys and girls in Roman society began being sexually active as young as 12, and for children of high nobility marriage and procreation was a special priority. The idea that Julius could have fathered an illegitimate child anywhere from age 15-17 is not at all a far-fetched one.
If Julius was indeed the father of Brutus, then it's certainly a good thing that no one knew (perhaps not even Brutus himself), because the Roman punishment for patricide— poena cullei— was truly horrific. The perpetrator would be sewn up in a giant leather sack along with a viper, a rooster, a monkey, and a dog. The sack would then be thrown into a stream or into the sea where the animals, in a panic, would bite the criminal and tear him to shreds as he, and they, drowned. Poena cullei was a symbolic execution. The sack you were sewn up in represented the womb, and one's death inside of it as a punishment for the murder of parents was a declaration that it would have been better had that person never been born.
Brutus's death was a bit more "pleasant", for lack of a better word, than what could have been. He committed suicide by running into a sword held by two of his men, before Octavian— a great-nephew of Julius who sought to avenge his great-uncle's death— could capture him. Shortly after the suicide of Brutus, Octavian became Caesar Augustus, thereby causing the plan of the conspirators against Julius to backfire. They had wanted the death of the emperor to mark the return of the republic, and in the end their actions only cemented Rome's status as an empire.
Plutarch (46 C.E.-120 C.E.) crafts the legend more than a century later that a sorcerer had warned Julius well in advance that harm would come to him on the Ides of March. Later, as Julius was on his way to the place where he would be killed, he ran into the sorcerer and said with smugness "The Ides of March have come and I am well", to which the sorcerer replied "The Ides of March have come but not gone."
This tale, along with what we know about what really happened during the assassination, teaches the remarkable lesson that even when we are at the height of our confidence, the very thing we least expect could be our undoing. This hard lesson is only exacerbated by the possibility that Brutus could have been Julius's very own flesh and blood.
- The account of Lucius Junius and Tarquin the Proud can be found in Livy's History of Rome (written sometime between 27-9 B.C.E.)
- The account of Julius's silence upon seeing Brutus can be found in Suetonius's book The Twelve Caesars (written circa 119 C.E.).
- The account of Julius and Servilia's relationship and of Cato's embarrassment in the senate can be found in Plutarch's biography Cato the Younger.
- Information about the sexual activity of young Romans can be found in Amy Richlin's piece in the Journal of the History of Sexuality titled "Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality Of The Cinaedus & The Roman Law Against Love Between Men" (1993), as well as in Beryl Rawson's book Children & Childhood In Roman Italy (Oxford University Press, 2003).
- References to the Roman punishment for patricide are found in multiple ancient works, including Emperor Constantine's decree that he seeks to revive the punishment during his reign found in the Codex Justinianus, in Seneca the Younger's On Clemency, and in Juvenal's Collected Satires. For general information on the punishment, Wikipedia provides a decent summary.
- The account of Julius and the seer can be found in Plutarch's Parallel Lives (written at some point in the early-second century).