Great betrayals have attracted the attention of human beings since the beginning of history. In The Odyssey, Antinous and Eurymachus compete to marry Odysseus' wife while he is absent; In The Three Musketeers, Nicolas Fouquet defeats Aramis after the nomination of Aramis to Superior General by the Jesuits; in The Count of Monte Cristo, Fernand Mondego falsely accuses Edmund Dantes of a crime in order to be with his bride Mercedes; and finally, in The Last of the Mohicans, the savage Magua betrays the trust of Major Heyward and the daughters of Colonel Monroe by leading them away from the British militia and into a Huron ambush. But, unlike these betrayals in fiction, heartbreaking and exciting as they are, a particular betrayal stands out in history that achieves the same effect: the murder of Julius Caesar by his most trusted companion Brutus.
However, in order to understand the motives of the Brutus who conspired to kill Julius Caesar, we first need to look back four-and-a-half centuries prior to another Brutus, Lucius June, 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 becoming a republic, and Lucius Brutus immediately saw the problems which came with one man having too much power, after the king's son raped his wife while he was absent and went unpunished. When Lucius Brutus eventually led the overthrow of Tarquin the Proud and his family as an act of vengeance, he gave a powerful speech to a crowd of Romans about how Rome should never again be ruled by a king. And it was at this time, we are told, when Rome became a republic.
Fast forward four-and-a-half centuries later, and we find the direct maternal descendant of Lucius Junius Brutus, Marco Junius Brutus. This Brutus was a young man who was proud of his ancestry and sought to preserve the republic that his ancestor had founded. However, at that time there was another ambitious man who had gained respect throughout the Roman Republic for his military triumphs, and who had recently been elected consul: Gaius Julius Caesar. It was not long before Julius Caesar became the richest man in Rome, and in the year 50 B.C.E. he sought to take control over the civilization completely. Because of this ambition on Julius's part, a civil war in Rome broke out between himself and another military leader named Pompey; and Brutus, wanting to avoid the dictatorship of Julius Caesar, sided with Pompey in the conflict.
But when Pompey loses, and Julius crosses the Rubicon and finally takes Rome, the new emperor does something mysterious: he personally intervenes to pardon Brutus for siding with Pompey, and in addition, appoints the young man to be 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 fears what Julius Caesar will do to the Republic. The young Marco Brutus still firmly believed in the legacy of his ancestor Lucius.
As it would turn out, of course, the reign of Julius Caesar would do nothing to calm Brutus' fears. Julius Caesar establishes his own police force, takes massive amounts of land and redistributes it to whomever he wants, gives himself powers of censorship, forces the senate to give him the titles "Father of the Fatherland" and "Emperor", and prepares to begin two wars with the Dacians and the Parthians. In the course of these events, Brutus and other conspirators of the senate reach their breaking point and agree that Julius Caesar has to go.
Thus, on March 15th, 44 B.C.E., Julius Caesar enters the Theater of Pompey hoping to meet with the senate, but instead he is greeted by a group of men with daggers who surround the ruler and stab him 23 times.
If you are like me, you think that the death of a tyrant is always a glorious thing and something to be celebrated. Even if the path to reaching that point is full of controversies. Take, for example, the Iraq war. We invaded the country under a false premise and wasted money most Americans were appalled to find we apparently had at our disposal the whole time... but the gallows around Saddam's neck was still a good sight to behold. It was just as good a sight as the footage of Qaddafi being chased down and killed by rebels, and it was just as good as seeing the old footage of Mussolini's body being hung upside down on the streets of Milan during the Second World War. These tyrant deaths are a lovely sight, in their own morbid way, because it is good to see the message being sent that those who terrorize and intimidate reap what they sow. And it is unfortunate, I should add, that so many other dictators have escaped their deserved fates and were able to die in peace (e.g. Amin, Franco, Castro and Milosevic). However, I must confess that when I read the story of Julius Caesar's murder, I cannot say I feel the same way that I feel when I hear about (or watch) the death of modern monsters.
A big reason is probably because the amount of time between the existence of Julius Caesar and your existence and mine is so great as to make the event seem somehow not real, while in our time, we have lived to see the deaths of Saddam and Qaddafi and, historically speaking, are not so far removed from the death of Mussolini. But another reason why I have a different feeling regarding the murder of Julius Caesar is because, according to historians, the Romans loved Julius Caesar and despised the senate. They saw Julius Caesar as benevolent and efficient (mainly because he had distributed many of the lands he seized to the poor, and had won dozens of military victories) and saw the senate as a corrupt aristocracy (which, truthfully, they were).
According to the ancient historian Suetonius (70-130 C.E.), there is a very moving moment in the middle of the murder of Julius Caesar, where the emperor is fending off the assassins as they are attacking him with their daggers... until he sees Brutus standing among them. When Julius sees Brutus holding a dagger, he covers his eyes and stops fighting. The pain that Brutus' betrayal had caused was too much for Julius to bear. And with the betrayed ruler no longer choosing to resist, the assassins close in for a final time and kill him.
In the Shakespearean tragedy Julius Caesar, the emperor utters in disbelief as the assassins kill him, "You too Brutus?" But ancient sources write that Julius Caesar did not say anything at all, which— in a way— makes the moment of betrayal even more painful. The perception of Brutus, in turn, has been a mix for centuries. In Inferno, Dante puts Brutus in the Ninth Circle of Hell (which is right in the middle), and writes that Brutus' punishment for murdering Julius Caesar is that the devil chews him up in his mouth daily along with Judas Iscariot. But in Jonathan Swift's classic, Gulliver's Travels, Brutus is portrayed as kind, patriotic, intelligent and virtuous.
There has been much suspicion that has surrounded Julius Caesar's tenderness toward Brutus all the way up until the moment of his death. Why would an emperor not only forgive a person who sided with Pompey, and against him, in the civil war before he took power, but then further make that person one of his closest advisers? Why would Julius Caesar do this, especially to a person who— I might add— was also the nephew of his political arch-enemy in the senate, Cato?
This is where we come to the surprising fact that Julius Caesar and Brutus' mother, Servilia, were long-term passionate lovers.
In fact, there is a story 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 a note to Julius. Cato, already in a rage, demands that the note be read aloud if it's so important, and when Julius reluctantly obliges, Cato discovers that it is an erotic letter sent by his sister to Julius and is humiliated in front of his colleagues. Could Julius Caesar have fathered Brutus with Servilia? It is certainly a possibility, and would explain the incredible amount of compassion shown toward Brutus after the civil war that was not shown to others (Pompey's head was cut off and his naked body was thrown into the sea, while most of his men were also killed by the sword).
The main objection to this theory is that Julius Caesar would have only been between 15 and 17-years-old when Brutus was born. But children in Roman society began to have sexual relations from the age of 12; and for children of nobility, marriage and procreation were a high priority. So the idea that Julius Caesar could have fathered an illegitimate child between the ages of 15 and 17 is not at all a far-fetched one.
If Julius Caesar was indeed the father of Brutus, then it is a good thing that no one knew (perhaps not even Brutus himself), because the Roman punishment for patricide— poena cullei— was especially unique in its sadistic imagination. The perpetrator would be sewn into a giant leather sack along with a viper, a rooster, a monkey and a dog. The sack would then be thrown into a river or into the sea where the animals, in a panic, would bite the criminal and rip him apart while he and they drowned. Poena cullei was a symbolic execution. The sack in which the criminal would have been sewn represented the womb, and dying within it was not only punishment for the criminal murdering his/her parents, but was also a statement that it would have been better if the offender had never been born. The murder of parents, in the Roman mind, warranted a death by "reverse birth" if you will.
The death of Brutus, then, was a little more "pleasant" than it could have potentially been. He committed suicide by running into a sword held by two of his men, before Octavio, a nephew of Julius Caesar who wanted to avenge the death of his great uncle, could capture him. Shortly after Brutus' suicide, Octavio became Caesar Augustus, which meant that the plan of the conspirators against Julius Caesar had backfired completely. They had wanted the death of the emperor to mark the return of the republic and, in the end, their actions only cemented the status of Rome as an empire.
Plutarch (46-120 C.E.) wrote the legend more than a century after the death of Julius Caesar, that a sorcerer had warned Julius well in advance that his death would come on the Ides of March. Later, when Julius Caesar was walking to the place where he would be murdered, he met the sorcerer along the way and boasted, "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 story, along with what we know about what really happened during the assassination, teaches the remarkable lesson that even when we are at the highest peak of our confidence, it is often what we least expect that can lead to our ruin. This hard lesson is only exacerbated by the possibility that Brutus may have been Julius Caesar's 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' silence upon seeing Brutus can be found in Suetonius's book The Twelve Caesars (written around the year 119 C.E.)
- The story of the relationship of Julius Caesar and Servilia, and the embarrassment of Cato in the senate, can be found in Plutarch's biography of Cato the Younger.
- Information on the sexual activity of young Romans can be found in Amy Richlin's piece in the History of Sexuality magazine entitled "Not Before Homosexuality: The Materiality of The Cinaedus & The Roman Law Against Love Between Men" (1993) , as well as in the book by Beryl Rawson Children & Childhood In Roman Italy (Oxford University Press, 2003).
- References to Roman punishment for patricide are found in many ancient works, including the Emperor Constantine's decree seeking to revive the punishment during his reign found in the Codex Justinianus, Seneca the Younger's On Clemency, and in Juvenal's Collected Satires. For general information about the punishment, Wikipedia provides a decent summary.
- The story of Julius Caesar and the seer can be found in Plutarch's Parallel Lives (written sometime in the early second century).