Great betrayals have attracted the attention of human beings since the beginning of recorded history and storytelling. 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 must first look back four-and-a-half centuries prior to another Brutus: Lucius Junius. Lucius Junius Brutus also played a role in the overthrow of a ruler, named Tarquin the Proud. This was a time when Rome was still ruled by kings, before becoming a republic, and Lucius immediately saw the problems that came with one man having too much power. This epiphany would come after Tarquin the Proud’s son raped Lucius’s wife while he was away from home, and upon discovering this terrible crime and reporting it to Tarquin, the son went unpunished. When Lucius subsequently 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 from the balcony of the royal palace 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.
Coming back to four-and-a-half centuries later, 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. Yet 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 thereafter that 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 prevent the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and preserve the republic, sided with Pompey during the conflict.
But when Pompey loses, and Julius crosses the Rubicon and finally takes Rome, the new emperor does something very 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— and former enemy— who saved his life, but at the same time continues to fear that Julius Caesar will ultimately destroy the republic. To live with this tension could never have lasted forever, and as it would turn out, of course, the reign of Julius Caesar would do nothing to calm Brutus’ fears.
Julius Caesar established his own police force, took massive amounts of land and redistributed it to whomever he pleased, gave himself powers of censorship, forced the senate to bestow him with the titles “Father of the Fatherland” and “Emperor”, and prepared to begin two wars with the Dacians and the Parthians. In the course of these events, Brutus and other conspirators of the senate had finally reached their breaking point and agreed that Julius Caesar quite simply had to go.
Thus, on March 15th, 44 B.C.E., Julius Caesar entered the Theater of Pompey hoping to attend a meeting the senate had arranged, but instead, he was greeted by a group of men with daggers who surrounded the ruler and stabbed 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 always. Even if the path to reaching that point is full of controversies and even if the aftermath later on results in something worse. Evil people dying, on its own, taken in isolation, is always a good thing. Take the Iraq war, for example. 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; money that could have been used for infrastructure, healthcare, or schools. What’s worse, when the Ba’ath Party fell in Iraq, a power vacuum created chaos and sectarian violence not long thereafter. 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 Libyan 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— at least sometimes— 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, Milosevic, etc). However, I must confess that when I read the story of Julius Caesar’s murder, I don’t 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 Julius Caesar’s existence 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. Though a dictator, the Roman people saw Julius Caesar as benevolent and efficient (mainly because he had distributed many of the lands he had seized to the poor, and had won dozens of military victories) and saw the senate as a corrupt aristocracy (which, truthfully, they were).
But there is more to the murder of Julius Caesar than the actual killing itself and how Rome responded to the death.
According to the ancient historian Suetonius (70-130 C.E.), there is a very moving moment in the middle of the assassination, where the emperor is fending off the killers as they are attacking him with their daggers... until he sees Brutus standing among them. When Julius lays eyes on Brutus, he covers his face and stops resisting. 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 closed in for a final time and ended the life of Rome’s first and most famous emperor.
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 actually did not say anything at all, which— in a way— makes the moment of betrayal even more painful… and suspicious. A lot of conjecture surrounds Julius Caesar’s tenderness toward Brutus, which remained consistent 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? If anything, it would have made more sense to execute Brutus for being an enemy and then further use his relation to Cato as a way of getting rid of the troublesome senator. This was Ancient Rome, after all. Why didn’t the emperor do this? It’s not as if the historical record is hazy about his willingness to eliminate threats.
Yet, this is where we come to the surprising revelation that Julius Caesar and Brutus’ mother, Servilia, were lifelong 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 the emperor. Cato, already in a rage, demands that the note be read aloud if it’s so damn important, and when Julius reluctantly obliges after enough pressing, 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 and leniency shown toward Brutus after the civil war. Compassion and leniency, I might add, 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 fatherhood 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. That this is the only real objection voiced concerning the fatherhood hypotheses is, frankly, weak sauce.
But if Julius Caesar was indeed the father of Brutus, it is a good thing that no one knew (including perhaps 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. Rather than achieve the same legacy as his ancestor Lucius Brutus, Marcus Brutus came so close only to fail spectacularly.
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, while Julius 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.”
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’ 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).