Saturday, August 17, 2013

Sic Semper Tyrannis: M. Junius Brutus and the fall of the Roman Republic

Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger (85 B.C.E – 42 B.C.E) was a politician and statesman of the late Roman Republic, whose leading position in the assassination of Julius Caesar played a pivotal role in the final collapse of the ailing Roman Republic.  Brutus himself came from an established and well-connected Patrician family, whose origins extended far back into Rome’s history. In fact, the Greek historian Plutarch[1] [2]—writing in the 1st century C.E.—relates to us that Brutus’ paternal lineage could be traced back to the traditional founder of the Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus;[3] while his maternal line could be traced back to the republican hero and tyrannicide Gaius Servilius Ahala.[4] [5]  Brutus’ father, M. Junius Brutus the Elder was a tribune of the plebs and founder of the colony of Capua. He had taken part in the ill-fated anti-Sullan revolt lead by Marcus Aemilius Lepidus and was summarily executed by the general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey), in lieu of a battle in Cisalpine Gaul in 77 B.C.E.   Brutus’ mother, Servilia Caepionis was the half-sister of Cato the Younger—and following the death of the Elder Brutus—became the mistress of Gaius Julius Caesar.
In the absence of his father, young Brutus formed close ties with his maternal uncle Cato. Cato, a well-known philosopher and politician, was politically aligned with the conservative Optimates[6] factions in the Senate. He is said to have been a stubborn yet principled man, with strong republican convictions. These convictions however, brought Cato into frequent opposition with the political ambitions of the dictator Lucius Sulla and later those of Julius Caesar. Cato was a popular and outspoken opponent of the First Triumvirate—the political alliance between Caesar, Pompey, and Marcus Licinius Crassus—and held a personal enmity towards the person of Caesar. This personal distaste for Caesar may have stemmed from Cato’s belief[7] that Caesar was involved in the thwarted Catiline Conspiracy[8] to overthrow the Republic. However, the Roman poet Horace[9] suggests that it may have been Cato’s opposition to the imperial ambitions of Pompey that inadvertently caused the establishment of the First Triumvirate and the advancement of Caesar to prominence in the first place.[10]
 Despite Cato’s opposition, the political arrangement of the First Triumvirate had afforded Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus the ability to wield an enormous amount of influence with little fear of significant opposition from the Senate. This arrangement was of particular beneficence to Caesar; who used the shared influence of Pompey and Crassus to secure for himself the position of proconsul to both Gaul and Illyricum. From this position, Caesar was able to wage a series of campaigns against the Gallic tribes of the north, securing new lands and extending the reach of the Republic. With the subjugation of the Gallic territories Caesar secured for himself both wealth and a reputation for military prowess. However, this arrangement could not last forever. The death of Crassus at the battle of Carrhae in 53 B.C.E. effectively ended the seven year dominance of the First Triumvirate and put the onetime alliance between Caesar and Pompey into question. Following the death of Pompey’s wife Julia—the daughter of Caesar—the relationship between the two men waned as Pompey attempted to secure his own position of influence apart from Caesar by aligning himself with the Optimates. [11] The Optimates in turn supported Pompey because they viewed him as the lesser of the two evils.  
Soon at the urging of Pompey, who now held power in Rome, the Senate decided to take action in response to the growing threat of Caesar. They issued an ultimatum to Caesar ordering him to disband his army and resign his command or face being declared an ‘Enemy of the Republic’. Pompey was subsequently entrusted by the Senate with the task of enforcing the ultimatum. At this time, Caesar was encamped in the northern Italian city of Ravenna. Rather than acquiesce to the Senatorial edict however, Caesar chose on 10 January 49 B.C.E. to cross the Rubicon—the traditional border between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy proper—with one of his legions. This in itself was an act of treason, because it broke a long standing law against any general crossing the Rubicon boundary with his army. Thus, Caesar had in effect offered a declaration of civil war.
The response in Rome was the effective polarization of the populace into competing factions. Although a strict republican, Cato upon learning of Caesar’s actions quickly realigned himself with his erstwhile rival Pompey. Brutus followed suit, despite the fact that Pompey was the man who had ordered the execution of his father. Soon Pompey and much of the Senate fled Rome for Greece in order to assemble an army to face Caesar. It was therefore at Pharsalus in central Greece that the decisive battle of the civil war was waged between Pompey and Caesar’s forces. Brutus was present at the battle in support of Pompey’s army. However, Caesar ordered his men not to kill nor harm Brutus in any way during the battle. Plutarch relates that Caesar acted thus out of regard for Servilia, Brutus’ mother, with whom he was engaged in a longstanding love affair.[12] At the battle, the Senatorial forces were defeated by Caesar’s army. Following the conflict, Brutus escaped to Larissa where he sent word to Caesar of his safety and relative equanimity to the position to which he now found himself. Following negotiations and reconciliation, Caesar appointed Brutus governor of Cisalpine Gaul. Pompey meanwhile fled to Egypt, where Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII Theos Philopator had him executed in an ill-advised attempt to garner favor with Caesar. Far from being pleased, Caesar is said to have wept over the death of his friend and former son-in-law. Thus, the last significant opposition to Caesar’s unilateral rule was ended with the murder of Pompey and the defeat of the Optimates.
Brutus, however, was perceived by Caesar to be a valuable commodity for placement in his inner circle. In 45 B.C.E., Brutus was nominated by Caesar to serve as urban praetor for the following year. Renowned for both his honesty and strength of character, Brutus was a man who could garner the respect and admiration of even his enemies. Had he wished, Plutarch[13] suggests that Brutus could have been first among Caesar’s friends, sharing in as much of Caesar’s power as he desired. However, many were growing leery of the increasing powers and monarchal overtures of Caesar. It was not long before some began to feel that the restoration of the Republic would necessitate the assassination of a would-be tyrant.
In an unprecedented conciliation, the Senate declared in 44 B.C.E., that Caesar should be named Dictator perpetuo (Dictator in Perpetuity). With the time restrictions of the dictatorship removed, Caesar became in effect a king in everything but name. Upon hearing rumors that Caesar planned to have himself inaugurated, Brutus entered into a conspiracy with his brother-in-law Gaius Cassius Longinus to assassinate Caesar. Plutarch[14] informs us that Brutus’ support of the assassination plot may have been pivotal in the recruitment of other members of the Senate involved in the conspiracy.  
Plutarch relates that on 15 March 44 B.C.E., the Ides of March, Caesar entered the Theater of Pompey to attend a Senate session. Upon entering the Senate, a conspirator named Tillius Cimber is said to have offered Caesar a petition to recall his brother from exile. While this transpired, the other conspirators in the plot began to encircle Caesar. When Caesar waived him away, Cimber grabbed Caesar by the shoulders and pulled away his tunic. In response, Caesar shouted at Cimber, “This is violence!” Meanwhile, Servilius Casca produced a dagger and attempted to strike Caesar. Grabbing the arm of his attacker, Caesar shouted, “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?” A frightened Casca shouted, “Help, brother!” Soon, all of the conspirators were in the fray. Caesar attempted to escape but, was blinded by blood and tripped. Falling on the steps of the portico, Caesar was left defenseless against his attackers. Not wanting the conspirators to see his face, Caesar pulled his toga over his head. Sources however differ as to Caesar’s last words. Plutarch reports that Caesar did not say anything. Rather when he saw Brutus among the conspirators he covered his face and consigned himself to his fate; while Suetonius reports that some have said that upon seeing Brutus Caesar asked, “You too, child?”[15] [16] Following Caesar’s death Brutus attempted to address the Senators not involved in the conspiracy, but in the ensuing fear and confusion they fled the scene. So, the conspirators then went out to the streets to address the people, only to find that most people had locked themselves in their homes in a bewildered panic.
Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators would soon find that public opinion did not hold them as liberators. Rather, the general perception among the middle and lower classes was outrage that a group of aristocrats had murdered a popular figure among the common people. This feeling became acute following Caesar’s funeral, when Mark Antony offered a stirring eulogy condemning the conspirators as assassins. Though the Senate granted amnesty to the conspirators, Brutus and Cassius soon left Rome. In their absence, Caesar’s great-nephew and designated successor Octavian received the consulship and pushed to have the conspirators declared enemies of the Republic. Brutus and Cassius meanwhile were mobilizing an army to face the combined forces of Antony and Octavian.
At the battle of Philippi in October 42 B.C.E., however, the armies of Brutus and Cassius were defeated and both men committed suicide. Thus the last major effort to restore the Republic had failed. Brutus and the other conspirators had made a tactical error by failing to eliminate Caesar’s closest associates in the plot. In addition, it does not seem that they were adequately prepared to deal with circumstances following the actual death of Caesar. In the power vacuum that was created by his absence the competing demagogues Antony and Octavian were able to rally public opinion and consolidate authority. Following Antony’s suicide in the aftermath of the battle of Actium in 30 B.C.E., Octavian ceased sole power in Rome and established the period of autocratic rule we now know as the Roman Empire. Though Brutus’ efforts ultimately failed to prevent the establishment of a tyranny, his death as one of the last martyrs of the Republic stands as a perpetual example of Rome’s traditional anti-monarchal values.



Bringmann, K. (2008). A History of the Roman Republic. Malden, MA: Polity.

Cicero. (1923). Cato Maior De Senectute . Retrieved May 2010, from University of Chicago:*.html

Garland, M. D. (2005). Ancient Rome: From the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge.

Halicarnassus, D. o. (1950). Roman Antiquities. Retrieved May 2010, from University of Chicago:*.html

Horace. (2003). Horace: the Odes, Book II. Retrieved May 2010, from Poetry in Translation:

Livius, T. (1996). The History of Rome, Vol. 1. (E. Rhys, Ed.) Retrieved May 2010, from Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library:

Plutarch. (1919). Life of Brutus. (L. C. edition, Ed.) Retrieved April 12, 2010, from The Parallel Lives:*.html

Plutarch. (1919). Life of Caesar. (L. C. edition, Ed.) Retrieved April 12, 2010, from The Parallel Lives:*.html

Sallust. (1931). The War With Catiline . Retrieved May 2010, from University of Chicago:*.html

[1] (Plutarch, Life of Brutus, 1919)
[2] This tradition is also relayed by Suetonius, Life of the Deified Julius 82. 1-2 (Garland, 2005)
[3]In Book II of his History of Rome, Livy discusses the overthrow of the last Etruscan king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and the establishment of the Republic. These events are said to have transpired following the rape of the noblewoman Lucretia by Tarquin’s son Sextus Tarquinius. According to Roman tradition this event was the catalyst used by Lucius Brutus to lead the popular revolt against the Tarquins and the Roman monarchal system itself. (Livius, 1996)
[4] Gaius Servilius Ahala served as Magister Equitum (Master of the Horse) during the dictatorship of Cincinnatus. He is famous for murdering Spurius Maelius, a wealthy plebian he feared harbored aspirations of kingship. In addition to Plutarch, this story is also recorded in Livy, the History of Rome iv. 13 (Livius, 1996); Cicero, De senectute 16: p. 69 (Cicero, 1923); Dionysius of Halicarnassus, The Roman Antiquities, vol. vii; book xii.i. (Halicarnassus, 1950)
[5] Both stories about Brutus’ ancestry may represent nothing more than etiological myths. However, despite the fact that the veracity of such stories is indeterminate, it is arguable that they do relate something to us about Brutus’ actual character.
[6] The Optimates (the ‘Best), was the name given to the advocates of collective senatorial rule. The Optimates tended towards aristocratic sentiments and desired to limit the power of the ‘tribune of the plebs’ and the ‘popular assemblies’ in favor of stronger senatorial control. (Bringmann, 2008)
[7] (Bringmann, 2008, p. 229)
[8]The efforts of Lucius Sergius Catilina, Catiline, to overthrow the Senate were ultimately unsuccessful; leading to the execution of a number of prominent conspirators (despite the objections of Caesar) and the death of Catiline himself in battle. (Sallust, 1931)
[9] (Horace, 2003); (Bringmann, 2008)
[10] This sentiment was is also clear in Cicero, who initially lauded the opposition to Pompey, but later recognized its unintended consequences.
[11] The familial bond between Caesar and Pompey that existed as a result of the Pompey’s marriage to Julia represented perhaps the most significant connection between the two men. So, with Julia’s death, Caesar attempted to secure continued support from Pompey by encouraging him to marry Caesar’s great niece Octavia, sister of Octavian. Pompey, however, declined this offer.
[12] (Plutarch, Life of Brutus, 1919)
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid.
[15] Ibid.
[16] The suggestion of this statement as Caesar’s last words is somewhat disconcerting when one considers the rumors and suggestions that Caesar may have been Brutus’ actual biological father.  

Banquet on the Ides of March: Cicero on the Final Days of the Republic

Marcus Tullius Cicero (3 January, 106 B.C.E. – 7 December, 43 B.C.E.) was a politician, philosopher, and political theorist, whose recorded speeches and letters represent one of our most important primary sources for the period of the late Roman Republic. Not only was Cicero a contemporary of the key political figures of his time, he was also a colleague, friend, and rival to the men who ultimately shaped some of the most significant events in history. Indeed, Cicero himself was a prominent political figure, who commanded a large degree of power and influence. Cicero’s writings are of particular importance to our understanding of the events corresponding to the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar and the final days of the Roman Republic.
Cicero records the tumultuous environment in Rome following Caesar’s January 10 crossing of the Rubicon in 49 B.C.E.  Pompey had aligned himself with the Senate in order to face the opposing force of Caesar’s legions as they marched towards Rome. Cicero, himself a strict republican, seems to have resigned himself to reality that senatorial power would soon be in subjection to either Pompey or Caesar; the question would be to whom. For their part, the Optimates had decided that Pompey represented the lesser of the two evils and preparations were made to defeat Caesar.
“3: Never has the state been in greater danger, never have wicked citizens had a leader more ready for action. True that on our side too preparations are very earnestly underway. This is happening through the authority and enthusiasm of our friend Pompey, who has begun, rather late, to be afraid of Caesar.”[1]

Following Caesar’s eventual defeat of Pompey’s forces, Cicero fled Rome. However, in a bid to legitimize his power grab, Caesar was offering clemency to individuals he thought useful to his cause. This included both his future assassin M. Junius Brutus, as well as a reluctant Cicero. It appears that Cicero accepted restoration because he was able to convince himself that Caesar could be persuaded to restore the Republic. This sentiment, however, was not forthcoming.
By the time the Senate approved Caesar’s unconstitutional powers as dictator perpetuo in February 44 B.C.E, it was abundantly clear to everyone that Caesar had no intention of restoring the Republic. However, Cicero was taken wholly by surprise, when on the Ides of March, Caesar was murdered by the Liberatores in the Theatre of Pompey in the presence of the Senate. M. Junius Brutus, the chief conspirator, is said to have called on Cicero immediately after the assassination to restore the Republic. Though Cicero’s sentiments were clearly with the conspirators, he was not brought into the plot. Cicero did maintain correspondence with the Liberatores, however, and appears to have some feeling of disappointment about his lack of involvement.
“I could wish that you had invited me to the banquet of the Ides of March: there would have been nothing left over! As it is, your leavings give me much trouble-yes, me more than anybody. Though our consuls are splendid, our consulars are utterly shameful. Though the senate is courageous, it is the lowest in rank that are most so. Nothing, indeed, can surpass the resolute bearing of the people, and of all Italy with one accord. Nothing, on the other hand, can well be more scandalous and unprincipled than our emissaries Philippus and Piso. For having been sent to deliver to Antony certain definite orders, in accordance with the vote of the senate, upon his refusing to comply with one of them, they have brought back to us some intolerable demands on his part. The result is that my house is thronged, and that though I am supporting a sound constitutional measure, I have now become a popular hero.” [2]

Following the death of Caesar, Mark Antony seized the initiative and attempted to consolidate his own power by gaining a monopoly on the memory of Caesar. He was opposed by Cicero who favored Caesar’s great-nephew and heir apparent, Octavian. Octavian was young and Cicero felt that he would be a more compliant tool of the Senate than the more seasoned and unscrupulous Antony. To this effect, Cicero wrote a series of public speeches known as the Philippicae[3] condemning Antony. He also bartered for a compromise concerning the Senatorial position regarding the status of the Liberatores.
“The Ides of March are our consolation. Our heroes achieved all that rested with themselves gloriously and magnificently; what remains needs money and men, none of which we have.”[4]

He argued for amnesty for the conspirators, in exchange for a declaration that Caesar had not been a tyrant. This declaration allowed Caesarians to continue to hold power without fear of condemnation.  However, this provision allowed for the Caesarians to appeal to popular sentiment and turn the mood of public opinion against the Liberatores and their defenders.
“The tyranny lives on, the tyrant is dead! We rejoice at the death of the murdered man whose act we defend!”[5]

“Those who ought to be guarded by all mankind, not only for their protection but also for their glorification, are praised and loved, but that is all, and are confined without their houses.”[6]

Cicero’s appeals to the Senate to back Octavian in his bid to overcome Antony ended with an agreement between Antony, Octavian, and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. As condition of their Second Triumvirate agreement to share power, each one of the triumvirs agreed to allow the elimination of each other’s enemies. As a response to the damning effect of the Philippicae on his reputation, Antony ordered the death of Cicero; as well as Cicero’s son, brother, and nephew. Despite the fact that Cicero had been a helpful supporter to Octavian, he nevertheless did not wish to jeopardize his agreement by opposing Antony. Though Plutarch relates that Octavian attempted to dissuade Antony from executing Cicero, he would eventually acquiesce. On December 7, 43 B.C.E. Cicero was captured and killed as he left his villa. His corpse was beheaded and, and on Antony’s instructions, the hands that had penned the Philippicae were cut off. His head and hands were nailed and displayed in the Roman Forum as a deterrent to would-be detractors.
In Cicero’s writing you do not see a detached report of historical proceedings by a disinterested party. Rather, you get pictures of the vacillations of someone intimately involved in situations struggling with difficult decisions. Cicero often took courses of action which he soon thereafter came to regret. These he reports in his letters and writings concerning his mental states during the course of specific events. His writings range from the guarded statements of an inside political player—meant to garner favor (or at least prevent reprisal)—to revealing letters full of consternation and demur. In his many communications with family and friends, Cicero discussed his thoughts and feelings about politics and the state of the Republic. He was not himself a historian but, despite this, we have gleaned from his writings a significant amount of information concerning Roman society and political life. While he may not have realized that he was, in fact, chronicling the final days of the Republic which he so loved; we can look back and observe his voice as one which reflected the dimming light of traditional Roman values. Through his voluminous works there is a sense in which one can read his speculations concerning the specter of events—then still on the horizon—and note his sincere (if miscalculated belief) that those values would endure. Cicero leaves us with a foreboding about the future and perhaps a misplaced hope that the Republic could have been saved.


Bringmann, K. (2008). A History of the Roman Republic. Malden, MA: Polity.
Cicero. (n.d.). Epistulae ad Familiares. Retrieved May 2010, from Latin Texts & Translations: Fam. 12.4&getid=0

Garland, M. D. (2005). Ancient Rome: From the Early Republic to the Assassination of Julius Caesar. London: Routledge.

[1] Cicero, Letters to his Friends 16. 11.2-3 (12 January 49)
[2] Cicero, Epistulae ad Familiares DCCCXV (F XII, 4) [To C. Cassius Longinus (In Syria) Rome, 2 February
[3] A philippic is a speech offered as a condemnation of a politician. The term originates from several attacks on Philip II of Macedon in the 4th century BC, by the Greek statesman Demosthenes.
[4] Cicero, Letters to Atticus 14.4.2 (10 April 44)
[5] Ibid., 14.9.2 (17 April 44)
[6] Ibid., 14.5.2 (11 April 44)