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.  

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