What would you do if you thought your country was on the path to tyranny? If you saw one man gaining too much power, would you try to stop him? Even if that man was one of your closest friends and allies? These were the questions haunting Roman Senator Marcus Junius Brutus in 44 BCE, the year Julius Caesar would be assassinated. Opposing unchecked power wasn’t just a political matter for Brutus; it was a personal one. He claimed descent from Lucius Junius Brutus, who had helped overthrow the tyrannical king known as Tarquin the Proud. Instead of seizing power himself, the elder Brutus led the people in a rousing oath to never again allow a king to rule. Rome became a republic based on the principle that no one man should hold too much power. Now, four and a half centuries later, this principle was threatened.
Julius Ceasar’s rise to the powerful position of consul had been dramatic. Years of military triumphs had made him the wealthiest man in Rome. And after defeating his rival Pompey the Great in a bitter civil war, his power was at its peak. His victories and initiatives, such as distributing lands to the poor, had made him popular with the public, and many senators vied for his favor by showering him with honors. Statues were built, temples were dedicated, and a whole month was renamed, still called July today. More importantly, the title of dictator, meant to grant temporary emergency powers in wartime, had been bestowed upon Caesar several times in succession. And in 44 BCE, he was made dictator perpetuo, dictator for a potentially unlimited term.
All of this was too much for the senators who feared a return to the monarchy their ancestors had fought to abolish, as well as those whose own power and ambition were impeded by Caesar’s rule. A group of conspirators calling themselves the liberators began to secretly discuss plans for assassination. Leading them were the senator Gaius Cassius Longinus and his friend and brother-in-law, Brutus. Joining the conspiracy was not an easy choice for Brutus. Even though Brutus had sided with Pompey in the ill-fated civil war, Caesar had personally intervened to save his life, not only pardoning him but even accepting him as a close advisor and elevating him to important posts. Brutus was hesitant to conspire against the man who had treated him like a son, but in the end, Cassius’s insistence and Brutus’s own fear of Caesar’s ambitions won out.
The moment they had been waiting for came on March 15. At a senate meeting held shortly before Caesar was to depart on his next military campaign, as many as 60 conspirators surrounded him, unsheathing daggers from their togas and stabbing at him from all sides. As the story goes, Caesar struggled fiercely until he saw Brutus. Despite the famous line, “Et tu, Brute?” written by Shakespeare, we don’t know Caesar’s actual dying words. Some ancient sources claim he said nothing, while others record the phrase, “And you, child?”, fueling speculation that Brutus may have actually been Caesar’s illegitimate son.
But all agree that when Caesar saw Brutus among his attackers, he covered his face and gave up the fight, falling to the ground after being stabbed 23 times. Unfortunately for Brutus, he and the other conspirators had underestimated Caesar’s popularity among the Roman public, many of whom saw him as an effective leader, and the senate as a corrupt aristocracy. Within moments of Caesar’s assassination, Rome was in a state of panic. Most of the other senators had fled, while the assassins barricaded themselves on the Capitoline Hill. Mark Antony, Caesar’s friend and co-consul, was swift to seize the upper hand, delivering a passionate speech at Caesar’s funeral days later that whipped the crowd into a frenzy of grief and anger.
As a result, the liberators were forced out of Rome. The ensuing power vacuum led to a series of civil wars, during which Brutus, facing certain defeat, took his own life. Ironically, the ultimate result would be the opposite of what the conspirators had hoped to accomplish: the end of the Republic and the concentration of power under the office of Emperor. Opinions over the assassination of Caesar were divided from the start and have remained so. As for Brutus himself, few historical figures have inspired such a conflicting legacy. In Dante’s “Inferno,” he was placed in the very center of Hell and eternally chewed by Satan himself for his crime of betrayal.
But Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” described him as one of the most virtuous and benevolent people to have lived. The interpretation of Brutus as either a selfless fighter against dictatorship or an opportunistic traitor has shifted with the tides of history and politics. But even today, over 2000 years later, questions about the price of liberty, the conflict between personal loyalties and universal ideals, and unintended consequences remain more relevant than ever.