2056 years ago on this day — the Ides of March — Julius Caesar was killed in full view of the Roman Senate by some two dozen conspirators. Depending on who you ask, the killers were motivated either by jealousy, or by a patriotic desire to save the Republic from devolving into a tyrannical monarchy.
If you know anything about the Ides of March, you know that in Shakepseare’s telling of the story, Caesar called out to his friend “et tu, Brute?” before collapsing. But the story of Caesar’s death was already a juicy, enthralling piece of drama before Shakespeare got to it.
Nearly all the crazy, inane sh!4 that goes down in Shakespeare’s play — from the fake letters Cassius leaves on Brutus’s chair to stroke his ego, to the portentous dream Caesar’s wife has the night before, to the conspirators’ strange fascination with making sure they all bathe their arms in Caesar’s blood, to the ghosts that haunt Brutus, to their dramatic suicides — is taken, unmodified, from Plutarch’s detailed Greek account written just a few generations after the event:
Casca gave him the first cut in the neck, which was not mortal nor dangerous, as coming from one who at the beginning of such a bold action was probably very much disturbed. Caesar immediately turned about, and laid his hand upon the dagger and kept hold of it. And both of them at the same time cried out, he that received the blow, in Latin, “Vile Casca, what does this mean?” and he that gave it, in Greek, to his brother, “Brother, help!”
Upon the first onset, those who were not privy to the design were astonished, and their horror and amazement at what they saw were so great that they durst not flee, nor assist Caesar, nor so much as speak a word. But those who came prepared for the business enclosed him on every side, with their naked daggers in their hands. Which way soever he turned he met with blows, and saw their swords levelled at his face and eyes, and was encompassed, like a wild beast in the toils, on every side.
For it had been agreed that they should each of them make a thrust at him, and flesh themselves with his blood; for which reason Brutus also gave him one stab in the groin.
The sassy intrigue of Plutarch’s story captured the imagination of the 16th-century English intelligencia, who frequently enjoyed debating whether Brutus and his conspirators were the heroes or the villains of the story.
Who you side with depends in part on whether you believe that the uncompromising idealism of Brutus is sincere and powerful, or if you feel that the jealous machinations of his ally, Cassius are a better representation of the conspirators’ motives. Furthemore, was the chaos and civil war created by the illegal assassination just as bad as the tyrannical monarchy they feared would (and ultimately did) arise? Or is it right to fight injustice, even if your failure might make it even more powerful?
I’m team Brutus, not because I have good reasons, but because I’m a sucker for head-in-the-clouds idealism.
Marcus Junius Brutus came from a powerful family, the Junii Bruti, whose founding member — Lucius Junius Brutus — purportedly killed a tyrant in the 6th century B.C.E. and founded the Roman Republic. Five hundred years later, the Bruti family made much of this heritage, and styled themselves as the liberators of the people. In between the killing of Caesar and his own death shortly thereafter, Brutus even had coins made to commemorate the Ides of March. They featured a Pileus, a kind of hat worn by Greek and Roman slaves after they were freed, as a symbol of their liberty.
From historical sources, we can’t soundly determine whether Brutus was as genuinely noble and good as he presents himself in Shakespeare — where he vehemently insists that the conspirators kill only Caesar, and that they should do so reluctantly and with compassion in their hearts — or whether the Bruti family simply played a game of political rhetoric to make themselves appear legitimate before the people. Regardless, however, the story of Caesar’s assassination, and the republican ideals of liberty and collective rule that the Bruti championed, is a juicy and timeless tale of the sort of political dreams that eventually led to the founding of our own American Republic, among others.
Republicanism, like all forms of law, can only function if the constitution is treated with great respect and admiration — if the public feels a sense of sacred trust for the state as it is structured. Every country has people like Brutus, who believe in a good, collaborative form of government, and are enraged by violations of justice. But time and time again around the world, we see a tyrant supplanted by a righteous coup d’etat, only to watch the dreams of the conspirators crumble in their hands. It is not a simple thing to (re)create a thriving, just republic among a people who have lost faith in the state, the order of their civilization.
Brutus and his allies were defeated and killed in the wake of Caesar’s assassination. Their actions only paved the way for the rise of Caesar Agustus, the first emperor. The clear parallels to the Arab Spring, and especially Egypt, illustrate just how hard a thing it is to import democracy, much less export it.
When do you think we should aspire to be a Brutus — and when is it better to accept the inevitable peacefully?
PS: Thanks to a stirring recent performance of Julius Caesar by Baltimore’s 7 Ronin for inspiring this post! And especially to Kevin Hughes’ performance of a Brutus who was just dripping with compassion and virtue.