Libertarian Heritage 030, Marcus Brutus (85 BC - 42 BC): Purger of Tyranny (2013), by Peter Richards
Marcus Brutus (85 BC - 42 BC): Purger of Tyranny
Libertarian Heritage No. 30
An occasional publication of the Libertarian Alliance,
Suite 35, 2 Lansdowne Row, Mayfair, London, W1J 6HL.
ISSN: 0959-566X (print)
ISSN: 2042-2733 (online)
© 2013: Libertarian Alliance, Peter Richards
Peter Richards is a Hampshire businessman and writer. Besides being a supporter of the LA, he is a member of the Rationalist Association, the Society for Individual Freedom and the Freedom Association. He has also contributed to The Freethinker, Right Now! and The Individual. In 2011, the Book Guild published Free-born John Lilburne: English Libertarian: And Other Essays on Liberty, many of the chapters of which were first published by the LA or SIF.
The views expressed in this publication are those of its author, and not necessarily those of the Libertarian Alliance, its Committee, Advisory Council or subscribers.
FOR LIFE, LIBERTY AND PROPERTY
Excellent Brutus! Of all human race
These words were written by the 17th century poet Abraham Cowley.1 He is referring to Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger, better known to us as Brutus, one of the leading conspirators responsible for the assassination of Julius Caesar on 15th March 44 BC. Brutus was a prominent politician during the latter years of the Roman Republic but he is best remembered for the what happened on the Ides of March at the Theatre of Pompey. Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar has ensured that his story has continued to be told through the ages.
Clearly the poet Cowley regards Brutus as a hero, and yet it is easy to see why some people think that Brutus was a villain; so why was and is this man, Brutus, who is famous for being involved in a murder, held in such high esteem, not only by many of his contemporaries but also by countless numbers of people throughout the two thousand years or so since his death? How much of this positive image comes from Shakespeare? How much of Shakespeare’s version is actually true? How much influence has the story of Brutus had on political ideas and the principals of individual liberty since his death?
This essay begins with a short biography of Brutus, with particular emphasis on the assassination of Caesar; it continues by surveying Brutus’ reputation and noting how it has fluctuated from one extreme to the other over the years; it takes a look at Shakespeare’s portrayal of Brutus, followed by an examination of the source material for Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Finally it examines how Brutus was used as a symbol of resistance to tyranny and as a champion of freedom in the 18th century in both Britain and America, and speculates that this symbolism will continue into the future.
Who was Brutus?
Brutus was a man who had a reputation for honesty and integrity; he was a man of principle, who was concerned for the future of Rome and for the potential abuse of power when Julius Caesar declared himself to be dictator in perpetuity. Brutus was persuaded by Cassius and the other conspirators that the best course of action for the good of Rome was tyrannicide.
Brutus was the son of Marcus Junius Brutus the Elder, who was killed by Pompey the Great when Brutus was just a boy. His mother’s name was Servilia Caepionis; she was for a time Caesar’s lover and some have speculated that Caesar may even have been Brutus’s natural father.
For a while Brutus used the name Quintus Caepio Brutus, following the death of his father, after being adopted by his uncle Quintus Servilius Caepio but he later reverted back to using his original birth-name. He was brought up by another uncle, Cato the Younger, a Stoic philosopher.
Brutus divorced his first wife Claudia and in June 45 BC married Porcia, Cato’s daughter. Porcia, who was Brutus’ widowed cousin, had given birth to three sons during her previous marriage, and so was not therefore in the first flush of youth at the time of her wedding to Brutus. However the marriage was a success, and despite some difficulties between Porcia and Brutus’s mother Servilia, the relationship was loving and lasted until Porcia‘s death in 42 BC.
Brutus was descended, so he believed, from the founder of the Roman Republic, Lucius Junius Brutus, who in 509 BC drove out Tarquinius Superbus, the seventh and last king of Rome. On his mother’s side of the family he had another famous ancestor, Servilius Ahala, who had killed a potential tyrant Spurius Maelius in 439 BC and who was subsequently regarded as a champion of freedom for what was perceived to be a brave and noble act.
A bust of Lucius Brutus and another of Ahala, were on display in Brutus’ home, providing him with a daily reminder of his famous ancestors and of their deeds against tyranny. Brutus, as a moneyer, also had coins issued with an image of Lucius Brutus on one side and Ahala on the other, representing his opposition to autocracy. It is clear that Brutus’ celebrated ancestors provided role models for him to follow.
Brutus’s Life before the assassination of Caesar
Brutus was born circa 85 BC in Macedonia. He received a thorough education in both Greek and Latin, with particular emphasis on grammar and rhetoric while in Rome. He was also sent to Athens where he studied Greek literature and philosophy.
Brutus was back in Rome when Caesar returned there in 60 BC to form an alliance with Pompey and Crassus, later to be known as the First Triumvirate. When Brutus faced accusations by Vettius in 59 BC, of plotting with others, to kill Pompey, Caesar came to his rescue and successfully defended him against these false claims.
In 58 BC, when Cato was given the job of taking over Cyprus, previously part of the Egyptian dynasty, he took his nephew Brutus with him. Brutus assisted with the annexation and provided financial support for the town of Salamis, allowing him to make a great deal of money (in interest) in the process.
In 53 BC Brutus was selected as quaestor, a financial magistrate, and became responsible for taxes in the province of Cilicia, of which Cyprus was now part. The governor of Cilicia at the time was Appius Claudius, the father of Brutus’s first wife, Claudia. This was the year that Crassus died, leaving Pompey, who was supported by the Senate, and Caesar, who was successfully conquering Gaul, as the two remaining leaders of the First Triumvirate.
When Civil war broke out between Caesar and Pompey at the time of Caesar’s invasion of Italy in 49 BC, Brutus decided to serve under Pompey in Greece, despite the fact that Pompey had been responsible for the murder of Brutus’s father – his decision was based on what he believed was in the best interest of Rome.
When Caesar defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, Brutus became a prisoner but was not only pardoned by Caesar but also given the responsible role of governor of Cisalpine Gaul (now the Northern region of modern Italy). After the battle, Pompey fled to Egypt where he was murdered.
In 45 BC, Caesar nominated Brutus to become praetor (the title granted to a magistrate) in the following year.
Ever since Caesar had crossed the Rubicon in 49 BC and marched on Rome, there was talk of Caesar accepting the crown as King. Now that Caesar had declared himself dictator in perpetuity, disillusionment set in and the plotting began.
There were as many as 60 senators involved in the plot to kill Caesar, and all were sworn to secrecy. The only woman privy to the plot was Brutus’ wife, Porcia, who demanded to know why Brutus was in such a troubled state of mind and even stabbed herself in the thigh in order to prove her worthiness of being entrusted with the secret. Many of the conspirators wanted to kill Mark Antony (Caesar’s second-in-command) as well as Caesar, but Brutus, who was against any kind of unnecessary bloodshed, opposed the idea.
Caesar refused to listen to warnings from both his wife Calpurnia and the soothsayer telling him not to attend the Senate meeting on the Ides of March 44 BC. As history records, he did go and was murdered. The Roman historian Suetonius describes the manner of his death:
Tillius Cimber, who had taken the lead, came up close, pretending to ask a question. Caesar made a gesture of postponement, but Cimber caught hold of his shoulders. ‘This is violence!’ Caesar cried, and at that moment, as he turned away, one of the Casca brothers with a sweep of his dagger stabbed him just below the throat. Caesar grasped Casca’s arm and ran it through with his stylus; he was leaping away when another dagger blow stopped him. Confronted by a ring of drawn daggers, he drew the top of his gown over his face, and at the same time ungirded the lower part, letting it fall to his feet so that he would die with both legs decently covered. Twenty three dagger thrusts went home as he stood there. Caesar did not utter a sound after Casca’s blow had drawn a groan from him; though some say that when he saw Marcus Brutus about to deliver the second blow, he reproached him in Greek with: ‘you, too, my child?’2
Caesar’s body lay dead at the foot of Pompey’s statue and the ruler of the known world would rule no more.
Brutus’s Life after the assassination of Caesar
After the assassination of Caesar, a power struggle broke out between Mark Antony and Octavius, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew. Octavius was only eighteen at the time and his sudden rise to power was largely due to being named in Caesar’s will as heir to much of Caesar’s property and also to being declared Caesar’s adopted son, to be known thereafter as Octavian. It was a name that he retained until 27 BC when he became the emperor Augustus Caesar.
Brutus and Cassius thought it wise to leave Rome and Brutus retreated to Athens and then to Crete where he lived from 44 BC to 42 BC.
Rome’s power struggle was resolved when Octavian was declared consul by the Roman Senate in 43 BC and formed the second Triumvirate with Mark Antony and Marcus Lepidus, marking the end of Republican Rome.
Brutus and Cassius raised an army to fight for the restoration of the Republic but in October 42 BC they were defeated by the forces of Octavian and Mark Antony at the Battle of Philippi; Brutus, in the time honoured Roman fashion, fell on his sword.
Although the assassination of Caesar was executed successfully, politically the outcome was a failure. The assassins had to flee the country because of public outrage ignited by Mark Antony’s oration at Caesar’s funeral. The Roman Republic was never restored.
As Enoch Powell once declared:
All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.3
This is exemplified by Brutus, who failed to restore the Republic. He finally committed suicide after losing the battle at Philippi. In fact, American writer, Professor Harold Bloom suggested Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar ‘could have been entitled The Tragedy of Marcus Brutus’.4
Brutus’ success however is in his legacy, because after his death he became a symbol of opposition to tyranny – although this reputation has not always remained unquestioned. Since his death Brutus’s reputation has fluctuated between the positive and negative extremes of virtuous purger of tyranny and traitorous murderer. M.L. Clarke summarizes these changes:
Shakespeare’s Brutus is sensitive and scrupulous, an idealist who fails partly because of his very virtues. Others have seen him in a different light. Dante put him with Judas Iscariot in the lowest circle of Inferno. In the eighteenth century he was looked up to as a heroic champion of freedom and was admired as a model of ancient virtue, to be classed with Cato, and even Socrates. In Gulliver’s Travels,when Brutus is called from the dead, Gulliver sees in his countenance ‘the most consummate Virtue, the greatest Intrepidity, and Firmness of Mind, the truest Love of his Country, and general Benevolence for Mankind‘. Yet this was the man who was almost universally depreciated in the nineteenth century. His critics could not forgive his extortionate money-lending in Cyprus; they condemned him as weak, obstinate, self-righteous.5
However in his own lifetime Brutus was much admired. Clarke explains:
Brutus was in fact endowed with a variety of talents, and there were not many Romans, even in that age of gifted all-rounders, who were equally distinguished in so many fields.
But it was his character rather than his talents that made him so highly respected. Cicero once wrote to Atticus: ‘I shall never fail my friend Brutus, and this would be the case even if I had no personal connection with him, on account of his remarkable and extraordinarily fine character’ ; and in a letter to Brutus himself he expressed the hope that his son would be with him as much as possible because he could have no better training in character than by watching and imitating him.6
Clarke continues by discussing Brutus‘s reputation after the tyrannicide:
The murder of Caesar was the subject on controversy from the beginning. One influential voice, that of Cicero, welcomed it wholeheartedly. For him it was a glorious deed and its perpetrators were heroes, men of superhuman virtue. In the Second Philippic he observed that this was the first occasion in Roman history when a man had been killed who was not aiming at kingly power but actually exercising it. ‘The deed is not only glorious and godlike in itself but also provides a clear example for imitation, especially as they have won a glory which the heavens can scarce contain. For even though there is sufficient reward in the mere conscoiusness of a noble deed, yet in my opinion immortality is not to be despised by a mortal.’7
Most people know Brutus from Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, and it would be instructive to look at how Shakespeare portrays Brutus. Harold Bloom noted that ‘Brutus is Shakespeare’s first intellectual, and the enigmas of his nature are multiform’.8
In the final Act of Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, after the death of Brutus, his enemy Mark Antony, referring to him says:
This was the noblest Roman of them all.9
He goes on to say why he believed that of all the conspirators Brutus’ motive was the most honourable.
All the conspirators save only he
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He only, in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
He continues to heap praise on Brutus:
His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him, that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, ‘This was a man!’10
Before the assassination, Brutus, believing their mission to be honourable, declared:
We shall be called purgers, not murderers.11
According to Harold Bloom’s assessment, “Brutus, a Stoic, has no envy of Caesar’s splendor yet fears the potential of unlimited power, even if exercised by the responsible and rational Caesar”.12
It is as if Brutus decides that a pre-emptive strike, before Caesar inevitably becomes an all powerful tyrant, is morally justified, even though he is his friend. This is how Shakespeare’s Brutus puts it:
And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg
Which, hatched, would, as his kind, grow mischievous;
And kill him in the shell.13
After Caesar is murdered, the Conspirators are in no doubt about what they believe they have achieved:
CINNA: Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny is dead!
Run hence, proclaim, cry it about the streets.
CASSIUS: Some to the common pulpits, and cry out,
‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’14
The most famous speech within the play is of course Mark Antony’s which begins:
Friends, Romans, and countrymen, lend me your ears.15
But to understand Shakespeare’s Brutus we need to look at his speech which comes before Antony’s:
BRUTUS: Romans, countrymen, and lovers, hear me for my cause, and be silent, that you may hear. Believe me for mine honour, and have respect to mine honour, that you may believe. Censure me in your wisdom; and awake your senses, that you may the better judge. If there be any in this assembly, any dear friend of Caesar’s, to him I say that Brutus’ love to Caesar was no less than his. If then that friend demand why Brutus rose against Caesar, this is my answer: not that I loved Caesar less, but that I loved Rome more. Had you rather Caesar were living, and die all slaves, than that Caesar were dead, to live all free men? As Caesar loved me, I weep for him; as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was valiant, I honour him; but, as he was ambitious, I slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his ambition. Who is here so base that would be a bondman? If any, speak; for him I have offended. Who is here so rude that would not be a Roman? If any, speak; for him have I offended. Who is here so vile that will not love his country? If any, speak; for him have I offended. I pause for a reply.
ALL: None, Brutus, none.
BRUTUS: Then none have I offended, I have done no more to Caesar than you shall do to Brutus. The question of his death is enrolled in the Capitol; his glory not extenuated, wherein he was worthy; nor his offences enforced, for which he suffered death.
Here comes his body, mourned by Mark Antony, who, though he had no hand in his death, shall receive the benefit of his dying, a place in the commonwealth, as which of you shall not? With this I depart, that, as I slew my best lover for the good of Rome, I have the same dagger for myself, when it shall please my country to need of my death.16
This speech successfully placates the crowd initially but then Mark Antony whips up the masses to mourn Caesar and turn against the conspirators with his brilliant oration. By allowing Mark Antony to speak, Brutus naively miscalculates the outcome – this was a big mistake.
I think it is interesting to look at Shakespeare’s source material for information about Brutus’ life and to see how closely he has followed the historical record of the time.
Plutarch (c.46-120 AD) was a Greek historian and biographer , who was born in Chaeronea, a small town in the region known as Boeotia, in Greece. He is most famous for his Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous people, arranged in pairs, one being Roman and the other Greek, to compare their moral characters; for example the Roman, Julius Caesar was paired with the Greek, Alexander the Great, because they were both world conquerors.
During the Renaissance a Latin translation of Parallel Lives appeared in print in 1470. In the sixteenth century a Frenchman named Jacques Amyot translated it into French and published it in 1559.
When Sir Thomas North got hold of Amyot’s version, he translated it into English, and it is North’s English edition of 1595, complete with the lives of Coriolanus, Caesar, Brutus and Antonius which, according to scholars, Shakespeare used as a source of material for his Roman plays.
Early on in his account of the life of Brutus, Plutarch describes Caesar’s relationship with Brutus, just prior to the battle of Pharsalus when Brutus was on the opposing side to Caesar:
It is reported that Caesar did not forget him, and that he gave his captains charge before the battle, that they should beware they killed not Brutus in fight, and, if he yielded willingly unto them, that then they should bring him unto him: but if he resisted, and would not be taken, then that they should let him go, and do him no hurt. Some say he did this for Servilia’s sake, Brutus’ mother. For, when he was a young man, he had been acquainted with Servilia, who was extremely in love with him. And, because Brutus was born in that time when their love was hottest, he persuaded himself that he begat him.17
It is interesting that Shakespeare chooses not to refer to the possibility that Caesar was Brutus’ father even though he was aware of this story.
I have selected certain key aspects of the story and compared how Plutarch describes them with the Shakespearian versions; the similarities are conspicuous. For example, continuing with the theme of the relationship between Brutus and Caesar, it is noted that although Caesar loved Brutus, according to Plutarch, he did not trust him (or Cassius) entirely:
For, intelligence being brought him one day, that Antonius and Dolabella did conspire against him , he answered, that theses fat long-haired men made him not afraid, but the lean and whitely-faced fellows, meaning that by Brutus and Cassius.18
In Shakespeare’s version Caesar refers to his concerns about Cassius only:
Let me have men about me that are fat,
Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep a-nights.
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much; such men are dangerous.19
Plutarch refers to the incident when Brutus’ wife Porcia cuts herself:
…she took a little razor … and … gave her self a great gash withal in her thigh, that she was straight all of a gore-blood, and incontinently after a vehement fever took her, by reason of the pain of her wound.20
Plutarch goes on to explain the reason why she did this was to convince her husband she was worthy of being entrusted with the secret of his proposed enterprise:
Then perceiving her husband was marvellously out of quiet, and that he could take no rest, even in her greatest pain of all she spake in this sort unto him: ‘I being, O Brutus,’ (said she) ‘the daughter of Cato, was married unto thee, not to be thy bedfellow and companion in bed and at board only, like a harlot, but to be partaker also with thee of thy good and evil fortune. Now for thyself, I can find no cause of fault in thee touching our match: but for my part, how may I show my duty towards thee, and how much I would do for thy sake, if I cannot constantly bear a secret mischance or grief with thee, which requireth secrecy and fidelity? I confess that a woman’s wit commonly is too weak to keep a secret safely: but yet, Brutus, good education, and the company of virtuous men, have some power to reform the defect of nature. And for myself, I have this benefit moreover: that I am the daughter of Cato, and wife of Brutus. This notwithstanding, I did not trust to any of these things before: until that now I have found by experience, that no pain nor grief whatsoever can overcome me.’ With these words she showed him her wound on her thigh, and told him what she had done to prove her self. Brutus was amazed to hear what she said unto him, and lifting his hands to heaven, he besought the gods to give him the grace he might bring his enterprise to so good pass, that he might be found a husband worthy of so noble a wife as Porcia: so he then did comfort her the best he could.21
This event is described in a similar vein in Shakespeare’s play (note Shakespeare’s spelling of ‘Porcia’ as ‘Portia’):
PORTIA: I grant I am a woman; but withal
A woman that Lord Brutus took to wife;
I grant that I am a woman; but withal
A woman well-reputed, Cato’s daughter.
Think you I am no stronger than my sex,
Being so fathered, and so husbanded?
Tell me your counsels, I will not disclose ’em,
I have made strong proof of my constancy,
Giving myself voluntary wound
Here, in my thigh ; can I bear that with patience,
And not my husband’s secrets?22
Plutarch recognises Brutus’ two major mistakes:
For the first fault he did was when he would not consent to his fellow-conspirators, that Antonius (Mark Antony) should be slain… The second fault was when he agreed that Caesar’s funerals should be as Antonius would have them: the which indeed marred all.23
Plutarch refers to a man known as Cinna the poet, who is mistaken for another Cinna, and is murdered by an angry mob:
And because some one called him by his name, Cinna, the people thinking he had been that Cinna, who in an oration he made had spoken very evil of Caesar, they falling upon him in their rage slew him outright in the market-place.24
Cinna the poet had in fact been a friend of Caesar’s and was not involved in the conspiracy against him but, being unluckily named and in the wrong place at the wrong time, was murdered by an irrational crowd.
Shakespeare’s account mirrors this story:
THIRD PLEBIAN: Your name, sir, truly.
CINNA: Truly, my name is Cinna.
FIRST PLEBIAN: Tear him to pieces! He’s a conspirator.
CINNA: I am Cinna the poet, I am Cinna the poet.
FOURTH PLEBIAN: Tear him for his bad verses, tear him for his bad verses!
CINNA: I am not Cinna the conspirator.
FOURTH PLEBIAN: It is no matter, his name’s Cinna; pluck but his name out of his heart, and turn him going.
THIRD PLEBIAN: Tear him, tear him!
They attack Cinna.25
This reminds me of an incident that was reported in the press in August 2000, when a paediatrician’s home in England was attacked by a gang who wrote ‘paedo’ across her front porch, believing she was a paedophile.
It is from Plutarch that Shakespeare draws on Antony‘s view of Brutus‘ motive:
For it was said that Antonius spake it openly divers times, that he thought that of all them that had slain Caesar there was none but Brutus only, that was moved to do it as thinking the act commendable of it self: but that all the other conspirators did conspire his death for some private malice or envy, that they otherwise did bear unto him.26
As we have already seen, Shakespeare has Mark Antony refer to Brutus as, ‘the noblest Roman of them all’.
The manner of Porcia’s death is recorded by Plutarch:
And for Porcia, Brutus’ wife,… determining to kill herself… took hot burning coals, and cast them in her mouth, and kept her mouth so close that she choked herself.27
Shakespeare’s dialogue between Brutus and Cassius, regarding Porcia’s death, is as follows:
CASSIUS: Upon what sickness?
BRUTUS: Impatient of my absence,
And grief that young Octavius with Mark Antony
Have made themselves so strong; for with her death
That tidings came. With this she fell distract,
And, her attendants absent, swallowed fire.
CASSIUS: And died so?
BRUTUS: Even so.
CASSIUS: O ye immortal gods!28
Plutarch reports on a conversation between Cassius and Brutus on the morning of the Battle of Philippi:
There Cassius began to speak first, and said: ‘The gods grant us, O Brutus, that this day we may win the field, and ever after to live all the rest of our life quietly, one with another. But sith the gods have so ordained it, that the greatest and chiefest things amongst men are most uncertain, and that if the battle fall out otherwise to-day than we wish or look for, we shall hardly meet again: what art thou then determined to do, to fly or die?’
Brutus answered him, Being yet a young man, and not over greatly experienced in the world, I trust (I know not how) a certain rule of philosophy, by the which I did greatly blame and reprove Cato for killing himself, as being no lawful nor godly act, touching the gods, nor, concerning men, valiant; not to give place and yield to divine providence, and not constantly and patiently to take whatever it pleaseth him to send us, but to draw back and fly: but, being now in the midst of the danger, I am of contrary mind. For , if it be not the will of God that this battle fall out fortunate for us, I will look no more for hope, neither seek to make any new supply for war again, but will rid me of this miserable world, and content me with my fortune. For I gave up my life for my country on the Ides of March, for the which I shall live in another more glorious world.’ Cassius fell a-laughing to hear what he said, and embracing him,’ Come on then,’ said he, ‘let us go and charge our enemies with this mind. For either we shall conquer, or we shall not need to fear the conquerors.’ After this talk, they fell to consultation among their friends for the ordering of the battle.29
Shakespeare presents this conversation as follows:
CASSIUS: Now, most noble Brutus,
The gods today stand friendly, that we may,
Lovers in peace, lead on our days to age!
But since the affairs of men rests still uncertain,
Let’s reason with the worst that may befall,
If we do lose this battle, then is this
The very last time we shall speak together;
What are you then determined to do?
BRUTUS: Even by the rule of that philosophy
By which I did blame Cato for the death
Which he did give himself: - I know not how,
But I do find it cowardly and vile,
For fear of what might fall, so to prevent
The time of life - arming myself with patience
To stay the providence of some high powers
That govern us below.
CASSIUS: Then, if we lose this battle,
You are contented to be led in triumph
Through the streets of Rome?
BRUTUS: No, Cassius, no; think not, thou noble Roman,
That ever Brutus will go bound to Rome;
He bears too great a mind. But this same day
Must end that work the ides of March begun;
And whether we shall meet again I know not,
Therefore our everlasting farewell take:
For ever, and for ever, farewell, Cassius.
If we do meet again, why, we shall smile;
If not, why, then, this parting was well made.
CASSIUS: For ever, and for ever, farewell, Brutus.
If we do meet again, we’ll smile indeed;
If not, ‘tis true this parting was well made.
BRUTUS: Why then, lead on. O, that a man might know
The end of this day’s business ere it come!
But it sufficeth that the day will end,
And then the end is known. Come, ho! Away!30
Therefore, we can see that much of Shakespeare’s play comes not from his imagination but from details expressed in a biography written less than 200 years after Brutus’ death. This, I think, gives it some historical credibility.
Now I will look at a series of letters published in a British newspaper (and in particular it to those that specifically refer to Brutus) which influenced political opinion both in Britain and pre-revolutionary America in the eighteenth century.
Brutus and Cato’s Letters
The London Journal, a British newspaper, published a series of letters, beginning on 5th November 1720 and continuing for 3 years, under the penname ‘Cato‘. This pseudonym was chosen in honour of Cato the younger (95 - 46 BC), whose dedication to republicanism and freedom gave him a name to be revered in the eighteenth century.
John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were the actual authors of these letters, the writing of which was prompted initially by the bursting of the South Sea Bubble. They were not only critical of the government of the day for the financial crisis that followed but also expressed views on such subjects as liberty and tyranny, being in sympathy with the more radical Whig writers such as John Locke and Algernon Sydney. The political philosophy being expressed was one of individual natural rights and of the limited role of government to defending those rights.
The letters were so popular that the whole collection was published in book form in 1724 in four volumes. Copies of the English edition were made available in the American colonies, where they were widely read and highly regarded. The Philadelphia American Weekly Mercury was the first of many journals to reprint the letters in the American press. One of the key themes was the right of men to resist tyranny and Brutus, an example of a man who did resist tyranny, was the subject of several of the letters. There is no doubt that the much-quoted arguments, expressed in Cato’s letters, influenced American public opinion in the period leading up to the American Revolution.
To this extent, the character of Brutus, as a symbol of resistance to oppressive government, contributed to the political ideas of the period.
There were 138 letters plus 6 more added to an appendix (making a total of 144) when published under the title of Cato’s Letters: or, Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, and other Important Subjects.
I wish to examine the four of these that specifically relate to Brutus and these are:
No. 23, Saturday, April 1, 1721: A memorable Letter from Brutus to Cicero, with an explanatory Introduction.
No. 30, Saturday, May 20, 1721: An excellent Letter from Brutus to Atticus; with an explanatory Introduction.
No. 55, Saturday, December 2, 1721: The Lawfulness of killing Julius Caesar considered, and defended, against Dr. Prideaux.
No. 56, Saturday, December 9, 1721: A Vindication of Brutus, for having killed Caesar.
The first two of these are English translations of letters written by Brutus, and they are accompanied by explanatory introductions.
The first of these, A memorable letter from Brutus to Cicero, is a response by Brutus to a letter written by Cicero to Octavian, the contents of which Brutus had been made aware of by his friend Atticus. Cicero, was a leading statesman of the Senate, a gifted orator and a friend of Brutus, who although not involved in the conspiracy to kill Julius Caesar, had expressed approval of the assassination after the deed was done. Octavian, the adopted heir to Caesar and commander of the Roman legions that had just defeated Mark Antony at Modena, was now the most powerful man in Rome. In Cicero’s letter, he pleads with Octavian to forgive Brutus, and the other conspirators, and to allow Brutus in particular to return to Rome.
On the face of it, one might think that Brutus would be pleased with the letter, because Cicero praises Brutus, and begs that his life be spared so that he can safely return. On the contrary, Brutus took offence at the letter because of its subservient tone implying that Octavian (named ‘Octavius’ in the letters) should be treated like an absolute monarch. As far as Brutus was concerned, freedom under a tyrant’s consent is not true liberty. Having killed one tyrant (and he has no regrets about that), Brutus is not about to approve of another one.
Here are a few of extracts from Brutus’ letter to give a flavour of his response:
The affection which you there express for my person, and the pains which you take for my safety, are great; but they give me no new joy…31
In thanking him for his services to the Republick, you have chosen a style which shews such lowness and submission, as do but too clearly declare, that you have still a master; and that the old tyranny, which we thought destroyed, is revived in a new tyrant.32
And he concludes with:
You are not, therefore, to supplicate Octavius for our safety; do a braver thing, owe it to your own magnanimity. Rouse the Roman genius within you; and consider that this great and free city, which you more than once saved, will always be great and free, provided her people do not want worthy chiefs to resist usurpation, and exterminate traitors.33
The second of these letters is entitled An excellent letter from Brutus to Atticus. Atticus was a mutual friend of both Cicero and Brutus, and Cicero had asked Atticus to write to Brutus to get some feed back on how Brutus, whose opinion he valued highly, thought Cicero was performing in his role of governing the Senate. The answer is not quite the one he was hoping for.
At this time Brutus and Cassius had left Rome following the death of Caesar, and Octavian was in Rome with newly inherited wealth and Caesar’s veteran army at his command. Cicero had made eloquent speeches in defence of the Republick (these orations were known as the philippicks) and Octavian had won public favour.
Mark Antony opposed the Republick and treated Octavian, who was at this time no more than nineteen years old, with contempt. Cicero and Octavian found they had a common enemy in Mark Antony and so formed a friendship that was in both their interests; the outcome of this alliance was that public opinion turned against Mark Antony and he was driven out of Rome.
When Mark Antony then prepared to attack Rome in order to take back control, he was prevented from doing so by Octavian’s army; Octavian was now seen as the saviour of the city and the Republick. The Senate, as a result of this, wanted to heap honours upon him and even suggested a statue of Octavian should be erected in the city.
Antony’s next step was to attack Cisalpine Gaul and drive out its governor, Decimus Brutus, who had been one of the tyrannicides. Decimus Brutus retreated to the city of Modena.
Antonylaid siege to that city in the hope that once victory was achieved he could go on to take Gaul and then return to Italy and conquer Rome. When news of the siege reached the Senate, it declared that an army should be sent to relieve Decimus Brutus. Octavian was happy to oblige; the siege was raised and Antony defeated; the two consuls, Hirtius and Pansa, who accompanied Octavian, were both killed. It was with this news that Brutus received the letter from Atticus.
Brutus’ reply, although recognising Cicero’s good intentions, is critical of Cicero’s excessive hatred of Antony and his consequent unreasonable deference for Octavian. Brutus explains to Cicero that he now believes that the commonwealth is enslaved to Octavian because he has been entrusted with its defence. Brutus pulls no punches:
That Cicero is hastening to set up a tyrant, is plain, from actions as visible as sad. Octavius is all in all; a triumph is decreed him; his troops have largesses given them; he is loaded with flatteries, he is covered with honours. What shame for Cicero, to behold all this, and his own abject posture! His publick behaviour, and the speeches and motions which he makes in the Senate, all centering in his master; are they not a scandal to the great figure of that great consular, and a stain upon the renowned name of Cicero?34
These first two letters then are showing concerns that Octavian with Cicero’s support is becoming the new tyrant, which is exactly what happened because he was named consul in 43 BC and eventually became the emperor Augustus Caesar in 27 BC.
The third Cato letter referring to Brutus, The lawfulness of killing Julius Caesar considered, and defended, against Dr. Prideaux, begins by quoting Dr Prideaux’s condemnation of Brutus’ involvement in this murderous act:
He was murdered in the Senate-house, by a conspiracy of Senators. This was a most base and villainous act; and was the more so, in that the prime authors of it, Marcus Brutus, Decimus Brutus, Cassius and Trebonius, and some others of them, were such as Caesar had in the highest manner obliged; yet it was executed under the notion of an high heroick virtue, in thus freeing their country from one whom they called a tyrant; and there are not wanting such as are ready, even in our days, to applaud the act.
The quote continues by suggesting that because all the main conspirators had unpleasant deaths not long after the event, this was somehow evidence of divine retribution, thus proving the assassination to be an immoral act:
But divine justice declared itself otherwise in this matter: For it pursued every one of them that were concerned herein with such a just and remarkable revenge, that they were every man of them cut off in a short time after, in a violent manner, either by their own or other men’s hands.35
The letter then, in response to Dr Prideaux’s statement, proceeds to criticise the means by which Caesar gained power in the first place:
That Caesar had for his title, only power and success gained by violence, and all wicked means, is most certain.36
The letter goes on do justify resistance to tyranny:
It is a most wicked and absurd position, to say, that a whole people can ever be in such a situation, as not to have a right to defend and preserve themselves, when there is no other power in being to protect and defend them; and much more, that they must not oppose a tyrant, a traitor, an universal robber, who, by violence, treachery, rapine, infinite murders and devastations, has deprived them of their legal protection.37
The letter then declares that Caesar was indeed a tyrant:
Now, that all these black characters belonged to Caesar, is indisputable fact; nor was there ever a traitor and a tyrant in the world, if he was not one.38
There is also an appeal to the wisdom of antiquity as to the justification of killing a tyrant:
It was a known maxim of liberty amongst the great, the wise, the free ancients, that a tyrant was a beast of prey, which might be killed by the spear as well as by a fair chase, in his court as well as in his camp; that every man had the right to destroy one who would destroy all men; that no law ought to be given him who took away all law; and that, like Hercules’s monsters, it was glorious to rid the world of him, whenever, and by what means soever, it could be done.39
In brief, the letter defends the assassination on the grounds that Julius Caesar had gained power by violence and had maintained power by violence, and so it is therefore absurd to say that any man cannot oppose a tyrant in these circumstances and that ancient wisdom confirms this.
Now we come to the fourth and last of Cato’s letters that refer to Brutus: A Vindication of Brutus, for having killed Caesar. One of the criticisms made against Brutus is that he had an obligation to be loyal to Caesar for sparing his life. The letter takes up this point:
It is generally alleged against Brutus, and some of those who joined with him in this great action, that they were highly obliged by Caesar; which is a strange objection. How were they obliged? He gave Brutus a life, which he could not take from him without murder; and did a mighty generous thing in not murdering Brutus for defending his country, animated by his own virtuous spirit, and the known laws of Rome!40
The other criticism is that Brutus received favours from Caesar which obliged his loyalty. This too is tackled by the letter, which suggests that the benefits were not Caesar‘s to give:
As to the places and favours conferred upon Brutus, by Caesar; they were not Caesar’s but Rome’s. He was only rapti largitor(Dispenser of seized property).41
The letter goes on to explain why these favours were given:
They were only the artful shackles of a tyrant, intended to bind the bold and free mind of Brutus to his interest: But he, who owed no allegiance but to the commonwealth, scorned the deceitful smiles and generosity of its oppressor; who was bribing him to be his slave, with the gifts and offices of his country, to which he himself had no title, but Brutus had every title.42
The letter then explains why Brutus, in particular, received these favours:
As the worst tyrants must have some friend; and as the best men do them the most credit, and bring them the most support, if such can be got; Caesar had sense enough to know, that he could never buy Brutus too dear; and so paid him great court.43
According to the letter, Brutus was one of the most appropriate of people to take part in the assassination of Caesar:
Brutus was one of the properest persons to kill Caesar; as he was of all the men in Rome the most reverenced and popular. His wisdom and virtue, and publick spirit, were known and adored: The consent of the Senate, and of all good men, was with him; none but the prostitute creatures of power, and those that ambitiously sought it, with their deceived and hireling followers, condemned him; nor durst even they at first.44
We can see from this letter, and the previous three, that the writers, under the name of Cato, were fully supportive of the right of Brutus to carry out the assassination of Caesar.
These letters formed part of a discourse that was taking place in the eighteenth century, which questioned the existing order and demanded more freedom.
It is interesting to note that the Cato Institute, an American think tank dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, takes its name from Cato’s letters, as its website explains:
Founded in 1977, Cato owes its name to Cato’s Letters, a series of essays published in 18th century England that presented a vision of society free from excessive government power. Those essays inspired the architects of the American Revolution. And the simple, timeless principles of that revolution – individual liberty, limited government, and free-markets - turn out to be even more powerful in today’s world of global markets and unprecedented access to information than Jefferson or Madison could have imagined. Social and economic freedom is not just the best policy for a free people, it is the indispensable framework for the future.45
The positive image of Brutus comes largely from early accounts of his virtuous character and his principled actions; this image is reinforced to a certain extent in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, which in turn is drawn to a large degree from Plutarch’s biography of Brutus.
Principled champions of freedom, like Brutus, often fail in their own lifetimes, only to influence later generations; the English Levellers are a good example of this. Brutus then is the classic example of a principled champion of freedom whose success is measured best by his effect on future generations. As we have seen, Cato’s letters, which used Brutus as a symbol of resistance to tyranny, were influential in forming public opinion at the time of the American Revolution.
Brutus is appealing to lovers of liberty in general, and to libertarians in particular, because he lives on not only as a symbol of opposition to despotism but also as an honourable example of a ‘purger of tyranny’.
(1) John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Cato’s Letters or Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, And other Important Subjects (Edited by Ronald Hamowy), Vol. 1, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund, 1995, p.165.
(2) Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, The Twelve Caesars, (translated by Robert Graves), London, Penguin books, first published 1957 (revised edition 1979, with an introduction by Michael Grant) pp. 50-51.
(3) Enoch Powell, Joseph Chamberlain, London, Thames and Hudson, 1977, p. 151.
(4) Harold Bloom, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, London, Fourth Estate Limited, 1999, p. 104.
(5) M.L. Clarke, The Noblest Roman: Marcus Brutus and His Reputation, New York, Cornell University Press (London, Thomas and Hudson Ltd), 1981, p. 7.
(6) Ibid, p. 75.
(7) Ibid, p. 79.
(8) Bloom, 1999, op cit, p. 105.
(9) William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (Edited by Norman Sanders), Middlesex, Penguin Books, 1967, Act V, Scene 5, line 68. [Editor’s note: there are numerous versions of the works of Shakespeare available in hardcopy and online. Many have slightly different spellings etc., particularly of text that now seems archaic.]
(10) Ibid, Act V, Scene 5, lines 69 - 75.
(11) Ibid, Act II, Scene 1, line 180.
(12) Bloom, 1999, op cit, p.107.
(13) Shakespeare, 1967, op cit, Act II, Scene 1, lines 32 - 34.
(14) Ibid, Act III, Scene 1, lines 78 - 81.
(15) Ibid, Act III, Scene 2, line 74.
(16) Ibid, Act III, Scene 2, lines 13 - 47.
(17) R.H. Carr, (Editor), Plutarch’s Lives of Coriolanus, Caesar, Brutus, and Antonius in North’s Translation, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1906, p. 115.
(18) Ibid, p. 118.
(19) Shakespeare, 1967, op cit, Act I. Scene 2, lines 191 - 194.
(20) Carr, 1906, op cit, p.122.
(21) Ibid, pp. 122 - 123.
(22) Shakespeare, 1967, op cit, Act II Scene 1, lines 292 - 302.
(23) Carr, 1906, op cit, p. 129.
(24) Ibid, p. 130.
(25) Shakespeare, 1967, op cit, Act III, Scene 3, lines 26 - 34.
(26) Carr, 1906, op cit, pp. 138 - 139.
(27) Ibid, p. 162.
(28) Shakespeare, 1967, op cit, Act IV, Scene 3, lines 150 - 155.
(29) Carr, 1906, op cit, p. 149.
(30) Shakespeare, 1967, op cit, Act V, Scene 1, lines 92 - 125.
(31) Trenchard & Gordon, 1995, op cit, p. 166.
(32) Ibid, pp. 166-167.
(33) Ibid, p. 173.
(34) Ibid, p. 218.
(35) Dr Prideaux, The Old and New Testament Connected, part II, bk. VII (IV: 700), cited in Trenchard & Gordon, 1995, op cit, p. 367. Dr Humphrey Prideaux (1648 - 1724) was an English churchman and Dean of Norwich.
(36) Trenchard & Gordon, 1995, op cit, p. 367.
(37) Ibid, p. 370.
(38) Ibid, p. 370.
(39) Ibid, pp. 372 - 373.
(40) Ibid, pp. 376 - 377.
(41) Ibid, p. 377.
(42) Ibid, p. 377.
(43) Ibid, p. 378.
(44) Ibid, p. 384.
(45) ‘About Cato, n/d, retrieved 19th May 2013, http://www.cato.org/about.