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The so-called “Brutus” Marble.

Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger: Ultimate Betrayer or a Hero of the Roman Empire?

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Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger, commonly referred to as just ‘Brutus’, was a politician who lived towards the end of the Roman Republic. Brutus is best known for being one of the main conspirators involved in the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar on the Ides of March, 44 BC. Subsequently, Brutus committed suicide following his defeat by the army of the Second Triumvirate at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC. Brutus is one of the main characters, if not the main character, in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, whilst he is depicted as being one of the three men condemned for all eternity in the centre of Hell in Dante’s Inferno.

The Early Life of Brutus

Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger was born in 85 BC, and was the eldest son of Marcus Junius Brutus the Elder and Servilia. Brutus claimed descent from Lucius Junius Brutus, who founded the Roman Republic after overthrowing the last Roman king, Tarquin the Proud. As a child, Brutus was educated by his mother’s half-brother, the politician Cato the Younger. He was later adopted by a full-brother of his mother, Quintus Servilius Caepio. In honour of his adoptive father, Brutus changed his name temporarily to Marcus Junius Brutus Caepio.

According to the ancient historian Plutarch, Brutus was a man of letters. This can be seen, for instance, when Brutus accompanies his half-uncle Cato to Cyprus against its king, a younger brother of Ptolemy XII of Egypt. This king committed suicide, and Brutus was sent to the island to take charge of the king’s treasure. Plutarch states that Brutus went reluctantly, as he felt that “he considered such painstaking attention to administrative matters to be illiberal and unworthy of himself as a young man addicted to letters.”

Marble bust of Brutus, at the Capitoline Museums in Rome

Marble bust of Brutus, at the Capitoline Museums in Rome (public domain)

Brutus is Pardoned by Caesar

Plutarch also gives an account of Brutus’ conduct during the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. During this conflict, Brutus is said to have been expected to take the side of the former, as the latter had caused the death of Brutus’ father. Brutus, however, thought that it was “his duty to put the public good above his own, and holding that Pompey's grounds for going to war were better than Caesar's, he attached himself to Pompey.” Pompey was defeated by Caesar at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C., thus bringing the civil war to an end. Although Brutus had supported Pompey, he was pardoned by Caesar.

Plutarch also claims that Caesar was “concerned for his safety, and ordered his officers not to kill Brutus in the battle, but to spare him, and take him prisoner if he gave himself up voluntarily, and if he persisted in fighting against capture, to let him alone and do him no violence”. The historian then states that Servilia had been intimate with Caesar, and that Caesar had reason to believe that Brutus may have been his own son, hence the concern he had for him.

Brutus by Michelangelo Buonarroti

Brutus by Michelangelo Buonarroti (public domain)

Brutus is Showered with Honors

After the war, Caesar showered Brutus with honors. For instance, he was put in charge of Cisalpine Gaul when Caesar was about to launch a campaign against Cato and Scipio in Africa. Nevertheless, Brutus would ultimately betray Caesar, and be the cause of his death. According to Plutarch, “Brutus had as large a share in Caesar's power as he wished. Indeed, had he wished it, he might have been first among Caesar's friends and exercised the greatest power; but the party of Cassius drew him away from such a course.” Whilst Caesar had his suspicions of Brutus, he also had faith in his character.

The Betrayal

According to another historian, Cassius Dio, Brutus had opposed the plot against Caesar’s life from the beginning. Nevertheless, he was persuaded to join the conspirators. One reason for this is that he had been constantly compared to his ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus, and how he did not live up to the expectation of that great name. Thus, one the Ides of March, 44 B.C., Brutus and his co-conspirators assassinated Caesar at “one of the porticoes around the theatre [of Pompey]”.

Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini

Death of Caesar by Vincenzo Camuccini (public domain)

The result of Caesar’s death did not safeguard the Republic, as Brutus had hoped, but plunged Rome into further civil war. Brutus and his brother in-law, Gaius Longinus Cassius, who was also one of the main conspirators, faced the forces of the Second Triumvirate under Mark Antony and Octavian at the Battle of Philippi in 42 B.C. Having lost the battle, Brutus committed suicide, rather than surrender or being captured by the enemy. In later periods, Brutus has been regarded as a hero by some, and as a villain by others. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, for instance, the character of Mark Antony calls Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all”, whilst in Dante’s Inferno, Brutus is chewed in one of the mouths of Satan in the very centre of Hell for all eternity.

Featured image: The so-called “Brutus” Marble. Photo source: Wikimedia.

By Wu Mingren


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Plutarch, Parallel Lives: Brutus [Online]
[Perrin, B. (trans.), 1918. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives: Brutus.]
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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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