Brutus: The Noble Conspirator 
by Kathryn Tempest.
Yale, 314 pp., £25, October 2017, 978 0 300 18009 1
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Among​ Shakespeare’s tragedies Julius Caesar is unusual in not being named for its hero. By any conventional measure, the play is the tragedy of Brutus, over whose corpse his antagonist Antony declares at the end of Act V: ‘This was the noblest Roman of them all.’ Still, it makes sense that the tragedy of Brutus should be called Julius Caesar, since Caesar is the figure around whom Brutus’ story revolves. Without Brutus, Caesar would still be Caesar; without Caesar, Brutus would be nobody. The ghost that appears to him before the Battle of Philippi tells him that he is ‘Thy evil spirit, Brutus.’ That much is straight out of Plutarch. It’s Shakespeare’s invention to have Brutus later describe the phantom, his evil spirit, as ‘the ghost of Caesar’, which he sees again at Philippi in both a literal and a figurative sense: the spirit of Caesar lives on in the victorious army of Antony and Octavius. On seeing the ghost, Brutus realises that he has lost – ‘I know my hour is come’ – and the empire has won.

There’s no reason to suppose that Antony means what he says when he calls Brutus ‘the noblest Roman’: speaking over Caesar’s corpse two acts earlier, he does an impressive job of burying Brutus in popular opinion while pretending to praise him, steadily twisting the word ‘honourable’ into a pejorative epithet. Still, ‘noble’ to Shakespeare’s audience in 1599, like nobilis to Romans in 42 bc, was a signifier not only of good character but also of social class, and everyone knew the two often didn’t go together, however much they were supposed to. One of the things that Antony implies by calling Brutus ‘the noblest Roman’ is that he was the most committed to maintaining the values and privileges of his class, which were threatened by the concentration of power in Julius Caesar’s hands.

Almost everyone seems to agree that Brutus killed Caesar as a matter of principle. ‘All the conspirators save only he,’ Shakespeare’s Antony says, ‘Did that they did in envy of great Caesar.’ But there has been plenty of disagreement over the centuries as to the moral worth of his principles. Dante envisioned Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell, being chewed on for all eternity in two of Satan’s three mouths, either side of Judas Iscariot. Michelangelo’s bust of Brutus was probably commissioned by Donato Giannotti, a committed republican, in 1539. It was never finished. ‘The story goes,’ Kathryn Tempest writes in her biography of Brutus, ‘that when Michelangelo tried to put a face to the Liberator, he found not a noble conspirator but an unjust oppressor.’

It’s the simultaneous presence of these two faces that makes Brutus an enduringly fascinating character. The head of Michelangelo’s bust is turned far to the left – the strain of the movement visible in the sinews of the thick, muscular neck – presenting its more finished profile to the viewer. The rougher surface of the side turned away from us is scarred by chisel marks, the features less clearly carved out. Viewed from the right angle, in the right light, in the right mood, it’s the portrait of a hero who sacrificed everything – his position, his friendship, his life, his reputation – for the sake of his ideals and the cause of republican freedom. Looked at another way, it’s the face of a villain, an unflinching ideologue with a sneer of cold command, who conspired to murder his friend and benefactor, and sent Rome spiralling into a calamitous civil war, the third in forty years. The mesmerising, radical asymmetry of Michelangelo’s sculpture conjures Brutus’ ambiguities, and our ambivalence about him. But look away, blink, look again, and maybe you’ll catch a glimpse, flickering in and out of focus, of the elusive face of a historical human being.

Marcus Junius Brutus was born sometime between 85 and 78 bc, into a family that traced its ancestry back to the legendary Lucius Junius Brutus who had supposedly expelled the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, in 510 bc, and served as one of the first consuls (the highest elected official in the new Republic) the following year. Brutus was proud of his heritage: he had his family tree painted in the atrium of his house, plotting his descent from Lucius Brutus on his father’s side, and, on his mother’s, from Servilius Ahala, who had killed the would-be tyrant Spurius Maelius in 439 bc. There are reasons to doubt this ancestry, which Brutus’ enemies weren’t slow to point out – Lucius Brutus was supposed to have killed both his sons for plotting to restore Tarquin, so wouldn’t have had any descendants – but, however remote the connection, it was meaningful to Brutus.

His father died when he was very young, one of the many victims of first-century Rome’s civil strife. Between 91 and 82 bc, Lucius Cornelius Sulla had fought for supremacy against Gaius Marius and his followers in a series of wars in which as many as 200,000 men were killed. Sulla at last defeated the Marian faction in November 82. The Senate appointed Sulla dictator, by tradition a temporary position of absolute leadership, bestowed only during a crisis; Sulla was the first man to hold it without a time limit being imposed. He eliminated the last of his enemies through proscription – outlawing them, putting a price on their heads and confiscating their property – and introduced constitutional reforms to increase the size and power of the Senate (in theory an advisory body drawn from the ranks of patrician families), and weaken the tribunes of the plebs (who were elected by the people, or some of them at least, and had powers of veto over the decisions of the Senate, consuls and other magistrates). Sulla resigned the dictatorship in 79 and retired to the countryside near Naples, where he died the following year. His dictatorship ended, the power of the consuls – two were elected annually – was restored. One of the consuls for the year 78 tried to overturn Sulla’s reforms; the other wanted to preserve them. The disagreement soon collapsed into open warfare. The Elder Brutus, who had been tribune of the plebs in 83 and was now a military commander in Cisalpine Gaul, took the anti-Sullan side. Besieged by Pompey the Great in Mutina (Modena), he eventually surrendered, only to be murdered on Pompey’s orders.

Not much is known about the Younger Brutus’ childhood, but Tempest sketches out a likely path for his education, often using the conditional mood: ‘It was probably at about this time’ that he was adopted by one of his mother’s male relatives; ‘he learned Greek and Roman rhetoric, but we do not know the name of the rhetor who taught him’; ‘we can only assume that at the age of 15 or 16 … he would have frequented the Forum’; ‘he would surely have witnessed Cicero performing in a number of high-profile trials’; ‘he went to complete his studies abroad, as was becoming customary’, travelling to Athens and Rhodes for lessons in rhetoric and philosophy.

Pompey meanwhile steadily rose to a position of dominance after his victory at Mutina and the murder of Brutus’ father. He overcame the followers of the anti-Sullan general Quintus Sertorius in Spain in 72; helped to crush the slave revolt led by Spartacus in 71; rapidly established Roman naval hegemony across the Mediterranean in a campaign against ‘piracy’ in 67; and the following year defeated Mithridates at the Battle of the Lycus. He returned to Rome in 62, bringing back considerable treasure both for his own coffers and for the city’s. Three years later, he married Julius Caesar’s 17-year-old daughter, Julia, as part of the unofficial power-sharing arrangement known as the first triumvirate. The third member, Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome, had led the army that defeated Spartacus, and had served as consul alongside Pompey in 70. ‘Those living at the time,’ Tempest writes, ‘saw Pompey as the senior partner in the alliance.’ ‘It is clear,’ Cicero wrote to Atticus, ‘that he is preparing to take absolute power.’

It’s around this point that Brutus, by now in his twenties, surfaces in the historical record. In the summer of 59, a man called Lucius Vettius went to the Senate with information about a conspiracy to murder Pompey. The repentant Vettius confessed to being one of the conspirators; among the others he named was Brutus. The senators seem not to have believed him, but threw him in jail for carrying an offensive weapon. He repeated his allegations the next day, but ‘removed Brutus’ name from his speech entirely’, Cicero says, before going on to hint that the omission may have had something to do with the fact that Brutus’ mother, Servilia, was sleeping with Caesar. Their relationship led to the rumour (which can’t be true) that Brutus was Caesar’s illegitimate son.

Caesar​ began his campaigns in Gaul the following year; and Brutus set out in the opposite direction, accompanying another of Servilia’s powerful connections – her half-brother, Cato the Younger – on an official mission to Cyprus, which had recently been annexed by Rome. The next time we hear of Brutus he is one of the three men in charge of minting coins in 55 or 54 bc. On one of his silver denarii were portraits of his anti-tyrannical ancestors, Lucius Junius Brutus and Servilius Ahala; another carried the face of the goddess Liberty on the obverse and the legendary Brutus, with consular trappings, on the reverse. ‘By circulating these coins,’ Tempest argues, ‘Brutus was not just tapping into nostalgia for the old republic; he was delivering a direct and powerful message to the triumvirs and their allies, whose grip on Roman political life had crippled the free institutions and the authority of the Senate.’

If the coins were a challenge to the authority of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey, his symbolic opposition to them didn’t hold Brutus back. He was made a quaestor, the first step on the career ladder, or cursus honorum, towards the consulship. Caesar invited him to serve in Gaul, but he went to Cilicia (southern Turkey) instead, where his patrician father-in-law, Appius Claudius Pulcher, was governor. ‘Little is known of Brutus’ first wife,’ Tempest writes. But her father was consul in 54, and one of her sisters was married to Pompey’s eldest son: Brutus was marrying into power. Appius’ successor as governor of Cilicia was Cicero, who found the province ‘forlorn and permanently ruined’, unable to pay the exorbitant ‘taxes’ imposed by his predecessor. Brutus was not only among the exploiters, but had asked Cicero to call in his (not entirely legal) loans for him.

The Cypriot city of Salamis, meanwhile, owed money to Brutus’ friend Marcus Scaptius, who was demanding repayment at an eye-watering 48 per cent interest. Cicero had imposed a maximum interest rate of 12 per cent throughout the province, which the Salaminians agreed to pay, but Scaptius insisted on the full 48, and Brutus backed his claim – because, as it turned out, ‘Brutus was the real creditor.’ In an unsuccessful effort to compel them to pay up, Scaptius’ troops blockaded the Salaminian senators inside their Senate building ‘for so long that five of them died of starvation’. Tempest is careful to point out that Cicero’s account may not be entirely reliable, and that Atticus took Brutus’ side, which suggests that extorting money from subject populations may have been normal practice among Brutus’ contemporaries. But Cicero took a dim view of it, and Plutarch, with his emphasis on Brutus’ ‘virtue’, passes over the grubby episode in silence.

While Brutus and Appius were in Cilicia, Crassus, the third triumvir, was leading seven legions (around 35,000 men) against the Parthian Empire. They suffered a heavy defeat at the hands of a much smaller Parthian force at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 bc, and Crassus was killed. Gaius Cassius Longinus – already Brutus’ brother-in-law and later to be his co-conspirator – led the vanquished Romans on their retreat to Syria. With Crassus’ demise, whatever stability had been provided by the structure of the triumvirate was now gone, like a three-legged stool after one of its legs has been kicked away. Julia had died in childbirth the previous year, no older than 22; the baby didn’t survive. ‘With both the marriage alliance and the agreement with Crassus dissolved,’ Tempest writes, ‘the only resource left was trust; this, however, was in rapidly depleting supply.’ ‘Caesar had long ago decided to overthrow Pompey,’ Plutarch says, ‘just as Pompey, for his part, had decided to overthrow Caesar.’

Map of the Roman Empire

At the beginning of 52 bc, Publius Clodius Pulcher, a former tribune of the plebs, was murdered on the Appian Way by a political opponent. In the unrest that followed his death, Clodius’ supporters set fire to the Senate House. ‘As Rome descended into chaos,’ Tempest writes, ‘there was mounting pressure for Pompey to be made dictator to restore peace and order; however, it was a title which stirred chilling memories of the Sullan regime.’ They got round that problem by appointing him sole consul rather than dictator. Brutus, still in Cilicia, wrote an apparently blistering broadside, De Dictatura Cn. Pompeii (‘On Pompey’s Dictatorship’). The full text has been lost, but fragments such as this survive in quotation in later writers: ‘It is better to rule over no one than to be somebody else’s slave; for it is possible to live honourably without power, but to live in servitude is no life at all.’

When the power struggle between Pompey and Caesar finally erupted into war, with Caesar leading his troops across the Rubicon from Cisalpine Gaul into Italy proper in January 49, Brutus – given his long-standing animosity to Pompey and his personal ties to Caesar – might have been expected to take Caesar’s side. But he didn’t. Instead, along with such stalwart Republicans as Appius, Cassius, Cato and Cicero, he joined with Pompey – ‘thinking it his duty’, according to Plutarch, ‘to place the public good above his private feelings’. Pompey, who had made sure a second consul was appointed alongside him as soon as the immediate crisis following Clodius’ murder was over (a reassuringly undictatorial move), was now seen by the majority in the Senate – despite their former misgivings – as the best hope for preserving the Republic. Brutus had a personal obligation, too, to Appius and Cato, his father-in-law and uncle. Still, it wouldn’t have been hard for his detractors to put a less generous gloss on his shifting loyalties.

As Caesar marched rapidly south through Italy, Pompey, rather than face almost certain defeat in open battle, abandoned Rome and set sail to Dyrrhachium (Durrës in Albania). ‘In sixty days and without bloodshed’, Plutarch writes, Caesar ‘had become master of all Italy’. He didn’t pursue Pompey across the Adriatic immediately, not least because Pompey had taken all the ships, but instead marched his troops to Spain to eliminate Pompey’s allies there. In January 48, a year after crossing the Rubicon, he set sail from the south-eastern port of Brundisium across treacherous winter seas to challenge Pompey directly.

After​ months of inconclusive skirmishing, they faced each other at Pharsalus in August: 22,000 soldiers on Caesar’s side, and more than twice as many on Pompey’s. Brutus was there, in Pompey’s camp, though it isn’t known whether or not he actually fought in the battle. In any case, it was a rout: thousands of Pompey’s troops died, compared to only hundreds of Caesar’s. Pompey fled, making his way eventually to Egypt. Advisers to the 13-year-old Egyptian king, Ptolemy XIII, not wanting to make an enemy of either Roman leader, determined that the best course of action would be to kill Pompey immediately: that way, as Plutarch puts it, ‘they would gratify Caesar and have no reason to fear Pompey.’ He was stabbed in the back as he was getting off the boat.

Pompey’s surviving forces had scattered after Pharsalus, with Cato leading one contingent to North Africa. But Brutus had immediately gone over to Caesar. ‘Just as Pompey had greeted the young man with open arms at the onset of the battle,’ Tempest says, ‘so Caesar welcomed him graciously among his number at Pharsalus’ end.’ She acknowledges Brutus’ apparent ‘lack of political constancy’ – ‘he fought for the man who had killed his father, before accepting pardon from the man he would go on to kill’ – but gives more attention to Caesar’s motives in pardoning Brutus than to Brutus’ reasons for switching sides. Brutus was ‘independently minded’, she says, while Caesar was making ‘a strategic and carefully calculated move’.

On arriving in Alexandria and being presented with Pompey’s severed head and signet ring, Caesar is said to have turned away and wept. He helped Cleopatra take the Egyptian throne from her younger brother, then headed north-east to fight Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates. (It was after defeating Pharnaces in August 47 that Caesar said: ‘Veni, vidi, vici.’) He returned to Rome in September, and three months later sailed for North Africa to mop up the republican forces stationed there. Cato, defeated at Utica in April 46, fell on his sword. Caesar overcame the last of Pompey’s followers at Munda, in southern Spain, in March 45. It was the final battle of the civil war, cementing Caesar’s victory, and also the last battle he would ever fight.

Brutus wasn’t involved in either of those campaigns. Caesar trusted him enough to have put him in charge of Cisalpine Gaul – ‘to that province’s good fortune’, Plutarch says. He returned to Rome ahead of Caesar in the spring of 45. He’d written quite a lot in the thirty months since Pharsalus, including the philosophical treatises On Virtue, On Duties and On Patience, and a Life of his uncle Cato. Almost nothing of these works survives, though Seneca gives some account of On Virtue and On Duties, and we have three tantalising words from On Patience: ‘inridunt horum lacrimas’ (‘they ridicule their tears’). One consequence of the absence of Brutus’ own words is that we rarely get to hear Tempest’s subject speak directly. (We have seven letters he wrote to Cicero between March and July 43, and there are others that may or may not be forgeries.) This is in marked contrast to men such as Caesar and, above all, Cicero, whose character bursts irrepressibly from his letters, even in the limited extent to which Tempest quotes from them.

Soon after coming back to Rome from Gaul, Brutus divorced Appius’ daughter and in June 45 married his cousin Porcia, Cato’s daughter: a ‘seemingly inexplicable move’ that has been variously interpreted as ‘evidence of his sense of obligation to the dead Cato, as a move away from Caesar’, and as ‘a genuine love match’. ‘We cannot exclude the possibility,’ Tempest writes, ‘that Brutus’ marriage to Porcia was politically motivated,’ but she sees it less as a ‘move away from Caesar’ than as part of an attempt to reconcile the supporters of Cato and Caesar – or, more venally, a way for Brutus ‘to make himself agreeable’ to both sides. Brutus’ Life of Cato, too, may have been written to further this agenda. But ‘much happened’ in the months that followed ‘to turn Brutus’ mind against his friend and benefactor’, a reversal as rapid as one of Caesar’s own high-speed military campaigns.

Caesar, now dictator and consul, made a series of political mis-steps on returning to Rome. According to Plutarch (and here we arrive at Act I of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar), the triumph he celebrated for his victory over Pompey’s forces ‘displeased the Romans more than any other’. Tempest enumerates other errors: he ‘was using time-honoured political posts as favours he could hand out to his friends’ and ‘managed to offend whole groups of people by his displays of absolute power’. Despite his ‘many positive reforms’ – introducing the Julian calendar, attempting to solve the ‘interrelated and crushing’ problems of debt, high rents and unemployment – ‘he could not rid himself of the claim that he was aspiring to monarchy.’ He minted coins with his own image on them. At the festival of the Lupercalia in February 44, five years after crossing the Rubicon, he was offered a crown three times by Antony, his co-consul, and three times he refused it. But crown or no crown, he was already king in all but name, the undisputed first man in Rome, who had assumed the role of dictator in perpetuo.

Tempest outlines four reasons for Brutus’ decision to join the conspiracy against Caesar (the origins of the plot itself remain murky): ‘public opinion’, ‘peer pressure’, ‘political ambitions’ and ‘philosophy’. Graffiti appeared around the city, urging Brutus to do something about Caesar’s regime. On the statue of his tyrant-toppling ancestor, Lucius Brutus, in the temple of Concord, someone wrote: ‘utinam viveres’ (‘if only you were alive’). There would have been encouragement from people close to him, too, very possibly including Porcia – she was Cato’s daughter, after all – and Cassius. Brutus was praetor in 44, the last step before consul on the cursus honorum, and Caesar may have earmarked a consulship for him in 41. But honours bestowed at a dictator’s whim were no honour at all, not to mention unreliable.

The philosophical justification is the most interesting, however, and here Tempest more or less follows the philosopher David Sedley’s argument in his essay ‘The Ethics of Brutus and Cassius’ (1997), which demolishes ‘the belief, endemic among historians of the period, that, whatever his formal affiliations may have been, Brutus was in spirit, like so many Romans, a virtual Stoic’. In fact, none of the known conspirators was a Stoic, for the simple reason that, crudely put, the Stoic response to living under tyranny would have been to grin and bear it. Plutarch tells a story, which Sedley persuasively considers ‘fundamentally reliable’, about Brutus sounding out a pair of potential conspirators, ‘Statilius the Epicurean and Favonius, the admirer of Cato’. Neither was recruitable: Statilius said that a wise man shouldn’t take risks for the sake of the foolish; Favonius that ‘civil war was worse than an illegal monarchy’. The Greek expression here, monarchia paranomos, which Sedley calls ‘cumbersome and highly unusual’, is taken from Plato’s Statesman, with its matrix of six kinds of government, of which the worst is rule by one man in defiance of the law. Studying philosophy as a young man, Brutus had ‘devoted himself to the Old Academy’, Plutarch writes, an originalist school of Platonism. Tempest warns that Plutarch may have ‘exaggerated the extent to which Brutus adhered to the one school of thought’. Sedley isn’t so unsure. ‘When we watch Brutus’ role in the events of the Ides of March,’ he concludes, ‘it is Platonist political thought that we are seeing enacted.’

Platonist or not, the assassination almost didn’t happen. If the conspirators missed their chance at the Senate on 15 March, it wasn’t clear when another opportunity would present itself: Caesar was planning to go to war in Parthia three days later. He was late leaving the house that morning. His wife, Calpurnia, was said to have had bad dreams, among other ill omens (‘beware the Ides of March’ etc). But Decimus Brutus Albinus went to fetch him, supposedly telling him he surely didn’t believe in that kind of nonsense. The conspirators were anxious about word of the plot getting out, and it’s amazing – there may have been as many as eighty men involved – that it didn’t. On his way into the Senate, someone handed Caesar a note warning him of the plot, but he didn’t read it. There had been talk of inviting Antony into the conspiracy; then there was talk of killing him, too. But Brutus insisted that no blood should be spilled except Caesar’s: murdering anyone else would weaken the apparent righteousness of their cause. When the moment came, one or more of the conspirators – Plutarch doesn’t even agree with himself about who or how many – kept Antony outside to prevent him intervening. Tillius Cimber pulled the toga from Caesar’s shoulders. Casca stepped up with his dagger. The others piled in. Caesar was stabbed at least 23 times.

When Caesar saw Brutus among his attackers, Plutarch writes, ‘he covered his head with his toga and let himself fall.’ Suetonius adds that, according to some reports, he said in Greek: ‘Kai su, teknon’ (which Shakespeare turned into the Latin ‘Et tu, Brute?’). It literally means ‘You too, child,’ but what Caesar may have intended by the words isn’t clear. Tempest cites ‘an important article’ by James Russell (1980) ‘that has often been overlooked’. Russell points out that the words kai su often appear on curse tablets, and suggests that Caesar’s putative last words were not ‘the emotional parting declaration of a betrayed man to one he had treated like a son’ but more along the lines of ‘See you in hell, punk.’

The deed done, Brutus may have tried to make a speech to the assembled senators, but many of those who weren’t in on the plot ran away in panic. The conspirators made their way to the Capitoline Hill, with an armed guard of Decimus’ gladiators. Brutus made a public speech justifying what they’d done; it was met with silence. Cicero, who hadn’t been part of the conspiracy, quickly joined the ‘Liberators’, as they styled themselves, along with a number of other high-profile citizens. Lepidus, Caesar’s second-in-command, occupied the Forum with his troops. At an emergency Senate meeting on 17 March, Cicero won consensus for a compromise agreement that gave the conspirators immunity for Caesar’s murder, but ratified everything that Caesar had enacted for the next two years. (That, too, was in the Liberators’ interest, since Caesar had promised provincial appointments to many of them.) Most significant of all, perhaps, it was agreed that Caesar should be given a public funeral.

The truce didn’t last long. The funeral, on 20 March, with Antony presiding, and the generous terms of Caesar’s will, helped turn public opinion in the city against the assassins. Angry crowds attacked their houses. By 13 April, Brutus had left Rome for his estate at Lanuvium, twenty miles away. In June, Brutus and Cassius were tasked by the Senate with buying grain in Asia and Sicily: a ‘ploy’ by Antony, Tempest writes, ‘to get them out of the way, as well as to prevent them obtaining power – or troops’. Cassius rejected the commission and headed for Syria, ‘a province he either believed he was entitled to or which he viewed as a more strategic power base’ (he’d led the army there after the death of Crassus). Brutus left Italy in August and also sailed east. First stop: Athens, where ambitious young republican-minded Romans rallied to his cause – even if, unlike Cassius, he wasn’t set on war with Antony.

Caesar’s​ 18-year-old great-nephew and heir, Octavian, travelled the other way, getting to Rome in April 44. No one (apart from Octavian himself, perhaps) thought his arrival of much consequence; it is mentioned in passing in a letter to Cicero. As Octavian steadily accumulated power and influence over the months that followed, Cicero, inveighing against Antony in his Philippics, seemed to think that Octavian could be used to exacerbate schisms in the Caesarian camp. Brutus disagreed, arguing instead that it was still possible for them to make peace with Antony. They were both wrong.

In the summer of 43, retracing Caesar’s journey of six and half years earlier, Octavian marched to Rome with an army from Cisalpine Gaul and was elected consul. The Lex Pedia was soon passed, making Caesar’s murder a crime, and Brutus and Cassius were tried and found guilty in absentia. Decimus was executed. In November, the second triumvirate – Antony, Octavian and Lepidus – was formally established, giving each of them consular powers for five years. They proscribed hundreds of men whom they accused of supporting Caesar’s assassination. Cicero was one of the first to go, on 7 December 43. His pursuers caught up with him as he was being carried in a litter towards the coast from his villa in Formia. He told his slaves to stop, and held out his head to be cut off. It was sent with his severed hands to Antony in Rome.

Over the course of 42 bc, with the triumvirs in undisputed control at Rome, Brutus and Cassius consolidated their military superiority in the eastern Mediterranean. In the first months of the year, Brutus laid siege to the Lycian city of Xanthus, in south-west Anatolia. When the Roman troops at last broke through their defences, the Xanthians set fire to their houses and committed mass suicide rather than be killed or captured by the enemy. Fewer than 150 survived. The nearby city of Patara surrendered rather than suffer the same fate as Xanthus, and other towns followed suit. Brutus made himself ‘tremendously rich’ in the course of his Lycian campaign. In July, in the city of Sardis, he met up with Cassius, fresh from subduing and plundering Rhodes. They quarrelled, made up, and began the long march west.

Antony and Octavian intercepted them at Philippi. Or, rather, knowing the triumvirs were coming, Brutus and Cassius set up camp there, on a pair of hills overlooking the Via Egnatia. Tempest gives a superb synoptic account of the battles. Antony, who had got there before Octavian, spent ten days secretly outflanking Cassius by building a causeway through the marshes below his camp, hidden by the reeds. Once he noticed the manoeuvre, Cassius started building a wall to cut through the causeway and separate Antony’s advance troops from his main army. At midday on 3 October, Antony led nine legions against Cassius’ wall. Brutus, seeing this, charged against Octavian, taking him by surprise and killing thousands of his troops. Antony meanwhile broke through Cassius’ wall and put his soldiers to flight. Cassius, believing that Brutus had also lost, killed himself.

At the second battle three weeks later, Brutus’ forces were outmanoeuvred and surrounded, and he ran away. ‘After crossing a stream that ran among trees and steep banks,’ Plutarch writes, ‘he did not go much further, as it was already dark, but sat down in a hollow place with a great rock in front of it, having a few officers and friends with him.’ He asked one of them to hold his sword so he could fall on it, but none of them would. Someone said they should flee. Brutus agreed, then said: ‘Not with our feet, though, but with our hands.’ In the end either his friend Strato held his sword for him (as Shakespeare has it), or he held it himself (the version Plutarch prefers). ‘He considered himself more blessed than his conquerors,’ Plutarch writes, ‘as he was leaving behind a reputation for virtue that those who were superior to him in arms and money would never be able to acquire.’ Yes and no.

When you look at the long arc of Roman history in the first century bc, from the struggle between Gaius Marius and Sulla to the ascendancy of Augustus, it can be hard – especially given the weight of Augustan propaganda – not to see the fall of the Republic and rise of the principate as inevitable; as the Roman Empire expanded, the old forms of government, unsuited to so large a polity, were stretched to breaking point. But could things have happened differently? Tempest is too wise to indulge in counterfactuals: she sticks to the facts and doesn’t speculate without giving good grounds for her conclusions. I wonder though: if Brutus and Cassius had won at Philippi, might they have restored the Republic? Or would they have fallen into the pattern of Marius and Sulla, Pompey and Caesar, Antony and Octavian, and turned their arms on each other in a fight for absolute power? Could there have been an Emperor Brutus? And what would he have been like? A faint shade rises from the mud of Philippi and hovers in the gloom; or is that Caesar’s ghost? Kai su, teknon.

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Vol. 40 No. 24 · 20 December 2018

My review of Kathryn Tempest’s biography of Brutus at one point suggests we can get a sense of Julius Caesar’s character from his letters (LRB, 6 December). I wish I could say I’d unearthed a cache of Caesar’s lost correspondence; I haven’t. There was a late editorial change to a (no doubt confusing) sentence in which I referred only to Cicero’s letters.

Thomas Jones
Orvieto, Italy

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