Illustration by Michael Daley
Was Marcus Junius Brutus “the noblest Roman of them all”? The tribute that Shakespeare puts into the mouth of Mark Antony over Brutus’s corpse at Philippi draws on Plutarch’s Life. It is a potent and enduring legend: the soldier-philosopher who put patriotism first by killing Julius Caesar, whom a pliant Senate had made dictator for life, to prevent the restoration of one-man rule. Brutus has been an inspiration for revolutionaries in every age. But how much truth is there in the mythology that surrounds his tyrannicide?
Brutus came from a more eminent family than Caesar: his ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus had deposed Tarquin the Proud, the last king of Rome, and died defending the republic. As an insider, Brutus could afford to cultivate a reputation for virtue by remaining aloof from power struggles. We are told that his temperament was serious, but he never took philosophy or politics seriously, let alone war.
His mother, Servilia, was Caesar’s mistress around the time that Brutus was born, and Caesar treated him like a son. Brutus admired Caesar and was betrothed to his daughter Julia, but reasons of state dictated that she be married to Pompey, Caesar’s greatest rival. During the civil war between them, Brutus fought for Pompey, but after his capture switched sides and helped Caesar to defeat his former commander. Caesar forgave Brutus and promoted him, but never won his loyalty.
Indeed the only person to whom Brutus was unswervingly loyal was his second wife, Porcia (or Portia, as Shakespeare calls her). Echoing Plutarch, Shakespeare depicts her as a woman of such physical courage that she stabs herself in the thigh to prove to her husband that she can be trusted with his secrets. Learning of his suicide after Philippi, Porcia is supposed to have killed herself by swallowing live coals. But how much of this sentimental view of the marriage stands scrutiny? Porcia was Brutus’s first cousin, the daughter of his uncle, Marcius Porcius Cato, who had been Caesar’s most implacable foe. Cato the Younger had fallen on his sword rather than submit to Caesar’s rule; yet, as Christian Meier observes in his biography of Caesar, Brutus thought Cato had been mistaken and repudiated him.
Brutus had divorced his first wife to marry Porcia. She was beautiful and had a famous father; the union could advance his career. Between his mother, who adored Caesar, and his wife, who hated him, Brutus seems to have dithered. Eventually he was shamed into joining the conspiracy by the more zealous figure of Gaius Cassius, his brother-in-law, whose friends accused him of betraying the memory of his republican ancestor. The facts suggest that behind his facade of Roman virtue Brutus was a weak man, easily influenced by stronger characters of both sexes around him.