Overrated: Marcus Brutus

How much truth is there in the myth of the “noblest Roman”?

History Overrated Rome
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.

That there was less to Brutus than met the eye is shown by Plutarch’s observation that even his enemies gave him the credit for whatever was honourable in the assassination of Caesar, while blaming Cassius for “whatever was barbarous or cruel”. Shakespeare, too, contrasts Brutus favorably with Cassius.

Yet according to the great historian Theodor Mommsen, Brutus was much more to blame for the failure of the republican cause than Cassius. He refused to arrest Caesar’s allies and seize the city. He missed his chance to invade Northern Italy, instead fleeing to Greece and Asia Minor. Finally, he overruled Cassius by insisting on a showdown with Antony and Octavian at Philippi. When Cassius, believing that Brutus had been defeated, killed himself, the republicans were doomed. Unlike Cassius, writes Mommsen, “Brutus was no strategist.”

By assassinating Caesar, and discounting the dead dictator’s popularity with the plebeians, Brutus gambled the future of Rome on the strength of his reputation. He lost.

Was Brutus at least “an honourable man”? In Antony’s speech, one of the most celebrated in all Shakespeare, irony is of course deployed to spectacular effect. Antony uses the device of apophasis to contrast himself — “a plain blunt man . . . I only speak right on” — with Brutus — “an orator” — and turns the high esteem in which the latter and his family were held against him. In fact, of course, it is Brutus who has given a plain, brief speech. The ancient historian Eduard Meyer praised Shakespeare for giving us a plausible approximation of what Brutus might have said. The key passage is this: “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.”

Brutus had enjoyed an effortless rise, not least thanks to Caesar’s patronage. “Brutus was certainly ambitious,” the classicist Daisy Dunn confirms. If so, how was it honourable for him to use Caesar’s undisguised ambition as a reason for murdering him? “This was the most unkindest cut of all.” Antony was admittedly making mischief when he incited the Romans against Brutus; but his eulogy for Caesar was much more sincere than that for Caesar’s assassin. Antony did not believe for a moment that Brutus was the noblest Roman of them all. No more should we.