Max Radin, an outstanding legal and classical scholar of the last century, once wrote, “Brutus was an incurably cleft soul…” (Radin 235) While cleft could otherwise be referred to as split or divided, this view of Brutus is obviously right. The personality of Marcus Junius Brutus, the most famous assassin of Julius Caesar, has long been the subject of scholarly debate. In particular, his motives for the killing have been discussed by supporters of two polar views. On the one hand, some researchers are inclined to think Brutus acted for the noble purpose of liberating his state from tyranny and thus performed a heroic deed. On the other hand, historians argue that Brutus should be considered a villain because of his betrayal and selfish motives.
While Brutus himself may have been driven by various feelings and plans, the assessment of his role in the history remains based on what he did and how he did, not on what he felt. Historically, the assassination of Julius Caesar by nearly 60 Roman Senators (the so-called “Liberators”) led to the civil war and the end of the republic with subsequent rise of imperium (McCarty 72). It means that Brutus’s participation in assassination failed to preserve the republic and contributed to a sequence of destructive wars inside the state. Brutus was a villain. This view is well supported by examination of his motives and the impact Caesar’s death had on the Roman society and political system.
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While Cicero and other admirers of Brutus’s contribution to Caesar’s death, proclaimed Brutus the performer of “the noblest enterprise that stands recorded in history”, closer examination of Brutus’s motives enables to shape the opposite opinion (Cicero 167). Specifically, Cicero in his letter to Brutus calls him the man upon who rest all hopes of liberty expressed by the Roman people. Brutus’s killing of Caesar is recognized a glorious deed, and Brutus himself is called the one who deserves the highest honors, a patriot. Cicero explains his position by his love of the republic, which is dearer to Cicero than his life (Cicero 168).
This view of the murder and Brutus’s participation in it has been borrowed by many historians who often single out Brutus as the only man, among those who plotted against Caesar, who did it for the noblest purpose – because he loved the republic and hated tyranny (Robinson 415, McCarty 66). Yet, this view seems quite subjective. The subsequent paragraphs will explain why the view of Brutus as a noble hero is not objective and will explore the subjectivity of Brutus’s motives.
The main reason of Caesar’s assassination on 15 March 44 B.C. by the members of the Roman Senate was their fear that Caesar would take all power over the state and deprive the Senate of its right to act as the biggest authority. In particular, Robinson writes, “the senate (…) continued to load him (Caesar) with fresh honors (…). But having neglected to rise from his seat one day, when the senate ordered him some particular honors, it began to be rumored that he intended to make himself king (…)” (Robinson 415). This was one of the reasons that inspired the plotters, who, above all, feared losing their own power and influence rather than cared for the public good. Some of them were driven by purely subjective motives. For example, Tillius Cimber, whose brother had been sent to exile by Julius Caesar, was confident that Caesar’s death would open the way back home to his brother (McCarty 66). These facts are likely to lead any researcher to looking for motives of Brutus’s participation in the murder other than his patriotism and love of freedom.
Careful analysis of the historical literature allows claiming that Brutus could have had a few subjective motives behind his participation in conspiracy and killing. First of all, those motives could have been his enormous self-love and envy (Feldman 307). Having got numerous favors from Caesar, who had once spared Brutus’s life, Brutus quickly rose in his position in the Senate. Specifically, Brutus was allowed into Caesar’s inner circle and appointed the governor of Gallia, the region of the Roman Republic that encompassed modern territories of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, partially Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands, as well as most of Switzerland. At the same time, Brutus, who had already felt the benefits of power, was probably eager to strengthen his position after the death of his benefactor. He might have been envious about Caesar’s will to bequeath the biggest part of his fortune as well as his power of a lifelong dictator to his nephew Gaius Octavius, whom he had adopted (Rostovtzeff 149). Brutus might felt deprived of some bright prospects in his life in case Caesar’s power was passed in a hereditary manner.
At the same time, having grown up without a father (his father was killed when he was a child and Brutus was adopted by his uncle; by other accounts, Brutus was Caesar’s illegal son, which seems unlikely) and being unable to bear his own family name for the biggest part of his life (only after Caesar’s death began Brutus use his original name Marcus Junius Brutus; before, he had preferred to be called by the name of his uncle: Quintus Srevillius Caepio Brutus), Brutus was probably suffering from some inferiority complex. This inferiority complex led him in establishing himself as something worthy of respect and honor. This may be well supported by the fact that Brutus often emphasized his ancestral ties. In particular, he stressed that by his mother’s side he was a descendant of Gaius Servilius Structus Ahala, the man who allegedly killed Spurius Maelius to prevent the establishment of tyranny (Robinson 415). This emphasis became especially strong after the murder when Brutus was evidently afraid of the enraged Roman mob that mourned the death of Caesar. The weakness of his patriotic feeling and lack of noble passion in him are evidenced by his non-intrusive position when his uncle was being killed by Caesar’s army.
Another evidence of evil motives that led Brutus was his recorded dissatisfaction with how he was treated by Caesar. Despite the fact Brutus, as Plutarch says, “had as large a share in Caesar’s power as he wished”, he wanted more (Plutarch, “The Life of Brutus”). In particular, he got convinced by his opponents that Caesar’s kindness was insincere and based on his desire to root out his haughty spirit rather than recognize his virtues. That made “vigorous” Brutus angry with Caesar and did not let him feel grateful. In other words, he again might have been jealous about Caesar’s attitude to other people who also got his favors, although that feeling was unjustified. Indeed, by Plutarch’s account, Caesar “had faith in his (Brutus’s) character” (Plutarch, “The Life of Brutus”). Plutarch’s biography of Brutus allows claiming that Brutus was not a fanatical patriot, but the man who could carefully design complicated plans.
In addition, some historical sources give hint at a different nature of Brutus’s hatred for Caesar. Servilia, Brutus’s mother, was in love with Caesar and was his mistress for a long period. That was especially resentful for Junia, Servilia’s daughter and Brutus’s half-sister, since Servilia’s affair with Caesar started when Junia’s father was alive. Interestingly, two major conspirers against Caesar were Servilia’s son Brutus and her son-in-law/Junia’s husband Cassius (Salisbury 320). Besides, history fixed the personal confrontation of Cato, the uncle of Brutus, and Julius Caesar. Hatred to Caesar could have well been instilled in Brutus from the early age. Thus, this hatred could have started on a purely family basis.
The second major argument in favor of calling Brutus a villain is the impact his plot against Caesar had on the subsequent history of the state. It is a well-documented fact that neither Roman citizens nor the population of Italy supported Brutus in his assassination. People loved Julius Caesar and appreciated his reforms. They would certainly prefer to have Caesar at power under any circumstances. This can easily be proved by the historical account of the mob’s rage when the news of Caesar’s assassination spread. Enraged citizens sought to kill the assassins so that the latter had to flee from Rome by underground tunnels. Roman citizens burnt their houses and demanded the lives of the conspirers (Plutarch, “The Life of Brutus”). Therefore, the assassination was not done in the interest of the state, but in the interest of the clique that was afraid of losing power. Besides, the murder of Caesar did not restore the republic as it was hoped. On the contrary, it marked the beginning of civil wars and, ironically, the subsequent establishment of the imperial rule. Had Brutus acted in a purely patriotic way, he would have killed Mark Antony too, who, in Cicero’s opinion, with his corruption was no less dangerous for the republic that Julius Caesar. However, Brutus did not wish to kill Mark Antony, his corruption in the government was not believed something worth killing (McCarty 72).
In conclusion, the prevailing motives that guided Brutus in his taking part in the assassination of his benefactor were mostly subjective. In particular, Brutus was led by his self-love and envy rather than patriotic feelings. Besides, his personal dislike of Caesar could have equally contributed to his decision to kill him. Along with the recognition of the futility of Brutus’s plot in the history of the Roman republic, this factor is objective enough to rely on while claiming that Brutus indeed was a villain.