Today is the Ides of March; the day Julius Caesar was assassinated. He’d been called to a meeting of the senate, and when he arrived, they assassinated him. While over sixty people were involved, they were organised by one man: Marcus Junius Brutus. Caesar was said to have muttered the now-famous line, et tu, Brute? (“Even you, Brutus?”) as he died.
In the two thousand years since, Brutus has been reviled and denigrated as a traitor. He is viewed almost entirely negatively, on the same level as Judas in the Bible.
There is some justification for it. After all, Caesar always treated Brutus well. Caesar was Brutus’s elder by 15 years, and had had an affair with Brutus’s mother around the time he was born (yes, at 15, Caesar was sleeping around!) Caesar seems to have harboured some fears that Brutus could have been his son, and always treated him with leniency. In the multiple occasions they ended up on opposite sides in Caesar’s Civil War (historians are great at naming things), Caesar always issued specific orders to his generals to take Brutus alive, and to leave him if he resisted capture.
Because of this, popular history has tended to look unkindly on Brutus, seeing him as a friend who betrayed his maybe-father and adversary who had always treated him with kindness and respect.
But let me just dive into Roman politics for a moment.
We’re all very familiar with the Roman Empire: we know the names of the most famous emperors, like Nero, Augustus, and Marcus Aurelius. Rome was a dictatorship for much of its history. But before the emperors, Rome was a democracy. In some ways, it was even more democratic than modern societies; though the voting system was much more restrictive, Rome was ruled by two co-Consuls who served as joint heads, and they were elected every year. This prevented too much power manifesting in any one person. They also had the Senate, an elected legislature, and a secret ballot, so you could cast your vote without anyone knowing who you voted for.
At the time of Caesar’s Civil War, these age-old democratic institutions were blurring. Consuls and military generals were vying for more power, and were increasingly behaving as despotic monarchs, trying to hoard all the power for themselves. Caesar and his allies had seized the support of the majority of the public by enacting populist policies; they led the populist faction in the Senate, opposed by the optimates – the conservative elite. Caesar amassed power through popular support and his victories in Gaul; the Senate, fearing his power, recalled him to Rome and tried to strip him of his military titles, but Caesar refused. He returned to Rome at the head of an army, and after winning the civil war, had himself proclaimed dictator for life.
Democracy in Rome (and by extension the rest of Europe, after the Empire’s conquests) was dead, and wouldn’t resurface for another thousand years.
But there was one last attempt to save it.
I want to draw your attention to this coin minted in Brutus’s name in the months after the assassination, when Brutus and his allies went to war with Caesar’s son, future emperor Augustus.
Quite a clear reference, isn’t it? “The Ides of March”, flanked by two daggers. It’s not hard to miss what Brutus was referring to.
But there is some extra detail to this coin.
Coinage in Rome was almost always political. It was, after all, the best way to advertise to the common people in the age before printing and social media. It was a unique chance to get an image into people’s hands.
The helmet between the daggers had a powerful connotation in Ancient Rome. When a slave was freed, the best, most by-the-book way to do it was to go through the administration and grant manumission, but that wasn’t an option for most people. So a much simpler, quasi-legal method was the grant the slave a ‘freedom cap’, a symbol of their newfound status as a free man.
What Brutus is saying here is that the Senators grouped up (hence more than one dagger) to free Rome from the shackles of dictatorship. Their assassination of Caesar was them granting the cap of freedom to Rome.
To me, this is a powerful mark of Brutus’s character. The fact that he turned against his maybe-father, a man who’d only ever treated him so kindly, because he vehemently disagreed with dictatorship, makes Brutus a hero, not a villain.
In the months that followed the assassination, Anthony and Augustus returned to Rome with 19 legions to battle Brutus’s 17. In perhaps the most consequential battle of Roman history, Brutus was defeated, and ran onto his sword to avoid capture. Augustus would become the first official emperor, and murder hundreds of Brutus’s sympathisers in the Senate and government of Rome, establishing a system of despotism that persisted in Europe from before 0AD to the early modern era.
How different the world might have looked if Brutus had succeeded.