Ever since he plunged his dagger into Julius Caesar, the noble Brutus has had a decidedly mixed press. One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist, and Brutus has been both hailed as a tyrannicide, liberator, and man of high moral principle and vilified as a traitor, parricide, and narrow-minded reactionary on the wrong side of history. Since the struggle over Brutus’ reputation set in immediately after the Ides of March and has continued for millennia, it is difficult to separate fact from fiction and near impossible to get a sense of what the “real” Brutus was like. In her admirable new biography, Kathryn Tempest proves herself a trustworthy and engaging guide to the life and times of this larger-than-life figure, carefully disentangling the sources and letting her readers look over her shoulder as she does so.
As Tempest points out, Brutus is remarkably understudied, and there has not been a serious scholarly biography. M. L. Clarke’s Brutus: The Noblest Roman (1981) is helpful but brief and in large part dedicated to tracing Brutus’ posthumous reputation. Thus, Matthias Gelzer’s 1917 Pauly-Wissowa article remains the gold standard, while the most interesting recent work has been done by Maria Dettenhofer, whose 1992 monograph Perdita Iuventus (on the “lost generation” of ambitious Romans—including Brutus—between Caesar and Augustus) Tempest on numerous occasions acknowledges. A major problem with getting a grip on Brutus is the unevenness of our sources (studied by Elizabeth Rawson in her classic “Cassius and Brutus: The Memory of the Liberators,” 1986): little is known about Brutus’ early life, while the period after the assassination is well documented. Even there, however, the main extant accounts—Plutarch, Appian, and Dio—are both late and biased. The only contemporary sources, apart from Brutus’ coinage, are the works of Cicero (invaluable but idiosyncratic) and, most important, Cicero’s correspondence with Brutus during the period from April to July 43. Tempest, incidentally, follows the majority of scholars in considering inauthentic the two abrasive letters Cic. ad Brut. 1.16-17, purportedly written by Brutus but more likely a rhetorical exercise; she is currently engaged in a further project on these and the other (Greek) pseudepigraphic letters ascribed to Brutus.
Tempest treats her material in roughly chronological order, discussing her sources as she moves through the various stages of Brutus’ life and political career. Since the book endeavors to appeal to a wide audience, the early chapters in particular contain some general explanations of Republican society and politics that will not be needed by more specialist readers; once we come to the Ides and their aftermath, however, these textbook-style elements are abandoned in favor of an engaging narrative that at points becomes a real page-turner. Throughout, Tempest’s approach to her material is balanced and judicious; eschewing speculation, she is content with acknowledging that many facts about Brutus simply cannot be recovered and laying out the competing interpretations of our sources without proffering her own opinion. It is this profoundly reasonable nature of Tempest’s work that makes the book so valuable: providing not some fashionable new angle but simply good and solid scholarship, her biography is likely to stand the test of time and remain the standard point of reference for many years to come.
After quickly discussing Brutus’ family and youth, Tempest spends some time on his political self-fashioning in the tumultuous 50s BCE, stressing that even then Brutus endeavored to present himself as a champion of Republican libertas. Disaffected with the First Triumvirate (and bearing a special grudge against Pompey, who had caused the death of Brutus’ father), Brutus on his coins of 54 advertised his descent from the Republican founding father L. Iunius Brutus and in two speeches published as pamphlets inveighed against Pompey’s sole consulship of 52 and praised Milo’s murder of Clodius, respectively. In the Civil War, he famously first followed Pompey but immediately after Pharsalus took up Caesar’s offer of clementia. As Tempest points out, this period is remarkably poorly documented, and we do not even know whether he was present at any of the war’s military engagements.
During Caesar’s rule, Brutus pulled off the remarkable feat of advancing under the dictator’s protection while at the same time strengthening his Republican credentials: the man whom Caesar appointed first governor of Cisalpine Gaul and then urban praetor for the year 44 raised more than a few eyebrows by divorcing his wife Claudia to marry Cato’s daughter Porcia. Cato, of course, had been Brutus’ uncle and after his suicide at Utica in the spring of 46 was quickly turning into a Republican martyr, a process in which his nephew was instrumental, first inspiring Cicero to pen a eulogy of the deceased and then writing his own. At the same time, Brutus was working for the reconciliation of Pompeians and Caesarians and the recall to Rome of the numerous post-war exiles; as late as Caesar’s return from the Spanish War in the summer of 45 Brutus was still optimistic about Caesar’s good intentions (see Cic. Att. 13.40.1).
What changed Brutus’ mind about the dictator and within a few months turned him from a sanguine beneficiary of the new regime into the leader of a violent conspiracy? Like many authors since antiquity, Tempest believes that it was Caesar’s increased flouting of Republican conventions and the extravagant honors bestowed on him that sufficiently alarmed a group of senators to make them take up arms against the dictator. She then turns to consider various possible motivations of Brutus in particular. While public opinion (as expressed in the famous graffiti that taunted Brutus for his inaction) and peer pressure will have played a role, Tempest follows Dettenhofer in seeing thwarted political ambition as a major motive: Brutus and his peers, at the very time of their lives when they were traditionally expected to leave their mark on Roman politics, were being deprived of this opportunity by Caesar’s de facto monarchy, which threatened to destroy the very system on which their aristocratic self-definition rested.
At the same time, however, Tempest stresses Brutus’ ideological motivation and in particular his philosophical beliefs (here, the influence of David Sedley’s important 1997 article “The Ethics of Brutus and Cassius” is palpable). A follower of Antiochus’ Old Academy and author of philosophical works in his own right, Brutus was well familiar with Greek discourses on the evils of tyranny and nobility of tyrannicide and probably concluded that in this time of crisis, his own uirtus (a key concept for Brutus, associated with him throughout our sources) called for the desperate act of political murder. Given that there is still a reluctance among many scholars to accept philosophical conviction as a significant factor in late Republican history, it is heartening to see Tempest state as a matter of fact that “philosophical studies provided many a man with his very own code of conduct” (94) and that, “[i]f it did not provide the stimulus, Brutus’ commitment to his chosen philosophy almost certainly sealed his decision to join the conspiracy” (97).
More than half of Tempest’s book deals with the tumultuous period after Caesar’s death, by far the best-documented stretch of Brutus’ life (a detailed appendix additionally lays out events from 15 March 44 to Brutus’ death at Philippi on 23 October 42, documenting the various sources and their discrepancies). Of particular interest is the correspondence with Cicero, which not only helps reconstruct the sequence of events but also illustrates the increasing differences of opinion between the two men (and their increasingly testy way of expressing them): Cicero thought that Brutus and his followers had mishandled the immediate aftermath of the assassination by not taking steps for a political reconstruction and instead yielding all advantages to Antony (whom Cicero wished had been dispatched as well); Brutus in turn was highly skeptical of Cicero’s championing the young Octavian as a counter-weight to Antony (a strategy that indeed spectacularly misfired). A chaotic five months after the Ides of March, the conspirators were forced to leave Italy; another year later, the Second Triumvirate was in place, and Brutus and Cassius were getting ready for the war to come. Their efforts to raise men and material in Lycia and on Rhodes were highly successful if also singularly ruthless. A particular blot on Brutus’ reputation (and one that even the most favorable sources found hard to deal with) was his brutal siege and conquest of Xanthus, which infamously led to a mass suicide on the part of the inhabitants. Though the liberators entered the fray at Philippi well equipped, luck failed them: it was a case of tragic miscommunication after the first battle that caused Cassius to consider the cause lost and kill himself prematurely, an act that brought about the defeat of battle no. 2 and sealed the fate of Brutus as well.
As Tempest points out, the “wrangle over Brutus’ reputation” (210) set in immediately after his death, and in her final chapter, she provides a brief overview of the different versions of Brutus current since antiquity, cleverly using Antony’s eulogy from the end of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar as her framework. Was “the noblest Roman of them all” the only one of the conspirators motivated by high-minded purpose, a mild and gentle man characterized first and foremost by his uirtus ? Or was he a traitor marked by the darkest ingratitude and worthy of suffering, as Dante has it, in the last circle of hell? Alternatively, was he the naïve reactionary scorned by Mommsen, one who pathetically failed to see that times had changed, the Republic was doomed, and Caesarism was meant to triumph?
Tempest’s declared purpose throughout the book is not to put forward her own theory of what Brutus was like and how he is to be judged, but simply and honestly to lay out her sources and let us see how Brutus was perceived by both his contemporaries and later authors. It is only at the very end of her conclusion that she suggests that perhaps one reason why Brutus remains so elusive is that this may just have been what he was like: “even to those who knew him in life, Brutus was an enigma” (237; the last sentence of the book). 2050 years later the enigma persists: there must have been something impressive, even charismatic about Brutus, a man who was wooed by such diverse personalities as Caesar, Cicero, and Cassius—but it is nearly impossible to get a sense of it from our sources. Thanks in particular to Cicero’s letters, many late Republican characters come deliciously alive for us, with even the “lean and hungry” Cassius showing himself to be urbane and funny (Cic. Fam. 15.19). Brutus, by contrast, remains a blank. It was perhaps Caesar who more than anyone managed to put his finger on his future assassin’s mindset when he remarked, “it makes a big difference what he wants, but whatever he wants, he wants very much” (Cic. Att. 14.1.2). For whatever there is to know about Brutus, we now have Tempest’s book.