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“This was the noblest Roman of them all,” declares Antony over Brutus’ dead body in the last scene of Julius Caesar:

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mixed in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world “This was a man!”

As Kathryn Tempest reminds us in BRUTUS: THE NOBLE CONSPIRATOR (Yale University Press, $28.50), the historical Antony is unlikely to have made any such remarks; yet there was, in Marcus Brutus’ lifetime and among the ancient commentators, a widespread belief that the liberator was “an honorable man.” The most famous assassin of the dictator perpetuo was a student of philosophy who acted, it was said, not out of personal greed but out of concern for the republic. He was the descendant on his father’s side (or so he claimed) of Lucius Brutus, who had driven the last king out of Rome, and, on his mother’s side, of Servilius Ahala, who in 439 b.c. killed the would-be autocrat Spurius Maelius. It was this lineage that inspired the graffitists of 44 b.c. Someone inked utinam viveres (“If only you were alive”) beneath the statue of Lucius Brutus. The praetorian tribunal where Marcus Brutus worked was also tagged. brutus, are you asleep, you’re no brutus. Etc.

“Avocados, 1936,” from the monograph Paul Outerbridge, by Manfred Heiting and Elaine Dines-Cox, published by TASCHEN. Photograph by Paul Outerbridge Jr. © 2017 G. Ray Hawkins Gallery, Beverly Hills, California

The people of Rome may have clamored for “another Brutus” and resented Caesar’s monarchical aspirations, but unlike the elites, who studied Greek philosophy, they did not think the imperator was a tyrant and did not go in for tyrannicide. It proved easy to kill Caesar, and impossible to kill Caesarism. Life in Rome got worse after the assassination (a bloody civil war culminated in the triumph of Augustus, né Octavian, the first Roman emperor), but did Brutus deserve the punishment concocted by Dante — to be mashed in the teeth of Lucifer alongside fellow conspirator Cassius and brother-in-treachery Judas Iscariot in the lowest circle of Hell? It depends on your source. Shakespeare was influenced by Plutarch, who held up Brutus as an exemplar of virtue; Dante read Lucan, Appian, and Virgil, who hailed Octavian as “the young champion” and the rescuer of “a generation turned upside down.” But it is Cicero who had the greatest influence on Brutus’ reputation, causing generations to view him as a brave idealist who forgot to make a plan for what would happen on March 16.

Brutus and the Ghost of Caesar © British Library Board/Bridgeman Images

“By all means, we must fly. But with our hands, not our feet,” Brutus is reported to have said before committing suicide after the second battle of Philippi. Death scenes were of special importance to the Romans. In Suetonius’ account of Caesar’s assassination, the ruler dies with only a groan, emphasizing the surprise nature of the attack. His famous last words — Kai su, teknon (“Even you, my child”) — may have been concocted by Brutus’ detractors, who started the rumor that Brutus was Caesar’s illegitimate child, and thus a patricide as well as a killer of the pater patriae. (There is no historical evidence for this. Brutus’ mother did have an affair with Caesar, but it happened when Brutus was an adult.) The versions of the legend that have Caesar issuing final words carry a different meaning than the plaintive sorrow of the literal translation, or Shakespeare’s “Et tu Brute?Kai su, teknon is the first half of a Greek proverb that suggested Brutus would get his comeuppance — “Even you, my child, will have a bite of my power.” It was less a lament than a curse. “Back at you, kid!” is how Tempest puts it. The scholar Jeffrey Tatum gives it a more contemporary gloss: “See you in hell, punk!”

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