Episode #4 Brutus: The Noble Conspirator
Updated: Oct 28, 2018
The name of Marcus Junius Brutus has been passed down from the ancient world as both a hero and a villain. Brutus helped lead a conspiracy to assassinate a tyrant and would-be king. His actions forever changed the course of the Roman Republic, and historians, philosophers, or playwrights have struggled to reconcile with his legacy for two millennia.
My guest on the podcast this week was Dr. Kathryn Tempest who joined me from the University of Roehampton in the United Kingdom to discuss her latest book, Brutus: The Noble Conspirator. Kathryn is Senior Lecturer in Roman History and Latin Literature. Her research concentrates on the literature, history and political life of the late Roman republic, with particular interests in oratory and rhetoric, all aspects of Cicero, ancient letters and biography. She is the author of Cicero: Politics and Persuasion in Ancient Rome and Hellenistic Oratory: Continuity and Change, which she co-edited with Christos Kremmydas.
Kathryn had a great deal to say about the challenges of writing a biography on an ancient figure with limited contemporary primary sources, what we know about Brutus's motivations, the impact of the assassination of Caesar, and how Brutus has been evaluated and re-evaluated over the ages.
Key Points in Today's Podcast
Some of the major topics I discuss with Kathryn in this episode are:
what source on Brutus's life are available to historians and why those sources should be analyzed critically
the status of Roman politics when Brutus was a young man and junior politician
how Brutus's use of the monetary mint can clue us in as to his political beliefs
Did Brutus say the famous words, "Et tu, Brute?"
the immediate consequences of Caesar's assassination for both Brutus and the Republic
how Brutus's divisive legacy has been viewed from antiquity to today
I thoroughly enjoyed reading Brutus. To me, Brutus is one of those figures that most people know of but don't know much about. I consider myself one of those people. For me, the highlight of the book was the immediate fallout that occurred after Caesar's assassination. By the time of the assassination, Caesar had become a monolithic power unto himself. When such a force is removed, it only stands to reason that something will try to fill in the gap. "Nature abhors a vacuum" as the adage goes. I had never reflected much on what that process of refilling the Caesar-shaped void in Rome's politics would look like. With no one as "big" as Caesar to fill his shoes, you see a chaotic time of political and military figures of varying levels of influence trying to jockey for power. The best political dramas can't compete with what happened in Rome during this period!
The final section of Kathryn's book on how different generations have chosen to remember Brutus also resonated with me. He is such a difficult figure to wrestle with! Can murder ever be justified? Can it be justified to save a country? Are republican and democratic ideals (to the extent that the Republic was more democratic than an empire), worth preserving at all costs? Should one simply accept living under tyranny? There are no clear answers to any of this and this is why we have been discussing Brutus for so long. Due to the confluence of competing values and ideals that come to a head in Brutus, he has become more of a philosophical figure than a historical one. As I read this book a tacked from supporting Brutus as a patriot to disliking him as an ambitious upstart back to not really knowing where to place him. It is precisely stories like this that make history worth reading.
For the Ever Curious If you are interested in learning more about this topic, consider checking out these resources:
Books by Kathryn Tempest
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare - Shakespeare may have done more to solidify Brutus in public memory than Brutus himself. Although the play is titled Julius Caesar, Brutus is effectively its central figure with Brutus's character actually speaking significantly more lines than Caesar's.
Rome (HBO) - Recognizing the inherent drama in the late Roman Republic, HBO created a history-drama series based on the period. Brutus figures prominently through the first and second seasons of the show.
Plutarch's Lives - Also known as Lives of the Noble Greeks and Roman, Lives was written in the first century A.D. (C.E.) and provides biographical pictures of several key figures from the ancient world, including Caesar and Brutus.
Caesar: A Biography by Christian Meier - While attempting to serve as a traditional biography, Caesar branches out to serve as a psychological analysis of the Roman world at the end of the Republic.