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Et tu Brute contra me? About political program of Marcus Junius Brutus

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Marcus Junius Brutus
Marcus Junius Brutus

Marcus Junius Brutus seems to be one of the most recognizable figures in the ancient world. His image has been deeply rooted in literature, theatre, cinema and widely understood popular culture. Due to such great popularity, many myths and misunderstandings have arisen around his character. It can be said that he fell victim to his fame, both in life and after death.

Throughout the ages, Marcus Brutus has been judged differently. Dante placed him at the very bottom of the ninth circle of hell. Shakespeare was much more sympathetic to him. The prevailing view among modern historians for a long time was that Brutus was a dreamer who believed that simply getting rid of Julius Caesar would save the republican system. In their opinion, he was not a down-to-earth politician, but the last advocate of a political system with no future. So let’s take a closer look at this controversial figure and try to recreate his actual political program.

At the very beginning of our considerations, it should be emphasized what difficulties we encounter when analyzing Brutus’s actions. Unfortunately, the condition of the preserved written sources and their nature does not allow for an accurate reconstruction of his political plans. The vast majority of the preserved ancient works that describe Marcus’s activities were written by his opponents and it is very difficult to find in them an objective picture of the events. The works of historians that were contrary to the ideology of the principate and the actions of August were simply destroyed. Coins minted in the areas occupied by the republican party led by Brutus come to our aid. However, they did not provide information until the mass appearance of coins in 43 BCE. Earlier, in 54 BCE, another issue appears, which will only be a harbinger of future events.

We should start with the assassination attempt on Julius Caesar and his organization. We will not find any traces of the conspiracy in written or numismatic sources. This is most likely due to the fact that the plot itself was set up very quickly and in secret. The prevailing opinion now is that the bombers had no intention of doing anything other than the assassination of Caesar. However, in this case, one should not be too quick to accuse them of labelling reckless idealists. They certainly counted on the spontaneous support of the senate and commoners. It is also possible that after Caesar’s assassination, they wanted to reach an agreement with Marcus Lepidus and Mark Antony, who he was the acting consul at that time. They also saw that Caesar’s popularity had reached its apogee and began to decline. The best example of this is the event during the Lupercalia festival, which took place on February 15. It was then that Marcus Antony tried to “coronate” Julius Caesar. The latter, seeing the people’s lack of enthusiasm, ostentatiously refused. It seems that the assessment of the political situation by the conspirators was not as erroneous as it might seem at first glance and there is little evidence that it was a suicide action.

Caesar refuses to put on the crown

Thus, the main, if not only, the goal of the conspirators’ actions was to kill the tyrant they believed Caesar to be. It was in him that they saw the greatest obstacle to restoring the glory of the republican system. And rightly so; their belief could be confirmed by the example of the Gracchus’ brothers and Cornelius Sulla. In these cases, the lack of a strong political leader scattered his followers, while the importance of the traditional centre of power, the senate, grew.

Another ace up the sleeve of the conspirators was the ideology they disseminated using propaganda slogans. There is no doubt that the most important ideologue and a kind of ideological basis was the figure of Marcus Junius Brutus. Why was it the one who led the entire party known as the republican?

First, it was for formal reasons. At the time of the coup, he was the only one who held the high office of the city praetor, at the same time his most important supporter, Gaius Cassius Longinus was praetor peregrinus. For formal reasons, it placed them at the forefront of the plot.

Second, and most importantly, Brutus’s leadership was symbolic, primarily because of his origins and family connections. Marcus came from the Junius family, an old and well-respected family. The name was derived from the name of the goddess Juno. The father of the leader of the bombers bore the same name, that is, Marcus Junius Brutus. In 78 BCE he was sentenced to death by Pompey. After his father’s death, he was greatly influenced by another family member, Marcus Porcius Cato, an implacable Republican. His mother, Servilia, was Julius Caesar’s lover for a long time and remained on good terms with him even after their affair. It is not surprising then that there have been rumours that Brutus may have been Caesar’s son, which is, however, impossible for chronological reasons. There is no doubt, however, that Caesar must have felt some kind of sympathy for his lover’s son. Family, and thus personal contacts, gave Brutus access to the then political elite of Rome. Although Brutus was heavily influenced by Cato, he was not a fanatical idealist, but rather a politician who made significant compromises. An example is a fact that in 49 BCE became a supporter of Pompey, who condemned his father to death.

Brutus’ program was based primarily on a legend about his family. The representatives of the Brutus family traced their roots back to Lucius Junius Brutus, a patrician, the first consul to banish the last king from Rome of Tarquinius the Proud. Nowadays, there is little doubt that these connections are fiction, but the ancients did not perceive it in such terms. It was a family story that was not treated at all in terms of truth and falsehood. Brutus maintained and developed this family tradition. In 54 BCE, when he was viri monetalis, he minted two significant issues of denarii at the mint. The obverse of one of them shows the head of Libertas. The reverse showed Brutus’s ancestor, Lucius. This is how Marcus tried to convey his political program. Highlighting his origin, he referred to the great figures of Roman history, identifying himself with their achievements at the same time. The personification of Libertas referred primarily to civil liberties, and thus the republican model of government. Remember, however, that this issue appeared in 54 BCE. So it was not aimed at Caesar, but rather at Pompey, who at that time was dangerously increasing his power. For these two reasons, it was Brutus who became the leader of all those who sought to restore the old traditions of the Republic.

As previously mentioned, Brutus was not a naive idealist, but rather a pragmatic politician. We can also find evidence of this in his coinage. This is evidenced primarily by the fact that Brutus decided to put his own portrait on the coins. The matter may seem prosaic, however, in the realities of the Roman mentality, it was of great importance. According to Roman tradition, living politicians could not put their image on a coin. A special resolution of the senate was needed for this. The first living politician whose portrait was placed on the coin was ironically Julius Caesar! Thus, on the one hand, Brutus emphasized republican traditions in his issues, and on the other hand, he continued the propaganda patterns shaped by his greatest political opponent.

Death of Caesar, Karl Theodor von Piloty
Death of Caesar, Karl Theodor von Piloty[/Photo frame]

In summary, the political agenda of the republicans was strongly influenced by its main character, Brutus himself. It is dominated by the slogan Libertas, enriched with a family tradition. It is worth remembering that Libertas is not only a political slogan but above all a deity who is connected directly with Brutus himself. His leadership of the republican group was therefore also sanctioned by the gods themselves. In politics, the traditional offices also played a significant role. However, it seems that this program was quite flexible and shaped also by political opponents.

Author: Kacper Derko (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)
  • Morawiecki L., Legum ac libertatis auctor et vindex: Marek Juniusz Brutus i jego program polityczny, Poznań 2001

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