History's Most Famous Assassin
Kathryn Tempest, Brutus: The Noble Conspirator (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2017), 314 pp., $28.50.
ON A pleasant Sunday afternoon in the early 1980s, I was enjoying pre-brunch cocktails with a few friends in the ballroom of the old Townsend Mansion on Massachusetts Avenue (by then the long-time home of Washington’s Cosmos Club). One of my guests was accompanied by a rather charming, living political relic, former Sen. Eugene McCarthy, with whom I already had a nodding acquaintance. As the six of us chatted about everything from poetry, history and philosophy to the latest scabrous Capitol Hill gossip, it occurred to me that McCarthy—cultivated and principled, but also worldly wise and world weary—was one of the last throwbacks to an earlier age when America’s senate, at least in its better moments, had modeled itself on that of ancient Rome at its pre-imperial height. McCarthy, silver-haired, eloquent, well-read and something of a minor poet with a patrician veneer, could probably have held his own with Cicero. Even in the 1980s this made him something of an anachronism, and a retired one at that. By then New York’s Daniel Patrick Moynihan was probably the only serving senator whose erudition, rhetorical powers and grasp of history could match the standards and ideals of the Roman Senate at its best, even after, as was sometimes his wont, he’d had a few. Today, nobody in our senate—soused or sober—even comes close.
As McCarthy discoursed in rounded periods on the decline of the Senate as a deliberative body and the debasing of the executive branch by everyone from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon to Jimmy Carter—all while more and more unchecked power was being hoarded by the executive branch and a vast, unelected bureaucracy—I felt myself transported back in time. Change the names, dates and places, and the conversation could just as easily have been taking place in ancient Rome in 44 BC, shortly before the Ides of March.
Fast-forward thirty-five years to 2018 and the comparison is even more fraught. Many legislators, opinion leaders, and members of the old political and social order are predicting the imminent collapse of the American Republic. Traditionally respected news organs—print, electronic and broadcast—have abandoned even the pretext of objectivity and mounted 24/7 offensives while, all too often, the First Tweeter responds with childish and vindictive petulance. Politics, almost always a lagging social indicator, has descended to the same low level of ignorance, incivility and vulgarity that has characterized our popular culture as shaped and sold online, on television and radio, and at the movies since at least the 1960s.
All of which makes Kathryn Tempest’s new book about Marcus Junius Brutus—one of the leading senatorial conspirators in the successful plot to assassinate Julius Caesar in 44 BC—gripping but more than a little unnerving reading. I refer to it as a book rather than a biography because, while it offers the modern reader most of the sketchy and fragmentary evidence of Brutus’s life, it is at least as much concerned with the different ways in which he has been portrayed and “cast” by countless generations of scholars and partisans since he fell on his sword to avoid capture after losing the Second Battle of Philippi in October of 42 BC.
During all those centuries—and between warring schools of thought in each of them—Brutus has been characterized as everything from a liberty-loving tyrant slayer to a neurotic parricide, from a noble if conflicted idealist to a class-bound, calculating political opportunist. Tempest, senior lecturer in Latin literature and Roman history at the University of Roehampton, is a thoroughly qualified guide with a contagious enthusiasm for her subject. Readers looking for a flashy, melodramatic pop history of Brutus’s life and times, however, would be well advised to read her scholarly volume in tandem with the relevant chapters in Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans.
TEMPEST’S BRUTUS is a very different book. It serves as the equivalent of a state-of-the-art atlas charting terrain and compiling sober facts, figures and informed conjecture to fill in the blanks and correct the errors and exaggerations inherent in Plutarch’s legendary epic. Both Tempest’s modern traveler’s guide and Plutarch’s well-spun tale are necessary to an understanding of Brutus as a man of his times and, perhaps, the significance of those distant times to our own. To a considerable extent, Tempest writes, her book examines
“how Brutus’ life has been recorded and transmitted from antiquity to today; a central contention is that, to appreciate Brutus the man, we must really probe the sources we use, to understand who is speaking and why. From there, my aim is to make a significant contribution to the way we think about Brutus’ life, as well as the conclusions we reach about how he conducted his political career. Even when some of the factual details might not in themselves be novel or surprising, I hope my analysis and evaluation of them will open up new approaches and different perspectives. To this end, this book will take an integrated approach to the topic, combining biographical exploration with historiographical and literary analysis. In so doing it will offer a sense of who Brutus was and why he acted in the way he did, while simultaneously digging far deeper into the presentation of Brutus in the ancient evidence than has hitherto been attempted.”