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.”
Tempest offers a number of useful—and sometimes surprisingly timely—insights. Sometimes they can be as basic as distinguishing between modern and ancient definitions of the same words. Brutus and his fellow assassins claimed to be the saviors of the res publica (Latin for “matters public” and the origin of the word “republic”) and the guardians of Roman libertas (liberty). But as senators and other holders of high office they were almost all members of a small, cultivated but self-centered oligarchy who felt that libertas applied first and foremost to themselves rather than the mass of their fellow citizens and that the responsibility for—and rewards to be gained from—res publica were their prerogative to the exclusion of most others.
In this their thinking closely resembled that of many more recent “aristocratic republics” from the Venetian Empire to the sixteenth-to-eighteenth-century Polish Commonwealth and even the aristocratic Whig ascendancy that triumphed in England after the (according to the members of the ascendancy) so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. All were characterized by governments built on a parliamentary or senatorial model that zealously limited both the executive authority of a monarch or first magistrate while also hoarding most of the wealth, land and power in the hands of a small aristocratic elite. The nearest parallel in American history would be the antebellum South, where a large slave population and the majority of poor whites were lorded over by a tightly knit, much-intermarried minority of Bourbons mouthing words like liberty and states’ rights while opposing any reforms that might loosen their own grip on power.
TO GIVE an idea of just how small and inbred the oligarchy in republican Rome was, one of Brutus’s leading co-conspirators in the plot to murder Julius Caesar, Cassius Longinus, was also Brutus’s brother-in-law. Pompey, the Roman consul and strongman eventually supplanted by Caesar—and whom Brutus alternately opposed, supported and then opposed again—had been implicated in the political murder of Brutus’s father. In the fullness of time, this did not prevent Brutus and Pompey from sharing the same wealthy, well connected father-in-law, Appius. And Julius Caesar himself carried on a well-known extramarital affair with Brutus’s mother, Servilia, which also led to rumors that Caesar was Brutus’s biological father. Were this the case—which it almost certainly was not, for chronological reasons that Tempest explains—then in murdering Julius Caesar Brutus would have committed an act of parricide as well as tyrannicide, a real-life Roman variation on the Greek tragedy of Oedipus Rex. One can only imagine what Sigmund Freud would have made of that.
Tempest’s Brutus emerges as an intelligent, patriotic and highly cultured man with a deep sense of ancestral obligation; he claimed descent from the early Roman hero Lucius Junius Brutus, who, according to national legend, expelled King Tarquinius Superbus (the “Haughty”) from Rome in 510 BC, thereby ushering in the Roman Republic. In addition, on his mother’s side, Brutus could claim kinship to “the republican hero Servilius Ahala, who was famous for killing Spurius Maelius in 439 BC on grounds that he was aspiring towards tyranny.”
Thus, by both nature and nurture, Brutus was shaped by a strongly “republican,” anti-dictator family tradition long before he began to form his own ideas. It is clear, however, that he embraced the family tradition wholeheartedly, and perhaps in part for career advancement, since he “was particularly proud of his claim to fame and the unique reputation it conferred upon him as a defender of the Roman Republic. As a result, he actively sought to nurture a very specific public profile.” This included, while a young official with the privilege of minting coins, promoting his ancestral link, in one case on a silver denarius featuring a goddess-like profile of Libertas (Lady Liberty) on one side and his ancestor Lucius Junius Brutus on the other. Thus, long before his confrontation with Caesar, “Brutus minted coins advertising his connection to Libertas; it was the same appeal he made after the assassination of Caesar when he and his supporters styled themselves as ‘Liberators.’”