Until Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 Brutus was the most famous assassin in the world. The consequences of his action on the Ides (15th) March 43 BC were almost as serious and yet there are relatively few biographies of him. This book seeks to fill the void, and it’s quite a tale.
- Kirsty Corrigan
In 53 BC the Roman republic was ruled by an uneasy triumvirate who were appointed by the Senate. Its empire extended from the Atlantic, round most of the Mediterranean (not Egypt) and included all of France (Transalpine Gaul). The triumvirate comprised Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. Unfortunately Crassus was killed in battle, which meant that the relationship between Caesar and Pompey deteriorated rapidly; Pompey in Rome seeking advancement of his interest while Caesar continued to subjugate Gaul. Matters came to a head and in 49 BC Caesar marched his legions across the river Rubicon, ostensibly to save the Roman republic from Pompey. His battle hardened legions triumphed and Pompey fled from Italy to Greece (still part of the Roman Empire). Caesar followed (having had to raise a fleet) and finally defeated Pompey at the battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered
Brutus, who had established a reputation of a republican intellectual of great honour and integrity, chose to fight on Pompey’s side. He did not reach this decision easily (Pompey was a family enemy and his mother was Caesar’s mistress) but reached it through intellectual reasoning. However Caesar pardoned him, (he was a great one for clemency) and Brutus retained his standing. Caesar operated as a dictator, with the acquiescence of the Senate. His primary task was stamping out remnants of Pompey’s forces. In 46 BC he defeated the rump of them in Tunisia which drove Cato (the leading republican intellectual and commander) to suicide. At the same time Brutus received accelerated advancement, becoming governor of Cisalpine Gaul (today’s northern Italy), a plum and lucrative job.
Over the period 46 BC to 44 BC Caesar’s approach became more tyrannical and in 44 BC he went to the Senate to be appointed king. This was the final straw and an unknown number of republican senators, led by Brutus and Cassius, stabbed him to death. They spared Caesar’s protégé, Mark Anthony – a move that they must have later regretted. They seemed to have no plan of what to do next, and further complication arose when Caesar’s will was read. He appointed Octavian as his heir. Rome was destined for further civil war. Octavian and Mark Anthony combined forces against Brutus and Cassius, eventually defeating them in 42 BC at the Second Battle of Philippi, (again in Greece). Brutus nobly committed suicide having lost the battle.
There is some surviving contemporary correspondence between Brutus and Cicero, and further references to Brutus in other contemporary texts. However much of the documentation about him comes from much later, which does not make the researcher’s job easy. The author makes this point with exasperating frequency.
This is not a good book. They syntax is often ponderous – 60 plus word sentences are all too frequent and she is addicted to the comma. The structure is fragmented; the text sometimes appearing more of a critique of Cicero’s letters than a history of Brutus. The maps are inadequate and there is a lack of detail. For example we are told that Caesar bequeathed 300 sestertii to every roman citizen, but are not told what that is actually worth (Google tells me that 50 years after Caesar’s death a legionary’s gross annual pay was 900 sestertii). Quite why there is a photograph of a feral cat called Pompey which lives in the Colosseum in Rome today escapes me. There were times when I nearly gave up on this book.
It is frustrating; the story should be a good one and a better writer could have found it. If there is not enough original material to write a biography (and it may be that there isn’t) the story could have been approached more generally. Certainly there are obvious modern parallels.
One mushroom – and it’s lucky to get that.