Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger (85 BC 23 October 42 BC) is without a question the most famous of all assassins in recorded history. He was a senator of The Roman Republic of the most illustrious stock, with his name being one of the oldest patrician families, tracing itself back to the very founding of the Republic, to Lucius Brutus himself.
Officially he was the son of Marcus Junius Brutus the Elder and Servilia. His mother Servilia was half-sister to Cato the Younger, whose daughter Portia, Brutus Younger would eventually marry. Servilia was also the mistress of Julius Caesar, and Roman historians such as Plutarch speculated that Brutus might have been Caesar's biological child (but historians insist that since Caesar would have to have been fifteen when Brutus was born, and it's unlikely that his relationship with Servilia began then).
Brutus' father was a Marian, a tribune of the plebs, and a populare, who opposed the dictator Sulla Felix and his associates Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus. His father actually held his own against Pompey before surrendering honorably, only for Pompey to then order his execution without trial. The child of a disgraced rebel, Brutus was then adopted by his uncle Quintus Servilius Caepio (and for a time was known as Quintus Servilius Caepio Brutus because why not) and he eventually found a mentor in his other uncle Cato the Younger. In his early years, he made a fortune as a money lender in the Roman colony of Cyprus, and later in Cilicia where Cicero was a governor. In his letters, Cicero remarked that Brutus was renowned for making a huge profit as a loan shark, charging exorbitant interests to poor customers and then dispatching goons to collect. As a senator, Brutus was an optimate (where his father was a populare) and aligned with the conservative faction of the Senate. He supported his uncle Cato the Younger, the principled statesman, against the First Triumvirate, despite being personally friendly with Caesar.
Not much is known about Brutus in the period before the outbreak of the Civil War between Pompey and Caesar. When war broke out, Cato turned Pompey to defend the Republic against Caesar who was branded an "enemy of the state". As such Brutus found himself fighting in the army of the same man who killed his father. At the Battle of Pharsalia, Caesar gave explicit orders to spare Brutus, and upon defeat famously pardoned Brutus, making him governor of Gaul and later making him urban praetor during his dictatorship. Cato the Younger meanwhile committed suicide in exile, and Pompey died in Egypt. In Caesar's five year dictatorship, he spent only a few months in Rome, during which time Brutus divorced his first wife, Claudia Pulchra and married Cato's daughter Portia, which was scandalous in its time, because they chose to Marry for Love. No one is sure if Brutus actually masterminded Caesar's assassination or was eventually coerced into it but in either case, on the fateful day of the Ides of March, Brutus numbered himself among the Assassins who fatally stabbed Caesar in the Theatre of Pompey, which was used as a Senate House. Plutarch records that when Caesar saw Brutus among his assassinations he blurted out "Kai su, teknon?" in Greek ("You too, my son").
After assassinating Caesar, Brutus and Cassius emerged as leaders of a faction, self-styled "liberatores" who claimed to have restored the Roman Republic and delivered it from a tyrant who grasped for monarchy. Politically this was a huge can of worms, since Caesar as dictator perpetuo, a title granted to him by the Senate, had given many of his assassins governorships, titles, and other freebies that the Assassins still wanted to keep hold of after killing him. Caesar was also immensely popular among the people, and "The Liberatores" underestimated the extent to which their version of their actions would be seen differently by other Romans. In the immediate aftermath, the Assassins left the Roman Forum and marched to Capitoline Hill barricading themselves from the angry mob, and eventually they abandoned Rome itself for the provinces. In time, after a brief period of peace during which Caesar's grandnephew and adopted son Octavianus (the future Augustus Caesar), avoiding Sulla's proscriptions, tried to bridge factions, a second Civil War broke out between the Second Triumvirate and the Liberators. Said war ended at the Battle of Philipi, where upon realizing the battle was lost, Brutus committed suicide, by running into a sword. Mark Antony, the commander of the enemy's forces wrapped Brutus' body in his own purple mantle and gave him a honorable burial.
Historians and artists will likely never stop debating Caesar and his assassination. Whether Caesar was truly trying to be a king, or if he was, whether assassinating him in the manner they did was truly the best or only way to effectively stop him. At the time of his assassination, Caesar was en route for an invasion to the Parthian Empire to avenge Crassus' death and defeat at the Battle of Carrhae, and the urgency of the assassination was driven in fears of another Caesarian conquest and triumph which would make his reputation and clout unshakable. The manner in which the event took place (extremely clumsy, with senators tripping over each other as they assassinated Caesar), and the poor planning and initiative on display after the event, shows that the conspirators were likely not clear on how to proceed from said situation.
From the age of the Enlightenment onwards, Brutus has been seen positively, and often invoked as a brave republican, with his assassination glorified as a Tyrannicide (leading to the apocryphal phrase "Sic Semper Tyrannis" attributed to him, but which has never been traced to any ancient source). His assassination inspired many other copy-cat attempts, of which the most famous is John Wilkes Booth killing of Abraham Lincoln. Booth as an actor had played Brutus many times over, and he saw Lincoln as a dangerous reformer and tyrant in the manner many of Caesar's assassins did, and much like his inspiration, was surprised by how his assassination was immediately condemned by the people of his nation as a great crime.
Tropes in Fiction
- Conflicting Loyalty: Fictional accounts often see Brutus as torn between personal loyalty to Caesar, who was his friend, and who rewarded him with many gifts, and his duty to the greater good of Rome.
- Shakespeare's take is the most well known. It's certainly true that in real life he was personally tied by blood and emotional ties to individuals with competing interests and opposing personalities, being friends with Cato and Caesar (who hated each other), and allying with Pompey (who killed his father).
- On the other hand given he called himself and his band "liberatores" and gloated about his crime on coins, and that one of his last words attributed by Plutarch is on the order of both "I Regret Nothing" and a Dying Curse on Mark Antony, he probably was not too chuffed about his actions.
- Coup de Grâce: Shakespeare and others often argue that it was Brutus who delivered the actual killing blow.
- Et Tu, Brute?: He's the semi-Trope Namer and certainly the Trope Codifier for an especially personal and heart-breaking act of betrayal from a very close friend.
- Historical Domain Character: He shows up as often as his famous victim, Julius Caesar.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Shakespeare gave him one and he has received it constantly since The Enlightenment. As far as the Roman Republic goes, Brutus was a conservative optimate, a Loan Shark who extorted the poor. Even then, Brutus' actions during the Civil War don't suggest that he felt the guilt and sincere republican idealism that many assume him to have had. He and his conspirators minted coins glorifying their actions, and furthermore by minting coins with their own likenesses on it, Brutus was following in the same norm-violating tradition of Pompey and Caesar, who did the same to build a personal Cult of Personality. In other words, had he come out on top, there's good reason to believe he would have been an autocrat and strongman in the mold of either Sulla or Augustus.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Works sympathetic to Caesar will give Brutus one. Dante branded him a famous traitor, and he's shown as a slimy conniving creep in Asterix. Villainous portrayals of Brutus emphasize his treacherous shifty nature, rather than say his practises as a Loan Shark, or the fact that before being disloyal to Caesar, he was disloyal to his own father, allying with Pompey, who killed him.
- Icon of Rebellion: He was claimed as this during The Enlightenment, by the likes of Voltaire, the American, and the French Revolutionaries. Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels had his ghost meet Lemuel Gulliver in the island of Glubbdubdrib, going into Hero-Worshipper mode. The real Brutus certainly did call himself and his faction "Liberatores" and the coins he and his faction minted during their Civil War, showed Brutus face with daggers on the obverse.
- In the Blood: Fictional portrayals never miss out the fact that he was descended from Lucius Brutus, the founder of the Roman Republic, a man who grimly ordered the execution of his own sons when they allied with royalist Tarquin factions (and so setting a brutal precedent for loyalty to the state over bonds of love). Likewise, his own father, Brutus Elder, revolted against the dictator Sulla Felix (albeit his father was a tribune and a populare, where his son was a senator and an optimate). On the other hand...
- Luke, I Am Your Father: Plutarch argued, and others have followed suit, that Brutus might have been Caesar's own biological child with his mistress Servilia, and that Caesar's final words to him is a Deathbed Confession.
- Tyrannicide: A partial Trope Maker and Trope Codifier. His assassination is often invoked as a case where violence can be justified. The quote "Sic semper tyrannis" is believed to have been what Brutus shouted when he stabbed Caesar but this is a later invention.
- Unwitting Pawn: Shakespeare saw Brutus this way. He had sincere republican intentions but he was manipulated by those with more mercenary and unscrupulous goals.
- A regular character in Asterix often as a Running Gag, as Caesar's adoptive son who keeps sharpening his knife and making Obviously Evil gestures in response to Caesar's "You too, my son". He becomes an actual villain to the Gauls in Asterix and Son.
- Played by James Mason in 1953's Julius Caesar (based on Shakespeare).
- Played by Jason Robards in 1970's Julius Caesar (also based on Shakespeare).
- Portrayed by Kenneth Haigh in 1963's Cleopatra.
- Benoît Poelvoorde played him in the 2008 film adaptation of Asterix at the Olympic Games.
- French-Iranian actor Kheiron played him in the 2020 French comedy Brutus vs Caesar.
- Colleen McCullough's Masters of Rome has a very mocking and critical portrayal of Brutus, as a clueless puppet prevented from truly acting and getting what he wants (though McCullough is also one of the few authors to highlight Brutus's contemporary reputation as a ruthless money lender.)
- In Dante Alighieri's The Divine Comedy he is placed at the very center of Hell with two other traitors, Cassius and Judas, each of whom occupies one of Satan's three mouths as he constantly gnashes and chews them. Dante, a radical Guelph who was angered at the treachery of the Pope, and his fellow White Guelps against him, was probably projecting his own sentiments about being stabbed in the back on to Brutus.
- William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, where despite the title, Brutus is in fact the protagonist, and the Tragic Hero.
- Assassin's Creed:
- In The Twelve Tasks of Asterix, he plays with a knife during Caesar's council and Caesar orders him to stop before he hurts someone. He does stop... only after hurting himself.