This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He, only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
Mark Antony on Brutus
Julius Caesar, Act 5, Scene 5
I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded. It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.
The Roman Republic had been visibly dying for generations before Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger was born into this vale of tears in 85 BC, amidst one of the Roman Civil wars that were becoming the new norm, with the Republic awaiting with trepidation the eventual return of Sulla from Greece after he defeated Mithridates, and the slaughters that he would doubtless inflict on his enemies. This was the world Brutus was born into: a world in which he was taught the glories of the Republic as a boy, but as he grew into manhood he could see old Roman morality being forgotten, a growth of decadence fueled by ever more wealth from foreign conquests, endless amounts of slaves flooding into Italy from the same foreign conquests, factions in the Senate engaging in what amounted to a cold civil war between bouts of hot civil war, the Roman Republican government teetering on the brink of permanent military dictatorship.
Ironically the man who would establish the permanent military dictatorship, Julius Caesar, was ever his friend and mentor, Caesar being the long time lover of his mother Servilia. Nevertheless, from his first entry into the Senate, Brutus aligned with the Optimates ” the best”, against the Populares, “the people” . The names are really beside the point between these two factions. By the late Republic, political and military power had become one and the same, and pretty wrappers of claims to loyalty to the Republic or to the People usually were merely masks to hide naked ambition. However, that was not the case with Brutus, who, like his uncle Cato the Younger, was a true idealist who wished to preserve the Republic.
After Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Brutus took up arms against him and was pardoned by Caesar after the defeat of the Senate army under Pompey at Pharsalus, Caesar prior to the battle having ordered his officers that no harm must fall to Brutus. Caesar made him governor of Gaul. That was the essential tragedy to the life of Brutus: he loved the Republic with all of his heart, and the man who was killing the Republic was ever his friend and protector. He resisted attempts to join in conspiracies against Caesar until he became convinced that Caesar intended to make himself a king, consigning the Republic forever to the past. Brutus slew his friend and died himself by suicide after losing the battle of Philippi. Brutus did not wish to outlive his beloved Republic. Victorious Mark Antony had the body of Brutus wrapped in his most expensive purple mantle, his remains cremated and his ashes sent to his mother.
The life of Brutus might be regarded as one long act of futility, his devotion to a Republic manifestly in its death throes doing nothing to stop the inevitable death of the Republic. However, his example would inspire men and women across the centuries who lived under despotisms, and whenever liberty arose again, the name of Brutus was usually on the lips of those who contended for it.
“Caesar,” said he, “had his Brutus, Charles his Cromwell, and (pausing) George the third (here a cry of treason, treason was heard, supposed to issue from the chair, but with admirable presence of mind he proceeded) may profit by their examples. Sir, if this be treason,” continued he, “make the most of it.”
John Burk, History of Virginia (1805), describing Patrick Henry’s speech to the House of Burgesses, May 29, 1765.