Friday, August 10, 2018

Brutus: The Noble Conspirator by Kathryn Tempest

Brutus: The Noble Conspirator by Kathryn Tempest
Yale University Press, 2017
To a considerable extent this book will examine 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 shy. 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. ... [T]his book will take an integrated approach to the topic, combining biographical exploration with historiographical and literary analyses. 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. As far as possible, then, it places his decisions and actions back into their real time, and it always prioritises an evaluation of the contemporary over later evidence for studying them. Wherever the evidence allows, Brutus is made to speak, argue and justify himself in his own words. Even when we do find ourselves having to rely on the works of later historians, I shall try to take us back to an understanding of them from the point of view of Brutus and his peers.
(Preface, page xi)

In a year where I've read a lot of impressive and enjoyable nonfiction books, Tempest's Brutus: The Noble Conspirator may be my favorite to date and gets my highest recommendation.

Brutus has been a controversial figure through the ages, including during his own lifetime. Some of the earliest references to Brutus treated him with respect. While the works covering Brutus of Titus Livius, Gaius Asinius Pollio, or Marcus Valerius Messalla Corvinus have not survived, mentions of their passages referring to him reveal that often the conspirators against Julius Caesar were regarded in a positive light. While Plutarch’s biography of Brutus paints a glowing picture, we have to keep in mind the author’s concern, which was drawing moralistic lessons in the comparisons of key historical figures. Plutarch’s pairing of Brutus with Dion, who overthrew the tyrant Dionysus II of Syracus in the 4th century BC, highlights the author’s praise for men who put Platonic ideals into action. Criticisms of Brutus and the conspirators appear early, too, with charges of parricide and banditry common in addition to that of tyrannicide. The letters between Cicero and Brutus and other letters of Cicero that speak of Brutus help provide a portrait of the conspirator, but these also have to be weighed against the concerns and agendas behind the correspondence. Tempest’s approach presents many points of view regarding Brutus in order to let the reader arrive at their own evaluation of the man. As Tempest puts it, “As we go in search of Brutus, this book will take an approach that combines history and historiography, in order to examine what we can learn not just about his life, but about how that life has been recorded and transmitted from antiquity to the present day.” (11)

An issue that is obvious but not always stated is that insight into Brutus' private life before the assassination of Caesar is clouded at best. Works he wrote before the Ides of March 44 B.C., such as On Duties, On Virtue, and On Endurance, now exist only in fragments. On his life after the assassination there is a considerable amount of surviving material but, as mentioned earlier, the views are slanted depending on the author's viewpoint. The sources also muddle actions and dates. What is clear, though, is Julius Caesar's assassination vaulted Brutus from a historical figure into the realms of mythology.

Tempest develops a theme from the sources that Brutus was intent on shaping how he was viewed, from early on in life up to his death. He stressed his family lineage, with ancestors on both his mother's and father's sides deposing or killing kings and tyrants. Although little is known of Brutus' early life, Tempest sets the scene for what a son of nobility would have experienced in Rome, Athens, and Rhodes during his studies and development. She also examines likely influences that would have shaped his thinking during these years. While privileged, Brutus faced challenges from this father's early death and the political climate (such as Sulla's changes in the laws, and Pompey's and Caesar's domination in politics). Since the book is geared for a general readership, Tempest's look at the late Roman republic is a helpful summary, especially when examining the tumultuous 50s (B.C., that is).

During the civil war between Caesar and Pompey, Brutus chose to support Pompey despite Caesar's overtures. After Pompey's loss at Phrasalus (August 48 B.C.), Brutus turns to Caesar and is accepted into his camp, although it's not always clear where Brutus was at various times. Tempest notes, "Brutus' whole career displays a remarkable knack for political side-switching," (66), but it's difficult to fully know how much was opportunism and how much was due to his personal philosophy.

My favorite section of the book is when Tempest turns to Brutus' "philosophical leanings to understand more about his ethics and motives leading up to the assassination" (13). (For more on this topic, also see the article by David Sedley mentioned in the links below.) It must have been quite a struggle in his mind to join (and help lead?) the assassination plot. He was dependent on Caesar for his office, but if he had sworn an oath to and was assisting a tyrant, what were his options to escape such a dilemma? And how much pressure did he put on himself in having emphasized his family's history of insuring Rome's freedom? As stressed here and elsewhere (especially Ronald Syme's book The Roman Revolution), judging Brutus' actions because the assassination led to the final dissolution of the Republic is to judge from the results. The years before and after the assassination show Brutus as having singled himself out as a man with an upright code of conduct and virtue. It's difficult to determine how much his philosophical basis was behind his impetus for participation in the assassination plot, but it did make such involvement consistent with his declarations. There are additional considerations to take into account, such as Brutus' thwarted political ambitions because of Caesar's control on the city's machinery. As Tempest puts this point, "In short, if we want to understand what united the men who conspired to kill Caesar, we need to consider the one thing they all shared in common: political ambition, the desire to accrue dignitas and win glory—both in their lifetimes and beyond."

In conflating their concern about Caesar becoming a tyrant with that of tyranny as criticized by the Greeks the conspirators seemed to severely misread what the populace wanted. They simply wanted the return to the rule of law they had enjoyed beforehand, not the murder of Caesar, which is why there doesn't appear to have been popular support for the assassination. Include the mayhem after Caesar's funeral into the mix and much of the populace may have wished the assassination never happened.

Since there are a great number of extant letters of Cicero, Tempest concentrates on what is in those letters as well as what is between the lines in order to understand how the assassination was received by Brutus’ contemporaries. The conspirators seem not to have thought too far ahead about what would happen after the assassination. Within a month of Caesar’s death, most, if not all, of the assassins had left Rome. By failing to seize the initiative immediately after the assassination, they were at the mercy of what followed from the backers of Caesar. “[O]pinions in how Caesar’s rule was to be remembered represented a new battlefield," (128) and the political and military jockeying had just begun. Routine events and annual spectacles became ways to influence public opinion, and with Antony in Rome he had advantages over the conspirators. Even with a lot of friction between them, Antony and Octavian were able to make a public display of unity which would work against the conspirators.

The conspirators (or liberators, as they billed themselves) and their supporters began to disagree on how best to handle the aftermath of the assassination. Misidentifying the problems they needed to address didn't help.

Yet, here and elsewhere, Cicero has underestimated the extent of the problem; as had Brutus, Cassius, Decimus and the rest of the Liberators. For, as we have seen repeatedly ..., Caesar was more than a man and, dominant though he was, there were far more players batting on his side than we sometimes remember, all with far too many vested interests. In other words, his celebrity, popularity with the veterans and plebs, and the movement Caesar spurred in Roman political life were far greater than the force of the assassins’ daggers. As the disagreements between Cicero and Atticus reveal, from the differing perspectives of two friends and contemporaries, each with his own view of Brutus, there is no simple answer to the question of why the conspiracy failed. Fear, anger, jealousy and pride have all played their part in this narrative, as indeed they did for a large part of republican history. But one thing appears certain: the real enemy was not Caesar, but Caesarism—and that was proving far more difficult to stamp out. (141)

The conspirators mostly separated in order to follow their own agendas although Cassius and Brutus, despite having sizable differences before and after the assassination, continued to work together. They headed to the eastern Mediterranean in order to gather support, funds, and troops. Brutus was able to masterfully take control of rich eastern provinces. What he did once he had that control, though, stained his reputation. His brutal rule called into question his stated defense of the republic. The mass suicide at Xanthus (in Lycia) as a result of his command reflected badly on him, although part of the event may have been driven by Roman rule in general. Cassius' actions were aggressive and cruel, too, which made it easy for opponents to conflate the actions of these two conspirators. Later, the results of the battles at Phillipi were mixed, but they led to the deaths of Cassius and Brutus. The battle for the shaping of public opinion on Brutus, though, didn't stop with his death.

[T]he wrangle over Brutus’ reputation generated competing sides to the man, as his friends and enemies alike tried to shape the memory he was to leave behind; already at his death, different ‘endings’ were being written for Brutus’ life. But these competing narratives in the historical material are a blessing rather than a curse. The legend of Brutus, the complexities of his character, and the questions that surround his legacy are all significantly enriched when we trace them back to the beginning, ... to the life of Brutus and how he was received by his contemporaries. (210)

As Tempest points out, a study of these contemporaries leads to a wide variety of responses, making definitive statements about him difficult beyond noting there were many sides to Brutus. Far from feeling disappointed in the recognition that Brutus was an enigma, Tempest makes the study and analysis of these many sides enjoyable.

In addition to the clear and detailed text, the book has everything I want in such a book (even if I didn't know I did). The maps are relevant and helpful. One appendix lays out the chronology after Caesar's assassination, laying ancient sources side by side so the reader can see where they coincide and when they differ. The endnotes fill in more information and point out alternative opinions, while the bibliography provides a great list of sources to explore. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and hope it gets the wide readership it deserves.

An article on the book at the Yale Books Blog

In Chapter 4 (Thinking about Tyrannicide), Tempest looks at the motives, personal and political, that would have spurred Brutus on toward the assassination of Julius Caesar, including his study of philosophy. One article she uses as the basis for part of the chapter is "The Ethics of Brutus and Cassius" by David Sedley, The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 87 (1997), pp. 41-53. An online search may provide you with access to this article.

Kathryn Tempest is the Educator for this lesson in the TedEd Lessons Series: "The great conspiracy against Julius Caesar"

My notes on the book

1 comment:

Dwight said...

A quick note: I read this book several months ago so I'm relying on my notes. If the post seems a little "bumpy" and slides over important parts of Brutus' life, this is why.