A Tale of Two Brutuses

44 BC was the best of times and the worst of times. It was a year of indecision and decided action (usually in the wrong directions) for Octavian and Antony. They attacked each other, attacked other people, attacked each other again, and then attacked each other while also attacking other people just to mix things up. Antony in particular was pretty high strung. On September first, his pal Cicero missed a Senate meeting. Instead of giving him a detention and moving on, Antony threw a fit. Unfortunately, he picked on the wrong guy. In a series of speeches called the Philippics, Cicero responded that Brutus and Cassius should have killed Antony. (Years prior, Demosthenes lambasted Phillip of Macedonia the same way with similarly titled speeches. Needless to say, Antony missed the parallel).

This may have made Antony more paranoid than usual and on October 2nd he declared that Octavian was going to kill him. Nobody seemed to care all that much. In a sulk, Antony left for Brundisium and began calling in troops from Macedonia. Octavian, unhappy that Antony was starting an arms race, quickly began to call in soldiers from Caesar’s old legion. While a few joined him, most refused to take up arms against Antony. I suppose there are a few perks to having been head of Caesar’s cult after all.

With Octavian not cooperating, Antony had to look elsewhere for a fight. Fortunately, he remembered Brutus who had started the whole damn thing. Brutus was still in Macedonia, but one of the other assassins, Decimus Brutus (not to be confused with Marcus Brutus who was commonly referred to as “Et tu, Brutus” or simply Brutus) was in Cisalipine Gaul, and no matter how politely Antony asked, he refused to turn the area over to him. Pulling his troops into the town of Mutina, Decimus Brutus prepared to wait out a siege.

While Antony hunkered down in the winter weather, back in the warmth of Rome, two new Consuls were elected. Hirtius and Pansa were both supporters of Caesar and opposed to Antony (see what happens when you aren’t around to fix the elections?) Between them and Cicero, they were able to convince the Senate to give Octavian “imperium” to validate his standing with the soldiers and people. Then they marched on Mutina together.

What followed was the glorious battle of Forum Gallorum. You can tell it was truly glorious as, to this day, no one is certain who won. But, both Hirtius and Pansa gloriously died as a result of the fighting. Which was a good thing as it opened up the consulship again. Antony, who had fled to the west was no longer in the running. So in a move of logic defying befuddlement, the Senate offered the post of Consul to Decimus Brutus for chasing away Antony (even though the war was started with exactly the opposite aim in mind). Furthermore, Antony was declared public enemy number one, proving once and for all never to underestimate a good orator with a grudge (I’m looking at you, Cicero).

Now it was Octavian’s turn to sulk as he was denied both a triumph and the consulship. There was only one thing to do, so emulating Caesar, Pompey, Crassus and the rest, he marched on Rome with the biggest, baddest army he could find. They gave him the consulship. (Funny the way that happens.) Of course, that meant taking it away from Decimus Brutus first. So barely two months after he was given a consulship and power, Decimus Brutus was once more condemned for being one of Caesar’s assassins. It’s okay if you are confused by now, because so was everybody else. Decimus Brutus was so confused he ran away. He got as far as the Alps when he was murdered by a Celtic chieftain, which simplified things as you only have to remember the other Brutus from this point on.

The Most Knobbliest Roman of them All

The best worst Roman ever would have to be Brutus. This guy couldn’t make up his mind whether he was coming or going. On the one hand he killed his best bud, Caesar. On the other, he only did it to prevent him from becoming an evil megalomaniac. Right idea, wrong intervention. It happens. Although eventually you run out of friends.

Brutus’s biggest problem was that his plans weren’t very well thought out. After the assassination, he had this whole speech to give to the Senate about how this would be the beginning of a return to a republic. Unfortunately, the Senators took one look at the bloody knife and ran away screaming like little girls. While Brutus was chasing after them shouting out the bits he’d spent too long the night before memorizing, Mark Antony got word to Caesar’s wife and gathered up Caesar’s money and papers.

Stealing another march on Brutus, Antony called a senate meeting for the 17th, and made sure he was in charge of the agenda. Now the way Antony could see it, he had two choices. He could outlaw Brutus and Cassius as the ringleaders of the assassination and honor Caesar as a hero, or he could declare Caesar a tyrant and honor Brutus. (He briefly considered a third choice, declaring himself emperor in Caesar’s place, but he didn’t want Brutus getting any more ideas.)

Now seeing as how Caesar had designated all the public offices for the next five years just before he died, no one in power was too keen to have his decisions rejected. (You can see where this is going, can’t you?) So Antony stayed up all night writing, and the next morning delivered a speech to the populace where he displayed Caesar’s bloody wounds with outrage. It was a very good speech, but all anyone ever remembers is something about “friends, Romans, and ears.” He also mentioned that Caesar left money to every citizen in Rome in his will. (Never underestimate the power of cold, hard cash.) Needless to say, Brutus and Cassius were driven out of town quite quickly.

Meanwhile, Caesar’s main heir, Octavian heard about his uncle’s death, but with great family feeling and devotion, decided to hide out in Italy until he learned which way the wind was blowing. Pretty soon he realized the wind was blowing pure Antony, so he climbed out from under his rock and moved towards Rome where he received a hero’s welcome. Antony, however, was less welcoming, even going so far as to refuse to give him the money Caesar left him in his will. Antony didn’t like to share the limelight (or the cash). Fortunately, Octavian had some rich friends who were eager to lend him some gold (they didn’t like Antony either).

By this time, Brutus and Cassius had stopped fleeing, and had rounded up an army of supporters. Brutus went to Athens to study (so he could make better plans) and gain support. By the time he was ready to leave he controlled all of Macedonia (and he didn’t even have the help of Machiavelli!). Cassius went to Syria, and between the two of them they controlled the eastern, richer part of the Roman Empire.

This did not sit well with Octavian and Antony. In fact they decided to put aside their differences and declare war on Brutus. With great effort, they almost managed.

Soothsayers Should be More Specific

Caesar spent a great deal of time between 48 and 45 BC travelling between Cleopatra, Italy, and a darn good fight. Realizing he wasn’t immortal, Caesar made a will in 45 which named his grandnephew, Octavian, heir to everything—including his name. Of course, Octavian already had a perfectly good name of his own, but you never know when a moniker will come in handy. If Octavian died before Caesar, everything was to go to his good friend, Brutus. In hindsight, there was probably someone better he could have thought of.

With great power, comes great responsibility, so Caesar decided it was time to clean up Rome’s act. His three main goals were to 1) suppress armed resistance in the provinces, 2) create a strong central government in Rome, and 3) knit the empire into a single unit. He finished the first by defeating Pompey, the second by ruling Rome himself, and he was working on number three. Reforms under Caesar included a census, a sumptuary law restricting luxuries (because the ideal Roman is serious and frugal), re-population rewards (you can only have so many prudes before the country dies out), debt restructuring, public works, the establishment of a police force, and calendar reform. Although, to be fair, he stole the calendar from the Egyptians. He couldn’t come up with all the good ideas himself.

Of course, too much responsibility was dull, so Caesar countered it with a number of lavish triumphs. Among other things there was a mock naval battle on the Field of Mars, and the Circus Maximus hosted a fight to the death between armies of war captives, including 20 elephants (beat that, Pompey!). Caesar felt gypped that he couldn’t have a triumph for winning the civil war (the Romans thought it might be considered bad form to celebrate defeating your own) so he had a lot to make up for. No matter how many people he conquered there was always more barbarians on the frontier. It was after a short war against Pharnaces II in Turkey that Caesar uttered his most famous phrase: “Veni Vidi Vici,” the modern translation of which is, “All your base are belong to us.”

The Romans were pretty impressed with Caesar and the Senate named him Consul-for-life which came with perks like a golden chair and the right to wear triumphal robes whenever he wanted.  The novelty wore off eventually. He was also granted a semi-official cult which was led by Mark Antony. This may have eventually contributed to his demise. It’s very hard to tell people you don’t want to be king when they are busy worshipping you as a god. It just confuses them. In February of 44 BC the Senate declared Caesar dictator-for-life, and he officially ran out of titles to gain. He’d collected the whole set.

This made a bunch of Senators uneasy, and they began to realize the problem with naming someone dictator-for-life was the for-life bit. So they decided to shorten it. While Caesar may or may not have been warned by a soothsayer to beware the Ides of March he certainly wasn’t warned by Mark Antony. Antony discovered the plot the night before, but was delayed by one of the conspirators on the way to the Senate and arrived just in time for the fighting to begin. He then, very bravely, ran away. Inside the Senate, Caesar was surrounded by the group of conspirators and stabbed to death. According to Eutropius 60 or more men participated in the assassination and Caesar was stabbed 23 times. Either Eutropius must have been exaggerating or two-thirds of them had really terrible aim. (You do the math.)

Caesar’s last words are hotly debated, but are most commonly thought to be “Et tu, Brute?” or “You too, you brute?” At least he had the satisfaction of knowing that Octavian was not dead, so Brutus would not inherit after all. Once the assassination was over, Brutus and the other conspirators marched through the city shouting, “People of Rome, we are once again free!” Ironically, this caused people to lock themselves inside their homes and not come out just proving that you can’t have everything.

Egyptian Female In Search of Roman Dictator

Caesar and Cleopatra had the greatest love affair in the ancient world, second only to Antony and Cleopatra (she knew how to get around). But their affair could hardly be surprising considering he was a scrawny, graying, rat-faced man of 52 and she a sensuous and nubile young girl of 21. Oh, and they each ruled the greatest empires of their day. Like I said: Soul Mates.

Cleopatra was the daughter of Ptolemy XII, better known as the drunk, flute playing one. After her father died, Cleopatra and her younger brother/husband (where is Darwin when you need him?) Ptolemy XIII became co-rulers of Egypt. This was all well and good, but as Cleopatra was eight years older than Ptolemy she started getting the idea she knew better than a kid not even in his teens. Before long, she was doing all the ruling on her own and upsetting people who didn’t think a woman should be that smart. In 48 BC a group of courtiers led by the eunuch Pothinus (somehow, he seemed immune to her charms) made Ptolemy the sole ruler and pushed Cleopatra into exile.

This didn’t sit too well with Cleopatra, so she began plotting. Meanwhile, our old friend Pompey fled to Egypt to escape Caesar and had his head removed for his trouble. Ptolemy may have only been thirteen, but he knew how to hold a dramatic execution. Oddly enough, Caesar was pissed when he found out that someone else had done his dirty work. After all, he may have hated Pompey, but he had still been a Roman and a Consul. You didn’t want people getting funny ideas about that sort of a thing. So Caesar seized control of Egypt and declared himself the arbiter between Ptolemy and Cleopatra’s still feuding forces.

Cleopatra had figured out which way the wind was blowing, so she had herself hidden inside a bedroll and smuggled past her brother’s guards to see Caesar. (Some people persist in saying she came in a rolled up rug which is not nearly as practical. Either way, Caesar was impressed.) While historians don’t know anything at all about what Cleopatra may have looked like, their best guesses range from “she was a surpassing beauty” to “she had a large nose.” In her defense, large noses were considered distinguished back then.  Plutarch said it best: “For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behavior towards others, had something stimulating about it.” In other words, looks aren’t everything.

Ptolemy was a little surprised when he came down to meet Caesar the next morning and found he’d already been seduced by Cleopatra. But hey, all’s fair in love and war. In 47 BC Cleopatra gave birth to Ptolemy Caesar or Caesarian and Caesar gave up on being fair. He declared war on Ptolemy and had Cleopatra restored to the throne—later Ptolemy somehow wound up dead in the Nile. Then, because we all know women can’t rule, Caesar had Cleopatra married to her other younger brother Ptolemy XIV because that worked out so well last time.

Although Caesar had to return to Rome, their affair was not over. In 46 BC Cleopatra and their son came to visit for a summer. The Romans were not impressed. She was simply too scandalous for them. When Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, Cleopatra had been staying in Rome again. She left quickly. It’s not that she didn’t love him. She just didn’t want to be next.

One if by Land, Two if by Rubicon

Now by 53 BC the first Triumvirate had broken up, and with one of the members dead, it seemed pretty unlikely they were getting back together for a ten year comeback. Caesar decided to take his act on the road, got as far as Britain before the legion broke down with a flat tire, ate one too many helpings of mushy peas, and marched back to Gaul where they at least knew how to cook. Meanwhile, rioting in Rome caused Pompey to be elected as sole consul, or “Consul without a Colleague.” This was a big departure from the two consul rule developed back in the second post, and some people were afraid all the power would go to Pompey’s head. Other people figured it already had, but since they wanted to be on the winning team, they got behind Pompey and formed a group called the Optimates.

Caesar was none too happy about loss of Consulship (even though he got bored with it in the first place), so he decided to make himself the governor of Gaul. He was surprisingly effective at administration and still found time to write a book, the Gallic Wars. This irked the Optimates back in Rome since they had no free time whatsoever, so they tried to end his governorship while declaring if he came back to Rome he would be prosecuted. (Somehow they failed to see how these aims could be contradictory.)

Neither Caesar nor Pompey were willing to back down, so they went whole hog and declared another civil war. In 49 BC, Caesar decided it was time for a grand gesture, so he led his troops across the Rubicon river, which formed the border of his territory. This was considered an act of treason. According to the historian Suetonius, before he crossed Caesar said, “ālea iacta est,” which roughly translates to, “oh fuck it.” This scared Pompey so much that he ran to Greece, completely forgetting that his legions were in Spain.

Thus Caesar was able to march on Rome, declare himself dictator, and devote the rest of his time to chasing Pompey around the globe. In a final battle at Pharsalus, Caesar defeated Pompey’s army once and for all. Pompey fled to Egypt where his head was unfortunately disconnected from his body by the Pharaoh who had heard all about it and did not want to get on Caesar’s bad side. Caesar then did the remarkably un-Roman thing of pardoning everyone involved in the battle. Included among these were Mark Antony and Brutus, and it doesn’t take a brilliant tactician to see that was not going to end well.

Crassus, and Pompey, and Caesar… oh my!

The First Triumvirate began because three people were pissed at the Senate. Of course, it was very hard to find anyone in Rome who wasn’t pissed at the Senate, but these three decided to do something about it. The first fellow with anger management problems was Pompey. He’d gone out and conquered the Hispanians, Gauls, Iberians, Albanians, Phoenicians, Syrians, etc. but that wasn’t good enough for some people. Afraid that Pompey might decide to add Romans to his list, the Senate refused to recognize any of the treaties or rules he had laid down in Hispania, Gaul, Iberia and so forth. Somehow, this had the opposite effect they had hoped for.

Caesar got to hearing about this and offered Pompey a deal: You help me become Consul and I will help you to continue to do whatever the hell you want.  Oh, and you can marry my daughter in the bargain (he’d heard Pompey had a knack for that). Caesar then turned to his other buddy Crassus who was rich as Midas and wanted to renegotiate taxes so he could become even richer. Oddly enough, the Senate was against that too. So really the Senators could only blame themselves when Caesar was elected Consul in 59 BC.

Pretty soon, Caesar discovered that being Consul was not as exciting as he thought it would be. And the Senate would keep nagging on about the slightest thing. It was enough to make him want to bash heads open. So he grabbed and army, had himself named proconsul, and headed out to Cisalpine Gaul (Northern Italy), Illyricum (the Balkins), and Transalpine Gaul (South France) where he bashed in heads to his heart’s content. (If you ever want to impress someone, tell them which side of the Alps Cisalpine Gaul is on. Or vice versa.)

Of course, eventually he was bound to run out of Cisalpine and/or Transalpine Gauls so Caesar moved north into Gallia Comata (we are near the end of the Gauls, I promise!) and began wreaking havoc there. A few illustrated texts under the name of Asterix and Obelix survive which recount the many perils the Romans faced against the plucky Gauls. In the end, however, Caesar triumphed and left Gaul in such desperate straits that there were no revolts against Roman rule (see Spartacus for a refresher on these). Caesar also cleaned up so much wealth that he was able to pay off all his debts and begin buying other political alliances.

Back in Rome, Pompey and Crassus shared the Consulship, and became increasingly irritated with each other. Soon, they were barely speaking to each other. A situation exacerbated by Crassus going east and getting himself killed by the Parthians in 53 BC.  As Julia, had died in 54 BC (which was the year prior due to the peculiar habit the Romans had of counting backwards as they had not yet discovered years go the other way round) the Triumvirate was breaking up and Caesar was ready to take his act solo.

Caesar: The Salad Days

Now we get to the most famous Roman of them all, or at least the one you’ve been waiting for since this blog began: Caesar. Gaius Julius Caesar was the son of a patrician family that could supposedly trace their line back to the Trojan prince Aeneas, who was the son of the goddess of love, Venus. And yet somehow Caesar wound up a short, rat faced man, going grey at the temples (on some men, this is thought to look distinguished).

Caesar’s early career was fraught with difficulty. Originally the high priest of Jupiter, he was stripped of his position during the civil war for the crime of being related to Marius, and only his mother’s intervention prevented his death at the hands of Sulla. Thinking it best to make himself scarce for a while, Caesar joined the army and left Rome, returning only after Sulla’s demise.

Armed with a high-pitched, querulous voice and terrier-like tenacity, Caesar returned to Rome and became a lawyer. Unlike modern lawyers, his impassioned speeches won him popularity, aided by his prosecution of former governors on charges of corruption. Caesar’s fame as a tough son-of-a-bitch grew when he was captured by pirates in the Mediterranean.  When the pirates tried to ransom him for twenty silver talents, he insisted that he would not allow himself to be released for less than fifty (proving that pride is all well and good, but really should take a back seat to common sense). Once released, Caesar raised a fleet and captured the pirates and crucified them—a promise he had made to them while in captivity. The pirates were not amused.

 Deciding that too many people still liked him,  Caesar decided to move into the next most despised career: politician. Racking up a huge dept, Caesar mysteriously won his election. He later pointed out that the accusations of bribery were completely unwarranted. Although he governed Spain for several years, his debts grew bad enough that Crassus (I told you to remember him!) had to pay off his creditors before they threw Julius in the slammer. Giving his pocket book a breather, Caesar went back to the military, conquered two local tribes (one guess as to what happened to their money), and reformed the laws on regarding debts. Feeling pretty on top of the world, Caesar decided to try for the highest political power in Rome: the consulship.

Unfortunately, a bunch of fuddy-duddies back in Rome were determined that he wouldn’t get it. But Caesar (come on, we all know this guy later declared himself Emperor. He was ballsy.) didn’t like to take no for an answer.