This is an apologia for Marcus Junius Brutus the Younger, or “Brutus,” and Gaius Cassius Longinus–they called him “Cassius!”
Of all the forty-plus guys who stabbed Julius Caesar to death on March 15, 44 b.c., the ones history has the most choice words for are the dude who thought it up and the dude who made it happen, Cassius and Brutus respectively. They thought killing Caesar would save the Republic from becoming a dictatorial empire. And when it didn’t, they both led armies against Caesar’s successors, Marc Antony and Octavian, in the “Liberators’ civil war,” and both eventually lost. When they died, the Roman Republic died with them.
Fast forward to 2018, and probably most of us can sympathize with plotting to assassinate a tyrant. We might even look back and wonder what might have happened if, after Caesar died, Rome had stayed a Republic and not strayed from its ideological roots. Would we have entered a golden age of liberty, and skipped out on the Middle Ages? Would we have banished slavery hundreds of years ago? Would we be texting each other in Latin instead of English? Would we have forgotten all about Caesar, and never put croutons in our salad?
Unfortunately Europe did have a Middle Ages, and for most of it, the folks who didn’t die of plague seem to have loved Julius Caesar and hated Brutus and Cassius for killing him. In fact, of all the sinners in all of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno, Dante puts these guys in second and third place on his list of World’s Worst Bad Guys, right after Judas Iscariot, the dude who betrayed Jesus. Check it out: you can actually see Brutus and Cassius getting their guts gnashed up by Lucifer’s two side-heads in this whimsical, ancient, nightmare-fuel illustration:
This is some dead monk’s rendering of what is basically the last scene in the Inferno, in which the characters of Virgil and Dante descend through Hell to the very center of the Earth. The lower the level of Hell, the worse the sinners get. And so by this point we’ve passed the child murderers, the genociders, a bunch of evil tyrants like Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun (whose imperial ambitions and genocides of course were totally different than Julius Caesar’s), a Minotaur, some of the Sodom and Gomorrah guys, and even the “Simonists,” poseur priests who only join the clergy for the kicks.
And finally we come to Brutus and Cassius, and they’re in Satan’s fucking man cave basement, the lowest of the low! Dante is comparing our boys to the most violent, blasphemous things you can think of and saying, “Nope, these guys are eviler! They’re worse than cannibals who eat babies while dressed as priests saying the Lord’s Prayer backwards. They’re worse than nuns who kill their whole families and have sex with their nephews while shouting “onanism!” They’re worse than people who harbor suspicions that the wine at communion might not literally be Jesus blood!”
It’s like, dude, how tragic is that? Brutus and Cassius were already the biggest losers in the history of Italy. And now the greatest poet in the history of Italy decides to immortalize them. And the theological insight he makes about them is that they suck.
And it gets worse! Because jump ahead to the end of the Middle Ages, and now Shakespeare writes our poor Caesar-stabbers into his play version of Julius Caesar.
And this should have been a good thing for them, right? Because Shakespeare is the Bard. And there’s no way England could afford the special effects to pull off a three-headed Satan like in Dante’s version of things.
But then Shakespeare, out of the fucking blue, decides to go and invent postmodern theater four centuries too early, putting Brutus and Cassius in the lead as the heroes but then deciding that good guys and bad guys aren’t a thing.
“It’s all relative, maaaan. Are Marc Antony and Caesar bad? Are Cassius and Brutus good? Who’s to say, man? Who’s to say anything? Do I even write my own plays? Maybe I’m Christopher Marlowe! Is Queen Elizabeth my real mom? Whoooooooooo…”
And so Cassius winds up being a “savvy” but morally weak guy with no good lines. And Brutus is a problematic anti-hero, where the “anti” is an acronym that stands for “alway never terribly inspiring.” In fact, nobody much seems to have been inspired to love these two men, now rendered as morally indecisive Satan chew-toys, for a couple hundred more years after Shakespeare, and I can’t blame them.
Pity then, that the next notable guy who did get inspired to grab the bloody baton of tyrannicide and run for the defense of murder in the Brutus and Cassius relay race was literally the worst guy you could fucking pick, the man who gives murder a bad name: John Wilkes fucking Booth!
Unfortunately, John Wilkes Booth came along too late for Dante to write him into the Inferno so that he could spend eternity having his right nut rubbed into a bloody sore by the prickly hairs of the wig of Donald Trump, and his left nut rubbed into a syphilitic ooze by the prickly hairs of William Shatner’s toupee, and then his dick cut off and sewn onto Louis CK’s face, who is forced to flash him every day with his own dick as Louis CK is forced to field creepy unsolicited phone calls from Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon saying “I want you to be My Lai!” in a breathy, watery voice.
Nope! But John Wilkes Booth came along just in time to kill a good leader from an actual republic that Brutus and Cassius might have kind of liked, right at a time in American history when the South had literally just barely begun to surrender. It was a time when a better leader than, say, Ulysses S. Grant could have gone a long way towards healing the nation, enfranchising black folks, and making the South not get going on the whole institutional deep racism kick that lasted another hundred years. To quote myself:
Who knows how far ahead our nation would be if Lincoln hadn’t been shot? Maybe by now we could even have moved past the whole institutional “let’s bend science to say white men are smarter” controversy at the hands of assholes phase of racism!
Not only did Booth ruin the Reconstruction, but he fucked up the Brutus and Cassius brand. First he appeared in Julius Caesar as Marc Antony, but he then went on to spell out his inspiration from Brutus clearly in his diary, where he somehow praises him and then talks shit about him at the same time.
“With every man’s hand against me, I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for. What made Tell a hero? And yet I, for striking down a greater tyrant than they ever knew, am looked upon as a common cutthroat. My action was purer than either of theirs. One hoped to be great himself. The other had not only his country’s but his own, wrongs to avenge. I hoped for no gain. I knew no private wrong. I struck for my country and that alone.”
– John “My Butt Smells, and I Like to Smell My Own Butt” Wilkes Booth
Booth even managed to misquote Brutus by yelling “Sic Semper!” after he shot Lincoln and jumped down onto the Ford Theater stage to make his getaway (not just before the murder, despite what D.C. Comics wants you to believe).
With Brutus and Cassius having such bad pedigrees, is it any wonder that modern Hollywood has been equally as unkind? For example, John Milius’ Rome series cast Guy Henry in the role of Cassius, the same actor who played creepy bureaucrat villain Pius Thicknesse in the Harry Potter series. Who also looks a helluva lot like Joseph Goebbels, I might add.
But the truth is, Cassius was not a wimp, and he wasn’t creepy! He was a serious student of philosophy, a dedicated Epicurean who seems to have wrestled with the problem of how to be moral in a way that brings the greatest pleasure and least pain to the world, with tyranny certainly bringing more pain and less freedom with which to enjoy life.
And as for braveness, Plutarch says it was ingrained in his nature, as this story from his childhood indicates:
“For from the outset there was in the nature of Cassius great hostility and bitterness towards the whole race of tyrants, as he showed when he was still a boy and went to the same school with Faustus the son of Sulla [at that time a dictator of Rome, and famous for killing enemies]. For when Faustus blustered among the boys and bragged about his father’s absolute power, Cassius sprang up and gave him a thrashing. The guardians and relatives of Faustus wished to carry the matter into court, but Pompey forbade it, and after bringing the two boys together, questioned them both about the matter. Then, as the story goes, Cassius said: ‘Come now, Faustus, have the courage to utter in this man’s presence that speech which angered me, and I will smash your face again.'”
Cassius loved individual liberty and hated tyrants, and so he tried to stop a dictator and usurper. And he did stop him, even if he didn’t stop the not-so-slow roll towards imperialism. His only real crime perhaps was that he didn’t kill Marc Antony. And by some accounts, he wanted to, but got talked out of it by Brutus.
And Brutus… well, first of all, can you blame him for wanting to kill Caesar? The dude use to bone Brutus’ mom, and then he left her like a sack of moldy garbanzos. And he might even have been Brutus’s dad without acknowledging it, which is a dick move.
But actually, he and Caesar were pretty close by the time of the assassination. Plutarch even thinks Caesar had some pretty choice plans for Brutus, including possibly to set him up as his successor:
Brutus had as large a share in Caesar’s power as he wished. Indeed, had he wished it, he might have been first among Caesar’s friends and exercised the greatest power … again, when certain ones were accusing Brutus to [Caesar], and urging him to be on his guard against him, he laid his hand upon his breast and said: “What? Think ye not that Brutus can wait for this poor flesh?” implying that no one besides Brutus was fit to succeed him in such great power. And verily it appears that Brutus might have been first in the city with none to dispute him, could he have endured for a little while to be second to Caesar, suffering his power to wane and the fame of his successes to wither.
Shakespeare and others seem to think this friendship means that Brutus was the ultimate traitor, which is why we yell “TRAITOR!” when we have friends named Brutus. But I think quite the contrary, the fact that Brutus was one of Caesar’s favorites and that he may even thought he was killing his own father proves that the act of tyrannicide was no casual murder for Brutus, and something that probably tore him up inside.
In fact, Brutus’ ability to separate his personal feelings from his love of justice goes back all the way to when Caesar was fighting Pompey the Great. During that civil war, Brutus had sided with Pompey as the lesser of two evils despite the fact that years before, Pompey had killed Brutus’ legitimate father, also named Brutus, years before during an uprising in which the senior Brutus was fighting what he thought was tyranny:
“Here, when the state was rent by factions, Pompey and Caesar appealing to arms and the supreme power being confounded, Brutus was expected to choose the side of Caesar, since his father had been put to death a while before at the instigation of Pompey; but thinking it his duty to put the public good above his own, and holding that Pompey’s grounds for going to war were better than Caesar’s, he attached himself to Pompey. And yet before this he would not even speak to Pompey when he met him, considering it a great abomination to converse with the murderer of his father; now, however, looking upon him as his country’s ruler, he put himself under his orders …”
So yeah, history would have forgiven or even praised him if he had let Caesar be Caesar. Brutus could have just done the easy thing and wallowed in his own sense of indecision until it was too late, slowly shedding his conflicted feelings year by year as Caesar continued to pay for his approval with trinkets and titles as he amassed more power for himself. But he did what he thought was right rather than what was safe–or what was popular, considering that both he and Cassius run out of town on a rail by the filthy mob.
People tend to blame Brutus and Cassius for killing Caesar without having their end game lined up, and I see that. But history is written by winners, and so maybe they did have a better plan that got lost in the details–like the fact that they did manage to get themselves pardoned after a murder in broad daylight, and would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those filthy-ing mobs.
And the fact that Caesar left a will behind giving his most choice political powers and money to his niece’s little nerd-kid must have been a major monkey wrench for their plans to have Julius be the last Caesar. I mean, how do you see that coming? As a guy who is handsome and redheaded and who is me once said:
Even Marc fucking Antony didn’t see it coming, and that guy has seen some crazy shit. Cleopatra’s nipples? He saw that! And the back room of the temple in Judea, in Jerusalem, where they keep Ark of the Covanant? You know, the box full of ghosts that melt Nazis? He actually probably literally saw that too. But I digress…
Brutus and Cassius also may have only lost this whole thing by the skin of their teeth, and seem to have been solid soldiers and generals. Octavian and Marc Antony were warring with each other when Brutus swooped in and tried to retake Rome—if Octavius hadn’t just beaten Antony AND if he hadn’t been smart enough to say “hey why not be friends and gang up on the stabby guys,” then probably Brutus would have won.
In fact Brutus DID beat Octavian in battle! But then Antony beat Cassius in battle, and Octavian didn’t get annihilated in the first battle, and so then Brutus still had to fight Octavian again. And he might have won THAT except that Cassius had heard a rumor that Brutus was dead and killed himself, so the remnants of his army weren’t around to help Brutus. So Brutus lost, but only on the second game (two out of three if you count Caesar and Pompey).
And our boy Brutus was so bad-assed that rather than let himself be taken alive at the end of the battle and possibly pardoned AGAIN (“Dad, stop pardoning me!”), he gave two guys a sword, said “hold this,” and then JUMPED INTO IT! With his BODY! Like, through the ouch parts. That is some bad-assed stuff.
So yeah, Brutus and Cassius were noble, brave, moral, philosophical, brilliant, and made hard choices. Dante is a jerk. (P.S. Beatrice doesn’t like you, quit stalking her.)