Et tu Brute?
These words, which translate from Latin to “You too, Brutus?” were supposedly the last words ever uttered by Gaius Julius Caesar. At least they were according to two men, Plutarch, an ancient Roman historian, and William Shakespeare, who wrote the play, Julius Caesar, more than a thousand years after Caesar lived and died.
How did Shakespeare know? Well, he didn’t. Instead, he borrowed the words from Plutarch, the man who brought us the story of Caesar’s murder. And where did Plutarch get those words? Chances are he guessed. He took a look at the context surrounding the death of Caesar and took a stab at Caesar’s last words. Given the history surrounding the event, he may very well have been right. Rome at the time was in chaos, and some of the treachery that took place seems too dramatic to have been real.
But it was. And it changed the course of history forever.
Caesar’s Rise to Dictator
Centuries before Caesar, Rome, which had been expanding rapidly, was also in turmoil. Its delicate democratic government had been slowly breaking down.
Secret alliances and corruption were making it possible for smaller and smaller groups of people to take almost full control of the Roman government. And civil wars were not uncommon during the time of the Roman Republic (509 BC -48 BC).
But even so, during this period, Rome was growing. It was winning wars against foreign foes and taking control of their land, often annexing them as provinces of Rome.
Its population was also growing. And it was also getting rich.
The First Triumvirate
Throughout the final century BC, power was being increasingly consolidated into the hands of fewer and fewer people. Eventually, it landed with just three: Caesar, and two other powerful Romans, a general named Pompey and an aristocrat named Crassus.
Together they formed an alliance that is known as the First Triumvirate. It sounds official, but it’s just a name historians use to mark this agreement. The three men likely didn’t use this or any name at all.
The combined power and influence allowed these three men to do pretty much whatever they wanted for about ten years. All three were elected consul, Caesar by himself in 59 BC and the other two together in 55 BC. They also took important offices for themselves, and Caesar won the command to conquer Gaul (today’s France) in the name of Rome. This task, if completed, would bring him unfathomable wealth and fame, which in Rome meant one thing: power.
Eventually, Crassus, who wanted to outdo Caesar, was killed in battle while fighting in what is now Afghanistan. When this happened, both Caesar and Pompery said, “Deal’s off! Every man for himself.”
With the third member of the triumvirate out of the way, each saw this as an opportunity to seize power for themselves.
Caesar Crosses the Rubicon
After Crassus’ death, Pompey became the top guy in the Roman Senate. He was elected as the only consul and he also married the daughter of one of Caesar’s rivals. This killed the triumvirate dead.
Then, in 50 BC, Caesar had officially conquered Gaul. With this mission complete, the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome. He was given specific instructions to not cross the Rubicon River, which marked the northern boundary of Italy at the time, at the command of an army.
However, Caesar had no plans of going quietly and chose to ignore this request. Why he did this remains unclear. It could have been that he feared outright persecution from Pompey, who likely saw him as a threat. But some sources also indicate that he feared he would be denied the rewards of his victory in Gaul because of Pompey’s rise to power. Traditionally, this was a consulship and an official award, known as a triumph, from the Senate.
No matter the exact reason, Caesar’s decision was the same: he ignored this order. He didn’t want to give up his post. Instead, he wanted Rome.
So in open defiance of the Senate, on January 10, 49 BC, he led his army straight across the Rubicon River and into Italy.
Roman law stated that only elected officials could command armies within Italy. Caesar had not been elected but rather appointed by the Senate. So, by crossing the Rubicon, he committed an act of open rebellion.
So, now he was not only disobeying orders from the Senate, but he was also breaking the law. Treason, in fact. He had committed treason. The punishment if stopped? Death.
That Caesar’s troops were willing to risk their lives speaks to his power at the time.
The Roman Civil War
There were several civil wars throughout Rome’s history. But the one that earns the title of The Roman Civil War is the one Caesar started when he crossed the Rubicon.
By doing so, he made it clear to Pompey what he wanted: complete control over Rome. He wanted to be a dictator.
Therefore, Pompey had no choice but to fight him. He summoned an army and sent them to meet Caesar. The two armies chased each other through Italy and met for two major battles. The first, the Battle of Dyrrhachium, was almost a disaster for Caesar. But he and his army survived and faced off with Pompey again almost a year later at the Battle of Pharsalus.
This time, Caesar won. He didn’t catch Pompey himself, but he sent him running. And upon hearing of Caesar’s victory, most of the people in the Senate who had supported Pompey fled as well. This left Rome open for Caesar, and when he marched in with his army, the city had become his.
Upon arriving in Rome, the Senate voted to name Caesar dictator perpetuo, or dictator for life. Rome had not yet become an empire. But the days of the Republic had most certainly come to an end.
Caesar as Dictator
When Caesar was appointed dictator for life, the Roman Republic effectively ended. But we only say that now as we look back on history. At the moment, it took a few more years for this transition to be complete.
For example, the office of the consul still existed, as did the Senate, and many other important government positions. These all existed to stop any one person from becoming too powerful. But that’s what Caesar wanted: all the power.
So, he started playing chess. Well, in a manner of speaking. What he basically did was launch a strategy to take full control of Rome, mainly by filling up the Senate with people loyal to him.
He had the power to do this because he was in charge of the census, the yearly counting of the population to determine the number of Senators and other matters important to the government.
This, combined with his decision to increase the size of the Senate, allowed him to fill the body with people who supported him. He also did this for magistrate positions, those who were sent to rule territories outside of Rome.
Furthermore, he took steps to begin consolidating the territories of Rome under his control. He started in Italy by bringing many different political units into one and taking it upon himself to appoint the magistrates, instead of allowing them to be elected by the Senate. Later, his nephew, as the first official emperor of Rome, would continue this in Rome’s provinces, helping to consolidate all of the power in Rome.
These moves, plus some other things, such as requiring the Senate to give him official titles such as “imperator” aka “emperor” showed what Caesar was out to do: control Rome all by himself.
Naturally, some people didn’t like this.
Defending the Republic: Assasination
As we know, not everyone likes change.
In a matter of just a few short years, Caesar had seized control of a Republic that, while flawed, had lasted more than 450 years.
Then, once in power, he repeatedly took steps to reduce the role of the Senate and give himself more control over Roman affairs.
All in all, during Caesar’s rise to power, it’s safe to say he had made some enemies. And some of these enemies were willing to act on their hatred for the venerable Caesar.
So, on March 15, 44 BC, in the Senate chamber, where he had been summoned, a group of Senators swarmed Caesar, ripped off his tunic, and began stabbing him repeatedly.
According to Plutarch, a historian at the time who has provided us with the account of the assasination, Caesar, upon seeing the faces of his countrymen killing him, saw Brutus, a Senator whom he considered an ally, and muttered, “Et tu Brute?”
You too, Brutus?
The Fight for Rome
In Shakespeare’s play about Caesar, Brutus was acting to save the Republic.
Of course, Shakespeare was imagining, so we have to be careful believing what he wrote as truth. But we do know that Brutus and his supporters thought the people of Rome would celebrate their decision to remove Caesar from power.
But they most certainly did not. The commoners loved Caesar and saw his murder as an attempt by the wealthy classes to once again seize control ofthe government and oppress the lower classes.
In the end, if the decision to kill Caesar was to save the Republic, it had the opposite effect.
Several men, including Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, saw this moment as an opportunity to continue what the dead dictator had started. This prompted several civil wars, the last of which ended with Octavian’s triumph. And upon victory, he took the title Augustus Caesar, emperor of Rome.
So, while it’s true that one man alone cannot change history, it’s hard not to connect this important transition in Rome’s story to Gaius Julius Caesar.
Although he only lasted on the Roman political scene for less than 20 years, he changed it in a way that went on to alter the entire path of human history.
Written by Matthew Jones
Illustrated by Jean Galvao