He titular phrase under scrutiny here is purportedly credited to Gaius Julius Caesar. It is claimed that at the time of his assassination, Caesar had initially resisted his attackers but when he saw Brutus, a close friend, amongst them, he resigned himself to his fate. A little bit of detective work made it pretty obvious to me that there can be no certain record of Caesar’s last words. Close circuit TV cameras were still not the rage, after all. Moreover, Caesar was more likely to express his despair in Greek than Latin. Indeed, the phrase came into popular usage after being used as the first half of a macaronic (text spoken or written using a mixture of languages) line in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar – “Et tu brute? Then fall, Caesar!”Shakespeare, though, is often credited with too much originality. He was simply making use of a phrase that was in common use during his time – it appears in other contemporary English and Latin plays.
So, we can conclude, within the bounds of reason, that there is no way to ascertain whether Caesar uttered those words just before succumbing to his wounds. But why chose Brutus, the son to Caesar’s mistress? Why not the 60 other conspirators who publicly stabbed the great Roman general not less than 23 times? More importantly, does he deserve the carry the burden of this stigma? A little crash course in history of the fall of the Roman Republic will serve to put things in perspective.
Julius Caesar emerged on the political scene of Rome by forming an alliance, the First Triumvirate, with Crassus and Pompey. Their attempts to amass political power through populist tactics were opposed by the conservative elite, the chief amongst them being Cato and Cicero, the famed orator. However, after his victory in the Gallic Wars (fought from 58 BC to 51 BC), Caesar’s military and political clout had begun to worry even his closest allies. Not to mention that the spoils of war added tremendous amount of wealth to his coffers. With the death of Crassus in 53 BC, the balance of power shifted irrevocably in Caesar’s favour, prompting a standoff between Caesar and Pompey.
In 50 BC, at the instigation of Pompey, Cesar was charged with war crimes, asked to disband his armies, and appear before the Roman Senate. Since his term as the Governor of Gaul was coming to an end, this meant that he could be tried as a private citizen, sans the legal immunity he enjoyed as the Governor of a province. Therefore, he got his closest confidante, Mark Antony, elected to the post of Tribune of the Plebs (Plebs refers to the Proletariat or the working class of the Roman society). As the Tribune, Antony had veto power over any motion passed by the Senate. However, when he tried to veto the motion seeking to brand Caesar as an enemy of the state, he was violently expelled from the Senate. This move proved to be the proverbial final straw and caused Caesar to advance on Rome with a single legion – Thirteenth Legion. When he crossed the Rubicon (a river close to Rome) in 49 BC, he ignited the first civil war in Rome. Pompey and his supporters fled the city, even though they had significantly larger reserves of armed forces.
Leaving the charge of administering Rome to Mark Antony, Caesar set himself to the task of pursuing and overpowering his opponents. After barely avoiding a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Dyrrhachium (48 BC), he was finally able to rout the last of Pompey’s forces at the Battle of Pharsalus later that year. It was after this decisive victory that Cato and Scipio, two other major adversaries of Caesar, fled to Africa while Brutus and Cicero surrendered themselves, having lost their faith in the Pompeian faction. Caesar, eager to appear as a merciful leader, pardoned them and even