Checks And Balances

Review: 'Brutus: The Noble Conspirator' by Kathryn Tempest

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Americans will never tire of comparing America to Rome. Such comparisons are carved in stone in the foundations and facades of our capital, and only slightly more subtly in the construction of our country. Which is perhaps unfortunate for a scholar such as Kathryn Tempest, senior lecturer in Latin literature and Roman history at the University of Roehampton in London. What in England can be read rightly as an impressive and accessible work of academic biography, must here seem a mirror to our strange and troubled times. Such is the fate of Tempest's excellent Brutus: The Noble Conspirator.

Tempest could hardly have known she would bring forth an authoritative accounting of the life and legacy of Marcus Junius Brutus into a world where a production of Julius Caesar—a play more about Brutus than its titular hero—would cause international furor for its allusions to the Oval Office. What she has written is a very fine work of scholarship as much about how we know what we know of Brutus as it is about the man himself. Plutarch, Cicero's letters, Brutus' replies, and all the other fragments and hints and later works we have are taken up, considered, assessed, and pieced together for our benefit. Writes Tempest:

"It would be dangerous to claim we can see Brutus for the man he actually was; even to his contemporaries he was an unfathomable character. But a far more interesting tale is waiting to be told about how the story of Brutus' life has been interpreted and transmitted from antiquity to the twenty-first century."

It is indeed an interesting tale. But, the world the life of Brutus reveals to us—a res publica in crisis, a broken toy no sooner put down by Sulla than picked up by Pompey, then by Caesar, then by … Brutus? No, by Octavius, who would be Augustus—that story is even more interesting.

And Brutus is there in medias res. It is hard not to tell his story just so, in the middle of things, considering his part in the most famous assassination in history. We cannot examine Brutus without killing Caesar. For this deed Dante damned Brutus and Cassius as gristle in the maw of Satan, Shakespeare portrayed him a tragic hero, and others extolled him the guardian of liberty. Brutus sought that last identity his whole life; in our celebrity parlance it was his brand, one he cultivated aggressively even before relations with Caesar so spectacularly soured March 15, 44 BC. And that is what Tempest's account makes so obvious about Roman politics: It was entirely built on brands. Brutus possessed a driving consciousness of his family history, descended as he supposedly was from that Brutus who had expelled the Tarquins and fathered the res publica. Tempest tells us that regardless of questions concerning the actual historicity of that lineage, Brutus "embraced this aspect of his heritage above any other consideration. For the name came with serious political cachet, and it gave Brutus an enviable advantage which he used to pronounced effect throughout his career."  The legend of Lucius Brutus created a role for Marcus Junius to play.

On what stage? To ascend the ranks of power in republican Rome meant completing the cursus honorum, the course of offices, a series of military and public service positions that led to the consulship. This required money, advantageous if not mercenary marriages, a rhetorical education, commensurate skill in oratory, important friends, patronages upon patronages, and the favor of the masses. Brutus had all in abundance by means fair and less fair, with a bonus reputation as a literary man and serious philosopher. Plus the admiration of Cicero, of Caesar, even of Pompey at one point, though the man had killed his father—Brutus was the foremost man of his generation. And his generation of players sought what everyone in the game wanted, but no one could have, because Caesar had it all:

"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."  

Tempest argues that while Brutus' role in the conspiracy to kill the dictator was motivated by philosophical reflection and a desire to fulfill his family script as enemy to kings, many of his companions were not so much ardent republicans as claustrophobic, restless under a Caesar who turned what they saw as a meritocratic contest into a collection of appointments to be granted as his personal favors.

Brutus' career—defined by individuals and conspiracies taking the republic into their hands—uncovers the nakedly personal lying ever just under the clothes of politics. Recognizing this reality in Federalist 51, James Madison wrote "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition," advocating for our system of checks and balances. Rome's res publica had supposed checks and balances, too, with Consuls and Senators and Tribunes sharing power and the affections of the ever-fickle, ever-needed mob. But by Brutus' day SPQR, the Senate and people of Rome, were not healthy, and when Rome was sick, it bled.

"‘The res publica depends on Brutus,' Cicero had written to Atticus in May 44 BC—a point he reiterated to the young man in the year that followed. But what kind of res publica did Cicero have in mind: the theoretical and cherished model of government, which had arguably never really existed even in his own lifetime, or the mess of a system he once referred to as ‘the gutters of Rome'? It is perhaps not necessary to push the point too far; in either case, the res publica for which they were fighting was but a distant dream. The real fight was for supremacy at Rome…"

With that, Tempest unintentionally slaps her American readers. There was a dream that the United States' federal system would diffuse personal power through the dignity of offices, harness ambition, and create a politics of representation and not of Great Men. But especially in the office of the presidency, an executive with imperium as powerful as any consul or triumvir, it failed nearly immediately. The real fight in Brutus' day was for domination in Rome itself; it is impossible to pretend things are not much the same in America. Washington, D.C., with its leviathan bureaucratic agencies and feckless legislature, has produced a national politics obsessed, not unreasonably, with the presidency and the president.

Rome's great men combined in themselves wealth, celebrity, and office. There was a time in our country when those seemed distinct means to power: N.Y., L.A., D.C., pick your pair of letters. Finance, entertainment, politics, a menu for the ambitious. But while Brutus and his peers would still be exceptional today—go to the best schools, make a killing on Wall Street, serve in Afghanistan, act as attorney in high-profile litigation, be a TV talking head, probably have a podcast, all while running up the ladder of elected offices—when ex-presidents are basically rockstars and current presidents are reality stars and all are very, very wealthy, we are past pretending national politics has not collapsed into celebrity. Still, our politics is a celebrity that remains severed from the military, and that is perhaps our saving grace.

Since we do not have a Caesar in possession of the loyalty of the army and the passions of the mob, we do not need a Brutus to philosophize his way from his ancestor's expulsion of the kings to a mandate for tyrannicide. We do not need a Brutus to choose between the death of one man and a purge, where prudence could make both seem best. We do not need a Brutus to plunge the country into civil war. But we do have many could-be Caesars in possession of power on a scale never seen, who from their offices in Seattle, San Francisco, New York, and of course D.C., create the conditions in which America's plebs and equites live.