Lucius Junius Brutus: A Purposeful Life

Author: Kip Zimmerman

Responsible for one of Rome’s largest changes in identity is a man who embodied the very nature of the Roman Republic itself: Lucius Junius Brutus. Beyond being just a simple character told about in history, Brutus created history by risking everything to bring the Rome he believed in into existence. By overthrowing the tyrannical monarchy in Rome and establishing a republic, Brutus created a new identity for the country of Rome and attained a new heritage for his kin. His life led to the establishment of a system responsible for anti-monarchial checks and balances. The new form of government Brutus created was so successful it would remain a part of Rome for the rest of its history and monarchy would never again be accepted in Rome, at least not knowingly, and especially not by a member of Brutus’ family. Brutus not only put a new hierarchal system in place, but in so doing he also put an entirely new bearing on what it meant to be Roman.

Lucius Junius Brutus, son of the King Tarquinius Superbus’ sister Tarquinia, had developed a dislike for the king because of his poor ability to rule Rome, and because of a number of people he had put to death including Lucius’ own brother. To keep the royal family from raising any suspicion against himself, Brutus pretended to be a half-wit, and earned himself the nickname ‘Dullard’ (Livy, 1.55). Ironically, “under cover of this opprobrious title the great spirit which gave Rome her freedom might be able to bide its time” (Livy, 1.55). Quite contrary to his name at the time, Brutus began the revolution for the Republic in Rome.

The death of the monarchy began with the death of a young woman. For it was on her death Brutus swore an oath against the Roman monarchy. Full of lust, Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the king, defiled Collatinus’ wife Lucretia (Livy, 1.57). Dishonored and shamed, Lucretia took her own life before her father, her husband and Brutus, after she had challenged them to avenge her honor – “if [they were] men” (Livy, 1.58). Amidst the grief and chaos of dead Lucretia, Brutus cried out “that it was time for deeds not tears, and urged [the people], like true Romans, to take up arms against the tyrants who had dared treat them as a vanquished enemy” (Livy, 1.58). “Not a man amongst them could resist the call. The boldest spirits offered themselves for service at once; the rest soon followed their lead…and with Brutus in command the armed populace began their march on Rome” (Livy, 1.58-9). With the forum packed with onlookers, Brutus threw off “the mask under which he had hitherto concealed his real character and feelings” and spoke out against the king and his son, telling the people of the brutality of Lucretia’s death and pointing out the king’s arrogant and tyrannical behavior (Livy 1.59). “The effect of [Brutus’] words was immediate: the populace took fire, and were brought to demand the abrogation of the king’s authority and the exile of himself and his family” (Livy 1.59). The rebellion grew beyond the king’s control when the Roman army “enthusiastically welcomed” “Brutus the Liberator” (Livy 1.60). The royal family was exiled and after two-hundred and forty-four years of a monarchial government in Rome, it was liberated by the election of two new consuls: Brutus and Collatinus (Livy 1.60).

Brutus’ new government was fashioned to keep the power that had long been held by a single monarch in Rome from ever returning to an individual person. The kingship was replaced with the “curious institution of a collegiate magistracy, in which two men shared supreme power” (Forsyth 2005, 226). These individuals inherited many of the powers associated with the kings, but their power was limited in other ways such as providing citizens with a right of appeal, and “in order to avoid having merely substituted two kings for one, the Republic’s founders arranged that the consuls should take turns to hold the fasces” (Forsyth 2005, 226). The division of power between the two consuls entailed that Brutus “served as a watchdog over his colleague and vice versa” (Cornell 1995, 155). The consul’s freedom of action was restricted by the annual and collegiate nature of their office. The system was very effective and would prove to remain a part of the rest of Roman history. Even after it was gone, monarchy continued to be ostracized in Rome by this system and by the Roman people. For the Romans, the concept of kingship was now considered barbaric. Even when the republic began to decline, the emperors found themselves unable to completely disperse the idea of a republic, forcing them to hide their imperial status behind republican titles and ideas. Brutus’ oath against monarchy echoed through the rest of Roman history, but it also served to inspire one of his descendants to take the lead role in the assassination of the growing tyrant Julius Caesar. When the system Brutus had set in place to prevent monarchy in Rome had begun to fail, his own kin remembered the oath against tyranny that was taken.   Brutus had created a new identity in Rome, and even though it was not honestly maintained for the rest of Rome’s history, the notion of Brutus’ republic, free of tyranny, still reigned in Rome.

Brutus exemplified and even created a new identity for Rome; one free of tyranny and one empowering the people of Rome. His sacrifice for what he saw as a just cause, was what made him the father of the Roman Republic. He was willing to be known by an entire city as ‘Dullard’ and was willing to risk going down in history as a traitor for his cause. He lived for a purpose, and although it would eventually cost him his life, no man can say his life was without cause. The republic Brutus created would remain a part of Rome for the rest of its time. For this reason, Brutus will be always remembered as one of the Roman greats and as reader’s and people with respect for history, we should not examine Brutus’ life without soon after examining our own life for purpose and cause.

Bibliography

Cornell, T.J. 1995. The Beginnings of Rome. New York: Routledge.

Forsyth, G. 2005. A Critical History of Early Rome. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Livius, Titus. The Early History of Rome.  Translated by Aubrey de Selincourt.  London: Penguin Books, 2002.