Lucius Junius Brutus
Long before the Roman Empire, and before even the Roman Republic, Rome was ruled by “Rex Romae” – the King of Rome.
And in 534 BC it was Tarquin the Proud who ascended the throne as Rome’s seventh and final king.
Soon enough, his reign would become a tyranny – a tyranny that subjected Rome to an era of betrayal, cruelty, and death.
Enter…Brutus. This is not the “Et tu Brute?” Brutus from Shakespeare – Julius Caesar’s assassin – but his ancestor five hundred years removed…Lucius Junius Brutus.
Surprisingly, Brutus means “dull” or “stupid” in the Latin tongue. And in the part of history where our story begins, names have great significance. So why would Brutus, a pillar of Roman history, carry such a derogatory name?
As it turns out, Brutus was nephew to King Tarquin. And though this connection is unfortunate, Brutus survives in legend not as the relative of tyrannical royalty…but as the founder of the Roman Republic – one of the first examples of representative democracy in the western world.
The transition from Tyranny to Republic, the inevitable conflict between uncle and nephew, was not an easy one, and would incur risk, danger, and dire consequences. But the drive to do what was right, and the fortitude to hold to his principles, led Brutus to incite a revolution that birthed the beginnings of liberty.
The end days of the Roman Kingdom were marked by betrayal and bloodshed. It began as Tarquin the Proud murdered his predecessor and father-in-law, Servius Tullius, to become King of Rome in 534 BC.
But the cruelty of Tarquin knew no limits. Because he had no claim to the throne other than violence, and he had no hope of winning the hearts of Roman citizens, he chose to maintain his dominance through fear and oppression.
Tarquin first worked to reduce the number of Roman senators, thus making himself more powerful, and he disregarded hundreds of years of Roman tradition by refusing to consult anyone on questions of governance.
From now on, Rome was ruled by Tarquin, and Tarquin alone.
Tarquin also disposed of any leading nobles whom he suspected of supporting the previous king. He conducted unfair trials and put to death anyone he disliked or distrusted.
Among those obliterated in the aftermath of his wrath were Tarquin’s own brother and nephews…though one nephew managed to survive the carnage: Brutus.
Little is known about the life of Brutus before Tarquin murdered his father and brothers. But what is most important to his story is how Brutus reacted afterwards. He acted…like a fool. Literally.
Since Tarquin had been conducting a reign of terror to discourage his political opponents, Brutus decided to protect himself by pretending to be an idiot. In this guise of a harmless buffoon, Brutus was adopted and raised by King Tarquin and his family – sort of like a weird pet situation. And this is where Brutus earned his name.
But despite this charade, Brutus himself was extremely intelligent, and he carried his grievances against King Tarquin close to the chest. With the will and ability to hide his true nature, Brutus waited patiently for the time to act.
Later in his kingship, Tarquin sent two of his sons on a diplomatic mission to Greece to consult with the Oracle of Delphi and gain insight on the future of the Tarquin Dynasty. They took with them their cousin, the bumbling Brutus.
Once there, Tarquin’s sons asked the Oracle who the next ruler of Rome would be, and the Oracle replied that whoever kissed their mother first would be the next ruler.
As the Tarquin brothers argued about who would kiss their mother first, Brutus understood a different meaning to the prophecy. He lagged behind, feigned a fall on his face, and kissed the ground, saying, “The earth is the true mother of us all.”
While Brutus continued to grow in subtlety and political acumen, it became cl ear to the people of Rome that the cruelty of King Tarquin had passed on to his children. Tarquin’s eldest son, Sextus, desired his cousin, Lucretia. And when Lucretia refused his advances, on the grounds that she was married and held high honor for herself, Sextus deeply injured her.
Lucretia, horrified and ashamed of what Sextus had done, immediately summoned her father, her husband, and Brutus to tell them what happened. Believing that Sextus dishonored her and her family, she committed suicide by stabbing herself with a dagger.
With her dying breath, she challenged Brutus and her family to pursue freedom from tyranny.
“…if you are men, and if you care for your wives and children, exact vengeance on my behalf and free yourselves and show the tyrants what sort of woman they outraged…”
Stirred, challenged, and enraged by the treachery of Sextus Tarquinis, the hour of Brutus had come.
Legend says that Brutus grabbed the dagger from Lucretia’s breast after her death and immediately shouted for the overthrow of the Tarquin’s and their brutality. He no longer appeared dull and simple but stood with head erect and spoke with stirring words.
He exhorted his fellow citizens and the Roman senate to rise up in revolt, leading to a bloody fight against Tarquin’s troops that lasted two days. When the dust cleared, Brutus and his rebellion had taken control of the city of Rome, and the senate had voted from the removal and banishment of Tarquin and his family. The former King rode away from his city in wrath, but don’t get too comfortable – this is not the last we will see of Tarquin the Proud.
The Roman people soon decided to implement a republican system of government whereby two elected and appointed rulers – called consuls – would rule together for a period of twelve months.
This was the beginning of the fabled Roman Republic – one of the earliest examples of representative democracy in human history. His leadership instrumental in the overthrow of the King, Brutus was elected in 509 BC as one of its first consuls, now far removed from the “dull” position we found him at the beginning of his story. As consul, Brutus sought to form something new, a government orchestrated by the people, and for the benefit of the people.
But Tarquin the Proud would not give up his kingdom so easily. He hatched a plan to retake his throne, and secretly allied himself with dissatisfied Roman nobles to plot the upheaval of this new republic.
Unfortunately for these nobles, their plans were discovered. Those engaged in the plot were arrested and put in prison. But for Brutus, as both a consul and a father, the unthinkable had happened – two of his sons, Titus and Tiberius, were found amongst those who plotted the treason.
Brutus was overcome with sorrow when he learned that his own children were among the traitors. On one hand, sons were no small thing in Roman lineage and preserved a happy home. On the other, the burden of a fledgling government that heeded the voice of the people; a great thing, an even greater cost. He knew what he had to do, but he dreaded doing it, as loyalty to his new country outweighed any personal feelings he had about his family.
When the day came for his sons’ trials, Brutus held to his republican principles and did his duty sternly as judge. Titus and Tiberius, along with their conspirators, were proved guilty of treason, and Brutus sentenced them both to be beheaded.
As fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, it is nearly impossible for us to imagine a situation where we would send our own family to death. But Brutus faced this impossible choice, and he knew that the precedent he set here would last long after his family had faded into history.
Following the tragedy, Brutus lost much of the fire in his heart that had carried the flames of rebellion…but he did not withdraw from public life completely. Rome still needed him, and during his time as consul Brutus enacted and enforced many of the laws and regulations that would create equal footing for more Roman citizens, like expanding the senate and organizing assemblies to give more common people a voice.
But buckle back in folks: It’s time for the return of Tarquin the Proud.
The former king made another bid to retake his throne in 509 B.C. as he allied himself with the Etruscans and raised an army to march against Rome. Ever a leader amongst men, Brutus himself led the Romans to the field to fight against their former king.
In the Battle of Silva Arsia, calvary and infantry clashed fiercely in the woodlands outside Rome, and Brutus dueled Aruns, the second son of Tarquin. The pair charged each other on horseback and, when they came together, each ran his spear through the body of the other. And so, Lucius Junius Brutus was killed on the battlefield, having given his life to defeat Aruns and protect his country.
Despite the fall of their leader, the Romans went on to win the battle and force an Etruscan retreat. And though Tarquin would continue to make repeated overtures for the throne, he would fail time and again until he died in 495 B.C.
The body of Brutus was brought back to Rome where a magnificent funeral was held in his honor. This funeral celebrated a life that is now synonymous with the birth of one of the oldest representative governments in history – one that lasted for almost 500 years.
Brutus and his creation of some of the earliest republican institutions were so successful that even the future Caesars of the Roman Empire, such as Caesar Augustus, could not entirely separate themselves from its democracy. And though these Caesars ruled as dictators, the vestiges of the Roman Republic could still be seen in the laws and customs of their governments.
So, we can see that this nickname, “Brutus”, was just that in the end…an epithet, and held no sway over the wisdom and fortitude Brutus acted with in life. He endured hard times and faced difficult decisions, but he always met each challenge with a determination and integrity that led to a brighter future.
It is hard to imagine losing one’s family, pretending to be a fool to protect your own life, and becoming synonymous with a name that does not become you.
But the ancient Roman historian Livy put it this way:
“Under the protection of that nickname the soul which was one day to liberate Rome was awaiting its destined hour.”