(Oringally posted at The American Catholic. I think the history and Shakespeare mavens of Almost Chosen People will enjoy it.)
This was the noblest Roman of them all:
All the conspirators, save only he,
Did that they did in envy of great Caesar;
He, only in a general honest thought
And common good to all, made one of them.
Mark Antony referring to Brutus in Julius Caesar
I think it would have amused the Romans of Caesar’s generation if they could have learned that the assassination of Julius Caesar would eventually receive immortality through a play written more than 16 centuries after the event by a barbarian playwright in the Tin Islands that Caesar had briefly invaded. It would have tickled their well developed concept of the ludicrous, judging from Roman comedy.
Although the speech of Brutus is overshadowed in Shakespeare’s play by the immediately following speech of Mark Antony in which he skillfully rouses the fury of the mob against the assassins, I have always had a warm spot in my heart for that of Brutus. Our ancient sources indicate that he was a pure-hearted lover of Rome and the Republic. He did not hate Caesar but he realized that if Caesar lived the Republic would surely die. The Republic had been dying long before the birth of Brutus, shredded by political violence, endless civil wars and class strife. Caesar, the permanent dictator, merely dispatched a Republic that was mostly a corpse. All of that however does not detract one whit from the nobility of Brutus. From the Roman Republic our Founding Fathers would derive many of their concepts for liberty under law when they crafted our Republic. It was an institution worth fighting to preserve even though the struggle, as I suspect Brutus probably realized, was hopeless.
James Mason gives a good rendition of the speech of Brutus in Julius Caesar (1953). Dante placed Brutus in the triple maw of Lucifer at the bottom of Hell, along with his co-conspirator Cassius and Judas. I pray that the noble Brutus, if there is a portion of Hell for great pagan souls as Dante wrote, is there instead.