Julius Caesar’s last words (καὶ σύ, τέκνον, ‘you too, son’) are so widely known that they can appear in comic strips and pop culture without any need for further explanation. The dictator’s final address to Brutus has become proverbial for shocking betrayal. The reason for this popularity is not the ancient sources that attest Caesar’s words, but William Shakespeare. As Nicholas Royle puts it, ‘the popular cultural conception of Julius Caesar is inextricably bound up with Shakespeare’s play . . . Shakespeare’s play is the single most influential work in shaping the public imagination of this historical figure.’Footnote 1
In his Julius Caesar, Shakespeare presents Caesar’s assassination on stage, a daring choice with a powerful dramatic effect. Brutus stabs Caesar last, and then the dictator breathes his last words:
They stab Caesar, Casca first, Brutus last
CAESAR Et tu, Brute? – Then fall, Caesar!
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar 3.1.77
Caesar’s Latin dictum is an expression of shock at the sight of Brutus’ stabbing him along with the other conspirators. Brutus’ betrayal gives Caesar the last blow; it hurts him the most and his last words express his sharpest pain. Even thou, Brutus? exclaims the dictator in a mixture of shock, despair, and reproach before expiring. The tag Et tu, Brute? is first attested in Shakespeare’s The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York (1595)Footnote 2 and reads: ‘Et tu, Brute, wilt thou stab Caesar too?’ Shakespeare employs this phrase in order to highlight Caesar’s deep disappointment with Brutus’ disloyalty. The dramatic effect of this scene is linked to Brutus’ characterisation. In Julius Caesar, Brutus is uncertain about justifying the murder of Caesar. Shakespeare took the inspiration of a brooding and hesitant Brutus from ancient sources (cf. Plutarch, Brutus 8-10, 13; Dio 43.45.4, 44.12-14). The characterisation of Brutus and the appropriation of Caesar’s last words contribute to the dramatic effect of a shocked Caesar addressing a hitherto ambivalent Brutus. Shakespeare’s ancient source for this story is Suetonius’ Life of Caesar:
atque ita tribus et uiginti plagis confossus est uno modo ad primum ictum gemitu sine uoce edito, etsi tradiderunt quidam Marco Bruto irruenti dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον
Suetonius, The deified Julius 82
And thus he was stabbed with twenty three wounds, groaning just once at the first blow without uttering a word, even though some attested that he said, while Brutus was rushing: ‘you too, son’
Suetonius’ account reflects two different traditions: one according to which Caesar dies without saying anything and another according to which he addresses Brutus in Greek. The latter version, which became famous thanks to Shakespeare, was the less popular in the ancient sources. Cassius Dio, who also attests this report, seems sceptical and assigns it to some anonymous people:
κἀκ τούτου προσπεσόντες αὐτῷ ἐκεῖνοι πολλαχόθεν ἅμα κατέτρωσαν αὐτόν, ὥσθ’ ὑπὸ τοῦ πλήθους αὐτῶν μήτ’ εἰπεῖν μήτε πρᾶξαί τι τὸν Καίσαρα δυνηθῆναι, ἀλλὰ συγκαλυψάμενον σφαγῆναι πολλοῖς τραύμασι. ταῦτα μὲν τἀληθέστατα· ἤδη δέ τινες καὶ ἐκεῖνο εἶπον, ὅτι πρὸς τὸν Βροῦτον [τὸν] ἰσχυρῶς πατάξαντα ἔφη “καὶ σύ, τέκνον”
Cassius Dio 44.19
Thereupon they attacked him from many sides at once and wounded him to death, so that by reason of their numbers Caesar was unable to say or do anything, but veiling his face was slain with many wounds. This is the truest account, though some have added that to Brutus, when he struck him a powerful blow, he said: ‘You too, son’
(Cary’s Loeb translation, slightly modified)
Dio is probably influenced by Suetonius:Footnote 3 τινες εἶπον corresponds to Suetonius’ equally vague tradiderunt quidam with which both historians distance themselves from this version. Dio’s τἀληθέστατα leaves no doubt that he questions the historicity of Caesar’s last words. Caesar was unable to speak after receiving so many blows. The silence of Plutarch and other ancient authors about this version suggests that they thought that it was not even worth mentioning. Modern historians agree with the scepticism of Suetonius and Dio.Footnote 4 Be that as it may, the historicity of the tale is not my main concern. My focus will be on interpreting Caesar’s last words in the context of Roman politics and ancient biographical traditions, not arguing whether the dying dictator could plausibly have said καὶ σύ, τέκνον right before he died.Footnote 5
The tragic power and afterlife of Caesar’s dictum make the question of its authenticity secondary. A shocked Caesar recognises his son at the very moment of parricide. It is indeed a scene out of tragedy, reminiscent, for instance, of Clytemnestra’s appeal to her maternity in order to dissuade Orestes from killing her.Footnote 6 Plutarch’s version (Caesar 66.9-10), in which Brutus stabs Caesar in the groin, is even more dramatic. A son kills his father by wounding the very source of paternity.Footnote 7 Brutus is like Cronus: a son who castrates and deposes his tyrannical father, only to become himself a victim in a violent struggle for power. Curiously, Shakespeare does not cast Caesar’s assassination as a parricide, even though he did know of the rumours about Brutus being Caesar’s illegitimate son.Footnote 8 It is unclear why Shakespeare replaces ‘child’ (τέκνον) with ‘Brute’. One possibility (admittedly speculative) is that the pun on the English ‘brute’ was too irresistible for a playwright so keen on wordplay as Shakespeare.
To be sure, Shakespeare engages closely with Suetonius’ text. As critics notice, he follows the Roman historian in the bilingualism of the scene. Griffin observes: ‘Suetonius’ Caesar speaks Greek, in the midst of a Latin text; Shakespeare’s speaks Latin, in the middle of the play’s English. The effect is to set the quotation off, to highlight it as a quotation.’Footnote 9 The Latin in Shakespeare is a nod to the audience that the author quotes Suetonius, a Latin source, and probably earlier dramatic versions that used this tag.Footnote 10 But the Greek in Suetonius also has a similar function. Julius Caesar is quoting something here. And the question is: what is he quoting?Footnote 11
I shall try to answer this question, and my main objective in this article is to read Suetonius without being influenced by Shakespeare. That is not to say that Shakespeare’s characterisation does not engage with ancient traditions. Mark Toher argues convincingly that Nicolaus of Damascus’ Life of Augustus, which contains the earliest account of Caesar’s assassination, anticipates Shakespeare’s strategy of depicting Caesar with mortal foibles.Footnote 12 Nicolaus’ aim is to set up a politically inept Julius Caesar as a foil for Augustus’ political genius. In Nicolaus, the dictator is described as a military man inexperienced in politics, naive, and failing to suspect a conspiracy among the men who were praising and honouring him. Shakespeare seems to align the dictator’s last words with this ancient characterisation of Caesar as a clueless victim. My argument is that Caesar’s last words in Suetonius can serve a different characterisation and a different political agenda. Far from being surprised and plagued by mortal weaknesses, Caesar features as a divine figure prophesying the death of his assassin. A Caesar cast as a larger than life hero, a perceptive, confident, ambitious, and courageous man is the image that emerges from the works of Appian and Dio. My reading of Caesar’s last words will show that they befit the powerful figure of these ancient historians, not the frail dictator of Nicolaus of Damascus and Shakespeare.
It is striking that modern critics often read this episode through Shakespeare’s lens and thus connect it by default with the tradition of an imperceptive Caesar who despairs at the sight of Brutus. Maria Wyke, for instance, notes:
At the climax of the assassination, Caesar is confronted by Brutus and despairs. While Shakespeare was to give him the Latin tag Et tu, Brute? (‘Also you, Brutus?’), some early reports which Suetonius and Dio had encountered claimed for him in his dying moments an intimate exclamation in Greek, καὶ σύ τέκνον; (‘Also you, child?).Footnote 13
It is taken for granted that Caesar despairs as he is confronted by Brutus. But this is hardly proved by citing Suetonius and Dio, who say nothing of the sort about the reports they are referring to. Adding a question mark in translating καὶ σύ, τέκνον is also typical and indicative of transferring Shakespeare’s interpretation to the version attested in Suetonius and Dio. In his shock and desperation, Caesar directs a rhetorical question to his assassin as a paternal reproach. But Caesar’s address to Brutus does not have to be a direct question. It can simply be an affirmation: ‘You too, son.’ In fact, the only other time that Suetonius uses καὶ σύ, τέκνον is not in a direct question, but in a promise for the future of Galba (Galba 4.1.8; see below on this episode). We need to defamiliarise this ancient tradition from Elizabethan theatre and read it in the context of the works of Suetonius and Dio.
Before suggesting a new interpretation of Caesar’s enigmatic last words, I would like to draw attention to three articles, which interpret καὶ σύ, τέκνον by focusing on aspects of the ancient world rather than accepting Shakespeare’s take.Footnote 14 James Russell points out that a sentimental expression of affection on Caesar’s part seems out of harmony with his personality and is downright banal.Footnote 15 He suggests an alternative interpretation in order to defend the historical plausibility of Caesar’s Greek dictum. For Russell, Caesar utters an apotropaic or retributive formula (καὶ σύ). The dictator curses Brutus with his last gasp, saying ‘to hell with you, too’ (καὶ σύ, ἔρρε) or ‘the same to you’.Footnote 16 Russell’s interpretation is attractive, given the end of Brutus. Yet there are problems in what he suggests. As he admits, the target of the formulaic imprecation is seldom mentioned, though it can be usually identified with the Evil Eye or Envy (Βάσκανος or Φθόνος).Footnote 17 This begs the question how we should take τέκνον in this context, or how the Evil Eye and Envy are relevant to the assassination. Even though he rightly points out that the sentimental reading of Caesar’s last words is problematic, his interpretation is equally out of step with Caesar’s character. It is implausible that a man like Caesar would resort to superstition or that he would use an apotropaic formula, while it was clear that death was inevitable. Russell suggests that καὶ σύ is both prophylactic and retributive, two functions that are incompatible in Caesar’s case. His article gathers a plethora of archaeological evidence, but no examples from literary sources and no evidence for an oral delivery of the formula. Are inscriptions on Syrian lintels and tombs or stamps on eastern Roman sigillata relevant to ancient traditions of Caesar’s death?
Frederick Brenk similarly uses archaeological evidence in order to reinterpret Caesar’s famous last words.Footnote 18 Like Russell, the historicity of this version is an issue for him. His main piece of evidence is a stele erected in honour of Nero, which includes above the main inscription the mysterious words ΚΑΙCΥ. Brenk never explains why or how this stele is relevant to Suetonius’ sources, and his main argument about καὶ σύ and the Evil Eye has been anticipated by Russell, as he confesses.Footnote 19 His short chapter includes digressions on Sumerian and Akkadian literary and archaeological material that have nothing to do with Caesar’s last words. Yet he offers perceptive criticism on the problems involved in associating Caesar’s καὶ σύ, τέκνον with the Evil Eye formula. Magical papyri and amulets suggest that the formula was infrequent.Footnote 20 He points out that καὶ σύ does not have to be malignant, but can be benevolent (‘best wishes to you too’).Footnote 21 He regards a superstitious saying unsuitable for the death of a man who despised superstition.Footnote 22 Ultimately, Brenk’s article argues against interpreting Caesar’s καὶ σύ vis-à-vis the Evil Eye formula. But he takes all the problems he points out as reasons why the words are not in Plutarch and other sources.Footnote 23 The logic of this argument is rather flawed. First, it assumes that καὶ σύ should be related to the Evil Eye, then it points out that there are difficulties with this interpretation, and finally concludes that these shortcomings make the version about Caesar’s superstitious last words implausible. In my view, the problems in interpreting Caesar’s enigmatic καὶ σύ, τέκνον as the Evil Eye formula simply render this interpretation unconvincing.
Pascal Arnaud’s arguments are more compelling.Footnote 24 Arnaud reads Caesar’s last words against the only other time Suetonius uses καὶ σύ, τέκνον. When the young Galba visited Augustus, the emperor gave the boy a cheeky prediction about his future in the imperial dynasty:
constat Augustum puero adhuc, salutanti se inter aequales, apprehensa buccula dixisse: καὶ σὺ τέκνον τῆς ἀρχῆς ἡμῶν παρατρώξῃ.
Suetonius, Galba 4.1.8
They say that while he, still a boy, was paying his respects to Augustus with his age-mates, Augustus pinched his cheek and said: ‘You too, son, will take a bite of my rule.’
Arnaud argues that both Caesar’s last words and Augustus’ playful paternal address to Galba are a quotation of a Greek proverb. According to Arnaud, Caesar begins, but death prevents him from finishing, the proverb attested in the passage cited above. His dying words do not express regret but a powerful threat, predicting that Brutus will taste the bitter fruit of tyranny by sharing his victim’s fate in death. By linking Caesar’s last words to Suetonius’ story about Augustus and Galba, Arnaud maintains that Julius Caesar adapted a line of Greek verse that was proverbial and should have been easily recognisable by educated Romans.
Versions of Suetonius’ tale are attested in Cassius Dio (57.19)Footnote 25 and Tacitus (Annals 6.20), who attribute the saying to Tiberius, not Augustus. Tacitus, though not discussed by Arnaud, supports his argument that the Greek saying evokes prophetic diction:Footnote 26
Non omiserim praesagium Tiberii de Seruio Galba tum consule; quem accitum et diuersis sermonibus pertemptatum postremo Graecis uerbis in hanc sententiam adlocutus <est> ‘et tu, Galba, quandoque degustabis imperium,’ seram ac breuem potentiam significans, scientia Chaldaeorum artis, cuius apiscendae otium apud Rhodum, magistrum Thrasullum habuit
Tacitus, Annals 6.20
I cannot omit the prophecy of Tiberius with regard to Servius Galba, then consul. He sent for him, sounded him in conversations on a variety of subjects, and finally addressed him in a Greek sentence, the purport of which was, ‘You too, Galba, will one day have your taste of empire’: a hint of belated and short-lived power, based on knowledge of the Chaldean art, the acquirement of which he owed to the leisure of Rhodes and the instructions of Thrasyllus
(Jackson’s Loeb translation, slightly modified)
Tacitus casts Tiberius’ words as a foresight uttered by an emperor versed in the oracular art of the Babylonians. Tiberius’ pursuits in Rhodes and the tutelage of the Alexandrian astrologer and philosopher Thrasyllus may explain the choice of Greek for his Chaldean oracle, given also the fascination of the Greek-speaking world with such oracles.Footnote 27 Tacitus finds Tiberius’ prophecy ominous, an accurate prediction of Galba’s quick demise following his belated ascent to imperial command.
While I agree with Arnaud that Caesar’s ominous words likewise predicted Philippi for his assassin,Footnote 28 his hypothesis about the Greek proverb strikes me as an argument from silence and his overall thesis is rather circular. Arnaud’s reading relies on a non-extant and probably non-existent verse, which was supposedly proverbial. Assuming the existence of this unattested verse, he then argues that Caesar’s καὶ σύ, τέκνον suffices to trigger a reference to this proverbial line. His method of explaining Suetonius out of Suetonius is attractive, but the variants in Cassius Dio and Tacitus undermine the existence of a fixed proverb.Footnote 29 Note, for instance, that neither Dio nor Tacitus includes the vocative τέκνον in his version. Nor is this proverb attested in a story unrelated to Galba’s encounter with either Tiberius or Augustus.
Even if we accept the existence of the proverb and even though I agree that prophecy is the point both in Julius Caesar’s words and the address to Galba, the proverb’s emphasis on eating fits perfectly with Galba but makes no sense in Brutus’ case. Suetonius tells us that Galba was a notorious glutton (Galba 22) and Tacitus’ vocative ‘Galba’, instead of Suetonius’ τέκνον, sardonically implies his fatness by punning on his name.Footnote 30 Similarly, when Augustus pinches Galba’s cheek, Suetonius implies the boy’s appetite and plumpness. It seems more likely that we are dealing here with a widespread joke on Galba’s gluttony,Footnote 31 rather than with a proverb that could be readily evoked in other contexts. Arnaud is right to trace comedy in Suetonius’ tale of Galba and point to the Aristophanic verb παρατρώγω.Footnote 32 But gluttony and Aristophanic comedy seem hardly relevant to Caesar’s last breath. We need to look to other genres in order to find a key to understanding the dictator’s last words, and I suggest that we look at funerary epigrams and epic poetry.
Caesar’s Greek implies that his words are a quotation and Suetonius often has his Caesars quote lines from epic poetry.Footnote 33 Even though we cannot point to a specific passage from epic, Caesar’s last words evoke a formula of Greek epitaphs that is employed in epic poetry. The tag καὶ σύ is common in funerary epigrams and is usually followed by a vocative, which is either the name of the deceased or a noun that identifies the dead with a family relation (for example, ‘child’, ‘daughter’, ‘son’).Footnote 34 Caesar’s address to Brutus is an epitaphic gesture. The dying dictator is not surprised at the sight of Brutus, but employs the sepulchral formula of a bereaved father. This reading of καὶ σύ, τέκνον thoroughly subverts the scene. Caesar addresses Brutus as if he were his dead son.
Shakespeare is unaware of the epitaphic resonances in Caesar’s words. This is suggested by the translation he is using: Et tu, Brute is a possible translation of καὶ σύ, τέκνον, but the Latin formula that corresponds to the Greek epitaphic address is not et tu but tu quoque. Footnote 35 The tag tu quoque is common both in stone inscriptions and literary epitaphs.Footnote 36 The opening lines of Aeneid 7 are a case in point:
Tu quoque litoribus nostris, Aeneia nutrix,
aeternam moriens famam, Caieta, dedisti
Virgil, Aeneid 7.1-2
You too, Aeneas’ nurse, Caieta, with your death bestowed eternal fame upon our shores
Aeneas buries his nurse Caieta and Virgil memorialises her by incorporating a funerary inscription in his immortal epic.Footnote 37 The epitaphic formula tu quoque is followed by the vocatives nutrix and Caieta, a typical apostrophe to the deceased in sepulchral epigrams.
Caesar employs precisely this formula in his eulogy for Terence:
tu quoque, tu in summis, o dimidiate Menander,
poneris, et merito, puri sermonis amator.
Suetonius, Terence 7
You too, you are ranked among the top, oh half-Menander, and deservedly, oh lover of pure speech.
Caesar’s epitaphic tu quoque corresponds to καὶ σύ, his final address to Brutus. And it is significant that Suetonius is our source for both, so that the correspondence between Caesar’s Greek and Latin addresses suggests itself. Note also that tu quoque appears in a comment on Terence’s translation of Menander, one of his Greek models; Caesar may thus simultaneously display his own rendition of the epitaphic formula καὶ σύ as tu quoque.Footnote 38
Shakespeare’s Et tu, Brute has become the established translation of καὶ σύ, τέκνον, but is not the only one. Other Latin translations of καὶ σύ better preserve the funerary resonances of the formula. In the 18th century, for instance, the French scholar, Charles François Lhomond, in his De uiris illustribus, Julius Caesar renders the Greek as tu quoque, fili mi! The authors of Asterix also seem to be sensitive to Latin idiom, presumably because of Lhomond’s continuing influence in French education. In Asterix Gladiateur (p. 34), Caesar’s καὶ σύ, τέκνον is translated as tu quoque, fili. In this playful twist of Caesar’s last words, the dictator asks Brutus to do what everyone else is doing, that is to clap. His words are an order, not a rhetorical question or an expression of surprise. In the comic strip, Brutus, not Caesar, looks astonished as he is asked to join the crowd. It seems that Goscinny and Uderzo could appropriate Caesar’s famous dictum without being influenced by Shakespeare.
It is not peculiar that Caesar employs the language of inscriptions in his oral epitaph. His epigram draws on the tradition of martial epic, thus adding epic colour to the assassination.Footnote 39 In battle narratives, epic heroes often taunt their opponents by delivering an epitaph. In the Iliad, for instance, Achilles employs the epitaphic καὶ σύ before he kills Lycaon:
ἀλλὰ φίλος θάνε καὶ σύ· τί ἦ ὀλοφύρεαι οὕτως;
κάτθανε καὶ Πάτροκλος, ὅ περ σέο πολλὸν ἀμείνων.
οὐχ ὁράᾳς οἷος καὶ ἐγὼ καλός τε μέγας τε;Footnote 40
πατρὸς δ ᾽εἴμ ἀγαθοῖο, θεὰ δέ με γείνατο μήτηρ·
ἀλλ᾽ ἔπι τοι καὶ ἐμοὶ θάνατος καὶ μοῖρα κραταιή·
So, friend, you die also. Why all this clamour about it?
Patroclus also is dead, who was better by far than you are.
Do you not see what a man I am, how huge, how splendid
and born of a great father, and the mother who bore me immortal?
Yet even I have also my death and my strong destiny
(Lattimore’s translation, slightly modified)
Lycaon implores Achilles to spare his life and offers lavish ransom. But after the death of Patroclus, Achilles is implacable. His oral inscription puts an end to Lycaon’s hopes for survival and seals his inevitable death. It is ironic that Achilles addresses him as φίλος (‘friend’); the killer employs the epitaphic voice of the bereaved and Lycaon’s death parallels and is a recompense for the loss of Patroclus, Achilles’ dear friend. The hero employs the consolatory aspect of καὶ σύ: death is the common lot of mortals (cf. Il. 18.117; Alcaeus 38.5; Lucretius 3.1025-45)Footnote 41 and Lycaon must meet the same fate as Patroclus and, eventually, even the best of the Achaeans himself (Il. 21.106-13). Employing the discourse of consolation, Achilles suggests that Lycaon should bear the inevitable. καὶ Πάτροκλος, καὶ ἐγώ, καὶ ἐμοί are variations on καὶ σύ, elaborating on the inevitability of death for all mortals, even for demigods. This aspect of this epitaphic formula is important for understanding Caesar’s words to Brutus.
Similar occasions of oral epitaphs are common in Latin epic. A case in point is found in Evander’s lament for his dead son, Pallas:
tu quoque nunc stares immanis truncus in armis,
esset par aetas et idem si robur ab annis, Turne.
Virgil, Aeneid 11.173-5
You too would now stand, a mighty tree-trunk under arms, Turnus, were you of the same generation and did you draw the same strength from your years.
(Horsfall’s translation, Reference Horsfall2003)
Evander employs the epitaphic formula in the context of Pallas’ funeral. But he does not apostrophise his dead son, but Turnus, his son’s killer, who is still alive. Turnus would have been one of Pallas’ victims, had he had the same age as Evander’s son.Footnote 42 The epitaphic apostrophe to his enemy is an expression of Evander’s wishful thinking. The old father would have much preferred a sepulchral inscription for Turnus to his son’s funeral. Moreover, the sepulchral tu quoque has an oracular aspect, since it foreshadows the death of Turnus. Turnus too, will die, in fact as a consequence of killing Pallas.
The formula tu quoque is often employed by the primary or secondary narrator as a way of commemorating the death of a hero. Thus, the undying glory of epic renown is intricately enmeshed with epitaphic memorials. Virgil’s obituary for the fallen Aeolus, for instance, is marked with the funereal connotations of te quoque (Aen. 12.542-3: te quoque Laurentes uiderunt, Aeole, campi / oppetere et late terram consternere tergo. ‘The Laurentian fields saw you too, Aeolus, fall and spread your body widely on the ground’).Footnote 43 The hero’s epitaph is inscribed in Virgil’s monumental epic.
When the funereal connotations of tu quoque and καὶ σύ appear in martial epic, they are a mixture of commemoration and consolation, but, more interestingly, this epitaphic apostrophe can also be directed as a threat against an opponent who is still alive. The episode of Achilles and Lycaon in Homer includes all these aspects (commemoration, consolation, threat). Evander’s wishful epitaph for Turnus is a taunt against the killer of Pallas and is meant to incite the Trojans to avenge the dead youth. In epic poetry, the common lot of mortals does not simply console the bereaved, but can also threaten a mighty enemy. In Ennius, Romulus threatens Remus with death in a passage that evokes the inevitable fate of mortality:
Nec pol homo quisquam faciet inpune animatus
hoc nec tu; nam mi calido dabis sanguine poenas.
Ennius, Annales 94-5 Skutsch
No man alive, I swear, will do this without punishment, not even you; for you will pay me with your hot blood.
Ennius’ lines are attested in Macrobius (Sat. 6.1.15), who quotes Virgil (Aen. 9.422-3 tu tamen interea calido mihi sanguine poenas/ persolues amborum, ‘but meanwhile you will pay me with your hot blood for both’). This is Volcens’ menacing address to Euryalus right before he kills him. In another imitation of Ennius’ lines, Virgil has king Latinus warn Turnus about his imminent death (Aen. 7.595-6 te, Turne, nefas, te triste manebit/ supplicium, uotisque deos uenerabere seris ‘You, Turnus, your crime and its grievous punishment will await and too late will you call upon the gods in your prayers’ [Horsfall’s translation Reference Horsfall1999]). In martial epic, the second person singular address is often combined with the motif of inevitable death. This combination evokes the language of funerary inscriptions and is often a threat or a warning about the unavoidable death that lies in store for epic heroes.
Caesar’s last words need to be interpreted against this background. The dying dictator employs the commonplace that all men die, in order to threaten, not in order to console, Brutus. Caesar foretells the death of his son. Brutus’ involvement in the assassination is the beginning of his demise and the dictator pointedly predicts the looming death of his killer. The prophetic effect of Caesar’s last words relies on the Greco-Roman tradition that men can foresee the future right before they die. This takes us back again to the world of Homeric epic. In the Iliad, the dying Patroclus predicts Hector’s death:
ἀλλά με μοῖρ’ ὀλοὴ καὶ Λητοῦς ἔκτανεν υἱός,
ἀνδρῶν δ᾽ Εὔφορβος· σὺ δέ με τρίτος ἐξεναρίζεις.
ἄλλο δέ τοι ἐρέω, σὺ δ’ ἐνὶ φρεσὶ βάλλεο σῇσιν·
οὔ θην οὐδ᾽ αὐτὸς δηρὸν βέῃ, ἀλλά τοι ἤδη
ἄγχι παρέστηκεν θάνατος καὶ μοῖρα κραταιὴ
χερσὶ δαμέντ’ Ἀχιλῆος ἀμύμονος Αἰακίδαο.
But baneful Fate and Leto’s son have slain me
and of men, Euphorbus; but you are the third to kill me.
And put away in your heart this one thing that I tell you.
You yourself are not one who shall live long, but now already
death and powerful destiny are standing beside you,
to go down under the hands of Aeacus’ grandson, Achilles.
(Lattimore’s translation, modified)
You too, will die soon, says Patroclus to Hector. In his last speech, Patroclus points out that Hector is only his third and last slayer. Apollo and Euphorbus killed him; Hector just gave the final blow. It is tempting to interpret the assassination of Julius Caesar as a version of Patroclus’ death. Brutus, like Hector, is just one of Caesar’s many killers.Footnote 44 Both the Homeric hero and the Roman dictator address their killers and prophesy their looming doom.
The death of Brutus is actually related to the death of Patroclus in the Iliad. A story attested in Plutarch (Brutus 24.4-7), Appian (4.134.564), and Valerius Maximus (1.5.7) links a Homeric line from the death of Patroclus with Brutus in the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination:Footnote 45
M. etiam Bruti dignus admisso parricidio euentus omine designatus est, si quidem post illud nefarium opus natalem suum celebrans, cum Graecum uersum expromere uellet, ad illud potissimum Homericum referendum animo tetendit:
ἀλλά με μοῖρ᾿ ὀλοὴ καὶ Λητοῦς ἔκτανεν υἱός. (Il. 16.849)
qui deus, Philippensi acie a Caesare et Antonio signo datus, in eum tela conuertit.
Valerius Maximus 1.5.7
An outcome worthy of the parricide committed by M. Brutus was designated by an omen. As he was celebrating his birthday after that evil work, he wanted to speak a line of Greek and his mind turned to recall this of Homer: ‘But baneful fate and Leto’s son have slain me.’ That god, given as a password by Caesar and Antony at the battle of Philippi, turned his darts against Brutus.
(Shackleton Bailey’s Loeb translation, slightly modified)
The line that randomly occurs to Brutus and predicts his death at Philippi evokes the Sortes Homericae, the drawing of a line or sentence from Homer, usually from the Iliad, as a means of predicting the future. Valerius reads this Homeric lot as a reference to the watchword ‘Apollo’ at the battle of Philippi. Yet at the same time the Homeric line, which Patroclus utters right before he dies and right before he predicts the death of Hector, may be a reference to the similarities between the death of Patroclus and the assassination of Julius Caesar. Brutus’ Homeric lot brings up the broader context of Patroclus’ dying words, which can be read vis-à-vis Caesar’s famous last words.
The incident of Brutus’ ominous quotation, whether it happened or not, was either a post euentum fabrication of Caesarian propaganda or was readily exploited by Caesar’s camp.Footnote 46 The story suggests that Apollo fought in the camp of Julius Caesar’s avengers and thus dissociates the god from Cassius and Brutus.Footnote 47 From that perspective, Brutus corresponds to the dying Patroclus. Since the quotation of Iliad 16.849 evokes the broader context of Patroclus’ last words, it further implies a prophecy about the ill-fated future of his enemies. In Plutarch (Brutus 29.11), Brutus prophesies the civil war between Antony and Octavian.Footnote 48 The Homeric context of Brutus’ quotation problematises the pro-Caesarian interpretation of the incident. Julius Caesar, Brutus, and Caesar’s avengers are trapped in a cycle of revenge that evokes the sequence of the deaths of Patroclus, Hector, and Achilles. The killing anticipates the demise of the killer.
Patroclus’ prophecy is fulfilled with the death of Hector. Not unlike his victim, Hector foretells the imminent death of his killer before he expires:
φράζεο νῦν, μή τοί τι θεῶν μήνιμα γένωμαι
ἤματι τῷ ὅτε κέν σε Πάρις καὶ Φοῖβος Ἀπόλλων
ἐσθλὸν ἐόντ᾽ ὀλέσωσιν ἐνὶ Σκαιῇσι πύλῃσιν.᾽
Be careful now; for I might be made into the gods’ curse
upon you, on that day when Paris and Phoebus Apollo
destroy you in the Scaean gates, for all your valour.
(Lattimore’s translation, slightly modified)
These are Hector’s last words. Right before his soul goes down to Hades, the Trojan hero can accurately foresee the end of his killer: his brother Paris and Apollo will kill Achilles in the Scaean gates. The mention of Apollo would once more be readily available to Caesarian propaganda according to which the god played a key role in Brutus’ downfall. The assimilation of the dead Hector with Caesar can actually be traced in the pro-Augustan Nicolaus of Damascus. In his account of Julius Caesar’s assassination, Nicolaus says that ‘there was not one of the conspirators still left who did not strike the body as it lay there’ (καὶ οὐδεὶς ἔτι λοιπὸν ἦν ὃς οὐχὶ νεκρὸν κείμενον ἔπαιεν: Life of Augustus 90), a mean and cowardly action that evokes the way in which the Achaeans treat Hector’s dead body (Il. 22.371 οὐδ’ ἄρα οἵ τις ἀνουτητί γε παρέστη, ‘and no one stood beside him who did not strike him’).Footnote 49 The death of Hector thus provided the model for the heroic death of Caesar. Julius Caesar, descendant of the Trojans and protégé of Apollo, dies like Hector at the hands of his vicious enemies, who wound even his lifeless corpse. If the parallel between Hector and Caesar was in play in the narrative of his assassination, then the tradition of his last words should be also linked with it. Like Hector, the dying Caesar foresees the death of his killer.
Homer endows his dying heroes with prophetic abilities and that was a common interpretation of the deaths of Patroclus and Hector in antiquity. Sextus Empiricus (Aduersus Mathematicos 9.21), who attributes this theory to Aristotle, argues that when the soul is separated from the body in death it takes on its own proper nature and prophesies the future. Homer’s tales of how Patroclus at the time of his death predicted the slaying of Hector, and Hector the end of Achilles, are cited in support of this theory. This seems to have been a widely held view in Greco-Roman antiquity. Quintus in Cicero’s De Diuinatione (1.64) believes in the power of dying men to prophesy and tells a story attributed to the Stoic philosopher Posidonius (c. 135-51 BCE). The story goes that a certain Rhodian, when on his death-bed, named six men of the same age and which of them would die first, second and so on. Quintus concludes:
Idque, ut modo dixi, facilius euenit appropinquante morte, ut animi futura augurentur. Ex quo et illud est Callani, de quo ante dixi, et Homerici Hectoris, qui moriens propinquam Achilli mortem denuntiat.
Cicero, De Diuinatione 1.65
And, as I said just now, it is when death is at hand that men most readily discern signs of the future. This is illustrated by the story which I related about Callanus [De diu. 1.47] and by Homer’s account of Hector, who, as he was dying, prophesied the early death of Achilles.
(Falconer’s Loeb translation)
The story of Callanus goes as follows: Callanus of India was about to die and when Alexander asked him if he wished to say anything to him, he responded:
‘Optime,’ . . . ‘propediem te uidebo.’ Quod ita contigit; nam Babylone paucis post diebus Alexander est mortuus.
Cicero, De Diuinatione 1.47
‘Thank you, nothing, except that I shall see you very soon.’ So it turned out, for Alexander died in Babylon a few days later.
(Falconer’s Loeb translation)
The clairvoyance of dying men is not only implied in Homer, but was a widespread view attested in Aristotle, the Stoic Posidonius, and the sceptic Sextus Empiricus. Cicero, a contemporary of Julius Caesar, is probably the most relevant source; Caesar’s address to Brutus needs to be read in this context. Suetonius also shared this belief. In The deified Augustus 99, Augustus, before he breathed his last, sees forty young men carrying him off, not a delusion but a premonition (praesagium), adds the historian, since the dying emperor accurately foresaw the number of praetorian soldiers that would carry his body. Julius Caesar predicts the impending demise of his killer, just like Hector. The fact that καὶ σύ, τέκνον are his last words guarantees the prophetic accuracy of his oral epitaph since divination is the ultimate power of dying men.
Historical beliefs and epic tales converge in the account of Caesar’s last words. The predictions of dying men are simultaneously related to the death of Homeric heroes and the end of great men in historiography.Footnote 50 The tag καὶ σύ, τέκνον is a perfect opening of a dactylic hexameter, suggesting the standard metre of funerary epigrams, epic poetry, and oracular responses. Caesar’s words are interrupted by his death, but we can imagine that he would have continued his hexameter with something like καὶ σύ, τέκνον, θάνε or (to venture a complete line) καὶ σύ, τέκνον, θάνατον στυγερὸν καὶ πότμον ἐφέψεις.Footnote 51 Caesar’s mysterious phrase remains incomplete and thus invites us to fill the gaps that are left open with his death. At the same time, his very passing right after he utters his enigmatic words gives us a clue about completing what he has started saying: ‘You too, son, will die just as I am dying now.’Footnote 52 The dramatic effect is spectacular: Caesar completes his words by dying, the very reason why he could not finish what he wanted to say. The dictator’s death becomes the ultimate form of non-verbal communication.
My reading of this episode is supported by Plutarch, who tells that the ghost of Caesar visited Brutus before the battle in Philippi and told him ‘you will see me at Philippi’ (Caesar 69.11), thus foretelling his death:
ἠρώτα [ὅσ]τίς ἐστιν. ἀποκρίνεται δ’ αὐτῷ τὸ φάσμα· ‘ὁ σὸς ὦ
Βροῦτε δαίμων κακός· ὄψει δέ με περὶ Φιλίππους.’
Plutarch, Caesar 69.11
[Brutus] asked who it was. And the spectre replied to him: ‘I am your ill fate, Brutus; you will see me at Philippi.’
The menacing words of Caesar’s ghost resemble Callanus’ last words to Alexander (propediem te uidebo, ‘I shall see you very soon’). Caesar has become Brutus’ δαίμων κακός (‘ill fate’ or ‘evil demon’), a phrase reminiscent of Hector’s words to Achilles, that the Trojan hero may become the gods’ curse upon his killer. We should read the tradition about Caesar’s visitation to Brutus vis-à-vis the reports about his last words. Both stories cast a dead or dying Caesar threatening Brutus and predicting his death. The dictator’s dying words are another version of Plutarch’s story, since they warn Brutus that he too, just like his victim, will soon meet his death. Of course, Caesar was right: Brutus dies when one of his friends gives him the final blow (Plutarch, Caesar 69.14), an end that appropriately fulfils Caesar’s prophecy.
In conclusion, I suggested a different reading of Caesar’s last words, which are commonly interpreted as an expression of shock at Brutus’ betrayal. The tragic resonances of this scene feature prominently in Shakespeare, whose appropriation of Suetonius has defined the way we understand this ancient tradition. But the epic background is also important. Caesar acts as an epic hero dying on the battlefield: he taunts his killer and foretells his death. If Caesar’s assassination is Brutus’ triumph, the dying dictator is there to tell his killer memento mori. Reading the tradition attested in Suetonius and Dio in the context of ancient epic, historiography, and philosophy can reveal unexplored facets of Caesar’s famous last words. The dictator is neither surprised nor disappointed to see Brutus among the conspirators. Quite the opposite: he is ready to face his fate. His last words are a final divination that can be associated with the divine portents that appeared before his assassination. In dying, Caesar foretells death and turns into Brutus’ ominous star.Footnote 53 Contrary to what Cassius tells Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the fault in the end may actually be in their stars.Footnote 54