Julius Caesar's Last Words

Instructor: Ian Aebel

Ian Aebel is a historian, researcher, educator, and writer with a Ph.D. in History and M.S.T. in College Teaching.

The last words of Julius Caesar are the stuff of legend, holding a place in popular culture more than 2,000 years after his death. But did he really say those words?

Famous Last Words

Remember those games of telephone you played in elementary school? The teacher would whisper a phrase into the first student's ear, and then that person would whisper the same phrase to the next pupil. When the last student to hear the message repeated it aloud to the entire class, the words were changed into something that was unrecognizable from the original message! The same holds true of the last words of Gaius Julius Caesar (c. 100 BCE to 44 BCE), a skilled general and the first dictator of the Roman Republic.

Killed by a conspiracy of Senators who were upset over their lost power, Caesar is purported to have said upon being stabbed, 'Et tu, Brute?', or 'You too, Brutus?' The phrase refers to Caesar's shock at seeing one of his best friends and political proteges, Marcus Junius Brutus, as part of the conspiracy to kill him. It has become synonymous in modern culture as a way to denote betrayal or backstabbing by close friend or associate. But did Caesar really say that phrase upon his death, or is it the case of a 2,000 year-old game of telephone gone awry?

Brutus, Commemorated on a Coin
Brutus, Commemorated on a Coin

The Conspiracy to Kill Caesar

As a dictator, Caesar drastically reduced the power of the Senate in Rome. His goal was to attempt to make the difficult problem of governing a large empire more manageable, while consolidating his own power. However, this made a number of the Senators jealous and angry, as they wanted their own prestige to be returned. A number of them believed that if they could assassinate Caesar, the power they had lost would be returned.

So when Caesar scheduled an appearance at the Senate on a religious holiday called the Ides of March, or March 15, in 44 BCE, the Senators decided to act. While a number of them held up Caesar's friends from entering the Senate, about 60 Senators attacked Caesar, stabbing him to death with 23 blows.

Karl Theodor von Piloty, The Murder of Caesar (1865)
Murder of Caesar

At some point in the proceedings, the fateful words, 'Et tu, Brute?' were supposedly uttered by Caesar. They have been interpreted by some as a mournful pronouncement in seeing a friend act as a murderer, while others have deemed the words prophetic, arguing that Caesar believed Brutus would soon meet the same end as him. But regardless of the interpretation, the assassination backfired upon the conspirators. Eager to gain their power back and restore republican rule to Rome once again, they miscalculated the dictator's enormous popularity with the people, who almost instantly rebelled against the Senate. A civil war ensued in which all of Caesar's enemies were ultimately defeated, Caesar was deified, and his chosen heir, Caesar Augustus, became the emperor of a new Roman Empire.

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