What were Julius Caesar’s last words during his assassination? Did he say “Et tu, Brute?”
Did Julius Caesar really say “Et tu, Brute?” when he was assassinated? In an extract from the HistoryExtra podcast, historian Barry Strauss considers the evidence
We get different stories from the sources. I agree with the sources that say he probably just groaned or grunted. He may have taken a stylus, a writing utensil, and stabbed one of the conspirators. One of the reports says this. Caesar was a military man who was used to dealing with emergencies and he might have kept his head.
The ancient sources report that there are other sources that say that Caesar said something. They reject this. They don't think he really said something, but they report what he said. What did he say? He didn't say: “Et tu, Brute?” The famous statement in Shakespeare is not something that any of the ancient sources say that Caesar said; that was invented in the Renaissance: “You too, Brutus, Then die, Caesar” – because of this betrayal by Marcus Brutus.
However, the sources that the better sources reject say that he did address something to Brutus. When Brutus pulled out his dagger, he said something in Greek. And what he said was “Kaì sú, téknon” (You too, child). So what's that all about? There are three possibilities. One is that this is part of a line of a Greek tragedy that Caesar was quoting, indicating how educated and cultivated he was. It would be as if an English-speaking politician who was being assassinated should suddenly say a line in French, that would be the valence of that.
A second possibility is ancient curse tablets. The Romans believed in curse tablets. You would get an inscribed tablet against one of your enemies and you would have it buried. And the typical thing to say on a curse tablet is “Kaì sú” (You too) – and this is what should happen to you, as bad things have happened to me.
The third possibility, and the most delicious, is that the key word here is not “Kaì sú”, but ”téknon” (child). When Caesar was young, he had an affair with one of the most prominent women in Rome: Servilia, who was the half-sister of Caesar's arch-enemy, Cato the Younger. And she was supposed to be the greatest love of Caesar's life – so much a love that Caesar bought her a pearl that was worth a king's ransom. She also happened to be the mother of Brutus.
There was a rumour that Caesar was the natural father of Brutus
And there was a rumour that Caesar was the natural father of Brutus: that Brutus was, not to put too fine a point on it, a bastard – Caesar's lovechild. It's unlikely because Caesar was 15 at the time that Brutus was born, but it is not 100% impossible because the Romans started young. So, the idea is that by saying to Brutus, “You too, child”, Caesar was confirming the rumour and saying, in effect: you're my son and you have just killed your father. You have committed parricide – which is the most heinous crime that a Roman could commit.
It's really a little bit hard to believe that as his life is ebbing before him, Caesar had the presence of mind to say this vicious thing to one of his assassins. Most likely I think he was just groaning.
Barry Strauss is the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University, where he is the former Chair of the Department of History as well as Professor of History and Classics
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