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“You, too, son, must die!”: Caesar’s prophecy and the death of Brutus

Ioannis Ziogas

At least since Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the last words attributed to Caesar (καὶ σύ, τέκνον, Suetonius, Divus Iulius 82; Dio 44.19) have been commonly interpreted as a paternal reproach to Brutus (see Canfora, 331; Woolf, 13; Lintott, 79; Wyke, 205). Caesar is shocked to witness the betrayal of his supposedly biological son and exclaims: “Will you, son, stab Caesar too?” (see Griffin, 386). My paper offers a radically different reading of this famous episode; Caesar’s address to Brutus can be interpreted as an oral epigram foreseeing Brutus’ death as a result of his involvement in the assassination. My analysis is literary – the historicity of the tale does not concern me.

The tag καὶ σύ is a common formula in Greek epitaphs (see DeMartino and Vox, 308-11) and is usually followed by a vocative (see Callimachus, Hecale fr. 40.3 Hollis; AP 7.105, 123, 130, 132, 263). The vocative is either the name of the deceased or a noun that reveals the relationship between the deceased and the author of the epigram (e.g., “friend”, “mother”, “son”). Tu quoque, the Latin equivalent of καὶ σύ, is equally common both in stone and literary inscriptions (see Horsfall ad Virg. Aen. 7.1 for detailed bibliography). In fact, Caesar employs precisely this formula in his funerary epigram for Terence (Tu quoque, tu in summis, o dimidiate Menander, Suet. Terence 7) and his last words strongly evoke the diction of epitaphs.

This formula is common not only in inscriptions, but also in oral epitaphs. In battle narratives, epic heroes often taunt their opponents by delivering an oral epigram. Achilles, for instance, tells Lycaon, “but you, too, friend, die” (ἀλλά, φίλος, θάνε καὶ σύ, Il. 21.106). With this oral epitaph, Achilles puts an end to Lycaon’s hopes for survival, while employing the consolatory aspect of καὶ σύ; death is the common lot of mortals  (cf. Il. 18.117; Alcaeus 38.5; Lucretius 3.1025; see Lattimore, 250-6) and Lycaon must meet the same fate as Patroclus and, eventually, Achilles himself (Il. 21.106-13). Similar occasions of oral epitaphs are common in Latin epic (cf. tu quoque, Virg., Aen. 10. 324, 11.173; Ov., Met. 12.312). Thus, Caesar, acting like an epic hero, delivers a funerary inscription for Brutus: “You, too, son, will die, just as I am dying now.” But while employing the commonplace that all men die, Caesar’s words are threatening, not consolatory. Brutus’ involvement in the assassination is the beginning of his demise and Caesar pointedly predicts the imminent death of his killer.

Caesar’s last words are prophetic; their effect relies on the Greco-Roman tradition that men can foretell the future right before they die. Hence, the dying Patroclus predicts Hector’s death (Il. 16.851-4) and Hector in turn prophesies Achilles’ (Il. 22.359-60). Cicero uses these Homeric passages to argue that men discern signs of the future when death is at hand (De div. 1.64-5). A similar interpretation of the deaths of Patroclus and Hector in Homer is attested in Sextus Empiricus (adv. math. 9.21-3), who attributes it to Aristotle. Caesar’s address to Brutus needs to be read in this context. Just like Patroclus and Hector, Caesar prophesies the impending demise of his killer. The fact that καὶ σύ, τέκνον are his last words guarantees the prophetic accuracy of his oral epitaph since clairvoyance is the ultimate power of dying men. Caesar’s dying words are not a rhetorical question, but a menacing affirmation.

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. Caesar’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. Brutus dies when one of his friends gives him the final blow (Plutarch, Caesar 69.14), an end that appropriately fulfills Caesar’s prophecy.

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The Figure of the Tyrant

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