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Tales of the Romans : The Children's Plutarch by  F. J. Gould


 

 

CAESAR'S FRIEND AND ENEMY

YOU remember how Brutus, Cassius, and other Romans of high position stabbed Julius Csar to death. Some people think that Brutus did well to help in the slaying of Csar. Others think he did evil.

He had been a friend of Pompey the Great. When Pompey had formed his camp, ready for the last struggle with Csar, Brutus entered as a friend. Pompey was much pleased. Instead of waiting for Brutus to bow low before him, he rose [162] in the midst of his guards, and embraced the newcomer with much good-will. Brutus waited calmly for the trial of strength. The day before the battle of Pharsalia, while all the other men in the camp were talking of the fight that was coming, he sat quietly reading and writing.

Pompey lost the battle. Csar's Romans were clambering up the mounds that formed the walls of Pompey's camp. Brutus fled through one of the entrances on the opposite side to the storming party. A marsh was near. Amid the reeds he forced his way, his feet slipping in the pools of muddy water; and so he escaped. Not long afterward he wrote a letter to Csar, and became for a time his close friend.

But only for a time. Brutus hated the idea of one man, however wise, being lord of the Roman world, though I do not think he could have explained how so large an empire was to be ruled better. Many other Roman patricians had like thoughts. They urged him to resist Csar. He found papers laid on his chair in the senate-house, on which were written these words:

"Brutus, thou sleepest! Thou art not a true Brutus."

And, as you know, his was one of the daggers that killed the great general.

Nor did he care to submit to young Octavius, the nephew of Csar. He collected an army in [163] the hill-country, north of Greece, and prepared for a trial of strength with Octavius. While marching to the attack on a certain town, he pressed forward a long way in front of the main body of troops, who were slowly trudging through the deep snow in the passes. The keen air of the mountains brought on a curious feeling known as the hunger-madness. No food was at hand; the baggage had been left far in the rear. His attendants then hurried on to the gate of the city, and begged for food of the very foes of Brutus. The citizens were men of a fine spirit, and handed out to the messengers some provisions for the use of Brutus. The city before long fell into his hands, but he remembered the kindness that had been done to him, and showed mercy to the inhabitants.

A different scene occurred at Xanthus, a city in Asia. Brutus had carried his troops oversea, and was seeking to band people together against Octavius. On his way he landed on the island of Rhodes. A crowd of the inhabitants cried out:

"Hail, king and master!"

"Nay," cried Brutus, "I am neither king nor master. I am the destroyer of Csar, who wished to be both!"

But then, as I said, he came to Xanthus, and there the folk had no mind to join him and help carry his eagles against Octavius. From village [164] to village he had driven the peasants, and they had swarmed into Xanthus, and the Roman army had now begirt it with a terrible ring of power and death. Some of the Xanthians dived from the walls into the river that ran by. A multitude of them burst from the gates one night, and set fire to the machines (battering engines) which the Romans used to break the ramparts of the city. They were driven back. The flames spread from the engines to some wooden houses on the walls. A red light shot over the doomed town, and by its glare were seen men, women, and children hurrying from street to street, pursued by the stern Romans. But the people's soul fiercely fought against the idea of yielding to Brutus. They saw no hope in his rule and the rule of the haughty nobles who took his side, and who wished to make Rome everything, and leave the rest of the empire in slavery. They set fire to houses with their own hands, and then, with loud shouts of defiance, leaped into the dreadful flames and died for freedom! In one house Brutus saw the dead body of a woman, clasping her dead babe in one arm; she had set fire to her cottage, and then hanged herself sooner than fall into the power of the besiegers.

. . . The foeman's chain

Could not bring her proud soul under.

[165] When Brutus and his comrade, Cassius, had subdued the lands of the East—in Asia Minor and Greece, and the islands round about—they prepared for the last tremendous clash of war. Octavius had come to Macedonia, and the two armies stood face to face at Philippi. The larger host was that of Octavius; but the legions of Brutus appeared more splendid, for their armor flashed with ornaments of gold and silver.

Two battles took place. In the first the horsemen of Brutus dashed with immense courage into the camp of Octavius, and plundered it. But the right wing of Octavius's army made a rush into the camp of Cassius, and bore all before them; and Cassius retired, and in his despair bade a servant strike off his head. The servant obeyed, and news was brought to Brutus that his comrade Cassius was dead.

The next day the conflict began afresh. The Romans who fought for Octavius were cold and hungry. Their tents had been sodden by heavy rains, and the camp, being on low ground, was damp enough at the best. A fleet from Italy, bearing provisions for their use, had been shattered in a fight with the galleys of Brutus.

Nevertheless, there was a stern valor on the side of Octavius which led to victory. His men had no trust that Brutus would govern the empire wisely for the good of all its people instead of for [166] a few wealthy families. Some of Brutus's friends even went over to the enemy before his very eyes.

Soon the event was decided. A roar of voices, the thunder of cavalry, a hand-to-hand combat of footmen—and it was plain to see that the day was going against Brutus.

And now hear the brave tale of Lucilius. He was a sincere friend of Brutus, and when he saw that defeat was certain, and when he saw Brutus leaving the field, followed by a band of horsemen, he resolved to lay down his life for his friend. So he rode forward, and was at once seized. Being dressed in the style of an officer of rank, he was questioned.

"Who are you?"

"I am Brutus, the general."

"You must come with us to Octavius Csar."

"I pray you take me to Antony, for he will treat me more generously than Octavius."

They therefore led him to Antony. The deceit was soon discovered. They had brought the wrong man, and meanwhile Brutus had got safely away! However, no harm came to Lucilius. His life was spared, and he was treated with honor by the conqueror.

And what was Brutus doing?

With a small party of his officers he had ridden on till dusk fell, and the stars appeared. He halted in a glen where tall cliffs hung over a [167] rippling stream. Here there was a cave in which he and his companions took shelter. They brooded sadly over the ruin of their cause, and wondered what would happen to Rome and to the patricians who had opposed Octavius Csar.

A helmet was dipped into the brook, and the water brought to Brutus, and he drank eagerly. Now and then noises were heard among the woods on the opposite bank of the stream. The enemy were searching for the defeated general.

Brutus felt that his hour was come. He spoke in a low tone to one of his friends. The man shook his head and burst into tears. A second did likewise, and others also refused to do what he asked.

He had begged them to slay him.

At length, one of them—a Greek—held a sword, and Brutus thrust himself upon it, and so died in the year 42 B.C.

Two great poets speak of Brutus in their verse; but while Shakespeare praises him, Dante (Dantay) condemns him.

Shakespeare, in his play of Julius Csar, shows the death of Brutus in the cave, and makes Octavius and Antony and their soldiers enter; and then Antony says:

This was the noblest Roman of them all;

All the conspirators save only he

Did that they did in envy of great Csar;

[168]

He only, in a general honest thought

And common good to all, made one of them.

His life was gentle, and the elements

So mixed in him that Nature might stand up

And say to all the world, "This was a man."


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