Julius Caesar will forever be known for three things: 1.) Being a military genius who conquered Gaul, and being one of the most famous generals in history. 2.) Defeating Pompey and the Roman Republic, giving rise to the Roman Empire and immortalizing his very name as being synonymous with “king”. 3.) Getting shanked. Some of his most famous words are “et tu, Brute”, a phrase iconic for its symbolism of betrayal, uttered right before he died. Is that really what Caesar said before dying?
The J man was a fairly polarizing figure, even in his own time. His assassination on the Ides of March, 44 BC wasn’t just a bit of history, it was an event, and even ancient historians recorded it as such. However, no historical evidence of the “et tu, Brute” line exists. Suetonius (82.1) records that Caesar’s last words were in Greek, “Kai su, teknon” (and you, child), attributed to the conspiracy theory that Brutus was Caesar’s son. Even Suetonius, though, dismisses this line as rumor and gossip and says that Caesar said nothing. Similarly, Plutarch does not give Caesar any fitting final words. This should make sense; being stabbed 23 times doesn’t prompt great speeches, except maybe “ow”.
The popularity of the line comes entirely from its creator, Shakespeare. For you literary nerds, the line comes from Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene I, line 77. Here, the playwright decided to use the Suetonius line as a model, and created what is indisputably one of the best examples of “famous last words” known to man.
Adding to the fame of Caesar’s death is Dante Alighieri. Dante’s Inferno depicts Hell and its subdivision into circles—apparently even Hell needs bureaucracy—with each level for a particular sin, worse as you go. On the 9th circle are the worst of the worst, including Satan himself, whom Dante describes as having three faces, wings, and just looking nasty. In the center mouth, being chewed on for eternity, is Judas Iscariot, the man who betrayed Jesus. Brutus and Cassius occupy the other two mouths. The lowest level of Hell is reserved for traitors. All the figures here are considered the most evil for their betrayals. Satan betrayed God, Judas betrayed Jesus, Brutus and Cassius betrayed Caesar. According to Dante, Julius Christ, er, Jesus Caesar (you think both their initials are J.C. by coincidence?), was essentially destined by God to conquer the world, hence the punishment of Brutus and Cassius next to Judas and the Devil.
Et tu, Brute? Then fall, Caesar! These words will continue to live on, partially because of our fascination with the life and death of Julius Caesar. They will also live on because the master wordsmith, William Shakespeare, invented them. Despite the legacy, the words are only that, an invention. More than likely, the real Caesar said nothing. Yeah, it’s a little anticlimactic.