Monday, November 3, 2008


Greg Woolf, Et Tu, Brute? A Short History of Political Murder. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Pp. xx, 199; ills. 24. $19.95. ISBN 978-0-674-025684-1.
Reviewed by Eleanor Cowan, University of Leicester (

Greg Woolf's exploration of the ripples and aftershocks which the assassination of C. Julius Caesar sent through Western history is engaging and thought-provoking and will appeal to both the general and the undergraduate reader. Careful attention has been given to making the ideas accessible and stimulating, and the result is a series of interconnected reflections on the iconic status of Caesar's murder which encourage the reader to think critically about the nature and consequences of tyrannicide as well as about the justifications which writers and thinkers throughout the ages have offered for political murder.

The Profiles in History series 'explore[s] iconic events and relationships in history', starting with the question, 'what happened?' but then considering the 'fascinating and often surprising afterlife of the story concerned'. Et tu Brute begins with a lengthy preface which serves to establish the iconic status of Caesar's murder in (Western) history. The preface introduces the central preoccupation of the following chapters ('Since the Renaissance the murder of Caesar has provided a stock figure for talking about tyrannicide' [p. xi]) and gives a brief narrative of Roman history down to the Ides of March. In keeping with the remit of the series, Woolf carefully situates Caesar's murder in relation to the wider narrative of Roman history. He thus presents Caesar as, simultaneously, part of a story of decline -- the end or fall of the Republic -- and part of a story of the rise of the Imperial state, and situates this narrative, in turn, in a wider context: 'Caesar's murder is more or less the midpoint chronologically of a millennium and a half of Roman history' [p. xii-xiii] from the foundation to the collapse of Roman interests in the Western part her Empire and the Islamic conquests.

Chapter 1 ('Then fall, Caesar!') gives an evocative account of the murder itself -- the ordinary business of the day suddenly disrupted by a struggle, and the ensuing panic and uncertainty. The focus of this narrative is on the number of different, even conflicting, accounts of the details of the murder. Woolf argues that, rather than reconciling or explaining away inconsistencies, we should view them as indicative of the extent to which 'what had really happened was shrouded in uncertainty from the start' [p.15]. Out of the chaos which surrounded the murder and immediate aftermath interpretations and explanations quickly began to emerge. Later sections examine the choices confronting those who attempted to give meaning to what had happened. Could those associated with the conspiracy be granted an amnesty? Was Caesar's murder a betrayal of friendship or a liberation? A noble tyrannicide or an unjustifiable murder carried out for self-interested ends? Woolf shows how contemporaries, especially Cicero, were able to draw on and make use of an already established Greek tradition in making decisions about the consequences of political murder.

At the centre of this chapter is a discussion of the reaction of the Roman aristocracy and their ability to accommodate -- or at least swiftly recover from -- political violence. Here Woolf introduces a feature which is characteristic of his argument in the later chapters: the rhetorical contrasting of the ideas and expectations associated with 'liberal democracy' and those associated with Roman political life. Woolf handles these contrasts skilfully, noting, for example that 'modern assassins typically come from outside the political classes' [p. 22]. His analysis of the political world of the Roman aristocracy (whom he equates with the senate [p. 21]) looks first at their vested interests (both individual and collective) in maintaining/recovering political stability but also considers 'pre-political urges and less rational forces' [p. 28] such as fear of escalating violence, loyalty and the physical propinquity of the elite in Rome which made compromise and reconciliation attractive. Woolf then hypothesises that, 'maybe if it had it been left to the Roman aristocracy they could have weathered the storm' [p. 34] but the behaviour of the Roman plebs and the veterans made this impossible. Not all readers will find this overview of the operation of politics at Rome persuasive. Woolf seemed, to this reader, to overemphasise the potential for homogeneity of interests among (respectively) the elite, the plebs and the veterans and to treat the interests of each of these groups as both discrete from each other and implicitly antagonistic (he seems [p. 39] to contrast 'the political classes' with the veterans and the populace). Whilst this is in many respects simply a matter of a difference of opinion, it did seem to me that characterising Roman political life in this way had wider implications for Woolf's exploration of the comparisons and contrasts between Roman politics and the ideals and expectations of liberal democracies.

Chapter 2 ('Talking Tyrannicide') opens with a discussion of liberal democracy and the extent to which the State's monopoly over 'legitimate violence' [p. 53] and the citizen's relative security serve to make political assassination both unusual and shocking. Woolf offers a considered introduction and response to Fukuyama's ideas about liberal democracy accompanied by a series of thought-provoking observations not only about the ideals and aspirations which it seeks to uphold but also about the extent to which 'liberal democracies are deeply implicated in the violence which dogs many other states' [p. 56]. The seven sub-sections which follow explore the development in Greece and Rome of the perceived ethical distinction between tyranny and legitimate kingship. Woolf draws on material from Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca in particular to introduce readers to key ideas such as the characteristics of tyrants and the 'mirror for princes' and closes with a consideration of the theoretical and practical options available to Caesar and his contemporaries in the 50s and 40s B.C. Again, extended comparisons with modern examples (assassinated presidents and prime ministers, modern crime fiction and anti-terrorism campaigns) are used to provoke the reader to think about the presence and impact of assassination in modern civil societies, the ways in which individual assassins and governments have sought to justify their activities and the similarity of the ethical dilemmas faced by modern and ancient participants in political murders.

Chapter 3 (Caesar's Murdered Heirs) begins by considering the long-term impact of Caesar's murder. Woolf argues that, although it failed to achieve its immediate aims, the empire inaugurated by Caesar's murder and established by his heirs largely managed to secure peace for ordinary citizens in the following centuries. That this peace did not, however, mean an end to the assassination of Emperors, prompts the two central questions pursued in the chapter: 'How had assassination, which once plunged the Roman world into chaos, become part of the new order of things? Was there a connection between the frequency of tyrannicide and the rarity of civil violence?' [p. 95]. The five sections which follow establish the frequency with which Emperors, from Augustus onwards, confronted plots against their lives, and explores the ways in which the distinction between tyranny and kingship continued to be used by assassins and would-be assassins. In this context, Woolf suggests that the rhetoric used to justify assassination could, at times, have a retrospective impact on the life and career of particular Emperors. In the case of Domitian, Woolf suggests that it was 'the shadow of [his] eventual assassination' [p. 106] which destroyed Domitian's posthumous reputation, allowing those characteristics which were perceived as tyrannical to dominate narratives of his life. The chapter includes a comparison with other pre-modern empires, specifically the Ottoman empire. Woolf notes that early Christian and Islamic rulers were frequently deposed rather than assassinated and asks whether these states were less willing to kill their rulers [p. 125]. He also hypothesizes that the practice of strict primogeniture in other pre-modern states effectively limited the potential for rival claims. The chapter concludes with a return to Machiavelli's idea that assassination was inevitable in imperial monarchies. Woolf explores the presence of this assumption in ancient thought by looking in detail at two of Cassius Dio's great Augustan set-pieces, the debate between Agrippa and Maecenas and Livia's advice to Augustus after the discovery of Cinna's plot. In this and the previous chapter, the aim is to be thought-provoking. The reader is constantly posed questions and asked to engage with the material both through a skilful unpacking of the assumptions and expectations of the ancient authors and through the careful comparisons with a wide range of modern (and pre-modern) examples. Not all readers will be able to engage in detail with the huge range of comparative material presented, but this in no way detracts from the author's intention to provoke ideas and indeed, it is greatly to Woolf's credit that the reader will, I think, be left eager to explore these ideas further. Likewise, experts from many fields will no doubt be eager to qualify some of Woolf's generalizations or produce more contextual detail than the scope of his project has allowed Woolf to include, but again, this seemed to me to be strength rather than a weakness in a series which seeks to create discussion which is not bound by disciplinary divisions.

The final chapter ('Aftershocks') asks, 'why should one murdered politician matter after all this time?' [p. 137] and considers the reception of the story of Caesar's murder, which Woolf shows has been dominated by Plutarch's version. Woolf draws on a huge range of material from the Renaissance and eighteenth century down to our own times and examines plays, opera, political journalism, paintings, post-colonial fiction and Asterix comics. The discussion of the reception of the story of Caesar's murder is initially postponed, however, in favour of a consideration of the reception of the text of Plutarch and, specifically, of his Life of Cato the Younger. Woolf argues that, whilst Cato swiftly became a paradigmatic or stock expression of virtuous opposition to tyranny and single-minded devotion to liberty, Caesar's story was so rich that it was possible to construct any number of 'Caesars' encompassing many different ideological positions. This was particularly the case for his murder which had always been the subject of ideological contest.

Woolf's short history of political murder is crammed full of ideas, so much so that it occasionally, and not detrimentally, feels like a series of loosely interconnected reflections on a theme. There will be much here to prompt further discussion. I found myself occasionally quibbling over details of interpretation, and occasionally out of my depth in the comparative material, but overall excited by Woolf's focus on a history of ideas and by his exploration of the ethical and political theorising of his ancient sources. The book is nicely produced, with twenty-four carefully reproduced black-and-white plates and detailed advice about further reading. Considerable attention has been given to making it accessible to a lay reader. There are no footnotes or references to the passages discussed in the text, all of which are provided in translation only, but, as with so much in this stimulating account, this will appeal to the general, non-specialist reader and will not hamper the specialist. The book will have wide appeal, but will, I suspect, be of particular interest to general readers and first-year undergraduates. It would make an interesting contribution to first year survey courses on the Roman Republic since, in its willingness to use Caesar's murder as a means of asking bigger questions about the nature of political life and political murder and in its frequent reflections on the similarities and differences between Greco-Roman attitudes to political violence and those of liberal democracies, it poses stimulating questions and profitably shows one way in which the history of ideas and 'reception studies' might be integrated into teaching, learning and thinking about the ancient world. Woolf has made an important contribution to the way that we might think about both ancient and modern responses to Caesar's murder which complements the recent, more specialist studies by Osgood and in Wyke's collection.1


1. J. Osgood, Caesar's Legacy: civil war and the emergence of the Roman Empire (Cambridge, 2006); M. Wyke (ed.), Julius Caesar in Western Culture (Blackwell, 2006).

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