A Closer Look at the Ides of March and Caesar’s Final Moments
“Et tu, Brutè? Then fall, Caesar.” These are the Roman’s immortal last words, as dramatized in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. But is that really what Caesar said on the fateful Ides of March in the year 44 BC, some 2060 years ago? We will never know for sure, but a closer look at the earliest historical sources reveals he may have said something in Greek, or he may have said nothing at all. Let’s look at five of the earliest accounts: Nicolaus of Damascus, Suetonius, Plutarch, Appian, and Cassius Dio.
The earliest historical account of Caesar’s assassination is found in surviving fragments of the Life of Augustus by the Greek historian Nicolaus of Damascus, a rough contemporary of Caesar. After a detailed discussion of the events preceding the assassination, he presents the climactic scene at the Senate meeting:
When [Caesar] came in and the Senate saw him, the members rose out of respect to him. Those who intended to lay hands on him were all about him. The first to come to him was Tullius Cimber, whose brother Caesar had exiled, and stepping forward as though to make an urgent appeal on behalf of his brother, he seized Caesar’s toga, seeming to act rather boldly for a suppliant, and thus prevented him from standing up and using his hands if he so wished. Caesar was very angry, but the men held to their purpose and all suddenly bared their daggers and rushed upon him. First Servilius Casca stabbed him on the left shoulder a little above the collar bone, at which he had aimed but missed through nervousness. Caesar sprang up to defend himself against him, and Casca called to his brother, speaking in Greek in his excitement. The latter obeyed him and drove his sword into Caesar’s side. A moment before Cassius had struck him obliquely across the face. Decimus Brutus struck him through the thigh. Cassius Longinus was eager to give another stroke, but he missed and struck Marcus Brutus on the hand. Minucius, too, made a lunge at Caesar but he struck Rubrius on the thigh. It looked as if they were fighting over Caesar. He fell, under many wounds, before the statue of Pompey, and there was not one of them but struck him as he lay lifeless, to show that each of them had had a share in the deed, until he had received thirty-five wounds, and breathed his last. (Life of Augustus, FGrH F 130. 24; transl. Clayton M. Hall)
A similar scene is recorded by the Roman historian Suetonius, who wrote his Lives of the Twelve Caesars in the early 2nd century AD. After the initial move by Cimber and the first blow by Casca, the rest of the conspirators close in around Caesar:
When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, “You too, my child?” All the conspirators made off, and he lay there lifeless for some time, and finally three common slaves put him on a litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down. (Life of Julius Caesar 82.1-3; transl. J. C. Rolfe)
Writing about the same time as Suetonius, the Greek-born Roman historian Plutarch gives his account of Caesar’s final moments:
Caesar, hemmed in on all sides, whichever way he turned confronting blows of weapons aimed at his face and eyes, driven hither and thither like a wild beast, was entangled in the hands of all; for all had to take part in the sacrifice and taste of the slaughter. Therefore Brutus also gave him one blow in the groin. And it is said by some writers that although Caesar defended himself against the rest and darted this way and that and cried aloud, when he saw that Brutus had drawn his dagger, he pulled his toga down over his head and sank, either by chance or because pushed there by his murderers, against the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood. (Life of Julius Caesar 66.5-12; transl. Bernadotte Perrin)
Another Greek-born Roman writer, Appian, composing his Civil Wars around the middle of the 2nd century AD, echoes Suetonius on the frenzied despair of Caesar:
With rage and outcries Caesar turned now upon one and now upon another like a wild animal, but, after receiving the wound from Brutus he at last despaired and, veiling himself with his robe, composed himself for death and fell at the foot of Pompey’s statue. They continued their attack after he had fallen until he had received twenty-three wounds. Several of them while thrusting with their swords wounded each other. (Civil Wars 2.117; transl. Horace White)
Finally, a third Greek-born Roman historian, Cassius Dio, writing his Roman History in the early 3rd century AD, depicts the end of the assassination scene much the same way:
Thereupon they attacked him from many sides at once and wounded him to death, so that by reason of their numbers Caesar was unable to say or do anything, but veiling his face, was slain with many wounds. This is the truest account, though some have added that to Brutus, when he struck him a powerful blow, he said: “Thou, too, my son?” (Roman History 44.19.1-5; transl. Earnest Cary)
None of these five ancient accounts records Caesar saying, “Et tu, Brute?” Nicolaus mentions no words of Caesar at all. Suetonius and Cassius Dio record that “some” accounts depict Caesar addressing Brutus in Greek with “You, too, my son?” But Suetonius himself depicts Caesar “uttering not a word,” and Cassius Dio says “the truest account” is that “Caesar was unable to say or do anything.” Both Plutarch and Appian depict Caesar as falling silent in despair or grief at the blow from Brutus.
In conclusion, according to some unnamed writers mentioned by Suetonius and Cassius Dio, Julius Caesar’s last words to Brutus were (perhaps in Greek), “You, too, my son?” So Shakespeare is not entirely without historical basis to have him say, “Et tu, Brute?” But all five early accounts that survive—Nicolaus, Suetonius, Plutarch, Appian, and Cassius Dio—favor the view that Caesar said nothing at all to Brutus, but perhaps responded to his betrayal with silent grief and despair.
Is Shakespeare’s line a pure fabrication? No. Is it the most historically accurate account? Probably not. Is it effectively dramatic and justly famous? You bet.