The Brutus Revival: Parricide and Tyrannicide during the Renaissance

The Brutus Revival: Parricide and Tyrannicide during the Renaissance

The Brutus Revival: Parricide and Tyrannicide during the Renaissance

The Brutus Revival: Parricide and Tyrannicide during the Renaissance


In a discussion of the Renaissance revival of classical culture, Piccolomini considers the period's mythologizing of Brutus, Caesar's assassin. He cites Dante as the initiator of an important literary, dramatic, political, and artistic theme and explains how the historical Brutus was changed by literature and theatre into a symbol of the just citizen rebelling against the unjust tyrant.

Piccolomini discusses several Renaissance political conspiracies modeled after Brutus' act and explores how those conspiracies, in turn, formed the basis for the theme's recurrence in Italian, French, and English theatre of the period.


The initial idea to write about Brutus came to me in the late 1970s when, as a graduate student, I heard a friend make a passing comment during a lecture about Michelangelo's double standard regarding the killer of Caesar. My friend recalled a famous dialogue by Michelangelo in which the great artist, a republican and libertarian, at once praised and condemned Brutus. He praised Brutus for having freed Rome from a potential dictator and condemned him because, subsequent to his act, a brutal civil war ensued that ended with a stronger dictatorship than that of Caesar. Michelangelo thought that if Brutus had let history take its course and Caesar accomplish his political plans, then the result would not have been historically so momentous. Once the emergency that brought Caesar to absolute power was over, the traditional republican system could have been restored.

I sympathized with Michelangelo in taking such an ambiguous position because he so dramatically expressed the opposition between the ideal point of view -- killing Caesar no matter what the consequence -- and the pragmatic one -- allowing Caesar to fulfill his program. Also, although I was living in the United States, my mind was often occupied by events in Italy, the country that I had left a few years earlier and to which I returned very often. in those days Italy was plagued by the scourge of terrorism that culminated in the killing of Moro, the country's leading political figure.

The killing of Moro had many metaphorical similarities with the killing of Caesar. in both cases an Oedipal impulse had been clearly at work. Moro too had become a sort of "father of the country," the man who had mastered Italy's reconstruction and new prosperity . . .

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