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15 Back-Stabbing Facts About Brutus

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On this date in 44 BCE, Marcus Junius Brutus and as many as 59 accomplices orchestrated the most famous assassination of all time. While we observe the anniversary of Caesar's untimely demise, let’s take a closer look at the assassination's divisive figure and draw our own conclusions.

1. Brutus's Mother was Caesar’s Longtime Mistress.

Brutus's mom, Servilia Caepionis, and the future dictator first became intimate when they were in their thirties. Their affair ended up spanning decades and became one of ancient Rome’s worst-kept secrets.

2. During Caesar’s Civil War, Brutus Picked the Losing Side.

Even though Caesar's rival, Pompey, had killed Brutus’s father, Brutus sided with Pompey when the statesman went to war with Caesar in 49 BCE. En route to defeating his rival, Caesar defeated Brutus’s forces before pardoning Servilia’s son. 

3. He Became Governor of Gaul in 46 BCE ...

After the pardon, Brutus's career took off. According to the great historian Plutarch, Brutus treated Gaul well, and her cities flourished under his leadership.

4. … And a Praetor in 44.

A praetor was a high-ranking political official who was responsible for carrying out Roman justice. Brutus’s appointment irked Gaius Cassius Longinus, who had wanted the job and considered himself better qualified. (Make note of this guy—you’ll be seeing a lot of him.)

5. Cicero Dedicated a Masterful Text to Him.

An admirer of Brutus’s soaring speeches, this esteemed philosopher penned a popular compendium about public speaking in 46 BCE, which he titled Brutus, a History of Famous Orators

6. Brutus Divorced His First Wife So He Could Marry His Cousin.

While still wed to a well-regarded socialite named Claudia Pulchra, Brutus fell for Porcia Catonis, an articulate, well-educated relative.

7. His Name Appears in Ancient Graffiti.

Ancient Roman graffiti artists had a field day with Brutus, marking up a statue of the praetor with such zingers as “Brutus, you are sleeping,” “Would that you were living!” and “You are not Brutus.” Clearly, his approval ratings left a bit to be desired.  

8. In His Spare Time, Brutus Took Up Poetry.

He presented many original verses at libraries, though none survive today.

9. Porcia Once Proved her Loyalty to Him Via Self-Mutilation.

When you marry your cousin, things are bound to get a little weird. As Plutarch reveals, Brutus’ second wife literally took great pains to learn his secrets. One day, she grabbed a butcher’s knife and quietly stabbed herself in the thigh until “there was a copious flow of blood”.  “Brutus”, she said, “… how can I show thee any grateful service if I am to share neither thy secret suffering nor the anxiety which craves a loyal confidant?” As Brutus looked on in astonishment, Porcia argued that if she could bear such agony without complaint, she could also be trusted with his schemes.

10. He Tried Raising Money for Caesar’s Assassins with Food.  

Appalled by Julius Caesar’s ascent to absolute power and a new title that translated into "dictator in perpetuity," Brutus joined the conspiracy that helped organize the leader's murder. Great conspiracies don't come cheap, so Brutus fell back on that favorite moneymaking operation of modern politicians, the fundraising dinner. In the early days of the conspiracy, he treated a wealthy activist by the name of Titus Pomponius Atticus to an excellent meal. But this gesture was in vain—Atticus found the plan far too risky.

11. Caesar’s Last Words Probably Weren’t “Et tu, Brute?”

Sorry, Shakespeare: Nobody’s quite sure what Caesar said just before he died. One historian reported that witnesses saw him take a good look at Brutus and utter “Kai su, teknon?” which, in Greek, means “You too, child?”

12. Coins Complete With Daggers Were Once Issued in His Honor.

After slaying Caesar, Brutus’s team (which called itself “the freedom party”) fled to Macedonia, where local coins featuring his profile on one side and two down-turned knives on the other were produced.

13. Mark Antony Ensured That Brutus Received a Proper Burial.

The forces assembled by the exiled Brutus proved no match for the combined might of those of Antony and Octavian (Caesar’s nephew). Rather than be captured, he famously took his own life in 42 BCE. With reverence, Antony then used his most expensive cape to cloak Brutus’s body—though this garment was swiftly stolen.

14. Brutus Hangs Out with Cassius and Judas in Dante’s Inferno.

The treacherous trio receives unspeakable tortures in Hell’s ninth circle. 

15. A Quote Attributed to Him Appears on Virginia’s State Seal.

Does sic semper tyrannus ring any bells? Many claim it’s what Brutus shouted while killing Caesar. But our old friend Plutarch reported otherwise, writing that the Brutus and his fellow assassins simply fled without comment. Nonetheless, Virginia adopted an official seal complete with these words in 1776, 89 years before John Wilkes Booth shouted them at Ford’s Theatre after wounding Abraham Lincoln. 

A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

Some of the oldest chamber pots found by archeologists have been discovered in ancient Greece, but portable toilets have come a long way since then. Whether referred to as "the Jordan" (possibly a reference to the river), "Oliver's Skull" (maybe a nod to Oliver Cromwell's perambulating cranium), or "the Looking Glass" (because doctors would examine urine for diagnosis), they were an essential fact of life in houses and on the road for centuries. In this video from the Wellcome Collection, Visitor Experience Assistant Rob Bidder discusses two 19th century chamber pots in the museum while offering a brief survey of the use of chamber pots in Britain (including why they were particularly useful in wartime).

Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.


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