Common Errors (26): Et tu, Brute?

2 December 2009

Daggers on a coin of Brutus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

The last words of Julius Caesar are often quoted as Et tu Brute?, “You too, Brutus?” They are also quoted as Tu quoque, Brute?, which means the same. The second variant has been sufficiently popular to make logicians apply these words to a well-known logical fallacy (“pot calling the kettle black“).

That those famous last words are quoted in two versions, already suggests that something’s gone wrong. They cannot both be correct. As it turns out, the expression “Et tu Brute” has been coined by Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 1); they are not the dictator’s final words, though, because he reflects upon his own death in characteristic third-person, “Then fall, Caesar”.

That leaves us with Tu quoque, Brute. But Caesar probably did not even say that. According to Suetonius, he just sighed, or said something in Greek:

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?” (καὶ σὺ τέκνον;)

[Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 82.2]

<Overview of Common Errors>

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The Canal of Drusus

31 January 2009
The Gelderse IJssel

The Gelderse IJssel

The Canal of Drusus is mentioned by Suetonius (Claudius, 1) and Tacitus (Annals, II.8); it appears that it was dug when the Roman general Drusus campaigned east and north of the Rhine in 12-9 BCE. There have been several theories about its location, one of them being that it is identical to the river Vecht, another stressing that both Suetonius and Tacitus use a plural, and that a second canal had to exist, which was localised between Lake Flevo (the modern IJsselmeer) and the Wadden Sea.

The consensus, however, was that the Canal of Drusus connected the Rhine to the IJssel, and was identical to the water course between modern Arnhem and Doesburg, now called Gelderse IJssel. The main argument was that a monument known as Drusus’ Mole can be found a bit east of this watercourse, at Herwen (ancient Carvium).

This hypothesis now turns out to be incorrect. In a recent article in the Netherlands Journal of Geosciences 87/4 (2008 ) by B. Makaske, G.J. Maas & D.G. van Smeerdijk, “The age and origin of the Gelderse IJssel“, radiocarbon data are mentioned that date the oldest part of the Gelderse IJssel to the tenth century. Of course, it remains possible that the Canal was between Arnhem and Doesburg, later changed its course, and that the samples were taken from this new meander.


Suetonius, On Famous Men

17 July 2008
Portrait of a Roman official, first quarter of the second century (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel)

Portrait of a Roman official, first quarter of the second century (Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, Brussel)

Suetonius is best known for the Lives of the Twelve Caesars, but that is just a part of his oeuvre, which also included such titles as Physical Defects of Men, Greek Children’s Games, Lives of Famous Prostitutes, and a dictionary that contained only terms of abuse. The twenty books of the Playground of Names and Languages culminated in a series of biographies of

Fragments survive, most of them rather short (like Passienus Crispus) but some of them still pretty long. They are now available at LacusCurtius: go here, or use one of the links above. You can find both the Latin texts and the Loeb translation.