Marcus Junius Brutus
(85 BC-42 BC)

Brutus & Horace

Reflections after Reading Pinsky's
An Explanation of America

Notes by Peter Y. Chou

Quintus Horatius Flaccus
(65 BC-8 BC)

Preface: Robert Pinsky was kind enough to let me in his class "The Occasions of Poetry" on Wednesday, January 10, 2007. I've not read much of his poems, except glancing through some of his translation of Dante's Inferno. So browsing through the Stanford stacks, I came across his book An Explanation of America (1979). What an interesting title! I've been trying to do this myself in my poem "Dove of Discovery". When I realized that Columba is the Latin word for dove, all sorts of images flooded my mind— Noah, Christ, Jason and the Argonauts, discovery of America by Columbus, the District of Columbia with possibly Lady Columbia on top of the Capitol Building, Founding Fathers at Columbia University who were Freemasons, Emily Dickinson's "My brave Columba". I was curious to see whether Pinsky was aware of the dove symbol to America, and was disappointed in not finding any. However I was profoundly disturbed to learn about two figures in Roman history— Horace, the Roman poet whom I admire deeply, and Brutus, one of Julius Caesars assassins, whom I loathed as a traitor. This was especially true after seeing Joseph Mankiewicz's film Cleopatra last month at the Stanford Theatre, when Rex Harrison, playing Caesar was repeated stabbed by Brutus and others on the Ides of March 44 B.C. Brutus as portrayed in the film appeared a slimy character indeed. I wondered why Pinsky portrayed Brutus in a more favorable light. Is a poet's version more accurate than that of a film director? I want to expand my knowledge on the historical Brutus and Horace. Below is my 8-hour research for today in the Stanford stacks.

— Peter Y. Chou,, 1-14-2007

Robert Pinsky, An Explanation of America,
Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1979
Part Two: Its Great Emptiness (pp. 36-40)

Stanzas 5-12, 15 of 16-stanzas poem cited below:

IV. Filling the Blank

On March, when Horace, not quite twenty-one,
Was still at Athens, Julius Caesar died,
And the Roman world was split by civil war.

When Brutus came to Athens late that summer
On his way to Asia Minor—"half-mystical,
Wholly romantic Brutus"— Horace quit school
To follow Brutus to Asia, bearing the title
Or brevet-commission tribunus militum,
And served on the staff of the patriot-assassin.

Time passed; the father died; the property
And business were lost, or confiscated.
The son saw action at Philippi, where,
Along with other enthusiastic students
(Cicero's son among them), and ten of thousands
In the two largest armies of Roman soldiers
Ever to fight with one another, he shared
In the republican army's final rout
By Antony and Octavian.

                                            Plutarch says
That Brutus, just before he killed himself,
Speaking in Greek to an old fellow-student,
Said that although he was angry for his country
He was deeply happy for himself— because
His virtue and his repute for virtue were founded
In a way none of the conquerors could hope,
For all their arms and riches, to emulate;
Nor could they hinder posterity from knowing,
And saying, that they were unjust and wicked men
Who had destroyed justice and the Republic,
Usurping a power to which they had no right.

The corpse of Brutus was found by Antony,
And he commanded the richest purple mantle
In his possession to be thrown over it,
And afterwards, the mantle being stolen,
He found the thief and had him put to death;
The ashes of Brutus he sent back to Rome,
To be received with honor by the mourners.

Horace came back to Rome a pardoned rebel
In his late twenties, without cash or prospects,
Having stretched out his wings too far beyond
The frail nest of his freedom father's hopes,
As he has written.

                                When he was thirty-five,
He published some poems which some people praised,
And so through Vergil he met the Roman knight
And good friend of Augustus, called Maecenas,
Who befriended him, and gave him the Sabine farm;
And in that place, and in the highest circles
In Rome itself, he spent his time, and wrote.

Since aspirations need not (some say, should not)
Be likely, should I wish for you to be
A hero, like Brutus— who at the finish line
Declared himself to be a happy man?
Or is the right wish health, the just proportion
Of sun, the acorns and cold pure water, a nest
Out in the country and a place in Rome ...

                                And who can say
What Brutus may come sweeping through your twenties—
Given the taste you have for noble speeches,
For causes lost and glamourous and just.

What surprised me in Pinsky's poem was that Horace joined Brutus, the traitor, to Asia. And so did Cicero's son! One of my favorite quotes is from Horace: "Be bold— and venture to be wise." I've taken this maxim to guide my life when I was in college, and linked it to one of my wisdom stories— The Boldness of Huh Saeng. Horace's Ars Poetica emphasized clarity, unity, and vigor in a work of art. The "Ars Poetica" and its Tradition is the subject of a book by O. B. Hardison, Jr. & Leon Golden Horace for Students of Literature (1995). Poets influenced by Horace include Alexander Pope's Essay on CriticismThe Progress of Poesy (1757), George Lord Byron's Hints from Horace (1811), Tennyson's The Palace of the Arts (1832), Paul Verlain's Ars poétique (1874), and Wallace Stevens's Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction (1942). I've alway admired Cicero and his cosmic vision in his The Dream of Scipio. How could his son educated by such an enlightened father join the brigade of Brutus along with Horace? Dante had included Horace as having "earned Heaven's grace" (Inferno IV.78) while Brutus was tossed into the deepest Hell (Inferno XXXIV.61-69). Here's Dante's account of Horace among the four master poets of ancient times when he was accompanied by Vergil (Inferno IV.88-90):

That shade is Homer, the consummate poet;
the other one is Horace, satirist;
the third is Ovid, and the last is Lucan.

Dante's portrays Brutus as three of the world's greatest villians— Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius— being tortured in Hell by Satan. (Inferno XXXIV.88-90):

That soul up there who has to suffer most,"
my master said: "Judas Iscariot—
his head inside, he jerks his legs without.
Of those two others, with their heads beneath,
the one who hangs from that black snout is Brutus—
see how he writhes and does not say a word!
That other, who seems so robust, is Cassius.
But night is come again, and it is time
for us to leave; we have seen everything.

Pinsky wrote An Explanation of America in 1979 and translated Dante's Inferno in 1994. I'm excited to read his commentary on these two Roman figures in his The Inferno of Dante. I find a copy of his book in the Stanford stacks [PQ4315.2P47.1994]. Turning to Pinsky's Notes in the back of the book (p. 383), he mentions that Dante could not read Greek, so his knowledge of Homer was through translations. He cites the works of the three Latin poets— Horace (Epistles, Ars Poetica, Satires, Odes), Ovid (Metamorphoses), Lucan (Pharsalia). Pinsky's comments on Inferno XXXIV.65-66: "In 44 B.C., Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longus conspired to kill Julius Caesar. Their crime was seen in the Middle Ages as an offense not only to the murderers' great benefactor, but to the progress and history of the Roman Empire and the Church." (p. 426)

Dorothy Sayers in her translation of Dante's Divine Comedy: Hell (1949) has more to say on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius: "Judas, obviously enough, is the image of the betrayal of God. To us, with our minds dominated by Shakespeare and by "democratic" ideas, the presence here of Brutus and Cassius needs some explanation. To understand it, we must get rid of all political notions in the narrow sense. We should notice, first, that Dante's attitude to Julius Caesar is ambivalent. Personally, as a pagan, Julius is in Limbo (Inferno IV.123). Politically, his rise to power involved the making of civil war, and Curio, who advised him to cross the Rubicon, is in the Eighth Circle of Hell (Inferno XXVIII.97-102). But, although Julius was never actually Emperor, he was the founder of the Roman Empire, and by his function, therefore, he images that institution which, in Dante's view, was divinely appointed to govern the world. Thus Brutus and Cassius, by their breach of sworn allegiance to Caesar, were Traitors to the Empire, i.e., to World-order. Consequently, just as Judas figures treason against God, so Brutus and Cassius figure treason against Man-in-Society; or we may say that we have here the image of treason against the Divine and the Secular government of the world." (p. 289) [PQ4315.S32.1964v.1]

Charles Singleton commentary on Brutus's life in Inferno XXXIV.65 Bruto:
    "Marcus Junius Brutus (ca. 85-42 B.C.), the so-called tyrannicide. As a young man, he was known for his devotion to the ideals of the Roman republic and for his personal honesty. When the civil war broke out in 49 B.C., he sided with Pompey, even though Pompey was responsible for the death of his father. After the battle of Pharsalia (48 B.C.), in which Pompey was defeated, Brutus was pardoned by Caesar and admitted into confidence and favor; he was made governor of Cisalpine Gaul (46 B.C.) and then praetor (44 B.C.). But in spite of his obligations to Caesar, he was persuaded by Cassius to murder him for the good of the republic. After Caesar's death, Brutus remained for a time in Italy, and then went to Greece and Asia Minor, where he joined forces which Cassius, who commanded in Syria, to oppose Caesar's heir, Octavian (afterward called Augustus), and Antony. In 42 B.C. two battles were fought in the neighborhood of Philippi in Macedonia. In the first, Brutus was victorious over Octavian, though Cassius was defeated; but in the second, Brutus was defeated and he put an end to his own life. [PQ4302.F70.v.1PT.2]

Charles Singleton's commentary on Brutus in Hell is quite discerning.
    Inferno XXXIV.66— e non fa motto [Brutus writhes without a word]:
With this touch Dante has allowed the Roman Brutus a certain dignity. See the description of Jason as "that great one who comes there, and who does not seem to shed a tear for pain" in Inferno XVIII.83-84.

Had I read Pinsky's account of Horace and Brutus in a historical novel, I may suspect the fiction writer's tinkering with facts with fantasy. But a poet must be truthful, so I wanted to find the sources that prompted Pinsky's poem. Since Pinsky mentions Plutarch's account of Brutus, I trust this source since Plutarch (46-127 A.D.) was the last Priest at the Oracle at Delphi, and I consider him an enlighened sage who understood the Eleusian Mysteries. I eagerly looked up Plutarch's Makers of Rome (translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert, 1965) [DG260.A1P53]. In Plutarch's Nine Lives of Famous Romans, he has a chapter on Brutus (pp. 223-270). I found the story of Antony's respect for Brutus: "When Antony found Brutus's body, he ordered it to be wrapped in the most costly of his scarlet cloaks, and afterwards when he discovered that the garment had been stolen, he had the thief put to death. The ashes he sent home to Servilia, Brutus's mother. As for Porcia, Brutus's wife, both Nicolaüs the philosopher and Valerius Maximus tell the story that she now longed to end her life, but was prevented by her friends who sat with her and continually watched her. So she contrived to snatch up some live coals from the fire and swallowed them, keeping her mouth closed, and so suffocated herself and died." (p. 269)
    Plutarch on Brutus after his assassination of Caesar: "After leaving Velia Brutus sailed to Athens, where he was received with great enthusiasm by the people and granted various public honors... he rallied to his cause all the young Romans who were studying in Athens. One of these was Cicero's son, whom he praised in enthusiastic terms, saying that whether awake or dreaming, he could not but admire a man who displayed such a noble spirit and such a detestation of tyranny." (p. 244)

The reference to Maecenas's friendship to Horace in Pinsky poem may be found in The Life of Horace by the Roman historian Suetonius (69-130 A.D.):
"In the fighting at Philippi, Horace served as military tribune when called upon by the leader Marcus Brutus, and after his side was defeated he was pardoned and obtained the position of clerk to the questors. He was then introduced to Maecenas and subsequently to Augustus, and held high place amongst the friends of both. How dearly Maecenas loved him is clear from the well-known epigram: "If I don't love you, Horace, more than my own life, may your friend look no better than a skinny mule!" But he spoke out much more strongly to Augustus in his last will and testament: "Remember Horatius Flaccus as you will myself." (from Horace The Complete Odes and Epodes, translated by W.G. Shepherd, 1983, pp. 194-195) [PA6394.S5.1983]

Pat Southern, Mark Antony (1998) [DG260.A6.S68.1998]
    "After the victory [Philippi Second Battle, November 42 B.C.], Brutus' body was brought to Antony's camp. He covered the corpse with his own cloak and ordered an honorably funeral for him. Octavian demanded that Brutus' head should be cut off and thrown down at the foot of Caesar's statue in Rome. In view of his treatment of Cicero, Antony was hardly in a position to refuse on ethical grounds, so Octavian had his wish. (p. 82)

M. L. Clarke, The Noblest Roman: Marcus Brutus and His Reputation (1981)
    On the Ides of March in 44 BC, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by a group of Roman nobles led by Marcus Brutus. The victim, Caesar, has an obvious appeal to posterity; he if anyone was a great man in the conventional sense. Yet Brutus, the 'noblest Roman of them all', the man of principle who killed his benefactor and whose action proved disastrous to himself and to Rome, is in some ways a more interesting character. Shakespeare at any rate thought so when he made him the dramatic hero of a play nominally about Julius Caesar.
    Shakespeare's Brutus is sensitive and scrupulous, an idealist who fails partly because of his very virtues. Others have seen him in a different light. Dante puts him with Judas Iscariot in the lowest circle of Inferno. In the 18th century he was looked up to as the heroic champion of freedom and was admireed as a model of ancient virtue, to be classed with Cato, and even with Socrates. In Gulliver's Travels, when Brutus is called up from the dead, Gulliver sees in his countenance 'the most consummate Virtue, the greatest Intrepidity, and Firmness of Mind, the truest Love of his Country, and general Benevolence for Mankind'. Yet this was the man who was almost universally depreciated in the 19th century. His critics could not forgive his extortionate money-lending in Cyprus; they condemned him as weak, obstinate, self-righteous. When a man has been so variously judged it is unlikely that any assessment can claim finality. For like other major figures from antiquity, Brutus has had a posthumous life, and this is part of history no less than the life which ended at Philippi in 42 B.C. (p. 7) [DG260.B83.C53]

Pinsky's poem relating to Horace and Brutus led me to explore further on these two Roman figures from antiquity. Now, I trust Pinsky's version more than that portrayed by Mankiewicz in his film. What a blessing to have a computer workspace in the Classics Room at Stanford Green Library! Books on literature and philosophy are just paces away. I find answers in them faster than searching in Google. After typing up the notes on Brutus and Horace from books in the Stanford stacks, I returned again to Pinsky's poem An Explanation of America. After reading about the simple and humble Jefferson's epitaph (pp. 53-54), I found an even more inspiring one on page 55:

Part Three: Its Everlasting Possibility
III. Mysteries of the Future

To speak words few enough to fit a stone,
And frame them as if speaking from the past
Into the void or mystery of the future,
Demands that we be naked, free, and final:

      God wills us free, man wills us slaves.
      I will as God wills Gods will be done.
                    Here lies the body of
                          JOHN JACK
              A native of Africa who died
      MARCH 1773 aged about 60 years

      Tho' born in a land of slavery,
      He was born free,
      Tho' he lived in a land of liberty,
      He lived a slave,
      Till by his honest, tho' stolen labors,
      He acquired the source of slavery,
      Which gave him his freedom,
      Tho' not long before
      Death the Grand Tyrant
      Gave him his final emancipation,
      And set him on a footing with kings.
      Tho' a slave to vice,
      He practiced those virtues
      Without which kings are but slaves.

I'm glad to have read Pinsky's An Explanation of America.
Surely this is one tombstone worthy of contemplation...
printed on page 55, the number of the Platonic Lambda
which Plato calls the "Soul of the Universe" (Timaeus 35b).

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