Ancient Greek Wednesday and a the phrase has been gnawing at me for some time now, so it is time to release it and have it chew on someone else.
Καὶ σύ, τέκνον;
Even you, child?
¿Incluso tu, hijo?
Ah, I know what you must be thinking: ‘Caesar’s famous last words in Greek?’ But alas, Caesar did utter them in Ancient Greek, the language of the court in Rome. There had been multiple debates in the Roman Senate about this very fact, whether it was proper to speak Greek in a house whose language was Latin. Cato the Elder, as a populist, was a huge defender of Latin becoming the de facto language of the Roman Senate. He, reputedly, hated the Greeks and anything Greek, and said that he would learn the language solely for the purpose of having it taught to his kids by a Roman, himself. Although Cato lived in the 3rd and 2nd centuries, by the time Caesar was murdered (44 BCE) the practice of speaking Greek in court had decreased significantly, if not stopped altogether – many writers express surprise at how well Caesar could read and write Greek.
Part of the reason for that was the influx of provincials from Italy unto the ranks of the senate and the general populace of Rome. These provincials, conservative as they were, and non-members of the elite, sought to nationalize the language of Rome and decrease the importance of Greece and its teachers amongst the patrician elite. A curious byproduct of the non-Greek movement was the reduction of historical works on Greece towards the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire, something quite regrettable when Roman history proper had been initiated by Greek-speaking historians. By the time the last true Caesar (last true descendant anyway), T. Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus rolled around, his speaking of Greek in court was seen by the senate as a mark of madness; only 100 years after G. Julius Caesar! Thus, Ancient Greek was spoken in Rome and in its senate during the Republic, but by the time the Caesares were dead (Nero was the last of the Julio-Claudian emperors) the language had been lost. There was a revival, however, during the Pax Romana, amongst the elite – again. If you have ever read Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius, you have read a text translated from Ancient Greek, not Latin. The title of the text in Greek is Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν (things to himself); also latinized, as Caesar’s phrase, on the presumption that Romans speaking Ancient Greek was weird.
This is why a love Shakespeare rendering of Caesar’s phrase in French (“Et tu, Brute?”) in his Play Julius Caesar. If you had to tell an English-speaking audience not familiar with Greek or Latin that Caesar spoke in a different language when he uttered his famous phrase, how would you do it? Voila! French! It is a fantastic historical tidbit from the greatest historical playwright. I hope you have taken a look at some of Shakespeare’s Greek plays, they are fascinating. Sometimes, in recondite corners, I argue that Shakespeare was the first Classicist. It is something I can only say in whispers (or in writing), many people get upset; Classicists and Shakespearean Historians alike.
Interpretations of the phrase by G. Julius Caesar are varied and convoluted. Suffice it so say, as I have mentioned in the past, that τἐκνον was a term used in Ancient Greek to refer to a child not grown. Was Caesar insulting Brutus in this last statement by calling him a child? Probably not. Caesar was thinking with this Latin mind, of course, and putting into Greek the literal meaning of the Latin ‘filius.’ To a Roman, children were more cognizant than to the Greeks. Roman babies were named much more quickly because they had patronymics from the mother and father lines. They were also given generic names like Gaius, Secundus, Sextus, Maximus, Decimus, etc. Thus, Caesar was not thinking of the Greek meaning, but of the Roman one. Brutus was adopted, and thus considered a biological son to Caesar, thus the dying man was free to use the word which literally meant ‘that which I have made.’ Even in death, even after Brutus had plunged a knife in him, Caesar called him son, and meant it.
So next time you think of Caesar, think of Ancient Greek, of Latin, of Shakespeare, of English and French; think of parents and sons, of relationships of love and trust, and of betrayal and misfortune. Think like the Ancients, reader; and discover a whole new meaning to their words.