VIII

MARCH 9, 44 B.C.

PORCIA’S SECRET

Brutus’s wife, Porcia, was the daughter of the famous orator Marcus Porcius Cato, known to later generations as Cato the Younger. Brutus’s mother, Servilia, was Cato’s half-sister, which made Brutus and Porcia cousins. Porcia had been wed once before, marrying very young to a much older man. Porcia’s first husband, Marcus Bibulus, commanding admiral of republican naval forces and a bitter enemy of Julius Caesar, had died in 48 B.C. during the Civil War, but not before giving her a son, the now young adult Lucius Bibulus.

Porcia’s second marriage, to the handsome, erudite Brutus, had been a true love match. She was, said Plutarch, “a great lover of her husband.” Usually, Brutus shared everything with his devoted wife, and his failure to communicate the cause of his troubled sleep worried and hurt her. Porcia was a thoroughly educated and well-read woman, addicted to the works of the great philosophers. Influenced by those learned men and by the example of her famous father, she had decided to do something to prove to her husband that he could trust her with the secret that was obviously burdening his mind.¹

As Brutus was about to leave their house that morning, Porcia asked to speak with him in private. The servants were sent out; then, according to Plutarch, Porcia said, “Brutus, being the daughter of Cato, I was given to you in marriage not like a concubine to partake only in the common intercourse of bed and board, but to bear a part of all your fortune, good and bad.” A perplexed Brutus agreed that was indeed the case. That being so, said Porcia, what evidence of her love for him could he receive if he would not allow her to share his “hidden griefs” nor to be “admitted to any of your counsels that require secrecy and trust”?²

Brutus would have been suddenly alarmed. What did his wife know?

“I know very well that women seem to be of too weak a nature to be trusted with secrets,” Porcia went on. But, she said, she was the daughter of Cato and the wife of Brutus. She was the product of a virtuous birth and an excellent education, and had mixed in the company of Rome’s good and honorable elite. To prove that she had what it took to keep a secret, no matter how painful, she now confided to Brutus, she had put herself to the test, and could positively assert that she had defied pain to keep a secret of her own.³

Brutus was half in dread that his wife somehow knew his murderous secret. Perhaps he had talked in his sleep. The other half of him was bewildered as he attempted to fathom what Porcia may have done. Now Porcia revealed her secret. Several days before, she had taken a small knife, the kind commonly used by Roman ladies to trim their fingernails, and had plunged it into the flesh of her thigh.

The wound Porcia created was deep; blood flowed freely, and the pain was intense. Methodically, Porcia had stanched the flow of blood with a bandage, but before long she was overcome by a fever that had her shivering. It had taken all her strength to control the shivers and to bear the pain. But for days she had kept the secret of her self-inflicted wound from both her husband and her staff. Plutarch was to write that Brutus was astonished at his wife’s confession. Thinking he did not believe her, Porcia raised her dress to show him the wound in her thigh. Lifting his hands to heaven, Brutus “begged the assistance of the gods in his enterprise, that he might show himself a husband worthy of such a wife as Porcia.”

None of the conspirators had sought or given a sacred oath to keep the plot to themselves, but all had agreed that their security depended on refraining from speaking of it to anyone other than confirmed conspirators, and even then in circumstances that ensured no one overheard them. Not one of them had told their wives about the plot. But now Brutus, embracing his wife and congratulating her on her courage, confided his secret to her. Porcia became the only wife of a conspirator who knew about the plan to murder Caesar, and she swore to her husband that she would keep the secret as soundly as she had kept the secret of her self-inflicted stab wound.

That day, the Salii priests repeated their leaping, dancing, and chanting through the streets of Rome, then sat down to another sumptuous feast, as tradition required them to do. They would repeat the ritual for a third time that month, on the twenty-third day of March. During the day, too, Brutus met with several confederates and discussed the finer details of the plan they intended executing in just six days’ time. A number of conspirators wanted to approach Mark Antony and bring him into the plot. It must have been obvious to many senators that Antony’s relationship with Caesar, while repaired over the past few months, was not on a particularly strong footing, and that Antony seemed to be dissatisfied with having to play second fiddle to Lepidus.

The idea of recruiting Antony was knocked on the head by Trebonius. He was close to Antony; so close that, when word had reached Rome the previous October that Caesar was approaching Rome on his way back from Spain, Trebonius and Antony had set off together to meet the Dictator, and the pair had shared accommodation at roadside inns after each leg of the journey north. As Trebonius revealed to Brutus and Cassius, by that time, even before Caesar returned to Rome and was made Dictator for life, Trebonius was himself already thinking seriously about assassinating his leader. And in the privacy of their shared lodgings, Trebonius had dropped hints to Antony about combining to overthrow Caesar. Trebonius had been convinced that Antony “very well understood him,” but Antony “did not encourage” him to take what he was proposing further. “However, he [Antony] had said nothing about it to Caesar, but kept the secret faithfully.”

If Antony was not to join them, several conspirators said, then they must also kill him at the same time that Caesar was struck down. This idea rapidly caught on, until it came to Brutus’s ears. Brutus was quick to snuff it out. As he reminded his colleagues, the justification for murdering Caesar was that he had become a tyrant, and they were on the side of right because they were defending Rome’s ancient laws, upon which Caesar had trampled. “Tyrannicide,” the murder of a tyrannical leader, was not a crime under Roman law. But if they also killed Antony, it would look for all the world as if the conspirators’ actual motive was revenge against Caesar and Antony for defeating Pompey. Brutus’s view prevailed, and Antony’s life was preserved, with unimagined consequences.

With Antony to be spared, it was agreed that it would pay the conspirators to physically separate him from Caesar on the day of the assassination. Antony was a man “whose bodily strength and high office made him formidable.” As an experienced soldier and powerfully built individual, Antony might succeed in defending Caesar, or in killing several of his assailants. Furthermore, as Caesar’s co-consul, his presence beside the Dictator might deter some senators from striking Caesar, or he might rally others to his defense. Someone Antony knew and trusted would have to detain him in conversation outside the Senate building on the Ides of March as Caesar was entering. Antony needed delaying just long enough for the other conspirators to strike down Caesar inside the meeting hall. This task was delegated to Antony’s friend Decimus Brutus Albinus.

Marcus Brutus discussed and agreed on these life-and-death matters knowing that his wife, alone among all the wives of the conspirators, was fully conversant with the plot to murder Caesar. While Brutus trusted Porcia implicitly, he did not tell Cassius or any of the others that Porcia knew. It must be remembered that most Roman men, even the most enlightened, felt that women were inferior, fickle, empty-headed, and untrustworthy beings. For Brutus to reveal that a woman was privy to their life-and-death secret might have been enough to panic some of his fellow plotters into doing something that would endanger the plot, and endanger the lives of them all.

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