Though it’s a brief quote, a very brief quote, there’s quite a bit to unpack here. First, note that the quote appears in Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar which was published in 1599. However, Julius Caesar actually died over 1600 years earlier on March 15th (the ides of March), 44 BC. As Shakespeare portrays it, the quote was the last words of Julius Caesar after he was assassinated by the Roman senate. In the stage play, the notes read “They stab Caesar, Casca first, Brutus last” and then Caesar utters the famous words (directed at Brutus who made the final, fatal stab):
CAESAR Et tu, Brute?
Shakespeare, Julius Caesar 3.1.77
In the play, Julius Caesar is warned by his wife not to go to the senate that day after being given a vision or warning about the ensuing assassination (a mystic told her vaguely “beware the ides of march”). Caesar initially dismisses her concerns before ultimately caving to his wife’s requests. Unfortunately for Caesar, he would be summoned to the senate under the guise of an emergency where he was summarily executed by the Senate. However this is how the play portrays the events and yet begs the question, did these events actually happen?
Did Caesar Actually Say Et Tu Brute?
Probably not. This line was added for dramatic effect to the assassination of Julius Caesar (which certainly did take place). However the quote was not a pure invention by the poet, and Shakespeare did in fact attempt some level of historical research about the incident. Shakespeare cites the Roman Historian Suetonius whose account of the incident states that Caesar: “thus he was stabbed with twenty-three wounds” and ultimately, while Brutus was surging toward him with his knife, said ‘you too, son.’
A full account, tracing the historical roots of the quotes comes from Cambridge University Press’ Ioannis Ziogas who writes a full account of the quote and its relationship to the actual history of the phrase. The actual wording that Suetonius uses is actually a call back to the words Augustus used when he spoke to a young Suetonius “Augustus pinched his cheek and said: ‘You too, son, will take a bite of my rule.’
Subsequent authors then are left to realize that the phrase must therefore have been a common proverb used at the time. The article above also notes that one cannot omit the importance of prophecy used throughout the Shakespearean account as well as in historical accounts.
How did Caesar Actually Die?
As stated above, Shakespeare’s account of the events, though overdramatized, was more or less accurate. Julius Caesar was assassinated by 40 Roman Senators. The attack was initially planned and perpetrated by four key historical figures including Marcus Brutus for whom the quote is directed the other three are Gaius Cassius Longinus, Decimus Brutus Albinus, and Gaius Trebonius).
However, it’s also important to note that the selection of the assassination of Julius Caesar as a subject worthy of one of the most famous plays of all time was a good one by William Shakespeare. Not only was it indeed a major event in the history of the Roman Empire but was also, arguably, one of the most important events in the history of democracy. The libertarian podcaster and self-described amateur historian (though he does have a degree in History), Dan Carlin noted how the fall of the Roman Empire (in his opinion) was attributed to the view “if one just breaks the rules this one time.”