Many years ago when I did the unit Ciceronian Rome I recall proffesor Hilard likening Plutarchs life of Brutus to a hagiography (loosely translated it means life of a holy person, a sub-genre of biography meant to extoll the virtues of its subject, usually to an extreme degree). No section demonstrates his point more, at least to me than Putarchs account of Brutus’s destruction of the city on Xanthus:
“Brutus, on the other hand [as opposed to Cassius, Pollox to Brutus’s Castor as the twin gods of libertas], demanded money and troops from the people of Lycia [civil wars be expensive]. Naucrates, the popular leader, responded by persuading the cities to revolt…………he [Brutus] forced the most warlike of them to take refuge in the city of Xanthus, and then beseiged it……………After this the Xanthians made a sortie at night and set fire to some of the seige-engines, but they were seen by the Romans and forced back to the walls. Then, when a strong wind began to blow the flames back towards the battlements and some of the adjoining houses caught fire, Brutus, who was afraid that the whole city would be destroyed, ordered his men to help put out the blaze.
However the Lycians were suddenly seized with a terrible and indescribable [the word your looking for here Plutarch is incomprehensible, because you know your explanation doesn’t make sense] mood of despair, which can best be defined as a passionate longing for death. Every inhabitant of the city, women and children, free men and slaves, people of every age and condition hurled missiles from the walls at the Romans[ almost as if they were being besieged by them or something…..], as they struggled to help the citizens to overcome the flames; and meanwhile the Xanthians with thier own hands brought up reeds, wood, and every kind of inflammable material and so spread the fire throughout the city, feeding it with all the fuel they could find and doing everything possible to increase the strength and fury of the conflagration. As the fire rushed onwards, encircled the city on every side, and wrapped it in a sheet of flame, Brutus in deep distress rode round the walls, and in his eagerness to help [himself to the town treasury] implored the Xanthians with outstretched hands to spare themselves and save their city. Not a soul listened to him, but men and women alike sought only for the means to destroy themselves, so that even the little children with cries and shrieks leaped into the flames or flung themselves headlong from the walls, or offered themselves up to thier fathers swords, baring thier throats and begging them to strike[ Everyone’s a critic eh Brutus? chin up old boy I’m sure not everyone wants to kill themselves when you start speaking]…………..he [who else but the worlds best motivational speaker…..] also proclaimed that a reward would be given to any soldier who succeeded in saving a Lycian. All but one hundred and fifty, we are told[ these three words being the key to this whole story], escaped the Romans’ efforts to save them[ for the slave market]. So it came about, after a long lapse of time, that the Xanthians had the courage to repeat the disaster which thier ancestors had suffered, as though they were fulfilling some predestined cycle of destruction: for the same people in the time of the Persian Empire had likewise burned down thier city and destroyed themselves.
Soon afterwards, when Brutus found that the city of Patara was offering a stout resistance to him, he hesitated to attack it and was at a loss what to do next, for fear that the people might be seized by the same frenzy as the Xanthians[ you know and kill themselves before we can kill them, no fun that way, also apparently mass suicide is contageous now and Brutus’s army is the carrier, funny that.].” – Plutarch, life of Brutus, 30-32.
……….So the whole community (the non-Xanthian lycian rebels presumably joined in out of a sense of politeness to thier hosts) spent a couple of centuries building up the courage to collectively kill themselves, took them a while, life must just have been a touch too alluring before Brutus extolled it’s virtues. So apparently the best explanation for events is a long delayed but inevitable repitition of a dubious strory from herodotus, I’ve heard of history repeating but not this literally…….historians however they literally (and literarially….) repeat all the time, apparently sometimes when the truth is awkward. Well Herodotus, you may be known as the father of history and the father of lies but don’t you worry for imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (I think that is still the case when whats imitated is insincerity………) and the kids are doing you proud!
Anyway I hope the likely truth of what happened at Xanthus is plain from the above but in case it needs to be hammered home, it is not unusual for citizens and soldiers in ancient times to you know seek to repulse an attempt by a BESEIGING ARMY to enter the city/approach the battlements in force, indeed it’s pretty much the go to response even if said beseiger asked really nicely and insisted they were here to help (liberate us from our gold) which I very much doubt they did. That a fire broke out during hostilities and spread to the city is about the only believable part of this story, that stuff happened and often the besiging army would seek to take advantage of such a distraction/hinderance by launching an attack, a massacre of the populace would then ensue. That is what is probably going on here but in a particularly clumsy attempt to avoid tarnishing Saint Brutus with involvement in a massacre we have this ridiculous story, which to me doesn’t actually make Brutus look compassionate and merciful, just bipolar and a bit nuts. He is beseiging them, they are his enemy, he has had his soldiers kill them before and will order mass killing again, yet one day he sees an oppurtunity for victory and decides that he now runs the local, somewhat numerous heavily armed fire department………..Finally it is interesting to note that during incidents like the “mass suicide” at Xanthus and Cassius’s sack of Rhodes (when Cassius a mere demi-god to Brutus’s full deity of libertas massacres people no-one calls it a spontaneous mass-suicide bonfire party, don’t worry Cassius no-one ever invites me to those either) the so-called liberators would have killed many times more people than the triumvirs in thier infamous proscriptions, yet unlike them are seldom called on it. but then they killed rich and aristocratic Romans and worse……confiscated thier property (gasp!) whereas the libertors just happened to be in the neighbourhood when the local subjects drank the coolaid.