10/04/2013 07:53 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

E tu, Angelino?

Silvio Berlusconi, the longtime strongman of the Italian right, has been brought down -- at the age of 77, probably for good. Some observers express surprise at the man who held the dagger, but they really shouldn't. Any reader of Shakespeare could have predicted it.

One of Berlusconi's closest supporters turned on him -- a younger man, and one so close to the boss that Berlusconi often called him his son. 'Twas ever thus. The overbearing leader sucks all the oxygen out of the room with the help of an apparently docile Number Two. Meanwhile, the deputy is just biding his time until he can push the old man out and take over. Caesar had his Brutus, and now Berlusconi has his Angelino, "the little angel."

Angelino Alfano, the 42-year-old deputy prime minister, was a longtime Berlusconi supporter. Berlusconi gave Alfano the important position of party secretary. He even referred to the younger man as his son. But when Berlusconi tried to bring down Italy's coalition government this week, Alfano bolted. He formed a splinter group that he describes as "differently Berlusconian."

Berlusconi wanted a no-confidence vote against the government of Prime Minister Enrico Letta with elections following. It would have been a dramatic power play for the faltering Berlusconi but Alfano cut the scene short. Instead of supporting Berlusconi, Alfano and his group forced a humiliating about-face on their leader. They provided the margin of victory for the Letta government, which won a confidence vote yesterday. Berlusconi was forced to join in, with self-described "anguish."

Alfano's betrayal came at a time when Berlusconi was already reeling. The former Prime Minister was convicted of tax-fraud in August. On October 15 he has to begin a year's term of either house arrest or community service. Meanwhile, he faces a ban from public office of one to three years and is likely to lose his seat in the Italian Senate.

"Keep your friends close but your enemies even closer," as The Godfather says, might be the morale of the story, but an Italian proverb puts it better: "God protect me from my friends -- my enemies I can take care of myself."

Berlusconi likes to be called Il Cavaliere, the Knight, a title he enjoys as a member of Italy's Order of Merit for Labor. After years of being a pawn, Alfano has, it seems, moved up to kingmaker.

But Alfano will not rest easy if he reads his Shakespeare. After getting rid of Caesar, Brutus was forced to fall on his own sword. It turned out that the very qualities that made Brutus a good Number Two disqualified him from the top position. He had the conscience and humanity of a follower, not the ruthlessness and self-confidence of a leader. Brutus was the noblest Roman of them all but it took the hardnosed and bloodthirsty Octavian to succeed Caesar.

If Alfano wants not merely to defeat but to lead, he will have to play a very different character in the next act.

Barry Strauss teaches history at Cornell. He is writing a book on the death of Caesar.