Gaius Julius Caesar

Gaius Julius Caesar was born on July 13, 100 BC in Rome. He was a celebrated Roman general and statesman. Among his accomplishments he conquered Gaul (58-50 BC), he won a victory in the Civil War of 49-46 BC, and was dictator from 46-44 BC. He changed the Roman republic into a monarchy and a truly Mediterranean empire. He was launching a series of political and social reforms when he was assassinated by a group of nobles, as he was on his way to Pompey's Theater where the Senate convened. The day was March 15, 44 B.C. which is known as 'The Ides of March'.

Caesar changed the course of the history of the Greco-Roman world decisively and irreversibly. The Greco-Roman society has been extinct for so long that most of the names of its great men mean little to the average, educated modern man. Even people who know nothing of Caesar as a historic personality are familiar with his family name.

A Roman noble won distinction for himself and his family by securing election to a series of public offices, which culminated in the consulship, with the censorship possibly to follow. This was a difficult task for even the ablest and most gifted noble unless he was backed by substantial family wealth and influence.

The date of Caesar the dictator’s birth has long been disputed. The day was July 12 or 13; the traditional year is 100; but if this date is correct, Caesar must have held each of his offices two years in advance of the legal minimum age. His father, Gaius Caesar, died when Caesar was but 16; his mother, Aurelia, was a notable woman, and it seems certain that he owed much to her.

In spite of the inadequacy of his resources, Caesar seems to have chosen a political career as a matter of course. From the beginning, he probably privately aimed at winning office, not just for the sake of the honours but in order to achieve the power to put the misgoverned Roman state and Greco-Roman world into better order in accordance with ideas of his own. It is improbable that Caesar deliberately sought monarchical power until after he had crossed the Rubicon in 49, though sufficient power to impose his will, as he was determined to do, proved to mean monarchical power.

In 84 Caesar committed himself publicly to the radical side by marrying Cornelia, a daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, a noble who was Marius’ associate in revolution. In 83 Lucius Cornelius Sulla returned to Italy from the East and led the successful counter-revolution of 83-82; Sulla then ordered Caesar to divorce Cornelia. Caesar refused and came close to losing not only his property but his life as well. He found it advisable to remove himself from Italy and to do military service, first in the province of Asia and then in Cilicia.

In 78, after Sulla’s death, he returned to Rome and started on his political career in the conventional way, by acting as a prosecuting advocate, in his case, against prominent Sullan counter-revolutionaries. His first target, Gnaeus Cornelius Dolabella, was defended by Quintus Hortensius, the leading advocate of the day, and was acquitted by the extortion-court jury, composed exclusively of senators.

Caesar then went to Rhodes to study oratory under a famous professor, Molon. On route pirates captured him. Caesar raised his ransom, raised a naval force, captured his captors, and had them crucified and all this as a private individual holding no public office. In 74, when Mithradates VI Eupator, king of Pontus, renewed war on the Romans, Caesar raised a private army to combat him.

In his absence from Rome, Caesar was made a member of the politico-ecclesiastical college of pontifices; and on his return he gained one of the elective military tribuneships. Caesar now worked to undo the Sullan constitution in cooperation with Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius), who had started his career as a lieutenant of Sulla but had changed sides since Sulla’s death.

In 69 or 68 Caesar was elected quaestor (the first rung on the Roman political ladder). In the same year his wife, Cornelia, and his aunt Julia, Marius’ widow, died; in public funeral orations in their honor, Caesar found opportunities for praising Cinna and Marius. Caesar afterward married Pompeia, a distant relative of Pompey. Caesar served his questorship in the province of Farther Spain.

Caesar was elected one of the curule aediles for 65, and he celebrated his tenure of this office by unusually lavish expenditure with borrowed money. He was elected pontifex maximus in 63 by a political dodge. By now he had become a controversial political figure.

After the suppression of Catiline’s conspiracy in 63, Caesar, as well as the millionaire Marcus Licinius Crassus, was accused of complicity. It seems unlikely that either of them had committed himself to Catiline; but Caesar proposed in the Senate a more merciful alternative to the death penalty, which the consul Cicero was asking for the arrested conspirators. In the uproar in the Senate, Caesar’s motion was defeated.

Caesar consequently divorced Pompeia. He obtained the governorship of Farther Spain for 61-60. His creditors did not let him leave Rome until Crassus had gone bail for a quarter of his debts; but a military expedition beyond the northwest frontier of his province enabled Caesar to win loot for himself as well as for his soldiers, with a balance left over for the treasury.

This partial financial recovery enabled him, after his return to Rome in 60, to stand for the consulship for 59. Early in 59, Pompey sealed his alliance with Caesar by marrying Caesar’s only child, Julia. Caesar married Calpurnia, daughter of Lucius Piso, who became consul in 58. As consul, Caesar introduced a bill for the allotment of Roman public lands in Italy, on which the first charge was to be a provision for Pompey’s soldiers.

Another act negotiated by Vatinius gave Caesar Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum. His tenure was to last until February 28, 54. When the governor-designate of Transalpine Gaul suddenly died, this province, also, was assigned to Caesar at Pompey’s instance. Cisalpine Gaul gave Caesar a military recruiting ground; Transalpine Gaul gave him a springboard for conquests beyond Rome’s northwest frontier.

Between 58 and 50, Caesar conquered the rest of Gaul up to the left bank of the Rhine and subjugated it so effectively that it remained passive under Roman rule throughout the Roman civil wars between 49 and 31.

This achievement was all the more amazing in light of the fact that the Romans did not possess any great superiority in military equipment over the north European barbarians. Indeed, the Gallic cavalry was probably superior to the Roman, horseman for horseman. Rome’s military superiority lay in its mastery of strategy, tactics, discipline, and military engineering.

In Gaul, Rome also had the advantage of being able to deal separately with dozens of relatively small, independent, and uncooperative states. Caesar conquered these piecemeal, and the concerted attempt made by a number of them in 52 to shake off the Roman yoke came too late.

This final achievement of Caesar’s looms much larger than his conquest of Gaul, when it is viewed in the wider setting of world history and not just in the narrower setting of the Greco-Roman civilization’s present daughter civilization in the West.

In 58 Rome’s northwestern frontier, established in 125, ran from the Alps down the left bank of the upper Rh?ne River to the Pyrenees, skirting the southeastern foot of the C?vennes and including the upper basin of the Garonne River without reaching the Gallic shore of the Atlantic.

In 58 Caesar intervened beyond this line, first to drive back the Helvetii, who had been migrating westward from their home in what is now central Switzerland. He then crushed Ariovistus, a German soldier of fortune from beyond the Rhine. In 57 Caesar subdued the distant and warlike Belgic group of Gallic peoples in the north, while his lieutenant Publius Licinius Crassus subdued what are now the regions of Normandy and Brittany.

In 56 the Veneti, in what is now southern Brittany, started a revolt in the northwest that was supported by the still unconquered Morini on the Gallic coast of the Straits of Dover and the Menapii along the south bank of the lower Rhine. Caesar reconquered the Veneti with some difficulty and treated them barbarously.

He could not finish off the conquest of the Morini and Menapii before the end of the campaigning season of 56; and in the winter of 56-55 the Menapii were temporarily expelled from their home by two immigrant German peoples, the Usipetes and Tencteri.

Caesar exterminated these people in 55. In the same year he bridged the Rhine just below Koblenz to raid Germany on the other side of the river, and then crossed the Channel to raid Britain. In 54 he raided Britain again and subdued a serious revolt in northeastern Gaul. In 53 he subdued further revolts in Gaul and bridged the Rhine again for a second raid.

The crisis of Caesar’s Gallic war came in 52. The peoples of central Gaul found a national leader in the Arvernian Vercingetorix. They planned to cut off the Roman forces from Caesar, who had been wintering on the other side of the Alps. They even attempted to invade the western end of the old Roman province of Gallia Transalpina. Vercingetorix wanted to avoid pitched battles and sieges and to defeat the Romans by cutting off their supplies--partly by cavalry operations and partly by “scorched earth"--but he could not persuade his countrymen to adopt this painful policy wholeheartedly.

The Bituriges insisted on standing siege in their town Avaricum (Bourges), and Vercingetorix was unable to save it from being taken by storm within one month. Caesar then besieged Vercingetorix in Gergovia near modern Clermont-Ferrand.

A Roman attempt to storm Gergovia was repulsed and resulted in heavy Roman losses--the first outright defeat that Caesar had suffered in Gaul. Caesar then defeated an attack on the Roman army on the march and was thus able to besiege Vercingetorix in Alesia, to the northwest of Dijon. Alesia, like Gergovia, was a position of great natural strength, and a large Gallic army came to relieve it; but this army was repulsed and dispersed by Caesar, and Vercingetorix then capitulated.

During the winter of 52-51 and the campaigning season of 51, Caesar crushed a number of sporadic further revolts. The most determined of these rebels were the Bellovaci, between the Rivers Seine and Somme, around Beauvais.

Another rebel force stood siege in the south in the natural fortress of Uxellodunum until its water supply gave out. Caesar had the survivors’ hands cut off. He spent the year 50 in organizing the newly conquered territory. After that, he was ready to settle his accounts with his opponents at home.

During his conquest of Gaul, Caesar had been equally busy in preserving and improving his position at home. He used part of his growing wealth from Gallic loot to hire political agents in Rome.

Meanwhile the cohesion of the triumvirate had been placed under strain. Pompey had soon become restive toward his alarmingly successful ally Caesar, as had Crassus toward his old enemy Pompey.

The alliance was patched up in April 56 at a conference at Luca, just inside Caesar’s province of Cisalpine Gaul. It was arranged that Pompey and Crassus were to be the consuls for 55 and were to get laws promulgated prolonging Caesar’s provincial commands for another five years and giving Crassus a five-year term in Syria and Pompey a five-year term in Spain.

These laws were duly passed. Crassus was then eliminated by an annihilating defeat at the Parthians’ hands in 53. The marriage link between Pompey and Caesar had been broken by Julia’s death in 54. After this, Pompey irresolutely veered further and further away from Caesar, until, when the breach finally came, Pompey found himself committed to the nobility’s side, though he and the nobility never trusted each other.

The issue was whether there should or should not be an interval between the date at which Caesar was to resign his provincial governorships and, therewith, the command over his armies and the date at which he would enter his proposed second consulship.

If there were to be an interval, Caesar would be a private person during that time, vulnerable to attack by his enemies; if prosecuted and convicted, he would be ruined politically and might possibly lose his life. Caesar had to make sure that, until his entry on his second consulship, he should continue to hold at least one province with the military force to guarantee his security.

This issue had already been the object of a series of political manoeuvres and countermanoeuvres at Rome. The dates on which the issue turned are all in doubt. As had been agreed at Luca in 56, Caesar’s commands had been prolonged for five years, apparently until February 28, 49, but this is not certain.

In 52, a year in which Pompey was elected sole consul and given a five-year provincial command in Spain, Caesar was allowed by a law sponsored by all 10 tribunes to stand for the consulship in absentia. If he were to stand in 49 for the consulship for 48, he would be out of office, and therefore in danger, during the last 10 months of 49.

As a safeguard for Caesar against this, there seems to have been an understanding--possibly a private one at Luca in 56 between him and Pompey--that the question of a successor to Caesar in his commands should not be raised in the Senate before March 1, 50.

This manoeuvre would have ensured that Caesar would retain his commands until the end of 49. However, the question of replacing Caesar was actually raised in the Senate a number of times from 51 onward; each time Caesar had the dangerous proposals vetoed by tribunes of the plebs who were his agents--particularly Gaius Scribonius Curio in 50 and Mark Antony in 49.

The issue was brought to a head by one of the consuls for 50, Gaius Claudius Marcellus. He obtained resolutions from the Senate that Caesar should lay down his command (presumably at its terminal date) but that Pompey should not lay down his command simultaneously.

Curio then obtained on December 1, 50, a resolution (by 370 votes to 22) that both men should lay down their commands simultaneously. Next day Marcellus (without authorization from the Senate) offered the command over all troops in Italy to Pompey, together with the power to raise more; and Pompey accepted.

On January 1, 49, the Senate received from Caesar a proposal that he and Pompey should lay down their commands simultaneously. Caesar’s message was peremptory, and the Senate resolved that Caesar should be treated as a public enemy if he did not lay down his command “by a date to be fixed.”

On January 10-11, 49, Caesar led his troops across the little river Rubicon, the boundary between his province of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy proper. He thus committed the first act of war. This was not, however, the heart of the matter. The actual question of substance was whether the misgovernment of the Greco-Roman world by the Roman nobility should be allowed to continue or whether it should be replaced by an autocratic regime. Either alternative would result in a disastrous civil war. The subsequent partial recuperation of the Greco-Roman world under the principate suggests, however, that Caesarism was the lesser evil.

The civil war was a tragedy, for war was not wanted either by Caesar or by Pompey or even by a considerable part of the nobility, while the bulk of the Roman citizen body ardently hoped for the preservation of peace. By this time, however, the three parties that counted politically were all entrapped. Caesar’s success in building up his political power had made the champions of the old regime so implacably hostile to him that he was now faced with a choice between putting himself at his enemies’ mercy or seizing the monopoly of power at which he was accused of aiming. He found that he could not extricate himself from this dilemma by reducing his demands, as he eventually did, to the absolute minimum required for his security. As for Pompey, his growing jealousy of Caesar had led him so far toward the nobility that he could not come to terms with Caesar again without loss of face.

The first bout of the civil war moved swiftly. In 49 Caesar drove his opponents out of Italy to the eastern side of the Straits of Otranto. He then crushed Pompey’s army in Spain. Toward the end of 49, he followed Pompey across the Adriatic and retrieved a reverse at Dyrrachium by winning a decisive victory at Pharsalus on August 9, 48. Caesar pursued Pompey from Thessaly to Egypt, where Pompey was murdered by an officer of King Ptolemy. Caesar wintered in Alexandria, fighting with the populace and dallying with Queen Cleopatra. In 47 he fought a brief local war in northeastern Anatolia with Pharnaces, king of the Cimmerian Bosporus, who was trying to regain his father Mithradates’ kingdom of Pontus. Caesar’s famous words, Veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered"), are his own account of this campaign.

Caesar then returned to Rome, but a few months later, now with the title of dictator, he left for Africa, where his opponents had rallied. In 46 he crushed their army at Thapsus and returned to Rome, only to leave in November for Farther Spain to deal with a fresh outbreak of resistance, which he crushed on March 17, 45, at Munda.
He returned to Rome to start putting the Greco-Roman world in order. He had less than a year’s grace for this huge task of reconstruction.

Caesar was murdered outside Pompey’s Theater on March 15, 44 B.C. (Ides of March). On that day a great comet was seen over the the skies of Rome. For the first time in Roman history, a living man was deified; in the process, the man himself was lost to history.

Caesar’s death was partly due to his clemency and impatience, which, in combination, were dangerous for his personal security. Caesar had not hesitated to commit atrocities against “barbarians” when it had suited him, but he was almost consistently magnanimous in his treatment of his defeated Roman opponents. Thus clemency was probably not just a matter of policy.

Caesar’s earliest experience in his political career had been Sulla’s implacable persecution of his defeated domestic opponents. Caesar amnestied his opponents wholesale and gave a number of them responsible positions in his new regime. Gaius Cassius Longinus, who was the moving spirit in the plot to murder him, and Marcus Junius Brutus, the symbolic embodiment of Roman republicanism, were both former enemies. “Et tu, Brute” ("You too, Brutus") was Caesar’s expression of his particular anguish at being stabbed by a man whom he had forgiven, trusted, and loved.

There were, however, also a number of ex-Caesareans among the 60 conspirators. They had been goaded into this volte-face by the increasingly monarchical trend of Caesar’s regime and, perhaps at least as much, by the aristocratic disdain that inhibited Caesar from taking any trouble to sugar the bitter pill. Some stood to lose, rather than to gain, personally by the removal of the autocrat who had made their political fortunes. But even if they were acting on principle, they were blind to the truth that the reign of the Roman nobility was broken beyond recall and that even Caesar might not have been able to overthrow the ancien regime if its destruction had not been long overdue. They also failed to recognize that by making Caesar a martyr they were creating his posthumous political fortune.