Who is Julius Caesar? Learn about the life of this Roman general and statesman whose dictatorship was pivotal in Rome’s transition from republic to empire in this episode from English Plus Podcast.
Who Is Julius Caesar?
Born in Rome on July 12 or 13, 100 B.C., Caesar belonged to a prestigious family that had been powerful in Roman politics for more than a century. During childhood he lived through one of the most horrifying decades in the history of Rome. The city was assaulted and captured twice during the decade by Roman armies. The first takeover came from Caesar’s uncle Gaius Marius, leader of the Populares (commoners’ party), along with Lucius Cornelius Cinna. The second attack came from their opponent Lucius Cornelius Sulla, leader of the Optimates (aristocratic party). Each time the victors took power, they took revenge, murdering their opponents and seizing property. Cinna was murdered by his own troops in 84 B.C.
Caesar was allied with Marius, his uncle by marriage. Caesar’s own marriage in 84 B.C. to Cornelia, the daughter of Marius’s associate, Cinna, further cemented the relationship. When Sulla was made dictator in 82 B.C., he issued a list of enemies to be executed. Although Caesar was not harmed, he was ordered by Sulla to divorce Cornelia. Refusing that order, Caesar found it wise to leave Rome. He did not return to the city until 78 B.C., after Sulla’s resignation.
Caesar was then 22 years old. Unable to gain political office, he left Rome again and went to the island of Rhodes, where he studied rhetoric as the writer and orator Cicero had done before him. Caesar returned to Rome in 73 B.C., a very persuasive speaker, to begin his political career. The year before, while still absent, he had been elected to the pontificate, an important college of Roman priests.
EARLY POLITICAL CAREER
In Rome the political dominance of the Optimates was challenged during the 60s B.C. by Pompey the Great and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Pompey, a general who had earned his epithet “the Great” in army service under Sulla, returned to Rome in 71 B.C., having defeated the rebellious Populares general Sertorius in Spain, then a Roman colony. At the same time Crassus, a wealthy aristocrat, suppressed a slave revolt in Italy led by the gladiator Spartacus. Pompey and Crassus were jointly elected consul (chief magistrate) in 70 B.C. Pompey was absent from 67 to 62 B.C. on military campaigns—first against pirates in the Mediterranean and then against Mithridates, a king in Asia Minor. Crassus, always Pompey’s jealous rival, detected the brilliance of Caesar and fostered an alliance with him.
Caesar was elected quaestor (magistrate) in 69 B.C. and appointed aedile, official in charge of public works, in 65 B.C. He gained great popularity for the lavish gladiatorial games he sponsored. To pay for these, he borrowed money from the wealthy Crassus. As aedile Caesar returned the war trophies of Marius to their former place of honor in the capitol, thus laying claim to leadership of the Populares. In 63 B.C. Caesar used Crassus’s loans to win election as pontifex maximus (high priest) of the Roman religion.
After Caesar’s wife Cornelia died in 68 B.C., he married a second time, to Pompeia, the granddaughter of Sulla. He divorced Pompeia early in 61 B.C. because of accusations implicating her with a man who had broken into Caesar’s house disguised as a woman during the festival of the Bona Dea, which men were not allowed to attend. “Caesar’s wife,” Caesar is reported to have said, “must be above suspicion.” Caesar then left Rome for a year to serve as governor of Spain. He married a third time, to Calpurnia, in 59 B.C.
When Caesar returned to Rome from Spain in 60 B.C., he joined forces with Crassus and Pompey in a three-way alliance later known as the First Triumvirate. His goal was to gain a major military command. To cement the relationship further, Caesar gave his daughter Julia to Pompey in marriage. Thus backed, Caesar was elected consul for 59 B.C. despite Optimate hostility, and the year after (58 B.C.) he was appointed governor of three Roman provinces for five years. The provinces were Cisalpine Gaul (Italy north of the Apennine mountains); Transalpine Gaul (Provence), across the Alps in France; and Illyricum, along the coast of Yugoslavia.
Caesar left Rome for Gaul in the spring of 58 B.C. and remained there until his invasion of Italy in 49 B.C. He conducted military campaigns north of the Alps each summer, leaving his army there each winter while he came south to administer Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum and learn what was happening in Rome. Each winter he wrote up his account of the previous summer’s campaigns. These superbly clear accounts, published as De bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars), cover the years 58 to 52 B.C.
Caesar is our prime informant about his campaigns in Gaul. That he minimized, or even concealed, his own mistakes is certain. But these mistakes were infrequent. The events of 58 to 52 B.C. revealed to Caesar himself and to the Roman world that he was a soldier of genius. Moreover, he emerged from these years an immensely wealthy man as well as an extremely powerful man with a large army at his command.
The country north of Transalpine Gaul was divided, as Caesar said, into three parts, inhabited by the Belgae, Aquitani, and Celts. The Aedui, a Gallic tribe just north of the frontier, had become Roman allies, and they appealed to Caesar for help against two invaders, the Helvetii and the Suebi. Caesar first defeated the Helvetii, a Celtic tribe, and forced them to return to their home area. Next, he crushed the Germanic Suebi led by Ariovistus.
Caesar then resolved to conquer the rest of Gaul. By 57 B.C. he believed he had completed the task. However, early in 52 B.C., while Caesar was still south of the Alps, the conquered peoples in Gaul, including the Aedui, revolted. Caesar had taken advantage of the disunity among the Gauls. To resist Roman rule, they had come together under an intelligent general, Vercingetorix. After suffering several setbacks, Caesar finally defeated Vercingetorix in what was the most spectacular of his military achievements.
In 56 B.C. Caesar won agreement from Pompey and Crassus that he would continue in Gaul for another five years, after Pompey and Crassus won election again as consuls in 55 B.C. Following the election Caesar went off to raid Britain and put down a revolt in Gaul. Crassus, ever eager for military glory, was given a command in Syria. Provoking a war with the Parthian Empire, Crassus was defeated and killed at Carrhae in 53 B.C. This removed the last buffer between Caesar and Pompey; their family ties had been broken by the death of Julia in 54 B.C.
CROSSING THE RUBICON
In 52 B.C., with Crassus out of the way, Pompey was made sole consul. Combined with his other powers, this gave him a formidable position. Jealous of his younger rival, he determined to break Caesar’s power. To achieve this objective, he first needed to deprive Caesar of the forces he commanded in Gaul. Pompey ordered him to return to Rome without his troops. To protect himself, Caesar suggested that he and Pompey both lay down their commands simultaneously, but this proposal was rejected. Goaded by Pompey, the Senate called upon Caesar to resign his command and disband his army, or else be considered a public enemy. The tribunes (officials) who supported Caesar vetoed this motion, but they were driven out of the Senate chamber. The Senate then entrusted Pompey with providing for the safety of the state. His forces far outnumbered Caesar’s, but they were scattered throughout the provinces, and his troops in Italy were not prepared for war.
Early in 49 B.C. Caesar and one of his legions crossed the Rubicon, a small stream separating Cisalpine Gaul from Italy. They moved swiftly southward to be met by additional forces. By bringing an army into Italy, Caesar was breaking the law. He quite possibly expected to persuade the Senate, through Pompey, to negotiate a settlement. But Pompey refused to meet Caesar. Pompey fled to Brundisium (now Brindisi) and from there to Greece.
The civil war that began after Caesar crossed the Rubicon lasted four years. Caesar provided an account of the first two years in his De bello civili (Civil Wars). In three months, Caesar was master of all Italy; his forces then took Spain and the key port of Massalia (now Marseille). Early in 48 B.C. he landed in Greece to take on Pompey. In August he smashed Pompey’s forces at Pharsalus. Pompey escaped to Egypt, where he was assassinated upon his arrival. Caesar followed Pompey to Egypt, where he fought the forces of King Ptolemy XIII and triumphed. He then made Cleopatra, sister of Ptolemy and Caesar’s mistress, queen of Egypt. In 47 B.C. he moved into Asia Minor and defeated Pharnaces, who had taken control of the province of Pontus. Caesar later referred to this victory with the phrase, “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”). The last battle of the civil war took place in Spain against Pompey’s sons in 45 B.C. Caesar then returned to Rome.
DICTATORSHIP AND ASSASSINATION
Caesar was appointed dictator for life in the winter of 45 B.C. According to the constitution of the Roman republic, the office of dictator was to be held only for six months and only during a dire emergency. That rule, however, had been broken before. Sulla had ruled as dictator for several years, and Caesar now followed suit. In addition, he was made consul for ten years in 45 B.C. He also obtained a series of honors that were out of keeping with Roman tradition, and a statue of Caesar was placed in one of the oldest temples in Rome. Caesar renamed the month Quintilis in the Roman calendar Julius (July), after himself. Above all, he was in total command of the armies, and this remained the backbone of his power.
As a ruler Caesar instituted various reforms. In the provinces he eliminated a highly corrupt tax system, sponsored colonies of veterans, and extended Roman citizenship. At home he negotiated a reasonable settlement of the large debts due to moneylenders, and he reconstituted the courts and increased the number of senators. His reform of the calendar gave Rome a less confusing means of recording time.
A number of senatorial families, however, felt that Caesar threatened their position, and his honors and powers made them fear that he would become a rex (king), a title they hated as republicans—believers that a republic, with an elected government, is the best form of government. Accordingly, in 44 B.C., an assassination plot was hatched by a group of senators, including Gaius Cassius and Marcus Junius Brutus. The respect felt for Brutus’s integrity ensured the success of the plot. On March 15 of 44 B.C., when Caesar entered a meeting of the Senate, the conspirators killed him. After a provocative funeral speech by Mark Antony, Caesar’s body was burned in the Roman forum.
Because Caesar had no male heirs, he stipulated in his will that his grandnephew, Octavius, whom he had adopted, become his successor. Octavius became Rome’s first emperor under the name of Augustus.
Several difficulties stand in the way of a final judgment on Caesar. The first is that Cicero, who provides so much of our information on Caesar, hated him as the enemy of republican government. The second is that Augustus, Caesar’s successor, found it prudent to draw a veil over Caesar’s career as a dictator. For this reason, the poets who wrote during Augustus’s reign hardly mention Caesar. Livy, who wrote the standard history of the republic, was scolded, in the friendliest way, by Augustus for being a supporter of Pompey. Scholarly opinion of Caesar’s accomplishments is divided. Some regard him as an unscrupulous tyrant, with an insatiable lust for power, and blame him for the demise of the Roman Republic. Others, admitting that he could be ruthless, insist that the Republic had already been destroyed. They maintain that to save the Roman world from chaos a new type of government had to be created. In fact, Caesar’s reforms did stabilize the Mediterranean world. Among ancient military commanders, he may be second in achievement only to Alexander the Great.