VI. Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

 

By the end of the second century BC, stability in Roman society and politics was starting to unravel. Though the Roman Republic itself was stronger, larger and wealthier than ever before, the Roman people had never been more divided.

 

Upper-class Romans were becoming increasingly rich and powerful, profiting from successful wars of foreign conquest and prestigious careers in politics, but most citizens beyond the privileged elite were seeing few of the benefits of Rome’s ascendancy. Lower-class Romans were often unemployed, increasingly impoverished and widely resentful of a Roman aristocracy that flaunted its wealth over them and a Roman Senate too gridlocked by partisan bickering to implement any reforms that might improve their awful circumstances.

 

As the rule of law continued to weaken street violence, often motivated by politics, became a common occurrence in Rome. Rome’s distant provinces, spread out across the Mediterranean, were large and wealthy but unstable, vulnerable, heavily taxed and difficult to govern through elected (and often corrupt) Roman officials. This was the troubled Rome into which Gaius Julius Caesar was born.

 

Julius Caesar is the most iconic Roman of them all, familiar to us as the hero (or villain) of so many books, TV series, movies and, of course, from William Shakespeare’s eponymous play. From his promising youth to his towering achievements to his sudden, dramatic downfall, Caesar’s story is larger than life and his actions made him as much a figure of admiration, and controversy, in his own lifetime as he is today. Whether hero or villain Julius Caesar played a central role in Rome’s transition from republic to empire, and understanding his career is essential to anyone seeking to understand that vital transformation.

 

Noble Roots, Extraordinary Aspirations

 

Caesar was born in 100 BC into a noble Roman family. From an early age Caesar, like many young Roman aristocrats, gained himself a reputation as an able and ambitious man. However, unlike many of his fellow aristocrats whose ambitions were typically limited to winning power and prestige for themselves and their families, Caesar had an additional ambition: to bring change to Rome. Caesar had a genuine desire to actually address the mounting society-spanning problems that had plagued the late Republic since before he was born, even if he was certainly not above winning power and glory for himself in the process.

 

Despite this extraordinary aspiration, Caesar’s early career in politics was not particularly unusual. Though he became known as both a populist and a heavy spender, he rose through the ranks of Rome’s political offices at an average pace fairly typical for a young aristocrat.

 

Friends in High Places

 

When Caesar was about forty years old, however, his very ordinary career in politics abruptly changed shape. He formed a political partnership with two other powerful men in Roman politics: Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome, and Gnaeus Pompey, Rome’s most famous general. Their unofficial pact became known to history as the First Triumvirate, and together the three men easily became the dominant force in Roman politics.

 

With the help of his new friends, Caesar was elected as consul in 59 BC. During his term of office he established a reputation for both his populism and his use of controversial, even illegal methods in order to pass legislation; methods that included, among other things, encouraging mob violence and even bullying his co-consul.

 

The Conquest of Gaul

 

When his term of office ended the following year Caesar, again with help from Pompey and Crassus, became governor of the Roman province of Cisalpine Gaul (what is now northern Italy). Not satisfied with a quiet term of office as provincial governor, Caesar immediately began raising an army to start a war of conquest across the Alps, planning to win new lands for Rome and wealth, prestige and popular support for himself.

 

From 58 BC to 52 BC Julius Caesar used his army to conquer Gaul (what is now France, Belgium and Germany west of the Rhine River), launched two invasions of Britain, and even wrote an account of his experiences that still survives today. He also became very rich by extracting taxes and plunder from the conquered tribes of Gaul and hugely popular back in Rome.

 

The Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix surrenders his weapons to Caesar. Caesar's brilliant mind for war won new lands for Rome, but also won Caesar enemies jealous of his success.
The defeated Gallic chieftain Vercingetorix surrenders his weapons to Caesar. Caesar’s military brilliance won new lands, wealth and glory for Rome, but it also earned Caesar many enemies among other Romans jealous of his success.

 

The Conqueror’s Dilemma

 

By 50 BC, Caesar was facing a difficult dilemma. The last ten years of his career had been spectacularly successful but plagued by controversy. Caesar’s term as consul and war in Gaul had made him popular with common Roman citizens but hated by the Roman Senate. Whether jealous of his successes, afraid of his ambitions or both, most of the senators wanted Caesar brought home to face trial, accusing him of questionable or illegal actions during his consulship and war of conquest in Gaul.

 

For as long as Caesar was held office as governor of Gaul, Roman law gave him immunity to prosecution. However, Caesar’s term of office was set to expire soon, and his attempt to convince the Senate to extend its duration had failed. He no longer had the support of the triumvirate; Crassus was now dead and Pompey had turned against Caesar, supporting his political enemies.

 

Caesar knew he was between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, if Caesar returned to Rome as a private citizen without an office to grant him legal immunity, his enemies in the Senate would jump at the chance to put him on trial and destroy him. It would mean the end of Caesar’s career, and maybe even his life. On the other hand, if Caesar refused to give up command of his army and return home once his term of office ran out, the Senate would declare him a public enemy and a traitor to his own people.

 

There was no easy solution to the choice that Caesar now faced. Either he could sacrifice his future, or turn against his own country. Submission, or rebellion. It had to be one or the other.

 

Crossing the Rubicon

 

On 10 January, 49 BC, Julius Caesar made his choice when he led his army across the Rubicon River. The Rubicon was a small but important river in northern Italy; in Caesar’s lifetime, it marked the geographical boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. Roman law made it illegal for any general to lead his soldiers across the river; to do so was an act of treason against the Republic, and Caesar knew he was taking a deadly risk.

 

By crossing the Rubicon River under arms Caesar was declaring war on Rome, and if he should lose that war then he and all of his followers would die. Supposedly, as Caesar crossed the river he said alea iacta est (meaning “the die is cast” in Latin), knowing there could be no turning back from that point on. To this day, the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” survives in the English language as an expression meaning to go beyond the point of no return.

 

What followed Caesar’s decision on that fateful day was four years of devastating civil war that would rage all across the Mediterranean world. Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, the Middle East, North Africa and Spain would all become battlefields on which Caesar would face first his old friend Pompey, then his senatorial rivals and their non-Roman allies.

 

In his battles against Roman and non-Roman alike Caesar was often outnumbered, but he was a brilliant and charismatic leader that commanded the absolute loyalty of his battle-hardened soldiers. These attributes allowed him to turn the tide of the civil war in his favour, just as he had during the war in Gaul, and to overcome the dire odds against him. By 45 BC, Caesar had beaten the last of his rivals and returned to Rome in triumph.

 

Champion or Tyrant?

 

After winning the civil war, Caesar made himself Dictator of the Roman Republic for life. Now that his power in Rome was unchallenged, Caesar began using it to pass legislation that improved the lives of many ordinary Roman citizens, ensuring he remained just as hugely popular with the lower classes as ever before.

 

However, even though many of Caesar’s loudest critics in the Senate had died during the civil war those who’d survived were growing increasingly nervous and angry about the absolute power Caesar held over the state. They feared that he wanted to destroy the Republic and make himself King of Rome. These senators became convinced that Caesar would have to die if the Republic was to survive, and so they began to conspire against him.

 

The Ides of March

 

On 15 March, 44 BC Julius Caesar became the victim of one of history’s most famous political assassinations when he was stabbed to death in the middle of a Senate meeting by the conspirators, many of whom Caesar considered his friends. The assassins celebrated Caesar’s death, convinced that they had killed an evil tyrant to protect the Republic and the liberty of the Roman people.

 

Assassination of Julius Caesar

 

Unfortunately for them the Roman people, for the most part, didn’t share that opinion. Caesar had undoubtedly wanted to take all the power he could get, but he’d also wanted to use that power to help less fortunate Romans when the rest of Rome’s sociopolitical elite had been ignoring their plight for decades. The people loved Caesar and were angered by his murder, especially since it was done in a manner they saw as brutal and cowardly. Within days of Caesar’s assassination, his killers were forced to flee Rome or face being torn to pieces by angry mobs.

 

The conspirators had believed that killing Caesar would be enough to restore the dying Republic, but they were wrong. Killing Caesar hadn’t stopped the revolution that he’d started. It only meant that it would be up to someone else to finish his work, and one particular someone else would soon be ready to finish it.

10 thoughts on “VI. Julius Caesar”

  1. Hello Andrew, thank you for bringing all this information. I love history and I really enjoyed your story.
    I heard a lot about Julius Ceaser, I love his braveness.
    The first sin to destroy the earth was jealousy and caused all the evil we see today. it is alway jealousy working to try and stop good things that help the human race.
    They wanted to fight for the elite group ignoring the many people who contributed to Rome that Ceasar was helping.
    They don’t really care about us of man sung.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the article, mariam.

      Caesar is pretty famous, and that’s probably why so many people have wildly different opinions about whether he was a hero or a monster. The truth is probably somewhere in between, but I tend to agree more with your view of him.

      Caesar definitely did have selfish goals, but not ALL of his goals were selfish. He wanted to help himself, yes, but he also wanted to help less fortunate Romans at the same time, which was more than could be said for most Roman aristocrats during his lifetime.

      In a lot of ways it’s not that different from what goes on in politics today, if you ask me. In many countries, most of the privileged elite don’t care about improving society for anyone but themselves, and when someone comes along who intends to do that they all unite to get rid of that person. The world has changed in a lot of ways since Caesar’s lifetime, but selfishness is the same in any age or language.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. I love the history of Rome and Julius Caesar. It is amazing what was accomplished over his lifetime. I certainly think he was a hero early on because he stood up and expressed his views and beliefs. Love how he also aligned himself with the right people to get where he wanted. Unfortunately it does seem the power went to his head in the later years and perhaps greed set in. Where can I read more information?

    1. His life does have quite a story to tell, certainly.

      As for where to find more, there are so many accounts of his life and accomplishments that are much more detailed than this article. Plenty of books, documentaries, research papers, etc. There’s even a book called the Commentarii de Bello Gallico (or Commentaries on the Gallic War, in English) that was actually written by Caesar himself.

      Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten around to posting links to those sources on the page just yet, but I’ll be doing that over the next few days. If you’re interested, feel free to have a look then.

      In the meantime, you might want to check out The Great Courses. They have a lot of lectures in audio and DVD format covering the Ancient World, and I used several that I own as research sources for this article. I suggest being careful about buying any course that’s not on sale (they can be quite expensive) but the courses go on sale pretty regularly. Caesar is a relatively small part of the Roman history courses that feature him, but I find that if the subject is an area of study you enjoy the courses make for great workout material, if you have a TV in the same room as your treadmill or whatever.

      Hope that’s helpful enough for now; I’ll have more links to related products in the article within the next few days. Thanks for your feedback!

  3. A very informative article. I studied a lot of Ancient Rome whilst learning Latin at school and the entire time period was fascinating. They were so far ahead of the rest of Europe at that time. With how much land the republic had it probably needed to become an Empire as it had so many cultures under it and too many leaders. At that stage you often need a single unifying figurehead. Julius Caesar was fascinating in that he was a great tactician in combat but also had political know how.

    1. That was definitely one of the main reasons, yes; as the Republic grew it became more complex, more diverse, and more difficult to govern with a republican system of provincial administration.

      As the Republic slipped further into instability a single unifying figurehead (like Caesar) seemed more appealing to a lot of Romans than a Senate full of corruption and ineptitude.

      Caesar was certainly one of history’s finest generals. He was also a shrewd politician, yes, but not quite as clever as someone else that will be introduced in the next article.

      Thanks for your comment, Evie!

  4. What Julius Caesar was experiencing back then are still going on today.Those “friends” of his that killed him simply fear change. Obviously nobody wants to give up their “noble” rights over the commoners which is what feeds their ego and pride. Caesar was taking that away from them because he leaned towards more helping the commoners.

    What really intrigued me about your story is the “crossing the rubicon”. I really thought that was got guts to even dare to attempt something like that. People in Rome might actually believe that he has betrayed them and become the enemy of Rome. He actually drove away his rivals. I am sure that there are impressive characters like him in our modern world nowadays.

    1. I think you’re definitely on to something there. No matter how much Brutus, Cassius and the other conspirators went on about ‘killing a tyrant to save the Republic’, you have to wonder how much of that was genuine altruism and how much was just about killing Caesar because he was threatening to take away some of the power and privilege they felt entitled to. In some ways the world is still the same place today, with the rich and powerful privileged elite willing to do anything to stop change, even if it’s for the greater good, because it might come at their expense.

      Caesar was always a brave man, but it’s still hard to imagine how much courage it would’ve taken for him to cross that river, declare war on his own government, and throw himself into an all-or-nothing gamble with his life on the line. If Caesar hadn’t won that war then he and all of his soldiers would die, and he knew that at the exact moment he crossed the Rubicon.

  5. Wow, I couldn’t stop reading your post. I’m not a historian, but as a Christian, that period does interest me somewhat. Your approach and method of writing is quite gripping and you should consider writing a book at some point – if you haven’t already! A really engrossing read and I’ll definitely be back for more – I’m heading over to your post on the 14th Legion as we speak! :_)
    Claire

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed reading the article.

      Heh, no I haven’t written a book. Much as I appreciate the compliment, I think the blog format works best for me. I’ll leave the book writing up to people who are better writers than me. There are plenty of them, I promise.

      I hope you enjoy the book review, too. Happy trails, Claire!

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