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 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.
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.