Julius & Caesar Inc.
Caesar left behind him in the minds of certain friends a suspicion that he neither desired nor cared to live any longer, on account of his fading health, and for that reason alone slighted all the omens of religion, and the warnings of his friends...Others again suppose that he chose rather to face at once the dangers which threatened him on all sides than to be forever on his watch against them, protesting the while that the safety of his person concerned the commonwealth more than himself, for he had been satiated with power and glory, whereas the commonwealth, if anything should befall him, would have no rest and, being involved in another civil war, would be in a worse state than before.
~ Suetonius, Caius Julius Caesar 86
Here I digress freely about Julius Gaius, discussing his figure and influence on history, his character, his accomplishments, his idiosyncrasies. Yeah, folks: I'm having great fun! Won't you join me...?
Caesar and the res publica
Caesar was at the pinnacle of his power when he returned from Spain in 45, yet within a year, he was once again facing problems with the optimates, and had seemingly lost the support of the ever fickle populace of Rome. What had happened?
The problems lay with Caesar himself, and the nature of his absolute power. In his impatience with fossilized custom, he often denigrated the Republic:
The res publica is an image not a reality
--- The majority of the conservative aristocracy failed to understand this, just as Caesar failed to truly understand the resentment the aristocracy felt for him on account of this. In Caesar they only saw the threat of a King, a word which was inextricably linked with the word "tyrant" in Roman history.
It seems likely that elements within the Senate set out to make this likeness even more distinct:
Cicero made the first proposals to the Senate for conferring honours upon him, which might in some sort be said not to exceed the limits of ordinary human moderation. But others, striving which should deserve most, carried them so excessively high, that they made Caesar odious to the most indifferent and moderate sort of men, by the pretensions and extravagance of the titles which they decreed him. His enemies, too, are thought to have had some share in this, as well as his flatterers. It gave them advantage against him, and would be their justification for any attempt they should make upon him; for since the civil wars were ended, he had nothing else that he could be charged with.
~ Plutarch, Life of Caesar
No matter what Caesar did, the optimates could twist and turn it to make it appear tyrannical. After Caesar's reform of the calendar Cicero, when told that a new moon would rise next day said,
Yes, in accordance with the edict,
as if to imply that even this depended on the pleasure of Caesar.
And one day, as Caesar was coming down from Alba to Rome, some were so bold as to salute him by the name of king; but he, finding the people disrelish it, seemed to resent it himself, and said his name was Caesar, not king. Upon this there was a general silence, and he passed on looking not very well pleased or contented. Another time, when the senate had conferred on him some extravagant honours, he chanced to receive the message as he was sitting on the rostra, where, though the Consuls and Praetors themselves waited on him, attended by the whole body of the Senate, he did not rise, but behaved himself to them as if they had been private men, and told them his honours wanted rather to be retrenched than increased.
~ Plutarch, Life of Caesar
The concept of making Caesar King had been put in circulation, whether by Caesar himself or his enemies, and it would not leave. The Roman constitution allowed only one way for a man to exercise absolute rule, and that was through being Dictator. However, Sulla's abuse of this title indicated that this was not the appropriate solution to the problem.
Republican tradition allowed noble men to compete for offices and honor by climbing the cursus honorum, but Caesar's position as head of state made this impossible. It was amongst this group of disgruntled patricians that his most implacable enemies appeared. For both people and Senate libertas, "freedom", meant the preservation of the mos maiorum; tradition. Thus, the aristocracy felt that Caesar had robbed them of their freedom, and this became their rallying cry.
Caesar experimented with various forms of rule. His last was to accept the powers of the magistracies without actually occupying them; in this way he could control the government without obstructing the careers of the aristocrats -- 17 years later, Augustus was to demonstrate that this could have been the correct solution to the problem.
Caesar spent the last months of his life preparing a huge military campaign against Parthia to avenge the defeat of Crassus. The reasons for this have been widely discussed both by pro and anti-Caesareans. One can suppose that Caesar was avoiding the issue by once again setting off for war - his close friend Gaius Matius was to write a few days after the assassination:
...if Caesar with all his genius could not find a way out, who will do so now?
Perhaps Caesar realized that only war against external enemies could unite the Roman people, after all the hatred of half a century of civil war. Or in the words of Livy:
externus timor maximum concordiae vinculum - nothing causes unity like fear of the external.
Moreover, it provided employment for the remainder of the thirty five legions who had fought in the civil war. Would Caesar have succeeded in recapturing the lost dominions of the Alexander's empire for the hellenestic world? The fate of Crassus had shown that the plains of Mesopotamia favoured Parthian cavalry -- could Caesar' military genius have offset this disadvantage? One can only guess, for his assassination condemned Rome to yet another destructive round of civil wars, and she would never again possess sufficient manpower to conquer and hold the plains of Babylonia.
The soul of the plot seems to have been Gaius Cassius Longinus, whom Caesar had pardoned after Pharsalus and honoured. He now felt himself disregarded because he was not to receive a command in the forthcoming campaign against Parthia. He persuaded his brother-in-law Marcus Junius Brutus, whose great claim to fame was his descent from the Junius Brutus who had murdered Rome's last King, to join the plot.
Brutus was a doctrinal fanatic, married to the equally fanatic Porcia, daughter of Cato the Younger. He was a merciless man, notorious for usury and not above demanding interests of up to 48% on loans. Like Cassius, he had fought on Pompeius's side at Pharsalus, but had later accepted Caesar's clemency. Caesar acted as father to Brutus, having once had an affair with Servilia, the mother of Brutus (though there is no truth in the claim that Caesar was the father of Brutus), and had secured the election of Cassius and Brutus to the position of Praetors. But once Brutus had got the idea into his head, he became obsessed with the thought of showing himself the equal of his ancestor and father-in-law. Together, he and Cassius plotted the death of Caesar.
Did Caesar know of the plot? It seems certain that news of it had leaked out, to judge by the veritable flood of omens and warnings which preceded the days before his death. But Caesar disregarded all these, as he for years had disregarded all threats to his life. His words, quoted by William Shakespeare in his famous play, give a vivid picture of Caesar's philosophy toward death:
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
By this principle Caesar lived, and died.
Casca gave him the first cut in the neck, which was not mortal nor dangerous, as coming from one who at the beginning of such a bold action was probably very much disturbed; Caesar immediately turned about, and laid his hand upon the dagger and kept hold of it. And both of them at the same time cried out, he that received the blow, in Latin, "Vile Casca, what does this mean?" and he that gave it, in Greek to his brother, "Brother, help!" Upon this first onset, those who were not privy to the design were astonished, and their horror and amazement at what they saw were so great that they durst not fly nor assist Caesar, nor so much as speak a word. But those who came prepared for the business enclosed him on every side, with their naked daggers in their hands. Which way soever he turned he met with blows, and saw their swords levelled at his face and eyes, and was encompassed like a wild beast in the toils on every side.
For it had been agreed they should each of them make a thrust at him, and flesh themselves with his blood; for which reason Brutus also gave him one stab in the groin. Some say that he fought and resisted all the rest, shifting his body to avoid the blows, and calling out for help, but that when he saw Brutus's sword drawn, he covered his face with his robe and submitted, letting himself fall, whether it were by chance or that he was pushed in that direction by his murderers, at the foot of the pedestal on which Pompeius's statue stood, and which was thus wetted with his blood.
~ Plutarch, Life of Caesar
There were more than sixty conspirators. Some were merely old enemies, turncoats who had accepted Caesar's pardon and turned again at the first chance to do so. Others were men who had been disappointed in their expectations, who had not profited as much from Caesar's victory as they had expected. Brutus's ancestry and the so-called freedom of the Roman Republic were the pretexts for the murder of Caesar. But even those who acted on principle (if any did) were blind to the fact that the reign of the Roman nobility was broken beyond recall. Even Caesar would have been unable to overthrow the system, if its destruction had not been long overdue. By making him a martyr, they merely condemned the world to thirteen more bloody years of civil war.
The Character of Caesar
Caesar had won his way to power with an army, but unlike Sulla, he had no intention of building his empire on it. He had disbanded most of his legions, and he soon sent home his bodyguards, though he must have been well-aware of the risk of assassination. When plots against his life were revealed, he took no other action than to publish the names of offenders in public.
Characteristically, Cicero once wrote to Caesar:
You usually never forget anything other than insults.
As Bernard Shaw says in his evaluation of Caesar: a man too magnanimous to be insulted, has nothing to forgive. However, no matter how much clemency and forgiveness he displayed, the old Roman aristocracy could not fail to hate him. At the same time, his own supporters were beginning to become increasingly hostile. Many of these men, destitute when they joined Caesar, had hoped to attain riches and glory in the fruits of his victory, but Caesar could not, and probably would not, satisfy their lusts.
What drove Caesar on to his own doom? Seneca perhaps puts it best:
Glory, ambition, and the refusal to set bounds to his own pre-eminence.
For the ancient Roman, to achieve fame - personal dignitas - was the overriding desire of existence. Cicero himself seemed dazzled by the thoughts of being immortalized, at least in his earlier years. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he invoked the infringement on his personal dignitas as one of the reasons for the war. Such motives may seem strange to modern minds, but such had been the Roman mentality for hundreds of years, and it had driven them from being a small village on the banks of the Tiber to becoming an empire spanning the entire Mediteranean world.
In his ambition and quest for glory, Caesar was no different from the average Roman noble of his time, nor in his willingness to put his own honor above the safety of the state. Though he could be brutal and ruthless at need, he tended by nature toward clemency and generosity. Though not all his appointments to provincial governorship were of high quality, it is known that several appointees where chosen specifically for their incorruptibility and humanity, especially for the much ravaged eastern provinces.
From his acts, it is likely to suppose that he stood above many of the prejudices of his time, he clearly attempted to stand above class, party or race. He certainly stood far above most of his associates and opponents, none of whom seemed to have influenced him (though he was generous to their requests). It is impossible, from the available evidence, to divine Caesar's true intentions (though historians have attempted to for 2,000 years); Caesar himself clearly did not consider his own power to be monarchial in role (he did not, for example, specify any heir to it) - and he knew that his death would be the signal for renewed civil war.
That Caesar was a genius is uncontested; the scope of his achievements, his military conquests, his legislation, and his literary works all bear testimony to the breath and scope of his mind. As a conquoror, reformer, and politician, Caesar, even among those whose acts have changed the world, stands out as one of the great men of all time.
~ Click here to go to the website of the clickable reconstruction above, where you'll find most of the buildings of the Roman Forum. A few important buildings, places and roads are not visible on this drawing, but you'll find them listed on said webpage and on clicking on them you'll be linked to a description or a recent photograph of their remains. Enjoy a trip back in time...
Epilogue (43 - 31 BCE)
Caesar's death paralyzed Rome. All the assassins were insignificant men, whose lives only had meaning while Caesar lived and used them. Only now, with the deed done, did they experience their own lack of ability. Neither the unpopular Cassius or the fanatic Brutus possessed the talents required to bring about reforms or forge a new leadership in Rome. The murderers had been naive in hoping that the leadership of the Senate would be restored, but both it and the Public Assemblies acted like sheep in the times to come.
There could be no peace while there were ambitious men willing to employ armed force to reach their political goals. Using Caesar's will, Marcus Antonius inflamed the Roman populace against the assassins. The houses of Brutus and Cassius were burnt, and the murderers fled from the city. Antony was supported by another of Caesar's commanders, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Pursuing the assassins to Modena, Antony defeated them and looked set to make himself undisputed master of Rome.
There was only one small problem. In his will, Caesar had left three quarters of his estate to the eighteen year old Gaius Octavius, son of his niece Atia. The youth had been sent to Greece to serve with the Legions in the imminent war against Parthia, and now returned at the head of Caesar's veteran legions to claim his inheritance. Suddenly, the Caesarian party found itself divided.
Cicero was quick to utilize the possibilities and began a series of orations against Antony known as the Philippics. Because Antony treated Octavian like a child, relations between the two grew increasingly tense. Eventually, a new civil war began between Octavian and the Senate on the one hand and Marcus Antonius and Lepidus on the other.
Antony and Lepidus were defeated and fled to Gaul and Spain, and the Republicans seemed to be firm in the saddle. Brutus and Cassius had consolidated themselves in the east, and the Senate controlled Italy and Africa. Ignoring Octavian, it then proceeded to dole out commands and titles as it had always done.
But Octavian had no intention of being ignored, and was determined that Caesar's murderers should pay for their crime. Occupying the city with his legions, he forced the senate to elect him sole consul. But Octavian did not become over-confident and to strengthen his position made peace with Antony and Lepidus. This new alliance was the second triumvirate.
The result was a veritable blood bath. Where Caesar's clementia had failed, Octavian and Antony imitated Sulla by proscribing their foes, and 2,500 noble Romans, including Cicero himself, were murdered. They then turned their arms against the assassins, meeting and defeating them in 42 at Philippi. Within 3 years, all who had participated in, or had any connection to the conspiracy, were violently dead.
But Rome was to be racked by eleven more years of civil war. Octavian nosed Lepidus from power, and with the help of his friend Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, defeated Sextius Pompeius at sea. Finally, in 31 BC, he and Agrippa destroyed Antony and Cleopatra's fleet at Actium. Antony and the Queen committed suicide, and her son Ptolemy Caesarion, said to be remarkably like his father in looks, was murdered on Octavians's order. Having rid himself of all rivals, Octavian continued the work begun by his beloved adoptive father, and when Caesar was deified, called himself "Son of God"; Caesar divi filius. He was also wise enough to avoid the mistakes commited by Caesar.
As a statesman and politician, he surpassed Caesar. Whereas Caesar had been decades ahead of his time, Octavian worked within the Constitution to fulfil his adoptive father's task. In his time, Caesar had laid bare the weaknesses of the Roman Republic, and marked out the times to come. Octavian's remedies were so thorough that, at his own death, fifty eight years after Caesar's, the republic was nothing but a memory.
[I'll deal with Octavian - Augustus - in a separate time capsule: he deserves it!]