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More on Gaius Julius...

Et tu, Caesar!

Youth (100-82)

When Caius Julius Caesar was born, the leading man in Rome was Caius Marius, who had saved the Roman Republic several years before by defeating two German tribes, the Teutones (102) and the Cimbri (101). The connections between the Marius and Julius families were close: Marius was married to a sister of Caesar's father. So, Caesar belonged to a powerful family.

His contemporaries called Marius a popularis. It is unclear what this label means (for some speculations, see below), but modern historians tend to believe that it means that Marius tried to reach his political aims via the People's Assembly. The opposite group, the optimates, played the political game in the senate.

When Caesar was still an infant, Marius lost much of his earlier popularity, and eventually left Rome to travel in Greece and Asia Minor, hoping for some new command. However, Marius was still influential, and in 92, Caesar's father was elected praetor (a magistrate whose most important function was the administration of justice). In 91, the former praetor served as a governor in Asia Minor; it is likely, therefore, that the young Caesar was outside Italy when the Social War started.

This war originated in the fact that the Roman allies in Italy had never received a fair share in the spoils of the Roman empire, which included in those days Andalusia, southern Castile, Catalonia, the Provence, Italy, the Dalmatian coast, Greece and Macedonia, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Crete and modern Tunisia. The Italians had fought to conquer the Mediterranean world, but did not get the benefits of it. In 91, they rebelled. Marius was appointed general and had some success; more important, however, were the victories of Sulla, a man who was considered to be one of the optimates. By diplomatic ways, Rome divided the rebels: Lucius Julius Caesar (an uncle) promised Roman citizenship to those Italians who had remained faithful, and in 89 a similar law promised citizenship to those who gave up fighting.

Seizing the opportunity, king Mithridates V of Pontus attacked Asia Minor. The inhabitants of this province had welcomed their liberators, and had murdered many Italians and Romans. It is unknown where Caesar's family was in those days: it is certain that Caesar's father was no longer Asia's governor. The Romans wanted revenge, and the Senate appointed Sulla as a general in this First Mithridatic War. After his departure, Marius was given the same command by the People's Assembly. Sulla marched on Rome (First Civil War), Marius fled to Africa, and Sulla went to Asia Minor again, where he defeated Mithridates. During Sulla's absence, Marius returned, massacred all his enemies, had himself elected consul (86), but died a few days later.

From now on, Caesar's life was in danger: after all, he was the son of Marius's sister. His safety did not grow when his father died (85) and the victorious Sulla returned from Asia (82). However, the young man had had a fine education by one of Rome's most important professors, Marcus Antonius Gnipho, who was also the teacher of the orator Cicero. Caesar was married to Cornelia and had a daughter, Julia.

After his return, Sulla had himself appointed dictator. Originally, dictatorship was an extraordinary magistracy, perhaps best translated as "strong man", and "dictatorship" had nothing to do with tyranny. However, Sulla's exercise of the office gave rise to our present meaning of the word: wishing to exterminate the populares, Sulla changed the constitution by curtailing the rights of the People's Assembly. Many people were slain: Marius's ashes were scattered in the Tiber. Since Caesar was only eighteen years old, Sulla decided to be kind, and ordered Marius' nephew to divorce from his wife, as a symbolic act of his loyalty to the new regime. Although the alternative was banishment (or worse), Caesar refused. Sulla appreciated the young man's dedication to his bride, pardoned him, and prophesied that "in this young man there is more than one Marius".

Roman Forum

Early career (81-59)

Between 81 and 79, Caesar served in Asia Minor on the personal staff of Marcus Minucius Thermus, who was praetor in Asia Minor. Caesar was sent on a diplomatic mission to king Nicomedes of Bithynia and seems to have had a love affair with this ruler; during the conquest of the island Lesbos, Caesar gained a prize for bravery (corona civica); later, he was captured by pirates, and payed the usual ransom, 25 talents (500 kg) of silver.

When Sulla died (78), Caesar felt save to return to Italy, where he started a career as a criminal lawyer. This was a normal thing to do, and Caesar stayed far from politics. In 75, he went to Rhodes for further education, and again he was captured by pirates, who asked the usual tariff. Caesar demanded this prize to doubled (after all, he was an aristocrat) and promised to kill his captors. After the ransom was payed, Caesar manned some ships, defeated the bandits and had them crucified (except for their leader, who had mercifully his throat cut as Caesar had promised him). After this incident, he continued his studies.

They were interrupted, however, when Mithridates of Pontus attacked Asia Minor a second time (74). On his own initiative and expenses, Caesar raised a small army and defended some towns, giving the official Roman commander Lucullus time to organize an army and attack Mithridates in Pontus. Being a war hero by now, Caesar returned to Rome in 73. A career as a general and a politician had started.

In 68, he was elected quaestor and served in Andalusia. (A quaestor was an officer who was detached to a provincial governor and whose duties were primarily financial.) Before Caesar's departure, Marius's widow died, and he held a funeral speech in which he praised his aunt and her family. This was a way of claiming Marius' inheritance. That Caesar had developed political ambitions is shown by an incident in Spain: in Gades he saw a statue of Alexander the Great, and remarked that he had as yet performed no memorable act, whereas at his age -33 years old- Alexander had already conquered the whole world.

After his return from Spain, Caesar was elected aedile (in 65) and responsible for "bread and circuses" (lit. panem et circenses). He organized great games, making sure that the Roman mob would remember his name: in this way, as a true popularis, he would control their votes in the People's Assembly. This same year, he was accused of complicity in a plot to murder the consuls, but he was not sentenced. The leader of the plot, one Catilina was able to continue his career as a social reformer.

Two years later, Caesar managed to be elected pontifex maximus or high priest. He had paid large bribes. In this capacity, he proposed a moderate line against the followers of Catilina, who had made a second attempt to seize power. This second conspiracy was discovered by the consul Cicero, who had Catilina's followers executed at the instigation of Cato the Younger, a representant of the traditionalist wing of the optimates. Caesar's opposition to the death penalty again represents his `popular' policies, and probably he knew more about the plot than he liked to show.

Nevertheless, he was elected praetor, and the optimates became nervous for the first time, because Caesar was extremely popular with the masses. This time, they managed to rise accusations against Caesar, who they said was involved in a desecration of certain secret ceremonies. These ceremonies of the so-called Good Goddess were celebrated exclusively by women in the house of the pontifex maximus, but a man had been able to be present. The optimates argued that the high priest must have been involved too, and Caesar's only way to prevent larger troubles, was to divorce his wife.

Caesar was bankrupt by now. He had paid for the games of 65, the lobby for the pontificate in 63 and had paid much money to get out of the Good Goddess (Bona Dea) affair. Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome, paid Caesar's debts (830 talents, 17,500 kg silver) and Caesar had himself elected governor of Andalusia.

Until now, Caesar's behaviour had been more or less normal for a Roman senator with strong ambitions. From now on, however, Caesar's acts were often criminal, and Caesar's problem seems to have been that he had to possess an office or an army command, just to make sure that he had an immunity against prosecution.

Caesar's Spanish War gives a foretaste of the Gallic Wars. There was some unrest in the province, and under the pretext of restoring order, Caesar captured several towns, looted them, and made a lightning attack along the west-coast (through modern Portugal) and plundered the silver mines of Gallicia. When a town was under siege, and surrendered, it was nonetheless ravaged. As a rich man, Caesar returned, being able to sponsor a lobby for both the consulate and the right to enter the city with his army in an official procession (triumphus). Of these two, the triumph would give him most popularity, but the consulship was a necessity: he was likely to be prosecuted as a war criminal and the only way to prevent a law suit was an office. Having both was impossible, as Cato the Younger had announced the day of the consular elections, and no account of Caesar's candidacy could be taken unless he was a private citizen. Caesar was forced to forego his triumph in order to avoid losing the necessary consulship.

Curia: Senate House

Caesar's consulship (59)

However, Caesar's consulship was secure, and in december 60 he was elected to the highest office in the Roman Republic. His colleague was Bibulus, one of the optimates. Some of the measures Caesar and Bibulus took were the publication of the proceedings of the Senate, a reorganization of the taxes, and a law against extortion. However, the two consuls were not on speaking terms, and at a certain moment Caesar had his partner driven from the Forum. Next day, Bibulus complained in the Senate, but Caesar's armed bodyguard made sure that no one dared to support the poor consul. Other acts were equally illegal: when Cato protested to one of Caesar's proposals, Caesar had him dragged from the Senate's building and taken off to prison.
Usually, the senate (i.e., the optimates) assigned a province to each consul, where they were supposed to fight wars. Since Caesar's opponents were afraid of him, the senators took care that provinces of the smallest importance would be assigned to the newly elected consul: they could not run the risk of letting Caesar secure a province involving the command of an army.

59, Caesar counteracted by forming the so-called triumvirate, or, to use the more adequate term that was coined by the historian Livy (59 BCE - 17 CE), a conspiracy between the three leading citizens. The other two citizens implied in the conspiracy were the rich banker Crassus and the generalissimo Gnaeus Pompeius, better known as Pompey.

Crassus had started as a colonel in Sulla's army, and had been able to make lots of money under his regime. In 72, as praetor, Crassus had suppressed the slave revolt of Spartacus. Later, he had been involved in the Catiline conspiracies. Caesar had already paid back his debt to Crassus, but still had some moral obligation to the man who had secured his profitable Spanish command.

Pompey was Rome's leading general. He had started his career in Sulla's army, had later suppressed a rising of followers of Marius in Spain and had co-operated with Crassus in finishing off Spartacus' revolt. Later, he had defeated the pirates, and after 66 he was given Lucullus' command against Mithridates. Pompey had defeated the king of Pontus decisively and had forced him to commit suicide; after this, Pompey had annexed Syria and invaded Palestine, where he had captured Jerusalem. His soldiers called him "Pompey the Great", and rightly so: he had doubled Rome's annual income and added vast territories to the empire. In 62, Pompey had returned, and was at odds with the Senate because of its tardiness in ratifying his organization of the East.

The triumvirate gave something to all its members. In the first place, they decided that no step should be taken in public affairs which did not suit any of the three conspirators; together, they would run the Republic. The deal was sealed by intermarriage: Pompey married Caesar's daughter Julia; Caesar married Calpurnia, whose father Piso had been a close friend of Crassus. Caesar saw to the swift ratification of Pompey's oriental acts. An agrarian law passed the Senate, distributing land among the urban poor and Pompey's soldiers.

Most important was a law on the provincial commands, which gave Caesar the provinces Cisalpine Gaul (i.e., the plains along the river Po), Illyricum (the Dalmatian coast), and Transalpine Gaul (the Provence) for the years 58-54. In these provinces, there were four legions. (A legion was an army unit of some 5,000 soldiers.) Protected by his office as a commander and by these troops, Caesar would be safe against his enemies.

Early in 58, Caesar left Rome; his father-in-law Piso, who was consul, took care of his affairs in the capital.

Click map and go to: INTERACTIVE MAP OF GAUL

Wars in Gaul (58-52)

Gaul as a whole consisted of a multitude of states of different ethnic origin. In the Iron Age, their different cultures had started to resemble each other, largely by processes of trade and exchange. The Greeks and Romans called all these people Celts or Gauls. In the fourth century, Gallic warriors had settled along the Po and had invaded Central Italy (capturing Rome in 387). Most people in Italy were afraid of new Gaulish invasions.

In the second century mass migrations from Germans had started, for reasons that are unclear. Marius had defeated some of their tribes (the Teutones and the Cimbri), but in Caesar's days it was probably not a gross exaggeration to say that the states of Gaul would have to become Roman or would be overrun by Germans, who would proceed to attack Italy. If the Romans were afraid of the Gauls, the were terrified of the Germans. In Caesar's propaganda, an invasion of Gaul was a preventive war. Maybe Caesar was not blind to trade: the Rhone-Saone-Rhine- corridor was the most important trade route in pre-industrial Europe and a taste for Roman luxuries had already started in the Gaulish states along the Rhone and Saone. British tin was traditionally transported along the rivers Garonne and Seine.

Caesar's military base was the valley of the Rhone, which had been Roman from 123 onwards. In the valley of the Saone, the Aedui were faithful allies. When Caesar became governor of this region, the Helvetians (a nation in modern Switzerland) had decided to invade the region along the Rhone and Saone, and it was obvious to Caesar that if he was able to defeat these roaming Germans, he could impress the Senate. Besides, a victory over the Germans would place him on the same rank as his uncle Marius. This is exactly what happened: after raising two extra legions, he defeated the Helvetians, once when they were crossing the Saone and a second time in the neighbourhood of the capital of the Aedui, Bibracte. After these victories, the Gauls are said to have asked Caesar to help them pushing back Germans, who had crossed the Rhine and settled in Alsace. Again, Caesar was victorious, and winter quarters were built in the neighbourhood of the battle field, in modern Besancon.

Caesar spent his winter in Cisalpine Gaul, having an eye on the city of Rome and giving orders to Piso. Until now, the wars in Gaul had been successful, but not special. During the winter of 58/57, Caesar must have conceived larger plans, and rumours that the Belgians had decided to attack the Roman invaders were a good excuse to conquer all states in Gaul. Again, Caesar raised two legions, and together with the other troops, he surprised the Belgian nation of the Remi, who lived in modern Reims. His presence prevented the Remi from taking part in the Belgian attack on the Romans, and as it turned out, the Remi even sided with Caesar. As a result, the other Belgians decided to attack a Remian town that was situated on the boards of the river Aisne. Caesar, however, defended the town, and then stroke at the Belgian tribe of the Nervians, who lived along the Somme. In a battle, they were annihilated: barely 500 of their army of 60,000 survived. Along the Sambre and the Meuse, the Romans inflicted comparable losses upon the Aduatuci in two battles. During the same year, a smaller Roman army had gone to the west of modern France, and demanded subjection of the nations in Normandy and Brittany. After his Belgian campaign, Caesar's army followed, and winter quarters were established along the Loire. Meanwhile, in Rome, public thanksgiving lasting fifteen days were decreed by the Senate: no one had been granted this honour before.

Now that all Gaul had at least nominally submitted to Rome, Caesar spent the winter in Illyricum, but when he had crossed the Alps, the Gauls from Brittany rose against the Romans (56). Caesar ordered ships to be built, and spent some time in Italy, where he met Pompey and Crassus in Lucca: the triumvirs decided to continue their conspiracy against the Roman Republic and agreed that Caesar's generalship in Gaul would be prolonged until 50, December 31. This was an extraordinary command, and Caesar's fellow-conspirators demanded in return Caesar's support to be consuls in the next year, 55. Caesar agreed, and having secured his position, he crossed the Alps and in the summer a naval battle took place, in which the Bretons were defeated. Caesar's colonels took charge of mopping up expeditions in Aquitaine and Normandy.

Next year, Caesar accomplished two feats that must have shaken his Italian audience with excitement. First, Caesar's engineers bridged the Rhine, showing the Germans that the Romans were invincible. Actually, the destruction of German towns was little short of terrorism. Having impressed the Germans, the Gauls, and the Senate, Caesar turned to the west, where a large fleet was ready to carry Caesar's armies to Britain, where a short campaign took place. Even though the Britons were backward and still retained the primitive social system of chiefdoms (i.e., there were no states), the senate was duly impressed by the general who had reached the edges of the earth. The consuls in Rome, Crassus and Pompey, were compelled to decree a thanksgiving of twenty days.

In 54, Caesar invaded Britain again. He defeated the chief of the Britons, Cassivellaunus, in a battle near modern London and crossed the Thames. In Essex, some scientific experiments were carried out: from measurements with a water clock, Caesar's explorators learned that the nights in Britain were shorter than on the continent. After this expedition, winter quarters were build among the Belgians.

In the winter of 54-53, Caesar was faced with a serious crisis, as the winter camps were built too far from each other. Two legions were annihilated by a rising, led by Ambiorix. Though Caesar remained in control, it was obvious that Gaul was anything but conquered. Another cloud appeared on the horizon: from Rome came the message that Julia had died. As her father Caesar will have mourned his daughter, but as a politician he must have understood that the friendship with Pompey was no longer certain.

When the uneasy winter was over, Caesar must have decided to teach the Belgians a lesson for once and for all. The Nervians, who had already been decimated, were victims of naked aggression, after which the Menapii in the marshlands along the Rhine experienced the same horrors. (When this genocide became known in Rome, Cato exclaimed that Caesar ought to be handed over to the Germans.) A second Rhine crossing followed, and German tribes were forced to go with the current to the empty country of the Menapii (later, these migrants were known as Batavians). After these atrocities, winter quarters were build between the Seine and the Loire.

52 saw an even more serious rising than that of the winter of 54/53. For the first time, almost all nations in Gaul united under one commander, Vercingetorix. Only the Belgians, still lamenting the disaster of the year before, remained aloof. Caesar was forced to defend himself: he had to recall his armies from the north, and meanwhile tried to hold the south. Vercingetorix decided to drive away the Romans by cutting them off from forage and supplies: the Gauls therefore destroyed their towns, and stored everything in a few impregnable towns. Their army would attack the Romans when they laid siege to these strongholds. This tactic would force the Romans back from Gaul into the Provence. However, the Romans managed to take Bourges, killing 39,000 Gauls. The Gauls remained optimistic, and even the Aedui, Caesar's allies, rebelled. Soon after their insurgence, the Romans failed to take Gergovia. Meanwhile, the legions from Belgium on their way to the south found their ways barred by the Gauls, but in Paris, they crossed the Seine and three days later they contacted Caesar's defeated army. Having his armies united, Caesar was able to block Vercingetorix in a formidable fortress called Alesia. This site was too high to be stormed, so Caesar had to starve his enemies, who had lots of food.

The Romans decided that they could wait, and built enormous fortifications (the remains of which have survived). First, they build one line to keep in 80,000 Gauls; then, a second line to defend the Romans against 240,000 warriors of the Gaulish rescue force, that was besieging the besiegers. Terrible things happened: the Gauls sent away their wives and children, and the Romans refused to let them pass their lines. They were starved to death between the lines. In the end, Roman fortifications proved superior to Gaulish numbers, and Vercingetorix surrendered.

The whole of Gaul was now conquered. Three million people had been living in Gaul before Caesar arrived in 58; one million had been killed and one million had been sold as slaves when he left in 50. Caesar himself wrote in his Commentaries on the War in Gaul that peace had been brought to the whole of Gaul. It is not hard to see that this was the peace of a graveyard.

Map of Imperial Fora: click to enlarge

Civil wars (51-45)

When Caesar was in Gaul and organized the conquered territories, Pompey and Crassus tried to enlarge their power too. Pompey was successful: in 52, he was elected "consul without colleague", and he yielded dictatorial authority. Crassus, however, was unfortunate: after his consulship, he became governor of Syria with special prerogatives, and was defeated by the Parthians, who lived in modern Iraq. They murdered the Roman general by giving him what he had desired most, gold: the precious metal was liquified and poured into his mouth.

After Crassus's death, Pompey and Caesar remained, and the Senate feared a civil war, from which a king would arise. An overwhelming majority in the Senate (400 against 22) wished both dynasts to lay down their extraordinary commands before the consular elections in December 50. (The question if this was lawful remains unanswered: in 52, the People's Assembly had allowed Caesar to run for consul without being present.) After some deliberations, Pompey obeyed the Senate.

He was in a better position than Caesar. If the latter obeyed, he was no longer immune to prosecution. Cato had charged him with war crimes in Germany, and many people remembered Caesar's first consulship and the Spanish War. If Caesar refused to obey, he would be declared an enemy of the state: the Senate would be forced to appoint a commander with plenary powers, and it was not hard to see who this general would be.

In 49, on January 7, the Senate demanded Caesar to hand over his ten well-trained legions to a new governor. Caesar heard the news in Ravenna, and knew that he had to make a choice between prosecution and rebellion: preferring the dignity of war over the humiliation of a process, Caesar chose to rebel, quoting his favourite poet Menander, "the die is cast". On January 10, his army advanced to Rimini, where Caesar could control the passes across the Apennines: in doing so, he crossed the river Rubico, thereby invading Italy and provoking the Second Civil War. Caesar's perspectives did not look great: nine of his legions were in Gaul.

As it turned out, the Senate had made a disastrous mistake. It had believed that the issue was between a rebel and the legitimate rulers, and had expected that the towns of Italy would send troops in defence of the authority of the Senate and the Roman People's liberties. But Italy was sceptical about its champions, and showed no enthusiasm to defend the constitution. For Caesar's soldiers, on the other hand, everything depended on this one campaign: if they failed, they would never receive their pension. Unable to raise armies, the Senate was helpless. Two weeks after the start of the Civil War, Caesar was master of Italy and had hunted his enemies to the heel of Italy, from where Pompey and many senators fled to Greece (March 17).

Caesar did not waste his time. The situation was clear: the Senate had seven legions in Spain without commander, Pompey was in Greece without army. Caesar decided to attack the army first. When he entered Rome, Caesar pardoned instead of massacred his enemies and created a new Senate, which would authorize Caesar's acts. Before it had assembled, Caesar was already on his way to Spain, in the meanwhile proposing a law to give Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Cisalpine Gaul. After picking up his legions in the neighbourhood of Marseilles, Caesar crossed the Rhone and the Pyrenees, and defeated the Spanish army in the Battle of Ilerda, close to modern Barcelona. Again, Caesar showed clemency, sparing the commanders and disbanding the defeated legions. He rushed to Corduba, where two legions (commanded by Varro) submitted to Caesar. After his return, Caesar was made dictator: he had been out of Rome for three months.

Meanwhile, Pompey was in Greece, and by drawing upon the resources of the eastern provinces and client kings, he managed to raise an army of eight legions and a fleet of 300 ships, commanded by Bibulus. Now he was able to return to Italy. This was precisely what Caesar feared, and in despite the risk of winter navigation, he got seven legions across the Adriatic. Pompey was not surprised and blocked Caesar in Dyrrhachium (modern Durres). Caesar was in an awkward position, but in March 48 at last Marc Antony managed to reinforce Caesar with four legions. The united army managed to break through Pompey's lines, crossed the Pindos-mountains and defeated the pursuing Roman army near Pharsalus (August 9). Almost 6,000 soldiers were killed, and when Caesar surveyed the battle field and saw the bodies of the dead senators, he said: "Well, they would have it thus."

Pompey survived the Battle of Pharsalus, and went to Egypt, followed by Caesar. When Caesar arrived, he learned that Pompey had been executed by soldiers of the ten year old king Ptolemy XIII, who hoped to gain Caesar's support in his quarrel with his older sister Cleopatra VII. It turned out differently: Caesar was furious that he was not given the chance to pardon Pompey. When Caesar met Cleopatra, he was captivated by the girl's charms and chose her side in the Alexandrine War: Caesar's soldiers arrived in the spring of 47 and defeated Ptolemy. The boy's body was found in the Nile.

Having pacified Egypt, Caesar and Cleopatra spent two months on a honeymoon cruise on the Nile. Then Caesar hurried off to Asia Minor, where Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates, had challenged Roman authority. He was defeated in a rapid campaign at Zela ("I came, I saw, I conquered"). Having defeated Pompey and having calmed Egypt and Asia, in the course of the summer (47) the dictator was free to return to Rome.

Caesar's Forum

Domestic policy (47-44)

There were insurrections: in the spring of 46, Caesar defeated the Republicans at Thapsus in Africa. Cato the Younger committed suicide, because he did not want Caesar to pardon him. Being on the spot, Caesar annexed some of the territories of the Numidian king Juba. The wars seemed over, and Caesar celebrated four triumphs: he had defeated Vercingetorix, Ptolemy, Pharnaces, and Juba. In 45, however, Caesar had to suppress a final revolt in Spain, led by a son of Pompey. In the battle of Munda, Caesar was victorious for the last time.

At home, he showed himself a restless reformer. The Roman mob had received free corn doles: Caesar reduced the number of recipients from 322,000 to 150,000. The poor were offered a new life overseas, where he ordered cities like Carthage and Corinth to be rebuilt and founded new towns, such as Arles and Seville. The soldiers of the civil wars also received small farms; his own soldiers he paid an additional silver talent (21 kg or the equivalent of 26 year's pay). In Asia Minor and Sicily, he introduced a new system of taxation, which protected the subjects from extortion.

Debts were a serious problem, because interest had been sky-high during the Civil War. Caesar disappointed radical reformers (like Marcus Caelius Rufus) who had expected a total cancellation. Caesar decreed, however, that the debtors should satisfy their creditors according to a valuation of their possessions at the price which they had paid for them before the war, deducting whatever interest already had been paid. This arrangement wiped out about a fourth part of the debts.

Many public works were carried out in Italy. Most famous is the Forum of Caesar, a kind of shopping complex in the commercial centre of Rome. On the old forum, the political heart of the empire, he rebuilt the speaker's platform, the court house, and the Senate's building. (While the Senate's building was under construction, the Senate gathered in the Theatre of Pompey, which was outside the city, where Caesar's army could control its meetings.) Varro, the commander of Pompey's army in Corduba, was appointed head of a state library; to ensure that Rome would be a centre of learning, Caesar conferred privileges to all teachers of the liberal arts.

As a legislator, Caesar prepared standard regulations for the municipal constitutions and proposed a law against extravagance. The Jews -who had helped him in the Alexandrine War- were protected. He even planned a codification of all existent Civil Law (a project not executed before 438 CE). Most remarkable is the reorganization of the calendar: the Republican year had counted 355 days, the deficiency made up by randomly adding an extra month. With the advice of Cleopatra's astrologer, Caesar added four extra months to the year 46, decreeing that from January 1, 45 our calendar (365.25 days) was to be used.

The empire had been run by a government that had consisted of 600 senators (who served as judges), several magistrates, several governors, and their personal staff. Caesar recognized the need to enlarge the government. He enlarged the number of senators from 600 to 900, rose the praetores from eight to sixteen, the aediles from four to six, and the quaestores from twenty to forty. The last measure granted some justice in provincial taxation, but did not establish a serious professional bureaucracy as yet.

Caesar's most important policy was his lavish granting of citizenship: those who were subjected by the Romans could receive a set of extra civil rights and a small share in the benefits of empire. During the Social War, the Italian allies had received this Roman Citizenship from Caesar's uncle; Caesar extended the privilege first to the Gauls along the Po, and -later- to some Gauls that he had subdued. The inhabitants of many individual towns received the privilege too. To the dismay of the old aristocracy, Caesar even started to recruit new senators from outside Italy.

Remains of Temple of Vesta

Constitutional problems

Caesar's most important problem, however, was that he was too powerful: the Roman Republic was an oligarchy in which the powers were shared among the senators. Even though the Senate was defeated, oligarchic sentiments were strong, and Caesar had to find a way to make his rule tolerable. His clemency was important, but nothing more than a precondition to this.

It is possible that Caesar wanted to evade the question by leaving Rome and starting a new military campaign. In the spring of 44, an expeditionary force was on its way to the east, where Crassus's death had to be avenged. Its temporary commander was the son of Caesar's niece Atia, the young Caius Octavius. Caesar was to follow his legions and planned to attack the Parthians. Of course, success in the east would not have solved the problem.

Another way was to behave himself as a king, without actually using this title. The only kings the Romans knew, were the oriental kings, and therefore Caesar used their symbols to show his power. His statue was placed among those of the legendary Roman kings, he was allowed to wear a purple robe, he was given the surname Father of the Country, sat on a raised couch in the theatre and on a golden throne in the Senate, coins showed his portrait, and a temple was erected to Caesar's Clemency: its first priest was Marc Antony. When people wanted to approach him, he received them without rising. On the other hand, he refused to wear a crown, but was satisfied with a laurel wreath to cover his bald head.

Roman constitutional law allowed one way to exercise personal rule: the dictatorship. Caesar was made dictator after his return from Ilerda; in October 48 he was again appointed, in 46 he became dictator for ten years and in 44 for life. This was, however, not a solution, since the dictatorship had already been misused by Sulla, and even though it was a legal construction, it smelled like blood. A permanent consulship seemed to be a better response to the situation, and indeed, Caesar had himself elected consul in 48, 46, 45 and 44 (with Marc Antony). He also experimented with Pompey's innovation, the consulship without colleague (45). Again, this didn't work: although repeated consulships were not unconstitutional, occupying a magistrature permanently made it impossible for the aristocrats to show their importance. And indeed, many people's feelings were hurt. In the last weeks before his death, Caesar seems to have found a solution: he accepted the powers of several magistratures without occupying the magistratures themselves. In this way, Caesar could control the government without interfering with the careers of the nobles. The settlement by the emperor Augustus in 27 BCE shows that this solution could have been acceptable.

However, many Roman senators refused to resign themselves to a controlled oligarchy. More than sixty joined the conspiracy led by Caius Cassius and Marcus Brutus. They decided to kill the dictator when the Senate would meet on March 15.

On this day, Caesar was ill, and he decided to stay at home with his wife Calpurnia, who was discomforted because of some nightmares. Brutus' brother Decimus Brutus, however, visited the couple and implored Caesar not to disappoint the waiting senators. On his way to Pompey's theatre, several people handed over requests: Caesar held them in his left hand, intending to read them after the meeting. Accordingly he did not read a notice revealing the plot.

As he sat down on his raised couch and had received the senators who had gathered about him to pay their respects, Lucius Tillius Cimber came forward to make a request. He told Caesar that his brother was in jail and when Caesar started to reply that clemency was his usual policy, Tillius unexpectedly caught Caesar's toga.

"Be careful, there's no need to use force!", Caesar grumbled and asked his guard to take away the man. However, before the guard could interfere, another senator, Casca, stabbed the dictator just below the throat. Then, his victim understood what was happening, and he caught Casca's arm and run through it with the only weapon he could find, his pen. As Caesar tried to leap on his feet, he was kicked and stopped by another wound. When Caesar saw that he was surrounded by men with daggers, he knew he would not survive. He wrapped his head in his robe and covered the lower part of his body with a part of his toga, and was stabbed with twenty three wounds, not uttering a word.

All the conspirators made off, and Caesar lay lifeless at the feet of a statue of Pompey. For hours, nobody dared to come close, until three common slaves put his corpse on a litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down.

Caesar's bust

Caesar's inheritance (44-27)

The conspirators wanted to restore the Republic, but instead, another round of horrors followed. There were troops; there were politicians who aspired to Caesar's autocratic power; and they were prepared to use the troops.

Marc Antony, the consul, was now the official head of the state, and his first act was the confiscation of Caesar's papers and treasury. Then, he secured the co-operation of the commander of Caesar's troops outside Rome, Lepidus. Having the men and the money, he could negotiate from strength, and dictated the murderers a compromise: they were to receive amnesty, while Caesar's acts were to be respected, and he would be worshipped as a god. At the end of the day, Marc Antony was in charge of the city.

That very day, Piso opened the testament of his son-in-law. It contained precisely the material that Marc Antony needed: Caesar left his gardens as a park to the city of Rome, and gave every inhabitant a large amount of money. Several days later, Caesar's corpse was burned on the forum. The Roman mob saw the blood-stained cloak, and heard of the money that was to be distributed among them. Then, Marc Antony delivered the funeral oration, in which he inflamed their emotions: shortly after the assault, Caesar's murderers had to escape from the city that they had wished to liberate.

There was one minor cloud on Marc Antony's horizon: Caesar had left three quarters of his estate to his great-nephew Octavius, who was with the army in the east. Most important, Caesar had adopted him as a son, which meant that the eighteen years old Octavius had to change his name and would from now on be called Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, i.e. Caesar from the Octavius family. The boy decided to return to Italy, and demanded his share, which Antony had already confiscated. At first, nobody seemed to notice the boy, except for Caesar's veterans, but Caesar Octavianus couldn't pay them. However, the soldiers were enthusiast and loved the new Caesar.

By accident, Decimus Brutus was governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and Marc Antony had reason to fear his troops. Therefore, he left Rome to drive away Decimus Brutus. While Marc Antony and Decimus Brutus were fighting at Modena, the Senate convened, and Cicero held several speeches in which he tried to incriminate Marc Antony, pointing out that the consul would return with an army. This, he argued, was the moment to restore the Republic, and Caesar Octavianus might be used ("we must praise him, give him a command and then put him away"). The Senate agreed, and even though Caesar Octavianus was now nineteen, they gave him a military command. He didn't disappoint the Senate: in two battles, he defeated Marc Antony, who fled with difficulty across the Alps, where he managed to gain the support of all troops in Spain in Gaul. Then, Caesar Octavianus showed that actually, he had used Cicero: he marched on Rome and demanded the consulship. Again, the Senate had to yield to a revolutionary leader with an army.

In control of the city, Caesar Octavianus declared Marc Antony's compromise to be illegal and outlawed the murderers of his father. Then, unexpectedly, he decided to sign peace with Marc Antony: he had learned that it was impossible to defeat the man who controlled Spain and Gaul, but together they could destroy the Republic, if they managed to defeat Caesar's murderers, who possessed some troops in the east. In 42, Brutus and Cassius were defeated at Philippi, on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea.

Marc Antony, Caesar Octavianus and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate and divided the Mediterranean: Marc Antony received the east, Lepidus Africa and the rest was to be Caesar Octavianus's. Unlike the first triumvirate, which was a private contract, this was an official magistracy, and the People's Assembly and the Senate ratified a bill giving these three men dictatorial powers. Cicero was against this bill, but a murderer took care of him. Formally, the Republic had ended.

Caesar Octavianus was a brave man; he had appreciated political realities; and he was a skilled diplomat. But his successes would not have been this dazzling if his name had not been Caius Julius Caesar, and if he had not been able to claim to be the son of a god.

More successes were to come: in his propaganda, he was able to present the situation as a choice between liberty and stable government. Lepidus was simply appointed pontifex maximus, and will probably have been glad that he managed to survive. Marc Antony fell in love with Cleopatra, and launched a disastrous expedition against the Parthians. It was easy for Caesar Octavianus to present Marc Antony's acts as sacrificing Roman interests to an oriental mistress. In 31, Julis Caesar's heir defeated Marc Antony in a naval engagement off the Greek coast, the Battle of Actium.

Now, it was Caesar Octavianus's turn to make monarchy acceptable, and he found the way that Julius Caesar had merely guessed: in 27, he laid down his triumviral powers, saying that he was content with the honour of restoring the Republic. He would be content with the name Augustus ("the exalted one"). In fact, Caesar Augustus accepted the powers of magistratures (like consulship) without occupying the magistratures themselves. In this way, he managed to control the government behind a republican facade, backed by strong armies.

Caesar Augustus turned out to be the true heir of his divine father: many of Julius Caesar's plans were now implemented. The most important of these was the granting of citizenship to people who did not live in Italy. In the first century BCE the Roman Republic changed into a Mediterranean empire, and Julius Caesar speeded up this process; Caesar Augustus was the executor of this will.

Coin of Caesar


Julius Caesar stimulated the transition of the Roman Republic into a Mediterranean empire, bringing the fruits of empire (relative peace and modest prosperity) to some sixty million people. This conclusion brings us to the final question: was Caesar responsible for this reformation? The conquest of Gaul, the war against Pompey and the autocracy of Caesar are events that move so swift and sure as to appear as if Caesar had a deliberate plan to start a monarchy as an answer to all the world's problems.

Some historians have chosen this perspective, and the most eloquent of these historians was the German Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), in his Roemische Geschichte.

Mommsen was one of the founders of the liberal Deutsche Fortschrittspartei (German Progressive Party) and cultivated a bottomless hatred for the conservative Prussian nobility, and his view of the fall of the Roman Republic was coloured by his deep-rooted disillusionment with German liberal politics. The populares were, in Mommsen's view, a political party like his own people's party; as a corollary, the optimates represented the Roman conservatives, who showed a remarkable resemblance to the Prussian nobles. Caesar was, for Mommsen, the incarnation of the "heroic legislator" (an idea of the French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau): Caesar had swept away the pieces of a corrupt nobility and had created an empire that served the needs of its inhabitants. In its constitution monarchy and democracy were balanced - something Mommsen would have appreciated in his own country.

Mommsen wrote that Caesar's

aim was the highest which a man is allowed to propose himself - the political, military, intellectual, and moral regeneration of his own deeply decayed nation . . . The hard school of thirty years' experience changed his views as to the means by which this aim was to be reached; his aim itself remained the same in the times of his hopeless humiliation and of his unlimited plenitude of power, in the times when as demagogue and conspirator he stole towards it by paths of darkness, and in those when, as joint possessor of the supreme power and then as monarch, he worked at his task in the full light of day before the eyes of the world. . . . According to his original plan he had purposed to reach his object . . . without force of arms, and throughout eighteen years he had as leader of the people's party moved exclusively amid political plans and intrigues - until, reluctantly convinced of the necessity for a military support, he, when already forty years of age, put himself at the head of an army.

A century later, the judgment pronounced in this florid prose is dated. No historian will agree that Caesar was the leader of a people's party that can be compared to Mommsen's liberal Fortschrittspartei. But it cannot be denied that many of Caesar's measures indeed seemed to protect the ordinary people against the selfish policy of the nobles: this can easily be illustrated by pointing at Caesar's measures on taxation and citizenship. It is, however, impossible to establish if the improvement of the position of the people was Caesar's aim or just a way to establish a strong base for a personal regime.

The latter is the opinion of great historians like Eduard Meyer (1855-1930) and Jerome Carcopino, who maintained in their Caesars Monarchie und das Pinzipat des Pompejus (1919) and Histoire Romaine (vol. 2, 1936) that since his youth, Caesar's sole aim was the establishment of an oriental monarchy in Rome.

When these books appeared, the German historian Matthias Gelzer had already shown that perhaps it was wrong to focus on Caesar's policy: men make history, but not in the circumstances of their choosing, and Caesar was perhaps nothing but an exponent of a larger process. Gelzer thought that it was wrong to regard men -even powerful men like Caesar- as initiators of social changes: these had to have deeper causes. In his book on the nobility of the Roman Republic (Die Nobilitat der Roemischen Republik, 1912), Gelzer pointed out that the fall of the Republic was not just the establishment of a monarchy by one man (consciously striving at it or not), but a social revolution in which the old, Roman aristocracy was replaced by a new oligarchy that enroled its members from all parts of Italy and even the provinces. For this process, Gelzer coined the term Roemische Revolution.

This title was borrowed by Oxford professor Ronald Syme (1903-1989), who in the Anglo-Saxon world is considered to be one of the greatest historians of his age. His book on the The Roman Revolution appeared on the very day that the Second World War broke out, and this is significant for its contents: being confronted with tyrants like Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, Syme was unable to share Mommsen's enthusiasm for one-person rule. As his title shows, Syme agreed with Gelzer's thesis that Caesar was an exponent of a larger process, in which the old aristocracy was replaced by a larger nobility.

Gelzer, however, had created a new problem: if we are to regard Caesar's acts as part of a larger process, we must explain how this process came into being. In spite of his declared ignorance of sociology, Syme borrowed the concept of competitive elitism from Mommsen's brilliant pupil Max Weber (1864-1920). Competitive elitism was Weber's concept of democracy: there were several factions, who were contending with each other to gain power, and (combinations of) these factions balanced each other. The people that mattered were the elite of the factions, and it has been argued that Weber in fact vindicated oligarchy.

Syme was of the opinion that the Late Roman Republic had indeed several competing elites: he pointed at the Licinius family, who grouped around Lucullus and Crassus; the kinsmen of Cato; the Julius and Marius families; the relatives of Pompey; and of course the Octavii. In his reconstruction of the events, the optimates and populares were not political parties (as Mommsen had thought): these words signified two approaches to legitimacy. Optimates thought that a decision was legitimate when it was made in the Senate, the populares tried to reach their aims in the People's Assembly. The family-factions that Syme postulated were free to use both ways, and in fact did use both ways. The Julian faction had a tendency to have its policy validated in the People's Assembly, but in 49 Caesar was anxious to receive ratification in the Senate; on the other hand, Cato's faction used optimate ways, but Cato was not above increasing the number of recipients of the corn dole.

Caesar, in Syme's opinion, was a Roman aristocrat who was able to surpass his fellow aristocrats because he found support outside Italy. He did not have a "policy", he simply wanted to be the first among his equals. Caesar's lavish distribution of citizenship was an important step in this revolution, which Caesar of course did not control.

Syme writes:

"They would have it thus," said Caesar as he gazed upon the Roman dead at Pharsalus, half in patriot grief for the havoc of civil war, half in impatience and resentment. They had cheated Caesar of the true glory of a Roman aristocrat - to contend with his peers for primacy, not to destroy them. His enemies had the laugh of him in death. Even Pharsalus was not the end. His former ally, the great Pompeius, glorious from victories in all quarters of the world, lay unburied on an Egyptian beach, slain by a renegade Roman, the hireling of a foreign king. Dead, too, and killed by Romans, were Caesar's rivals and enemies, many illustrious consulars. . . . Cato chose to fall by his own hand rather than witness the domination of Caesar and the destruction of the Free State.
That was the nemesis of ambition and glory, to be thwarted in the end. After such wreckage, the task of rebuilding confronted him, stern and thankless. Without the sincere and patriotic co- operation of the governing class, the attempt would be all in vain, the mere creation of arbitrary power, doomed to perish in violence . . . Under these unfavourable auspices, . . . Caesar established his Dictatorship. . . . . In the short time at his disposal he can hardly have made plans for a long future or laid the foundation of a consistent government. Whatever it might be, it would owe more to the needs of the moment than to alien or theoretical models.

At the moment, most historians will agree with Syme and disagree with Mommsen. On the other hand, it can be argued that Syme's "factions" resemble the cliques that run a university, like Oxford. Syme's belief in family loyalty seems not very realistic and has already been challenged. Future generations of historians will certainly find new ways to evaluate Caesar.

Roman Empire at its peak: click to enlarge

Caesar's writings

Writing in the second century CE, the Roman author Suetonius still knew many of Caesar's publications, such as a book On analogy and a collection of speeches In reply to Cato. A poem The voyage described Caesar's journey from Rome to Spain, when he was governor of Andalusia. These works are now unknown. In Suetonius' days, other publications were already lost: a tragedy Oedipus, a collection of apophtegms and a poem or speech In praise of Hercules.

The only publications that can still be read, are his fascinating Commentaries on the War in Gaul (De bello Gallico) and his Commentaries on the Civil War. The first text was written in Gaul, and contains seven books, each covering a single year from 58 to 52. An eighth book carries the story to the outbreak of the Civil War, but is written by one Hirtius (who is perhaps also the author of The Spanish War). In these books, Caesar is his own herald: in a simple and compressed style, he shows himself involuntarily fighting necessary wars.

Caesar's sword: the gladius--CLICK to enlarge


Most entertaining is the biography by Suetonius, which is the first of the Lives of the Twelve Caesars. The biographer was in charge of the imperial archives under the emperor Hadrian (who ruled 117-138): in this capacity, Suetonius had access to probably the best possible information. He uses it critically: for example, about Caesar's death circulated a story that he had expected the assault, but was shocked to discover that Brutus was one of the conspirators, and that his last words were "You too, my son?". Suetonius makes clear that he has some doubts about this anecdote.

Describing someone's life is a meaningless thing to do, unless there is some moral to be learned. Suetonius' moral is clear: if a man has the total freedom and the absolute power of a Roman emperor, he must be strong indeed if he wants to remain honest. To show this, he is fond of stories about cruelty and sexual deviations. Of course, this makes him one of the most interesting authors of antiquity, but sometimes he seems to portray his emperors a nuance too black.

Another moralist is the Greek author Plutarch, who was a few years younger than Suetonius and covered more or less the same ground. His biography is meant as a counterpart to a Life of Alexander the Great: consequently, the moral is totally different, namely that Greeks and Romans have much more in common than they want to admit.

These two biographies give us the outline of Caesar's life, a mere skeleton. It should be given flesh with other information, for which Caesar's own writings are very important.

The correspondence of Cicero cannot be dismissed: to a large extent, his Letters to Atticus is private correspondence and gives us first-rate information about the political life in Rome in Caesar's days. As these letters were rediscovered during the reign of Caesar's descendant Nero (who ruled 54-68 CE), several unbecoming letters about Caesar were not published. The same selection was made in the collections of Cicero's Letters to Friends and Letters to Brutus. Cicero's speeches are very informative, especially On the provinces for the consuls, For Marcellus, For Ligarius and the Philippic speeches against Marc Antony. A very amusing sketch of public morals in Caesar's days is Cicero's speech For Marcus Caelius Rufus.

On Caesar's behaviour in 63, our most important source is The Catiline Conspiracy by Caesar's partisan Sallustius. Perhaps he is also the author of a Letter to Caesar, in which the author suggests some reforms.

The books on Caesar by the historian Livy have not survived, but excerpts are still extant. It is possible to say that Plutarch must have used this text when he wrote his biographies: his Life of Caesar has already been mentioned, but biographies of Brutus, Cato the Younger, Cicero, Crassus, Marc Antony and Pompey are most informative too. In the third century, the historian Cassius Dio based his description of the fall of the Roman Republic (books 36-44 of his History) on Livy. For the struggle over Caesar's inheritance, he is the most important source.


Main e-reference: Gaius Julius Caesar, by Jona Lendering.
~ For links to cited sources, see my previous Julius & Caesar Inc.
~ Enlargeable B&W photo of Augustus' ARA PACIS
~ Enlargeable plan of the ROMAN FORUM with keys

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