Caesar, Gaius Julius (100-44 BC), Roman general an Essay

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d statesman, who laid thefoundations of the Roman imperial system.

Early Life

Born in Rome on July 12 or 13, 100 BC, Caesar belonged to the prestigious Julian clan;

yet from early childhood he knew controversy. His uncle by marriage was Gaius Marius,

leader of the Populares. This party supported agrarian reform and was opposed by the

reactionary Optimates, a senatorial faction. Marius was seven times consul (chief

magistrate), and the last year he held office, just before his death in 86 BC, he exacted a

terrifying toll on the Optimates. At the same time he saw to it that young Caesar was

appointed flamen dialis, one of an archaic priesthood with no power. This identified him

with his uncle’s extremist politics, and his marriage in 84 BC to Cornelia, the daughter of

Marius’s associate, Cinna, further confirmed him as a radical. When Lucius Cornelius

Sulla, Marius’s enemy and leader of the Optimates, was made dictator in 82 BC, he issued

a list of enemies to be executed. Although Caesar was not harmed, he was ordered by

Sulla to divorce Cornelia. Refusing that order, he found it prudent to leave Rome. He did

not return to the city until 78 BC, after Sulla’s resignation.

Caesar was now 22 years old. Unable to gain office, he left Rome again and went to

Rhodes, where he studied rhetoric; he returned to Rome in 73 BC, a very persuasive

speaker. The year before, while still absent, he had been elected to the pontificate, an

important college of Roman priests.

Triumvirate

In 71 BC Pompey the Great, who had earned his epithet in service under Sulla, returned to

Rome, having defeated the rebellious Populares general Sertorius in Spain. At the same

time Marcus Licinius Crassus, a rich patrician, suppressed in Italy the slave revolt led by

Spartacus. Pompey and Crassus both ran for the consulshipan office held by two

menin 70 BC. Pompey, who by this time had changed sides, was technically ineligible,

but with Caesar’s help he won the office. Crassus became the other consul. In 69 BC,

Caesar was elected quaestor and in 65 BC curule aedile, gaining great popularity for his

lavish gladiatorial games. To pay for these, he borrowed money from Crassus. This united

the two men, who also found common cause with Pompey. When Caesar returned to

Rome in 60 BC after a year as governor of Spain, he joined forces with Crassus and

Pompey in a three-way alliance known as the First Triumvirate; to cement their

relationship further, Caesar gave his daughter Julia to Pompey in marriage. Thus backed,

Caesar was elected consul for 59 BC despite Optimate hostility, and the year after (58

BC) he was appointed governor of Roman Gaul.

Gallic Wars

At that time Celtic Gaul, to the north, was still independent, but the Aedui, a tribe of

Roman allies, appealed to Caesar for help against another Gallic people, the Helvetii,

during the first year of his governorship. Caesar marched into Celtic Gaul with six legions,

defeated the Helvetii, and forced them to return to their home area. Next, he crushed

Germanic forces under Ariovistus (flourished about 71-58 BC). By 57 BC, following the

defeat of the Nervii, Rome was in control of northern Gaul. (A last revolt of the Gauls, led

by Vercingetorix, was suppressed in 52 BC.)

Power Play

While Caesar was in Gaul, his agents attempted to dominate politics in Rome. This,

however, threatened Pompey’s position, and it became necessary for the triumvirs to

arrange a meeting at Luca in 56 BC, which brought about a temporary reconciliation. It

was decided that Caesar would continue in Gaul for another five years, while Pompey and

Crassus would both be consuls for 55 BC; after that, each would have proconsular control

of provinces. Caesar then went off to raid Britain and put down a revolt in Gaul. Crassus,

ever eager for military glory, went to his post in Syria. Provoking a war with the Parthian

Empire, he was defeated and killed at Carrhae in 53 BC. This removed the last buffer

between Caesar and Pompey; their family ties had been broken by the death of Julia in 54

BC.

Civil War

In 52 BC, with Crassus out of the way, Pompey was made sole consul. Combined with his

other powers, this gave him a formidable position. Jealous of his younger rival, he

determined to break Caesar’s power, an objective that could not be achieved without first

depriving him of his command in Gaul. In order to protect himself, Caesar suggested that

he and Pompey both lay down their commands simultaneously, but this was rejected;

goaded by Pompey, the Senate summarily called upon Caesar to resign his command and

disband his army, or else be considered a public enemy. The tribunes, who were Caesar’s

agents, vetoed this motion, but they were driven out of the Senate chamber. The Senate

then entrusted Pompey with providing for the safety of the state. His forces far

outnumbered Caesar’s, but they were scattered throughout the provinces, and his troops in

Italy were not prepared for war. Early in 49 BC Caesar crossed the Rubicon, a small

stream separating his province from Italy, and moved swiftly southward. Pompey fled to

Brundisium and from there to Greece. In three months Caesar was master of all Italy; his

forces then took Spain and the key port of Massilia (Marseille).

In Rome Caesar became dictator until elected consul for 48 BC. At the beginning of that

year he landed in Greece and smashed Pompey’s forces at Pharsalus. Pompey escaped to

Egypt, where he was assassinated. When Caesar arrived there, he installed Cleopatra,

daughter of the late King Ptolemy XI as queen. In 47 BC he pacified Asia Minor and

returned to Rome to become dictator again. By the following year all Optimate forces had

been defeated and the Mediterranean world pacified.

Dictatorship and Assassination

The basic prop for Caesar’s continuation in power was the dictatorship for life. According

to the traditional Republican constitution, this office was only to be held for six months

during a dire emergency. That rule, however, had been broken before. Sulla had ruled as

dictator for several years, and Caesar now followed suit. In addition, he was made consul

for ten years in 45 BC and received the sanctity of tribunes, making it illegal to harm him.

Caesar also obtained honors to increase his prestige: He wore the robe, crown, and

scepter of a triumphant general and used the title imperator. Furthermore, as Pontifex

Maximus, he was head of the state religion. Above all, however, he was in total command

of the armies, and this remained the backbone of his power.

As a ruler Caesar instituted various reforms. In the provinces he eliminated the highly

corrupt tax system, sponsored colonies of veterans, and extended Roman citizenship. At

home he reconstituted the courts and increased the number of senators. His reform of the

calendar gave Rome a rational means of recording time.

A number of senatorial families, however, felt that Caesar threatened their position, and

his honors and powers made them fear that he would become a rex (king), a title they, as

Republicans, hated. Accordingly, in 44 BC, an assassination plot was hatched by a group

of senators, including Gaius Cassius and Marcus Junius Brutus. On March 15 of that year,

when Caesar entered the Senate house, the group killed him.

Personal Life

After Caesar’s first wife, Cornelia, died in 68 BC, he married Pompeia, a granddaughter of

Sulla. When the mysteries of the Bona Dea, over which she presided, were violated, she

was maligned by gossips, and Caesar then divorced her, telling the Senate that Caesar’s

wife must be above suspicion. His next marriage (59 BC) was to Calpurnia and was

politically motivated. Since Caesar had no male heirs, he stipulated in his will that his

grandnephew, Octavius, become his successor. It was Octavius who became Rome’s first

emperor under the name of Augustus.

Caesar was a gifted writer, with a clear and simple style. His Commentaries, in which he

described Gaul and his Gallic campaigns, is a major source of information about the early

Celtic and Germanic tribes.

Achievements

Scholarly opinion of Caesar’s accomplishments is divided. Some regard him as an

unscrupulous tyrant, with an insatiable lust for power, and blame him for the demise of the

Roman Republic. Others, admitting that he could be ruthless, insist that the Republic had

already been destroyed. They maintain that to save the Roman world from chaos a new

type of government had to be created. In fact, Caesar’s reforms did stabilize the

Mediterranean world. Among ancient military commanders, he may be second only to

Alexander the Great.

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