Caesar, Gaius Julius (100-44 BC), Roman general an
d statesman, who laid thefoundations of the Roman imperial system.
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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.
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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