Gaius Iulius Caesar (100-44 BCE) was a central figure of the last decades of the Roman Republic. He was an accomplished writer and orator, a brilliant politician and power-broker and an outstanding general, but he was also totally ruthless in the pursuit of his personal goals and ambitions, which included not only absolute power over the Roman empire, but also divine honours and recognition as a human god.
The Early Years
Caesar was born in 102 or 100 BCE into the ancient patrician family of the Iulii who claimed ancestry from Aeneas of Troy, one of the mythical founders of Rome, and the goddess Venus, but few members of the family had distinguished themselves in the previous generations. Caesar’s father arrived at the praetor-ship, but never won the election for the consulship.
The years of his youth were dominated by the conflict between the factions of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornilius Sulla in the conflict between the populares and the optimates. Caesar’s family relations placed him on the side of the populares, since his aunt Julia was married to Marius. In 87, when Marius was elected consul with his ally Lucius Cornelius Cinna, this bond was further strengthened when Cinna gave his daughter Cornelia in marriage to Caesar. The years of his youth were dominated by the conflict between the factions of Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornilius Sulla in the conflict between the populares and the optimates. Caesar’s family relations placed him on the side of the populares, since his aunt Julia was married to Marius. In 87, when Marius was elected consul with his ally Lucius Cornelius Cinna, this bond was further strengthened when Cinna gave his daughter Cornelia in marriage to Caesar.
Caesar was also appointed flamen dialis (the chief priest of Jupiter) by Cinna. The flamen dialis was submitted to a strict programme of religious duties, including a restriction on leaving Rome for more than one night in a row, which effectively prevented the flamen dialis from pursuing a normal political career. Maybe little was expected of Caesar due to the undistinguished recent history of his family.
Marius died in 86, and Cinna was deposed by supporters of Sulla, who took control of Rome. Sulla annulled most of the decisions of Marius and Cinna, including the nomination of Caesar as flamen dialis, but Caesar’s life was spared, unlike many other supporters of Marius. Caesar never accepted the cancellation of his nomination as flamen dialis, and neither did he divorce Cornelia as a result of the changing political tides.
Caesar’s Political Career
In the following decade or so Caesar spend most of his time in Asia, pursuing a military career. Here he achieved a victory over forces of Mithridates VI and won several distinctions in battle for personal courage.
Sulla died in 78 BCE, but Caesar did not feel safe enough to return to Rome before 73. Now Caesar embarked on the traditional career of a young aristocrat. The same year he was co-opted in the pontifical college (the most important priestly college), and he was elected tribunus militum. In 69 BCE he was elected questor and assigned the province of Hispania Ulterior, but before leaving both his aunt Julia and his wife Cornelia died. Caesar used these two occasions to underline his own lineage and heritage. At the funerals of Julia he delivered a splendid eulogy and he displayed the funerary mask of Marius for the first time since the proscriptions of Sulla. Likewise, at the funerals of Cornelia, he displayed the funerary mask of Cinna for the first time.
After serving in Spain Caesar return to Rome and started to nurture friendships among the aristocracy to further his career. He married Pompeia, a granddaughter of Sulla, but he also continued his revenge against those who had taken part in the Sullan proscriptions. His performance in the trials earned him a reputation as a brilliant orator.
In 65 BCE he was elected aedile and held lavish games and spectacles, which left him popular but indebted. He was accrued further debts in 63 BCE when he ran for pontifex maximus against senior candidates. The pontifex maximus was the highest priestly office in the Roman religious system. The pontifex maximus was chosen by semi-popular vote between existing members of the pontifical college, the post was held for life and it was normally occupied by an older, accomplished ex-consul. Yet Caesar candidated and he won, by abundant and unscrupulous bribery.
The following year (62) Caesar was elected praetor, the second highest annual political office, and in 61 BCE he had to return to his province of Hispania Ulterior. Some time before his departure the rituals of the Bona Dea were performed in Caesar’s house, presided by his wife Pompeia, as the cult of Bona Dea was for women only. During the celebrations P. Clodius Pulcher entered disguised as a woman, allegedly to meet Pompeia, but he was discovered and the rituals declared invalid. This was a major scandal. During the following trial of Clodius, he received the support of Caesar and was acquitted, probably because the jury was bribed. Caesar used the incident to divorce Pompeia, saying that on the wife of Caesar not even a suspicion was acceptable.
Caesar was seriously in debt before leaving for Spain, and some of his creditors tried to get a legal injunction against his departure. Caesar, however, managed to strike a deal with Marcus Licinius Crassus, who was the richest man in Rome at the time. Crassus could use Caesar and his immense popularity with the masses to further his own ambitions, and he guaranteed for Caesar’s debts. Caesar could leave for Spain.
As governor of Hispania Ulterior Caesar now had to make a massive amount of money in just one year. To achieve this he largely ignored his normal duties as provincial governor and used some unrest to go on a looting campaign along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula. His forces would attack and raid the cities of the indigenous inhabitants, sacking the towns even if they surrendered without resistance. He also plundered the rich silver mines in the area.
The Alliance with Crassus and Pompey
He returned to Rome in mid 60 BCE as a rich man, capable of paying off his debts, returning a substantial sum to the treasury and still having the resources to run for consul. On his return the senate awarded him a triumph for his conquests in Spain. This caused him a major dilemma. On the one hand, a triumph was the greatest honour a Roman leader could receive, but it meant he would have to stay outside the pomerium (the ritual city limits), since his imperium (military command) was only valid outside the pomerium. If he entered the city prematurely, he would forfeit his imperium and not be able to celebrate the triumph.
On the other hand, if he waited outside the city limits until the triumph could be organised, he would not be able to get to the Forum Romanum in time to announce his candidature for the consulship of 59 BCE. If he didn’t become consul, which implied immunity from prosecution, he would almost certain have to face trial for his abuse of his gubernatorial powers in Spain.
Confronted with this choice, Caesar chose power over honour and entered the city. In his search of allies and support for his candidature, he approached Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey. Both had problems they needed solved.
Crassus had immense financial means, but had problems with client publicani, tax collectors, whose bid for the exaction of taxes from the recently conquered eastern provinces he had supported. The publicani hadn’t been able to levy enough from the war ridden provinces to make a profit, and had turned to Crassus for support in renegotiating the contracts. Crassus had been unable to get the deals through in the Senate.
Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was the great general of the time. In the past decade he had defeated Mithridates, cleared the Mediterranean of pirates, conquered and annexed the territory of Syria and invaded Palestine, taking Jerusalem. He had organised the East in accordance with his imperium, but on his return in 62 BCE he had been unable to get the senate to ratify his dispositions in the East and to assure the promised land to his veterans.
Though the two were on very good terms, Caesar managed to strike a deal with both of them, promising to sort out their problems in return for their support.
The electoral campaign was tough and badly scarred by the use of violence, intimidation and bribery. Caesar won, but one of the optimates, Bibulus, came second, promising a hard consulship, since one consul could veto the other.
As consul Caesar’s first priority was to fulfil his promises to Crassus and Pompey, which he did by dubious means. He used his bands of hoodlums to intimidate the opposition, including his co-consul, who for a period was so scared of leaving his house, that he would send a runner to the senate with the message that “Bibulus was watching the skies”. The meaning was that he would be watching for bad omens or prodigies that would show that the gods did not approve of Caesars methods, thus rendering his decisions invalid. The tactic was of dubious legality, but it did put into doubt the validity of the decisions taken by Caesar during his consulate.
At the end of his tenure Caesar was expected to leave Rome to be proconsul in a province, but the senate did everything to avoid assigning Caesar a province that would imply the command of armed forces, and he was initially given Illyricum and Cisalpine Gaul for five years. Caesar still risked being prosecuted, but his proconsular imperium gave him another five years of immunity.
Caesar, Crassus and Pompey now decided to continue their alliance, sometimes called the first triumvirate, which by the almost contemporary historian Livy was described as “conspiracy against the state by its three leading citizens”. They made a private deal about dividing the empire between them. Caesar got Transalpine Gaul in addition to Illyricum and Cisalpine Gaul, Crassus got command of the eastern provinces and Pompey got Spain, but would remain in Rome to keep the optimates in check with his army. Pompey also married Julia, Caesar’s daughter by Cornelia, to confirm the pact. Together they were strong enough to force this agreement on the senate which had to submit.
The Conquest of Gaul
Now Caesar was free to pursue honour and glory for another five years. The conquest of Gaul, during the Gallic Wars celebrated in Caesar’s own treatise on the subject, does not appear to have been planned, but in 58 BCE an intrusion into Roman controlled territory of the Helvetii from the area of Switzerland gave Caesar an excuse to go on the offensive.
Later Caesar used a request for help from some of the Gallic tribes to intervene in internal Gallic conflicts, and he defeated one tribe after another. By the end of 57 BCE most of the tribes were defeated and forced to accept Roman supremacy.
In 56 BCE the alliance of Caesar, Crassus and Pompey met fierce opposition in the senate in Rome and one candidate for the consulship in 55 BCE promised to call back Caesar and prosecute him if he won the election. Caesar, who had spent the winter in Illyricum, met with Pompey and Crassus in Italy to sort out the situation. The agree to prolong their private agreement for another five years. Caesar would support the election of Pompey and Crassus for the consulship of 55 BCE, and Caesar’s pro-consular command in Gaul would be prolonged for another five-year period, giving him another respite from prosecution. Their plan succeed, Pompey and Crassus became consuls and Caesar’s command prolonged.
With his back covered Caesar returned to Gaul. In the following years (55 and 54 BCE) he fought Germanic tribes that had crossed the Rhine into Gaul, with a brutality and ruthlessness that caused much opposition in Rome, and he crossed the British Channel and made a short, victorious campaign in Britain, but with no lasting consequences.
Caesar’s troops camped for the winter in various places in Belgium, but in the spring of 53 BCE some of these camps were attacked by the local tribes and suffered serious losses. Caesar spend most of that year fighting these tribes, and effectively annihilated some of them, men, women and children. The next year an alliance of many Gallic tribes, under the leadership of Vercingetorix, rose against the Romans. They tried to starve out the Romans, burning many of their own towns and collected all their forces and supplies in a few heavily fortified strongholds. Caesar’s forces took some of these towns, but failed to take others. In the end all the Roman forces was concentrated around the city of Alesia, but failed to take it by storm. Caesar decided to starve the Gallic forces out, and after a prolonged siege Vercingetorix and the Gauls surrendered.
It is estimated that one million persons died in the wars and another million was sold into slavery, draining Gaul of approximately one third of the entire population. Caesar had effected an unprecedented genocide (in modern terms we would talk about war crimes, genocide and crimes against the humanity), all in the name of honour and glory.
The Civil War
After their joint consulship in 55 BCE, Pompey and Crassus both tried to strengthen their positions. Crassus needed a military success to compete with Caesar and Pompey, so he got a pro-consular command in Syria where a war with the Parthians had broken out, but he was unsuccessful and eventually died in battle in 53 BCE.
Pompey kept his former pro-consular command in Spain, where several legions were stationed, but he remained in Rome to keep the senate in check. In 54 BCE his family ties with Caesar was severed, when his wife, Caesar’s daughter Julia died. Pompey was the single most powerful man in Rome. Normally there would be two consuls, and one could veto the decisions of the other, but in 52 BCE Pompey was elected sole consul, which effectively gave him dictatorial powers for a year. The same year he remarried, this time with the daughter of one of Caesar’s political enemies. It was almost certain that it would somehow come to a confrontation between Pompey and Caesar when the latter returned from Gaul.
Caesar still had very influential enemies in Rome, and now he probably had to count Pompey as one of them. It was more likely that not that he would have to stand trial when his command in Gaul expired by the end of 50 BCE. He applied the senate for permission to run for consul in absentia for the year 49 BCE, which was granted, but his wish to keep his imperium in Gaul, and therefore his military command, while being a candidate was turned down, again leaving him vulnerable to prosecution. When Pompey openly started to cooperate with Caesar’s enemies to prevent his election, his chances diminished further.
Unable to get his way politically, Caesar turned to his proven means: his armies. The soldiers had been fighting with him for almost ten years and they knew that their future laid with the political fortunes of Caesar. They expected to be awarded a piece of land somewhere when disbanded, but Caesar had to be around to ensure it. His enemies certainly wouldn’t fulfil his promises to his veterans.
When Caesar ordered his troops to cross the Rubicon river, he started a civil war. The Rubicon in the Po Valley formed the border between province of Cisalpine Gaul, where he could legally lead his soldiers, and Italy proper, where he had absolutely no right to command an army. In Italy there were, however, few troops loyal to the senate, and Caesar quickly overran the whole peninsula. Pompey and most of the senators escaped towards Greece via Brindisi in S. Italy.
Caesar now had control of Rome, where he appointed a new senate, before he pursued his enemies. He first looked towards Spain, where Pompey had loyal troops stationed, but in a swift campaign through Spain and S. France eliminated that threat in less than six months.
In 48 BCE Caesar was ready to face Pompey and the others in Greece. In spite of having lesser naval forces at his command he managed to ferry most of his troops over the Adriatic Sea. He first suffered a minor defeat at Dyrrhachium (Dürres in Albania), but later Pompey gave battle at Pharsalus, which Caesar won in spite of being numerically inferior. Many of his enemies from the senate died on the battlefield, but Pompey managed to escape and fled to Egypt.
In Egypt Pompey got caught up in a conflict of succession between Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra VII. Ptolemy had Pompey killed to gain favour with Caesar, but when Caesar arrived he was furious and sided with Cleopatra against her brother. Caesar stayed in Egypt for several months. He instated Cleopatra as sole ruler, and left her pregnant when he set off to return to Rome. She later gave birth to a son, Ptolemy Caesar (often called Caesarion). Caesar passed through Palestine, Syria and Asia Minor, where he reorganised the provinces before he returned to Rome in 47 BCE.
The remaining republican forces had used his absence to regroup and reorganise. Caesar first had to suppress an uprising in Rome itself, but the main opposition forces were assembled in Africa, where he landed in December 47 BCE. Early the next year the decisive battle was fought at Thapsos where the remaining leaders of the republican cause died, including Cato the Younger. Back in Rome Caesar now had the time to celebrate. The senate (his senate) bestowed numerous honours on him and he celebrated four triumphs, nominally over foreign powers, as no triumphs had ever been celebrated for a victory in a civil war.
Pompey had two sons, Gnaus and Sextus Pompeius, who managed to raise an army in Spain. They met Caesar in battle near Munda in 45 BCE. It was hard fought battle with substantial casualties on both sides, but in the end Caesar won. He remained in Spain for a while to reorganise the provinces, and then celebrated yet another triumph on his return to Rome.
Dictator and God
After the battle of Munda no-one tried to oppose Caesar with arms; no-one was capable of opposing Caesar. He was the single most wealthy man in the empire, with a fortune to match, if not exceed, that of the state treasury. The armed forces were loyal to him personally, and every opposing force had been defeated. The majority of the senate was appointed by him. There was no power but Caesar’s.
He had managed to put an end to the civil wars and conflicts that had ravaged the Roman Republic, but the price was high, not just in human lives and suffering. The political system that had governed the state for more than four centuries had failed miserably and laid in ruins, but there was nothing to take it place, except the rule by one person: dictatorship or monarchy.
Consequently, Caesar ruled Rome singlehandedly through a series of extraordinary appointments renewed consistently from year to year. In 49 BCE the senate (appointed by himself) made him dictator for a year. In 48 BCE he held his second consulate, in 47 BCE he was dictator again, in 46 BCE third time consul and dictator, in 45 BCE consul for the fourth time and dictator and finally in 44 BCE fifth time consul and dictator for life.
Besides his political and military honours Caesar received religious honours on an unprecedented scale, and apparently (the sources disagree) he was even deified in his lifetime, a hitherto unseen event in all of Roman history. The only human the Romans worshipped as a god was Romulus, and that by identification with Quirinus, not as a separate divinity.
Worshipping rulers as living gods was quite common in the Eastern empire and in Egypt, and the Romans knew that very well, but no such tradition had ever existed in Rome itself.
In 44 BCE Caesar started planning a campaign against the Parthian empire. Why is not known, but it could be that he didn’t feel safe or at ease in Rome, that he preferred the life with his soldiers in the military camp, or that he still wanted more conquest with the personal honour and glory it brought with it. In either case, the Parthian campaign was not to be.
On the 15th of March (the famous Ides of March) he was called to a meeting in the senate, a meeting held in the Theatre of Pompey to discuss the preparations for the war against Parthia. On his arrival he was surrounded by a group of senators who pulled out knives from under their togas and stabbed him to death. Caesar was left dead on the floor at the feet of a statue of his friend and enemy Pompey.
The conspirators, who were led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, both followers of Pompey pardoned by Caesar after Pharsalus, rushed to the Forum Romanum, still covered in Caesar’s blood, to be hailed as tyrannicides and saviours of the Republic. Caesar’s co-consul Marcus Antonius and M. Aemilius Lepidus, both close allies of Caesar, and the senators not involved in the assassination, went into hiding not knowing what to expect, but the conspirators had no plans for what to do after the assassination.
The senate hurriedly passed and amnesty for the murder, and Marcus Antonius and Lepidus reconciled with the conspirators. Brutus and Cassius were not safe in Rome as the sentiments of the crowd turned against Caesar’s assassins, and they were given governorships abroad so they could leave Rome. Marcus Antonius was allowed to hold a public funeral for Caesar in the Forum, and the his eulogy for Caesar inflamed the crowd and caused a riot. In improvised funeral pyre was made of furniture and other things at hand, and Caesars body burned in the middle of the Forum, where later the Temple of Divus Julius were built.
Marcus Antonius, who was still consul, moved quickly to take over from Caesar, expecting to secure his position as heir, but when Caesar’s will was read to the senate, a little known nephew of his, Gaius Octavius, was adopted and made principal heir. Marcus Antonius, unwilling to accepts this, tried in dispute the legality of the will, and this conflict plunged Rome into yet another protracted civil war, which saw Octavius prevail in the end, becoming the first Roman Emperor under the name of Augustus.
Apparently Caesar didn’t have a grand master plan for how he wanted to reform the state, but he did introduce many reforms, confronting problems that had sometimes remained unsolved for more than a century.
The most important problem to confront was to procure land for the landless. Two centuries of conquest had flooded Italy with slaves, many peasants had lost their land, and the public land had been usurped by the elite, leaving the Italian peasants in ever more precarious conditions. The sons of the landless peasants had filled the ranks of the Roman armies, enduring danger and hardship for the promise of a piece of land or the money to buy it. The problem of land distribution had persisted from before the time of the Gracchi in the 130s BCE, and each successful Roman general had tried to find land for their soldiers, but often without success.
Caesar had in the 40s BCE a position that allowed him to dictate a solution to the problem. He took land in the W. empire, mostly in S. Italy, Cisalpine Gaul and Spain, and settled his veterans there, often in newly founded colonies. Also, huge drainage projects created new arable land in marshy areas. Poor landless peasants from Central Italy and from the City of Rome were also sent to the provinces, in an attempt to reduce the problem of immigration of poor to the city.
Roman citizenship had traditionally be restricted to selected cities in Central Italy, but Caesar extended it to people outside Central Italy, including all of Cisalpine Gaul and many of the new colonies. For the first time ever non-Italians were allowed into the senate, much to the dismay of the ancient Roman aristocracy.
Tax-reforms were enacted in Sicily and in Asia Minor, which had both suffered from avaricious governors and tax-collectors.
Many years of uncertainty and civil war had caused inflation and interests had soared, so many people were hopelessly indebted. There was a strong movement for a complete cancellation of all debts, but Caesar chose a middle way, decreeing that all prices and interests should be calculated with the rates from before the civil war.
The purpose of all these reforms were dual: to alleviate the serious socio-economic problems in Central Italy and to consolidate Roman control with the provinces.
Caesar also started a major reorganisation of the City of Rome. He made interventions in construction and traffic, but the most important changes were in the area of the Forum Romanum. As pontifex maximus Caesar lived there, and he made plans for a complete overhaul of the area, practically turning it into a monument to himself. On the S. side he built the Basilica Julia, on the E. side the Rostra was renovated, and on the N. the old Curia was taken down and new building started. On the W. side stood the Regia, the house of Caesar, and after his death the Temple of Divus Julius was built there. Much of this programme was unfinished at his death, but Augustus finished it later.
To the N. of the Forum area he started another grand project: the Forum Iulium or the Forum of Caesar. This was an entirely new kind of monument which would be the model for all the later Imperial Fora. In the centre of this new forum he placed a temple of Venus Genetrix, a celebration of Venus as the devine foremother of the gens julia, hence a statement about the divine descent of Caesar himself.
The Julian Calendar
One of Caesar’s reforms is still with us today, two millennia after his death, namely the reform of the calendar he introduced, called the Julian Calendar. Before 45 BCE the Romans used a calendar of twelve lunar months of 29 or 30 days, each starting on a new moon, for a total of 355 days in a year. This falls a bit more than ten days short of the actual solar year of 365.2422 days, so every once in a while (at the discretion of the pontifex maximus) a thirteenth month was inserted, called intercalans.
The maintenance of the calendar and its correspondence with the lunar and solar cycles had been neglected for a long period during the civil wars of the late republic, so the discrepancy had accumulated to several months. Meanwhile, Caesar’s stay in Alexandria in Egypt had put him in contact with expert astronomers. They were able to calculate the length of the solar year to 365.25 days and the winter solstice to the 24th of December.
The new calendar would follow the solar year and have twelve months of 29, 30 or 31 days, for a total of 365 days, with no intercalary month. Every fourth year the month of February would be one day longer, so an average year would be 365.25 days. The new calendar should have started on the day of winter solstice, but the new moon was seven days later, and ancient tradition said the kalends should be on a new moon, so the first of January was postponed seven days.
The year 46 BCE was a transitional year. The discrepancy from the intercalary months that had been ignored had accumulated to 90 days, so after November of 46 BCE first a normal intercalans was inserted, followed by two more intercalary months to make up for the difference. The result was a year, the last year of confusion, of fifteen months and 445 days!
With this reform the fifth month of the year (counting from March), Quintillis, was renamed after Julius Caesar: July. Augustus later renamed Sextillis, the sixth month, after himself, and moved one day from February to August so his month would be as long as Caesars, thus arriving at the basic calendar we still use today.
There is a slight defect in the Julian calendar, since the year is 11 minutes and 14 seconds too long. This discrepancy too accumulated over the centuries, and by 1582 CE it had become 10 days. Pope Gregor XIII decreed the removal or three leap years each four centuries, so years divisible by 100 are not leap years unless they are also divisible by 400. This reduced the error to almost nothing. Gregor XIII then removed 10 days from the month of October, 1582 to bring the year back in line with the solar cycle. The adoption of the Gregorian Calendar happened at various times throughout Europe. Most countries had adopted it by the 17th century, England and its colonies in the 18th century and Russia only in the 20th century.
Julius Caesar: The Conquest of Gaul, Viking Press, 1983.
Julius Caesar: The Civil War, Viking Press, 1976.
Plutarch: Fall of the Roman Republic, Penguin Classics, 1954.
Suetonius: The Twelve Caesars, Penguin Classics, 1991.
Howard H. Scullard: From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 133 B.C. to A.D. 68, Routledge, 1990.
Christian Meier: Caesar, Basic Books, 1996.
Matthias Gelzer: Caesar: Politician and Statesman, Harvard University Press, 1985
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