Julius Caesar grew up when the Senate and People of Rome constituted the most powerful state on earth, when the overcrowded capital could barely contain the millions of inhabitants of whom only a quarter were citizens entitled to the corn dole, when the ancient Roman virtues of modesty and probity were being smothered by the fruits of conquest, where the checks and balances in government created over 400 years were strained by civil war, the prescriptions and proscriptions of dictators, the demands of victorious generals and their land-hungry veterans.

Cicero believed a consenus of high-minded citizens (senators), with the plebs kept in their place, electing even higher-minded officials (consuls like himself), could still govern Rome and its provinces. Julius Caesar was one of those high-spirited Romans who believed only in themselves, in their sole capacity to restore law and order.

In modern terms, Cicero was on the right, optimate, and Caesar on the left, popularis. In their opposing views they represent the conflicts of the later Republic, which was finally finished off when Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian became the Emperor Augustus. However, even he believed in the Republic; and the slogan of all who led an army to march on Rome was, ‘The Republic is in danger. Follow me, I can save it.’

Marius, the country squire with no Greek, the populist general who remodelled the army; Sulla, his impoverished aristocratic protégé, once down to one slave, who turned on his patron and became dictator; Pompey the Great; Mark Antony the triumvir; Julius Caesar and Octavian: all professed belief in republican principles as they murdered them and each other. Sulla hounded Marius to death; Caesar fell out with his fellow triumvir Pompey and caused his death; Brutus, Caesar’s friend and former companion at arms, ‘the noblest Roman of them all’, with Cassius, another friend, assassinated Caesar; Octavian, in revenge, killed them both, provoked Antony’s suicide and left Cleopatra to kill herself. Only Sulla retired to die in his bed, and Augustus lived long enough for his crimes to be forgotten and for him to become, on the instant of his death, a god. Sulla, coming from nowhere, was the most successful, Augustus was the most effective, but Julius Caesar was the most famous.

Gaius, his first name (praenomen), Julius, his clan (gens), Caesar, his nickname (cognomen), was the boldest man in history. ‘Caesar’ simply meant head of hair, ironic because both he and his great-nephew suffered from baldness – Caesar treasuring the right to wear a laurel wreath on his and Augustus wearing a sombrero-like straw hat to conceal his. Caesar was a bald dandy, Augustus wore homespun from the looms of his household women.

Julius Caesar was blessed with a patrician mother, Aurelia, who had enough money to set him up on the cursus honorum – a political career – and lived long enough, till seventy, to see her boy conquer Gaul. It is unlikely that he was delivered by a ‘Caesarean’ because although that operation sometimes saved the child, the mother rarely survived. Caesar was a graceful, courteous young man with strong but delicate features and the eyes of an eagle. His grandfather, also Gaius Julius Caesar, had married his granddaughter Julia to the country squire Marius, who had jumped from his provincial background to a governorship in northern Spain. There he acquired mines and was therefore rich but not well enough connected to make consular rank. In exchange for her hand, Marius paid for her brother’s first step on the political ladder as aedile (town councillor) and dowered her – a standard Roman arrangement. It worked. Marius grew in political credibility and honoured his understanding with his in-laws, making Julius Caesar a priest of the cult Jupiter,19 at the age of nineteen.

In the same year he married a daughter of Cinna, another strong man in Rome – not a tactful move because Cinna’s star was fading and his enemy, the implacable and victorious Sulla, demanded he divorce. Caesar refused and was only saved by his mama, who lobbied the influential Vestal Virgins. Caesar never obeyed any other man and this early gesture was typical. When a successful general he continued to take risks, appearing like an OAS parachutist behind enemy lines without an escort, climbing aboard an enemy ship by himself, threatening alone an entire nest of pirates with crucifixion, armed only with audacity, with boldness as his only friend.

Dodging Sulla’s long arm he joined the army and won a medal for saving another soldier’s life at the siege of Mytilene, then he went to Bithynia to serve under – malicious tongues said literally – the client King Nicomedes. A whiff of homosexuality lingered around Caesar throughout his life, refuted by his most doting biographer, John Buchan; but how about this, rather sweet, vignette from Suetonius:

While praetor in Africa he protected a nobleman’s son named Masintha . . . with such devotion that he caught Juba (the king’s son) by the beard. Masintha was arrested but Caesar rescued him . . . and harboured him in his own quarters for a long while. At the close of this praetorship Caesar sailed for Spain, taking Masintha with him. The lictors . . . and the crowds . . . acted as a screen and nobody realized that Masintha was hidden in Caesar’s litter.

(Whatever became of Masintha?)

Caesar had begun his political career, traditionally, as a prosecutor in the law courts, but was unremarkable, so decided to go to Rhodes to study oratory under Cicero’s tutor Apollonius Molon. On the way he was captured by pirates, who plagued the Mediterranean – the Romans were never too good at sea – until destroyed by Pompey. Then followed the incident related above with Caesar insisting on upping the ransom from twenty to fifty talents, displaying (typically) his insolence, dependence on others for money, his resolution and his triumph – for he did indeed return to crucify his captors, having first considerately had their throats cut.

He returned to Rome in a fast ship, dreaming of power and nearly thirty years of age. He became aedile, attacked the establishment in the form of Pompey and Crassus, bombarded the plebs with money and became quaestor and superintendent of the Appian Way, offices which allowed him to show off with silver cages the wild beasts at the circuses. Cicero spotted the ‘deep and dangerous designs under the smiles of his benignity’ (Plutarch). ‘I perceive an inclination for tyranny in all his projects, but on the other hand when I see him adjusting his hair with so much exactness and scratching his head with one finger I can hardly think that such a man can conceive so vast and fatal design as the destruction of the Roman Commonwealth.’ (Nicely observed!)

At thirty-four he was given a command in Spain but until the campaigns in Gaul he was better known in Rome as a demagogue than as a soldier. In the last years of the Republic a man who aimed for the top of the greasy pole of politics needed an army to hoist him there and keep him there. For an army he needed a command and a campaign. The Roman army nearly always won. The failure of Crassus in Parthia,20 graveyard of greater military reputations, was exceptional. A general with legions in a provincial command which could always be extended had more power, for a longer term, than a consul who stayed in Rome. He could make or break kings and chieftains, conclude treaties, determine frontiers, raise and pocket taxes, extort protection money (a favourite of the Duke of Marlborough) and make a fortune from the sale into slavery of prisoners-of-war – his personal perquisite. Roman generals frequently exceeded their brief, though communications between them and the Senate were quite as efficient as those between Chatham and his generals, or Pitt the Younger and his admirals in the eighteenth century. Once en poste, a Roman general might decide it was in the best interests of the Senate and People of Rome to turn on tribes hitherto recognized as ‘Friends and Allies’ – an official designation – and to cross frontiers in pursuit of more territory and loot; for if the Romans believed that as the only civilized power they had the right to conquer, their more basic motives were immediate treasure and continued tribute. A successful campaign would be sanctified by the erection of a temple in the Campus Martius containing the trophies (body armour) of the defeated enemy, and the general’s ego satisfied by his being acclaimed imperator by his troops and by his Triumph, in whose associated fun (and games) the plebs would also share.

Caesar spent a sixth of his life – nine years – in Gaul. The fighting was sporadic, often savage and intense, occasionally tedious as in the siege of Alesia, now Alise Ste Reine in Burgundy. Caesar won because his legions were professional and the forces of the Gallic tribes – gigantic, brave and bloodthirsty men – were easily demoralized; greedy, factious and encumbered by their women and children. Though Gaul was nearer to Italy than Spain only Cisalpine Gaul – roughly the plain of Lombardy and ‘the Province’ (roughly Provence) – were Romanized. The Gauls were temperamentally the opposite of the Romans, being impatient, volatile, gallant and credulous. When introduced to wine by the Romans, they became so enthusiastic that they would exchange a slave for anamphora.

In the Vatican Museum is a larger-than-life statue of a captured Gallic chieftain. He is bearded, with heavy moustaches, clad in baggy breeches and leggings, a cloak over his shoulders secured by a giant silver clasp on his left breast; his head is lowered and he has an expression of bafflement and great sadness on his face – not surprising since his hands, held in front of him, are bound at the wrists. (Such was the affectation of the nouveaux riches in Rome that this ruined prince might have ended up as a cook.) In the past Gauls had mounted their own expeditions, sacking Rome in 390 BC. The Belgae had invaded and settled south-east England three centuries later. The exploits and characteristics of these barbarians were recorded by historians and would have been known to Caesar.

‘Gaul,’ as every young Latin scholar knows, ‘is divided into three parts . . .’ This sentence begins Julius Caesar’s account of his conquest in De Bello Gallico and often concludes the knowledge many people have of the ancient world, but the quotation is worth continuing because it is an excellent précis of the geography and demography of the country he had decided to subdue, and an example of the general’s clear, clipped style. (One can see that he was not cut out to be a lawyer.)

. . . three parts, inhabited respectively by the Belgae, the Aquitani and a people who call themselves Celts, though we call them Gauls. All of these have separate languages, customs and laws. The Celts are separated from the Aquitani by the river Garonne, from the Belgae by the Marne and the Seine. The Belgae are the bravest of the three peoples, being farthest removed from the highly developed civilization of the Roman Province, least often visited by merchants with enervating luxuries for sale, and nearest to the Germans across the Rhine, with whom they are continually at war. For the same reason the Helvetii are braver than the rest of the Celts; they are in almost daily conflict with the Germans, either trying to keep them out of Switzerland or themselves invading Germany.

(Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, Penguin, p. 28)

Gaul, like much of northern Europe in 58 BC, was a forest (Latin: foris est – is outside) so until the Romans built roads, troop movements, without maps or compasses, were tricky, especially at night, one of Caesar’s favourite resources. Further, communications between armies depended on one swift horseman, who might, as we shall see, not always get through. Then, too, nature had not been tamed – consider the modern motorway, impervious to natural hazards save earthquakes, floods and hurricanes – and soldiers were often as fearful of the landscape as the enemy.

The outcome of a battle depended both on the discipline and determination of the men and the skill of the commander. Crucial in the Roman army was the centurion. A good old pro – and there were few instances of bad centurions – could dispose personally of twenty barbarians and, by his example, change the course of battle, so it did not signify if the Romans were outnumbered on the field as they usually were. When a young military tribune was killed, from a family known to Caesar (which was why he was there), he was sad, but when a centurion fell, Caesar wept. Often in his account he refers to them by name (they only ever had two) and gives them loving, long citations, observing how much better they fought when he was watching them, though he was often in the thick of the battle himself and once ordered his horses away so that he could retreat. As the historian of his own actions, he was fair and uncompetitive, not skating over his mistakes, acknowledging the skill and even the eloquence of his enemies, though of course De Bello Gallico was designed as party political propaganda – the party being himself.

His first campaign was against the Helvetii, which entire people was on the march, quitting the Swiss fastnesses for ‘the good land and high standard of life of the Rhone valley’. Outnumbered two to one, he forced them to give battle near the site of Autun, a city later founded by his great-nephew Augustus, where there are still Roman remains. (It was here that he dismissed the horses.) He routed the Helvetii and was particularly proud of the victory because one of their tribes, the Tigurini, had fifty years before killed a Roman general, Lucius Piso, who had been the grandfather of his father-in-law, another Lucius Piso; so ‘Caesar was able to avenge a private injury as well as that done to his country.’

He then moved in 55 BC to the Rhine to crush two German tribes whose chiefs had come to confer with him in his camp. He treacherously locked them up and massacred their leaderless armies, justifying this action, which was deplored in the Senate by Cato and co., by saying that the Germans were such a serious threat to Gaul and the safety of Rome itself that normal behaviour did not apply. The principle of ‘divide and rule’ was more of a political idea than a reality, for the Romans, unlike the British in India, had to work hard to sustain their hegemony, which depended on a system of alliances and client kings. They were obliged, therefore, to protect their allies. The Sugambri, in the north-east, had been harassing the Ubii, allies of Rome who lived a little further up the Rhine – which Caesar called ‘the limit of Roman sovereignty’ but which he had to cross in order to teach them a lesson. ‘A crossing by means of boats was both too risky and beneath the dignity of a Roman Commander,’ he wrote – a very Caesarean sentiment and turn of phrase – so he built a bridge just outside modern Coblenz.

A model of this bridge, constructed by the Italian School of Military Engineers, is on display in the Museum of Roman Civilization in Eur, a bleak high-tech town without pedestrians, outside Rome. Caesar was proud of his bridge which he describes in such detail that it was easy for the descendants of his engineers to reproduce it. (‘. . . the whole structure was so rigid that, in accordance with the laws of physics, the greater the force of the current the more tightly were the piles held in position.’) He crossed the bridge, built in ten days, burned the villages, farms and crops of the offending Sugambri, recrossed the bridge, destroying it behind him, and considered, having spent a total of eighteen days behind the Rhine, ‘that he had done all that honour or interest required’. When one reflects on the palaver about crossing the Rhine in the Second World War this is quite a classy comment.

The Roman soldier was trained to be flexible; he was first a navvy, breaking stones and building roads being the principal occupation of the ordinary recruit, but he might specialize in operating engines of war, like the battering ram, whose business end was indeed a mass of iron in the shape of a ram’s head, or the gigantic catapult, which Caesar designed himself, or the portable siege tower, or the harpoon which he used in a sea battle against the Veneti, a tribe on the Atlantic coast of Brittany who had dared to kill his ambassadors. Their tall ships with sails and rigging out-manoeuvred the Romans in their oar-powered flat-bottomed boats but in the middle of the battle the wind dropped – Caesar’s luck – and as Caesar commented ‘after that it was a soldiers’ battle’ which the Romans won. The punishment he meted out was severe; their leaders were executed and the entire population sold into slavery.

Caesar used the same ships to invade Britain in 55 BC. The Brits heard him coming and offered hostages, usually a ploy to gain time. He sent Commius, whom he had made King of the Atrebates, and who, like the Belgae, occupied territory on both sides of the channel (the ‘ocean’ as the Romans called it), roughly Normandy, and Wilts and Berks, to announce his imminence. He landed at Dover. Caesar wrote in De Bello Gallico: ‘The natives sent in their cavalry and chariots, which frightened the Romans who were quite unaccustomed to this kind of fighting.’ (How odd to hear Caesar crying ‘foul’.) But the Romans’ oar-powered boats, which they had not seen, frightened the Britons even more. Then Commius returned with a message that the opposition to Caesar’s disembarkation had all been a terrible mistake, the fault of the common people, who had now all been sent home to tend to their fields. Peace was proposed and hostages offered. Like Genghis Khan, Caesar often conquered through his advancing reputation, so much more economic than troops. Caesar returned to Gaul having experienced difficulties with the unfamiliar high tides, so different from the Mediterranean, dealt with the Morini (Pas-de-Calais), who had thought to profit from his reported problems, and sent a suitable despatch to the Senate, who decreed a holiday of twenty days. In fact the expedition had been a failure; only two of the tribes ever sent hostages.

Next year’s invasion was better arranged. In 54 BC, with five legions and 2,000 cavalry, he landed at Deal and found a worthy opponent in Cassivellaunus (Cadwallader?), King of Herts, Essex and Middlesex, who had been elected to command – the British were then democratically organized. Again Caesar complains that the British deployed their chariots in an ‘unfamiliar, daring and unnerving’ manner. In retaliation the Roman soldiers plodded on, burning the countryside, while their leader concluded deals with the odd dissident chieftain, until both sides had had enough. Cassivellaunus promised hostages and tribute and Caesar withdrew.

Why had he gone there in the first place?

His army had been large enough to conquer a country a fifth the size of Gaul, but again he had retreated. Perhaps he had been put off by the woad, the curious marital habits and the appalling Druidic customs – including human sacrifice – of the native Britons, apart from being unnerved by their charioteers. The conquest of Britain was abandoned for a century.

Besides, Caesar had to hurry back to deal with Ambiorix, chief of ‘an obscure and insignificant’ tribe in Picardy, but acknowledged by Caesar to be an eloquent and ingenious fellow. His general Sabinus, his tribunes and first-grade centurions had agreed to a parley outside their camp, a foolish move one might have thought, in retrospect, when they were overwhelmed and massacred. The standard-bearer threw his eagle over the ramparts and fought to the death, survivors crept back into the camp and committed suicide. It was the worst defeat in Gaul. Caesar had not been there. Worse followed. Encouraged by this unexpected success against the invincible Romans, Ambiorix raised the flag for a general revolt and besieged the winter camp of Cicero. Still Caesar was not there. Messengers sent to him were captured and tortured in front of the besieged Roman soldiers. Finally a Gaul who had deserted to Cicero persuaded his slave, ‘by the promise of freedom and a large reward’, to carry a despatch to Caesar, on receipt of which Caesar told his quaestor Crassus to march through the night to relieve Cicero, sending him a message (in Greek) via a javelin which stuck unnoticed in the ramparts for two days.

The Gauls were 60,000 strong, the Romans 7,000. Through feints Caesar manoeuvred the enemy into a disadvantageous position on the wrong side of a valley, then he struck. The Gauls panicked and fled, throwing away their arms. At the post mortem Caesar blamed Sabinus but praised Cicero – though one can sense him saying something sharp under his breath; one must remember that the Gallic campaign, though long and arduous, was part of his design to gather enough political clout (and money) to bid for supreme power in Rome, and he would have avoided in his despatch any offense to another politician, the other Cicero. The Gallic tribes were so restless that Caesar decided he could not risk spending the winter, as was his habit, in northern Italy, attending to the assizes and less solemn pursuits.

De Bello Gallico is a sparse narrative written with ‘a sharp pen in sharp ink’ and does not of course refer to its author’s extra-marital and extramural activities, which we know to have been intense from Suetonius’ list of his mistresses, which, in the fashion of the times, included the wives and daughters of his friends. An attractive man of power, lecherous and susceptible, he must have found ample distraction when not actually on the war-path, as the bawdy ballad sung by his soldiers at his Triumph – ‘lock up your daughters, Romans, our bald-pated chief is on his way’ – suggests.

In 53 BC Caesar had dealt with the Treveri (around Trier), but in 52 BC Vercingetorix, destined to become Caesar’s most glamorous and formidable opponent in Gaul, decided to strike back. He had heard that Caesar was in trouble in Rome. Publius Clodius Pulcher was a bad lad from a grand family (his sister Clodia, mistress of the poet Catullus, was also a bad girl). He was Caesar’s trusty in the business of political gang warfare, in opposition to Pompey’s man, T. Annius Milo (hostilities had intensified after the break-up between the two leaders in 54 BC). Both specialized, in Tammany Hall fashion, in delivering the vote. (Clodius was feminine enough in looks to disguise himself as a woman and penetrate a party given by the Vestal Virgins. Caesar’s wife had been involved and in the resulting scandal he divorced her, as she was not ‘above suspicion’.) Clodius had been murdered by Milo’s gang. Caesar was therefore fighting on two fronts, the political in Rome and the military in Gaul. For the moment, the latter became his priority.

Vercingetorix came from Arvernia (the Auvergne) and his father was only prevented from being elected king of the Gallic tribes by assassination. Energetic, eloquent and ruthless, he had been chosen commander-in-chief of eight tribes and gave Caesar a lot of trouble with his scorched-earth policy, realizing, after three defeats, that he could not expect to beat the Roman army in the field. The Roman soldier was not a gourmet but he had to have his porridge, and if the grain had been burned . . .?

Caesar describes the forces and the campaign of Vercingetorix as carefully as his own – one is reminded of the German General Staffs research into the character of the American commander General Patton, in the Second World War – and mentions without remark or bitterness that he ‘turned round’ his friend Commius, whom he had made a king, but who arrived at the siege of Alesia with a quarter of a million men and cavalry three miles long. In the battle – which was, like Waterloo, ‘a dam’ close-run thing’ – Caesar, wearing his scarlet cloak, saved the day with a cavalry charge. Vercingetorix’s speech to the Gallic Assembly on the following day indicates the extent of the victory. ‘I did not undertake the war for private ends, but in the cause of national liberty, and since I must now accept my fate I place myself at your disposal. Make amends to the Romans by killing me or surrender me alive as you think best.’

Of course Caesar wanted this glittering young man alive and well for his Triumph, and indeed kept Vercingetorix in cold storage for six years against this event; when the time came he may or may not have tried to prevent his execution, for, as even Buchan admits, Romans were not strong on gallantry or compassion. From this battle every soldier earned one prisoner-of-war, which he could sell as a slave.

There were few survivors of the Eburones’ rebellion, which Caesar was determined should be the last in Gaul for some time. It was. Roman legions and auxiliaries cut a swathe of terror from Bordeaux to Provence, from Switzerland to Belgium, destroying every building, killing every cow belonging to rebellious tribes. In this campaign he was helped by ‘young’ Brutus and Mark Antony so the policy of inflicting Pax Romana on the Gauls was not just Caesar’s idea. The terror worked. The tribe who started this final rebellion delivered their leader to Caesar, who, ‘normally averse to harsh punishment’, had him flogged to death, the punishment reserved for a rebellious subject as opposed to an enemy.

Though in Rome one of the ‘populares’, Caesar approved the excuse of the apologetic and finally submissive tribes, that their rebellion had been due to the influence of demagogues from the proletariat. Whatever their politics at home, Romans always supported the establishment abroad, granting citizenship only to the rich – as to the father of Paul of Tarsus in Cilicia, who had the wool monopoly. When he judged Gaul truly conquered, Caesar distributed presents to loyal collaborators and encouraged the conquered in the pursuit of the Roman way of life. This worked, for within three generations the bearded and belligerent Asterix became the urbane, clean-shaven Q. Tullius Crassus, as it were, giving dinner parties for the local garrison officers in his newly built villa, complete with mosaics, murals, central heating and curtains, such as are currently being excavated on an island in a graceful curve of the Vienne, in Limoges, just half an hour up the road from where I am writing. Indeed Gaul quickly grew to be the Romans’ favourite province. The Emperor Claudius was born in Lugdunum (Lyons), Hadrian was acclaimed Emperor in Lutetia, the capital of the Parisii, and the rue St Jacques, Paris’s exit to the south, which leads, like all roads, to Rome, is a Roman road. It was from Rome that France learned the art of making vintage wine, an art rediscovered in the eighteenth century by a Dutchman, who worked out that sulphur had to be added to grape juice to kill the spoiling bacteria. The Romans cleansed their wine barrels with fire and were able to seal promising wine in amphorae for twenty years. Ausonius, Professor of Rhetoric in Bordeaux, had a boyfriend who went ‘walkabout’ – as Australians say of Aborigines who go absent without leave – and being a man of influence asked Rome to find him. Discovered in a bar in Barcelona, the boyfriend refused to return but sent a message to Ausonius saying, ‘Cultivate your vineyard.’ (Hence Chateau Ausone.21)

The Gallic Wars over, Caesar’s enemies in Rome, notably the consul Metellus, tried to relieve him of his legions. While campaigning, the Triumvirate, of which he was a third, had not worn well. Pompey’s affection had gone with the death of his wife Julia, whom he had really liked, and he declined another alliance with Caesar’s family. (Marriages at this level in politics were purely political.) Crassus, the elderly backer, had creaked off to Parthia (Rome’s bête noire), where he had been defeated and decapitated; his head, delivered to Athens, had been kicked around on a stage. (In better times Pompey had repaid Caesar’s IOUs to Crassus with a special tax on Asia.) Without an army (as Caesar observed later, surveying the Roman dead after the battle of Pharsalus, where he defeated Pompey), a general was no better than a felon. (‘Hoc voluerunt,’ he also said – ‘It was their idea.’) The Senate voted Pompey sole consul and at the trial of Milo, his man, for the murder of Clodius, Caesar’s man, he menaced the court with soldiers. (There was no police force in Republican Rome.) Milo had hired Cicero to defend him but it was the great advocate’s only failure and when he sent his client the speech he had been unable to deliver, Milo replied from exile in Marseilles that he was glad, because otherwise he would not be enjoying the local mullet.

The Civil War was not so much the result of the rivalry between Caesar and Pompey but that of the Optimates and the Populares. The Senate had voted, 370 to 22, on a proposal from Caesar’s new spokesman, an impoverished patrician called Curio, that both Pompey and Caesar relinquish their commands. Pompey dithered, then, prompted by Metellus, agreed to take command of all land-forces in Italy. Caesar was menaced. He had to act. He left Ravenna and seized a little town called Ariminum (Rimini); there he slipped out of a dinner party with a few friends in the middle of the night and crossed a little stream, whose whereabouts is now unknown, but which history records was the Rubicon, muttering, it is said, ‘The die is cast’ – for he had crossed the Italian border. His first action was to ‘liberate’ some horses in a meadow on the other side. The Civil War had begun.

Caesar had a winning reputation and though he started with one legion and no money, troops were drawn to him like iron filings to a magnet. He took his fill of money from the treasury in the Forum and sent friendly messages to Pompey. He met Cicero, the intellectual doyen of the Optimates, and let him join, in perfect safety, his rival. The war spread to Africa and Spain, then to Greece, Egypt and Asia (western Turkey), but Caesar prevailed. Unlike previous dictators, to which special office he was elected in 46BC, he behaved with courtesy and clemency to his defeated fellow Romans. At home he used his exceptional powers to relieve debtors and recall exiles. When Pompey fled to Egypt, after losing the final battle in Thessaly, and was murdered by the advisers of the ten-year-old king, Caesar mourned him with the rest of the Roman world.

The boy king had a sister, a Macedonian like all the Ptolemies, at eighteen more witty than pretty, but full of charm, dash, ambition and courage. Enter Cleopatra. She had been seen off by her brother’s faction but when she heard that the new conqueror had arrived in Alexandria she contrived to have herself smuggled into the palace and presented to Caesar. So began the world-famous affair. But they did not, as legend has it, spend the next two months cruising down the Nile, for though Caesar was enchanted by the beguiling princess, he had other, less agreeable, things to do. The son of Mithridates had invaded the Roman province of Cappadocia and Caesar defeated him in a lightning campaign summed up in a scrap of graffiti on a cartwheel subsequently displayed in Rome (where he was badly needed): Veni, vidi, vici. Caesar’s mots were always pithy, never endearing.

The dreaded Milo, gang-leader of the Optimates, had returned to Rome and his debt laws were being sabotaged. His own veterans were so grumpy that they had marched on the capital demanding their demob pay and Caesar returned just in time to halt them with a speech beginning, ‘Quirites’ – citizens – meaning that he could no longer think of them as his soldiers. He saw Cicero, dismounted and walked with him for ‘several furlongs’. He had to cross to Africa to squash Pompey’s father-in-law, then to Spain to deal with Pompey’s sons. The Senate voted him his fifth consulate and at each victory, more honours, more Triumphs, more titles, including ‘Liberator’ and finally, in February 44 BC, that of ‘Dictator Perpetuus’. (Unlike Augustus he declined none of them.) The month Quintilius was renamed, after him, July. For some Romans all this was too much. In February the Ides of March were not far off.

Caesar enjoyed power and its trappings. He would have liked to run the Republic for ever and said that Sulla was an idiot to have resigned his dictatorship. More than the auctoritas and potestas of his position he revelled in his dignitas – the esteem of his peers – and it had been to preserve this that he had crossed the Rubicon. He did not want to be King or Emperor in Rome, nor had he wanted to start a dynasty. Indeed he made it an offence for anyone to hail him as King, rejecting a royal wreath when it was offered to him saying, ‘non Rex sed Caesar sum’ (‘I’m not Mr King I’m Mr Caesar’). Octavian, his adopted son and great-nephew, was his testamentary, not his political heir, and it was not Caesar’s intention that he should parley himself into becoming the Emperor Augustus.

Caesar was not, like his predecessors (Marius and Sulla) or his successors (Octavian, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero), dictators before him, and Emperors after him, in a dynasty he unknowingly founded, ever cruel, vindictive or greedy. No proscriptions followed his victories over other Romans, no son was deprived of his patrimony, no husband was contemptuously cuckolded – and most of those who struck the twenty-seven blows which killed him on 15 March 44 BC were his friends. Caesar was a radical but not a dreamer. His measures were practical, like the reform of the calendar which still endures, the autonomy for the municipalities, the rationalization of the corn dole (similar to the thinking behind the proposal to abolish the child allowance for the better off in Britain today), the codification of Roman Law, a new harbour at Ostia, draining marshes, founding twenty new towns, changing the oligarchic city state of Rome into a serious and efficient capital – first of Rome then of the Roman world – and so on and so forth. When he was killed he was planning to extend the Roman world and particularly wanted to subdue Parthia and avenge his friend Crassus. He had maddened the Optimates by increasing the number of officials – the aediles from four to six, quaestors from forty to sixty – and bumping up the Senate to 900, to include businessmen, loyal Gauls and even centurions, thus broadening the powerbase and diminishing the perquisites and profits of the aristocracy. It was for these measures, coupled with increasing arrogance and irritability in the last months of his life, that he was killed.

Caesar might have disdained a crown but his manner was often regal and his flip hauteur was wounding. The Games bored him – but did he have to be seen in his box reading his papers? A group of senators with a swathe of yet more honours came towards him but he did not his golden curule throne.22 A spot of giddiness perhaps? It was rumoured in Rome that his ambition was to be buried within the city limits, an honour granted only to a Roman who had died in a victorious battle. Even Augustus was careful to build his mausoleum well outside the city limits. Caesar had said, had he not, that it needed a king in Rome to defeat Parthia. What did he mean?

Caesar had not wanted to attend the meeting of the Senate on 15 March, not because he listened to the apprehensions of his young (fourth) wife Calpurnia, but because he felt unwell, and he sent a message to that effect to the Curia, where the Senate was meeting on the Tiber. But they besought him to come and so he went, unescorted and unarmed. He was surrounded by a crowd of petitioners, one trying to hand him a note warning him of the plot. Then they struck. Twenty-seven blows later the boldest man in history fell dead at the foot of Pompey’s statue. The horses he had liberated by the Rubicon were later seen to be weeping.

The plebs saw the assassination of their hero as the patricians striking back, possibly the first of a series of coups to regain the authority Caesar had taken from them. They cowered in their tenements, shutters bolted; Rome cringed. Cicero had arranged a deal between the Caesareans and the Republicans whereby the assassins were to be amnestied and Caesar’s will and acts were to be honoured. In the breathing space thus gained, Brutus and Cassius, the assassins, dined with Mark Antony on the Capitoline Hill. The will, which embittered Mark Antony in naming Octavian as his heir, gave every citizen 300 sesterces and his gardens on the other bank of the Tiber to the people of Rome. Mark Antony’s oration for Caesar has come down to us in a number of different versions apart from Shakespeare’s. Suetonius says it was short, Dio long. Whatever happened, the mob’s reaction was such that Brutus and Cassius had to leave Rome.

The most famous assassination in history was also the vaguest. The conspirators may have wanted to restore the shaky institutions of the Republic; all they had done was set the scene for the next civil war, whose victor would finally anaesthetize them, prior to a kindly death.

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