Roman general, statesman, and dictator
Julius Caesar was one of the most famous leaders of ancient Rome. A brilliant general and statesman, he overcame his political rivals to become dictator of Rome. His dictatorship played a pivotal role in Rome’s transition from a republic*, governed by the Senate, to an empire, ruled by an emperor.
Early Years. Born on July 12 or 13,100 B.C., Caesar came from one of the patrician* families in Rome—the Julii. Despite its antiquity, the family had little political success or wealth. In 84 B.C., Caesar married Cornelia, the daughter of a prominent citizen who had opposed the ruthless dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Sulla ordered Caesar to divorce Cornelia, but he refused. Although Sulla spared Caesar’s life because of his social class, Caesar wisely decided to leave Italy for military service in Asia.
Following Sulla’s death in 78 B.C., Caesar returned to Rome and began his political career. Soon after, he went to the island of Rhodes to study oratory*. On the way to Rhodes, he was captured by pirates and held for ransom. After his release, he raised a private naval force, captured the pirates, and had them crucified*. While in Rhodes, Caesar raised a private army to fight Mithradates VI, the king of Pontus, a kingdom in Asia Minor that had renewed its war with Rome. His victories over Mithradates and the pirates helped establish his reputation as a military leader.
Rise to Power. Caesar returned to Rome in 73 B.C. and was elected military tribune*. He then began working with the great Roman general Pompey (Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus) to reverse some of the governmental changes made during Sulla’s dictatorship. Caesar allied himself with those who represented the interests of the Roman people and who sought to regain power from the conservative nobles who controlled the Roman Senate.
In 69 B.C., Caesar was elected quaestor, the first important rung on the Roman political ladder. That same year, his wife Cornelia and his aunt Julia, a prominent patrician, died. Caesar attracted public attention by giving grand orations at their funerals, and his political career gained momentum thereafter. Elected aedile in 65 B.C., he gained enormous popularity by spending large sums of money on lavish Roman games. He became pontifex maximus, or “high priest,” of the Roman state religion in 63 B.C., and then became praetor the following year. In 61 B.C., Caesar became governor of Spain, where the spoils of war from his military successes helped restore his dwindling finances.
Caesar returned to Rome in 60 B.C. to seek the office of consul and to be honored by a triumph, a formal procession for a victorious general. According to Roman law, however, a general could not enter the city of Rome until the day of his triumph. A candidate for consul, on the other hand, had to be in Rome to announce his candidacy. Caesar thus faced a dilemma, and he asked the Roman Senate to grant an exception so he could receive his triumph and also run for consul. Fearful of his growing popularity and power, the Senate refused. Caesar decided to give up his triumph. He entered Rome and won the consulship with support from Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the richest and most powerful men in Rome.
* republic government in which the citizens elect officials to represent them and govern according to law
* patrician member of the upper class who traced his ancestry to a senatorial family in the earliest days of the Roman Republic
* oratory art of public speaking
* crucify to put to death by binding or nailing a person's hands and feet to a cross
* military tribune junior member of the officer corps of the Roman army
In addition to his military and political fame, julius Caesar is also known for his literary achievements, most notably his Gallic War and Civil War. These personal commentaries, written in a clear and simple style, describe his military campaigns. They are the only surviving detailed accounts of ancient battles by a military commander, and they provide a firsthand look at ancient warfare. The commentaries, which present Caesar in a most favorable light, served as useful propaganda during his rise to power. They are still studied for their historic insights, and teachers often assign these works to beginning Latin students because of the simplicity and clarity of the language.
As consul, Caesar negotiated with Pompey and Crassus to try to pass the legislation they supported, including the distribution of public lands to their soldiers. Faced with increased opposition from conservatives in the Senate, the three men formed a powerful political alliance—the First Triumvirate—to accomplish their goals. As a result of this alliance, Caesar received the governorship of three provinces: Illyricum (present-day Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Serbia), Transalpine Gaul (present-day southern France), and Cisalpine Gaul (present-day northern Italy). These provinces gave Caesar an important source of wealth and power.
During his meteoric rise to power, Caesar experienced several changes in his personal life. After the death of his wife Cornelia, Caesar married Pompeia, a granddaughter of Sulla and distant relative of Pompey. He divorced her because of her infidelity and married Calpurnia, the daughter of a Roman consul. These three marriages helped Caesar politically, but they produced only one child—a daughter, Julia, who married his friend Pompey. Caesar chose his great-nephew Gaius Octavius to be his successor, an action that later had a significant effect on the history of Rome.
Caesar at War Between 59 and 50 B.C., Caesar focused his attention on conquering all of Gaul. During the Gallic Wars, he achieved many brilliant victories and launched two preliminary invasions of Britain. In the process, he gathered fiercely loyal troops and built powerful armies. Caesar’s tremendous military strength and victories thrilled the Roman people and brought him enormous prestige. The Senate, meanwhile, became increasingly concerned with his growing political power.
While Caesar was in Gaul, strained relations developed between Pompey and Crassus in Rome. Caesar intervened to renew their alliance, but the triumvirate continued to disintegrate. In 54 B.C., Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife, Julia, died, thus destroying a personal bond between the two men. Crassus was killed a year later while fighting the Parthians, Rome’s greatest rivals in Asia. Thus Pompey and Caesar were left to share power. Meanwhile, conservative groups in the Senate persuaded Pompey to join them and defend Rome against any threat Caesar and his armies might pose.
In 49 B.C., the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his armies and return to Rome. Otherwise, they would declare him an enemy of the republic. In response, Caesar moved his armies to the Rubicon, a river that marked the border between Italy and his province of Cisalpine Gaul. He tried to negotiate a compromise that would allow him to retain his authority, but his enemies in the Senate rejected his offers to reach a settlement. On January 11, Caesar marched his armies across the Rubicon into Italy, remarking, “The die is cast.” A civil war had begun. (The expression “crossing the Rubicon” has come to mean choosing a course of action from which there is no turning back.)
Caesar’s troops quickly overran Italy and Rome, forcing Pompey and his armies to retreat to Greece. Before following them, Caesar went to Spain, where he defeated other armies that were loyal to Pompey. He then turned his attention to Greece, eventually defeating Pompey’s troops at
* province overseas area controlled by Rome
* tyrant absolute ruler
the Battle of Pharsalus in August of 48 B.C. Pompey fled to Egypt and was killed by the Egyptians. Caesar, who had followed Pompey to Egypt, found that country embroiled in a civil war. He joined the side of Cleopatra VII and helped her gain the Egyptian throne. While in Egypt, Caesar had a romance with Cleopatra, and she later bore him a son named Caesarion.
From Egypt, Caesar went to Asia Minor and put down a rebellion against Roman rule. It was this quick victory that gave rise to his famous boast, “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). He returned to Rome in 47 B.C. but soon took troops to North Africa, where he defeated other allies of Pompey. The next year, he went back to Spain and destroyed the last of the Pompeian forces at the Battle of Munda. That victory marked the end of the end of the civil war. His opposition defeated, he was now the most powerful man in Rome.
The Dictatorship. Caesar had served as temporary dictator four times during periods of crisis between 49 and 45 B.C. In 44 B.C., he became dictator for life. During his dictatorships, Caesar used his power to reform Roman government and society. He increased membership in the Senate in an attempt to reduce the power of the more conservative nobles. He also increased the number of governmental officials, which enabled more people to improve their rank in Roman society. Caesar founded new colonies and encouraged soldiers to settle there. He extended Roman citizenship to more people in the provinces* and revised the provincial tax systems. Caesar even revised the Roman calendar, introducing one (the Julian calendar) that is the basis for the calendar used today.
Caesar’s dictatorship differed dramatically from that of Sulla, in which opponents were ruthlessly killed and violence was used to achieve goals. Caesar pardoned his opponents and even found high positions in government for many of them. He also sought to improve the lives of ordinary Romans. Caesar’s reforms made him immensely popular with the Roman people, who revered him almost as a god. A month, July, was named after him, and he received many honors from those who admired him. Caesar’s opponents in the Senate, however, considered him a tyrant*. They believed that he had destroyed the republic and intended to make himself king. Their fears seemed confirmed when Caesar’s friend, Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony), suggested that he take the crown of a monarch. Caesar refused, and tried to assure his enemies that he did not pose a threat to them.
Caesar was unsuccessful in pacifying his opposition. A group of opponents, including many he had pardoned and given positions in government, began planning his assassination. On March 15, 44 B.C., a day known as the Ides of March, a group of about 60 conspirators led by Marcus Brutusand Gaius Cassius Longinus murdered Caesar in the Senate. When the assassins struck, Caesar cried out “Et tu, Brute” (Even you, Brutus?), shocked at being stabbed by a person whom he had pardoned and trusted.
With Caesar’s death, his assassins thought they were restoring the republic. Instead, his death led to a period of civil war in which his friend Mark Antony and great-nephew Gaius Octavius competed for power. The war resulted in the collapse of the republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire under the control of powerful emperors. Caesar’s nephew became Rome’s first emperor and later was known as Caesar Octavianus Augustus. (See also Cato the Younger; Civil Wars, Roman; Government, Roman; Patricians, Roman; Rome, History of.)