Crossing the Rubicon: the First Triumvirate, the Civil War, and the dictatorship of Caesar, 59–44 BC

Until 59 BC, when he was 41, Caesar’s career had been unspectacular. A nephew of Marius and son-in-law of Cinna, he was closely associated with the populist faction in Roman politics, and, to escape the chill wind of Sullan reaction at home, he had spent much time in the East in early adulthood. After returning to Rome, he supported Pompey’s coup of 71–70 BC, a political alliance further consolidated when in 67 BC he married into Pompey’s family after the death of his first wife. He also became closely associated with another political giant of the 60s BC, borrowing heavily from Crassus to fund campaigns for election to a succession of offices – quaestor, aedile, pontifex maximus (high priest), praetor – culminating in his appointment as Governor of Further Spain in 61 BC. This posting involved both opportunities for enrichment, such that Caesar was able to pay off his debts, and a field command, which revealed hitherto hidden talent for generalship. But the higher he rose, the more suspicious and obstructive his senatorial colleagues became. For Caesar was no ordinary politician.

It was not simply that he was an exceptionally intelligent, charismatic and ambitious demagogue. Nor that his family connections with Marius, Cinna and Pompey placed him firmly within the populist camp. Nor even that his association with Pompey and Crassus, the predominant ‘over-mighty’ citizens of the 60s BC, showed him to be no respecter of senatorial proprieties. There was something else. Most Late Republican politicians were tractable. They were at root opportunists, open to compromise and realignment as the wind of favour turned, men whose worldly-wise cynicism meant that a deal could usually be cut. Not so Caesar. In him there was something solid, consistent and far-seeing that seemed to elevate him above the haggling of everyday politics. Caesar was a conviction politician. His ruthless ambition was wedded to a political certainty: that Rome had to reform, that change was inescapable, and that the man who became the People’s champion, the man whose opposition to oligarchy and reaction was unflinching, might some day dominate the state.

What made Caesar frightening to opponents was his consistency. In the witch-hunting atmosphere engendered by Cicero’s campaign against Catiline in 63 BC, for example, it was Caesar who stood up in the Senate to defend the rule of law against state terror. ‘Those executions [the first by Sulla in 82 BC] were the first step that led to a ghastly calamity,’ he declared. ‘For before long, if anyone coveted a man’s mansion or villa – or in the end merely his household plate or wearing-apparel – he found means to have him put on the list of proscribed persons. So those who rejoiced at the death of Damasippus [a notorious Marian] were soon haled off to execution themselves, and the killing did not stop till Sulla had glutted all his followers with riches. I am not afraid that any such action will be taken by Cicero, or in this present age. But in a great nation like ours there are many men, with many different characters. It may be that on some future occasion, when another consul has, like him, an armed force at his disposal, some false report will be accepted as true; and when, with this precedent before him, a consul draws the sword in obedience to a senatorial decree, who will there be to restrain him or stay his hand.’(18)

On this occasion, Cato had counter-attacked and rallied the Senate behind Cicero. The suspects had been murdered in prison without trial. Power had shifted – or so it seemed – in favour of the Concordia Ordinum. So when Caesar returned from his governorship in Spain three years later – richer and more famous – most senators saw no advantage in his further advancement. Nor in that of Pompey, whose eastern settlement had still not been ratified, and whose veterans were still denied farms. The three most powerful men in the state – for Crassus risked eclipse if he excluded himself from an alliance between Caesar and Pompey – were thus driven together by optimate resistance to their respective ambitions. What we call ‘the First Triumvirate’ was a secret pact formed in the winter of 60–59 BC, in which the wealth, client-retinues and popular appeal of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus were combined to give these three men unassailable dominance within the Roman polity.

Caesar was elected consul for 59 BC. His legislative package included confirmation of Pompey’s eastern settlement, land for his veterans (as well as a large number of impoverished citizens), and a reduction in the contract price for the taxes of Asia (a measure that benefited equestrian tax-farmers and probably Crassus). The pact was cemented by Pompey’s marriage to Caesar’s daughter. And for Caesar? For him, at the end of his term as consul, there was the Governorship of Illyricum, Cisalpine Gaul, and Transalpine Gaul – a prize pregnant with immense historical significance.

Caesar’s eight-year war in Gaul gives the lie to those, like Michael Parenti, who see the populares as champions of democracy. In truth, optimates and populares were equally committed to imperialist war and ethnic-cleansing; theirs was a squabble of victors over the distribution of spoil. On the evidence of Caesar’s own testimony – his famous Gallic War chronicle – it seems likely that a million were killed, a million enslaved, and several hundred settlements torched. The people of Gaul were consumed in a military onslaught without precedent in their history.

Their land had been divided into numerous tribal polities, each dominated by chieftains, druids and warrior retinues, and ruled from imposing hilltop fortresses (oppida) girded with timber-laced drystone walls. Though highly militarized and placing great value on martial achievement, Gallic society did not engage in total war. The Gauls fought limited wars for booty, tribute and tribal supremacy. The archetypal form of Gallic warfare was the raid, the measure of its success the head of cattle rustled or weight of metal lifted. Rome, by contrast, was a centralized imperial state whose professional army was committed to pitched battle, all-out war, and the total subjugation of its enemies. When Caesar received his imperial governorship in Gaul, he was handed an opportunity to wage war against one of Rome’s traditional and most feared enemies. Yet Free Gaul, in truth, posed no real threat to Rome. Nor did Caesar’s claim that he intervened there to defend Rome’s Gallic allies stand the test of time, for the holocaust he unleashed on this pretext eventually drove even the staunchest of former friends into bitter resistance. Caesar’s war was not a measured application of force, but all-out robbery with violence. Gaul was heavily settled and farmed, and Rome’s legions came for plunder – grain, cattle and horses, bronze, silver and gold, and the people themselves, taken as slaves.

At first the Gauls fought tribe by tribe, and so went down to defeat. Caesar’s blitzkrieg expelled invaders from central Gaul in 58 BC, crushed the Belgae in the north-east in 57, and the Veneti in the north-west in 56. He launched raids into Germany and Britain in 55 and 54, and then shattered a Belgic rebellion in the north-east in 53. All the time, to feed his war, he drained his allies, like the powerful Aedui tribe of central Gaul, of food, fodder and manpower. Finally, traumatized but unsubdued, the Gauls united in a single struggle to expel the invader. Vercingetorix was elected supreme war-leader of a confederation that during 52 BC came to include almost every tribe in Gaul. The strategy he adopted might have won the war. Though his cavalry was first-rate, being formed of nobles and their retainers, his infantry was a tribal levy of farmers, no match for the disciplined, armoured, high-tech mercenaries of Caesar’s legions. So Vercingetorix adopted a strategy of scorched earth and guerrilla attacks: he avoided pitched battles in the open, seeking the safety of great hilltop fortresses, while farms and grain-stores in the enemy’s path were burnt, and enemy foraging parties ambushed. Roman aggression had conjured its alter-ego: an insurgent people among whom the exigencies of self-defence had engendered an embryonic Celtic nation-state under unified politico-military leadership.

The struggle was hard-fought. At Gergovia, with an assault on the oppidum bloodily repulsed, supplies exhausted, and the insurgency spreading across his rear, Caesar was forced to retreat. Later, at Alesia, he felt obliged to eschew direct assault: instead he had his men construct 45 km of siege-lines – with ramparts, palisades, towers, ditches, booby-traps and entanglements – designed both to bottle up Vercingetorix’s 80,000 men inside the oppidum, and to repel the attacks of the anticipated Gallic relief-army from outside. When it came, maybe 250,000 strong, the relief-army was almost certainly the largest force ever assembled in the history of the Gauls. The succeeding four days saw some of the most ferocious fighting recorded in antiquity. For their last effort the Gauls mounted simultaneous attacks at numerous points on Caesar’s lines, pinning his men to their positions and preventing them reinforcing those facing the main assault by 60,000 picked warriors. Again and again, in dense masses, covered by walls and roofs of shields, the Gauls came on. But each time the violent surge recoiled without breaking through. Then, as the light failed, Caesar led in person the counter-attack of his last reserve, and the Gallic host, physically and mentally exhausted, shattered like a pane of glass. The rout at Alesia sealed the fate of Gaul – and the triumph of Caesar, his army, and the populist cause at Rome.

These years of foreign war had been long years in the turbulent politics of the time. Much had changed while Caesar was in Gaul. His interests had been represented in Rome by the radical tribune of the plebs, Publius Clodius, who had built a following among the urban mob by such measures as a new corn law. Subsidized grain had been introduced by Gaius Gracchus and then abolished by Cornelius Sulla. Now Clodius reintroduced the principle but made it a free and regular handout: a grain dole for the citizens of Rome. Other measures included the legalisation of guilds (collegia), which facilitated the political mobilization of the urban masses, and the exclusion of conservative opponents, notably Cicero, who was exiled for the murder of Catiline’s associates.

At first, Clodius had seemed to act as an ally of all the triumvirs. But he had created his own popular base, and when he clashed with the instinctively conservative Pompey in 58 BC, the latter had transferred his support to another tribune, Titus Annius Milo, enabling him to build up his own base of followers in the city during 57 BC. Clodius’s supporters were attacked in a series of street battles, Cicero was recalled from exile, and Pompey was given a special five-year ‘command’ to organize Rome’s corn-supply – an obvious attempt by the authorities to undercut the radical tribune’s appeal. The shift to the right in the capital threatened the Triumvirate. Cicero was back and in some sort of alliance with Pompey. Milo’s thugs were doing the Senate’s dirty work in the backstreets. The populist cause – and therefore Caesar – was under attack.

Caesar, Crassus and Pompey met at Luca in Cisalpine Gaul in 56 BC to discuss the political situation, resolve their differences, and renew the secret alliance which, though shaky, still served them well enough. Caesar wished to retain his Gallic command: the war was only half won. Crassus obtained Syria and an opportunity to lead a campaign against the Parthian Empire in the East. Pompey received Spain, though he would choose to govern through deputies, remaining in Rome to oversee the corn-supply, maintain public order, and monitor the opposition. The arrangements were planned to last five years. In the event, it was only three.

Three events unhinged the First Triumvirate. First, in 54 BC, Pompey’s wife died, severing the family tie that had linked him with Caesar, and hastening the growing political estrangement between the two that the clashes between Clodius’s and Milo’s supporters in Rome had come to symbolize. The second event occurred the following year, when, at the Battle of Carrhae, the first clash of arms between the Parthian and Roman Empires, Crassus was killed and his army destroyed. The Parthian army, with its roots in the Iranian steppes, was quite unlike anything the Romans had confronted before, comprising cataphracts (armoured shock cavalry) and horse-archers. However, the cataphracts could not break the solid ranks of Roman heavy infantry, nor could the legionaries get to grips with their more mobile opponents. The horse-archers were therefore decisive. After a Roman detachment was lured away from the main body and annihilated, Crassus attempted to retreat, but his column was assailed by clouds of horse-archers impossible to shake off. Resupplied with arrows by pack-camels, the Parthian bowmen destroyed the Roman army, killing 20,000, capturing 10,000, and taking possession of the revered Roman eagle-standards. By eliminating Crassus, moreover, the Parthians accidentally destroyed the balance of the Roman government.

The third event completed the Triumvirate’s disintegration, putting the relationship of Caesar and Pompey beyond repair. Early in 52 BC, Clodius was ambushed and murdered by Milo’s supporters on the Appian Way outside Rome. In response, an insurrectionary crowd burnt down the Senate House. For a time, a wave of violent disorder consumed Rome, and the government lost control of the capital. Though order was eventually restored by Pompey, whom the Senate had appointed sole consul for this purpose, the political tension remained acute. News of Caesar’s victory over Vercingetorix, and his imminent return to Rome at the end of his term as governor, raised it further. What were Caesar’s intentions now? With blood on the streets, what role would he play in the fraught domestic politics of Rome? For Caesar, by the end of the 50s BC, had become the most powerful man in the empire. Brilliant generalship in the Gallic War had brought him wealth, clients, glory, and, above all, a first-class army of some 50,000 loyal, battle-hardened legionaries. Would these men, Caesar’s Gallic War veterans, prove to be the gravediggers of the Roman Republic? Would they raise up their master to be champion of the mob and king of Rome?

Little wonder that many in the capital were less than overjoyed at the news of Caesar’s victory. A small hardline group of senators around Cato were in no doubt that events were fast moving towards some kind of decision: Caesar’s war was now a mopping-up operation, and the great man would soon be back in Rome, more powerful and dangerous than ever before. Yet Pompey and the Senate majority vacillated, fearing Caesar’s ambition, but fearing no less the chaos and risks of civil war if he was thwarted. Caesar, too, wanted peace: when ordered to surrender two of his legions for service against the Parthians, he let them go; though in fact they were promptly added to Pompey’s forces in Italy. His aim was a second consulship and a new command (in the East?), and he sought an extension of his existing command to bridge the gap between the two and preserve his magisterial immunity from prosecution. But his enemies would not concede either, and they carried the Senate with them. A moderate proposal that both Caesar and Pompey should end their magistracies and demobilize their armies at the same moment was overwhelmingly endorsed. But this helped little, for still there remained the fact that it was Caesar, not Pompey, who was threatened with vindictive prosecution. The joint disarmament proposal ran aground on this rock: the hardliners persuaded Pompey to keep his legions in anticipation of Caesar’s defiance, and Caesar, given the hostility to him, could not contemplate a return to Rome as a private citizen. The Roman courts were politicized and corrupt. Powerful enemies could engineer the destruction of virtually any man forced to face them. Caesar’s only safety was a new magistracy conferring renewed immunity. This his enemies refused to grant.

On 7th January 49 BC, the Senate ordered Caesar to lay down his command and passed an emergency decree empowering the consuls and proconsuls – that is, the consuls and Pompey – to take whatever measures were necessary to defend the Republic. The Caesarian tribunes – including Mark Antony – fled the capital. Three days later, after an anxious hour of private reflection, Caesar made the decision to lead his army across the Rubicon, a small stream on the north-east frontier of Italy: ‘If I refrain from this crossing, my friends, it will be the beginning of misfortune for me; but if I cross, it will be the beginning of misfortune for all mankind.’ Yet his enemies had willed it so, and his officers and men, whose fortunes were so inextricably bound up with his own, would not have it otherwise. When he appealed to his soldiers, they clamoured their support. ‘And speaking like a man possessed,’ says the historian Appian, ‘he crossed quickly, quoting the proverb, “Let the die be cast.”’(19)

Pompey appeared the stronger contender. He had the backing of the Senate and was in formal control of most of the empire. The Roman imperial elite was overwhelmingly Pompeian in sympathy. Caesar was an outlaw and usurper whose regional power-base and army looked puny against the resources available to his enemies. The great retinue of self-appointed consultants who attached themselves to Pompey’s headquarters for the duration of the campaign – the Roman senators – was certainly convinced that victory would be easy. But Caesar enjoyed three advantages – advantages that would ultimately prove decisive. First, he was a brilliant strategist and tactician, one whose speed, aggression, mastery of improvisation and surprise, and willingness to take great risks in pursuit of great prizes would shortly transform the military situation. Second, his army of 50,000 Gallic War veterans was the finest fighting force in the world at the time. Third, this force was highly concentrated and therefore able to strike with maximum speed and power.

Caesar swept south to take Rome without a fight, herding Pompey and his as-yet inadequate forces before him. Keeping his soldiers well in hand, Caesar won general support in Italy; Pompey retreated across the Adriatic to build a bigger army among his eastern clients. Before following to confront him, Caesar secured his rear with a second whirlwind campaign in Spain (though his subordinates were meantime worsted in Africa, which became a Pompeian base). The following year (48 BC) Caesar crossed to Greece and advanced on Pompey’s army, which fell back on the city of Dyrrhachium, its principal coastal base. Hoping to besiege and blockade Pompey’s army, Caesar constructed mile upon mile of enclosing defence-works and hilltop redoubts. But he could not close the port of Dyrrhachium, and Pompey’s army was sustained by seaborne supplies. Then, when the Pompeians, who outnumbered their opponents, went on to the offensive, they broke through Caesar’s defences and threatened to roll up his line. Caesar was compelled to retreat – eastwards, into the Greek hinterland, deeper into Pompey’s vast eastern fiefdom.

Here, surrounded by enemies and threatened with starvation, Caesar’s army might so easily have perished, victim of its own commander’s relentless aggression and self-confidence. This, we are told, was Pompey’s judgement: that hunger would devour the beast in a waiting game. But around him were the amateur strategists of the Senate, who sensed weakness and an easy kill. Pompey was induced to offer battle – the very battle that was Caesar’s only chance. The armies met at Pharsalus in Thessaly, 35,000 or more Pompeians against 22,000 Caesarians. Almost all Caesar’s men were legionaries, whereas the Pompeians were strong also in archers, slingers and, above all, cavalry, in which they outnumbered their opponents seven to one. For Caesar the odds were not good, and his battle plan was a masterpiece of improvisation designed to compensate for his disadvantage. The battle was fought beside a river, with one flank secure, so Pompey’s plan was to hold Caesar’s centre with his infantry while concentrating all his overwhelmingly superior cavalry and light infantry for a decisive attack on the enemy right. Anticipating this, Caesar’s plan involved the extraordinary expedient of having heavy infantry charge cavalry. Ancient armies traditionally deployed their infantry in three lines. Caesar created a fourth, which was deployed at a right angle to the rest facing the right flank. His small Gallic cavalry force was also deployed here, its role to bait the trap by goading the Pompeian left into full-scale assault. The eastern cavalry surged forwards and the Gallic cavalry fled. But as the Pompeians thundered towards the Roman rear, they were struck in the flank by the 3,000 legionaries of Caesar’s fourth line, under orders to use their javelins as thrusting-spears. Chaos and panic were followed by the rout of the entire Pompeian left. By this time the infantry battle was well advanced. Though heavily outnumbered, Caesar’s legionaries were veterans, while Pompey’s lines contained many raw recruits. In the second phase of the battle, Caesar committed his third line, until now held back as a reserve against the possibility of success by Pompey’s cavalry. His fourth line meantime swept forwards on the right to assault the exposed left flank of the Pompeian infantry. Pompey’s entire line disintegrated and rout became general. For the loss of 1,200 men, Caesar had killed 6,000 Pompeians. The fugitives, moreover, found no respite. Their camp was overrun by the Caesarians’ tireless pursuit, and then a temporary refuge on a nearby hilltop was surrounded and ringed with defence-works: some 24,000 Pompeians promptly surrendered. Pompey himself abandoned his army and fled to Egypt. Here, however, he met his end, murdered by the government of King Ptolemy XII in the hope of winning the victor’s favour.

Pharsalus was a tactical masterpiece and one of history’s most decisive battles. The Pompeian cause was henceforward broken-backed. Even so, the war dragged on. Caesar pursued Pompey to Egypt with a small force, but the cavalier and partisan manner in which he intervened in an internal dynastic dispute between Ptolemy XII and his sister and co-regent Cleopatra provoked a violent response, and Caesar spent the winter of 48–47 BC under siege in the city of Alexandria. Relief came in the spring, but by that time Pompeian resistance had flared up across the empire. Caesarian celeritas (speed) was never more evident. First he went to Asia Minor to crush the revolt of a Pompeian client-prince in a five-day war (veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered). Then to Rome to confront and defuse a mutiny of returning veterans – including men of Caesar’s crack Tenth Legion – disappointed by their rewards after Pharsalus. The following year (46 BC) he invaded Africa, where Quintus Metellus Scipio had raised an army of ten Roman and four Numidian legions. Caesar crossed in winter gales and immediately sought battle. He engineered a confrontation on a narrow headland near Thapsus, without room for manoeuvre or outflanking, so that his enemies’ shaky infantry were compelled to face a frontal charge by Caesar’s veterans. So confident were Caesar’s men that they charged before the order was given, catching the Pompeians still trying to deploy; in the rout that followed the veterans gave no quarter and the battle degenerated into massacre. Ten thousand were killed, including almost all the Pompeian hierarchy. Marcus Cato, left in charge of a garrison, committed suicide when he got the news.

The final and most ghastly battle was fought in Spain, the oldest of Pompey’s fiefdoms. Here his sons had raised an army of 13 legions, and when Caesar, with an army barely half the size, found them holding a strong defensive position on a hill near Munda in the spring of 45 BC, his decision to attack was a calculated risk: the Pompeians could not be drawn to fight on equal terms, yet the war would not end unless their army was destroyed. The Caesarians launched a difficult uphill attack and were soon bogged down in protracted and murderous close-quarters fighting. The line wavered under Pompeian counter-attacks. Caesar himself entered the front ranks to stiffen resolve. Before his men finally broke through they had lost 6,000 – the heaviest casualties of Caesar’s career – and as their enemies ran, the Caesarian soldiery, driven mad by blood and fear, killed everyone they could reach, amounting to some 30,000 Pompeians.

Caesar and his men had won the civil war because they were masters of the battlefield. Their opponents were weakened by divided counsels, a dispersal of strength, and dependence on raw levies in Greece, Africa and Spain. But there was something more: Caesar was both conciliator and popularis. Magnanimous towards defeated enemies and solicitous of civilians endangered by war, he easily won the sympathy of the uncommitted. And wearing the mantle of the Gracchi and of Marius, he garnered strong support from that inchoate coalition for reform – the equestrians, the Italian municipal aristocracy, the city poor, the farmers, the newly enfranchised, those aspiring to citizenship, soldiers past and present – that had rendered Late Republican Rome ungovernable. It is surely significant that after the campaign of 49 BC Rome and Italy, though stripped of troops, were safe for Caesar: there was no Pompeian rising here.

Those, moreover, who had supported Caesar in the war were not to be disappointed. After decades of obstruction by the oligarchs of privilege, a raft of reforms was initiated between 49 and 44 BC: state regulation of credit and a reduction of debts; remission of rents; proper town planning and traffic regulation in Rome; a major programme of public building, including a new forum adjacent to the old; tighter regulation of the corn-dole; a succession of spectacles and feasts in the capital; a pay rise from 120 to 225denariifor legionaries, and a huge bonus of 5,000 denarii each for Caesar’s veterans in 46 BC; 30 new colonies for the settlement of 80,000 citizens and their families; regulation of municipal government in Italy; major land reclamation works in the Italian countryside; the enfranchisement of the Cisalpine Gauls; selective grants of Roman citizenship to many other upper-class provincials, and the award of ‘municipal’ status to their towns; reductions in provincial taxation. Pharsalus had opened a new era. Theancien régime was overthrown, and a stalled revolution burst into creative life, remodelling the Roman Empire for the centuries to come.

But there was no clean end. Caesar in Rome in the winter of 45–44 BC found himself surrounded by embittered, unreconstructed enemies. His constitutional position was, perforce, highly irregular. He had taken emergency powers as dictator rei publicae constituendae causa (dictator for the reconstitution of the state) for the duration of the civil war, but he could hardly abdicate that position now and hand back to his enemies the power to destroy him they had lost on the battlefield. His beleaguered government was staffed with loyalists – the Senate was packed with Caesarians, virtually all higher magistracies, including provincial governorships, were held by appointees, equestrians were welcomed to the highest councils of the state, and a burgeoning administration of minor officials was constructed. The Senate was sidelined. A parallel state structure formed alongside it. Civil war had created a military dictator who had usurped a position of dominance over his former peers in the Senate. To maintain himself, to reward his followers, to reform state and society, he was compelled to make his dictatorship permanent and create a government bureaucracy to ensure its effectiveness. A cult of personality developed around him – he was dubbed ‘Father of the Fatherland’, his head appeared on coins, and expressions of political loyalty to the ruler were already morphing into acts of worship for a god. He appeared to stalwarts of the old order a king in all but name, his pointed rejection of the hated title rex the flimsiest fig-leaf. On 14thFebruary 44 BC, Caesar made himself dictator perpetuus (dictator for life), donned the purple robes of a king, and seated himself on a new ivory and gilt throne. He was known to be preparing for a great campaign of conquest in the East: a new Alexander was in the making, one in whose shadow all other men might shrivel. Such was not the Roman way. A month later, on 15th March, as he entered a meeting of the Senate in the Theatre of Pompey, Gaius Julius Caesar was boxed in by a crowd of senators and felled by multiple dagger wounds. He died in a pool of blood at the base of the statue of his greatest enemy.

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