1. The Roman World, 49-31 B.C.
2. Rome, 44 B.C.
Much that has been written about Julius Caesar in modern times is twaddle. Not even his name has come down to us correctly. His full name was Gaius Iulius Caesar, and he was referred to as Gaius by Romans, who, it is believed, pronounced his last name as Kaiser, not Caesar. But if I were to talk about Gaius Iulius Kaiser no one would know to whom I was referring. So for the purposes of this work, Julius Caesar he must remain, just as Marcus Antonius must remain Mark Antony.
There are many myths about Caesar. One was that all legions associated with him bore the bull emblem. Far from true; no legion numbered above 10 is attested to having carried the bull emblem, and Caesar raised some forty legions. Another was that he was the “good guy” fighting a lone battle against the “bad guys,” a black-and-white misrepresentation. For example, in 1961, a young U.S. Army officer named Norman Schwarzkopf wrote an essay while attending an advanced training course at Fort Benning, Georgia, that won him an award. That paper told of a general entering his tent after a battle and tossing his battered helmet on a cot in the corner. Later Schwarzkopf revealed to his readers that the general was Julius Caesar and that the battle just ended was the Battle of Pharsalus, in which Caesar had defeated the army led by that other Roman colossus, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, or Pompey the Great.
Schwarzkopf, who, thirty years later, was the U.S. general commanding Coalition forces in the Gulf War’s Operation Desert Storm, used his essay to show that for an army commander, nothing much had changed in two thousand years; the same physical and mental factors still applied to a leader of men in battle. But in his essay Schwarzkopf described Pompey as “the rebel” general in the conflict. In fact, after Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his troops on January 11, 49 B.C., to invade his own country and seize power in a military coup and was declared an “enemy of the state” by the Roman Senate, it was Caesar who was the rebel.
In the same vein, modern historians with socialist inclinations have put forward the view that Caesar was a sort of Robin Hood who robbed power from the Roman rich and gave it to the poor. Caesar was characterized as the champion of one side of Roman politics, the populares, or “popularists,” against the rich nobles of the optimates, or “best ones.” There are several things wrong with this argument.
First, both groups were made up of the wealthy members of the Senatorial Order; the populares were not some revolutionary party from the middle or lower classes opposed to the ruling aristocrats. Second, while Roman politics did divide between Sulla, leading the optimates, and Marius, leading the populares, following Sulla’s Civil War victory in 82 B.C., two decades before Julius Caesar’s first taste of power as a consul, the populares ceased to exist. A trawl through classical texts finds barely a mention of the optimates at the height of Caesar’s career, and no mention of the populares. Caesar himself never used the terms in his writings. Neither Caesar nor classical commentators saw his bid for power as a struggle between the populares and the optimates. But the concept made for good modern storytelling.
The idea of Caesar being the representative of the mob stemmed in part from Seneca, the philosopher and chief secretary of Nero a century after Caesar’s death, who wrote, “If you try to picture the period to yourself you will see on the one side the populace, the mob all agog for revolution, on the other the time-honored elect of Rome, the aristocracy and members of the Equestrian Order, and two forlorn figures, Cato and republicanism, between them.”¹ But what Seneca also said was that Caesar and Pompey were in the same corner at the time, the corner of the “time-honored elect.”
Ultimately, Cato the Younger decided that these “time-honored elect” were at least intent on preserving the Republic, whereas Caesar was bent on destroying it, and took a military command of republican forces under Pompey. Whether Caesar came out of the Civil War as victor or Pompey did, Cato was pessimistic, saying, “If Caesar wins, I kill myself. If Pompey, I go into exile.”²
Caesar did not fit into any category. Caesar was a loner. His own cousin Lucius Caesar declined to support him, preferring to stay neutral, while Lucius’s son fought on the republican side against Caesar. And Caesar’s loyal and capable deputy in the Gallic War for nine years, Titus Labienus, not only deserted him and went over to the republicans as the Civil War broke out, he also took most of Caesar’s cavalry with him.
Facing criminal charges for financial misdealing when consul in 59 B.C., charges he must have felt would stick if he came to trial, Caesar took one of only two courses of action open to him, that of facing trial or of seizing power. It was a cast of unsavory characters and loyal dependents who supported him. Of the three tribunes of the plebeians who sided with him, one was his relative Mark Antony. Another was Gaius Curio, Antony’s drinking companion in their shared youth, who had been against Caesar in the Senate until Caesar bribed him by paying off his huge debts. The other was slimy Quintus Cassius, who, once he had been made governor of Farther Spain by Caesar, proceeded to rob the locals of their gold and then perish while fleeing with his loot.
The naive and simplistic socialist view of Caesar as champion of the underclass was taken up most recently in a 2003 book that credited Caesar with a “reform agenda” once he had seized power by force, reform that apparently had no place for democracy. That author’s lack of familiarity with ancient Rome included describing Marcus Lepidus as Caesar’s “loyal cavalry commander.”³ Lepidus was Caesar’s Master of Equestrians. This title has been misconstrued by several modern authors, who have thought it meant Lepidus was master of horse, or cavalry commander, as the title came to mean in the late empire. In the Roman Republic, the Master of Equestrians was the deputy of the Dictator and had nothing to do with cavalry or their command, his title having originally meant that he was master of members of the Equestrian Order, just as his superior, the Dictator, was considered master of the commons.⁴
The 2003 author also repeated an error originally made by Suetonius, who claimed that the assassins had considered murdering Caesar at the time of the upcoming consular elections. But no consular elections were scheduled for five years. In the same text, Suetonius himself pointed out that Caesar let “only tribunes and aediles of the people be elected.”⁵ Appian was not confused on this point; he reported Brutus saying to the Roman people in a speech following Caesar’s murder, “Caesar on the eve of his departure for another long campaign has taken the elections from you for five years ahead.”⁶
Caesar was a brilliant general, a clever engineer, an administrator of genius, and a leader who demanded and commanded loyalty. He also was a corrupt politician. This was an era full of corrupt politicians, but Caesar went farther than any of his contemporaries; when he could no longer bribe his way to power, he waged war on his fellow Romans. Caesar was nonetheless a fascinating figure who stood head and shoulders above all contemporaries, apart, perhaps, from Pompey the Great, and we do Caesar no favors by painting him as a false egalitarian hero. Instead we should be asking questions about Caesar, to learn more about the man and what motivated him, and ultimately about what killed him. Was his downfall the result of the jealousy or ambition of others, or did he bring it on himself?
First and foremost, how is it that less than a year after terminating the Civil War and becoming sole ruler of the Roman Empire, and just five months after returning to Rome, the brilliant Julius Caesar was murdered by more than sixty senators, many of whom had fought on his side during the Civil War and had received significant rewards from him? What did Caesar do that turned so many against him so quickly? Had Caesar in fact gone a little mad?
Other questions also beg answers. Was Mark Antony aware of the assassination plot and let it go forward? And did the conspirators really think that with Caesar dead the Roman Republic would somehow rise anew of its own accord? Or did they have their own eyes on power?
In a bid for some answers, this dissection of the murder of Julius Caesar, based on evidence from classical sources, including key players in the drama, begins just forty-nine days before his death.