The story of Julius Caesar is an intensely dramatic one, which has fascinated generation after generation, attracting the attention of Shakespeare and Shaw, not to mention numerous novelists and screenwriters. Caesar was one of the ablest generals of any era, who left accounts of his own campaigns that have rarely - perhaps never - been surpassed in literary quality. At the same time he was a politician and statesman who eventually took supreme power in the Roman Republic and made himself a monarch in every practical respect, although he never took the name of king. Caesar was not a cruel ruler and paraded his clemency to his defeated enemies, but in the end he was stabbed to death as a result of a conspiracy led by two pardoned men, which also included many of his own supporters. Later his adopted son Octavian - fully Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus - became Rome’s first emperor. The family line perished with Nero in ad 68, but all later emperors still took the name of Caesar, even though there was no link by blood or adoption. What had simply been the name of one aristocratic family - and a fairly obscure one at that - became effectively a title symbolising supreme and legitimate power. So strong was the association that when the twentieth century opened, two of the world’s great powers were still led by a kaiser and a tsar, each name a rendering of Caesar. Today the Classics have lost their central position in Western education, but even so Julius Caesar remains one of a handful of figures from the ancient world whose name commands instant recognition. Plenty of people with no knowledge of Latin will recall Shakespeare’s version of his dying words, et tu Brute (in fact, he probably said something else (see p.508-9) but that is by the way). Of other Romans only Nero, and perhaps Mark Antony, enjoy similar fame, and from other nations probably only Alexander the Great, the Greek philosophers, Hannibal and, most of all, Cleopatra remain so high in the public consciousness. Cleopatra was Caesar’s lover and Antony one of his senior lieutenants, and so both form part of his story.
Caesar was a great man. Napoleon is just one of many famous commanders who admitted that he had learned much from studying Caesar’s campaigns. Politically he had a huge impact on Roman history, playing a key role in ending the Republican system of government, which had endured for four and a half centuries. Although he was fiercely intelligent and highly educated, Caesar was a man of action and it is for this that he is remembered. His talents were varied and exceptional, from his skill as an orator and writer, as framer of laws and as political operator, to his talent as soldier and general. Most of all there was his charm that so often won over the crowd in Rome, the legionaries on campaign and the many women whom he seduced. Caesar made plenty of mistakes, both as commander and as politician, but then which human being has not? His great knack was to recover from setbacks, admit, at least to himself, that he had been wrong, and then adapt to the new situation and somehow win in the long run.
Few would dispute Caesar’s claim to greatness, but it is much harder to say that he was a good man, or that the consequences of his career were unambiguously good. He was not a Hitler or a Stalin, nor indeed a Genghis Khan. Even so one source claims that over a million enemies were killed during his campaigns. Ancient attitudes differed from those of today, and the Romans had few qualms about Caesar’s wars against foreign opponents like the tribes of Gaul. In eight years of campaigning at the very least Caesar’s legions killed hundreds of thousands of people in the region, and enslaved as many more. At times he was utterly ruthless, ordering massacres and executions, and on one occasion the mass mutilation of prisoners whose hands were cut off before they were set free. More often he was merciful to defeated enemies, for the essentially practical reason that he wanted them to accept Roman rule and so become the peaceful tax-paying population of a new province. His attitude was coldly pragmatic, deciding on clemency or atrocity according to which seemed to offer him the greatest advantage. He was an active and energetic imperialist, but having said that he was not the creator of Roman imperialism, merely one of its many agents. His campaigns were not noticeably more brutal than other Roman wars. Far more controversial at the time were his activities in Rome and his willingness to fight a civil war when he felt that his political rivals were determined to end his career. His grievances had more than a little justice, but even so when Caesar took his army from his province into Italy in January 49 BC he became a rebel. The civil wars that followed his assassination finally brought the Roman Republic to an end. Its condition may already have been terminal because of Caesar’s own actions. The Republic fell and was replaced by the rule of emperors, the first of whom was his heir. During his dictatorship Caesar held supreme power and had generally governed well, bringing in measures that were sensible and statesmanlike and for the good of Rome. Previously the Republic had been dominated by a narrow senatorial elite, whose members all too often abused their position to enrich themselves by exploiting poorer Romans and the inhabitants of the provinces alike. Caesar took action to deal with problems that had been acknowledged as real and serious for some time, but which had not been resolved because of a reluctance to let any individual senator gain the credit for the act. The Republican system was pretty rotten and had been troubled by violence from before Caesar’s birth, and civil war from early in his life. He won supreme power by military force, and we know that he employed bribery and intimidation at other stages in his career. His opponents were no different in their methods and were as willing to fight a civil war to destroy Caesar’s position as he was to defend it, but that is only to say that he was no better or worse than they were. After his victory he ruled in a very responsible manner and in marked contrast to the senatorial aristocracy - his measures were designed to benefit a much broader section of society. His regime was not repressive and he pardoned and promoted many former enemies. Rome, Italy and the provinces were all better off under Caesar than they had been for some time. Yet if he governed responsibly, his rule also effectively meant the end to free elections, and however just his rule was, in the end monarchy would lead to emperors like Caligula and Nero. It was the wealthy elite at Rome who tended to write the histories and Caesar’s rise meant a reduction in the power of this class. Therefore, many sources are critical of him for this reason.
Caesar was not a moral man; indeed, in many respects he seems amoral. It does seem to have been true that his nature was kind, generous and inclined to forget grudges and turn enemies into friends, but he was also willing to be utterly ruthless. He was an inveterate womaniser, disloyal to his wives and his numerous lovers. Cleopatra is by far the most famous of these - and the romance may have been genuine on both sides, but it did not stop Caesar from having an affair with another queen soon afterwards, or from continuing his pursuit of the aristocratic women of Rome. He was extremely proud, even vain, especially of his appearance. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that from a young age Caesar was absolutely convinced of his own superiority. Much of this self-esteem was justified, for he was brighter and more capable than the overwhelming majority of other senators. Perhaps like Napoleon he was so fascinated by his own character that this made it easier to enthral others. Also like the French emperor there were many contradictions in his character. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once wrote of Napoleon that: ‘He was a wonderful man - perhaps the most wonderful man who ever lived. What strikes me is the lack of finality in his character. When you make up your mind that he is a complete villain, you come on some noble trait, and then your admiration of this is lost in some act of incredible meanness.’1 There is something of the same odd mixture with Caesar, although perhaps it was less extreme.
It is striking that while today academics are supposed to be trained to examine the past dispassionately, it is very rare to meet an ancient historian who does not have a strong opinion about Caesar. In the past some have admired, even idolised, him, seeing him as a visionary who perceived the huge problems facing the Republic and realised how to solve them. Others are far more critical and view him as merely another aristocrat with very traditional ambitions who scrambled to the top regardless of the cost to law and precedent, but then had no clear idea of what to do with his power. Such commentators tend to emphasise the opportunism that marked his rise to power. Caesar certainly was an opportunist, but the same has surely been true of virtually every successful politician. He believed strongly in the power of chance in all human affairs and felt that he was especially lucky. With hindsight we know that Octavian - these days more often referred to as Augustus - created the system through which emperors would rule the Roman Empire for centuries. Debate rages over the extent to which Caesar’s years in control of Rome began what Augustus was able to complete, or were a false start and only provided an example that his adopted son consciously avoided in an effort to escape the same fate. Opinion remains fiercely divided and it is unlikely that this will ever change. The truth probably lies somewhere between the extreme views.
The aim of this book is to examine Caesar’s life on its own terms, and to place it firmly within the context of Roman society in the first century BC. It is not concerned with what happened after his death, and there will be no real discussion of the differences between his regime and that which evolved in the years when Augustus held power. Instead the focus is on what Caesar did, and on trying to understand why and how he did it. Hindsight is obviously inevitable, but it does attempt to avoid assuming that the Civil War and the collapse of the Republic were inevitable, or the opposite extreme, which claims that there was nothing wrong with the Republic at all. There has been a tendency in the past for books to look at Caesar either as a politician or as a general. This distinction had no real meaning at Rome, in contrast to modern Western democracies. A Roman senator received military and civilian tasks to perform throughout his career, both being a normal part of public life. Neither one can fully be understood without the other, and here the two will be covered in equal detail. This is a long book, but it cannot hope to provide a full account of politics at Rome during Caesar’s lifetime, nor does it attempt a complete analysis of the campaigns in Gaul and the Civil War. The focus is always on Caesar, and no more description is provided for events in which he was not personally involved than is essential. Many points of controversy are skimmed over - for instance, the details of a particular law or trial at Rome, or topographic and other questions related to military operations. However interesting, such points would be digressions unless they have a significant part to play in understanding Caesar. Those so inclined will be able to find out more about such things from the works cited in the notes collected at the end of this book. Similarly, as far as possible the main text avoids direct mention of the many distinguished scholars who have written about Caesar and discussion of their specific interpretations. Such things are a major and essential concern in an academic study, but are tedious in the extreme for the general reader. Once again the relevant works are cited in the notes at the end of the book.
For all his fame, and the fact that he lived in probably the best documented decades of Roman history, there are still many things we do not know about Caesar. Most of our evidence has been available for some time. Archaeological excavation continues to reveal more about the world in which Caesar lived - at the time of writing on-going work in, for instance, France and Egypt is likely to tell us a good deal more about Gaul in Caesar’s day and the Alexandria of Cleopatra. However, it is unlikely that any discoveries will radically alter our understanding of Caesar’s career and life. For this we are largely reliant on the literary sources in Latin and Greek that have survived from the ancient world, occasionally supplemented by inscriptions on bronze or in stone. Caesar’s own Commentaries on his campaigns survive and provide us with detailed accounts of his campaigns in Gaul and the first two years of the Civil War. They are supplemented by four extra books written after his death by his officers, which cover his remaining operations. In addition we have the letters, speeches and theoretical works of Cicero, which provide us with a wealth of detail for this period. Cicero’s correspondence, which includes letters written to him by many of the leading men of the Republic, was published after his death and contains a handful of short messages from Caesar himself. We know that complete books of correspondence between Cicero and Caesar, as well as another consisting of exchanges between Cicero and Pompey, were published, but sadly these have not survived. The same is true of Caesar’s other literary works and published speeches. It is always important to remind ourselves that only a tiny fraction of one per cent of the literature of the ancient world is available today. There are some deliberate omissions from Cicero’s published letters, most notably his letters to his friend Atticus in the first three months of 44 BC. Atticus was involved in the release of the correspondence, but this did not occur until Augustus was established as master of Rome. It is more than likely that the missing letters contained something that might have implicated Atticus in involvement in the conspiracy against Caesar, or more probably suggested either knowledge of it or subsequent approval, and that these were deliberately suppressed to protect himself. Another nearly contemporary source is Sallust, who wrote several histories, including an account of Catiline’s conspiracy. During the Civil War Sallust had fought for Caesar and been reinstated to the Senate as a reward. Sent to govern Africa, he was subsequently condemned for extortion, but was let off by Caesar. More favourable to Caesar than Cicero, Sallust wrote with the benefit of hindsight and his opinion of the dictator seems to have become rather mixed. Ironically, given his own career - though he always strenuously denied any wrongdoing - his theme was that all of Rome’s ills were caused by a moral decline amongst the aristocracy, and so inevitably this coloured his narrative. Cicero, Sallust and Caesar were all active participants in public life. Caesar in particular wrote to celebrate his deeds and win support for his continuing career. Neither he nor the others were dispassionate observers keen only to report unvarnished fact.
Most other sources are much later. Livy wrote during the reign of Augustus and so some events were still within living memory, but the books covering this period have been lost and only brief summaries survive. Velleius Paterculus wrote a little later and there is some useful material in his brief narrative of the period. However, a good deal of our evidence for Caesar was not written until the early second century ad, over one hundred and fifty years after the dictator’s murder. The Greek writer Appian produced a massive history of Rome, of which two books cover the civil wars and disturbances from 133 to 44 BC. Plutarch was also Greek, but his most important work for our purposes was his Parallel Lives, biographies pairing a famous Greek and Roman figure. Caesar was paired with Alexander the Great as the two most successful generals of all time. Also of relevance are his lives of Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Cicero, Cato, Brutus and Mark Antony Suetonius was a Roman who produced biographies of the first twelve emperors, beginning with Caesar. Cassius Dio was of Greek origin, but was also a Roman citizen and a senator who was active in public life in the early third century ad. He provides the most detailed continuous narrative of the period. All of these writers had access to sources, many of them contemporary to Caesar and including some of his own lost works, which are no longer available. Yet we need always to remind ourselves that each was written much later, and we cannot always be sure that they understood or accurately reflected the attitudes of the first century BC. There are some notable gaps in our evidence. By a curious coincidence the opening section of both Suetonius’ and Plutarch’s biographies of Caesar are missing and so we do not know with absolute certainty in which year he was born. Each author had his own biases, interest or viewpoint, and made use of sources that were in turn prejudiced and often open propaganda. Care needs to be taken when using any source. Unlike those studying more recent history, ancient historians often have to make the best of limited and possibly unreliable sources, as well as balancing apparently contradictory accounts. Throughout I have attempted to give some idea of this process.
Some aspects of Caesar’s inner life remain closed to us. It would be interesting and revealing to know more about his personal and private relationships with his family, his wives, lovers and friends. In the case of the latter it does seem that for much of his life and certainly in his last years he had no friend who was in any way his equal, although he was clearly close to and fond of many of his subordinates and assistants. We also know next to nothing about his religious beliefs. Ritual and religion pervaded every aspect of life in the Roman world. Caesar was one of Rome’s most senior priests and regularly carried out or presided over prayers, sacrifices and other rites. He also made the most of the family tradition that claimed descent from the goddess Venus. We have no idea, however, what any of this meant to him. He was rarely, if ever, restrained from doing anything because of religious scruples and was willing to manipulate religion for his own benefit, but that does not necessarily mean that he was entirely cynical and had no beliefs. In the end we simply do not know. Part of the fascination with Caesar is because he is so difficult to pin down and because mysteries remain, for instance, as to what he really intended in the last months of his life. In his fifty-six years he was at times many things, including a fugitive, prisoner, rising politician, army leader, legal advocate, rebel, dictator - perhaps even a god - as well as a husband, father, lover and adulterer. Few fictional heroes have ever done as much as Caius Julius Caesar.