Gaius Julius Caesar, whose name is shared by a famous salad and surgical procedure (none related to him), was born into a time of great upheaval of the late Roman Republic. Despite his aristocratic birth, he showed great affinity with the popular classes of Rome, whose cause he adopted during his political career. His posterior military conquests earned him powerful enemies in Rome, but he defeated them all during the civil war, emerging victorious and gaining undisputed control of Rome as the Senate appointed him dictator. But what type of ruler was he? Was he the cruel oppressor his senatorial opponents depicted him to be? Was he the protector of the commoners? Or yet another product of his time, only more successful thanks to his outstanding military talent? Let’s figure it out.
1# Julius Caesar’s birth
Gaius Julius Caesar was born in 13th July 100 BC (the month would actually be renamed after him later), into the Julia family, one of the most distinguished patrician families of Ancient Rome. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t born through Cesarean procedure. Although the patricians, or aristocrats, had originally monopolised all political power, by the time of Caesar, plebeians or commoners, could also held office and be enrolled in the Senate, the most important organ of the Roman Republic.
Caesar has been traditionally held responsible of starting the countdown to the end of the republican system in Rome, and its transformation into an authoritarian regime. This vision is too simplistic. Even before Caesar held any important office, the republic underwent a growing number of civil conflicts and power struggles, from Marius and later Sulla’s military takeovers, to Lepidus’ rebellion, or the Caitiline Conspiracy, to name a few. Moreover, the republic was far from being a paragon of democracy and equality. Only the richest citizens, the equestrians, were elected for the important offices and as members of the Senate, while their weight in the Comitia Centuriata (the organ who elected magistrates and declared war) was disproportionate. Rome was an oligarchy, ruled by a small minority of individuals from the most wealthy and influential families, whose power was represented by the Senate.
2# The First Triumvirate
Even from young age, Caesar demonstrated strength of character and a tendency to remain in the public eye, no matter the consequences. This brought him to a nearly-fatal end with the Dictator Sulla, who ordered him to divorce his current wife, Cornelia. As he progressed up the ladder of Roman politics, serving as Quaestor, Aedile, and Praetor, and finally Consul, the highest office in the republic. Caesar demonstrated his talent for making himself conspicuous, by prosecuting ex-consuls and governors (Rome had no official prosecuting organ), organising games, and with his association with the two most powerful Romans of his day: Pompey and Marcus Crassus. Pompey had demonstrated extraordinary military acumen while serving under Sulla, during the Setorian War, and the Third Mithridatic War. Crassus was perhaps the richest man in Rome through real estate speculation, and had crushed Spartacus’ rebellion in 71 BC, the Third Servile War, in which Caesar had possibly served under him.
Through Crassus’ loans, and by publicly supporting all bills debated in the Senate to grant Pompey extraordinary emergency commands, Caesar soon ingratiated himself with these two influential men, who saw talent and determination in him. With their support, Caesar won the run for the consulship of 59 BC. Two consuls were elected each year, and Caesar’s colleage was Marcus Bibulus, a bitter opponent of his from long. Pompey needed an energetic consul to pass a law granting land to his veteran legionaries, while Crassus needed a relief for his tax ollectors in the eastern provinces. That Caesar had slept with both their wives (he was a womaniser of first calibre) didn’t seem to upset their political collaboration on the slightest. Their new alliance was informally known as the First Triumvirate.
3# Caesar’s land reforms
Mighty as they were, power in the Roman Republic was short-lived and magistrates could face prosecution or the reversal of their bills once their term of office expired. Caesar faced recalcitrant obstruction from his colleage Bibulus (a magistrate could veto his equal or inferior, and in turn be vetoed by a superior) who kept postponing the meeting of the Senate on account of bad omens, and by senators like Cato, who monopolised the allotted time to discuss Caesar’s proposed bill by talking to the end of the session, a process known as filibuster. The Senate had no power to pass a law, only to discuss it and decree or not, a senatus consultum, which advised the popular assemblies, like the Comitia Tributata, in charge of passing legislation. But in practice the Senate’s decrees were obeyed.
Caesar’s law to buy and redistribute land to the urban poor and Pompey’s veterans was so well-redacted that even his opponents publicly admitted there was nothing wrong with the bill. Only that it wasn’t the right time to make such changes. Eventually Caesar brought the law directly to the assemblies to be passed, and also secured the tax relief for Crassus’ collectors. As his term of office drew to an end, Caesar begun to prepare for his governorship of the Roman provinces of Cisalpine Gaul and Ilyricum (and later of Transalpine Gaul too). Usually, a consul’s imperium (power to command) was extended to a military command―hence the title proconsul―in a troublesome province or border, in order to achieve military glory. For Romans, personal military glory stood almost above else, and soon Caesar would have his hands full with it.
4# The Gallic Wars
Until the end of the Napoleonic Wars of the 19th century, no commander would surpass Caesar’s record of battles and campaigns. Only Hannibal did perhaps fight more battles than him. The amazing success of Caesar in the battlefield―unlike his much-debated career in politics―leaves no room for doubt. Caesar was and is still is, one of the most successful generals of all times, a worthy equal of other geniuses such as Alexander the Great, Hannibal, Gengis Khan, Napoleon or the Duke of Wellington. He made much of his fortunes fighting the Gauls, in what’s today modern-day France. The Gallic Wars, of which Caesar wrote his own detailed commentaries, are too complex and extensive to write in detail here, but they were fought against a single, or sometimes coalitions of several Gallic and sometimes Germanic tribes. Some were Roman allies or vassals, others resented increasing Roman interference, while the chieftains of the others simply wanted plunder and glory derived from a military conflict.
By no means the Gauls were defenceless victims of Roman expansionism. Gaulish chieftains fought for supremacy, and often their armies greatly surpassed in number the Roman legions. Although suffering occasional reverses, the Roman soldiers showed fortitude and discipline in defeating them all, while Caesar earned the respect and obedience of his men by showing them respect, exposing himself to danger with them, and earning their undying loyalty with promotions, spoils of war, and through personal charisma. The wars lasted from 58 to 50 BC, and they consisted of the suppression of large-scale rebellions and the migrations of warring tribes intercalated with sporadic raids against the Germanic tribes east of the Rhine, and two brief expeditions to Britain. The first time a Roman set foot there, although they didn’t stay just yet. After the decisive defeat of the Gallic confederation led by Vercingetorix in the Siege of Alesia, 52 BC, Caesar’s legions effectively pacified the new Roman province.
It’s also wrong to see the Gallic Wars as a massive genocide conducted by ruthless conquerors on the opressed people. If anything, the gallic campaigns didn’t differ from others typical of the age. On the contrary, Caesar distinguished himself for his clemency, taking hostages to ensure good behaviour, and allowing for tribal life to resume in Gaul. After all, the provinces paid much needed taxes in Rome, and contributed with grain for the legions and with Auxilia, auxiliary troops in the form of missile troops, light infantry and cavalry to complement the Roman heavy infantry. Although Caesar was merciful for the standarts of the time, he also demonstrated ruthlessness when the situation demanded it, such as his execution of the ruling elders of the Veneti, the enslavement of a whole town for killing Roman merchants, or the execution of the ringleaders of a mutiny in his ninth legion. All in all, none of these measures were exceptional, and indeed had been often applied by armies of all periods and nations.
5# Clouds of war
While Caesar gained immense prestige and wealth in Gaul, his senatorial opponents and even some of his erstwhile allies seethed in discontent. The Triumvirate had come to an end when Crassus had been killed while campaigning against the Parthians in 53 BC, and the friendship between Caesar and Pompey had been cooling since the death of Julia, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife, and by the growing fame of the former. If before Caesar had certainly been before the junior member of the Triumvirate, his recent successes had changed that for good.
But even when Cato and Bibulus resumed their offensive against Caesar, to have him recalled from proconsulship and trialled, Pompey refused to betray his old ally. Caesar intended to run for a second consulship on his due return to Rome, but many in the Senate, spurred by Cato and Caesar’s cousin, Marcellus, feared more populist legislation of his. The accusations that he already craved absolutist rule came from these group of embittered opponents, but so far Caesar had only intended to run for a second term of office. A reasonable goal since Pompey had already run three. The Senate feared an individual gaining too much power, and its members felt jealous of the achievements of others. A man’s success deprived his peers of the same, and Cato was very successful in using this resentment to stir his fellow senators against Caesar.
Even Pompey was infected, probably fearful that his former father-in-law would eclipse him in time. At the same time, the Senate wished to avoid the outbreak of another civil war. But even if he was losing Pompey’s support, Caesar counted with strong support from the Tribune of the Plebs, an office with right of veto, which they used to bar the Senate’s voting to recall Caesar. In the end, the Senate passed the senatus consultum ultimum, a call to protect the republic at all costs, which could not be subject to veto. At the same time, Lentulus, one of the present consuls alongside Marcellus, warned the pro-Caesar tribunes Antony and Cassius that he couldn’t guarantee their safety if they remained in Rome. Packing their stuff, they hurried to Caesar’s side.
6# Civil War. Crossing the Rubicon
When Caesar heard, the implications to the ultimatum of the Senate were crystal clear. Marcellus, Lentulus, Cato and company, wanted Caesar to stand down from his post so he could be trialled as a private citizen. Probably they assumed that Caesar would cave in and agree, for few in the Senate wished for war. But in the event of one, they could count on more resources and manpower than Caesar, and would do so under Pompey’s leadership. On January the 1st Caesar sent letters to the consuls, saying if Pompey yielded his current status as proconsul with the attached legions, he would do the same. He might have correctly guessed that Pompey wouldn’t do so.
Believing that all alternatives were exhausted, he crossed the Rubicon River at the head of his 13th Legion on January 10th 49 BC, soon to be followed by the rest of his undyingly loyal army. The crossing was significant because the river represented the border between Cisalpine Gaul and proper Italy. Since no general was allowed to bring his legions within Italy, this was considered treason. Allegedly, before crossing Caesar uttered the famous words: ‘iacta alea est’. The dice is cast. Today, crossing the Rubicon survives as a metaphor indicating the point of no return.
Caesar would go on to defeat Pompey, Cato, and all who opposed him in a civil war that raged until March 45 BC. Click here to read in detail. As the unquestioned victor, Caesar faced no opposition in Rome. He was appointed dictator for ten years (dictator was in fact a legal office in Ancient Rome, bestowed only in times of dire crisis), and given another consulship which he could retain for as long as he wished. The Senate heaped praise and title after title on Caesar’s receding hair, statues of him were built everywhere and paraded alongside the gods’, successive triumphs were held to commemorate all his numerous victories, from Gaul to Greece, Egypt, Asia, Africa, and Hispania. He became the first living Roman to be depicted in coins, and was permanently hailed as Imperator. In the past this had only been a temporary way for soldiers to address their victorious general. From this title, comes the modern word, emperor.
Always a generous man with his soldiers and allies, it was time for Caesar to reward the men who had supported him all along. He paid his legionaries 5,000 denarii each, more than a legionary earnt in his sixteen-year term in the army, and his closest associates hoarded the highest available offices of the republic, now effectively an empty name. He offered a part-reprieve to debtors which didn’t fully satisfy many of his followers, many of them greatly indebted. New settlements to allocate his veterans were set down in Carthage and Corinth, the Latin status―only second to Roman citizenship―was granted to Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul, the Senate was extended to nine hundred members and a new calendar created. The Julian Calendar, which remained in use until the 16th century, when it was slightly modified and renamed Gregorian Calendar, which remains in use to the day. Curiously, orthodox churches around the globe still use the Julian Calendar.
8# Caesar’s assassination. The Ides of March
A broad segment of people in Rome and its provinces benefited greatly from Caesar’s reforms, hence his being associated with the populares, the political faction who supported the betterment of plebeians. While most of the Senate were optimates, who sought to strengthen the Senate in detriment of the popular assemblies and tribune of the plebs. Caesar’s rule precisely threatened to erode their power further, and while the Senate fawned over him, some secretly conspired to kill him. That Caesar was named dictator in perpetuity in 44 BC, can only have emboldened them, and paranoic that he aimed for eventual kingship, a group of conspirators decided to take drastic action. Fears of the resurgence of monarchy in Rome were deep-seated, and although no evidence has been ever been found that Caesar aimed for kingship, certainly there were persistent and widespread rumours about it. But even in the event that he secretly aimed for a crown, we will never know. The same way that we will never learn what his future plans for Rome were, apart from an invasion of Parthia he had scheduled to begin that same year.
The leaders of the conspirators, around sixty senators, were Brutus and Cassius. The former was the son of Servilia, Caesar’s erstwhile lover and Cato’s half-sister. Brutus had defected from the Pompeians after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC and had behaved unquestionably loyal to Caesar since. Nevertheless, on March 15th 44 BC, known in the Roman calendar as the Ides of March, Brutus and his fellow conspirators surrounded and stabbed Caesar to death as the Senate gathered in the Theatre of Pompey. Allegedly, when Caesar recognised Brutus as one of the assailants, he said: ‘You too, my son?’. In his blood-spattered body were found twenty-three stab wounds.
9# Aftermath. Caesar’s legacy
Caesar’s assassination didn’t restore the republic as Brutus and Cassius had envisoned, neither it returned the Senate the power they once had held. Riots broke in Rome, for the mobs genuinely grieved the assassination. Moreover, Caesar’s will was discovered to have named Octavian, the grandson of his sister Julia, as his sole heir. The young Octavian was a nonentity, but at the stroke of a pen he was granted Caesar’s name and property, and more important, the allegiance of his legions. At first Octavian fought against Antony, Caesar’s most prominent lieutenant, but later he joined him to defeat Brutus and Cassius in 42 BC. He formed a Second Triumvirate with Antony and Lepidus, but ultimately secured sole power for himself after defeating Antony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. He would be awarded the name Augustus (revered one), and under the title of Princeps (first citizen) he ruled as the first Roman emperor.
Apart from masking his unlimited power more skillfully than Caesar, Augustus didn’t display the same merciful behaviour than his adoptive father had consistently shown. Purges and proscriptions in the equestrian orders made sure than the rule of Octavian/Augustus was always buttressed by the threat of force. His creation of the Praetorian Guard (an elite formation of bodyguards for the emperors) when Caesar had even refused to consider the idea of having bodyguards even after learning of plots against his life, is telling enough.
Even contemporary Romans didn’t know what to make of Caesar. While his conquest of Gaul and military talents were undeniable and still studied in military academies around the globe, his mind remains a mystery. Did he intend to remain as dictator for the rest of his life? Or retire from office like Sulla had done, and let Octavian take the helm? Similarly, the modern understanding of Caesar sways from a power-thirsty individual to protector of the people, and maybe the truth lies somewhere in between. Caesar didn’t initially aim for absolute power, but neither he refused it once he had it. Needless to say, he might have fallen prey of the adulation and the sudden feeling of knowing himself a cut above the rest, with all the inumerable honours than the people and a sycophantic Senate showered him with. No man, humble as he might be, is immune to praise.
None of this changes the fact that his reforms were desperately needed in Rome, where social fracture and disparity between the aristocracy and the urban poor was growing even wider. Corruption was rampant, and abuse of power was a permanent stain on ex-governors that returned after their period of service in the provinces. Furthermore, let’s recall than Caesar’s Civil War was one of the many that Rome experienced in the 1st century. The oligarchic republic was no longer suited to cope with a growing list of problems, so it would be unfair and inaccurate to point Caesar as the main factor in critically destabilising it. It’s an unquestionable fact that several times Caesar brushed legality aside to force his legislation through , but the same can be said of many consuls who had proceded him, and of his opponents too.
All in all, depicting Caesar as a military dictator backed by force like those of the 21st century is quite the anachronism. Although he rose to power with force, it’s undeniable that many of his reforms enjoyed broad popular support, and that he pardoned and even reinstated many of his foes after the Civil War. Nevertheless, Caesar’s controversial figure has reached our days cloaked with the same ambiguity, with some choosing to depict him as a hero, while others choosing to depict him as a tyrant. The truth, irremediably lost to us, perhaps wasn’t that simple.