Even more than two-thousand years after his assassination, Gaius Julius Caesar, general, statesman, and dictator of Ancient Rome, remains a very alive character. Although it was in Gaul (modern-day France) where he earned a reputation as one of history’s most able generals, it was his victory in the civil war that ultimately gave him uncontested power as perpetual dictator, and immortalised his name in the annals of history. But why did the civil war start? Who opposed Caesar and why? What were the consequences of it? All the answers and more, below:
If you haven’t checked this post about Caesar’s life and death, do it now. Click here.
1# The Roman Republic
Depending on the political mood of the time, the understanding on Caesar has often and invariably swayed from a power-hungry individual whose actions delivered a mortal blow to a weakened republic, and paved the way for the empire of Caesar’s successor, Augustus; to a hero who fought for the sake of the people. Consequently, either he has been ascribed unscrupulous political scheming to climb up the ladder, with street violence and thugs as another feature tactic; or a victim of the scheming of his black-hearted enemies. The truth is far more complex than white and black truths. Already by Caesar’s youth, the Roman Republic (not to be confused with a modern democratic system) was disfunctional, corrupt, and violent. Senators fiercely competed against each other for the few offices available, and the success of one meant the bitter failure of another. Caesar was simply a product of his time, cajoling, bribing, and breaking laws whenever possible to further his goals.
In his rise to consul, he had made powerful enemies in the likes of Cato the Younger, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, Lentulus, and even amongst family and friends, famous senators like Marcellus and Cicero. Moreover, the Triumvirate Caesar had formed with Crassus and Pompey around 60 BC to govern Roman affairs, had crumbled with the death of the former in Parthia, and the growing antagonism of the latter due to Caesar’s spectacular conquests in Gaul. In fact, more than anything else, the Senate wouldn’t have dared oppose the immensely popular Caesar without the support of the equally popular Pompey. In the end, Caesar’s Civil War was perhaps the inevitable clash between the two most famous and powerful Romans of the day.
2# Prelude to a civil war
In the years preceding Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon River on 10th January 49 BC, the effective start of the Civil War; his opponents had actively lobbied in the Senate for his removal as proconsul (governor) of Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, and Illyricum, the Roman provinces from where he had staged his gallic conquest. Contrary to logic, his resounding victory against a Gallic confederation in Alesia in 52 BC, had done more harm to him than anything else, for now the whole of the Senate envied Caesar’s popularity, and loathed his prospective return to run a second consulship. Pompey first and foremost, for he couldn’t have been too happy to hear his former ally’s name replace his in the mouth of every Roman. But at first, not even the death of his wife Julia (Caesar’s only daughter) in 54 BC managed to destroy their mutual good terms. Although probably it eroded it.
Pompey didn’t desire war. He respected Caesar, and Caesar respected him. Yet he couldn’t countenance that someone dispute his title of Rome’s greatest conqueror. His initial reluctance to yield to the Senate’s urging to strip Caesar of his proconsular powers gradually gave way, and was ready to cave in by 50 BC, the year when Caesar wished to run for consulship immediately after the end of his proconsulship, and thus avoid a dangerous gap between offices when he’d would have been liable to prosecution by his opponents. The fact that Pompey had done many of the things Caesar was criticised for, and hadn’t been prosecuted―like raising his own legions without the Senate’s approval―serves to show that the conflict came down to an arm wrestling of prestige between these two. Without the legions whose loyalty Pompey commanded, the Senate would have been powerless.
3# How did it start?
On 7th January 49 BC the Senate passed a senatus consultum ultimum, a decree of emergency to save the republic from a threat. And although the threat wasn’t worded, everyone knew who the ‘enemy’ was. The Senate had expected it would force Caesar to cave in and surrender, to be trialled and probably exiled like others had been before him. At this stage, neither him nor Pompey, nor the Senate relished the prospect of a civil war, yet Caesar must have felt he was out of options when he crossed the river Rubicon with his legions into Italy proper, in January 49 BC. The Rubicon marked the northern boundary of Italy, and since no Roman general was allowed to march his legions into it, Caesar’s act effectively marked him as a traitor and rebel. But hadn’t the senatus consultum ultimum precisely done that already?
The cause against him had little popular support, and he reciprocated by forbidding his men to plunder the Italian towns. Meanwhile, in Rome, despite the Senate’s early confidence that their legions and resources stripped Caesar, they made a run out of the city. Pompey’s legions were dispersed in the provinces, both Hispanias, Africa, and Greece, the latter where Pompey intended them to concentrate. Caesar marched to intercept them before Pompey reached the harbour of Brundisium, and sail to Greece. He arrived too late to arrest their flight, and lacking transport for his own men, he ordered a fleet to be constructed, while he returned to Rome to reassess the situation.
4# Early setbacks
With Pompey growing strong in Greece and the boats needing time to be assembled, Caesar opted to secure his rearguard. While he himself swiftly subdued Pompey’s legions in Hispania Citerior and Hispania Ulterior (modern day Spain and Portugal), his subordinates took Sardinia and Sicily without significant resistance, although his two African legions under Curio suffered a reverse and were wiped by the Pompeians and their ally, King Juba I of Numidia. Like in the Gallic wars, Caesar spared most of his opponents, like Pompey’s legate Varro or Ahenobarbus, whom they fought against him again in the future. In that he wasn’t the rule but the exception, for his Senatorial foes in Pompey’s camp were already drawing the lists of Caesar’s supporters and neutrals who would be liable to suffer proscription and reprisals in the nearby future.
After returning to Rome, Caesar finally set sail to Greece in January 48 BC, on board the new ships. Only half of them had been completed so far, therefore only half his army was ferried across. It was his luck that Pompey didn’t expect him to come so soon, but when he found out, he sent his own squadrons to prevent Caesar’s from bringing the rest. Badly outnumbered in men, horses, and ships, Caesar decided on attacking the supplies of Pompey, chiefly coming through the port of Dyrrachium (modern day Durrës, Albania). Pompey foresaw and arrived there first, and what followed was a classic Roman strategy vs Roman strategy, that of building a wall to besiege the opponent, with the result that each army strove to outdo the other’s fortifications. But even when Mark Antony landed the rest of the legions on 10th April, Caesar’s siege failed to starve the Pompeians, and so he retreated south-east in search of fresh supplies for his depleted troops.
5# The Battle of Pharsalus
Although he outnumbered Caesar two to one, Pompey was still reluctant to meet Caesar in a direct confrontation. Many senators in his camp were already celebrating a premature victory, and Ahenobarbus even took on ridiculing Pompey’s cautious attitude, accusing him of unnecessarily prolonguing the conflict to cling to his extraordinary Senate-given powers. But Pompey was a soldier and he knew better than them. He knew Caesar’s legions had been battle-hardened by a decade of ceaseless fighting. He knew that unlike his own, they knew each other better than they knew their wives and therefore fought as one. And he knew what this sort of army could do under a skilfull commander like Caesar. The mounting insistence of his allies must have been great, for against his better judgement, Pompey agreed on launching a main assault on Caesar on 9th August 48 BC.
Both armies met north of Pharsalus (modern day Farsala), central Greece, both using the river Enipeus to shore up their respective flank. Conscious of his cavalry superiority―near 7.000 thousand against Caesar’s one thousand―Pompey deployed them entirely on his left flank, where he intended to sweep Caesar’s small cavalry and outflank him. But Caesar remained two steps ahead of Pompey, and ordered a small reserve of six cohorts (around 2.800 men) to hide behind his right flank, where he placed himself with his best legion, the tenth. His experienced 22.000 legionaries held against Pompey’s 36.000 inexperienced ones, although as predicted, the Pompeian cavalry dispersed Caesar’s with little opposition. Encouraged, they rode to outflank Caesar himself and his tenth legion, when suddenly the six hidden cohorts pivoted into sight and broke their charge. The counter-attack was more than successful, it was brilliant. The cavalry was routed and Caesar’s cohorts advanced and outflanked Pompey’s line in turn. Knowing the battle was lost, Pompey fled, leaving Caesar as master of the field, but not yet of the Roman world.
6# Caesar and Cleopatra
Pompey sailed to Egypt, a traditional Roman ally, hoping to loan money and troops from the paraoh Ptolemy XIII. However, the advisors of the paraoh-boy had sensed a change of the winds, and decided that Pompey’s head was the best way to curry favour with the new ruler of Rome. This ended the life of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, whose greatest bad luck was to be born a contemporary of Caesar. In another time or age, he’d doubtless have been regarded as Rome’s best general. When Caesar arrived in Egypt, not only he discovered the man he had been chasing was already dead, but he also found himself caught in a civil war between Ptolemy and his sister and co-ruler, Cleopatra VIII, with whom Caesar would keep an affair, and who gave him a son, Caesarion. More about Caesar’s stay in Egypt and the nature of his relationship with Cleopatra can be read in detail, here.
While Pompey had been defeated, the civil war was far from over. Rome seethed in discontent under Mark Antony’s supervision, while the Pompeians regrouped in Africa, under the leadership of Metellus Scipio (Pompey’s father-in-law), Labienus (Caesar’s second-in-command in Gaul), Cato, Afranius, Petreius, and their ally the Numidian King Juba. But first, Caesar had to rush to Asia Minor, where king Pharnaces of Pontus, a Roman client kingdom, had gone on a castrating spree against Roman citizens. Caesar’s crackdown was so swift that afterwards he boasted: ‘Veni, Vidi, Vici’. I came, I saw, I conquered.
He returned to Rome in January 47 BC to restore order, but as soon as this fire was put out, another broke amongst his veteran legions, chiefly headed by the tenth, until then Caesar’s most loyal legion. They demanded their promised discharge and bonus payments, and were only calmed when Caesar addressed them in person. Knowledgeable of the mind of the soldiers he had fought alongside for over a decade, he granted their immediate discharge and promised the bonus would come forth once the war had been won by the rest of the legions. The implication that they wouldn’t be taken to Africa with Caesar was a black stain on the pride of the veterans of the tenth, an unsufferable shame.
They had miscalculated, assuming Caesar needed them but now that this wasn’t apparently so, they begged to be taken to Africa. They even implored Caesar to decimate them (an ancient Roman punishment) if necessary. Caesar feigned reluctance but eventually agreed to take them. His punishment would be reserved for the ringleaders, who in the incoming campaign would be assigned to first line or to dangerous tasks.
7# The end of the war
The war in Africa didn’t start well for Caesar, who lost the battle of Ruspina against his fomer lieutenant, Labienus. Later, during the Battle of Thapsus, his reinforced legions once again displayed their superiority over larger enemy troops, which included some elephants. This time, Caesar’s men proved impossible to restrain and beseeched their commander to unleash them on the enemy. Their enthuasiasm proved right, for they quickly routed the Pompeian-Numidian army. Scipio escaped by sea but was later intercepted and killed. The indomitable Cato commited suicide before throwing himself to the mercy of his hated foe. Afranius was slater captured and killed by Caesarians in Africa, while Petreius and Juba aided each other in terminating their lives.
Labienus escaped, together with one of Pompey’s sons, Sextus, to Hispania Ulterior, where another of Pompey’s sons, Gnaeus, was organising serious resistance in Baetica (modern day southern Spain). The last theatre of the civil war also proved to be the most dangerous one. Unable to count on most of his veterans this time, Caesar had to resort to recruits during the decisive battle of Munda, 17th March 45 BC. With his wavering line about to be broken, Caesar moved in front of his men with a shield, deflecting enemy projectiles. Seeing their brave commander in mortal danger, out of shame, duty, or genuine inspiration, his legions followed him. His act restored his army’s morale, and they fought on to carry the day home. Labienus was finally killed, Gnaeus was captured several days later and executed, but Sextus escaped to become a spine on the side of Caesar’s successor, Octavius, in the nearby future. But with Hispania pacified, the Civil War was over.
8# Aftermath and consequences. From republic to empire
Caesar’s political power rose accordingly to his victory. Added to the personaly loyalty of his tens of thousands of veterans and the people, were now the heaps of titles and extraordinary privileges granted by a sycophantic Senate. He was appointed dictator for ten years, plus the privilege of holding consulship whenever he deemed it. Moreover, he was addressed as Imperator (victorious commander), Pater Patriae (father of the fatherland) and many others. In addition to, victory parades were given to him, and statues of Caesar mushroomed all over Rome.
Caesar’s new Rome was characterised not by the brutality ascribed to modern authoritarian regimes, but by leniency and amalgamation. He had won power by force, but he intended to legitimize his rule through more diplomatic means. No proscriptions like those of Sulla during Caesar’s youth were enforced, no curtailing of literature happened; he even allowed books praising his bitter opponent Cato to be published.
However, his unambigious position left many Senators uneasy with that inherent Roman fear of a monarchy. Caesar publicly and privately denied the ambition, but with some praising him as a living god it would have been difficult even for a man with his sound judgment, to become impervious to the allure of power. His appointment as dictator in perpetuity in February 44 BC, was seen as the unequivocal final step in his ambition to replace the laurel wreath he usually wore, for a crown. A group of conspirators, chief amongst them Marcus Junius Brutus―the son of Servilia, one of Caesar’s former mistresses―murdered Caesar on 15th March 44 BC, during a Senate gathering. The infamous Ides of March.
The assassination didn’t restablish the republic as the conspirators had hoped for, but threw it back to the clutches of a string of civil wars, first fought between the murderers and Caesar’s main lieutenant, Mark Antony, and Caesar’s adoptive son and heir, Gaius Octavius; and later between these two. It was Octavius who obtained ultimate victory in 30 BC over Antony and his mistress, Cleopatra, who also had been Caesar’s mistress. Under the new title of Augustus, Octavius completed what perhaps Caesar intended, effectively transforming the republic into an empire, albeit skilfully maintaining a façade of senatorial authority.