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Julius Caesar’s success as a political and military leader earned for him the titles of pontifex maximus (high priest), consul, and dictator—roles so powerful that conspirators assassinated him in 44 BCE. The reforms that Caesar began, however, and that his grandnephew Augustus continued, forged an era of Roman prosperity.
Julius Caesar’s extraordinary talents and ambitions allowed him to expand Roman control, promote domestic reforms, and become the leader of Rome. With his assassination on 15 March 44 BCE, Rome began a new era as an empire, one that would last five hundred years.
Gaius Julius Caesar was born to a patrician family in 100 BCE. Civil war had broken out, and generals were gaining increasing power. While he undoubtedly received a classic Roman education from his father and, most likely, a tutor, very little is known of Caesar’s childhood. As a young nobleman, Caesar received religious and military training, and served in a number of military posts. He then entered politics and became a distinguished prosecutor.
Caesar possessed great personal charm—he was tall, handsome, and prone to dressing with flamboyant elegance. Marcus Tullius Cicero, Rome’s greatest orator, commended Caesar’s oratorical and writing skills. Thus Caesar’s prominence attracted the attention of others with positions of power in the republic. He had a particularly antagonistic relationship with Sulla, Rome’s dictator. (As a commander of the Roman army in 82 BCE, Sulla had stormed the city and massacred his enemies—about ten thousand citizens and some forty senators. Appointing himself dictator, Sulla personally controlled the government until he resigned in 79 BCE.) Caesar was related to Sulla’s enemies, most notably Marius (married to Caesar’s aunt, he was almost as ferocious a commander as Sulla) and Cinna (Marius’s successor and Caesar’s father-in-law). Sulla, who disliked Caesar and mistrusted his ambition, allowed Caesar to serve in the army in Anatolia, where he continued to develop his political and military skills. After Sulla’s death in 78 BCE, Caesar returned to Rome and practiced law, prosecuting prominent corrupt Romans and seeking out powerful friends. In 69 BCE he was elected to a one-year term as quaestor (assistant to the governor) in Spain, where his main duty was the administration of justice. This position also gained Caesar admission to the Senate.
Caesar, extravagant in his quest for influence, was heavily in debt; he allied himself with Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great), a popular general whose power and influence were on the rise. By 63 BCE, at age thirty-seven, Caesar’s military successes, political activities—and bribes—led to his election as pontifex maximus, a powerful lifetime position as the high priest of the Senate. A year later he was appointed urban praetor, a prestigious administrative post. When his wife was rumored to be having an affair he divorced her, claiming that Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. In 61 BCE, Caesar was assigned to Spain as governor of the interior, where his numerous military victories earned him considerable wealth.
In 59 BCE, Caesar combined forces with Crassus and Pompey in the First Triumvirate, and he was elected to the top administrative post of consul. He proceeded to institute popular reforms, such as land redistribution, over the opposition of Marcus Porcius Cato and the conservatives. Cato, perhaps Caesar’s greatest opponent, and Cato’s allies promoted the prerogatives of the Senate and the preservation of the republic.
The Senate gave Caesar control over Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy), Illyricum (Albania), and Narbonese Gaul (southern France). From 58 to 49 BCE, Caesar conquered the rest of Gaul (France and Belgium), led two expeditionary invasions of Britain, and at Alesia (France) in 52 BCE defeated a combined Gallic army led by Vercingetorix. (Caesar’s expansion of Roman civilization west into Gaul instead of north into Germany began the dichotomy between central and western Europe that exists to this day. This westward expansion, reinforced by Roman defeat by the Germanic tribes in the Teutoburg Forest in 9 BCE led to the development of Roman culture, law, and language in the west and a very different culture in the east.)
Fearing Caesar’s ambitions, Cato and his allies in Rome sought to deprive him of his command. Caesar’s efforts at compromise failed, and the Senate gave Pompey control of the local legions in 49 BCE. Caesar immediately left his headquarters at Ravenna and led his troops toward Rome. When they crossed the Rubicon River, the border of his territory— which it was considered traitorous to cross without military authorization—he famously proclaimed, “the die is cast,” and civil war began. Pompey had the support of most of the Senate and nobility, but this support was only lukewarm, while Caesar was popular with Rome’s small middle class and, especially, with the common people, or plebs, and city and provincial leaders. Within six months he defeated Pompey’s supporters in southern Gaul and Spain. Appointed dictator by the now acquiescent Senate, he undertook further economic reforms. In 48 BCE he crossed the Adriatic Sea to Greece and on 9 August defeated Pompey’s forces at Pharsalus. Pompey fled to Egypt, and Caesar pursued him, landing in Alexandria. But the “boy pharaoh” Ptolemy XIII had already ordered Pompey killed, hoping to gain Caesar’s favor and hasten his return to Italy.
Caesar, however, decided to stay in Egypt to raise much-needed funds. While there he met Ptolemy’s half-sister (and co-ruler), Cleopatra, who had been driven into exile by Ptolemy’s regency council. Caesar and Cleopatra began an affair, and she bore him a son. The liaison brought the wrath of Egyptian troops who supported Ptolemy, and when Caesar’s forces defeated them, Ptolemy was killed. Caesar then established Egypt as a client state with Cleopatra as its queen. Further campaigns in Asia and Africa proved victorious, and Caesar triumphantly returned to Rome in 46 BCE.
In Rome, Caesar declared amnesty for those who had opposed him. (Cato, who had opposed Caesar at every opportunity, committed suicide rather than be pardoned by his nemesis.) Caesar instituted reforms, such as grain and land distributions to the poor at public expense, took a census of Rome, and continued his program of building public works to provide both glory and jobs. He settled veterans and the unemployed in provincial cities, reducing Rome’s excessive indigent population. He expanded Roman citizenship and reformed the tax system. The Senate voted him countless honors, but some feared Caesar wished to be king, his power as consul and dictator notwithstanding. As Caesar planned another eastern campaign, a group of conspirators—primarily Gaius Cassius Longinus (a hot-tempered soldier who had been denied a post), Publius Casca (an impoverished supporter of Cassius), Marcus Julius Brutus, a former devoted protegee who some believed was Caesar’s illegitimate son) and Mark Antony (Antonius Marcus, who was once a loyal Roman Tribune)—plotted Caesar’s assassination.
On 15 March 44 BCE, three days before his planned campaign, Caesar set out to attend a meeting in the Senate at the Curia Pompeia. As he approached the assembly hall a man pushed a warning note into his hand, which he did not read. According to Christopher Hibbert’s account of the following events in Rome: The Biography of a City, which is based on the writing of Plutarch and Suetonius, conspirators hovered around Caesar as he walked toward his chair, ptretending to ask advice or favors. When a man named Tullius Cimber gave the signal (by lifting the back of Caesar’s toga), Casca struck the first blow, which missed its mark and just scratched Caesar’s neck. Caesar grabbed Casca’s knife and managed with his other hand to stab Casca in the arm with the point of a metal pen. Mayhem ensued as the other conspirators bared their daggers and stabbed Caesar time and again. Horrified bystanders who had not been aware of the plot fled for safety, while Romans either bolted their doors or flocked to see where the assassination had taken place. At Caesar’s funeral Antony made a moving funeral oration, believing he could force the Senate to accept an autarchy and establish power of his own. The speech was imagined and rendered unforgettable by William Shakespeare in the play that both glorified and immortalized its eponymous subject.
Caesar bridged the gap between the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire. As he had predicted, a civil war followed his death. Beginning in 27 BCE, his grandnephew Gaius Octavius, as Augustus Caesar, ruled Rome for forty-four years. Julius Caesar’s legacy includes his unquestioned abilities as a military commander and his reforms, including protections for Jews, which set the stage for an empire that would last five hundred years. His written descriptions of the campaign in Gaul, and later of civil war, are considered some of the finest examples of military prose ever written and were used to enhance his image in Rome. His move toward a government dominated by one man stemmed the growing power of the generals and may have saved Rome as a unified empire. Caesar’s name has become synonymous with ruler: the terms kaiser and czar are derivatives of Caesar. Other great leaders, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, sought to emulate his greatness, and Roman symbols were the inspiration for the styles of the French and other empires.
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