A lot of people in America today don’t realize the powerful influence Rome has had on their everyday lives. So many fundamental things such as our architecture, our laws, our policies, our religions, our constitution, and our democracy all have ties back to ancient Rome. When you consider Julius Caesar you might not think about his power and legacy as a military general and politician. But each year when your calendar reads July, have you ever wondered where the month got its name? That’s right – July is named after Julius Caesar. He’s still a part of your everyday life. Rome put a spell and a stamp on this world many years ago and its influence is still relevant today. Recognize that Rome hasn’t gone away and is still the origin of so many things you are accustomed to today. In this author’s opinion, the most pivotal and influential man in all of Roman history has to be Gaius Julius Caesar. This post is number 3 in a timeline series of posts that are all tagged Timeline.
Timeline Part 3 – Gaius Julius Caesar 100 BC – 44 BC
As a 15 year old, Caesar accompanied his father to the forum to get his first real taste of Roman politics. Rome’s fast acquisition of territory around Caesar’s time was partly why it was so treacherous toward the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire. Carthage had just fallen, Hispania was falling, and Gaul was coming into the control of the Romans as well; so much wealth was being acquired at an incredible rate. The governance of the Republic was enduring significant growing pains. To seek high office in politics in this time period was a dangerous thing. I can’t think of a prominent politician that died of natural causes during this time period. If you were elected into high office, it was likely you would die of murder, in battle, or of suicide.
Caesar’s dad died when he was a teenager and in the Greek tradition, he needed a male protector to help him ascend into adulthood. Enter Gaius Marius, a wealthy and powerful man that was Caesar’s uncle by marriage with political and military connections. Marius was a champion to the poor and underprivileged; particularly the plebs like our good friend Tiberius Gracchus. He had a significant influence on Caesar as a young man. Marius helped Caesar to grow into a very confident young adult. Caesar was already dressing differently and making a point to set himself apart from his contemporaries. In fact, he was already very vain as a teenager.
Caesar became a lawyer and for the next few years he would champion the rights of ordinary Romans. He knew that the votes of the people would likely be the key to his future success. He had his political sights set on Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of Rome. This was a very prestigious position that was responsible for keeping peace with the gods. This position was equivalent to the pope before the Christian religion came about. In fact, the pope still calls himself the Pontifex Maximus to this day. Caesar accomplished his goal of becoming Pontifex Maximus by spending a lot of money on his political campaign; all of which was bank rolled by another wealthy friend named Marcus Crassus. Crassus is actually rated as one of the ten richest men in world history.
To be elected Pontifex Maximus there was a requirement that you must be married. At sixteen, Caesar got married to a woman named Cornelia. This was a marriage that was violently opposed by Sulla who was dictator at the time. Sulla was not in Rome when Caesar married Cornelia and he remained safe in Rome because of the protection he received from Gaius Marius and Marcus Crassus. In fact, when Gaius Marius died, Caesar fled Rome for Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) as an exile. He could have been killed by standing up to Sulla, so this was a very brazen move to proceed with a marriage that went against the will of the dictator. By being elected Pontifex Maximus, however, his risk had a big payoff; he had hit the big time of who’s who in Rome with a prestigious position that would be held for life. This is the first big testament to Caesar’s ambition and willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the top.
In Asia minor Caesar would begin to make a name for himself on the battle field. It was common practice for young aristocrats to fight in the military. It is rumored that while fighting in Asia Minor Caesar was romantically involved… with King Nicomedes IV of Bithynia. This is a rumor Caesar would spend the rest of his life denying. It’s entirely possible that Caesar could have been sexually involved with the King considering the time frame and the pederasty custom that would have been socially acceptable to the Greeks. And, Caesar would have been at the right age to play the eromenos role to the King’s erastes role of this custom. Caesar would of course regret this if he was not gay and probably did regret it if he did do it if you know what I’m sayin’. Remember that times were different, and the definitions for masculinity and femininity were completely different than the way they are today; be cognizant of this before passing your 2010 judgement. For Greek men at the time, sex with women and young men was acceptable behavior. Contrast this to Hadrian who didn’t really follow the pederasty custom with Antinous and was more likely just a gay emperor thankful for Greek traditions. The Greeks and Greek traditions involve quite a bit of homosexual activity. Perhaps this is where the possessive / plural joke comes from: “What’s the motto of the Greek army?” Answer: “Never leave your buddy’s behind”.
Caesar returned to Rome in 78 BC when Sulla died and was decorated with the Corona Civica for his military achievements in Asia Minor. The Corona Civica is something akin to a purple heart in US military. At this point, Caesar dove back into law. He was a gifted orator and was very successful in prosecuting corrupt politicians. His gift of speech was surely helped by studying under Apollonius Molon who had previously taught Cicero. By prosecuting corruption, he was gaining greater popularity with the people of Rome which was becoming a concern to the Senate.
In 61 BC, Caesar took a lucrative position in Spain as governor that would last a year. While there, he conquered and subdued the northern part of the province. I conjecture perhaps that the Senate may have thought Caesar would become less relevant while out of Rome at this point. But above all else, Romans valued military conquest for the Republic. And, this again worked toward Caesar’s favor because his popularity only became stronger.
Caesar again returned to Rome and got back into Roman politics. Caesar’s immense popularity with the people of Rome was now of even greater concern to the Senate. Enemies were hardening to even tougher stances toward Caesar in the elite power circles of Rome. Caesar’s ideas for change were constantly being challenged.
Caesar was elected as Consul in 60 BC. This was the highest position in Roman politics and there were only two of them. Caesar strengthened ties with two key political allies: Pompey the Great and Marcus Crassus. With other power brokers starting to gang up on him, Caesar makes a pretty smart move by enacting the First Triumvirate. The First Triumvirate was a political alliance between Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus. Caesar would give political favor to Pompey and Crassus and they would help push through his legislation against the will of the Senate. With Crassus’ money, Pompey’s military clout, and Caesar’s popular touch, it soon made the Triumvirate the biggest power group of Rome; much to the chagrin of other politicians. The Triumvirate became known to its enemies as the three headed monster.
Although the Triumvirate was powerful, the Senate’s power was not totally extinguished. The Senate claimed Caesar’s Co-Consul Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus as one of their own to help block Caesar’s political moves and legislation. At this point Caesar does something that hasn’t been done in a long time: he goes over the head of the Senate and starts holding meetings in the public assembly. This pisses off the Senate something fierce and especially the conservatives who try to block the meetings with the public assemblies. The scenes would become quite riotous. At one point, Bibulus has a bucket of shit dumped on his head by the angry public masses for trying to block Caesar from meeting with the assembly. Going to the public assembly to introduce laws was legal. It hadn’t had legal precedence for a while, but it was legal. Caesar was a smart lawyer as evidenced by his writings and what has been written about him. Using his knowledge of law and probably having access to afford many of Rome’s best lawyers as well, he would use his fiery ambition to seek power like no man before him ever had.
Caesar’s term as Consul had its share of controversy and problems. But it wasn’t long after the Consul position expired that Caesar was offered a five year command of Gaul. This five year term would eventually turn into a nine year campaign. This is when Caesar would make his name as a brilliant military general. His conquest of what’s modern day France was a huge victory for Rome and this is what really speaks to the Romans as what’s what. Romans had a very high regard for military conquest and hailed conquerors as heroes.
As it had been throughout his life, Caesar’s ambition in Gaul was boundless. And even though his methods were ruthless, there has never been and will never be a man that has mastered the art of politics and the leadership of the military like Julius Caesar. He is said to have known all the names of the centurions battling on his front line. It is said that he would join his soldiers in combat which would inspire them and forge an unprecedented popularity with his men. It was said that the sight of his red cloak in the thick of battle was the equivalent of adding an entire legion to the fight.
To try to give a sense of Caesar’s ruthlessness, consider that the Senate would condemn his actions as too brutal. This is a Roman society that relished public executions and would for centuries to come watch this kind of brutality in the Colosseum. To be condemned by his peers as being too brutal speaks volumes. But for Caesar, hundreds of thousands of Gauls or Germanics killed was an acceptable price to pay for ultimate power.
His brutality in Gaul had the unintended effect of uniting the Gauls under one flag in fighting Caesar. One man, steeled by his hatred of Caesar, Vercingetorix became the chief of all the Gauls. The Gauls had never united before in their history. Only the brutality and ruthlessness of Caesar would be able to bring them together as they realized how they would be extinguished if they didn’t band together.
Here is one example of Caesar’s brutality: In a Gallic battle called the Siege of Gergovia, Caesar’s army was frustrated and pushed back. Vercingetorix had the high ground and Caesar’s attempts to draw him away from this advantageous position failed. Eventually, however, Caesar gained control of the area. Shortly after Caesar had marginal control, there was an uprising in the town of Avaricon. Caesar’s retaliation was swift and ruthless. By his own account there were 40,000 Gauls in Avaricon and only 800 survived. In Latin, this was called the vae victis or woe to the vanquished ones. No one was spared; not women, children, infants, the elderly, &c. Caesar’s tactics had all his ambition in mind: there was a military message, a political message, and a message of subjugation to all.
Caesar’s nine year campaign came to an end at Alesia. In 52 BC, the confederation of Gallic tribes was holed up in a fort in the town of Alesia. The fort had naturally strong defensive features and to attack it head on would be suicidal. Caesar decided to besiege the fort and smoke out the Gauls by starvation.
There are said to have been around 80,000 men in the fort that the Romans surrounded. Caesar’s men had been fighting for eight years and had finally pinned down the Gauls in what would be a final battle. As the Gauls began to starve, they released their women and children from the fort hoping the Romans would open a breach for them. Remember that this was well before the Geneva Conventions and Caesar was going to use every exploit he had to win. By letting the women and children starve to death Caesar dealt a damaging blow to the morale of the fighters inside the fort.
It was about this time that 100,000 Gaulish reinforcement soldiers arrived. They had taken up position in the south; in essence trapping the Roman army as they had trapped the Gauls. At this point, the Gauls, by some sources, are said to outnumber the Romans by 4 to 1. Upon locating a weakness in the Roman circumvallation, the Gauls had attacked a section of Caesar’s army commanded by Labienus. The Romans, who were weakened and starving themselves, we’re starting to collapse. It was at this point that Caesar earned his bravery and genius merit badges. He personally rode into the fray cheering on his legionaries and took about 6,000 cavalry to attack from the rear. The impact of this move was twofold: it served to strike fear into the Gauls to see Caesar’s red cloak in the middle of the fight and caused a retreat amongst them. In ancient warfare, picking off a retreating army was like shooting fish in a barrel. It was at this point that Gauls were annihilated.
The victory at Alesia is still regarded as one of the most brilliant victories in military history. This is especially true in battles involving circumvallation. For the first time, all of Gaul had been conquered for Rome. But for Caesar, it was just the beginning of a revolution he was about to unleash on the Republic.
I don’t think Caesar thought of himself as the most ruthless man in the world and I should offer a caveat. Also, it must be remembered that these were such different times and they cannot be viewed through the prism of the modern day 24 hour news channel. The Romans’ basic modus operandi was to have you bow down to them as your taxing authority or they’d kill you. You’d be allowed to keep your religions and customs, but you’d have to accept Rome as your government. It was their opinion that their way of life was much more advanced than yours. At first this arrogance was a tough sell. In later years, as Rome built cities in France, Spain, and Britain the people saw the Roman lifestyle as superior and adapted to its benefits. The people prospered under this type of rule for centuries. But in the beginning, there were some hard lessons learned for those that would stand up to Rome. For example, after the battle at Alesia, Caesar thought the men that took up arms against Rome as their taxing authority should be punished. He had the hands cut off of every man that fought against the Roman army to give them a constant reminder of what happens when you stand up to Rome. This is Roman politics! How would you ever forget the man that had your hands cut off? Would you think twice about crossing him again?
Vercingetorix was to receive a special punishment and was brought back to Rome. He was kept in a dungeon for 6 years. He would later be dragged behind Caesar’s chariot through the city where his final stop would be a public strangulation in downtown Rome. In 1865 Napoleon Bonaparte erected a 7 meter statue at the site of the Battle of Alesia in memoriam of Vercingetorix.
By some estimates, the number of people killed in Gaul was 1.2 million. I don’t know how that can be called anything other than genocide. Public executions in Rome were like must see TV, but the citizenry was nonetheless aghast at these large numbers.
Even in 52 BC, news travelled fast by horseback. Rome knew of Caesar’s victory at Alesia within days. The ruling class of Rome was worried about Caesar and his popularity. Specifically, they were worried he might break one of Rome’s fundamental rules of not disbanding his army before returning to the capital. One Senator in particular led the opposition to Caesar, Marcus Cato. He saw the impending rise of Caesar and wanted him squashed. Another Senator in step with Marcus Cato was Marcus Marcellus. He too saw Caesar’s ambition for power and wealth as a threat to Rome. Marcellus was the leader of the Senate and was your typical Washington style fat cat aristocrat.
To enter Rome with your army was against the law and punishable by death. There were very specific rules about disbanding your army if you were a general. Caesar gambled that his enemies wanted him dead anyway, so he broke that rule and was intent on seizing Rome as his own by force.
Essentially what Caesar did here was to parlay his defiance of the law with some calculation. He crossed the Rubicon with one legion, kinda like a bodyguard legion. He left multiple legions on the other side of the Rubicon in waiting. So he broke the law, but it would appear to the populous that he was acting appropriately considering the people of Rome knew that Caesar’s enemies wanted him dead. In a way, it’s one more example of Caesar’s wit and intellect in understanding every kind of human and how to manipulate their minds.
By the time Caesar reentered Rome the First Triumvirate was over, Crassus was dead, and Pompey had essentially become dictator of Rome. Senator Marcellus’ and Senator Cato’s plan was to persuade Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus out of retirement as a military general to fight Caesar; but this was no easy task. Pompey and Caesar had once been political allies. Pompey was also related to Caesar because Pompey married Caesar’s sister Julia. When in active duty, Pompey was one of Rome’s most successful generals, conquering most of the territory around the eastern part of the Mediterrainian. Though he had not fought for nearly nine years, the Senate was able to convince Pompey to be sole consul (or dictator) and task him with handling the Caesar situation. Since Pompey was coming out of retirement, he feared Caesar’s army. Pompey had more troops, but they were younger and less experienced. Because Pompey needed time to ready his men for battle, he fled to the Macedonia area thinking he could better defeat Caesar there. Rome was in turmoil and there was rioting on the streets. It was no place to prepare your army.
Caesar made many attempts with Pompey to avoid war and tried to reach agreement. He blamed the divisive Senate for the impending civil war bitterly remarking to his friend Pompey: “they chose this”.
Caesar went west to Hispania instead of following Pompey to Macedonia thinking it was a trap. It took almost a year to wipe out Pompey’s supporters in Spain. His troops were tired and had been promised riches. They had fought in Gaul for nine years, and now additionally in Spain for another year. They were not given the payments they’d been promised. It was just after the battles in Spain that his ninth legion mutinied. Caesar was none too pleased and would once again use fear and terror to enforce his authority. The only difference was that this time it was to his own men that he would have to send a message. Caesar ordered that the legion be decimated.
Decimation involved one in every ten soldiers being killed. It was pretty wicked. Ten men at a time would choose a stone like they were drawing straws. There would be nine white stones and one black one. If you pulled the black one, you’d be strung up by your hands and beat with a sledge hammer a few times until you were dead. It was considered pretty barbaric even by the standards of the time. This happened in Piacenza, Italy as Caesar’s army had finished up in Spain and was headed east to face Pompey. That means 3,600 men would have witnessed 400 of their comrades brutally killed at the behest of their General. I think Caesar’s ruthlessness would put him at the forefront of understanding how to rule by fear. That’s 400 guys brutally put to death and 3,600 guys that are going to think twice about crossing their General. Every other legion would be right there too witnessing this and was probably not going to be the next legion to mutiny.
In the spring of 48 BC. Pompey had predicted that Caesar’s impetuosity would preclude him from realizing he was outmatched at Dyracchium. Pompey had 40,000 men and these were not Gauls, these were Roman soldiers; albeit less experienced than Caesar’s men. Caesar had tried the same techniques he employed at Alesia of surrounding a larger army than his own and it was a slaughter. Pompey had it right in his planning and strategy and for the first time in a major battle the great General Julius Caesar had been handed defeat.
Caesar took a gamble by retreating to Pharsalus in Greece to regroup his men. Every step they made took him and his men further from food and water. Now all Pompey had to do was cut off Caesar’s supply lines and let Caesar and his men starve and victory was assured. But Pompey had issues of his own: introduce the politicians. Like politicians always do, they fucked things up. Marcellus and Cato wanted Caesar destroyed now. Pompey told them that all they had to do was wait for him to starve. But their impatience and lack of military understanding were frustrating Pompey’s strategy. Their insistence on pursuing Caesar inland against Pompey’s counsel would prove a fatal mistake. Marcellus and Cato were so assured they would defeat Caesar they were demanding Pompey move at once. Perhaps Caesar knew this and his strategy to move to Pharsalus could be deemed brilliant. Each day these troops were in the field, it was costing the Republic money and politicians don’t really understand how to protect money even when they think they’re acting in money’s best interest. Caesar’s supplies were low and he needed to make a move now or he was going to perish anyway – so the politicians helped Caesar in this regard. Caesar dug in with the hopes that he would defeat Pompey in Pharsulus or die there. It was to be perhaps his final stand and he knew it. This was in August, 48 BC.
Eventually, as is usually the case, the dumb politicians overruling Pompey’s counsel cost their army dearly. The politicians were so confident they could win because of the numbers: Pompey had 45,000 infantry, Caesar had just 22,000. Pompey also had more Calvary, 6,000 to Caesar’s 1,000.
Caesar had his cavalry attack Pompey’s and then retreat. Pompey’s men pursued them in retreat. Caesar had anticipated this move given that Pompey had so many more men. Caesar had hidden some light troops that surprised Pompey’s cavalry by throwing javelins. Pompey’s first line of horses went into disarray and quickly so the did rest of the cavalry. Because the cavalry and men were in disarray, Caesar was able to turn his men back and defeat them. Caesar’s men then moved on to hammer on Pompey’s left flank, thus squeezing Pompey’s lines between Caesar’s. Caesar had another flank left in reserves and replaced his tired front line with these fresh fighters. From this point, the battle was basically over. As Pompey’s men retreated they were slaughtered.
After the civil war was over, Pompey fled to Alexandria, Egypt. Caesar pursued him there. Upon arriving, the Alexandrians presented Caesar with Pompey the Great’s head to which Caesar looked away and began weeping. He was outraged that they would do such a thing to Pompey and did not want to accept their gift. The only thing he did accept from the assassins was Pompey’s signet ring. He then rounded up all the assassins and executed them. He couldn’t quite get every one of the assassins but he got all he could. One of the assassins that got away was Pothinus who was a regent for the young King Ptolemy XIII. Pothinus was the one who ordered Pompey’s decapitation.
If Caesar wept, it wasn’t for long because he soon met Cleopatra VII who was a 21 year old woman in waiting for the throne of Egypt. She was said to have been very beautiful, very well educated, and worshipped as a goddess by her people. Egypt was a vital part of Rome and provided much of the food that Rome needed to sustain its population. You would not be able to rule Rome well or for long if you had food supply issues and Caesar was no dummy to this fact. He needed someone in charge of Egypt that would be loyal to him. He needed a compliant Egyptian government whoever that may be. Cleopatra VII saw benefits in hooking up with Caesar too, why not pussy whip the most powerful man in the world? That’s one powerfully hot royal Egyptian.
Cleopatra VII who at the time was in a bitter struggle for power with her brother would benefit immensely by having the most powerful man in the world visibly on her side. So even if there was some romantic element on the part of Cleopatra toward Caesar, you can be assured that there was definitely political calculation on her part too. She has been said to have snuck into the palace where Caesar was staying rolled up in a carpet to get by Ptolemy’s men. We don’t exactly know all the persuasion tactics the beautiful young Cleopatra employed to get Caesar to help her cause, but we do know she ended up pregnant. I think you can do the math on that one.
What started out as smart politics quickly turned into a steamy affair. Caesar’s troops would have to wait for him for six months as he decided to take a holiday with Cleopatra and float down the Nile with her on the Royal Egyptian Barge living it up. Keep in mind that Egypt was the wealthiest place in the world. You can just imagine what a nice six months that would be for the new lovers. Floating down the Nile on the Royal Egyptian Barge throughout the southern portion of the Kingdom… such a nice retreat from all that war and death.
Cleopatra was an absolute monarch. She never had to fuss about with the Roman Senate with all their modern day Washington style deceit and back stabbing. Her subjects literally worshipped her; that had to be something that enamored Caesar. It was after his affair with Cleopatra that Caesar decided to head back to the capital.
Caesar’s return to Rome was marked by unprecedented magnificence. His victories in Spain, Gaul, Asia Minor, and Egypt were celebrated. This was the highest height of Caesar’s popularity in Rome. He was given a ten year term as dictator of Rome completely changing the landscape of the Republic. Monarchies were abhorred by the Republic and said to have been government systems for people less sophisticated than Romans. Remember, to covet the position of king was considered the most egregious of all sins against the Republic. The Romans regarded monarchies as repressive regimes that were only good enough for people lesser than themselves.
The rumor mill went into action big time now. Even though Caesar was unable to marry Cleopatra, he still brought her with him to Rome and the son she had given him. There were rumors of a dual kingship of Roman and Egyptian empires. There were a lot of tongue flappers amongst Romes haughty taughty elite whenever they did rich people stuff. You can be assured that the conspirators against Caesar would use this type of thing as fodder against him. But amongst the common folks, Caesar was still as popular as ever. In 44 BC, he was elected dictator for life.
All the talk in the power circles did little to make Caesar worried. It was around this time that he began to dress with more regality and become more brazen in his kingly appearance. He donned purple and gold robes which are royal colors. I’m sure that wearing purple would not sit well with the elite aristocrats. He had coins stamped in his image. He allowed statues made of him to be adorned with the same decor as statues made of the gods thus deifying himself. This is when he set about to name the month of July after himself; to which one detractor is said to have remarked “Caesar dictates when the sun sets and when the sun rises”.
Caesar seemed to value one latin word over any other: dignitas, or status. But the Romans valued another latin word above all else: libertas, or freedom. Being elected dictator for life set the stage for Caesar’s downfall. The aristocracy had no stomach for a dictatorship.
On March 15, 44 BC, three days before Caesar was to leave on a military campaign in Syria, he was murdered on the floor of the Senate. As one of the conspirators moved close to Caesar, it gave the signal to the others who all moved forward and plunged daggers into him. Perpetually concerned with his dignitas, Caesar is said to have pulled his toga over his head as he was being murdered so no one would be able to see him this way. He supposedly also said to Marcus Brutus “and you too my child” making people wonder to this day about Caesar’s relationship to Brutus. Brutus’ mom was said to have been one of Caesar’s many lovers.
Four days after his murder, Caesar’s body was cremated to scenes of rioting and public grief. The crowds of people soon were consumed with anger and the conspirators in Caesar’s death were hunted down and killed.
Caesar once said “I have lived long enough, whether measured in years or glory”. I tend to agree with him in the sense that his actions in life put an absolutely indelible mark upon the historical record. His actions set the stage for transforming Rome from a Republic to an Empire. In the next post along this timeline, we will look at certain of the Roman Emperors starting with Augustus and keep an eye on how the old religious mythos gave way to new ones that have shaped the world into where we are today.