Caius Julius Caesar
by Jona Lendering
Caius Julius Caesar (July 13, 100 - March 15, 44 BCE), statesman, general and author, famous for the conquest of Gaul (modern France and Belgium) and his subsequent coup d' état. This article contains a biography and tries to assess Caesar's historical significance. This is the first of three parts.

Part one
Youth (100-82)
Early career (81-59)
Caesar's consulship (59)

Part two
Wars in Gaul (58-52)
The Civil Wars (51-47)
Domestic policy (47-44)
Constitutional problems

Part three
Caesar's inheritance (44-27)
Assessment
Caesar's writings
Sources




Youth (100-82)

When Caius Julius Caesar was born, the leading man in Rome was Caius Marius (picture), who had saved the Roman Republic several years before by defeating two German tribes, the Teutones (102) and the Cimbri (101). The connections between the Marius and Julius families were close: Marius was married to a sister of Caesar's father. So, Caesar belonged to a powerful family.

His contemporaries called Marius a popularis. It is unclear what this label means (for some speculations, see below), but modern historians tend to believe that it means that Marius tried to reach his political aims through the People's Assembly. The opposite group, the optimates, played the political game in the senate.

When Caesar was still an infant, Marius lost much of his earlier popularity, and eventually left Rome to travel in Greece and Asia Minor, hoping for some new command. But the Marii and Julii were still influential, and in 92, Caesar's father was elected praetor (a magistrate whose most important function was the administration of justice). The subsequent year, he served as a governor in Asia Minor; it is likely, therefore, that the young Caesar was outside Italy when the Social War started.

This war originated in the fact that the Roman allies in Italy had never received a fair share in the spoils of the Roman empire, which in those days included Andalusia, southern Castile, Catalonia, the Provence, Italy, the Dalmatian coast, Greece and Macedonia, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Crete and modern Tunisia. The Italians had fought to conquer the Mediterranean world, but had not reaped the benefits of it. In 91, they rebelled. Marius was appointed general and had some success; more important, however, were the victories of Sulla (picture below), a man who was considered to be one of the optimates. By diplomatic ways, Rome divided the rebels: Lucius Julius Caesar (an uncle) promised Roman citizenship to those Italians who had remained faithful, and in 89 a similar law promised citizenship to those who gave up fighting.

While the Romans were fighting at home, an old enemy saw his chance: king Mithridates V of Pontus attacked the Roman possessions in Asia Minor. The inhabitants of this province had welcomed their liberators, and had murdered many Italians and Romans. It is unknown where Caesar's family was in those days (it is certain that Caesar's father was no longer Asia's governor). The Romans wanted revenge, and the Senate appointed Sulla as a general in this First Mithridatic War. After his departure, Marius was given the same command by the People's Assembly. Sulla marched on Rome (First Civil War), Marius fled to Africa, and Sulla went to Asia Minor again, where he defeated Mithridates. During Sulla's absence, Marius returned, massacred all his enemies, had himself elected consul (86), but died a few days later.

From now on, Caesar's life was in danger: after all, he was the son of Marius's sister. His safety did not grow when his father died (85) and the victorious Sulla returned from Asia (82). However, the young man had had a fine education by one of Rome's most important professors, Marcus Antonius Gnipho, who was also the teacher of the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero. Caesar was married to one Cornelia and had a daughter, Julia.

After his return, Sulla had himself appointed dictator. Originally, dictatorship was an extraordinary magistracy, perhaps best translated as "strong man", and "dictatorship" had nothing to do with tyranny. However, Sulla's exercise of the office gave rise to our present meaning of the word: wishing to exterminate the populares, Sulla changed the constitution by curtailing the rights of the People's Assembly. Many were slain; Marius's ashes were scattered in the Tiber. Since Caesar was only eighteen years old, Sulla decided to be kind, and ordered Marius' nephew to divorce from his wife, as a symbolic act of his loyalty to the new regime. Although the alternative was banishment (or worse), Caesar refused. Sulla appreciated the young man's dedication to his bride and pardoned him, prophesying that "in this young man there is more than one Marius".

Early career (81-59)

Between 81 and 79, Caesar served in Asia Minor on the personal staff of Marcus Minucius Thermus, who was praetor. Caesar was sent on a diplomatic mission to king Nicomedes of Bithynia and was rumored to have had a love affair with this ruler. There is more certainty about another event: during the conquest of the island Lesbos, Caesar gained a decoration for bravery (corona civica). All his courage, however, did not help him when -on his way back home- he was captured by pirates and forced to pay the usual ransom, 25 talents (500 kg) of silver.

When Sulla died (78), Caesar felt save to return to Italy, where he picked up a career as a criminal lawyer. This was a normal thing to do, and Caesar stayed far from politics. In 75, he went to Rhodes for further education, and was again captured by pirates, who asked the usual tariff. Caesar demanded this prize to doubled (after all, he was an aristocrat) and promised to kill his captors. After the ransom was payed, Caesar manned some ships, defeated the bandits and had them crucified. After this incident, he continued his studies.

They were interrupted, however, when Mithridates of Pontus attacked Asia Minor a second time (74). On his own initiative and expenses, Caesar raised a small army and defended some towns, giving the official Roman commander Lucullus time to organize an army and attack the enemy's homeland. Being a war hero by now, Caesar returned to Rome in 73. A career as a general and a politician had started.

In 68, he was elected quaestor and served in Andalusia. (A quaestor was a magistrate with financial tasks in a province.) Before his departure, Marius's widow died, and Caesar held a funeral speech in which he praised his aunt and her family. This was a way of claiming Marius' inheritance. That he had developed political ambitions is shown by an incident in Spain: in Gades he saw a statue of Alexander the Great, and lamented that he had as yet performed no memorable act, whereas at his age -33 years old- Alexander had already conquered the whole world.

After his return from Spain, Caesar was elected aedile (in 65) and responsible for "bread and circuses". He organized great games, making sure that the Roman mob would remember his name. In this way, as a true popularis, he would control their votes in the People's Assembly. This same year, he was accused of complicity in a plot to murder the consuls, but he was not sentenced. The leader of the plot, one Catilina was able to continue his career as a social reformer.

Two years later, Caesar had himself elected pontifex maximus or high priest. In this capacity, he proposed a moderate line against the followers of Catilina, who had made a second attempt to seize power. This second conspiracy was discovered by the consul Cicero, who had Catilina's followers executed at the instigation of Cato the Younger, a representant of the traditionalist wing of the optimates. Caesar's opposition to the death penalty again represents his 'popular' policies, and probably he knew more about the plot than he liked to show.

Nevertheless, he was elected praetor, and the optimates became nervous for the first time, because Caesar was extremely popular with the masses. This time, they managed to rise accusations against Caesar, who they said was involved in a desecration of certain secret ceremonies. These ceremonies of the so-called Good Goddess were celebrated exclusively by women in the house of the pontifex maximus, but a man had been able to be present. The optimates argued that the high priest must have been involved too, and Caesar's only way to prevent larger troubles, was to divorce his wife.

Caesar was bankrupt by now. He had paid for the games of 65, the lobbies for the pontificate in 63 and the praetorship in 62, and had paid much money to get out of the Good Goddess affair. Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome, paid Caesar's debts (830 talents, 17,500 kg silver) and Caesar had himself elected governor of Andalusia.

Until now, Caesar's behaviour had been more or less normal for a Roman senator with strong ambitions. From now on, however, Caesar's acts were often criminal, and Caesar's problem seems to have been that he had to possess an office or an army command, just to make sure that he had an immunity against prosecution.

Caesar's Spanish War gives a foretaste of the Gallic Wars. There was some unrest in the province, and under the pretext of restoring order, Caesar captured several towns, looted them, made a lightning attack along the west-coast (through modern Portugal) and plundered the silver mines of Gallicia. When a town was under siege and surrendered, it was nonetheless ravaged. As a rich man, Caesar returned, being able to sponsor a lobby for both the consulate and the right to enter the city with his army in an official procession (triumphus). Of these two, the triumph would give him most popularity, but the consulship was a necessity: he was likely to be prosecuted as a war criminal and the only way to prevent a law suit was an office. Having both was impossible, as Cato the Younger had announced the day of the consular elections, and no account of Caesar's candidacy could be taken unless he was a private citizen. Caesar was forced to forego his triumph in order to avoid losing the necessary consulship.

Caesar's consulship (59)

However, Caesar's consulship was secure, and in december 60 he was elected to the highest office in the Roman Republic. His colleague was Bibulus, one of the optimates. Some of the measures Caesar and Bibulus took were the publication of the proceedings of the Senate, a reorganization of the taxes, and a law against extortion. However, the two consuls were not on speaking terms, and at a certain moment Caesar had his partner driven from the Forum. Next day, Bibulus complained in the Senate, but Caesar's armed bodyguard made sure that no one dared to support the poor consul. (Some people joked that this seemed to be the year of the consuls Julius and Caesar.) Other acts were equally illegal: when Cato protested to one of Caesar's proposals, Caesar had him dragged from the Senate's building and taken off to prison.

Usually, the senate (i.e., the optimates) assigned a province to each consul, where they were supposed to fight wars. Since Caesar's opponents were afraid of him, the senators took care that provinces of the smallest importance would be assigned to him; they could not run the risk of letting Caesar secure a province involving the command of an army.

Caesar counteracted by forming the so-called triumvirate, or, to use the more adequate term that was coined by the historian Livy (59 BCE - 17 CE), a conspiracy against the state between its three leading citizens. The other two citizens implied in the conspiracy were the rich banker Crassus and the generalissimo Gnaeus Pompeius, better known as Pompey.

Crassus had started as a colonel in Sulla's army, and had been able to make lots of money under his regime. In 72, as praetor, Crassus had suppressed the slave revolt of Spartacus. Later, he had been involved in the Catiline conspiracies. Caesar had already paid back his debt to Crassus, but still had some moral obligation to the man who had secured his profitable Spanish command.

Pompey was Rome's leading general. He had started his career in Sulla's army, had later suppressed a rising of followers of Marius in Spain and had co-operated with Crassus in finishing off Spartacus' revolt. Later, he had defeated the pirates, and after 66 he was given Lucullus' command against Mithridates. Pompey had defeated the king of Pontus decisively and had forced him to commit suicide; after this, Pompey had annexed Syria and invaded Palestine, where he had captured Jerusalem. His soldiers called him "Pompey the Great", and rightly so: he had doubled Rome's annual income and added vast territories to the empire. In 62, Pompey had returned, and was at odds with the Senate because of its tardiness in ratifying his organization of the East (click here for the story).

The triumvirate gave something to all its members. In the first place, they decided that no step should be taken in public affairs which did not suit any of the three conspirators; together, they would run the Republic. The deal was sealed by intermarriage: Pompey married Caesar's daughter Julia; Caesar married Calpurnia, whose father Piso was a close friend of Crassus. Caesar saw to the swift ratification of Pompey's oriental acts. An agrarian law passed the Senate, distributing land among the urban poor and Pompey's soldiers.

Most important was a law on the provincial commands, which gave Caesar the provinces Cisalpine Gaul (i.e., the plains along the river Po), Illyricum (the Dalmatian coast), and Transalpine Gaul (the Provence) for the years 58-54. In these provinces, there were four legions. (A legion was an army unit of some 5,000 heavily-armed infantrymen.) Protected by his office as a commander and by these troops, Caesar would be safe against his enemies.

Early in 58, Caesar left Rome; his father-in-law Piso, who was consul, took care of his affairs in the capital.

 Part Two    Part Three