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)
Caesar's writings

Wars in Gaul (58-52)

Gaul as a whole consisted of a multitude of states of different ethnic origin. In the Iron Age, their different cultures had started to resemble each other, largely by processes of trade and exchange. The Greeks and Romans called all these nations Celts or Gauls. In the fourth century, Gallic warriors had settled along the Po and had invaded Central Italy (capturing Rome in July 387). Most people in Italy were afraid of new Gaulish invasions.

In the second century, mass migrations from Germans had started, for reasons that are unclear. Marius had defeated some of their tribes (the Teutones and the Cimbri), but in Caesar's days it was probably not a gross exaggeration to say that the states of Gaul would have to become Roman or would be overrun by Germans, who would proceed to attack Italy. If the Romans were afraid of the Gauls, they were terrified of the Germans. In Caesar's propaganda, an invasion of Gaul was a preventive war. Maybe Caesar was not blind to trade: the Rhône-Saône-Rhine-corridor was the most important trade route in pre-industrial Europe (amber being one of the most important commodities). A taste for Roman luxuries had already started in the Gaulish states along the Rhône and Saône. British tin was traditionally transported along the rivers Garonne and Seine: an additional bonus.

Caesar's military base was the valley of the lower Rhône, which had been Roman from 123 onwards. In the valley of the Saône, the Aedui were faithful allies. When he became governor of this region, the Helvetians (a nation in modern Switzerland) had decided to invade southern Gaul, and it was obvious to Caesar that if he was able to defeat these roaming Germans, he could impress the Senate and People's Assembly. Besides, a victory over the Germans would place him on the same rank as his uncle Marius. This is exactly what happened: after raising two extra legions, he defeated the Helvetians, once when they were crossing the Saône and a second time in the neighbourhood of the capital of the Aedui, Bibracte. After these victories, some Gauls asked Caesar to help them pushing back another German tribe, which had crossed the Rhine and settled in Alsace. Again, Caesar was victorious, and winter quarters were built in the neighbourhood of the battle field, in modern Besancon.

Caesar spent his winter in Cisalpine Gaul, having an eye on the city of Rome and giving instructions to Piso. Until now, the wars in Gaul had been successful, but not special. During the winter of 58/57, Caesar must have conceived larger plans, and rumours that the Belgians had decided to attack the Roman invaders were a good excuse to conquer all states in Gaul. Again, Caesar raised two legions, and together with the other troops, he surprised the Belgian nation of the Remi, who lived in modern Reims. His presence prevented the Remi from taking part in the Belgian attack on the Romans, and as it turned out, the Remi even sided with Caesar. As a result, the other Belgians decided to attack a Remian town that was situated on the boards of the river Aisne. Caesar, however, defended the town, and then stroke at the Belgian Nervians, who lived along the Somme. In a battle, they were annihilated: barely 500 of their army of 60,000 survived. Along the Sambre and the Meuse, the Romans inflicted comparable losses upon the Aduatuci in two battles. During the same year, a smaller Roman army had gone to the west of modern France and demanded subjection of the nations in Normandy and Brittany. After his Belgian campaign, Caesar's army went south too; winter quarters were established along the Loire. Meanwhile, in Rome, public thanksgiving lasting fifteen days were decreed by the Senate. No one had been granted this honour before.

Now that all Gaul had at least nominally submitted to Rome, Caesar spent the winter in Illyricum, but when he had crossed the Alps, the Gauls from Brittany rose against the Romans (56). Caesar ordered ships to be built, and spent some time in Italy, where he met Pompey and Crassus in Lucca: the triumvirs decided to continue their conspiracy against the Roman Republic and agreed that Caesar's generalship in Gaul would be prolonged until 50, December 31. This was an extraordinary command, and Caesar's fellow-conspirators demanded in return Caesar's support to be consuls in the next year, 55. Caesar agreed, and having secured his position, he crossed the Alps and in the summer a naval battle took place, in which the Bretons were defeated. Caesar's colonels took charge of mopping up expeditions in Aquitaine and Normandy.

Next year, Caesar accomplished two feats that must have shaken his Italian audience with excitement. First, Caesar's engineers bridged the Rhine, showing the Germans that the Romans were invincible. Actually, the destruction of German towns was little short of terrorism. Having impressed the Germans, the Gauls, and the Senate, Caesar turned to the west, where a large fleet was ready to carry Caesar's armies to Britain, where a short campaign took place. Even though the Britons were backward and still retained the primitive social system of chiefdoms (i.e., there were no states), the Senate was duly impressed by the general who had reached the edges of the earth. The consuls in Rome, Crassus and Pompey, were compelled to decree a thanksgiving of twenty days.

In 54, Caesar invaded Britain again. He defeated the chief of the Britons, Cassivellaunus, in a battle near modern London and crossed the Thames. In Essex, some scientific experiments were carried out: from measurements with a water clock, Caesar's explorators learned that the nights in Britain were shorter than on the continent. After this expedition, winter quarters were build among the Belgians.

In the winter of 54-53, Caesar was faced with a serious crisis, as his winter camps were built too far from each other. Two legions were annihilated by a rising led by Ambiorix. Though Caesar remained in control, it was obvious that Gaul was not yet  conquered. Another cloud appeared on the horizon: from Rome came the message that Julia had died. As her father Caesar will have mourned his daughter; as a politician he must have understood that the friendship with Pompey was no longer certain.

When the uneasy winter was over, Caesar must have decided to teach the Belgians a lesson for once and for all. The Nervians, who had already been decimated, were victims of naked aggression, after which the Menapii in the marshlands along the Rhine experienced the same horrors. (When this genocide became known in Rome, Cato exclaimed that Caesar ought to be handed over to the Germans.) A second Rhine crossing followed, and German tribes were forced to go with the current to the now empty country of the Menapii (later, these migrants were known as Batavians). After these atrocities, winter quarters were build between the Seine and the Loire.

52 saw an even more serious rising than that of the winter of 54/53. For the first time, almost all nations in Gaul united under one commander, Vercingetorix (coin). Only the Belgians, still lamenting the disaster of the year before, remained aloof. Caesar was forced to defend himself: he had to recall his armies from the north, and meanwhile tried to hold the south. Vercingetorix decided to drive away the Romans by cutting them off from forage and supplies: the Gauls therefore destroyed their towns, and stored everything in a few impregnable towns. Their army would attack the Romans when they laid siege to these strongholds. This strategy would force the Romans back from Gaul into the Provence. However, using elaborate siegeworks (picture), the Romans managed to take Bourges, killing 39,000 Gauls. The Gauls remained optimistic, and even the Aedui, Caesar's allies, rebelled. Soon after their insurgence, the Romans failed to take Gergovia. Meanwhile, the legions from Belgium on their way to the south found their ways barred by the Gauls, but in Paris, they crossed the Seine and three days later they contacted Caesar's defeated army. Having his armies united, Caesar was able to block Vercingetorix in a formidable fortress called Alesia. This site was too high to be stormed, so Caesar had to starve his enemies, who had lots of food.

The Romans decided that they could wait, and built enormous fortifications (the remains of which have survived). First, they build one line to keep in 80,000 Gauls; then, a second line to defend the Romans against 240,000 warriors of the Gaulish rescue force, that was besieging the besiegers. Terrible things happened: the Gauls sent away their wives and children, and the Romans refused to let them pass their lines. They were starved to death between the lines. In the end, Roman fortifications proved superior to Gaulish numbers, and Vercingetorix surrendered.

The whole of Gaul was now conquered. Three million people had been living in Gaul before Caesar arrived in 58; one million had been killed and one million had been sold as slaves when he left in 50. Caesar himself wrote in his Commentaries on the War in Gaul that peace had been brought to the whole of Gaul. It is not hard to see that this was the peace of a graveyard.

Civil wars (51-47)

When Caesar was in Gaul and organized the conquered territories, Pompey and Crassus tried to enlarge their power too. Pompey was successful: in 52, he was elected "consul without colleague" and yielded dictatorial authority. Crassus, however, was less fortunate: after his consulship, he became governor of Syria with special prerogatives, and was defeated by the Parthians, who lived in modern Iraq and Iran. He was killed in action.

After Crassus's death, only Pompey (picture) and Caesar remained, and the Senate feared a civil war, from which a king would arise. An overwhelming majority in the Senate (400 against 22) wished both dynasts to lay down their extraordinary commands before the consular elections in December 50. (The question whether this was lawful remains unanswered: in 52, the People's Assembly had allowed Caesar to run for consul without being present.) After some deliberations, Pompey obeyed the Senate.

He was in a better position than Caesar. If the latter obeyed, he was no longer immune to prosecution. Cato had charged him with war crimes in Germany, and many people remembered Caesar's first consulship and the Spanish War. If Caesar refused to obey, he would be declared an enemy of the state; the Senate would be forced to appoint a commander with plenary powers, and it was not hard to see who this general would be.

In 49, on January 7, the Senate demanded Caesar to hand over his ten well-trained legions to a new governor. Caesar heard the news in Ravenna, and knew that he had to make a choice between prosecution and rebellion; preferring the dignity of war over the humiliation of a process, Caesar chose to rebel, quoting his favourite poet Menander, "the die is cast". On January 10, his army advanced to Rimini, where Caesar could control the passes across the Apennines: in doing so, he crossed the river Rubico, thereby invading Italy and provoking the Second Civil War. Caesar's perspectives did not look great: nine of his legions were on duty in Gaul.

As it turned out, the Senate had made a disastrous mistake. It had believed that the issue was between a rebel and the legitimate rulers, and had expected that the towns of Italy would send troops in defence of the authority of the Senate and the Roman People's liberties. But Italy was sceptical about its champions, and showed no enthusiasm to defend the constitution. For Caesar's soldiers, on the other hand, everything depended on this one campaign: if they failed, they would never receive their pension. Unable to raise armies, the Senate was helpless. Two weeks after the start of the Civil War, Caesar was master of Italy and had hunted his enemies to the heel of Italy, from where Pompey and many senators fled to Greece (March 17).

Caesar did not waste his time. The situation was clear: the Senate had seven legions in Spain without commander, Pompey was in Greece without army. Caesar decided to attack the army first. When he entered Rome, Caesar pardoned instead of massacred his enemies and created a new Senate, which would authorize Caesar's acts. Before it had assembled, Caesar was already on his way to Spain, in the meanwhile proposing a law granting Roman citizenship to the inhabitants of Cisalpine Gaul. After picking up his legions in the neighbourhood of Marseilles, Caesar crossed the Rhône and the Pyrenees, and defeated the Spanish army in the Battle of Ilerda, close to modern Barcelona. Again, Caesar showed clemency, sparing the commanders and disbanding the defeated legions. He rushed to Corduba, where two legions (commanded by one Varro) submitted to Caesar. After his return, Caesar was made dictator. He had been out of Rome for three months.

Meanwhile, Pompey was in Greece, and by drawing upon the resources of the eastern provinces and client kings, he managed to raise an army of eight legions and a fleet of 300 ships, commanded by Bibulus (see above). Now he was able to return to attack Caesar in Italy. This was precisely what Caesar feared, and despite the great risks of winter navigation, he got seven legions across the Adriatic. Pompey blocked these troops in Dyrrhachium (modern Dürres). Caesar was in an awkward position, but in March 48 at last his colonel Marc Antony managed to reinforce him with four legions. The united army managed to break through Pompey's lines, crossed the Pindus-mountains and defeated Pompey's pursuing army near Pharsalus (August 9). Almost 6,000 soldiers were killed, and when Caesar surveyed the battle field and saw the bodies of the dead senators, he remarked: "Well, they would have it thus."

Pompey survived the Battle of Pharsalus, and went to Egypt, followed by Caesar. When the latter arrived, he learned that Pompey had been executed by soldiers of the ten year old king Ptolemy XIII, who hoped to gain Caesar's support in his quarrel with his older sister Cleopatra VII (picture). It turned out differently: Caesar was furious that he was not given the chance to pardon Pompey. When Caesar met Cleopatra, he was captivated by the girl's charms and chose her side in the Alexandrine War: Caesar's soldiers arrived in the spring of 47 and defeated Ptolemy. The boy's body was found in the Nile.

Having pacified Egypt, Caesar and Cleopatra spent two months on a honeymoon cruise on the Nile. Then Caesar hurried off to Asia Minor, where Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates, had challenged Roman authority. He was defeated in a rapid campaign at Zela ("I came, I saw, I conquered"). Having defeated Pompey and having calmed Egypt and Asia, the dictator was free to return to Rome (summer 47).

Domestic policy (47-44)

There were insurrections: in the spring of 46, Caesar defeated the Republicans at Thapsus in Africa (= modern Tunisia). Cato committed suicide, because he did not want the dictator to pardon him. Being on the spot, Caesar annexed some of the territories of the Numidian king Juba. The wars seemed over, and he celebrated four triumphs: he had defeated Vercingetorix, Ptolemy, Pharnaces, and Juba. In 45, however, Caesar had to suppress a final revolt in Spain, led by a son of Pompey. In the battle of Munda, Caesar was victorious for the last time.

At home, he showed himself a restless reformer. The Roman mob had received free corn doles and Caesar reduced the number of recipients from 322,000 to 150,000. The poor were offered a new life overseas, where he ordered cities like Carthage and Corinth to be rebuilt and founded new towns, such as Arles and Seville. The soldiers of the civil wars received small farms; his own soldiers he paid an additional silver talent (21 kg or the equivalent of 26 year's pay). In Asia Minor and Sicily, he introduced a new system of taxation, which protected the subjects from extortion.

Debts were a serious problem, because interest had been sky-high during the Civil War. Caesar disappointed radical reformers (like Marcus Caelius Rufus) who had expected a total cancellation. Caesar decreed, however, that the debtors should satisfy their creditors according to a valuation of their possessions at the price which they had paid for them before the war, deducting whatever interest already had been paid. This arrangement wiped out about a fourth part of the debts.

Many public works were carried out in Italy. Most famous is the Forum of Caesar, a kind of shopping complex in the commercial centre of Rome. On the old forum, the political heart of the empire, he rebuilt the speaker's platform, the court house, and the Senate's building. (While the Senate's building was under construction, the Senate gathered in the Theatre of Pompey, which was outside the city, where Caesar's army could control its meetings.) Varro, the commander of Pompey's army in Corduba, was appointed head of the new state library. To ensure that Rome would become a centre of learning, Caesar conferred privileges to all teachers of the liberal arts.

As a legislator, Caesar prepared standard regulations for the municipal constitutions and proposed a law against extravagance. The Jews -who had helped him in the Alexandrine War- were protected. He even planned a codification of all existent Civil Law (a project not executed before 438 CE). Remarkable was the reorganization of the calendar: the Republican year had counted 355 days, the deficiency made up by randomly adding an extra month. With the advice of Cleopatra's astrologer, Caesar added four extra months to the year 46, decreeing that from January 1, 45 "our" calendar was to be used (with 365.25 days).

The empire had been run by a government that had consisted of 600 senators (who served as judges), several magistrates, several governors, and their personal staff. Caesar recognized the need to enlarge the bureaucracy. He enlarged the number of senators from 600 to 900, rose the number of praetores from eight to sixteen, the aediles from four to six, and the quaestores from twenty to forty. The last measure granted some justice in provincial taxation, but did not establish a serious professional bureaucracy as yet.

Caesar's most important policy was his lavish granting of citizenship: those who were subjected by the Romans could receive a set of extra civil rights and a small share in the benefits of empire. During the Social War, the Italian allies had received this Roman Citizenship from Caesar's uncle; Caesar extended the privilege first to the Gauls along the Po, and -later- to some Gauls that he had subdued. The inhabitants of many individual towns received the privilege too. To the dismay of the old aristocracy, Caesar even started to recruit new senators from outside Italy.

Constitutional problems

Caesar's most important problem, however, was that he was too powerful: the Roman Republic was an oligarchy in which the powers were shared among the senators. Even though the Senate was defeated, oligarchic sentiments were strong, and Caesar had to find a way to make his rule tolerable. His clemency was important, but nothing more than a precondition to this.

It is possible that Caesar wanted to evade the question by leaving Rome and starting a new military campaign. In the spring of 44, an expeditionary force was on its way to the east, where Crassus' death had to be avenged. Its temporary commander was the son of Caesar's niece Atia, the young Caius Octavius. The dictator was to follow his legions and planned to attack the Parthians. Of course, success in the east would not have solved the problem.

Another way to solve the constitutional problem was to behave himself as a king, without actually using this title. The only kings the Romans knew, were the oriental kings, and therefore Caesar used their symbols to show his power. His statue was placed among those of the legendary Roman kings, he was allowed to wear a purple robe, he was given the surname Father of the Country, sat on a raised cushion in the theatre and on a golden throne in the Senate, coins showed his portrait, and a temple was erected to Caesar's Clemency: its first priest was Marc Antony. When people wanted to approach him, he received them without rising. On the other hand, he refused to wear a crown, but was satisfied with a laurel wreath to cover his bald head.

Roman constitutional law allowed one way to exercise personal rule: the dictatorship. Caesar was made dictator after his return from Ilerda; in October 48 he was again appointed, in 46 he became dictator for ten years and in 44 for life. This was, however, not a solution, since the dictatorship had already been misused by Sulla, and even though it was a legal construction, it smelled like blood. A permanent consulship seemed to be a better response to the situation, and indeed, Caesar had himself elected consul in 48, 46, 45 and 44 (with Marc Antony). He also experimented with Pompey's innovation, the consulship without colleague (45). Again, this didn't work: although repeated consulships were not unconstitutional, occupying a magistrature permanently made it impossible for other aristocrats to show their importance. And indeed, many people's feelings were hurt. In the last weeks before his death, Caesar seems to have found a solution: he accepted the powers of several magistratures without occupying the magistratures themselves. In this way, Caesar could control the government without interfering with the careers of the nobles. The settlement by the emperor Augustus in 27 BCE shows that this solution could have been acceptable (below).

However, many Roman senators refused to resign themselves to a controlled oligarchy. More than sixty joined the conspiracy led by Caius Cassius and Marcus Brutus (picture). They decided to kill the dictator when the Senate would meet on March 15.

On this day, Caesar was ill, and he decided to stay at home with his wife Calpurnia, who was discomforted because of some nightmares. Brutus' brother Decimus, however, visited the couple and implored Caesar "not to disappoint the waiting senators". On his way to Pompey's theatre, several people handed over requests. Caesar kept them in his left hand, intending to read them after the meeting. Accordingly, he did not read a notice revealing the plot.

As he sat down on his raised cushion and had received the senators who had gathered about him to pay their respects, one Lucius Tillius Cimber came forward to make a request. He told Caesar that his brother was in jail and when the dictator started to reply that clemency was his usual policy, Tillius unexpectedly caught his toga.

"Be careful, there's no need to use force!", Caesar grumbled and ordered his guard to take away the man. However, before the guard could interfere, another senator, Casca, stabbed the dictator just below the throat. Then his victim understood what was happening, and he caught Casca's arm and run through it with the only weapon he could find, his pen. As Caesar tried to leap on his feet, he was kicked and stopped by another wound. He saw that he was surrounded by men with daggers and knew that he would not survive. He wrapped his head in his robe and covered the lower part of his body with a part of his toga, and was stabbed with twenty three wounds, not uttering a word.

All the conspirators made off, and Caesar lay lifeless at the feet of a statue of Pompey. For hours, nobody dared to come close, until three common slaves put his corpse on a litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down.

Part One     Part Three