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

Caesar's inheritance (44-27)

The conspirators wanted to restore the Republic, but instead, another round of horrors followed. There were troops; there were politicians who aspired to Caesar's autocratic power; and they were prepared to use the troops.

Marc Antony, the consul, was now the official head of the state, and his first act was the confiscation of Caesar's papers and treasury. Then, he secured the co-operation of the commander of Caesar's troops outside Rome, Lepidus. Having the men and the money, he could negotiate from strength, and dictated the murderers a compromise: they were to receive amnesty, while Caesar's acts were to be respected, and he would be worshipped as a god. At the end of the day, Marc Antony was in charge of the city.

That very day, Piso opened the testament of his son-in-law. It contained precisely the material that Marc Antony needed: Caesar left his gardens as a park to the city of Rome, and gave every inhabitant a large amount of money. Several days later, the corpse was burned on the forum. The Roman mob saw the blood-stained cloak, and heard of the money that was to be distributed among them. Then, Marc Antony delivered the funeral oration, in which he inflamed their emotions: shortly after the assault, Caesar's murderers had to escape from the city that they had wished to liberate.

There was one minor cloud on Marc Antony's horizon: Caesar had left three quarters of his estate to his great-nephew Octavius, who was with the army in the east. Most important, Caesar had adopted him as a son, which meant that the eighteen years old Octavius had to change his name and would from now on be called Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus, i.e. Caesar from the Octavius family. The boy decided to return to Italy, and demanded his share, which Antony had already confiscated. At first, nobody seemed to notice the boy, except for Caesar's veterans. Even though Caesar Octavianus couldn't pay them, the soldiers were enthusiast and loved him.

By accident, Decimus Brutus was governor of Cisalpine Gaul, and Marc Antony had reason to fear his troops. Therefore, he left Rome to drive him away. While these two were fighting at Modena, the Senate convened, and Cicero held several speeches in which he tried to incriminate Marc Antony, pointing out that the consul would return with an army. This, he argued, was the moment to restore the Republic, and Caesar Octavianus might be useful ("we must praise the boy, give him a command and then put him away"). The Senate agreed and gave him a military command. The young man didn't disappoint the Senate: in two battles, he defeated Marc Antony, who fled with difficulty across the Alps, where he managed to gain the support of all troops in Spain and Gaul. Then, Caesar Octavianus showed that actually, he had used Cicero: he marched on Rome and demanded the consulship. Not for the first time, the Senate had to yield to a revolutionary leader with an army.

In control of the city, Caesar Octavianus declared Marc Antony's compromise to be illegal and outlawed the murderers of his father. Then, unexpectedly, he decided to sign peace with Marc Antony: Octavianus had learned that it was impossible to defeat the man who controlled Spain and Gaul, but together they could destroy the Republic, if they managed to defeat Caesar's murderers, who possessed some troops in the east. In 42, Brutus and Cassius were defeated at Philippi, on the northern shore of the Aegean Sea.

Marc Antony, Caesar Octavianus and Lepidus formed the Second Triumvirate and divided the Mediterranean: Marc Antony received the east, Lepidus Africa and the rest was to be Caesar Octavianus'. Unlike the first triumvirate, which was a private contract, this was an official magistracy, and the People's Assembly and the Senate ratified a bill giving these three men dictatorial powers. Cicero was against this bill, but a murderer took care of him. Formally, the Republic had ended.

Caesar Octavianus was a brave man; he had appreciated political realities; and he was a skilled diplomat. But his successes would not have been this dazzling if his name had not been Caius Julius Caesar, and if he had not been able to claim to be the son of a god.

More successes were to come. Marc Antony fell in love with Cleopatra (see coins) and launched a disastrous expedition against the Parthians. It was easy for Caesar Octavianus to present Marc Antony's acts as sacrificing Roman interests to an oriental mistress. In 31, Julius Caesar's heir defeated Marc Antony in a naval engagement off the Greek coast, the Battle of Actium. Lepidus was simply appointed pontifex maximus, and will probably have been glad that he managed to survive.

Now, it was Caesar Octavianus's turn to make monarchy acceptable, and he found the way that Julius Caesar had merely guessed: in 27, he laid down his triumviral powers, saying that he was content with the honour of restoring the Republic. He would be content with the name Augustus ("the exalted one"; cf. the statue that shows him as a heroic visionary). However, he had already convinced the Senate that the real choice was between a free but chaotic Republic and the stable government of one man. The Senate implored him to accept the powers of magistratures (like consulship) without occupying the magistratures themselves. In this way, Augustus managed to control the government behind a republican façade, backed by strong armies.

Caesar Augustus turned out to be the true heir of his divine father: many of Julius Caesar's plans were now implemented. The most important of these was the granting of citizenship to people who did not live in Italy. In the first century BCE the Roman Republic changed into a Mediterranean empire, and Julius Caesar speeded up this process; Caesar Augustus was the executor of this will.


Julius Caesar stimulated the transition of the Roman Republic into a Mediterranean empire, bringing the fruits of empire (relative peace and some prosperity) to more than sixty million people. This conclusion brings us to the final question: was Caesar responsible for this transformation? The conquest of Gaul, the war against Pompey and the autocracy of Caesar are events that move so swift and sure as to appear as if Caesar had a deliberate plan to start a monarchy as an answer to all the world's problems.

Some historians have chosen this perspective, and the most eloquent of these historians was the German Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), in his Römische Geschichte.

Mommsen was one of the founders of the liberal Deutsche Fortschrittspartei (German Progressive Party) and cultivated a bottomless hatred for the conservative Prussian nobility, and his view of the fall of the Roman Republic was coloured by his deep-rooted disillusionment with German liberal politics. The populares were, in Mommsen's view, a political party like his own people's party; as a corollary, the optimates represented the Roman conservatives, who showed a remarkable resemblance to the Prussian nobles. Caesar was, for Mommsen, the incarnation of the "heroic legislator" (an idea of the French political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau): Caesar had swept away the pieces of a corrupt nobility and had created an empire that served the needs of its inhabitants. In its constitution monarchy and democracy were balanced - something Mommsen would have appreciated in his own country.

Mommsen wrote that Caesar's

aim was the highest which a man is allowed to propose himself - the political, military, intellectual, and moral regeneration of his own deeply decayed nation . . . The hard school of thirty years' experience changed his views as to the means by which this aim was to be reached; his aim itself remained the same in the times of his hopeless humiliation and of his unlimited plenitude of power, in the times when as demagogue and conspirator he stole towards it by paths of darkness, and in those when, as joint possessor of the supreme power and then as monarch, he worked at his task in the full light of day before the eyes of the world. . . . According to his original plan he had purposed to reach his object . . . without force of arms, and throughout eighteen years he had as leader of the people's party moved exclusively amid political plans and intrigues - until, reluctantly convinced of the necessity for a military support, he, when already forty years of age, put himself at the head of an army.
A century later, the judgment pronounced in this florid prose is dated. No historian will agree that Caesar was the leader of a people's party that can be compared to Mommsen's liberal Fortschrittspartei. But it cannot be denied that many of Caesar's measures indeed seemed to protect the ordinary people against the selfish policy of the nobles: this can easily be illustrated by pointing at Caesar's measures on taxation and citizenship. It is, however, impossible to establish if the improvement of the position of the people was Caesar's aim or just a way to establish a strong base for a personal regime.

The latter is the opinion of great historians like Eduard Meyer (1855-1930) and Jérôme Carcopino, who maintained in their Caesars Monarchie und das Pinzipat des Pompejus (1919) and Histoire Romaine (vol. 2, 1936) that since his youth, Caesar's sole aim was the establishment of an oriental monarchy in Rome.

When these books appeared, the German historian Matthias Gelzer had already shown that perhaps it was wrong to focus on Caesar's policy: men make history, but not in the circumstances of their choosing, and Caesar was perhaps nothing but an exponent of a larger process. Gelzer thought that it was wrong to regard men -even powerful men like Caesar- as initiators of social changes: these had to have deeper causes. In his book on the nobility of the Roman Republic (Die Nobilität der Römischen Republik, 1912), Gelzer pointed out that the fall of the Republic was not just the establishment of a monarchy by one man (consciously striving at it or not), but a social revolution in which the old, Roman aristocracy was replaced by a new oligarchy that enroled its members from all parts of Italy and even the provinces. For this process, Gelzer coined the term Römische Revolution.

This title was borrowed by Oxford professor Ronald Syme (1903-1989), who in the Anglo-Saxon world is considered to be one of the greatest historians of his age. His book on the The Roman Revolution appeared on the very day that the Second World War broke out, and this is significant for its contents: being confronted with tyrants like Stalin, Hitler, and Mussolini, Syme was unable to share Mommsen's enthusiasm for one-person rule. As his title shows, Syme agreed with Gelzer's thesis that Caesar was an exponent of a larger process, in which the old aristocracy was replaced by a larger nobility.

Gelzer, however, had created a new problem: if we are to regard Caesar's acts as part of a larger process, we must explain how this process came into being. In spite of his declared ignorance of sociology, Syme borrowed the concept of competitive elitism from Mommsen's brilliant pupil Max Weber (1864-1920). Competitive elitism was Weber's concept of democracy: there were several factions, who were contending with each other to gain power, and (combinations of) these factions balanced each other. The people that mattered were the elite of the factions, and it has been argued that Weber in fact vindicated oligarchy.

Syme was of the opinion that the Late Roman Republic had indeed several competing elites: he pointed at the Licinius family, who grouped around Lucullus and Crassus; the kinsmen of Cato; the Julius and Marius families; the relatives of Pompey; and of course the Octavii. In his reconstruction of the events, the optimates and populares were not political parties (as Mommsen had thought): these words signified two approaches to legitimacy. Optimates thought that a decision was legitimate when it was made in the Senate, the populares tried to reach their aims in the People's Assembly. The family-factions that Syme postulated were free to use both ways, and in fact did use both ways. The Julian faction had a tendency to have its policy validated in the People's Assembly, but in 49 Caesar was anxious to receive ratification in the Senate; on the other hand, Cato's faction used optimate ways, but Cato was not above increasing the number of recipients of the corn dole.

Caesar, in Syme's opinion, was a Roman aristocrat who was able to surpass his fellow aristocrats because he found support outside Italy. An important instrument to gain this support was his lavish distribution of citizenship; this was not an aim in itself, it was just a tool. Caesar simply wanted to be the first among his equals.

Syme writes:

"They would have it thus," said Caesar as he gazed upon the Roman dead at Pharsalus, half in patriot grief for the havoc of civil war, half in impatience and resentment. They had cheated Caesar of the true glory of a Roman aristocrat - to contend with his peers for primacy, not to destroy them. His enemies had the laugh of him in death. Even Pharsalus was not the end. His former ally, the great Pompeius, glorious from victories in all quarters of the world, lay unburied on an Egyptian beach, slain by a renegade Roman, the hireling of a foreign king. Dead, too, and killed by Romans, were Caesar's rivals and enemies, many illustrious consulars. . . . Cato chose to fall by his own hand rather than witness the domination of Caesar and the destruction of the Free State.

That was the nemesis of ambition and glory, to be thwarted in the end. After such wreckage, the task of rebuilding confronted him, stern and thankless. Without the sincere and patriotic co-operation of the governing class, the attempt would be all in vain, the mere creation of arbitrary power, doomed to perish in violence . . . Under these unfavourable auspices, . . . Caesar established his Dictatorship. . . . . In the short time at his disposal he can hardly have made plans for a long future or laid the foundation of a consistent government. Whatever it might be, it would owe more to the needs of the moment than to alien or theoretical models.

At the moment, most historians will agree with Syme and disagree with Mommsen. On the other hand, it can be argued that Syme's "factions" resemble the cliques that run a university, like Oxford. Syme's belief in family loyalty seems not very realistic and has already been challenged. Future generations of historians will certainly find new ways to evaluate Caesar.

Caesar's writings

Writing in the second century CE, the Roman author Suetonius still knew many of Caesar's publications, such as a book On analogy and a collection of speeches In reply to Cato. A poem The voyage described Caesar's journey from Rome to Spain, when he was governor of Andalusia. These works are unknown to us, because the medieval monks who copied all the ancient manucripts considered them unimportant. In Suetonius' days, other publications were already lost: a tragedy Oedipus, a collection of apophtegms and a poem or speech In praise of Hercules.

The only publications that have come down to us and can still be read, are his fascinating Commentaries on his wars (e.g., De bello Gallico on the war in Gaul). The first text was written in Gaul, and contains seven books, each covering a single year from 58 to 52. An eighth book carries the story to the outbreak of the Civil War, but is written by one Hirtius (who is perhaps also the author of The Spanish War). In these books, Caesar is his own herald: in a simple and compressed style, he shows himself involuntarily fighting necessary wars. (The picture shows one of the medieval manuscripts.)


Most entertaining is the biography by Suetonius, which is the first of the Lives of the twelve Caesars. The biographer was in charge of the imperial archives under the emperor Hadrian (who ruled 117-138): in this capacity, Suetonius had access to probably the best possible information. He uses it critically: for example, about Caesar's death circulated a story that he had expected the assault, but was shocked to discover that Brutus was one of the conspirators, and that his last words were "You too, my son?". Suetonius makes clear that he has some doubts about this anecdote.

Describing someone's life is a meaningless thing to do, unless there is some moral to be learned. Suetonius' moral is clear: if a man has the total freedom and the absolute power of a Roman emperor, he must be strong indeed if he wants to remain honest. To show this, he is fond of stories about cruelty and sexual deviations. Of course, this makes him one of the most interesting authors of antiquity, but sometimes he seems to portray his emperors a nuance too black.

Another moralist is the Greek author Plutarch, who was a few years younger than Suetonius and covered more or less the same ground. His biography is meant as a counterpart to a Life of Alexander the Great: consequently, the moral is totally different, namely that Greeks and Romans have much more in common than they want to admit.

These two biographies give us the outline of Caesar's life, a mere skeleton. It should be given flesh with other information, for which Caesar's own writings are very important.

The correspondence of Cicero cannot be dismissed: to a large extent, his Letters to Atticus is private correspondence and gives us first-rate information about the political life in Rome in Caesar's days. As these letters were rediscovered during the reign of Caesar's descendant Nero (who ruled 54-68 CE), several unbecoming letters about Caesar were not published. The same selection was made in the collections of Cicero's Letters to Friends and Letters to Brutus. Cicero's speeches are very informative, especially On the provinces for the consuls, For Marcellus, For Ligarius and the Philippic speeches against Marc Antony. A very amusing sketch of public morals in Caesar's days is Cicero's speech For Marcus Caelius Rufus.

On Caesar's behaviour in 63, our most important source is The Catiline Conspiracy by Caesar's partisan Sallustius. Perhaps he is also the author of a Letter to Caesar, in which the author suggests some reforms.

The books on Caesar by the historian Livy have not survived, but excerpts are still extant. It is possible to say that Plutarch must have used this text when he wrote his biographies: his Life of Caesar has already been mentioned, but biographies of Brutus, Cato the Younger, Cicero, Crassus, Marc Antony and Pompey are most informative too. In the third century, the historian Cassius Dio based his description of the fall of the Roman Republic (books 36-44 of his History) on Livy. For the struggle over Caesar's inheritance, he is the most important source.

Modern literature: There's an awful lot of modern literature on the subject. A good start is the Cambridge Ancient History, volume IX of the second edition (1994), "The last age of the Roman Republic", edited by J.A. Crook, A. Lintott and E. Rawson.

Michael Akinde's article on the WWW can be found here.

Part One     Part Two