Mini-bio : Julius Caesar.
Roman emperor known for his prowess in both battle and politics
Ancient - Roman Empire
100 - 44 BC
Julius was born into a Roman world of political savagery and intrigue. His family was wealthy, but rather than joining with the aristocrats, he sided with the democrats; the popular faction and had to flee Rome. He did some fighting overseas, came back back, partied a bunch, and through a combination of serendipity and skill, got elected to a municipal post and began ascending the political ladder.
Why are we skipping his childhood and jumping right into his 20s? Because unlike Alexander, his childhood apparently wasn’t exciting enough to be written about extensively. There’s a story about his getting captured by pirates as a young man, but that’s for another time.
So here we are with Julius as a young man. Pompey has returned from magnificent conquerings in the East and...who is Pompey?
II. Historical context.
Pompey was a general who did quite well. He returned gloriously to Rome after serving her well. But Rome had many interesting political alliances, and anytime someone, especially a military person, was too successful, they were viewed with suspicion and paranoia by the Senate. Why? Because a general who was too successful could potentially gain enough support to become a dictator.
Pompey had a lot of support, and he also looked out for his men, and asked the Senate to take care of them. For example, he wanted his veterans to be rewarded with land. The Senate dragged their feet.
The Senate dragged their feet, but Caesar didn’t. He spoke up loudly in support of Pompey and the two became allies. Caesar benefited from Pompey’s military success, and Pompey benefited from Caesar’s political skill and position. So they had military power, they had political power, and the third and final piece they needed was...money.
This is where Crassus came in. Crassus was a rich and ambitious fellow. Caesar and Pompey were especially impressed with the ‘rich’ part, so they formed an alliance, the three of them. More on that later.
III. Consul / The First Triumvirate.
Remember those party days of his youth? Partying hard takes money, lots of money, and Caesar threw a lot of parties in those days, which meant he racked up a lot of debt. When his political term expired, he headed off to a military command in Spain. Before leaving, however, he borrowed a giant sum of money from Crassus in order to pay off his other debts. So instead of owing a bunch of people, he just owes Crassus. This could be important later on.
Being a military commander adds another dimension to him. Before he had political prestige, now he has military prestige to go along with it. When he returns home to Rome a year later after a successful command, the Senate is still rebuffing Pompey’s demands to ratify the treaties he made in the East and to reward the veterans. Now that Caesar is back again, the three make a power play for the ages: they form a Triumvirate to dominate politics.
There’s Caesar and his political shrewdness.
There’s Pompey and his military reputation.
And there’s Crassus and his money.
So they’re ruling together, and it’s decided that Caesar will be Consul. He uses this position to force the Senate into agreeing to Pompey’s demands. He also ensures that the wealthy middle class are given control of tax collection in the East, which is certainly to the advantage of capitalist Crassus. From here on out, the Caesar era is in full swing.
IV. Proconsul / hitting 40 / 50s BC
Caesar does something very interesting after a year serving as Consul. By custom, after a consul served for a year, they would then take a post as a proconsul of a province (basically like a governor). Usually the consul would choose a place like Syria or Sicily that was rich, and where they could thereby get their hands on fat revenues and make bank. But Caesar doesn’t do that. He chooses...Gaul.
Gaul? Gaul at that point consisted of what is now northern Italy and France. It was a wild and warlike territory and definitely a relaxing and leisurely place to enjoy a quiet and decadent governorship. So why would he choose Gaul?
Alexander the Great. Two hundred years or so before, Alexander had conquered most of the known world and left a long shadow for future conquerors. And he did all of it before he reached the age of 33.
Julius is hitting his forties. He is well aware of what Alexander had already accomplished at his age, and realizes destiny is waiting to be seized. So he chooses the roughest, toughest place to go; the place that will offer the greatest possibility for glorious war and fighting and military glory. Because he knows this is the next step in his path to world domination.
He gets lucky right away. Basically, there’s a Celtic tribe trying to march through Gaul to Spain and demanding passage through a strip of territory that Rome controls. Julius, of course, says no. He battles them ferociously and drives them back into the Alps. Success.
Then another German force led by Ariovistus attacks Gaul. The Celts in Gaul ask for help, and Julius eagerly says yes. This is his chance to enter Gaul. He does so and annihilates the Teutons (Germans). He’s saved Gaul.
Now that he’s saved Gaul, he decides to make it Roman. He had forgotten to tell this part to the Gauls he had just saved, and they were not extraordinarily pleased with this plan. In fact, they resisted mightily. Julius settled in for a long haul, knowing it would take awhile to vanquish the Celts as they battled for their liberty. He was merciless in his response to putting down rebellion, executing leaders and selling entire villages into slavery.
In 53 BC, he invaded Britain. The Gauls in Britain were helping their fellow Gauls on the other side of the Channel, so he took two legions, crossed over, and did a little fighting. Mostly an expedition to check things out.
A year later, he crossed properly prepared. Five legions. They moved along the Thames River and near what is now London. The Britons fought furiously, and had sweet chariots, so Julius didn’t accomplish a lot. Britain would have to be added to the Empire at a later date.
Gaul was not really an area to be crushed once and left alone. Different tribes kept rising up against the kindly Romans, who merely wanted to subjugate and control them. This was quite a test of Julius’s capabilities, as he had to move all over the place as rebellions kept popping up.
Veringetorix was a chief of the Arverni and rallied the tribes together to fight the Romans. He developed a strategy of holding strong positions rather than meeting Roman soldiers in open combat in the field. He had enough success that the revolt began to spread. Finally, he holed up in the stronghold of Alesia while other tribes could assemble and prepare to assault the Roman legions.
Caesar besieged Alesia, but he also knew Celtic reinforcements would be coming and the besiegers would soon be under siege, so he had entrenchments built on both sides. Basically a double siege: Rome was holding Veringetorix under siege in Alesia, while being attacked under siege by an army of Gauls on the other side.
The Celts almost beat down the Romans at one point, but couldn’t quite manage, although at one point Julius himself had to enter the battle with sword in hand. So both sides settled in for the siege. And here is where the problem came in.
The problem was with the Celts. The Romans were pinned between the city of Alesia they were besieging and the Gaul barbarians on the other. But here’s the thing: Roman soldiers were highly trained and disciplined. They were organized and had plenty of food and water. They knew what a siege was, how to prepare for it, and how to get through it. The Gauls, on the other hand, had a barbarian-style of warfare that worked great sometimes, but were not effectively organized or disciplined. They had to scavenge the countryside for food and water and without battle to keep them busy, got tired of inaction.
Eventually many began drifting away to go home. The Gallics made one more full-on assault, which didn’t work, and then they marched off. Alesia surrendered, Vercingetorix was captured and later executed, and the great Gaul insurrection was over.
After seven years, Gaul was now a Roman province. Importantly, the Celtic people also became thoroughly Romanized during this time. It became an important stronghold for future power brokers and empires.
Oh, by the way: in between battles and putting rebellions and such, Julius also wrote a definitive work of the conflict called Di Bello Gallico. Historians still use it as a reference and is considered a classic of Latin literature for this time period.
So his Gaul gambit is a good one. Seven years later, he’s not only a master political strategist, he’s got the double whammy of mega military success to add to his power.
Even while he’s in Gaul, Caesar knows he’s got to keep an eye and an ear tuned to what’s happening back in Rome. Remember, the other Triumvirs, Crassus and Pompey, are in charge at home, so everything should be all good...right?
VI. Meanwhile, back in Rome: Pompey and Crassus
Let’s start with Crassus, the rich guy. He sees what Caesar has done in Gaul and thinks it’s a great idea. Such a great idea that he’ll do the same thing: win himself some military glory, only he’ll take any army up against the Parthians, a nation in modern-day Iran.
Parthia’s army is super good on horses, and Crassus gets caught in the desert and surrounded on all sides by their cavalry. Short version: the sky is blackened with arrows (Xerxes would have been proud). They rain down on the Roman legions. Army is decimated and Crassus is killed. One of the greatest military disasters in history.
So now Crassus is out of the picture and we can start to focus on one of the great alliances-gone-awry in history: that of Julius Caesar and Pompey.
Aah, Julius and Pomp. The Romans had nothing on the Egyptians when it came to convoluted bloodlines, but they still knew how to strategically chess match their family when necessity demanded it. Earlier, Caesar had married off one of his young daughters, Julia, to middle-aged Pompey to cement their partnership. Sadly, she died, and Pompey started moving to the right politically.
He and Caesar had never exactly been on the same page philosophically, they had merely forged an alliance for pragmatic reasons. After Julia’s death, he joined the conservative aristocratic party (a.k.a. the Senate), which put him into opposition with Caesar’s popular party - the democrats (lowercase-d). This might have been fine...except for this:
Caesar had been named proconsul of Gaul for five years. Before his term ended, he met with Pompey and it was agreed that his command should be extended for another five years. After Pompey allied with the Senate, he changed his mind and decided against Caesar’s command-extension. The Senate is in favor of this, wishing to return to a single-ruler system where Pompey can lead on his own (with their support, of course).
What this meant for Caesar was that he would A) have to give up his command, B) return to Rome, C) return to Rome as a private citizen, and D) as a private citizen, be subject to prosecution by his enemies, of which he had many. So Pompey has laid his cards out. The die is cast and Caesar has some tough decisions to make. Including one fateful choice in particular...
The crossroads. 49 BC. Does Caesar submit to the Senate’s authority? Or does he rebel?
He’s in northern Italy, which is part of the province of Gaul. As proconsular, he is still in his own territory. The boundary between Gaul and Rome proper is a little stream on the east called the Rubicon. As long as he stays on his side of the line, he’s on somewhat-safe territory. But if he and his soldiers cross over...
...that would be a violation of Roman law and therefore a declaration of war.
In one of history’s most famous anecdotes, Caesar makes the fateful decision with a shout for the ages. Riding his horse along the northern bank, he spurs it into the waters and yells Alea iacta est! (The die is cast!)
He crosses with one legion, but the army of Gaul joins him and they march on Rome. Pompey has no army to compare with this and flees Rome. Caesar enters Rome and strategizes. Short version: after battles in the Spain, the Balkans, and Greece, he defeats Pompey for good. Pompey flees to Egypt, where he is murdered. Caesar is said to have wept when he learned of his old partner’s death. By 45 BC, Caesar has control of Rome.
Speaking of Egypt: after Pompey’s death, Caesar starts sprucing it up. And he meets someone by the name of...Cleopatra.
VIII. Cleopatra and Alexandria.
Aah, Egypt. Egypt and its delicious Nile Queen. Cleopatra. She of the one name title whose legend has surpassed the already vivid truth. The short version is this: she won Julius over and persuaded him to seat her as the sovereign of Egypt, along with her brother Ptolemy.
He hung out with her for a full year in Alexandria. Remember that whole concept of co-ruling and how it frequently doesn’t turn out super well? Well, despite wanting to believe in Cleopatra and Ptolemy’s deep sibling love for each other, there was…conflict. And remember that Egyptians had some interesting concepts about brothers and sisters and marriage and such. Short version is that Ptolemy got worried about his sister getting too much power. This was a valid concern, considering she had the ears, eyes, and everything else of Caesar’s.
Ptolemy started an insurrection in Alexandria. While fighting and rebellions broke out around, Julius hung out with Cleopatra. Definitely not focused on the battle stuff. Finally the Roman legions won out, Ptolemy was killed, Cleopatra was crowned sole Queen, and Julius had her marry her eleven-year old brother.
Yes, she married her eleven-year old brother.
Then Caesar took off for a while, but then he ended up in Rome, and he had her come there, and she did, and they were in love or something like that, and it scandalized Rome.
Eventually though he had to make a move against his remaining enemies. As Mufasa or someone said, “it’s good to be king,” but of course when you’re king (or dictator) then you have enemies. Lots of them. So So Caesar heads east to fight Mithridates. The main reason I note this is because after defeating Mithridates, Caesar made his famous statement:
“I came, I saw, I conquered.”
It sounds much better in Latin.
“Veni, vidi, vidi.”
Then he he did some fighting in Italy, then North Africa, then Spain. The details are unimportant, as this is the short version, but let’s note that there were some mutinous Roman soldiers involved. Finally, he knocked down the last of his opposition in the Senate, and he finally master of the entire Roman world. Or was he…
IX. Ides of March.
March 15, 44 BC. One of the most famous incidents in political history. Caesar has been warned by a seer (sort of like a creepy prophet) that he would be assassinated “…before the Ides of March had passed.”
Note: at that time, the Ides of March were a holy week of festivals
Julius has been supreme leader commander dictator guy for six months. He does pretty much whatever he wants politically and treats the Senate with contempt. There is major stress going on, but it’s mostly passive aggressive at this point, at least on the Senate’s part. They are pretty concerned, with potentially good reason, that their jobs are getting phased out.
Another note: a few days previous, Julius had announced his plans to launch a military campaign to east; a move in the footsteps of his great hero Alexander. Unknowingly, he forced his assassins’ hand; they would need to strike imminently.
One more note: Julius’s wife had very strange and disturbing dreams the night of March 14, 44 BC. They probably meant nothing. Except for - spoiler alert - if he had heeded her warnings, he wouldn’t have died, as he is about to.
One final note: history records that he had a scroll on his possession. Allegedly the names of the conspirators were written on this scroll, and what they intended to do to Caesar. Why didn’t he read it? Because he procrastinated: I’ll do it later, he must have thought. Well, for him - spoiler alert - there will be no later.
So he’s walking with a group of politicians and “friends” on his way to a meeting in the Senate. Everything is all good and it’s a beautiful day out and Julius is thinking about how stupid it is to believe in prophecies when…
SLICE! STAB! OUCH!
The group with him - SIXTY of them - stabbed him a total of 23 times. Obviously some of them were not very good at stabbing, as that’s less than one stab per guy. In fact, an autopsy from the time implies that only one of the wounds was fatal. That’s why it’s super important to not let your aorta get punctured by anything too large.
The following is not true, but I’m going to include it anyway, as Bill Shakespeare wrote it, and it’s a great last line. As Caesar was dying, blinded by blood, he pulled his toga up and saw his friend stabbing him. He cried out,
“Et tu, Brute?”
This means, “You too, Brutus?” Which is really sad, because they were friends. And then his friend stabbed him. This is not something friends should do to each other.
So now he’s dead. All sixty of them run off, and thus, the Julius Caesar chapter of Rome ends, and the next one begins. There will be a bunch of blood, fighting, executions, power struggles, and such before the Republic falls for good and Octavian ascends to lead the Empire through a long period of peace. But Julius will never know because he’s dead.
There’s much we know about him. And even more we don’t. Some of the big questions are this:
What were his plans for the political system?
Did he plan to overthrow the Republic and make himself King?
He was, in fact, a dictator, which wasn’t that uncommon in emergencies, but Caesar had himself appointed dictator for life. Dictator perpetuo. That’s a little different, and obviously inspiring to certain world leaders today. He also treated the Senate pretty bad and did, or tried to do, whatever he wanted and that’s what the Senate was worried about: that he would turn the Republic into a tyranny.
Was this a good thing? Well, it doesn’t seem very nice. But the truth is, with a couple thousand years of history in hindsight, maybe Caesar was on to something and saw a bit more than his fellow Romans. Sort of like a seer. Up to that point, Rome had been organized like a city-state. Thank you, Greece, for all the great ideas. But now Rome was huge. HUGE. It was getting way too big to be ruled the same way, with the inefficient relationship between the Senate and the Caesar. So he was probably moving things toward a one-man rule and setting himself up as a king, answerable to no one.
After his death, Rome was plunged into civil war. The Roman Republic was never restored, and eventually his nephew Octavian (later Augustus Caesar) ascended to power, leading to the Principate period of the Empire. Which was good in a lot of ways, and not so good in some. But that’s for Octavian’s story.
Julius Caesar. A masterful politician and skilled soldier who expanded Rome’s reach massively and was the catalyst for its move from Republic to Empire.