Today we’ll be taking our Unfortunate History chariots back in time to the land of togas, gladiators, and being fed grapes on day beds. Today’s topic is the one and only Julius Caesar.
Gaius Julius Caesar was born 12 July 100 BC near Rome. He was born into the family “Julia”. This family was quite lofty with their ancestral claims. They claimed to be descended from the Roman mythological character, Euryleon (or Ascanius, or Julus). He was said to have been the son of the goddess Venus. It’s pretty far-fetched to claim ancestry from a member of Roman mythology, but the family did have a particular reason for claiming it.
Ascanius was the legendary king of Alba Longa, an ancient city near Rome. Caesar’s family came from Alba Longa. So, obviously, they just had to be related to Ascanius, the son of Venus.
Caesar’s family was not actually wealthy at the time of his birth, but they were still considered upper-class. You see, most Alban families, like Caesar’s, were granted upper-class status. I believe this was due to the fact that the Julia family was very ancient, and obviously god-like. Although, it is noted that the family was not snobbish.
Now, I should also mention the class structure of Rome, since I’ve already mentioned it once and it will come up again. In Rome, you were either upper-class or you weren’t. You had no say over this. The upper-class was referred to as the patricians, with the lower-class being referred to as the plebians. As I mentioned, Caesar’s family was patrician. However, as they were poor/rich people, they had no particular political clout. What being patrician did afford Caesar and his family is the ability to become consul.
The consul in Roman politics is generally the president. Except it is always a co-consulship; meaning the post is always shared between two people. They both hold the position for a year and have the power to veto each other’s decisions. As I said, patrician’s were able to become consul, but plebians could not. However, to keep a balance of power, the senate (made up of other patrician family members), would select candidates to become consuls, but it was the plebeians that would actually elect them.
I won’t get too bogged down in the history of Roman politics, I just want to set the scene for a little later.
Caesar’s parents, Gaius Caesar and Aurelia, were apparently very respectable people. But that didn’t stop Gaius from straight-up dying when Caesar was 16. This was said to have been from natural causes, which could have been a lion attack at this time in history. Either way, his father’s death made Caesar the man of the house at a fairly young age.
Rome at this time was having political problems, which I’ll mention in a second. Many believed that the ruling class had run the country into the ground and there needed to be a change. Caesar’s family, although patricians, felt the same and shared the plight of the plebeians, who were obviously hit hardest by any decisions made by the upper class. Caesar had his own ideas of how the Roman state should be governed, and it was his goal to get to a point where he could implement those ideas. Because of this, Caesar dedicated himself to a political career very early in his life.
At the point of Gaius Caesar’s death, Rome was going through a civil war (one of many). Essentially, the lower class did not like the way the upper class was running the country. So, they decided to band together to change the government. The main antagonist to this civil war was Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a proponent of the upper class, and a soon-to-be dictator of Rome. On the plebeian side was Lucian Cornelius Cinna - try not to get confused. The two commanders fought each other in multiple battles and were for all intents and purposes, mortal enemies.
Well, Caesar decided to do his part in the fight at this young age and he did so by marrying Cinna’s daughter, Cornelia. Which was a great way to fight in a civil war.
However, unfortunately for Caesar, and the rest of the plebeians, Sulla did finally manage to beat Cinna in battle. This effectively set Sulla up to have near total control over the Roman state. Sulla then decided to punish Caesar for his marriage to Cornelia. He told Caesar that he would be forced to divorce Cornelia, or he would lose his property, his dowry, and all other valuables he owned. To which Caesar said, “Screw-us You-us, douchebag-ius” and ran off to exile and to military service.
It was during this time in the military that Caesar initially gained some of his truly impressive oratory skills. He distinguished himself amongst his fellow soldiers and was awarded a civic crown for his service.
Soon enough, Sulla actually died and Caesar found this to be a good time to return to Rome. But he wasn’t done trying to fight the good fight for the plebeians. When he returned home, he decided to become a prosecuting advocate (or lawyer). His initial prosecuting targets were those that assisted Sulla during his counter-revolution against Cinna. Which is an amazing turn on his story.
After spending some time as a prosecutor, he decided to further hone his amazing oratory skills. To do so, he travelled to Rhodes to study under apparently the world’s best speaker, Molon. Which sounds suspiciously like ‘colon’.
However, on his way to Rhodes, Caesar was actually captured by pirates. While in their custody, the pirates found that Caesar was of nobility and they decided to ransom him off. They asked for 20 talents of silver. But Caesar disagreed; he said they should ask for 50! He was said to have maintained an air of superiority throughout the entire event. However, he also told them that once he was free he would hunt them down, to which the pirates laughed. Well, the ransom was paid and Caesar was released. He gathered a fleet of ships, hunted the pirates down, and crucified them all.
After his schooling, Caesar returned to Rome and truly began his political career, successfully gaining a place in the Roman government. Throughout his political career, however, Caesar went quite far in debt. He consistently gained momentum, gaining one political office after the other, and he was very likely to become consul. But this sort of election would be an expensive ordeal. So, he approached Marcus Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome. Crassus actually paid off a large part of Caesar’s debts and then guaranteed the rest, giving Caesar the opportunity to move further in his political career.
In a supposedly very bribery infested election, Caesar was actually able to gain his consulship and one of the highest political offices in Rome. This gave him the opportunity to make the changes that he truly wanted to make. However, this wasn’t enough for him. Since he had to serve alongside another consul, he couldn’t really make the changes he preferred. So, he hatched an idea.
Obviously, Caesar knew Crassus well and obviously knew of his fortune. There was also another man with great power by the name of Pompey. Crassus and Pompey were mortal enemies since the beginning of the previously mentioned civil war. Caesar was already in debt to Crassus, but he had also gone into debt to Pompey. Seeing an opportunity, Caesar thought this would be a good time to try to unite the two men.
In exchange for all of the help they had given him, and because of their fortunes and power, Caesar invited the two men to work with him to control public business. He felt they all combined had enough power and wealth to make changes on their own. The men agreed, and this alliance was referred to as the First Triumvirate.
With this new power, Caesar was effectively able to sidestep the senate and his co-consul in making decisions. For instance, Caesar would propose a law, and this would be supported by both Crassus and Pompey. With the amount of power they held, the law would nearly always be passed.
Throughout his year as a consul, the senate and other upper class families did not trust what Caesar was doing with Roman politics. They felt that he was trying to turn the government into a monarchy by avoiding the senate altogether. So they attempted multiple times to limit his power. To do this, they would try to grant Caesar control over woodlands, as opposed to a providence, after his year as a consul was over.
However, each time they tried to do this, they would fail due to the power of the Triumvirate. Through a series of these attempts to limit Caesar’s power, the plans backfired and it came to the point that Caesar actually came to command four legions of soldiers - which he would soon put to good use.
After his year as a consul, Caesar felt it was a good idea to repay his debts. He had four legions at his disposal and a large part of Gaul (modern day France) was undiscovered at this point. He decided to take his legions west to check the area out. When he arrived, he found that it was inhabited by those barbarians; or as we call them today: the French.
He was initially cordial with the armies of Gaul, but the Roman occupation of Gaul was not accepted by all. Soon, all out war broke out in the region. The Romans were apparently outmatched by the attacking armies, mainly in size. But Caesar, ever the amazing leader, rallied his men with his exceptional oratory skills accompanied by “impassioned gestures and a high-pitched voice”. In a short few years, the area was conquered. Following this, Caesar decided to head back home...until he decided, as one does, to sail to Britain.
At the same time this was happening, the members of the First Triumvirate were experiencing difficulties in Rome. Crassus was killed leading an attempted invasion of the east. Pompey married the daughter of a political rival of Caesar and was actually himself appointed consul. These two actions effectively killed the Triumvirate and Caesar’s foothold in Rome; which was now on the brink of another civil war.
This obviously didn’t make Caesar too happy, but what made matters worse was what occurred after. Caesar was ordered by the Roman senate, led by Pompey, to disband his forces. He denied and was accused by Pompey of insubordination and treason. This upset Caesar even further. So he replied by committing insubordination and treason; bringing his forces back to Rome with him, with the full intention of ending the civil war himself. As he arrived, he found that most of the senate, including Pompey, had fled the city.
Caesar took his army in pursuit of Pompey, fighting his lieutenants multiple times. He chased Pompey all over the middle east and down to Africa. At the same time, Caesar was elected dictator in Rome. Although, he denied this title and instead took a second consulship. He always seemed to be keen to avoid seeming like an outright dictator.
As I just mentioned, Caesar had followed Pompey to Africa, Egypt to be exact. However, once Caesar arrived he was greeted with Pompey’s severed head, to which he is said to have received in tears. He had planned to pardon Pompey and allow him to return to Rome. Apparently, the Egyptians had heard about Caesar pursuing Pompey, and once Pompey showed up in Egypt, they felt it was best to kill him less they would be seen as assisting him. Caesar then had Pompey’s assassins put to death.
It was here in Africa that Caesar met another someone of historical importance: Cleopatra. Egypt was currently experiencing its own civil war, so Caesar decided to assist Cleopatra in quelling the population. He did so successfully affording Cleopatra rule over Egypt, although not before giving her a baby (allegedly). Cleopatra did name her son Caesarion which translates to “little Caesar”. While in Egypt, Caesar fought multiple opponents, but none were very intimidating. Caesar was not very impressed with the local fighters and this is when he said his famous phrase, “Veni, Vidi, Vici”: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Caesar returned to Rome after some time and was again given the title of dictator, although this time is stuck.
I mentioned earlier that Caesar had planned to pardon Pompey and allow him to return to Rome. Now, this may have come from his experience in the first civil war. You see, Sulla (the civil war’s previously mentioned antagonist) was said to have been brutal against the opposing Romans during the civil war. He supposedly showed very little mercy in his prosecution.
When you compare this to Caesar being in tears when he was handed his Pompey’s severed head, you can see a stark contrast in empathy. He was very likely affected by Sulla's brutal nature. Caesar seemed to think that all of his countrymen were worthy of forgiveness. In fact, he not only forgave them, he also offered most of them responsible positions in his own regime. However, this would prove to be a fatal decision, because some of these men were beginning to plot against Caesar.
Supposedly, according to Roman historians, there were “three last straws” that pushed some of the senators to turn on Caesar. The first happened in December, 45 BC. The Senate voted to bestow a large group of honours upon Caesar. They marched as a senatorial delegation to see Caesar at the Temple of Venus Genetrix. When they arrived, Caesar did not rise to greet the senators. He also rejected the honours, joking that his honours needed to be cut back, if anything. This apparently gave off the impression that Caesar no longer cared about the Senate.
The second incident occurred soon afterwards. Two tribunes (a title of elected officials) found a crown placed on the head of a statue of Caesar. The tribunes ordered that the crowd be removed as it was a symbol of Jupiter and royalty. No one knew who had placed the crown, but Caesar suspected it was the tribunes themselves so that they could have the honour of removing it. Further to the royalty claim, Caesar was greeted by someone in a crowd referring to him as King. The same tribunes were not amused by this and ordered the man who shouted to be arrested.
The final incident happened at the festival of the Lupercalia, on 15th of February, 44 BC. Mark Antony, a friend and co-consul with Caesar, placed a crown on Caesar’s head in front of a large crowd. To which, about five people clapped. Caesar removed the crown and placed it to be used as a sacrifice to Jupiter and said, “Jupiter alone of the Romans is king”. Which was received by an eruption of enthusiasm from the crowd. Some believed this moment was a chance for Caesar to test the waters, as it were, to see if he’d be accepted as a king.
The plot against Caesar began with two men whom Caesar had previously pardoned: Cassius and Brutus. Both had been previous enemies to Caesar. The men met and decided that something had to be done about Caesar before he became king of the Romans. They started recruiting other members of the Senate. Brutus believed that there needed to be a fair number of leading men for the removal of Caesar to be seen as the legitimate removal of a tyrant. They succeeded in recruiting a majority of the Senate to their cause, including some that had supported Caesar outright. With a force assembled, the senators decided that the next time they met with Caesar, he would die.
The chosen day was the Ides of March, which was a day used by the Romans as a deadline for settling debts. All of the conspirators met at the Senate House and awaited Caesar’s arrival. However, he did not show. Apparently, a seer had told Caesar that he would not live past the Ides of March and this had upset Caesar’s wife, who begged him to stay home. He did so, and he sent Mark Antony to disperse the Senate. However, one of the senators went to Caesar’s home and convinced him to come, to which Caesar agreed. On his way to the Senate House Caesar apparently saw the seer once again, to whom he said, “Well, the Ides of March have come!” To which the seer said, “Yes, but they are not yet gone.”
Once Caesar arrived, he was handed a petition to look over. As he read, he was slowly surrounded by the conspirators, under the guise of offering assistance with the petition. He waved them away, but one of the conspirators grabbed Caesar’s toga and drew out a dagger. He tried to stab Caesar in the neck, but Caesar caught his hand. The rest of the conspirators joined in and all set to stabbing Caesar. He tried to escape, but was blinded by blood in his eyes and he tripped and fell. But the men did not stop. They continued stabbing him while he lay on the ground. In the end, he was stabbed 23 times. The final stabbing came from Brutus, a man whom Caesar had shown an amazing amount of affinity for; pardoning him from his past crimes and making him a part of his government. When Caesar saw that Brutus was a part of this attack, he supposedly said, “Et tu, Brute”, which would translate to “You too, Brutus?” He then took his last breath and died on the Senate House floor while the conspirators fled. His body was left for some time until three slaves litter and carried him home, with one arm hanging down.
Following Caesar’s assassination, the conspirators ran through the street claiming to the people of Rome that they were free now, trying to still claim that Caesar was a power-hungry dictator. Although they were met with silence as the people of Rome had shut themselves inside their homes after hearing news of Caesar’s assassination. The senate then attempted to press the fact that Caesar was indeed a tyrant, but this idea was met with much resistance.
Caesar apparently left his name to his grandnephew, Gaius Octavius, as his sole heir, which gave Octavius the same power Caesar had held. The people of Rome instantly fell into allegiance with Octavius, as did Caesar’s friends in the Senate. Cassius and Brutus were both developing an army in nearby Greece in another attempt to take Rome, although the assassination had not done anything for their cause. Octavius felt it was best to build an enormous force as well and he joined forces with Mark Antony and another previous friend of Caesar’s to form the Second Triumvirate. They then successfully raised an army of 45 legions.
These men, however, learned from Caesar’s mistakes. Instead of offering any form of mercy, they decided to slaughter the armies of Cassius and Brutus, instead choosing to perform actions similar to Sulla. I’m not sure if Caesar would have appreciated this or not, but either way, they got their revenge when they defeated both Cassius and Brutus in battle soon thereafter. Octavius and Mark Antony went on to lead very interesting lives themselves, but those will have to be stories for another time.
Caesar was a military genius, and quite possibly a genius in general. He spent his entire life attempting to better the life of his countrymen. Even though this sometimes meant ruining the lives of those from foreign lands. However, his forgiveness could not have been more impressive to his Roman enemies; although it could also not have been more badly placed. It was Caesar’s hope to help his people, all of his people; and it’s quite tragic that this is actually what eventually killed him. Had he been as brutal as Sulla was before him, he could have easily lived another 20 years, which would have given him the opportunity to make the changes he thought would better his country and indeed the world. But in the end, he was killed by those to which he showed the utmost compassion, and that is what’s truly unfortunate.
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