Caesar, Julius

This famous general and dictator from ancient Rome, Gaius Julius Caesar, was born in 100 BC. He was born into a wealthy family, was well educated, and was good at sport. While he was still a young man, pirates in the eastern Mediterranean captured him. When they demanded 20 talents (units of weight) of gold as ransom, or they would kill him, he allegedly said: “What! Only 20 talents? I will give you 50 talents for my life!” While messengers were sent to Miletus for the ransom money, Caesar joked with his captors and swore that he would hang them all someday. The pirates were greatly amused at his high spirits. They had no inkling that he would come back to carry out the threat. Within a few weeks after his release the whole pirate band was captured and killed.

Caesar joined the Roman Army in 81 BC and was the first Roman military commander to invade England – the first invasion took place in 55 BC and the second invasion in the following year. Following his service in the Roman Army, he developed an interest in politics, and became a man obsessed to reach the highest positions that Rome could offer.

He became Pontifex Maximus (High Priest) in 63 BC as part of a deal with Pompey, and Crassus, the so-called ‘First Triumvirate. In 65 BC, Caesar was appointed an adele, and put in charge of Rome’s public entertainment. As part of this very popular public position he put on games and festivals for the people, and as a result, he became very popular with the poor. He also courted the friendship of Rome’s richest man, Crassus.

In 59 BC he was appointed a consul and in 58 BC he went to France (the former Gaul) where he worked as governor. Caesar was very successful in this posting, and conquered even more land for the Roman Empire – the provinces of Illyricum and Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul. As a brilliant general, he commanded an army of more than 50,000 loyal troops. His military success guaranteed the loyalty of his soldiers, but he was seen by some as a man solely driven by expanding his personal power. He made enemies of important politicians back in Rome, as well as other senior generals, such as Pompey, who were very apprehensive about Caesar’s intentions.

He refused to surrender his command until he had secured a second consulship for 48 BC. This move which would render him immune from prosecution by his enemies which now included Pompey. When the Senate delivered an ultimatum in January 49 to hand over his army to their control, he crossed the Rubicon, took Rome, and defeated and killed Pompey at Pharsalus in 48 BC. The river Rubicon marked the boundary between Caesar’s province and Italy. Crossing it with his army meant declaring war on Rome. When Caesar reached the river on 10 January 49 BC, he plunged his horse into its shallow water and exclaimed, Alea jacta est (“The die is cast”). This expression “crossing the Rubicon” is still used to describe an irreversible decision.

Caesar observed the decay of the existing government and the need of a strong central power to save Rome from its rottenness. He was sure that he was designated to bring about this change. He changed the chaos of an outworn system of government into the foundations of a new order that produced the greatest of all ancient empires. During the following three years he picked off his enemies one by one whether they were in North Africa, the Middle East or Europe. He demonstrated leniency by permitting those who wished to do so to return to Italy. After his campaigns in Asia Minor, Egypt, Africa, and Spain he returned to Rome in 45.

Caesar returned and governed Rome as dictator, and finally as ‘perpetual’ dictator. His wide-ranging programme of reform, which included the institution of the Julian Calendar, reveals his breadth of vision, but he flaunted his ascendancy and ignored republican traditions. It was alleged that he wanted to be king, although this was anathema to the Romans. Caesar should have used his position to make powerless those he had removed from the Senate – but he did not. He did not take away their wealth and these men plotted against him.

Sixty senators joined in a conspiracy to assassinate Caesar at a meeting of the Senate on the 15th, or the Ides of March in 44 BC. Caesar’s friend Brutus, an impractical young republican, was part of the group. Brutus and Cassius led the conspiracy, and the murder took place at the Senate House in Rome. Initially Caesar tried to defend himself. When he saw Brutus with a dagger, he gave up the struggle, saying, “Et tu, Brute?” (You too, Brutus?). He fell dead at the foot of Pompey’s statue.

The death of Caesar deprived Rome of perhaps its greatest statesman and soldier. His military victories, political and social reforms were remarkable. He instituted the Julian calendar, which became the basis for the calendar now used in most parts of the world. Another legacy is the blueprint for the constitutions of the municipia, units of local self-government for Roman citizens, which he formulated just before the assassination. He also increased the size of the Senate and made its composition more representative of the Roman population.

He was later deified and a temple was dedicated to his worship in the Forum. Caesar’s murderers failed to save the republic. His nephew Octavian and the successive three emperors also belonged to the family of the Caesars, and became emperors of Rome. The imperial name became a title of honor. It survived to World War I as the title of the German and Austrian rulers, kaiser.