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Julius Caesar--Also known as: Gaius Julius Caesar Born: July 12 or 13, 100 B.C.E.; Rome (now in Italy) Died: March 15, 44 B.D.E.; Rome (now in Italy)

Life’s Work

It is impossible to tell if Caesar wished to destroy the last remnants of the old Republic and replace it with a formal autocracy or whether he merely intended to become the leading citizen—although one without rivals—in the Roman world. In the end, the result was the same, for Caesar for a brief time did become supreme ruler, and the Republic was destroyed. Although it was Caesar’s nephew and heir Octavian (later known as Augustus) who became the first Roman emperor, it was Caesar who made the Empire possible.

In 61 B.C.E., Caesar was appointed governor of Farther Spain and honored with a triumph for his military campaigns there. The next year, he was elected as one of the two consuls who headed the Roman government; his term of office began in 59 B.C.E. The rest of Caesar’s career stems, directly or indirectly, from this consulship.

As one of two consuls, Caesar had to deal with his colleague, a conservative opponent. Impatient with this and other obstructions, Caesar initiated numerous highly irregular, sometimes illegal, actions. These were designed to benefit Pompey’s discharged veterans, increase the wealth of Crassus, and advance the general aims of the Triumvirate. So blatant, however, were the offenses—including violence against officials whose positions made them virtually sacred—that Caesar knew that his enemies would not rest until he had been prosecuted, convicted, and condemned.

His only recourse was to remain in office, because then he would be immune from trial. He secured the provinces of Cisalpine Gaul (now northern Italy) and Illyricum (the coast of modern Yugoslavia) and soon added Transalpine Gaul (southern France), which bordered on lands unconquered by Rome.

Caesar wasted no time in finding an excuse to wage war against the Gauls, and for the next eight years he was embroiled in the Gallic Wars, which are vividly recounted in his commentaries. During his campaigns, he crossed the Rhine River to drive back the German tribes and twice launched an invasion of Britain. Although his attempts on the island were unsuccessful, his second fleet numbered eight hundred ships—the largest channel invasion armada until the Allied Normandy invasion in World War II.

In 52 B.C.E., the recently subdued Gauls revolted against the Romans and, led by Vercingetorix, came close to undoing Caesar’s great conquests. By brilliant generalship and extraordinary efforts, Caesar pinned the Gauls in their fortress town of Alesia (Aliese-Sainte-Reine) and destroyed their army, finally ending the Gallic Wars. According to Caesar, he had fought thirty battles, captured eight hundred towns, and defeated three million enemies, of whom almost a million had been slain, another million captured. Although these figures are surely exaggerated, they do illustrate the extent of Caesar’s victory. Its long-lasting effect was the opening of northern Europe to the influence of Greek and Roman culture and the rich heritage of the Mediterranean civilization.

Returning to Rome, Caesar became dictator for the first time and proceeded to tackle numerous social problems, especially that of widespread debt, caused by the breakdown of the Republic. In 48 B.C.E., he daringly crossed the Adriatic Sea in winter and besieged Pompey’s larger forces at their base of Dyrrachium (Durazzo). Forced to retire into Thessaly, Caesar turned and defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus, destroying his army. Pompey fled to Egypt, hoping to rally support, but instead was murdered; the whole Roman world was in Caesar’s grasp.

Following Pompey to Egypt, Caesar intervened in a power struggle between Cleopatra VII and her younger brother. In this, the Alexandrian War, Caesar narrowly escaped death on several occasions but was successful in placing Cleopatra on the throne. There followed an intense affair between the young queen and Caesar, and the son born in September, 48 B.C.E., was named Caesarion.

After more campaigns against foreign states in the east and the remnants of Pompey’s supporters, Caesar returned to Rome in 46 B.C.E. to celebrate four triumphs: over Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, and Africa. Cleopatra arrived soon after to take up residence in the city; perhaps along with her came the eminent Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria, who aided Caesar in his reform of the calendar. This Julian calendar is the basis of the modern system.

Caesar was active in other areas. He settled many of his veterans in colonies throughout the Empire, and with them many of the poor and unemployed of Rome, thus reducing the strain on the public economy. Numerous other civic reforms were instituted, many of them laudable, but most of them giving increased power to Caesar alone. Although he publicly rejected the offer of kingship, he did accept the dictatorship for life in February, 44 B.C.E.

This action brought together a group of about sixty conspirators, led by Cassius and Marcus Junius Brutus. Brutus may have been Caesar’s son; certainly he was an avowed, almost fanatic devotee of the Republic who thought it his duty to kill Caesar.

Realizing that Caesar planned to depart on March 18 for a lengthy campaign against the Parthian Empire in the east, the conspirators decided to strike. On March 15, the ides of March, they attacked Caesar as he entered the Theater of Pompey for a meeting of the senate. As he fell, mortally wounded, his last words are reported to have been either “Et tu, Brute?” (and you too, Brutus?) or, in Greek, “And you too, my child?”

Significance

“Veni, vidi, vinci”—“I came, I saw, I conquered”—is one of the most famous military dispatches of all time, and totally characteristic of Julius Caesar. He sent it to Rome after his defeat of King Pharnaces of Pontus in 47 B.C.E., a campaign that added greatly to Rome’s eastern power but which represented almost an interlude between Caesar’s victories in Egypt and his final triumph in the civil war. The message captures the essence of Caesar, that almost superhuman mix of energy, ability, and ambition.

This mixture fascinated his contemporaries and has enthralled the world ever since. Caesar was ambitious, but so were others, Pompey among them. He was bold, but many other bold Romans had their schemes come to nothing. He was certainly able, but the Roman world was full of men of ability.

It was Caesar, however, who united all these qualities and had them in so much fuller measure than his contemporaries that he was unique. As a writer or speaker, he could easily hold his own against acknowledged masters such as Cicero; in statesmanship and politics, he was unsurpassed; in military skill, he had no peer. When all of these qualities were brought together, they amounted to an almost transcendent genius that seemed to give Julius Caesar powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men.

The central question, in 44 B.C.E. and today, is to what use—good or bad—did Caesar put those qualities and abilities? Clearly, Brutus, Cassius, and the other conspirators believed that he had perverted his qualities and subverted the state and thus must be destroyed. In later years, the term “Caesarism” has been applied to those who wished to gain supreme power for themselves, disregarding the laws and careless of the rights of others. Viewed from this perspective, Caesar destroyed the last remnants of the Roman Republic and thus stamped out what liberty and freedom remained.

From another view, he was the creator, or at least the forerunner, of a new and better system, the Empire, which brought order from chaos, peace from endless civil war. The ancient Republic had already disappeared in all but name, had become empty form without real substance, and it was for the general good that it finally disappeared. This is the view of Caesar as archetypal ruler and dispenser of order, the view that made his very name a title of monarchs—the Caesars of Rome, the kaisers of Germany, the czars of Russia.

Essay by: Michael Witkoski



"Julius Caesar." Great Lives from History: The Ancient World, Prehistory–476 C.E. (2004): Literary Reference Center. EBSCO. Web. 21 Dec. 2014.


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