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Julius Caesar - Roman Dictator

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Charles Gray as Julius Caesar in 1979.

One of the most famous figures in political and military history is Caius Iulius Caesar. Born on either 12 or 13 July some time around 100 BC, by the time of his assassination on the Ides of March1, 56 years later, he had come to dominate the Roman world - the most outstanding statesman, military commander, strategist and orator (so thought Cicero2) of his time. He left a rich legacy of military diaries, laws and reforms, and has influenced leaders throughout the centuries since his death.

Rise to Power

Caesar was born into the pre-eminent Julian family3 and saw early military action in the East.

Political Background

The leading Roman at the time of Caesar's birth was Caius Marius, who happened to be Caesar's uncle. Marius was labelled by his contemporaries as a 'popularis'4, a breed of political animal that Caesar was later to be categorised as. However, by 86 BC Marius was dead and his enemy, Sulla, had become the most powerful Roman citizen. Sulla had many people connected with Marius killed, but spared Caesar, perhaps due to his youth. Instead, he ordered Caesar to divorce his then wife Cornelia as an act of loyalty. Caesar refused, but Sulla respected the loyalty shown to his bride and spared him again.

Before Politics

Between 81 and 79 BC, Caesar served in Asia Minor. Following a diplomatic mission to King Nikomedes of Bithynia, it is possible that Caesar had an affair with this ruler, resulting in accusations of homosexuality (not so tolerated in Roman society as in Greek) that would dog him throughout his career, despite his philandering. However, Sulla died in 78 BC and Caesar returned to Rome. Upon going to Rhodes for further education, he was captured by pirates, who demanded the ransom of 25 talents (or 500 kg) of silver. Caesar demanded this prize to be doubled, since he was a noble; but he also promised to kill his captors. Indeed, once the ransom was paid, he searched out and killed the bandits.

In 74 BC, King Mithridates of Pontus attacked Asia Minor for the second time. Caesar raised an army out of his own pocket and fought to defend some towns, which gave the official Roman Commander Lucullus time to organise his forces and attack Mithridates in Pontus. Caesar returned to Rome the following year a war hero.

Early Political Career

The first real rung on the ladder for Caesar was his Andalusian quaestorship in 68 BC (Quaestors were assigned to a provincial governor, with mainly financial duties). After his return from Hispania (Spain), Caesar was elected aedile (in 65 BC) and was in that role responsible for 'bread and circuses'. Caesar used this post greatly to his advantage, organising lavish Games to curry favour with the people.

Politics is, of course, never straightforward. Caesar was accused (but never sentenced) of complicity in the suspected First Catalinarian Conspiracy (in 65 BC) to murder the consuls. Two years later he was forced to pay large bribes to gain election to the post of high priest - the Pontifex Maximus. In this role he was able to propose leniency towards Catiline and his followers, who had made a second attempt to seize power. Caesar's long-time political rival Cicero had discovered the plot, and there was tension between Cicero the optimate and Caesar the popularis - who may well have known rather more about the plot than he claimed.

However, Caesar's rise continued, despite accusations of his involvement in the desecration of the secret ceremonies of the Bona Dea (Good Goddess). He was fast running out of money, and so got himself elected Governor of Andalusia, since the best method known to a Roman politician of the time to gain money was to become governor of a province.


This was a rather turbulent province and afforded Caesar the excuse for looting towns and plundering the silver mines of Gallic. Even towns that surrendered were ravaged. Caesar returned to Rome a rich man, with the money and power to gain himself a consulate and a triumph - a triumph being the official procession of triumphant general, troops, and spoils into Rome following a successful campaign. A consul was the highest political office in Rome and there were two new consuls each year, both men needing to be 42. With the age of the Emperors, the post naturally lost a great deal of its power and attraction. Caesar needed this post if only because those in office were free from impunity and there was every chance he might be prosecuted as a war criminal for his actions in Spain. Since Cato the Younger had announced the day of the consular elections, and no account of Caesar's candidacy could be taken unless he was a private citizen, he was forced to forego his triumph in order to avoid losing the consulship he needed for political supremacy.

Back in Rome

Caesar, having gained the consulship in 60 BC, needed to consolidate his position and allied himself with:

  • Crassus - An extremely wealthy citizen who did much of the work to defeat Spartacus in 71 BC, had helped Caesar get his Spanish command and who, looking for military glory, was wiped out with his force by the Parthians at Carrhae in 53 BC.

  • Pompey - The greatest general of the day - until Caesar - who took much of the credit for defeating the Spartacus uprising in 71 BC, defeated the dangerous King Mithridates, and liberated the Mediterranean from the stranglehold of pirates.

He used this alliance to form what is now referred to as the First Triumvirate (the second consisted of Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus). His prize from their joint political success was the governorship of Gaul (France) from 59 BC.


Caesar's ten years in this province ensured both fame and fortune. He defeated the roaming Germanic tribe the Helvetii, the Belgian Nervii and Aduatuci tribes, and Breton tribes in a naval battle in 55 BC. Even more impressively, he thrilled the Romans and shook the Germans by bridging the river Rhine. Caesar managed to extend Roman territory and bring Gaul under the greatest control yet.

However, in 52 BC, Gaul united under Vercingetorix, who drove the Romans before him. Though Caesar managed to blockade Vercingetorix and his force in the fortress of Alesia, a huge Gaulish army in turn surrounded his troops. The trapped Romans fought bravely against their attackers on both sides and won. Caesar himself joined in the fighting, riding around the perimeter and lifting his mens' spirits when they saw his purple cloak. Of course, he didn't have all that much to lose by fighting - had they lost, he would have been killed.

Caesar also found time to make two excursions into Britain, in 55 and 54 BC, defeating the British chief Cassivellaunus near modern London. He even managed to mishear the name of the main tribe he came across - the Pritannes - thus naming the land Britain instead of Pritain.

Civil War

By 49 BC, though others were looking after his interests back in Rome, relations with Pompey (Crassus was dead) were greatly strained. On 7 January, Caesar was ordered by the Senate to hand over his command to a new governor. Receiving the news in Ravenna, Caesar quoted his favourite poet Menander, saying 'the die is cast'5. Three days later, his army reached Rimini, to control the Apennine passes. In the process, Caesar crossed the river Rubicon, thereby entering Italy and breaking the law that said no general could bring his troops into that province. In the eyes of the state he was an aggressor, hence the expression 'to cross the Rubicon'; to take an irrevocable step. The Rubicon was the border that separated the provinces of Cisalpine Gaul and Italy.

The Second Civil War6 had begun. But if the Senate had counted on the great general Pompey to win, they were greatly dismayed when Caesar forced his opponent out of Rome and then Italy, defeating the opposing forces in Spain, Greece and Africa. Here Caesar met Cleopatra, who was famously delivered to him in a rug. Their affair7 resulted in a boy, Caesarion, who was quietly disposed of by Octavian after Caesar's death. Caesar stayed some months in Egypt, and executed a lightning campaign in 47 BC against King Pharnaces II in Asia Minor, which he summarised with the phrase 'veni, vidi, vici' - 'I came, I saw, I conquered'.

Caesar was now installed in Rome as, effectively, leader of the Roman world. Despite the fact that there were always two heads of state (the Consuls), Caesar was given the special powers of a 'dictator', a position usually saved for times of crisis, but conferred on Caesar for life. It is a common myth that Caesar was Emperor - the first emperor was his adoptive nephew Octavian, who ruled as Augustus from 23 BC to 14 AD.

Reform at Rome

Caesar made many reforms - a great deal of them undoing the earlier work of Sulla. He halved the number of those receiving the free hand-outs of corn, changed taxation, brought the Senate up from 600 to 900 members and began to recruit senators from outside Italy. Indeed, in a couple of hundred years' time, the majority of the Senate would be from outside Italy. More importantly, he granted citizenship to non-Italians (Marius had extended Roman citizenship to non-Roman Italians in the Social War of 91BC), meaning that conquered peoples could share in the benefits of being Roman. Wealthy chieftains soon sought citizenship, with its prestige and advantages; the idea helped 'romanize' the conquered tribes.

The End

A growing number of senators were by now alarmed by Caesar's position. Some were envious; others thought he was aiming to become king. The Romans held a great dislike of kings - the expulsion of the Tarquin Royal Family was a major historical moment to the Roman mind. Chiefly to reassure Cicero, Caesar attempted to dismiss this by having Mark Antony publicly offer him a crown so that he could refuse it, but it did little to allay suspicions. Led by Cassius and Brutus8, they decided Caesar must die.

On the morning of the 15 March, 44 BC, Caesar was on his way to discuss matters of state. Surrounded outside the Senate House, he was stabbed by a crowd of senators. Contrary to popular belief and William Shakespeare, his dying words were not 'Et tu Brute?' (with or without 'then fall Caesar!'), but rather the Greek 'kai su, [o] teknon?' which translates as 'Even you, lad?', spoken as he saw Brutus siding with the attackers. Covering his face in his cloak and making no further attempt to defend himself, he lay at the foot of a statue of Pompey, his great rival.

Caesar's Legacy

The first Century BC had seen the slow collapse of the Roman Republic, but the in-fighting after Caesar's death accelerated the process. Mark Antony's famous speech in the Forum Romanum turned the mob against the assassins, and forced them to flee Rome. Shakespeare's dramatic licence smooths over early antagonism between Antony and Octavian. In the play the two seem to be together from the first time we hear of Octavian - in fact there was a tense stand-off between them as both claimed to be Caesar's true heir. Antony, a consul, had the influence and money, but Octavian, named in Caesar's will, swayed the army, forcing the Senate to make him consul as well, at the age of 19. Antony was forced to make an alliance with him.

Having defeated Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, there was a rift between Mark Antony and Octavian, chief leaders of the pro-Caesar faction, which eventually resulted in the installation of Octavian as the first Roman Emperor.

The Emperor eventually became referred to as the 'Augustus', the name assumed by Octavian, and his heir as 'Caesar'. The German title 'Kaiser' for ruler is derived from this name as is the Russian 'Czar'.

His Influence on Today

Aside from being one of the major historical figures, Caesar's life affects us today. He drew up the Julian Calendar, redefining the lengths of the months and setting a year of 365.25 days. Previously the Roman calendar consisted of 355 days, with 12 months and an extra month every now and then to make up for deficiencies. To rectify problems before the institution of the new calendar, Caesar added four months to 46 BC. This new calendar - with modifications - is the foundation for the calendar we use today. Caesar also managed to get the seventh month named after himself - July.

His name is given to the encryption process known as the 'Caesar Cipher'.

And of course, he is rumoured to have been the first person to be born using a special method to which he has also given his name - the Caesarean Section.


Caesar's military diaries (although authorship has been questioned, and even if they are genuine they will of course be biased): The Gallic Wars (which few dispute was written by Caesar), The Civil Wars, The African Wars, The Alexandrian Wars, and The Spanish Wars.

Suetonius' Divus Iulius in his Lives of the Caesars.

Plutarch's biography of Caesar.

1The Ides fell on the 15th day in March, May, July, and October; and on the 13th in the other months.2Often called the 'Father of Rhetoric', Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BC) was the finest orator of his day (perhaps ever), and a first-rate writer, lawyer and statesman. He was executed under the purges of Antony, Lepidus and Octavian.3The Julians held a special allegiance to Venus, the goddess of Love; since they claimed direct descendants from Aeneas the Trojan (through his son Iulus - also called Ascanius - see The Aeneid, an epic Latin poem by Virgil), mythical son of Venus, founder of the proto-Roman Alba Longa and ancestor of Romulus and Remus.4It is uncertain what this label specifically means - it is possible that Marius tried to reach his political aims via the People's Assembly, while their political opponents, the 'optimates', made their moves in the senate.5Popularly misquoted as 'alea iacta est', the quote comes from Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars. According to Suetonius, the words were 'Iacta alea est'; although if Caesar was quoting Menander, he'd have said either 'anerriphthô kubos' (as claimed by Plutarch and Appian) or the Latin equivalent - 'iacta alea esto', which means that somewhere along the line there may have been a spelling mistake in the Suetonius. Conversely, scholar Peter Wiseman (in his Roman Drama and Roman History, Exeter University Press, 1998, 61-63) has pointed out that 'anerriphthô kubos' is a proverb as well as a quote from Menander, and that Suetonius might have been quoting from a play about Caesar's crossing of the Rubicon.6The first being between Sulla and Marius in the 80s BC (difficult to pin down since it continued some years after Marius' death in 86 BC).7Caesar was quite a philanderer, though when his wife Pompeia had an affair with Publius Clodius, Caesar divorced her, saying at Clodius' trial (The affair involved defiling the Bona Dea rites) that 'The wife of Caesar must be above suspicion'.8A favourite of Caesar who may well have been holding in mind his ancestor, the Brutus who helped expel the Roman kings.

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