NHA Logo
Caesar, Gaius Julius (100-44 BC), Roman general and statesman, who laid the foundations of the Roman imperial system.

Gaius Julius Caesar was born in Rome on July 12 or 13 in 100 BC. Caesar was born into the Julian family, a prestigious Roman clan. From an early age, Caesar was instructed in politics. His uncle, the great Gaius Marius, was consul (chief magistrate) seven times and was a member of a political party that supported more rights for the working class and less for the aristocracy. Uncle Marius had Caesar appointed to a priesthood that supported political reform and Caesar also married Cornelia, the daughter of political radical. All of these things helped to give Caesar an identity that he wanted to change the way the government took advantage of the common man.

In 82 BC Sulla was made dictator. Sulla was a supporter of the senators and was Marius's enemy. Sulla had thousands or people who disagreed with his politics killed. Since he hated Marius, he ordered Caesar to divorce Marius' daughter. Caesar refused and quickly left town. Caesar's influential friends and relatives eventually got him a pardon.

Now Caesar was just 22 years old. Since Sulla made it impossible for Caesar to gain office, he went to Rhodes to study rhetoric. When returned to Rome in 73 BC, he was very persuasive speaker. While Caesar was still in Rhodes, he was appointed to the pontificate, an important college of Roman priests. Unlike many leaders, Caesar was highly respected for his knowledge and intelligence.
When Sulla died in 78, Caesar returned to Rome and began a career as an orator and lawyer. Throughout his life Caesar was famous for his eloquent speeches. He also led the life of an elegant man-about-town.

An interesting story about Caesar is that while he was sailing to Greece to study in 75 BC, he was captured by a group of pirates. The pirates demanded 20 talents for his ransom. He told them that he was worth at least 50 talents. He maintained a friendly relationship with the pirates while the ransom was being raised, but warned them that the consequences of his capture would be their death after his release. Unfortunately for the pirates, that's exactly what he did as a warning to other pirates.

Caesar was a bit egotistical. When his wife died in 69 BC, he spoke at her funeral and emphasized the nobility of his family and the "fact" that his mother's family had descended from the first kings of Rome and his father's family had descended from the gods.

Caesar's influence grew as his career in politics advanced. The year after his wife died, he was elected quaestor and got a seat in the Senate. He and also married the granddaughter of Sulla, Pompeia. Caesar allied himself to both the military general Pompey and the Crassus, the richest man in Rome.

Caesar borrowed money from Crassus to finance his candidacy to be elected chief priest, called pontifex maximus in 63 BC. He also divorced his wife that year because she there was a rumor going around about her and another man. It was reported that Caesar said, The wife of Caesar must be above suspicion. This suggested that he was so exceptional that anyone associated with him had to be free of any hint of scandal. In 61 BC he was sent to the province of Further Spain as propraetor, a great step up for him because he was able to demonstrate his leadership skills.

When Caesar returned to Rome the next year, he managed to get Crassus and Pompey to work together with him and they agreed to help him get elected consulship. In 59 BCE Caesar was elected consul against heavy Optimate opposition led by Marcus Porcius Cato, a shrewd and extremely conservative politician. As his first act in office Caesar proposed a new agrarian law, which gave lands to the veteran soldiers of Pompey and poor citizens in Campania. This was opposed by the Optimate senators, but supported by Pompey and Crassus. The law was passed in the tribal assembly, after a detachment of Pompey's army veterans had, by physical force, swept away any possible constitutional opposition. The people were gratified. The three triumvirs now had a body of loyal and grateful veteran soldiers to call on in case of trouble.

Pompey married Caesar's only daughter, Julia, to consolidate their alliance; and Caesar himself married Calpurnia, the daughter of a leading member of the Popular faction. Caesar pushed Pompey's measures through, helped Crassus' proposals, and got for himself a five-year term as proconsul of Gaul after his consulship was over. However, Caesar severely intimidated his Optimate co-counsul, Bibulus, to get his way. This was against the law and Caesar knew that once he was no longer an elected official he could be prosecuted by his enemies in the Senate. The three men, Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, were called the The First Triumvirate because they completely dominated the governing body of the Roman Republic. Their opponents called them the "three headed monster". With the three of them in power, the senators representing the nobles had much less power.

Caesar saw an opportunity to make a name for himself by leading an army northward against the Gauls, Germans and other barbarians. Other Roman leaders had conquered Asia because the disorganized kingdoms of Asia were disorganized and easy to conquer. The people north of Rome were tough fighters. They constantly plundered the smaller, nearby cities under the protection of Rome. Caesar saw that by erasing this threat to the Roman people would be enormously beneficial.

In 58 BC Caesar left Rome for Gaul and did not return for 9 years. In that time he conquered most of what is now central Europe. He opened up these lands to Mediterranean civilization. It is important to note that these people, once conquered, were highly receptive to adapting the culture, education, and technology of Rome. Caesar's conquests were one of the most important acts in world history.

Caesar did not lose contact with Rome during this time. In the summers he returned to Cisalpine, a city in Gaul/northern Italy, where his contacts from Rome came to receive information and instructions from him regarding Roman politics. It is said, though, that the Optimate senators were very pleased that Caesar was so far away.

Sadly, Caesar's daughter, Julia (wife of Pompey) died in childbirth in 54 BC. About that same time, Crassus was killed in a battle. Suddenly Caesar and Pompey had little to tie them together. Caesar led a three-month expedition to Britain. This was the first Roman crossing of the English Channel, but Caesar did not establish a permanent military base there.

Pompey started distancing himself from the party of the people and began associating himself with the Optimates. During this time, Rome was in a state of anarchy. Poverty and unemployment led people to riot. The senate held an extra-legal election and Pompey was appointed consul without a colleague. The Optimates in Rome attempted to cut short Caesar's term as governor of Gaul and made it clear that he would be immediately prosecuted if he returned to Rome as a private citizen for his previous strong-arm tactics. Caesar wanted to run for the consulship in absentia so that he could not be prosecuted. Pompey and Caesar were maneuvered by the Optimates into a public split; neither could yield to the other without a loss of honor, dignity, and power.

Since the conquest of Gaul was completed, Caesar set up an efficient provincial administration to govern the vast territories. Throughout this campaign, Caesar employed secretaries to take notes and write up his commentary. Caesar published his history The Gallic Wars that is regarded as an exemplary historical document today.

Caesar was prevented from maintaining his position legally. In 49 BC, his only choice was to lead his armies across the Rubicon River. This was important because the Rubicon marked the border of his province. By marching his army across the river was an automatic declaration of civil war. Since Pompey's army was still in Spain, he and the entire Senate retreated to Brundisium and from there sailed to the East. They were obviously afraid that Caesar would kill all of them as Sulla had. However, Caesar widely publicized and practiced his policy of clemency. He did not put anyone to death and did not confiscate anyone's property. This policy, compared with historical practice of robbing, killing and enslaving one's enemies, draws a stark difference between Caesar and other conquerors. It shows that he believed in his politics and was not just out to get whatever booty he could from the situation.

Once Caesar had taken Rome, he set up a temporary Senate and had himself declared dictator. Then, in a bold, unexpected move, Caesar led his legions to Spain to capture Pompey's army. Afterward he returned to Rome and was elected consul, thus legalizing his position.

Pompey and the rest of the Senate established a strong power base pretty quickly in Greece and were training a huge army of recruits to fight Caesar. Caesar left his chief legate, Marc Anthony, in charge of Rome and took a small army to Greece. Although greatly outnumbered, Caesar's genius for battle won the battle. Afterward, Caesar pardoned all Romans who had participated in the rebellion, including Brutus. However Pompey ran away to Alexandria, fearful for his life.

Caesar decided that since he was "in the neighborhood" he would sail over to Alexandria and get some cash. Caesar demanded that the Egyptians pay him the 40 million sesterces he was owed because of his military support some years earlier of the previous ruler, Ptolemy XII. Caesar had helped put down a revolt against Ptolemy's rule. When he landed in Alexandria he was presented with Pompey's head on a platter, to his horror.

The year is now 48 BC and when the old king Ptolemy XII died, he left a 12 year old male heir Ptolemy XIII and the 20 year old daughter, Cleopatra. The general Achillas tried to usurp Cleopatra's right to the throne in favor of the young son. In order to get a hearing from Caesar, she had herself delivered to Caesar concealed inside a rolled up carpet being offered as a gift. She appealed to Caesar for help and he gave it. Cleopatra was put on the throne. However Achillas had many soldiers and staged a revolt. Although Caesar had only a small army, he managed to hold off the Egyptian army for 6 months before reinforcements arrived. Caesar, true to his benevolent nature, allowed young Ptolemy to join Achillas' army and did not put him to death. He accidentally drowned, however. Cleopatra and Caesar had become great friends by this time and Cleopatra had a child named Caesarion.

He needed to return to Rome to settle some problems that Marc Anthony had created during his absence. After leaving Alexandria, Caesar swept through Asia Minor to settle the disturbances there. On August 1, he met and immediately overcame Pharnaces, a rebellious king. He later described the speed of this victory with the slogan veni, vidi, vici - I came, I saw, I overcame. He was only in Rome a few months before he sailed to Africa where the Optimates had secured the support of King Juba of Numidia against Caesar. After some difficult battles Caesar decisively defeated the Optimates at Thapsus, after which Cato, leader of the Optimates, committed suicide rather than be pardoned by Caesar.

It is now 46 BC. The victorious and now unchallenged Caesar arrived back in Rome to celebrate four splendid triumphs - the Gauls, the Egyptians, the Pharnaces, and Numidia's. Caesar sent for Cleopatra and the year-old Caesarion and established them in a luxurious villa across the Tiber from Rome, an act that made his wife furious.

Caesar listed his key political aim as tranquility for Italy, peace for the provinces, and security for the Empire. He outlined a program for accomplishing these goals, which was sound and farsighted. He wanted to resolute of the worst of the debt crisis, resettle army veterans abroad without dispossessing the native people of their own property, reform the Roman calendar, regulate of grain welfare that had robbed so many of the will to work, strengthen the middle class, enlarge the Senate to 900. These ideas and the necessary methods for accomplishing them alienated many of the nobles. Caesar held the position of dictator and governed autocratically, more in the manner of a general than a politician. Although he used the political structure, he often simply announced his decisions to the Senate and had them entered on the record as senatorial decrees without debate or vote.

On March 15, 44 BC, the Ides of March, Caesar attended the last meeting of the Senate before his departure on another military campaign. Although Caesar had been warned of a possible assassination attempt, he came without bodyguards. Sixty conspirators, led by Brutus, came to the meeting with daggers concealed in their togas and struck Caesar at least 23 times as he stood at the base of Pompey's statue. Legend has it that Caesar said in Greek to Brutus, You, too, my child? After his death, all the senators fled, and three slaves carried his body home to Calpurnia several hours later. For several days there was a political vacuum. The conspirator had no long-range plans so Marc Anthony with his huge army, the keys to Caesar's money boxes, and Caesar's will, took over.

Click to Return to Ancient Rome Index