Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar was born in 100 BC. His family was one of the most important in Rome. Like most young men of noble birth Caesar became an officer in the Roman Army.

Suetonius wrote: "Caesar was a most skilled swordsman and horseman... If Caesar's troops gave ground he would often rally them in person, catching individual soldiers by the throat and forcing them round to face the enemy again... He fixed the daily pay of the soldiers at double what it had been... and gave each man a Gallic slave."

His career nearly came to an end when at the age of twenty-five he was captured by pirates. Instead of killing him they demanded a ransom. His family paid the money and he was released. Caesar was furious that he should be humiliated in this way and with some friends he managed to find the pirates and had them all crucified. Later he boasted that he had warned the pirates that if they let him go he would have them killed.

Caesar had political ambitions and when he was elected aedile in 65 BC he spent a fortune providing gladiatorial contests for the Roman public. He was now deeply in debt but it helped him become a well known figure, and in 59 BC he was elected consul.

Once in power he brought in a new bill that provided land for old soldiers. When the Senate refused to pass the measure Caesar took the bill to the Public Assembly. This action gained him the support of the army and the people of Rome. It also created a lot of powerful enemies in the Senate, especially when he resorted to employing men to beat up senators who disagreed with him.

At the end of his term as consul, Caesar became commander of the Roman Army in Narbonese Gaul. The Gauls were excellent cavalrymen and on occasions capable of defeating the Romans. However, the Gauls were made up of a collection of smaller tribes who found it difficult to work together.

Caesar was confident that in the long term, his well-organised forces would be able to defeat the Gauls that controlled central and northern Europe. First he defeated the Helvetii that inhabit present day Switzerland. He followed this with victories over the Gauls that lived in northern Europe. After reaching the English Channel in 55 BC Caesar decided to invade Britain.

Caesar's military campaign made him very rich. The wealth that he had plundered from northern Europe had changed him from a man deeply in debt into a multi-millionaire.

To make sure everybody knew about his military victories, Caesar wrote a book about his campaigns and had it published in Rome. The Senate became concerned about his growing popularity. To prevent Caesar from gaining power they appointed another famous Roman soldier, Pompey, to take control of the country. The Senate then passed a motion insisting that Caesar should retire from office.

Caesar reacted by ordering his men to march on Rome. At Corfinium, in 48 BC Caesar defeated troops loyal to the Senate. When news reached Rome of Caesar's victory, his enemies fled. Velleius reported: "Caesar, victorious over all his enemies, returned to Rome, and pardoned all who had borne arms against him, an act of generosity almost beyond belief. He entertained the city with the magnificent spectacle of a gladiatorial show, a sham battle of cavalry, infantry, and even mounted elephants."

Pompey decided to retreat to Macedonia, where he knew he could rely on the loyalty of his troops. However, Caesar's troops, highly experienced after their campaigns against the Gauls, were vastly superior to Pompey's soldiers who had not fought for twelve years. After a series of defeats, Pompey escaped to Egypt.

Frightened that Caesar would now invade Egypt, Ptolemy XIII arranged the execution of Pompey on 28th September. The head of Pompey was sent to Caesar to prove he was not being protected by the Egyptians. When Caesar arrived in Alexandria two days later, Ptolemy presented him with Pompey's severed head. Caesar was appalled by this act of violence against a leading Roman citizen. Caesar reacted by seizing the Egyptian capital.

At first he intended to demand a large sum of money in return for leaving the country. However, while in Egypt, Caesar met Cleopatra, the country's twenty-one-year-old queen. Caesar, who was now fifty-two and had already been married three times before, fell deeply in love with Cleopatra. After defeating King Ptolemy XIII, Caesar restored Cleopatra to her throne, with another younger brother Ptolemy XIV as new co-ruler.

On 23 June 47 BC Cleopatra gave birth to a child, Ptolemy Caesar (nicknamed "Caesarion"). Cleopatra claimed that Caesar was the father and wished him to name the boy his heir, but Caesar refused, choosing his grandnephew Octavian instead.

When Caesar returned to Rome he appointed 300 of his supporters as members of the Senate. Although the Senate and Public Assembly still met, it was Caesar who now made all the important decisions. By 44 BC Caesar was powerful enough to declare himself dictator for life. Although in the past Roman leaders had become dictators in times of crisis, no one had taken this much power.

A whole range of magnificent buildings named after Caesar and his family were erected. Hundreds of sculptures of Caesar, most of them made by captured Greek artists, were distributed throughout the Roman Empire. Some of the statues claimed that Caesar was now a God. Caesar also became the first living man to appear on a Roman coin. Even the month of the year that he was born, Quintilis, was renamed July in his honour.

Caesar began wearing long red boots. As the ancient kings used to wear similar boots, rumours began to spread that Caesar planned to make himself king. Caesar denied these charges but the Roman people, who had a strong dislike of the kingship system, began to worry about the way Caesar was dominating political life.

Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIV and Caesarion visited Rome in summer 46 BC. They stayed in one of Caesars country houses. Members of the Senate disapproved of the relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar, partly because he was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis. Others objected to the fact that she was a foreigner. Cicero disliked her for moral reasons: "Her (Cleopatra) way of walking... her clothes, her free way of talking, her embraces and kisses, her beach-parties and dinner-parties, all show her to be a tart."

Later Plutarch attempted to explain why some men found her attractive: "Her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself remarkable... but the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation... was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another, so that there were few of the nations that she needed an interpreter... which was all the more surprising because most of her predecessors, scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue."

Caesar attempted to gain the full support of the people by declaring his intention to lead a military campaign against the Parthians. However, many had doubts about the wisdom of trying to increase the size of the Roman Empire. They believed it would be better to concentrate on organising what they already had.

Rumours began to spread that Caesar planned to make himself king. Plutarch wrote: "What made Caesar hated was his passion to be king." Caesar denied these charges but the Roman people, who had a strong dislike of the kingship system, began to worry about the way Caesar made all the decisions. Even his friends complained that he was no longer willing to listen to advice. Finally, a group of senators decided to kill Caesar.

Even some of Caesar's closest friends were concerned about his unwillingness to listen to advice. Eventually, a group of 60 men, including Marcus Brutus, rumoured to be one of Caesar's illegitimate sons, decided to assassinate Caesar.

Plans were made to carry out the assassination in the Senate just three days before he was due to leave for Parthia. When Caesar arrived at the Senate a group of senators gathered round him. Publius Servilius Casca stabbed him from behind. Caesar looked round for help but now the rest of the group pulled out their daggers. One of the first men Caesar saw was Brutus and was reported to have declared, "You too, my son." Caesar knew it was useless to resist and pulled his toga over his head and waited for the final blows to arrive.

Afterwards Cicero commented: "Caesar subjected the Roman people to oppression... Is there anyone, except Antony who did not wish for his death or who disapproved of what was done?... Some didn't know of the plot, some lacked courage, others the opportunity. None lacked the will."

Primary Sources

(1) Cicero, part of a letter to his friend Cornelius Nepos (50 BC)

Do you know of a man who... can speak better than Caesar? Or anyone who makes so many witty remarks?

(2) Suetonius, Julius Caesar (c. AD 110)

Caesar was a most skillful swordsman and horseman, and showed surprising powers of endurance. He always led his army, more often on foot than in the saddle, went bareheaded in sun and rain alike, and could travel for long distances at incredible speed... If Caesar's troops gave ground he would often rally them in person, catching individual fugitives by the throat and forcing them round to face the enemy again... He always addressed his soldiers not with "My men", but with "Comrades" ... which put them into a better humour. He fixed the daily pay of the regular soldiers at double what it had been and occasionally gave each man a slave.

(3) Plutarch, Julius Caesar (c. AD 110)

What made Caesar hated was his passion to be king.

(4) Jordanes, The Origin of the Deeds of the Goths (c. AD 550)

Then came Caesar... who conquered all kingdoms and even seized islands beyond our world.

(5) Cicero, speech (43 BC)

Caesar's character was a combination of genius, memory, thoroughness, culture, intellect and industry.

(6) Julius Caesar, The Civil War (c. 48 BC)

History proves that by practising cruelty you earn nothing but hatred. Nobody has ever achieved a lasting victory by such means.

(7) Julius Caesar, The Gallic War (c. 52 BC)

There was also a great crowd of women and children in the German camp... They began to flee in all directions, and were hunted down by the cavalry which I sent out for the purpose... A large number were killed, and the rest plunged into the water and perished, overcome by the force of the current in their terror-stricken and exhausted state.

(8) Julius Caesar, Analogy (c. 60 BC)

As the sailor avoids the rock, so should you (the historian) avoid the word that is obsolete or rare.

(9) Hirtius, one of Caesar's generals in the Gallic War (c. 42 BC)

Caesar saw that his clemency was so well known that no one would think him a cruel man if for once he took severe measures. So he decided to deter all others by making an example of the defenders of Uxellodunum. All who had borne arms had their hands cut off and were then let go, so that everyone might see what punishment was meted out to evildoers.

(10) Velleius, Compendium of Roman History (c. AD 20)

Caesar, victorious over all his enemies, returned to Rome, and pardoned all who had borne arms against him, an act of generosity almost beyond belief. He entertained the city with the magnificent spectacle of a gladiatorial show, a sham battle of cavalry, infantry, and even mounted elephants.

(11) Plutarch, Julius Caesar (c. AD 110)

When his friends advised him to have a guard, and several offered their services, he would not hear of it; but said it was better to suffer death once than always to live in fear of it.

(12) Suetonius, Julius Caesar (c. AD 110)

It was about ten o'clock when he set off for the senate. As he went, someone handed him a note containing details of the plot against his life, but he merely added it to the bundle of papers in his left hand... As soon as Caesar took `his seat the conspirators crowded around him as if to pay their respects... Cimber caught hold of his shoulders. "This is violence!" Caesar cried, and at that moment one of the Casca brothers slipped behind him and with a sweep of his dagger stabbed him just below the throat... he was leaping away when another dagger caught him in the breast. Twenty-three dagger thrusts went home as he stood there.

(13) Cicero, On the State (c. 43 BC)

Caesar subjected the Roman people to oppression... Is there anyone, except Antony who did not wish for his death or who disapproved of what was done?... Some didn't know of the plot, some lacked courage,

others the opportunity. None lacked the will.

Questions

1. Study source 2. How does this source help to explain why Julius Caesar was a successful

soldier?

2. Why did Julius Caesar become such an important figure in the Roman Empire between 58 BC and 51 BC?

3. Who ruled Rome between 50 BC and 44 BC, the Senate or Julius Caesar?

4. Julius Caesar was aware of the importance of self-promotion. What methods did Julius Caesar use to spread information about himself?

6. Read about Cicero. Show how this information helps to explain the views expressed by Cicero in sources 1, 5 and 13.

7. How do sources 3, 11 and 13 help to explain why Caesar was killed?