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Gaius Iulius Caesar


No figure looms larger in Roman history than Gaius Julius Caesar, and few men have proven more influential in the history of the world. A political and military genius, he was also a brilliant writer and a charismatic leader of the first order. Caesar’s accomplishments are legion: He expanded the Roman Empire all the way to the Atlantic ocean through his conquest of Gaul, invaded Brittania twice, formed the First Triumvirate, and, perhaps tragically, it was Caesar who cast the dice that moved Rome from a Republic to an Imperial Empire. Even as absolute dictator, he continued to display his brilliance as he reformed the Roman calendar, created the bureaucracy that would sustain the Empire for five hundred years, and laid the foundation for the position of emperor within Rome. His amazing life and dramatic death have been written about by no less a luminary than Shakespeare, his writings are used as primers for students of the Latin language, and his military campaigns continue to be studied by commanders around the world. For centuries Caesar has bestrode the literary and historical world like a colossus, and it is unlikely he will vanish anytime soon.

Divine Descent

Caesar was born on July 12th (or 13th), 100 BCE into the Julian gens, a famous patrician family that claimed decent from Iulus, son of Aeneas, the last son of Troy who escaped from the doomed city to found Rome itself. Through Aeneas, the Julii claimed descent from the goddess Venus. The Caesar branch of the gens Julia has no less than four possible explanations for it’s name. According to the History Augusta, the first Caesar killed an elephant in battle. “Elephant” was “caesai” in the Moorish tongue, and thus he became known as “Caesar.” Another tale from the same source is that the first Caesar had a spectacular head of hair (from the Latin “caesaries,” which creates a certain irony as the most famous descendant of the branch was going bald in his later years), or that he had shining grey eyes (from the Latin “oculis caesiis”). Pliny the Elder informs us that the first Caesar was born by caesarian section.

This illustrious family line had, by the time of Caesar’s birth, fallen upon hard times. Not poor by any means, the Julii lacked the financial means to play a prominent role in the Roman political world. No member of the family had held the consulship in many generations, and the family was, while of impressive lineage, all but irrelevant within Roman society. With Caesar’s father, also named Gaius Julius Caesar, this began to change. Caesar’s father married Aurelia Cottae, whose familial line was far less prestigious in lineage, but more accomplished in recent times. The Cottae had been of plebian origin, having moved into the nobility perhaps a century and a half before. But in this time they had gifted Rome four consuls, the latest being Caesar’s grandfather.

Even more significant to Caesar’s future was his father’s sister, Julia, who had become the wife of Gaius Marius in a political arrangement that married Marius’ prominence and wealth with the Julii gens impeccable family credentials. The shadow of Marius would loom large across most of Caesar’s life.

Caesar was raised in a most unusual way for a member of such a distinguished family. His family had a modest house in the Subura, a popular district in Rome that housed trades and manufacturing—but was also the realm of crime, prostitution, and the poor. The young Caesar was an only son, but he had two sisters, both named Julia. Unfortunately, nothing more is known of Caesar’s childhood. The biographies written by Suetonius and Plutarch, for which we are heavily dependant, begin with Caesar’s teens. Seutonius does tell us that Caesar showed himself to be an uncommon talent from an early age. “He handled weapons with great skill, was an excellent writer, and had an amazing endurance. On marches he sometimes led on horseback, but more often on foot, bareheaded in sun and rain. He covered great distances with incredible speed, with no baggage, in a hired carriage, traveling a hundred miles a day. Nor was his progress impeded by rivers: he either swam across them or crossed them on inflated skins, so that often he reached his destination sooner than the news of his movements.”

Caesar grew up in a time of great civil and political unrest. The Social War had been fought between 91 and 88 BCE between Rome and her Italian allies, and the rift between the Roman nobility (consisting of the patrician class and the established senatorial families from the equestrian and plebian classes) and the plebians had continued to fester and grow in the period after the Gracchi brothers. Rome was politically divided into the Optimates, conservative nobles who believed that rule by the Senate (the nobility) was the proper method for the Republic, and the Populares, who sought greater rights for the common men of Rome. Caesar’s uncle Marius was a famous Populares, while his one-time lieutenant and now rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla had aligned himself with the Optimates faction. In 88 BCE the two men clashed spectacularly when Sulla was given command of the legions marching against Mithridates of Pontus, who had seized Rome’s eastern provinces during the Social War. Sulla’s authority had been granted by the Optimates dominated Senate, but when he left the city to take up his command, Marius used a tribune of the people, Publius Sulpicius Rufus, to call a popular assembly and appeal directly to the people. In a spectacular move, the assembly overturned the Senate’s decision and transferred the command to Marius. Sulla promptly responded by marching with his army on Rome, an event that had never occurred in the history of the Republic. Marius fled to North Africa, but he returned with the help of Lucius Cornelius Caesar after Sulla began the First Mithridatic War. Marius, perhaps suffering from some form of age related dementia, initiated a violent pogrom on Sulla’s supporters. Soon after being elected to an unprecedented seventh consulship, Marius died in 86 BCE. His faction, led by Cinna, remained in power until Sulla and his armies returned.

Caesar's Rome

Caesar grew up in a time of great civil and political unrest. The Social War had been fought between 91 and 88 BCE between Rome and her Italian allies, and the rift between the Roman nobility (consisting of the patrician class and the established senatorial families from the equestrian and plebian classes) and the plebians had continued to fester and grow in the period after the Gracchi brothers. Rome was politically divided into the Optimates, conservative nobles who believed that rule by the Senate (the nobility) was the proper method for the Republic, and the Populares, who sought greater rights for the common men of Rome. Caesar’s uncle Marius was a famous Populares, while his one-time lieutenant and now rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla had aligned himself with the Optimates faction. In 88 BCE the two men clashed spectacularly when Sulla was given command of the legions marching against Mithridates of Pontus, who had seized Rome’s eastern provinces during the Social War. Sulla’s authority had been granted by the Optimates dominated Senate, but when he left the city to take up his command, Marius used a tribune of the people, Publius Sulpicius Rufus, to call a popular assembly and appeal directly to the people. In a spectacular move, the assembly overturned the Senate’s decision and transferred the command to Marius. Sulla promptly responded by marching with his army on Rome, an event that had never occurred in the history of the Republic. Marius fled to North Africa, but he returned with the help of Lucius Cornelius Caesar after Sulla began the First Mithridatic War. Marius, perhaps suffering from some form of age related dementia, initiated a violent pogrom on Sulla’s supporters. Soon after being elected to an unprecedented seventh consulship, Marius died in 86 BCE. His faction, led by Cinna, remained in power until Sulla and his armies returned.

Such was the situation when Sulla, having defeated Mithridates, returned to take up the Civil War against the Marians once more. After a lengthy campaign that raged across Italy, he emerged victorious in late 82 BCE. Sulla had himself declared dictator, an office that traditionally lasted for six months at a time. Sulla, however, held office with no limit. Sulla then instituted a series of proscriptions made Marius’ purges pale in comparison. The streets of Rome ran red with blood, and terror became the order of the day. Cinna was dead, Marius’ body exhumed and hurled into the Tiber, and anyone associated with the two men was guaranteed to attract the attention of Sulla. Caesar, nephew of Marius and son-in-law of Cinna, could not have remained unnoticed for long.

Caesar survived only through the intervention of his mother’s family, who had supported Sulla. When Sulla met Caesar, he famously remarked that, “In this Caesar there are many a Marius.” Caesar survived, but he lost his inheritance, his wife’s dowry, and the priesthood. Sulla offered to leave him with something if he divorced Cornelia, but the young Caesar refused. He fled Rome soon after.

Exile and Return

Caesar promptly joined the legions, serving under Marcus Minucius Thermus in the east. He was sent on a mission to Bithynia (to convince King Nicomedes to provide naval assistance) where the king became so fond of him that he remained in his court for so long that rumors grew that he was having a sexual dalliance with the king. This story would haunt him for the rest of his life, so much so that Caesar’s men, during his Gallic Triumph, sang the following ditty as they marched through Rome:

Caesar screwed the whole of Gaul, Nicomedes Caesar.
See now, Caesar rides in triumph, after screwing Gaul.
Nicomedes does not triumph, though he screwed our Caesar.

It has been thought that Caesar may have spent so much time cuckolding the wives of other men in order to ensure his reputation with women exceeded his reputation with men.

As a soldier, Caesar performed admirably, even winning the Civic Crown (the second highest military decoration, reserved for men who saved the lives of their fellow soldiers and held their ground for the remainder of the engagement).

Sulla, having retired to private life in 80 BCE, promptly died in his bed in 78 BCE. Caesar judged it safe to return to Rome. Upon his return, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus attempted an unsuccessful coup against the Sullans, but Caesar wisely refrained from joining. Instead he began a brief career as a lawyer, attempting to prosecute Cornelius Dolabella, a noted Sullan. His prosecution failed, but his exceptional oratory and incisive logic won him such acclaim that even the great Cicero was moved to ask if anyone had more ability as a speaker than Caesar.

The Cicilian Pirates

Caesar determined to perfect his rhetorical skills, and in 75 BCE he sailed for Rhodes to study with Apollonius Molon, who had instructed Cicero in earlier years. On his way across the Aegean, however, Caesar’s ship was captured by Cilician pirates and he was held for ransom (a common tactic of pirates during this time). Caesar maintained a haughty air during his capture, even demanding that the pirates, who had thought to ask a ransom of twenty gold talents, raise his ransom to fifty. He ordered the pirates about during his captivity and humorously informed them that he intended to crucify the lot of them when he was freed. Upon being freed he promptly raised a fleet and captured the pirates, imprisoning them at Pergamon. When the governer decided to sell the pirates into slavery rather than crucify them (seeking the profit), Caesar returned to Pergamon and had them all put to the cross on his own authority.

Caesar resumed his journey to Rhodes, beginning his studies the same year. His studies were cut short, however, when he was called to raise a small army of auxiliaries to defeat an incursion from Pontus.

Early Political Career

Caesar began his quest to climb the cursus honorum by being elected military tribune. In 69 BCE he was elected quaestor, the same year his aunt Julia died. Caesar, fond of his aunt, held a massive funeral procession for her that included images of her husband Marius—something that had been forbidden since the days of Sulla. That same year Cornelia died.

During his quaestership in Hispania Caesar is said to have encountered a statue of Alexander the Great in Gades near a temple of Heracles. Upon seeing the statue he allegedly burst into tears at the realization that he had reached the age of 31 without accomplishing anything of note, whereas Alexander had conquered the world by the same age. Returning to Rome, he married Pompeia, a granddaughter of Sulla. He was then elected aedile.

As aedile, Caesar was responsible for throwing the games and maintaining the public works for the Roman people. Aediles typically spent large sums of money in such events—the more money the greater their popularity and thus the greater their future political prospects. Caesar, never one to do things by half, went massively into debt and spent huge sums on lavish games and massive public works. He also restored statues of Marius and symbols of his victories to the public arena. Caesar, already firmly in the Populares camp, had placed himself in financial jeopardy to secure himself as a favorite of the people.

Pontifex Maximus and the Bona Dea Festival

Caesar was penniless, and his creditors were moving in for the kill. Fortuitiously, however, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius, the Pontifex Maximus, had died in 63 BCE. Caesar ran for the office against two members of the Optimates faction, the former Quintus Lutatius Catulus and Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus. Amid accusations of bribery by all concerned, Caesar was elected to office.

Election as Pontifex was a significant boon for Caesar. It was an important and highly visible post that could only aid him in his political career. It also came with a publicly provided home on the wealthy heights of the Palatine hill. Election as Pontifex thus provided Caesar with a fabulous residence and a little more leverage to keep his creditors at bay for a time.

Not long after Caesar assumed his duties however, a massive scandal erupted in his own home. Each year the Vestal Virgins, together with a select group of patrician women, held a secret rite to the Bona Dea, the Good Goddess. This ceremony was traditionally held in the house of the Pontifex Maximus, but no males were permitted to attend. Caesar had duly absented himself and he event was hosted by his wife, Pompeia. Caesar, perhaps not fully trusting his wife, had arranged for his mother, Aurelia, to be present.

As the ceremony proceeded, Aurelia noticed one unusually tall and cloaked woman with a strange voice. Not recognizing the woman, even with her prodigious memory, Aurelia monitored her and soon discovered that the woman was, in fact, a man. Aurelia confronted the man, but he escaped from the house without being positively identified. The sacred ceremony was soiled and all of Rome was abuzz.

The man was believed to be the notorious philanderer Publius Clodius Pulcher. With rumors flying about that he may have been there as part of an affair with Caesar’s wife, Caesar promptly divorced Pompeia, asserting that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” Clodius was later tried but acquitted for the crime of sacrilege.

Praetor and Governor

In 62 BCE, Caesar was elected Praetor of Rome. Following his praetorship, he received Hispania Ulterior as his province, where he had several military successes, including being hailed as imperator by his legions. In recognition of his accomplishments, Caesar was granted a triumph by the Senate.

The political struggle between the Optimates and Populares factions had continued unabated, however. Marcus Porcius Cato, a leader in the Optimates party, had earlier blocked an attempt by Pompey Magnus to have the consular elections deferred until after he celebrated his triumph, the timing preventing him from doing both. Pompey, faced with the choice, chose his triumph. Cato hoped to force a similar choice, with similar results on the Populares Caesar. He reckoned without Caesar’s ruthless determination, however. Caesar abandoned his triumph and instead chose to run for the consulship.

The First Triumvirate

To become consul, however, required money and political connections—things Caesar lacked in sufficient quantities. Caesar developed a bold plan to acquire both in one fell swoop. It required bringing together two men who had been rivals for years, men who could barely remain in the same room with one another. Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus had been competing for Rome’s attentions since the Third Servile War, when Crassus had crushed the Revolt of the Gladiators, led by Spartacus. At the very end Pompey, returning from his own war in Hispania, had captured a few thousand fleeing slaves and sent a letter to the Senate proclaiming that, while to Crassus went victory in the final battle, it was Pompey who had finished the war. Whatever the details, however, Pompey was acclaimed as the foremost general of his time while Crassus was known as the richest man in Rome—and the two men were bitter rivals.

As influential as they were, however, the two men had been repeatedly frustrated in the Senate. Pompey needed land to settle his veterans upon, but the Senate had repeatedly rejected his requests for an agrarian bill that would satisfy his men. Crassus was seeking laws that favored both the equestrian class, a large number of which were his clients, and the publicani, the tax farmers who collected the tribute from the provinces. Neither was able to accomplish their goals by alone. Pompey’s power lay in his popularity and in the large number of veterans that owed him loyalty. Crassus had enormous wealth and a client base in the wealthy and influential equestrian class. To this Caesar added his great influence over the Populare faction in Rome. Together, they could accomplish what none of them individually was able to. The First Triumvirate, an informal secret alliance was thus born. To confirm the alliance, Caesar gave his sister Julia to Pompey in marriage. This political marriage proved to be the foundation for Caesar and Pompey’s relations for many years as Pompey, to all appearances, was deeply in love with Julia, and his love was returned by the young woman.

In 60 BCE, backed by the clients of the two other members of the Triumvirate, Caesar was elected senior Consul of the Republic by the Centuriate Assembly. He had been heavily opposed by the Optimates, led by Cato. Cato, however, was defeated but not beaten. His opposition to Caesar had only begun.

The animus between Cato and Caesar dated back to the Cataline Conspiracy, when Caesar had opposed—and Cato supporteed—the execution without trial of the conspirators. In the midst of deliberations Caesar had received a letter that Cato had demanded to see. Caesar had claimed it was a simple love letter, but Cato accused him of being part of the conspiracy to seize Rome. In response Caesar had handed Cato the letter, which proved to be an “unchaste letter” from Servilia, Cato’s own half-sister. Further speculation that Caesar had cuckolded Cato’s wife, Attilia, had blossomed when Cato divorced his wife in the aftermath.

Caesar’s co-consul for the year was Cato’s son-in-law, Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, whom Cato had convinced to run in an attempt to have a counterweight in the event that Caesar was elected. Bibulus’ purpose was simple: oppose any bill that Caesar attempted to bring into law. As an augor, Bibulus had a ready-made tool to oppose Caesar: he declared that the omens were unfavorable for any law that Caesar attempted to bring to a vote. Caesar’s Populare allies began obstructing Bibulus, even laying hands on him physically. Events came to a head when Cato and Bibulus, speaking out on the Rostra in the Forum, were dragged from the Forum and beaten by Populare thugs. Bibulus retired from all political activity and hid in his home for the remainder of the year, his resistance reduced to sending out messages that the omens were unfavorable for Caesar’s laws. By this time, however, no one was paying attention any longer. Roman satirists humorously referred to the year as the “consulship of Julius and Caesar,” a reference to the fact that the Romans expressed each year by the names of the two consuls.

His opposition nullified, Caesar proceeded to have Crassus’ bills introduced. The Optimates quickly opposed the laws, but to their surprise Pompey Magnus added his support to Crassus and Caesar. The laws passed overwhelmingly. With Crassus’ part of the bargain fulfilled, Caesar moved on to Pompey’s. With the Optimates in disarray, there was little real opposition to the agrarian bill. Pompey’s veterans at long last had their land.

Caesar, meanwhile, still needed to settle his overwhelming debts, many of which were held by Crassus. The Triumvirate arranged to have him appointed to a five year term as proconsul of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyria. When Metellus Celer died unexpectedly, his province of Transalpine (Farther) Gaul was also awarded to Caesar. His consulship complete, Caesar moved on to assume his new office.

The Gallic Wars

A proconsulship was a ready source of wealth, but Caesar needed a war to earn glory and real money. When the Helvetii, a Gallic tribe fleeing from German incursions into their own lands, asked permission to migrate en masse through Roman lands, Caesar’s opportunity had arrived. No Roman governor could allow such a massive movement of barbarians through Roman lands, so Caesar naturally denied the Helvetii delegation. When the Gauls pushed on anyway, Caesar crushed them in spectacular style.

Rome’s Gallic allies then requested assistance against the marauding Germanic tribes, Caesar quickly responded, defeating the Germans in several pitched battles. In the same year the Belgae, a Gallic tribe neutral to Rome, had invaded a Gallic ally. Following an appeal from the Gallic tribes allied to Rome, Caesar gathered his forces and marched against the Belgae in 58 BCE.

The war against the Belgae was short and bloody. While Caesar’s legions were encamping along the river Sambre, they were surprised and almost overwhelmed by the Gallic army. Caesar rallied his men and inflicted heavy losses on the Belgae. He later forced their surrender by threatening their towns.

The following year, 56 BCE, Caesar marched against the Veneti and their allies, located along the Atlantic seaboard. Caesar claimed that the Veneti had been assembling an alliance of tribes against the Roman presence. The truth of this can never be known, but Caesar reacted with his usual celerity, building galleys and undertaking an unconventional land and sea campaign. In a lightning campaign he all but annihilated the Veneti and any of their allies that fought with them.

Caesar’s motivations are difficult to assess. He certainly sought glory and political power in his invasion of Gaul. But it is also true that the Romans had a fully justified fear of the Gallic peoples. The Senons, a Gallic tribe, had invaded and held Rome several centuries earlier, and the threat of a barbarian invasion was always a serious consideration for the Roman people. Caesar might well have seen this as an opportunity for both himself and Rome, and not merely his own personal moment of glory. Or he may have honestly believed that the Veneti represented a viable threat that had to be dealt with. Whatever his thoughts on the actual threat, Caesar seized the opportunity. The Gallic Wars had begun.

In 55 BCE Caesar took his legions across the Rhine in an attempt to strike fear in the Germanic tribes. He rampaged across a small stretch of Germania without significant resistance and then crossed back into Roman territory. He then crossed the English Channel with two legions and mounted a similar expedition against the Britons. The invasion of Brittania did not go well, as storms nearly sank much of his force and the unfamiliar British chariots created confusion among his soldiers. After several inconclusive battles Caesar negotiated hostages, declared victory, and returned home. The next year he mustered a larger force and avoided the storms, defeating the powerful Catuvellauni tribe and extracting an annual tribute from them. While these invasions of Britannia had little practical effects, they proved a political boon in Rome. From the beginning Caesar had sent reports back to Rome via dispatches, and these reports, later compiled into his work De Bello Gallico (The Gallic Wars), were widely read and talked about.

Gallic Uprising

Gaul was seemingly quiet when, during the winter between 54-53 BCE, a massive uprising occurred in the north. The Eburones tribe, led by Ambriox, caught a garrison of fifteen cohorts off guard and slaughtered them, and nearly succeeded in surprising a second garrison, which was commanded by Quintus Tullius Cicero. Caesar ruthlessly put the region to the sword, nearly exterminating the Eburones and their allies. Barely having returned to his provincial capital, Caesar received word that his supply lines were under attack by yet another Gallic revolt. Virtually the entire Gallic nation had united under the charismatic Vercingetorix of the Arveni tribe. Vercingetorix realized that the Gauls could not defeat the legions in pitched battle, so he attempted to starve the Romans out by destroying their supply lines and forcing Caesar to spread his forces thinly across Gaul. Caesar rushed back and took command once more, finally bringing Vercingetorix to bay at Alesia in late 52 BCE.


Alesia was a major town and hill fort of the Mandubii tribe, and the Battle of Alesia is arguably Caesar’s greatest battle. It is a classic example of both siege craft and the use of circumvallation to defeat a foe.

The Gallic army had retreated behind the walls of Alesia when Caesar’s army arrived. Alesia was located on a strong defensive site, and Caesar chose to lay siege to the site in order to starve out the 80,000 Gauls rather than executing a suicidal attack on the fort. Alesia was a large site, however, and in order to secure it and prevent supplies and forces from having access to the fort, Caesar began the construction of a series of encircling fortifications, called a circumvallation, to seal off the city. More than 18 kilometers of fortifications were built in only three weeks, a prodigious engineering feat, even for the Romans. Realizing that reinforcements would eventually be sent to aid the beleaguered city, Caesar ordered a second set of fortifications, the contravallations, extending more than 21 kilometers and encircling both the first set of fortifications and his own men.

The situation within the city was becoming critical, and in desperation Vercingetorix ordered the women and children out of the walls, into the no man’s land between the circumvallation and the city wall, in order to save the remaining food for the fighting men. He appeared to also hope that Caesar would create a breach in his lines to allow the refugees to go free, which would allow the Gallic army to attempt to force the Roman lines. Caesar, however, ordered that nothing be done for the refugees, and they starved to death between the lines over several days. The army was petitioning Vercingetorix to surrender when the long awaited Gallic relief force finally arrived.

A simultaneous attack was launched on both the circumvallation and the contravallation. Over the next several days the Roman situation grew increasingly desperate, as the besiegers, now the besieged, began to run low on food and water and the men were exhausted from the continuous two-front war. Finally, as a Gallic army of 60,000 attacked a weakened section of Caesar’s contravallation, Caesar desperately led 13 cavalry cohorts (6,0000 men) to move behind the relief force and execute a surprise attack. Emboldened by their commander’s actions, the Romans redoubled their efforts and collapsed the Gallic lines. In the resulting retreat the relief force was massacred, with only exhaustion on the Roman’s part preventing utter annihilation.

With all hope now lost, Vercingetorix surrendered the next day, laying his sword on the ground at Caesar’s feet. He was sent back to Rome to await Caesar’s triumph, while the bulk of his men were sold into slavery or given to the legions.

The Aftermath

With the surrender of Vercingetorix, the Gallic war was essentially over. Small pockets of resistance were rooted out for the next several years, but organized resistance had ended. Plutarch tells that more than 800 cities were conquered, 300 tribes subdued, more than a million men were sold into slavery and another three million lay dead on the battlefields. Such numbers may well be an exaggeration (Caesar was writing for an audience, after all), but the conquest of Gaul was certainly one of the greatest military campaigns of all time. Caesar’s conquest would have lasting consequences, as Romanized Gaul became a mainstay of the Roman Empire until the fall of the Western Empire in 476 CE.

The Triumvirate Disintegrates

Caesar had won untold lands and sent massive wealth back to Rome, but he was still viewed with extreme suspicion by many of his peers, particularly the Optimates. His high-handed actions in invading Gaul had won him many enemies, and his political situation in Rome was turning desperate.

Caesar’s original five year command had expired in 55 BCE. The Triumvirate, still working smoothly, had elected Pompey and Crassus consuls, and they had extended his proconsulship for another five years. The next year Pompey’s wife, Julia, died in childbirth. This crushed both Pompey and Caesar, and when Crassus fell at the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE, a rift began to open between the two men. Caesar attempted to repair the breach by offering one of his nieces to Pompey, but instead Pompey, already drifting toward the Optimates faction, married Cornelia Metella, the daughter of the Optimate Metellus Scipio, and implacable enemy to Caesar. The Optimates continued to play on Pompey’s fears of being supplanted in fame by Caesar over the next several years, accusing Caesar of harboring regal ambitions.

The Civil War

By 50 BCE circumstances were at a breaking point. Urged on by Cato and the more radical members of the Optimates faction, Pompey had agreed to lead the Senate in issuing an order to Caesar: Disband his army and return to Rome as a private citizen upon the expiration of his proconsulship. Caesar immediately saw the danger involved. Lacking the immunity granted a consul or proconsul he could be prosecuted by anyone who desired to prefer charges. With the political climate in Rome, his probable fate was banishment, possibly even death, at the hands of one of his political opponents.

In response, requested that he be allowed to stand for his second consulship in absentia. The Senate refused his request, and Caesar sent a number of his allies, including Mark Antony, back to Rome over the next several months in an attempt to broker some sort of compromise. Marcus Tullius Cicero, a member of the Optimates, also spoke in favor of compromise, but the unyielding Cato carried the day. Caesar must return to face the Senate as a private citizen, or as a rebel.


On January 10, 49 BCE, Caesar paused before the river Rubicon, the border of Italy, and pondered his fate. According to legend he cried out, “iacta alea est,” “The die is cast,” and crossed the Rubicon with only the Thirteenth Legion. Civil War had begun.

The Optimates, now led by Pompey (and not realizing that Caesar had but a single legion), fled south before his rapid march. As Caesar moved through Italy, city after city, with few exceptions, threw open their gates and welcomed him. When Caesar failed to catch Pompey before he escaped to Greece, he turned away towards Hispania, leaving Marcus Aemilius Lepidus as Prefectus Urbanus and Mark Antony as the master of Italy in his stead. Caesar, meanwhile, marched into Hispania in only 27 days, defeated Pompey’s forces there, and then returned to Italy where he organized his forces for the decisive battle with Pompey.

Landing in Greece with only part of his forces, Caesar was defeated by Pompey at Dyrrhachium in 48 BCE. He barely escaped, but Pompey, cautious in the face of Caesar’s veteran troops, refused to pursue. His Optimates allies were furious and, pointing out that he had more than twice as many infantry and eight times as many cavalry, they finally urged Pompey to fight Caesar on ground of Caesar’s choosing at Pharsalus.


Caesar’s forces were arrayed with a river to their left shoulder, securing his flank. Pompey’s cavalry superiority was a major concern for Caesar, and he arranged his forces in four battle lines with his 1000 cavalry on his right wing. Seeing Pompey concentrate his cavalry (8,000 strong) on his left (Caesar’s right) flank, Caesar pulled his fourth line of heavy infantry behind his lines and moved them behind his own cavalry, ordering them to stay hidden by lying on the ground.

The battle opened with Caesar’s legions executing a charge towards Pompey’s forces. Pompey, however, had ordered his men to stand fast, hoping Caesar’s would exhaust themselves in the charge. Caesar’s veteran centurions, realizing the trap, halted his men in mid charge and rested them.

As the light infantry by the river began skirmishing and the heavy infantry moved forward, Pompey unleashed his masterstroke. Commanding his cavalry was Titus Labienus, Caesar’s one time second-in-command. Labienus led the massed cavalry in a charge against Caesar’s exposed right flank, attempting to scatter them and begin a general panic. Instead, Labienus found himself facing the concealed infantry, who erupted from the ground and began thrusting their pila (javelins) at the cavalry, as Caesar had instructed them. Labienus’ men fell back in a panic and the sight of them fleeing instigated a general rout in Pompey’s forces. Caesar’s legions rolled forward and seized the day—and Pompey’s camp.

Pompey fled to Egypt where King Ptolemy XIII, sister to Cleopatra, had him executed and beheaded. Cato, meanwhile, attempted to regroup the Senate forces in Africa. A number of the Optimates, including Cicero and Marcus Junius Brutus Caepio, accepted Caesar’s clemency and returned to Rome with the victorious general.


Back in Rome, Caesar was dictator, with Mark Antony as Master of Horse. He resigned the dictatorship after only eleven days and was elected to a second term as consul. The then gathered his armies again and pursued Pompey to Alexandria. Arriving in Alexandria, he discovered that Egypt was embroiled in a civil war of its own, with Ptolemy battling insurgent forces of his sister, Cleopatra VII. In an attempt to curry favor, Ptolemy had Pompey’s head delivered as a gift to Caesar. Plutarch relates that, “he turned away from him with loathing, as from an assassin; and when he received Pompey's signet ring on which was engraved a lion holding a sword in his paws, he burst into tears." Rival Pompey might have been, but he was also a great Roman and Caesar’s one time son-in-law and ally.

As Caesar pondered his next move, Cleopatra, unable to appeal through traditional channels, had herself smuggled into Caesar’s rooms rolled inside a carpet. After meeting with Cleopatra, he determined to support her in the civil war, possibly influenced by Pompey’s fate. After a fierce struggle, Caesar defeated the Ptolemaic forces and installed Cleopatra as pharaoh. He also famously took the Egyptian monarch as his lover and fathered his only known biological son, Caesarion, on Cleopatra. To the scandal of all Rome, Caesar spent precious months idly in Egypt while the Roman Civil War remained unresolved. Finally moved to action on the part of Cleopatra, he moved to the Middle East where he defeated King Pharnaces of Pontus so swiftly that he remarked, “veni, vidi, vici,” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”).

End of the Civil War

Finally, in 46 BCE, Caesar moved to Africa to deal with Cato. Cato had occupied the city of Utica, leaving the army to the command of Metellus Scipio. At the Battle of Thapsus Caesar crushed Metellus’ forces, and the enemy general died in battle. As Caesar moved towards Utica, Cato, obstinate to the last, committed suicide. Caesar, for whom clemency was a means to show his greatness, was frustrated in his attempt to extend clemency to his greatest enemy.

The Pompeians were not quite finished, however, and in 45 BCE Caesar, serving his third and fourth terms as consul, was in Hispania, where he defeated the last of the Pompeians; Pompey’s sons Gnaeus and Sextus, and his old friend Titus Labienus.

Dictator for Life

Caesar returned to Italy in 45 BCE, and Cleopatra soon followed, occupying a fabulous estate outside Rome. As royalty, Cleopatra was not allowed to cross the Pomerium, but Caesar spent most of his evenings visiting his mistress and son, further scandalizing Rome.

He also began to put his house in order, which included reforming the problems of Rome. The empire had been poorly run even before the Civil War had begun, and Caesar was eager to correct the many ills he perceived. One of his first tasks, however, was to file his new will, naming his grand-nephew Gaius Octavius as his legal heir and adoptive son. Much to the surprise of nearly everyone, Caesar conducted no proscriptions, pardoning nearly all of his enemies and practicing clemency in nearly every conceivable situation. The Senate, for its part, began bestowing honors and accolades on Caesar by the barrel full.

To commemorate Caesar’s many victories, great games and celebrations were held in his honor. Caesar was granted the right to wear triumphal clothing and a laurel crown during all public occasions. He was gifted a huge estate for his personal use and the statues of him were erected all over Rome, including in the temple of Quirinus and with the statues of the Roman kings. Perhaps most disturbingly to those who suspected him of pretensions to a crown, he was named Dictator for Life (not a position, but an honorary title) and elected consul for life. He was voted Dictator for ten years, and he also had coins minted with his image upon them, something that had never been done before. His birth month was renamed Julius after him.

With all these honors, Caesar was being granted greater and greater power. He was allowed to hold any office he desired, to appoint half of all the magistrates (which were previously elected positions), and as Dictator and Consul he held the supreme imperium within Rome. Never before had such power been held by anyone in the Republic since the Kings of Rome.

While Caesar was garnering power, however, he continued to pursue the reforms he had envisioned for the Republic. Laws were passed canceling one-quarter of all debt, which greatly aided the debt burdened plebian classes. The relative immunity of the Senatorial class was removed, and they became subject to many of the same laws that the plebians were subject to. The grain distribution was more tightly regulated, and price gouging was made a crime. Land was set aside for his veterans, and Caesar even reconstructed the Roman calender, instituting a leap year for every fourth year. The year was also extended for one year in order to realign the calendar with the seasons. Equally important, the Pomerium, which had not been extended since the time of Sulla, was moved outward to provide additional space for growth. Finally, great building projects were undertaken to renew the decaying city.


While many of Caesar’s reforms were acknowledged to be good for Rome, the manner in which they were implemented disturbed a great many Romans. More disturbing was the almost regal way that Caesar was conducting both his life and the public business. The long running affair with the royal Cleopatra, the ever increasing honors and awards, and his lengthy list of titles were bothersome enough, but Caesar’s increasingly autocratic ways convinced a number of Senators that Caesar’s rule would not end with Caesar, but would continue with the whelp of “that Egyptian harlot” (a reference to Caesarion). Among those who became convinced that Caesar was a threat to the Republic was Marcus Junius Brutus.

Brutus was the nephew of Cato and the son of Servilia, Caesar’s long-time lover. Neither of these predisposed Brutus to love of Caesar, but Caesar had taken such a liking to the young man that many speculated Brutus might be Caesar’s illegitimate son. Brutus had also, it should be recalled, served with the Optimates against Caesar at Pharsalus. For all this, Caesar, to all appearances, counted Brutus among his friends.

By 44 BCE, the titles had grown even more onerous. Caesar was named Dictator Perpetuus, Dictator for Life, and not merely as an honorific. When Caesar refused to stand for a Senate delegation, an enormous and insulting breach of custom, the Senate was scandalized, even when it was known that Caesar was suffering from illness at the time. Only days later, someone placed a diadem on a statue of Caesar on the Rostra. It was removed by two tribunes of the people. These same two tribunes, Gaius Epidius Marcellus and Lucius Caesetius Flavius, began arresting citizens in the city who called out “Rex” (“King”) to Caesar. With his supporters under fire, Caesar had the tribunes stripped of their tribunate and ordered his supporters freed. The tribunes were by tradition immune to all authority while in office. This represented as great a break from tradition as anything Caesar had done thus far.

At the Lupercalia, a grand festival, Caesar was seated upon a gilded chair atop the Rostra, bedecked in a purple robe and red shoes, with a golden set of laurel leaves atop his head. Mark Antony ran to Caesar and, producing a diadem, attempted three times to place it upon Caesar’s head. Three times Caesar refused, to the delight of the crowd, but suspicion was now rampant that Caesar was testing the waters in his play for ultimate power.

A conspiracy had been formed for some time, led by Cassius, but now Brutus was drawn into the “Liberatores” (“Liberators”) plans. The conspirators were growing desperate, as Caesar was planning a campaign into Parthia to seek retribution for Crassus’ loss of the legionary standards nearly a decade earlier. The Dictator was due to leave in April of 44 BCE. Once on campaign it would be far more difficult to strike at Caesar in the midst of his army. With time running out, the Liberatores determined to assassinate Caesar in the Senate on the Ides of March of 44 BCE by requesting his presence to hear a petition at the Forum. According to legend, Caesar was warned twice, once by an old seer who warned him to “Beware the Ides of March,” and a second time by his wife Calpurnia, who had dreamed of her husband bathed in blood and begged him to remain home.

Mark Antony had learned some of the plot, without the details, the night before and attempted to head Caesar off. He never reached Caesar. The Senators handed the Dictator the false petition near the Theater of Pompey, and as he began to read it Servilius Casca, who had nearly betrayed the plot to Mark Antony, pulled his tunic and struck at Caesar’s neck. Caesar caught Casca by the arm and cried out, “Villain Casca, what are you doing?” As Casca called for help, the Senators, numbering sixty according to Eutropius, began striking at Caesar with their daggers. Caesar struggled to get away, but, mortally wounded, he fell at the feet of Pompey’s statue, covering his face with the folds of his toga. Caesar’s last words, uttered when he saw Brutus, are in some dispute. According to Suetonius he said, in Greek, “You too, child?” Plutarch states that Caesar said nothing, only hiding his head upon seeing Brutus.

After the assassination the Liberatores rushed out of the building to the Rostra with Brutus crying out, “People of Rome, we are once again free!” That freedom, such as it was, was not to last.

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