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Julius Caesar of Rome - Famous and Infamous Rulers
3476    Dibyendu Banerjee    22/02/2018

Julius Caesar of Rome

Gaius Julius Caesar was born in Rome on 12 or 13 July 100 BC in the prestigious Julian clan. Caesar’s gens, the Julii, traced their lineage back to the goddess Venus, but the family was not snobbish or conservative-minded and favoured democratization of government and more rights for the lower class. However, despite their ancient pedigree, they were not rich or influential or even distinguished. His father, also called Gaius Julius Caesar, was a praetor, the rank of a judicial officer in ancient Rome and his mother, Aurelia Cotta, came from an influential family and it seems that he owed much to her.

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Julius Caesar was tall, fair-skinned and dark eyed. He was educated at the Great School of Rhodes that specialized in speaking and writing skills. This helped him to become a brilliant conversationalist and a superb orator His talents and ambition for political life finally drove Julius Caesar into public life.

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

As his father died suddenly in 85 BC, Caesar became the head of the family at 16. Even in that early age, he strongly believed that, belonging to the priesthood would bring the maximum benefit to the family and accordingly, he managed to have himself nominated as the new High Priest of Jupiter. Moreover, he broke off his engagement to a plebian girl and married Cornelia, a daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, an influential member of the ‘Populares’, which favoured the cause of the plebeians, the commoners.

Julius Caesar
Julius Caesar

In the ensuing civil war (88-87 BC), between Caesar’s uncle Gaius Marius and his rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla, Cornelia’s father, Lucius Cornelius Cinna took the side of Marius. In the resulting victory, Sulla declared himself as the dictator and immediately, began a systematic purge of his enemies and the supporters of the Populare ideology. Due to his connections to the old regime, Caesar was targeted. He was deprived of his inheritance, lost his wife's dowry, and was stripped of his priesthood, but he refused to divorce Cornelia and was forced to go out of Rome. Subsequently, though the threat against him was lifted due to the intervention of his mother's family, Caesar felt that it would be much safer for him to be far away from Sulla and so, he joined the army, serving under Marcus Minucius Thermus in Asia and Servilius Isauricus in Cicilia.

Julius Caesar
Caesar and Vercingetorix, Painting By Jean-Leon Gerome

After Sulla's death in 78 BC, Caesar came back to Rome and turned to legal advocacy. Soon, he proved a success. He also became well known for his exceptional oratory and his ruthless criticism of the former governors for their notorious way of extortion and corruption, accompanied by impassioned gestures and a high-pitched voice.

Julius Caesar
Ides of March

In 75 BC, while sailing to Greece, across the Aegean Sea, Caesar was kidnapped by a group of pirates, who held him for a ransom of twenty talents (units) of silver. However, as he maintained a high self esteem, he insisted to make it at least fifty. Throughout his captivity, Caesar was treated well by the pirates and he also maintained a friendly relationship with them. He is said to have repeatedly told them that, upon his release, he would definitely find them and have them crucified for the humiliation of his family and an insult to his personal dignity. The pirates took it as a joke. However, upon his release, Caesar raised a fleet, pursued and captured the pirates, and as a sign of leniency, had their throats cut, before their crucifixion. This trait of strong determination in Caesar, to do exactly what he said, marked one of his distinguishing characteristics throughout his life.

Julius Caesar
The senators encircle Caesar, by Carl Theodor Von Piloty

On his return to Rome, Caesar was elected military ‘Tribun’ (official), a first step in a political career, and was elected ‘Quaestor’ for 69 BC. In the early summer of 69 BC, he went to Spain to serve his ‘quaestorship’. His wife Cornelia died in the same year and on his return from Spain in 67 BC, he married Pompeia, a granddaughter of Sulla, whom he later divorced in 61 BC after a social scandal. In 63 BC, he competed in an election for the post of the chief priest of the Roman state religion and won comfortably, In 62, he was elected as a ‘praetor’ and sailed for Spain in 61, to take charge as the ‘Propraetor’ (governor) of Hispania.

While in Spain, Caesar brought stability in the region by defeating the warmonger rival tribes and won the personal allegiance of his troops by his skill on the battlefield. He was awarded a consulship by the senate. Returning to Rome with high honours, Caesar entered into an agreement with Pompey and Crassus, who had been at variance politically. Pompey’s political clout was based on his popularity as a military commander and on the political patronage, the support of his war veterans and his ability to purchase votes for his supporters and himself. On the other hand, Crassus was a property speculator and the richest man in Rome, with extensive patronage networks. The alliance of these three powerful men is known as ‘the First Triumvirate’ (rule of three men) in history. Henceforth, these three men together, started to rule Rome effectively. To further consolidate the bond, Pompey married Caesar’s only daughter Julia, while Caesar married Calpurnia, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful man, Lucius Piso, who became a consul in 58 BC.

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Opposing the ‘Optimate’ sentiment, Caesar proposed certain legislations for the reformation of the government policies and redistribution of land to the poor, both of which were long-held ‘Populare’ goals. His initiatives were supported by Crassus’ wealth and Pompey’s soldiers. But, Caesar was deeply in debt to Crassus, both financially and politically, and needed to raise money and his prestige. As a public servant, he was safe from prosecution by his Optimate enemies for his legal indiscretions, however, after the end of his consulship he was sure to be accused. In view of the circumstances, Caesar decided to leave Rome with his legions and went to Gaul in 58 BC. At first, he secured the borders of the provinces and when the Germanic tribes seemed to threaten to invade, Caesar built a bridge over the Rhine River, marched his legions across, then marched them back and had the bridge coolly dismantled. This was a message to the Germans, which they understood and never dared to invade. Apart from a few pockets of resistance, the conquest of the north was completed soon. Finally, Caesar defeated the Gallic leader Vercingetorix at the Battle of Alesia, in 52 BC, and completed the conquest of Gaul, with all the attendant wealth at his disposal.

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Probably, the conquest of Gaul was carried out by Caesar only as a means to achieve his ultimate goal. His ultimate intention was to increase the military manpower, to plunder and to earn the unquestionable prestige that he needed to secure a free hand for fulfilling the huge task of restructuring the Roman state and the Greco-Roman world.

In 56 BC, the Veneti (southern Brittany) started to revolt in the northwest. They were supported by the still unconquered Morini, on the Gallic coast of the Strait of Dover and the Menapli, along the south bank of the lower Rhine. Caesar had to face some difficulties to defeat the Veneti, but at the end they were treated barbarously. Caesar again raided Britain in 54 BC and subdued a serious revolt in the northeastern Gaul.

Julius Caesar
Cleopatra and Caesar, 1866 painting by Jean-Leon Gerome

While Caesar was in Britain his daughter Julia, Pompey's wife, had died in childbirth in 54 BC. The Triumvirate had been already dead, as Crassus was killed in the same year, in a battle against the Parthians. As an emergency measure, Pompey was appointed as the sole consul and he married the daughter of a political opponent of Caesar. Rome was on the brink of civil war. The senate declared Caesar’s governorship of Gaul terminated and, also ordered him to return to Rome as a private citizen, which would mean Caesar could be prosecuted for his actions when he was consul.

Caesar did not return to Rome as ordered, instead crossed the Rubicon River with his legions and marched on the City in 49 BC. Rather than meet Caesar’s legions in battle, Pompey, along with many of the Senate, fled to Spain and then to Greece, where he was defeated by Caesar’s much smaller force at the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC. Pompey himself escaped from the battle and fled to Egypt. Since Pompey was once the state-appointed guardian of the younger Ptolemy children and had spent a considerable time in Egypt, he was under the impression that he can safely take refuge in Egypt. However, instead of safety, he was murdered under the gaze of Ptolemy XIII, as he came on shore at Alexandra. But, Caesar was not happy at this. He was allegedly outraged at the killing of a Roman general, declared martial law, and set himself up in the royal palace. Ptolemy XIII fled to Pelusium with his court.

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During that time, Cleopatra was in exile and she badly needed Roman support, more specifically Caesar’s support to defeat her rival brother, Ptolemy XIII. So she took the initiative and smuggled herself through the enemy lines rolled up inside a carpet and present herself to Caesar in his quarters. Immediately, they became lovers and Caesar sided with Cleopatra. On the other hand, Ptolemy XIII teamed with his general, Achillas and attacked Alexandria. Caesar and Cleopatra had to spend the winter besieged in the royal palace of Alexandria for six months, until Roman reinforcements arrived the following spring. At the end of the war, Ptolemy XIII was forced to flee and was believed to have drowned in the Nile. Cleopatra, now married to her brother Ptolemy XIV, was restored to her throne by Caesar. However, she gave birth to her son with Caesar, Ptolemy Caesar, in 47 BC, nine months after their first meeting. The boy was nicknamed Caesarion, means ‘little Caesar’.

In the mean time, after defeating the tribes and subjugating the people there, Caesar defeated the forces of the Optimate faction at the battle of Thapsus in 46 BC, and in July of that year, returned to Rome. He was elected to his third and fourth terms as consul in 46 BC and 45 BC. Finally, in February 44 BC, one month before his assassination, he was appointed dictator for life, but he never held the title ’Emperor’.

Death of Julius Caesar
The Death of Caesar (1798) by Vincenzo Camuccini

When Cleopatra visited him, along with Ptolemy XIV and Caesarion, they were not housed inside Rome's Pomerium, since their affair caused a scandal among the Romans. However, they were accommodated in one of Caesar's country houses, beyond the Tiber River. Cleopatra was still in Rome, when Caesar was assassinated on the 15th day of March, 44 BC.

Julius Caesar expanded the Roman Republic through a series of battles across Europe and is credited with laying the foundation of the Roman Empire. He is often remembered as one of the greatest military minds in history. Apart from that, Caesar initiated many social reforms, including the land redistribution among the poor and the veterans. He abolished the tax system, relieved debt and reformed the Senate by increasing its size for better representation. He also reformed the Roman calendar and reorganized the construction of local government, and ordered the re-building of two ancient cities, Carthage and Corinth, which had been destroyed by his predecessors. He also granted citizenship to a number of foreigners.

However, his reforms made him unpopular in the senate. In fact, he ruled without maintaining the decorum of the senate. Without taking any consent of the senate, he only used to tell them which laws he wanted to pass with immediate effect. Hence, the senators, especially the Optimate faction, became very much apprehensive about his ultimate intention. They thought, Caesar could soon abolish the senate entirely to rule absolutely as a king.

Death of Julius Caesar
After the Death of Julius Caesar, 1867 Painting By Jean-Leon Gerome

Caesar was brutally assassinated by the senators in the portico of the basilica of Pompey the Great, on March 15, the Ides of March, 44 BC. He was stabbed twenty three times and died at the base of Pompey’s statue. According to Suetonius, a physician, only one wound, the second one to his chest, had been lethal. Some forty people joined in the plot of the assassination. Marcus Brutus, Caesar’s second choice as heir, Publius Casca and his brother Gaius Casca, Gaius Cassius and his brother Lucius Cassius were among the assassins.

It was a blunder on the part of the assassins to neglect planning about what they would do following Caesar’s death and they paid a high premium for allowing Caesar’s cousin and right-hand man Marcus Antonius, popularly known as Mark Antony to live. Mark Antony, by his spirited speech turned the tide of the Roman popular opinion against the conspirators and finally defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BC.

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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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