It seems fitting that we pay a brief homage to Caesar as we wrap up the series of conflicts between him and Pompey in the first Greatness Evolved Series.
Julius Caesar achieved the goal of his life – a fame akin to immortality. Born in 100 BC to one of Rome’s most noble families, Caesar was well aware that his family had lost its former political clout and determined to rebuild it. The Republic of Caesar’s youth was in decline: decades of increasing political stress between competing groups and classes led to civil wars, wars against the Italian allies, and recurring bloody coups d’etat. Underlying the turmoil was a struggle between the handful of noble families who had controlled the Republic for a century – the Optimates – and those wishing to extend power to other classes and allied states (the Populares).
From the beginning young Caesar firmly allied himself with the popular agenda. Then, in his ‘teens, came the terror of the Dictator Sulla, with proscription lists in the Forum of who would be killed and whose property would be confiscated. Rome appeared locked in revolution and counter-revolution.
Caesar’s early life reads like an adventure thriller. During Sulla’s dictatorship, the Dictator demanded that Caesar divorce his teenaged wife, the daughter of Sulla’s enemy. Caesar defied the dictator and was forced to flee Rome with a price on his head.
While studying abroad, Caesar was captured by pirates and held to a gigantic ransom. He joked with the captain and crew that he would return and destroy them all. The pirates laughed, but Caesar did exactly as he promised, crucifying the lot. In battle, although just 20, he won the Corona Civica for valor, equivalent of the Victoria Cross. He fought as a young officer in Rome’s wars in Spain and Turkey, showing hints of the military genius he would fully develop in Gaul. He worked his way up the political ladder –the Cursus Honorum, or “honors race” – becoming in turn Quaestor, Aedile, Praetor, and finally (in 59 BC) Consul, the highest political honor in the state.
To force through his political agenda, Caesar was the moving force in an informal alliance with Pompey and Crassus, two of Rome’s greatest power-brokers, in the so-called “First Triumvirate.” It controlled Rome’s politics for a decade, and Cato later mourned that it was the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic.
As a man, Caesar was remarkable. He was notorious for his sexual liaisons with women (and rumor had it, with men). He was known for his great personal charm, wit, education, and extravagance. He was considered by Cicero the best lawyer, speaker, and writer in Rome besides the Master himself.
Cultured and intellectual, he avoided fine food and wine, preferring plain soldier’s fare. From the start, he was a gambler, whether in prosecuting a well-born Senator for corruption or in running for the office of High Priest – Pontifex Maximus – when he was only 37, beating out two famous elder statesmen.
His financial extravagance was notorious, and several times he barely escaped his creditors. He had a long-term affair with Servilia, sister of his greatest enemy, Cato, and once gave her a perfect pearl worth more than a great estate. He was especially close to her son, Brutus, would later lead his murderers.
After his Consulship, Caesar chose his foreign province in Gaul. He found a pretext to invade the unconquered lands in northern Gaul where, in a decade of bloody conquest, he himself estimated that he killed or enslaved millions of men, women and children. The booty made him immensely rich, while the legend of his military genius was established. It has never faded.
During Caesar’s long absence in Gaul, Rome was threatened by internal political violence on an increasing scale. Pompey Magnus (“The Great”), once allied to Caesar by marriage, now maneuvered to ally himself with Caesar’s enemies. As Caesar’s reputation rose, Pompey’s jealousy grew.
Finally, in 49 BC, a small rump of die-hard Senators managed to ram through legislation stripping Caesar of his provinces and powers. Under Roman law, Caesar could now be prosecuted by his enemies for his political actions: if convicted, he could hope for nothing more than exile and ruin. Instead, with the 13th Legion, Caesar invaded Italy by crossing the Rubicon River in January, 49 BC. Pompey and the conservative Senators fled Rome, vowing to destroy Caesar in battle in the East, where Pompey could access vast numbers of allied troops.
In the world war that followed, Caesar fought brilliant battles in quick succession in Greece (where Pompey’s army was destroyed at Pharsalia in 48 BC), Egypt (where he became Queen Cleopatra’s lover), Turkey, Africa and Spain.
He was victorious on all fronts. He returned to Rome with his enemies destroyed and power solely in his own hands. Now, he could legislate the political reforms he had long envisioned but which were impossible under the Republic. He found that ultimate power meant anything but ultimate acceptance.
Caesar made a policy of forgiving his enemies and welcoming them back into his administration. It rubbed the Optimates raw that Caesar now controlled the government, awarding prestige positions, bringing in provincials and non-nobles into the hallowed Senate, awarding the Roman citizenship as if he owned it. Even those men who had fought with Caesar, or gained benefits at his hands, came to hate accepting his favors. At most, Caesar could only wring from the former Optimates a sullen acquiescence, symbolized by Cicero: who praised the Dictator to his face, while his letters seethed with hatred of his dictatorship.
Caesar’s successes seemed to be endless. In late February, 44 BC, he was made Dictator for Life by the Senate. This mobilized Brutus, Cassius and others to begin plotting his death. Having settled Italy, Caesar planned one last great campaign, against the eastern Parthians. His forces were ready: Caesar planned to leave Rome on March 18.
His final Senate meeting was scheduled for the Ides of March (March 15). Months before, Caesar had dismissed his bodyguard. He said, “It is more important for Rome than for myself that I should survive. I have long been sated with power and glory; but, should anything happen to me, Rome will enjoy no peace.”
The evening of March 14, sharing dinner with several friends, he was casually asked what was the best kind of death to die. “A sudden one”, he said.
The next day, dozens of Senators confirmed their pact against tyranny by stabbing the Dictator more than 20 times, slashing each other in their frenzy. But the Republic was not reborn with Caesar’s murder. Instead other, lesser warlords would fight for power until the remains of the Republic were won by Octavian, Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son. In the process, each and every assassin of Caesar would die violently throughout the Roman world.
In July, 44, Octavian was giving Rome memorial games in Caesar’s honor. To the wonder of the grieving crowds, a comet rose in the sky and blazed across it daily until the games were over.
To Romans everywhere, it pledged that Caesar, now divine, had joined the gods. Shakespeare’s play is only the greatest of the works written on this extraordinary Roman, whose life and death came to symbolize an epoch in history. Gaius Julius Caesar found what he had always sought – a primacy of fame.
Where it all began: