Gaius Julius Caesar was a successful general and apparently reluctant dictator. He was born into a patrician family around 100 BC and became Pontifex Maximus (a species of high priest) as part of a deal he had fixed up with Pompey (q.v.) and Crassus (the multi-millionaire general). It might have been the Mafia and ‘Chicago BC’.
They called this the ‘First Triumvirate’. As consul Gaius Julius obtained the provinces of Illyricum, Cisalpine and Transalpine Gaul. Never anything else but a fine general, he conquered Gaul (modern Germany and France), crossed the Rhine, inspired constant loyalty in his troops, and even made to expeditions to heathen, dangerous, unpredictable Britain.
Though no commander was permitted to enter or even make camp near the city of Rome, Gaius Julius refused to give up command of his armies until he had made sure of a second consulship for himself, during 48 BC. Once he had the second consulship in his grasp, which would make him immune to prosecution by his enemies, he was able to deal with his old friend Pompey, who had turned against him and was inciting the Senate to impeach him.
Virtually in a trice he occupied Rome against the wishes of the Senate, but a popular move with the people. He crossed the Rubicon (settling a descriptive term of speech meaning the decision to break the law and do your own thing in defiance of it – which has lasted right down through the centuries) and thrashed Pompey at Pharsalus in 48 BC. Then, astounding many, he demonstrated a clemency virtually unknown in that epoch by permitting Pompey’s soldiers (those left alive) to return unmolested and unpunished to Rome. He then went on to succeed in all operations against Asia Minor, Egypt (where he had relations with the Queen, Cleopatra which almost certainly resulted in a bastard son), Africa and Spain.
Having broken the Roman city law which disallowed returning generals to approach the city with their troops, he became Dictator in Rome, actually calling it ‘Perpetual Dictator’, and immediately started a sensible series of reforms, including the introduction of the Julian Calendar. While no-one doubts his breadth of vision, his generalship or his literary skills (his account of the campaigns in Gaul can still be bought in almost any language at bookstalls), it is true to say that Gaius Julius Caesar was only too aware of his own brilliance, his ascendancy and significance. He completely ignored any opposition, as well as any republican tradition. It is on the cards that he thought he was a god.
When he announced to Rome and the Senate that he intended to be made King of Rome and create an Empire, he made a serious mistake. Plots were made against him by patrician leaders such as Brutus and Cassius. The conspiracy did not involve any clemency for Gaius Julius, as he had shown to Pompey’s soldiers. The idea was assassination, and the date was set for the Ides of March – 15 March, 44 BC. The plotters thought of killing Marc Antony and others too, but reached the conclusion that the army would either prevent such an undertaking, or, out of fury, seek revenge. No-one even considered consulting (or murdering) an unknown, nineteen year old nephew of Julius’s called Octavian.
If the conspirators thought of Octavian at all, they thought he was a youth who had accompanied Marc Antony on military expeditions and had shared his camp bed. They must all have been blinded by personal ambitions.
After being stabbed to death in the Senate Caesar was deified by the people, and a temple was built to his memory in the Forum. In a series of deft and swift moves, the teenage Octavian removed all opposition and became Caesar Augustus (q.v.).
They were a branch of the noble Roman clan of the Julias. The name itself passed from its most famous member to become an imperial title, but Julius had no legitimate sons. His young illegitimate son Caesarion (remember the adventure with Cleopatra?) was not recognised by Roman law.
Octavian took the name as Julius’ nephew and adoptive son. It was then used by the Julio/Claudian dynasty until it faded out with the death of Nero (68 AD). All succeeding emperors used the title however, so that what was originally a family surname began to signify ‘Prince’. In the Roman Empire in the East (q.v.) the title became Kaisaros. It is from this that the kingly Russian and German titles Tsar and Kaiser derive.
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