Up until only about 60 or so years ago, history was primarily taught from a perspective sometimes called “great man” history. I’m not a fan of great man history. When we focus too closely on the individuals, they tend to become inhumanly powerful, unrealistic and unrelatable. Also, “great man” history tends to ignore the lives and decisions of the millions of people whose names haven’t survived through time, the people that followed and fought and empowered the “great men” we’re so obsessed with.
But the story of Julius Caesar is unique; Caesar’s story has been a recurring theme in just about every western culture since he walked onto the world stage over two millennia ago. As far as stories go, it’s a pretty compelling one. It’s filled with themes of betrayal, loyalty, patriotism, violence, freedom, ambition, corruption, and war, all things that are pertinent in our societies and countries today.
Whereas great man history works from the premise that “great men” periodically show up and history bends around them, I believe skilled, shrewd men and women in history have been able to recognize the bends in history and step into them. Julius Caesar had the skill to do that, but when he did, he was swept up in a pattern that eventually destroyed him and destroyed the greatest republic the ancient world had ever known.
This week in history we backtrack 2061 years to March 15, 44 BC, to look at the death of Julius Caesar and the fall of the Roman Republic. Beware, the Ides of March.
Life and Pressures in the Roman Republic
The story of Julius Caesar and the role he played in the Roman Republic’s collapse has captured imaginations ever since it happened. He’s shown up again and again in our collective consciousness. There are good reasons for that. Foremost, it is a high drama story full of intrigue and amazing, three-dimensional characters. It’s got action, murder, sex, betrayal. And we have an unusual amount of records and histories for a time so long ago, so we have a uniquely intricate and accurate view of the players, the events, and the crisis they found themselves in.
But the series of dominoes that started to fall that would eventually lead to the assassination of Caesar and the demise of the Roman Republic had been pushed long before Caesar entered the scene; they started falling before he was born.
In order to understand how all this went down, we have to look at the trouble brewing in Rome in 130 BC, 30 years before Caesar was born.
Like almost every society ever, Roman society was broken into classes. At the top of the pyramid was the smallest of all of Rome’s social groups. They were called the patricii, the Patrician class, or the noble class. These people were Rome’s aristocracy, the elite. They were the leaders of Rome. Because being a patrician was a hereditary right, the individual noble families were extremely mindful of the Roman leaders their family had produced over the generations.
Most patrician families had death masks of significant family members in a room in their homes. So if you had an influential grandpa or uncle that was a senator, or a great-great-great uncle that was a consul, their mask was up in your home. Kids were raised with tales about these ancestors and told they were expected to do as well or to even beat them. It engendered in the youth of this noble class a kind of pressure and ambition that we in modern western society will probably have a tough time understanding. To these Roman kids, honoring the family heritage and having an honored place on the wall of their kids and grandkids was everything.
The Roman Republic had existed for roughly 400 years, and it was an intricate legal system. At the top was the senate. The Senate was made up of roughly 300 (the number varied a lot) of men--it was always men--who were holding or had previously held some kind of high public office. Once you were in, you were in for life. And it was a nice gig; Senators didn’t have to pay any taxes, which could be pretty hefty. Also, they were kind of celebrities in Rome. Being in the senate was for many young patricians, the ultimate goal.
At the top of the pecking order were Rome’s two consuls, which were the executive officers, kind of like the presidents of Rome. There were two of them so they could check each other's’ ambition. Among other things, they could veto laws passed by the Senate, were responsible for enforcing laws, and presided over political meetings.
The consuls, the senators, the military commanders, and most other public positions were filled by patrician families. The Senate oversaw elections and usually ensured that the candidates were from good patrician families. There were exceptions, but they were really rare.
|"Cicero Denounces Cataline" by Cesare Maccari|
Cicero is still regarded as one of Rome's finest orators.
One of the leading senators through much of the time we're going to discuss was Cicero. We’ll get back to him later, but once Cicero was trying to explain why having a hereditary aristocracy was a great thing. He suggested that having an aristocracy prevented the Republic from becoming a plutocracy, which is government run by money.
There was a problem with Cicero’s thinking, though. While some noble families were better off than others, the patricians were extremely wealthy compared to the rest of Rome. And they were getting more so all the time.
There were a few ways the senate and other politicians ensured that the wealth was constantly flowing upwards toward the high classes. First, the senate was in the habit of constant deficit spending, spending more than they were bringing in. There were no banks at this time, and so the senate took loans from wealthy private citizens--the patricians. The moneylenders would charge oppressively high interest rates, and so as the debt and interest payments rose, the senate would raise taxes (and, remember, the senators themselves didn’t have to pay taxes), and so take more money from the lower classes to pay the debts.
Over time, life for the lower classes was getting tougher. The main middle/lower class were a group called the plebii, the plebeians, or “plebs” for short. (Note: there are other class distinctions like equestrians and proletariat, but they’re not important for our purposes here.) The quality of life for the plebs kind of waxed and waned throughout the centuries, for about a century or so before Caesar’s birth, it was definitely waning.
Rome is famous for its military conquests. We often talk about the Roman Republic being replaced by the Roman Empire, but it’s a little more nuanced than that because the Roman Republic by this time already was an empire. They held territory along most of the coast of the Mediterranean, including Spain in the east and Greece in the west. And they had an absolutely massive military they used to conquer and control this territory, which required a huge amount of men.
To fill the ranks of the army, Rome had long had a conscription requirement for any Roman owning land to give time to the army. The problem was, that there was no limit on how long the army was going to keep you; sometimes it was just a few years, but if you were involved in one of Rome’s nearly-constant wars of conquest, it could be for a decade or even longer. This made it so that if you were a poor farmer with a small plot of land, you essentially had to leave your family behind on the farm and hope your family could make do while you were away. Pay for soldiers was small and inconsistent, and often not enough to support a family back home.
So, to get around the conscription requirement, plebs started selling their land and moving into the city. This caused land values to plummet, and wealthy land-owners eagerly started buying up as much land as they could. There had been a long-standing law that limited land ownership in and around Rome to a little over 300 acres, or roughly half a square mile. Wealthy people had been getting around this by buying land under false names, but eventually, they started doing it openly. And because the people doing it were either the leaders of Rome or the close friends and family of the leaders of Rome, the law wasn’t enforced.
When the plebs moved into the city, it was a pretty grim life. Here’s what author and historian Michael Parenti wrote about their living conditions:
"There being no public transportation, the proletarians [working-class plebs] had to be housed within walking distance of work sites and markets. The solution was to pile them into thousands of poorly lit inner-city tenements along narrow streets. Such dwellings were sometimes seven or eight floors high, all lacking toilets, running water, and decent ventilation. The rents for these fetid, disease-ridden warrens were usually more than the plebs could afford, forcing them to double and triple up, with entire families residing in one room."
So if you were holed up in these rate-infested buildings, your chances of catching some deadly disease like typhus or typhoid skyrocketed. But if you managed to survive the diseases, there was still plenty of danger. These tenements were hastily and terribly-made. And it was extremely common for them to collapse or burn down. It happened all the time.
Senator Cicero owned a few buildings like this and described their collapse to a friend: “Two of my shops have collapsed and the others are showing cracks, so that even the mice have moved elsewhere, to say nothing of the tenants. Other people call this a disaster, I don’t call it even a nuisance.... There is a building scheme under way . . . which will turn this loss into a source of profit.”-Cicero
|Bust of Crassus in the Louvre|
Another patrician who plays an important role in this story, a guy by the name of Crassus, made his fortune by hiring a fire brigade and charging extreme amounts of money to try to extinguish the fires. When they failed to save the building, Crassus would immediately offer to buy the land (offering, sometimes the money he just earned by fighting the fire). He’d then build a new tenement and charge high rents to pay for it. This and other businesses made Crassus one of the most wealthy men, not just in Rome, but in the entire ancient world.
If a pleb managed to survive the horrible living conditions, they often had a difficult time finding work. Rome’s constant military expansion resulted in the capture and enslavement of hundreds of thousands of people. Historians estimate that about a third of the entire population of Italy was made up of slaves. Patricians who owned these massive plantations outside of Rome would often fill most of their workforce with them. Because slaves were an expensive investment, the more dangerous work would often go to the plebs, because they were disposable. And if they died, the rich guys didn’t need to pay them.
Of course, this led to a pretty disgruntled (and pretty huge) lower class. But they had ways to address their problems. Rome had two public assemblies. The assemblies were where the citizens of Rome gathered to nominate and vote for candidates for high office. The assemblies were “calibrated”--we may call it gerrymandered today--so that the votes of higher-classes were higher than those of lower classes, but every Roman family had a vote (they voted in blocs as families.)
The other check built into the government that protected citizens was the tribunate. Rome had ten elected officials called tribunes whose entire job was to represent the common people of Rome. They were the closest thing Rome had to a democratic office or a representative republic. Tribunes had to be from a plebeian heritage. They had the ability to veto legislation passed by the Senate, but there were ten of them to dilute their ability to do that. Unlike other public offices in Rome, tribunes were not made part of the senate when they were left office. In order to keep the tribunes in line, senators would often bribe them with prospects of other elected offices. This would give those tribunes a rare opportunity to jump to the ruling class, so it was an effective way for the senate to nullify any potential problems from the tribunes.
Roman Power Struggles: Populares vs Optimates
The conflicts that eventually led to the fall of the Republic and the assassination of Julius Caesar started with the Tribunes and the public assemblies. There’s so much history here, that we could get mired down, but I’ll be brief. A political movement started to take hold among a lot of tribunes and other politicians starting about 130 AD. They were called populares, today we’d call them populists. They were tribunes who actively sought social reform for the plebs.
Among other things, the populares wanted to:
- Recalibrate the way voting worked to allow the plebs a more significant voice in the assemblies.
- Offer Roman citizenship to non-Roman Italians (most Italians weren’t Roman citizens at this time.)
- Introduce debt reform and even debt cancellation.
- Give freed slaves the right to vote.
- Redistribute Roman land to the poor.
The senate and patricians were largely opposed to these ideas, often violently (as we’ll see). They formed a powerful opposition called the optimates. The optimates, simply put, wanted to keep the status quo and keep power in patrician hands. They looked at the average pleb as unintelligent, violent, dangerous, and fickle. They viewed the plebs as a mass, a mob that had to be placated and kept in its place. This fear of mob rule was so prevalent and entrenched in the writings of famous Romans like Cicero, that it has influenced political thinkers for centuries, including the U.S. founding fathers.
So the populares wanted to reform Rome, and the optimates thought their reforms would destroy Rome. In 130 BC, one populare Tribune named Tiberius Gracchus was frustrated with the optimate-controlled Senate, and so started introducing and passing laws directly through the citizen’s assemblies. This hadn’t ever really been done but wasn’t strictly illegal. When the senate felt like things were getting out of hand, they sent a group of mercenaries to attack the Tribune and his followers. 300 people, including Tiberius Gracchus, were killed.
Ten years later, Tiberius’ little brother Gaius Gracchus became Tribune. He was even more popular and started using similar tactics to bypass the senate. Optimate leaders thought he posed a risk not only to themselves but to the entire Roman system. They hired mercenaries to kill him and his followers. Over 3300 people were massacred.
This disturbing pattern started showing up regularly in this time period. Populare leaders (usually tribunes) would show up, harness the popularity of the Roman people, and start undermining the power of the senate and the ruling classes. The optimates would respond violently, genuinely thinking this kind of action threatened the country, and treat the leaders as if they were in rebellion to the republic.
Crucially, during this time period, army policy also changed. Because fewer and fewer Romans actually owned land, it was getting increasingly tough to get enough manpower for the armies, which Rome relied on. A populare consul and former general instituted reforms to the military that let any Roman citizen join the army. More than that, he started promising his own troops that they would receive land after they were done with their enlistments. Between the policy change, the promise of land, and the fact that troops tended to get a ton of war loot when they successfully conquered a new territory, Roman soldiers became far more loyal to their generals than they were to Rome.
This gave rise to an actual rebellion and civil war in 88BC. Yet another one of these populist tribunes started using the same tactics to bypass the senate, but the senate officially struck down some of his bills. The Tribune argued they didn’t have the authority to do that and were so upset, he and his followers began to riot. They started intimidating and even killing optimate leaders. He then started using the assemblies to eject (fire) senators from the Senate and dismissed so many that the Senate didn’t have enough men to form a quorum. This rogue Tribune then voted to replace the general of one of Rome’s main armies, a traditionalist named Sulla, with a populare general.
This story gets really complex, but essentially, Sulla was so fed up with what was happening, he took his army and marched on Rome. He put the city under martial law and started to systematically kill anyone who even sympathized with the populares. It can’t be overstated just what a huge thing this was. Troops were strictly not allowed in Rome, and Sulla’s march into Rome was incredibly illegal, and even the optimate senators were upset about it. But, because he was cleaning up the crisis, they allowed it and even voted to name him a dictator.
The role of dictator was a rare office that the senate could give someone in the time of an emergency. But it was strictly understood that a dictator only held that title for six months, or until the crisis was over, whichever came first. Sulla’s march on Rome, though, sparked a civil war, and the Senate saw fit to keep voting him extensions as dictator. Sulla the dictator won the war easily. He executed anywhere from 4,000 to 10,000 Roman citizens he thought posed a threat to the senate and the republic. Two years later, he stepped down as dictator and died shortly thereafter.
|Optimate general and dictator Sulla|
While he was dictator, Sulla rolled back all kinds of populare reforms and changed the political system. He minimized the tribunes by taking away their power to veto and denied the assemblies the power to pass laws. This essentially took away decades of progress made for the average people of Rome, and also had taken away any of their supporters. His unprecedented march on Rome and his extended dictatorship were also extremely consequential. Sulla’s choices set the stage for Julius Caesar and ultimately the fall of Rome.
While he was executing all his political enemies, Sulla targeted a young patrician for execution, a guy about the age of nineteen. His only crime was that his father-in-law and an uncle had been significant leaders in the faction that had opposed Sulla. Some friends managed to convince Sulla not to execute the young man, though Sulla was wary of him, fearing the young man posed a threat to Rome. The young man left for Greece, just in case Sulla changed his mind.
That young man was Julius Caesar.
Gaius Julius Caesar
Caesar was kind of a Roman’s Roman. He was extremely intelligent, handsome, well-spoken, had incredible ambition, and came from a distinguished patrician line that descended from the Goddess Venus. Unlike many of Rome’s elite, he didn’t really set out to make life comfortable for himself; he moved way too quickly for that. He seemed to ignore anything that might be a distraction from his ambition, although we’re told he was really conscientious of his clothing and started to set trends in a society that was known for its traditional way of dressing. Most important of all his qualities, Caesar was bold. He was extremely confident and was comfortable trusting his instincts and in his own luck.
When Sulla died, Caesar left Greece to return to Rome. On his way across the Adriatic, though, he was captured by pirates. Piracy was widespread at this time, and the victims were often sold into slavery. But recognizing Caesar was a patrician, the pirates thought it would be more profitable to ask for a ransom. Here’s Plutarch’s account of the story.
First, when the pirates demanded a ransom of twenty talents, Caesar burst out laughing. They did not know, he said, who it was that they had captured, and he volunteered to pay fifty.
Then, when he had sent his followers to the various cities in order to raise the money and was left with one friend and two servants among these Cilicians, about the most bloodthirsty people in the world, he treated them so highhandedly that, whenever he wanted to sleep, he would send to them and tell them to stop talking.
For thirty-eight days, with the greatest unconcern, he joined in all their games and exercises, just as if he was their leader instead of their prisoner.
He also wrote poems and speeches which he read aloud to them, and if they failed to admire his work, he would call them to their faces illiterate savages, and would often laughingly threaten to have them all hanged. They were much taken with this and attributed his freedom of speech to a kind of simplicity in his character or boyish playfulness.
However, the ransom arrived. . . and, as soon as he had paid it and been set free, he immediately manned some ships and set sail from the harbor of Miletus against the pirates. He found them still there, lying at anchor off the island, and he captured nearly all of them.
He took their property as spoils of war and. . . crucified the lot of them, just as he had often told them he would do when he was on the island and they imagined that he was joking.
That confidence was endemic in who Caesar was. Several years later, while he was serving in a political position in Spain, there are accounts that he was looking at a statue of Alexander Great, or maybe reading about Alexander’s life and he burst into tears. Confused friends asked him why he was crying. Plutrarch records his response.
“‘Do you think,’ said he, ‘I have not just cause to weep, when I consider that Alexander at my age had conquered so many nations, and I have all this time done nothing that is memorable?’”
You mix Caesar’s bold confidence and innate skill with a little Roman-bred ambition? You’ve got the recipe for an imposing historical figure.
Caesar’s Rise to Prominence as a Populare
Caesar served in several lower political positions in Rome and elsewhere with distinction, but he started to make waves at the age of 47 when he ran for Pontifex Maximus, which was basically the high priest of Rome. It was a lifetime position, and it typically went to some venerated, old senator looking to retire. While he wasn’t young, Caesar was seen by many to be too young for this particular position. To make things worse, Caesar actually ran against two prominent, powerful senators and he won.
Though he didn’t win honestly. Bribery and vote buying was extremely common in Rome by this time, and Caesar took every advantage he could get. It was also common for politicians to cry corruption when their opponents did it, but they were more than willing to overlook ethics when they or their friends were running for office.
Plutarch wrote, “[Caesar’s election] excited among the senate and nobility great alarm lest he might now urge the people to every extreme of recklessness.”
And Caesar didn’t disappoint. He introduced a bill to the senate that was supposed to set aside Roman lands for poor veterans. The army had been promising land to veterans for a long time now, but often offered land in the far-flung areas within the newly-conquered territories. The fight over giving Roman land to troops was a really common one between the populare and the optimates, and the optimates hated it.
|Stature of Cato in the Louvre|
One of the primary reasons populare land proposals were so hated was that they typically proposed to re-appropriate land from existing landowners and give it to the soldiers. Caesar’s bill, though, wanted only to use existing public land or land owners were willing to sell to the state for a fair price. Some senators begrudgingly thought that it was a fair compromise, but other optimates stood firm and struck the bill down.
Optimates were becoming nervous about this charismatic upstart and were alarmed at his increasing popularity. Famous Roman senators like Cicero and Cato were at the center of those who opposed Caesar and started to look for ways to minimize the threat he posed.
But Caesar continued to climb the social ladder. He was elected as governor of a province in Spain, an extremely prestigious and lucrative position. But his campaign for Pontifex Maximus had left him in deep debt, and his creditors were threatening to have him arrested if he left Rome without paying. So Caesar turned to the richest man in rome, Crassus (who we mentioned earlier). Crassus was impressed enough with Caesar that he either paid or guaranteed most of Caesar’s debts, and Caesar was able to proceed to Spain.
The First Triumvirate
It was while he was in Spain that Caesar started forming the most significant political alliance in Roman history. It’s known as the triumvirate. The triumvirate was an unofficial alliance between Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey the Great.
|Statue of Pompey|
Pompey was Rome’s greatest living hero and most successful general. He had spent years conquering areas in the middle-east, including Jerusalem. He’d also cleared the Mediterranean of an extremely rampant pirate problem. He came back to Rome with all the booty and spoils of war (an absolutely huge amount of money). He was an incredibly celebrated hero and a common household name. If Rome had rockstars, they were the generals. And Pompey was the biggest. The Senate gave him a Triumph, which was basically like declaring a public holiday, complete with parades and feasts. The general and his troops (the only time troops were allowed in Rome) got to march in a parade with examples of the animals they found, the loot they brought back and even the prisoners they’d captured. It was the height of honor for a Roman.
Thing was, the senate was terrified of Pompey. The memory of Sulla and his reign of terror was really fresh in their minds, even though Sulla had been on the side with most of the senators, as an optimate. The idea of a general far more successful and loved than Sulla was unnerving; Pompey, with almost the tilt of his head, could seize all power in Rome. Luckily, Pompey made a much better general than a politician and he disbanded his troops when the Triumph was over.
The Senate was still wary of him, and so when Pompey came to them with a few requests, including land for his veterans, the Senate turned him down flat, probably to assert their authority. Caesar heard all this and so reached out to Pompey, to fill out this three-way alliance, and even gave Pompey (who was six years older than Caesar) his 18-year-old daughter Julia to marry.
Quick note about women, here. Michael Parenti wrote, “Wealthy men such as Julius Caesar treated women from well-placed families as disposable strategic assets.” Romans, like most other cultures in world history, were horribly chauvinistic, and Caesar was no exception. Technically adultery was against the law, and Caesar even divorced his first wife for adultery. But the practice was widespread, and men were rarely punished for it. Caesar was famously lecherous and had countless trysts and affairs with women.
Daughters, like Julia, were named after their fathers (Pompey had a daughter named Pompeia, for example). If there were multiple daughters, they often went by their relative age, or even a number (Julia the elder and Julia the younger.) Caesar gave Julia to Pompey just a few days before her planned wedding to another man. Julia obediently went, and so sealed Pompey’s connection with Caesar, now his father-in-law.
So, with Crassus’ money, Pompey’s popularity and military might, and Caesar’s political acumen, they were unstoppable. Caesar returned from Spain with a score of military successes under his belt, and he ran for and won a Consulship, again with the help of extensive bribery and even intimidation by some of Pompey’s followers.
Caesar’s Consulship and Governance of Gaul
Caesar immediately introduced another land bill, which the senate promptly voted down. He then bypassed the senate and passed his bill through the assemblies, even though the practice had been outlawed by Sulla. Based on recent Roman history, this was a potentially dangerous thing to do, but Caesar persisted.
Caesar’s co-consul was a guy named Bibulus, who was solidly in the optimate camp. Bibulus vetoed the land law, but some of Pompey’s thugs started to intimidate and threaten him which frightened Bibulus so badly, he shut himself up in his home, rarely leaving again for the rest of his tenure as consul.
These strong-arm tactics infuriated the senate, especially Cato and Cicero. They were determined the minute Caesar was out of office, to start dragging him through the courts. This was a common tactic leaders used to attack their political enemies. They would use the courts (bribing the judges, of course) to discredit their enemies and even get them exiled, which was the worst punishment they could legally give a Roman citizen.
Caesar knew this was coming, but as consul, he enjoyed political immunity. He couldn’t be sued as long as he held high office. The problem was, consulship only lasted a year, so with Pompey and Crassus help, he managed to convince enough senators to vote him as Governor of Gaul (modern-day France), which also kept him immune to lawsuits.
|Portrayal of one of Caesar's many victories as military governor of Gaul|
As governor of Gaul, Caesar was placed in charge of four legions--roughly 24,000 men. He wasted no time pushing further and further into Gaul, winning a score of battles and the unquestioning loyalty of his troops, who loved him. He eventually was able to push all the way to the English channel and to the Rhine River, more than doubling the size of Rome’s holdings in Gaul. He wasn’t content with resting, though, and he crossed the English channel and began Rome’s invasion of England. All of this was making Caesar one of the most famous men in Rome.
And if the Senate hated him before, they were terrified of him now. This was a man who, as consul, had openly defied their authority. Caesar’s popularity was starting to rival Pompey’s, He was getting dangerous and they started to talk about what options they had to deal with him.
But not everything was going Caesar’s way; the triumvirate that he’d used to thrust himself into power was dissolving. Crassus, trying to get a little military glory, himself, died in the middle-east fighting the Parthians. Pompey, too, was starting to switch allegiances against Caesar. His wife Julia (Caesar’s daughter) had died in childbirth along with the baby. Strangely for a Roman, he had truly loved her, and the loss was deep. At her death, Caesar immediately offered the hand of his niece (ignoring the fact that she was already married), but the heartbroken Pompey turned him down.
In Rome, Pompey was nominated consul, and another of these problematic populare tribunes was stirring up trouble. Without going into detail, the Tribune, a guy called Clodius, started bullying the senate and manipulating the assemblies with a highly organized street gang--think Al Capone in a toga. There was no police force in Rome, and troops weren’t allowed inside the city, so initially, optimate senators responded by backing a rival street gang. Violence between the two kept escalating until one day, the Tribune was killed. When he died, all hell broke loose in Rome.
Open street battles spilled all over the city. Clodius’ gang started killing anyone they suspected of opposing the populares. The plebs in Rome were enraged yet another populare tribune had been killed, and an angry mob burned down the senate building.
This went on for days, and finally the senate offered Pompey “extraordinary powers.” (though they didn’t make him dictator, since it hadn’t gone well last time) They declared him the sole consul and gave him permission to bring troops in the city to deal with the problem. Within a few days Pompey’s troops had quelled the rebellion. He kept them in Rome to keep the peace.
Crossing the Rubicon
Finally, as Caesar’s ten-year rule as Governor was coming to an end, the Senate commanded Caesar to leave his army and return to Rome. Caesar knew all-too well that returning to Rome meant he would stand trial, be exiled, and probably even bankrupted. There was even a distinct possibility he might be assassinated, especially because Pompey’s troops were still in Rome.
Caesar responded he’d be happy to return to Rome, and that he would disband his army as long as Pompey disbanded his. Pompey was actually fine with the idea. He gives the impression that he really didn’t want a civil war, and maybe even didn’t want to become Caesar’s enemy. So he responded back that he would disband, as long as Caesar disbanded first. They responded a few times insisting the other disband their armies first. It kind of reminds me of two cowboys holding guns to each others’ chest, screaming for the other guy to “drop it!”
TheSenatee was putting Caesar in an impossible situation. He couldn’t stay in Gaul, because that would have been de facto exile, and the senate would stop paying and reinforcing his troops. He couldn’t go to Rome alone because he’d be sued or even assassinated, and he couldn’t take his troops because that would be an act of treason.
The Ssenate was debating about what to do about the situation when two tribunes, one of whom was Mark Antony, stood to defend Caesar. Senators threatened their lives and expelled them from the senate. Fearing assassination, Antony and a few other friends of Caesar fled Rome and joined him in Gaul.
When Caesar heard of this, his mind was made up, and he even felt he had a legal reason to take his troops to Rome. His justification sounded reasonable:
"I merely want to protect myself against the slanders of my enemies, to restore to their rightful position the tribunes of the people who have been expelled because of their involvement in my cause and to reclaim for myself and for the Roman people independence from the domination of a small clique."-Caesar
Taking about 6,000 of his men, Caesar marched toward the border between Italy and Gaul, which was marked by a small river called the Rubicon. Caesar said, “The die is cast,” and crossed the river. The moment he did, he had committed treason. News of Caesar’s move got to Rome almost immediately. Fearing he didn’t have enough troops to deal with Caesar, Pompey and most senators fled, eventually going to Greece to consolidate Pompey’s forces. Caesar marched into Rome without taking a single life.
Caesar’s move was right out of Sulla’s playbook. But he also learned from Sulla’s mistakes. Instead of threats, violence, and execution, Caesar began to practice a radically new strategy: mercy. He announced that he considered anyone not actively standing against him to be his friend. He offered clemency to captured senators and soldiers, alike. He said, "Let this be the new style of conquest, we grow strong through pity and generosity."
This was definitely a political strategy, (at other times, Caesar had no scruples about brutality against his enemies) but it paid off really well. With almost the entire senate out of Rome, the assemblies declared Caesar a dictator and then elected him consul. But despite his new role and his merciful approach to the invasion, Julius Caesar had sparked yet another Roman civil war.
The war lasted four years, and it was a bloody affair. In pursuit of Pompey, Caesar took his forces and crossed the Adriatic to Greece in the middle of winter. Storms were bad, though, and he was only able to get about half his army across the sea before the ships weren’t able to sail anymore. This left Pompey with an amazing opportunity to end the war.
The two Roman armies met at the Battle of Dyrrhachium. Some spies offered Pompey information about a potential weakness in Caesar’s line and Pompey exploited it, causing Caesar’s men to fall into retreat. But Pompey, fearing that the retreat was a ploy, didn’t pursue Caesar’s army, and so missed the opportunity to put a quick end to the war.
About a month later, the two armies met again at the Battle of Pharlasus. Caesar was in enemy territory running low on provisions with about 22,000 men. Conversely, Pompey, coming off a recent victory, had roughly 45,000 men and home field advantage. Pompey really didn’t need to fight, though. He had arranged a massive blockade that kept Caesar and his troops from retreating back to Italy. Pompey knew if he just waited, doing only enough to keep Caesar’s forces from escaping, Caesar’s army would soon run out of supplies and collapse. Several senators including Cato, though, pressured him to make a decisive blow, so Pompey obligingly agreed.
In the battle, Pompey ordered his cavalry to attack Caesar’s cavalry. Caesar’s cavalry retreated and were chased. But Caesar had a trick up his sleeve. He had hidden a fourth line of infantry who were crouching on the ground. When their own cavalry had passed by, the men leaped up with their spears and started stabbing at the enemy cavalry’s horses. This was devastatingly effective and left Pompey’s flank unguarded. Caesar reacting quickly, was able to turn Pompey’s flank and routed the army. It was the first time Pompey had ever been defeated in battle.
The loss was so complete that Pompey abandoned his troops entirely, leaving the country for Egypt, where he hoped to raise more forces. Egypt was in a civil war of its own at this time--it was still technically independent from Rome, though Rome would claim it only a few decades later. Egypt’s teen Pharaoh, Ptolemy XIII, was fighting against his wife--and sister--for the throne. Her name was Cleopatra. Ptolemy had heard about Pompey’s defeat in Greece and thought it would be to his benefit to be on Caesar’s good side. He directed assassins to kill Pompey.
When Caesar showed up in Egypt a short while later, hot on Pompey’s trail, the Pharaoh had Caesar presented with a box. He opened it and was horrified to see Pompey’s head. Plutarch wrote that Caesar refused to look at it and immediately began to shed tears.
It makes me suspect Caesar had planned clemency for his old friend and former son-in-law. You get the feeling that they genuinely respected and thought fondly of one another, though circumstance and that overwhelming Roman ambition forced them onto opposite sides of a line.
|"Caesar and Cleopatra"|
Whatever the case, Ptolemy’s goal of getting on Caesar’s good side backfired in a huge way. Caesar soon met with Cleopatra and the two of them struck up a passionate love affair, and when he returned to Rome, victorious, Cleopatra was at his side. He couldn’t legally marry her (and not just because he was already married--it was illegal for a Roman citizen, especially a patrician, to marry outside of Roman citizenship. Technically, adultery was illegal--it was the reason, after all, Caesar had divorced his first wife--but it was so widely practiced that anyone who was faithful to their spouse was seen as a prude, a weirdo.
Caesar did nothing to keep his affair with this Egyptian Pharaoh a secret. He placed her in an expansive villa just outside of Rome. Many of the Patricians saw her as an interloper, a foreigner and, worst, royalty who had a bad influence on the man in charge of Rome. Later, when Caesar changed their calendar to more closely reflect Egypt’s, (and our current, modern calendar as well) his enemies took it as a sign that Caesar wanted to emulate Egypt’s entire system, including their monarchal government.
The civil war lasted four years in total and finally ended when Caesar’s forces defeated Pompey’s sons and the last of his forces in Spain. The war was so devastating that it’s estimated the population of Rome dropped by at least a third. Every last citizen had been affected; the war had shaken Rome to its core.
Aftermath of War
When he returned to Rome, Caesar put on a Triumph. Normally, Triumphs were celebrations of Roman’s strength and conquering of some foreign land or people. But this Triumph was celebrating the dominance or Romans over other Romans. In the parade, there was an image depicting the suicide of Cato, and as it passed we’re told that Romans were devastated with grief.
For all Caesar’s talents, he demonstrated a surprising tone deafness after he returned to Rome. The Senate, most of whom, remember, sided against him during the war, were quick to try to ingratiate themselves with this leader, and so a majority of them managed to vote him in as dictator, first for a period of ten years, then as dictator in perpetuo, for life.
This was the most extreme power given to any Roman leader in centuries, and while most Romans adored Caesar, even they were unsettled by the unprecedented power thrust onto Caesar.
At one point, in front of one of the assemblies, Mark Antony tried to declare Caesar a king and tried to place a diadem (basically a crown) on Caesar’s head. But instead of cheering, the crowd remained deathly still. Caesar (likely reading the dynamic) loudly announced that Rome had only one king, and that was Jupiter. The crowd went wild.
While Caesar was a populist reformer and loved by the plebs, the idea of a Roman king was still anathema to your average Roman citizen. And it seemed to many, Patricians in particular, that Caesar was threatening to do exactly that. Caesar had transgressed most of their time-honored traditions and principles, and now that he was poised to break their most fundamental principle, to become a king, a conspiracy began to form to end Caesar’s reign.
Brutus and the Conspirators
At the center of that conspiracy, of course, was Brutus. Brutus and Caesar were extremely close friends. The fact that they were such close friends is interesting, because politically, Brutus was an undeviating optimate, and most often opposed the populare causes that Caesar championed. Brutus had actually sided with Pompey in the civil war, but Caesar had granted him clemency along with most the other senators who had opposed him. Their close friendship despite the political differences has led some to believe that Brutus was actually Caesar’s illegitimate son. I personally find that unlikely, but all we really know is that after Caesar’s death, Caesar named two successors, the first and main successor was his great-nephew Octavian. The second was Brutus, so it’s clear the men were close.
|Probable Bust of Bruitus|
Brutus had descended from a family line from the man who had killed Rome’s last king, a man who was also named Brutus. Because of the Roman focus on family glory and heritage, this would have been hugely influential on Brutus, and would likely have made him feel it was his family’s responsibility to protect the Republic from being ruled by one man.
But if Brutus had any reservations in standing against his close friend, he had to overcome them quickly, because the conspirators were working under a deadline. Caesar was planning to leave Rome and go to war against the Parthians--the same people who had killed Crassus. If he left, he’d be gone for years, and worse, if he was successful in his war, Caesar would come back a hero with even more popularity and prestige. The conspirators had to take him down before he left. somewhere around 60 men were implicated in the plot, and rumors were starting to run all over the city.
According to Plutarch, Caesar was forewarned about the plot by a wise old man. You can hear a section of Orson Wells’ radio play in the podcast.
Whether or not the warning “Beware the Ides of March” was actually given to Caesar, it’s interesting that Shakespeare did not invent the idea of the soothsayer; he lifted it from the history of Plutarch.
The day before Caesar was supposed to leave for the east, the conspirators summoned Caesar to a meeting of the senate. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia was supposed to have some terrible premonitions and begged him not to go. Caesar wasn’t feeling that well, anyway, and decided not to go, but one of the senators in on the conspiracy talked him into attending, insisting it would be an insult to the Senate if he were to leave without meeting with them once more. So, Caesar went to the senate.
The night before, Mark Antony found out about the plot and was desperately trying to reach the Senate to warn Caesar. But the conspirators had anticipated this, and at least one of them was assigned to delay him at the door.
While Caesar was listening to some petitions, one senator stepped behind him and pulled Caesar’s toga off his shoulder. It was the sign. Caesar yelled, “Why, this is violence!”
A senator named Casca raised his dagger and stabbed at Caesar, but Caesar managed to grab his hand and yelled, “Casca, you villain, what are you doing?” Casca desperately cried for the other conspirators to help, and they descended on him. Initially, Caesar tried to run, but he tripped and fell to the floor, still fighting against the assassins. But when he saw Brutus holding a dagger, he stopped fighting and covered his face with his toga.
Et tu, Brute?
Accounts differ on what Caesar’s actual last words were, but it definitely wasn’t et tu, Brute, as Shakespeare has made famous. Most accounts say he said nothing, but a few suggest when he saw Brutus, he said: “You too, child?” (Which is the primary reason some think Brutus was Caesar’s son.) We’re also certain Brutus didn’t say “sic semper tyrannus,” as has been popularly taught, and as was repeated by John Wilkes Booth upon Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Caesar was stabbed 23 times. When the deed was done, Brutus stood, probably to address the senate, but when the rest of the Senate saw what was happening, they initially stood staring in dumb shock and then ran. The word spread quickly through Rome. The streets were soon empty; people feared there was going to be more widespread violence. The conspirators walked through the streets yelling, "People of Rome, we are once again free!" They thought they had liberated Rome from bondage.
Ever since, people have pondered on these men--particularly Brutus--and speculated whether or not they're actions were justified. In Dante’s “Inferno,” Brutus is shown in hell, alongside Judas, being eternally chewed in the mouth of the devil for the sin of betrayal. In Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels,” Gulliver meets Brutus and the book says: “I was struck with a profound veneration at the sight of Brutus, and could easily discover the most consummate virtue, the greatest intrepidity and firmness of mind, the truest love of his country, and general benevolence for mankind, in every lineament of his countenance.” In Shakespeare, Brutus is portrayed as an empathetic character who is tortured over the conflicting duties, loyalties, friendships, and principles.
Many historians suggest Brutus and the other assassins were not working under some kind altruistic, patriotic principle; they simply were looking out for their own welfare. Others argue they were being selfless and thinking of the greater good of Rome. The fact is, it can be both; for the assassins, the patriotic, ethically right thing to do probably was also the thing that restored their power and the system that had benefitted them. Literature loves a villain, and so in most accounts where they appear, Brutus is the villain and Caesar the hero, or vice-versa. But the reality is, Brutus and Caesar, optimates and populares, and most opposing figures in history genuinely feel they’re doing the right thing. So the assassins probably had good reason to walk through the streets of Rome announcing “We are once again free.”
But free, they weren’t. Because despite their hopes that Rome could just resume life as normal, the aftermath of Caesar’s assassination threw Rome into yet another civil war, this one between the men who wanted to fill Caesar’s throne. Brutus was killed, along with most of his fellow conspirators. Cicero, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra all died as well. In the end, Caesar’s grandnephew and adopted son Octavian was successful and changed his name to Augustus Caesar. Augustus established a permanent empire; the Roman Republic was dead.
The assassination of Caesar hadn’t ended the Roman Republic, though. The Republic had died long before that, probably long before Caesar crossed the Rubicon and marched on Rome. Historians get preoccupied trying to find the one choice or the one moment when that was ultimately responsible for the collapse. But the truth is, a myriad of small factors piled one on top of another, and the Roman system was ultimately not resilient enough to cope with those pressures.
Caesar’s legacy and death still fascinates today. It raises the question, how much damage can one powerful man do to a society? Or, conversely, how much abuse and manipulation can a system take before a single man can give the final blow that knocks down the entire house of cards? And does the murder of dangerous political enemies actually make life more or less dangerous? All these questions are relevant throughout history and even today and are worth our contemplation.
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