The family of Gaius Julius, later known as Julius Caesar (JEWL-yuhs SEE-zur), was of great antiquity and nobility in Roman history; Caesar claimed descent not only from the ancient kings of the city but also from Aeneas, its legendary founder, and his mother, the goddess Venus. In actual life, however, the Julian clan had more history than money and tended to favor the cause of the common people rather than the aristocrats. The twin pressures of finance and popular politics were the dominant forces that shaped the life and career of Julius Caesar.
During the first century b.c.e., the city-state of Rome had become the dominant power in the Mediterranean world, and with this expansion had come enormous wealth, immense military strength, and a gradual but unmistakable decline in the old Republic. By the time of Caesar’s birth, the political factions in Rome had coalesced into two major camps. The populares were led by Gaius Marius, who was married to Caesar’s aunt Julia; this group championed the cause of the middle and lower classes. Their opponents, the optimates, favored the upper classes and the traditional rule of the senate; they found their leader in Lucius Cornelius Sulla. The bloody civil war between the two sides ended with Sulla’s victory and assumption of the dictatorship.
In 84 b.c.e. Caesar married Cornelia, the daughter of a leading follower of Marius. This action so angered Sulla that Caesar found it prudent to secure a diplomatic post at the court of Nicomedes, the king of Bithynia in northeastern Asia Minor. Caesar did not return to Rome until...
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