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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It is impossible to tell if Caesar wished to destroy the last remnants of the old Republic and replace it with a formal autocracy or whether he merely intended to become the leading citizen—although one without rivals—in the Roman world. In the end, the result was the same, for Caesar for a brief time did become supreme ruler, and the Republic was destroyed. Although it was Caesar’s nephew and heir Octavian (later known as Augustus) who became the first Roman emperor, it was Caesar who made the Empire possible.
Following a term as quaestor (a junior military officer) in Spain in 69 b.c.e., Caesar returned to Rome and allied himself with Marcus Licinius Crassus and Pompey the Great; the first was the richest man in Rome, the second its leading general. Together, these three formed the First Triumvirate, which was to become the real power in the Roman world.
In 61 b.c.e., Caesar was appointed governor of Farther Spain and honored with a triumph for his military campaigns there. The next year, he was elected as one of the two consuls who headed the Roman government; his term of office began in 59 b.c.e. The rest of Caesar’s career stems, directly or indirectly, from this consulship.
As one of two consuls, Caesar had to deal with his colleague, a conservative opponent. Impatient with this and other obstructions, Caesar initiated numerous highly irregular, sometimes illegal, actions. These were designed to benefit Pompey’s discharged veterans, increase the wealth of Crassus, and advance the general aims of the Triumvirate. So blatant, however, were the offenses—including violence against officials whose positions made them virtually sacred—that Caesar knew that his enemies would not rest until he had been prosecuted, convicted, and condemned.
His only recourse was to remain in office, because then he would be immune from trial. He secured the provinces of Cisalpine Gaul (now northern Italy) and Illyricum (the coast of modern Yugoslavia) and soon added Transalpine Gaul (southern France), which bordered on lands unconquered by Rome.
Caesar wasted no time in finding an excuse to wage war against the Gauls, and for the next eight years he was embroiled in the Gallic Wars, which are vividly recounted in his commentaries. During his campaigns, he crossed the Rhine River to drive back the German tribes and twice launched an invasion of Britain. Although his attempts on the island were unsuccessful, his second fleet numbered eight hundred ships—the largest channel invasion armada until the Allied Normandy invasion in World War II.
In 52 b.c.e., the recently subdued Gauls revolted against the Romans and, led by Vercingetorix, came close to undoing Caesar’s great conquests. By brilliant generalship and...
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