Early Life

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 658

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.

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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 after Sulla’s death.

Once back, he embarked on a daring and ambitious course of bringing charges against the leading members of the optimates, in the hope of winning renown and establishing his support among the followers of Marius. Unsuccessful in these attempts, Caesar journeyed to Rhodes to study oratory—an art essential to any successful Roman politician. On the voyage, Caesar was captured by pirates and held for ransom. Insulted by the small amount they demanded, Caesar had them increase it and promised that when he was freed he would return to crucify them. He was good to his word, but according to his biographer Suetonius, Caesar mercifully cut the throats of the pirates before crucifixion.

In 70 b.c.e. Caesar fully entered public life with his funeral oration for his aunt Julia. It was in this speech that he traced his family ancestry to the goddess Venus; more important, he launched a searing attack on the conservative party in Rome, announcing his intent to challenge their rule. The rest of his life would be spent in making good that challenge.

According to ancient writers, Caesar was tall and fair-complexioned, with a full face and keen black eyes. He enjoyed excellent health until the last years of his life, when he was subject to fainting fits that may have been epileptic. He was bald early and quite vain about it; Suetonius says that of all the honors granted him, the one Caesar used most was the privilege of wearing a laurel wreath at all times.

In his private life, Caesar was noted for his incessant womanizing; even amid the somewhat lax morality of the late Republic, his escapades were cause for widespread comment. He was also exceedingly avaricious, but this may have been less a character flaw than a political necessity.

Caesar’s main characteristic was his amazing energy, both physical and mental. He endured the dangers and fatigues of military campaigns without complaint or distress, and he composed his lucid, fast-moving Comentarii de bello Gallico (45 b.c.e.; The Gallic Wars) and Comentarii de bello civili (52-51 b.c.e.; The Civil Wars; the two are translated together as Commentaries, 1609) almost before his battles were ended. He was so brilliant, in so many areas, that his contemporaries were dazzled, and historians continue to be fascinated by him.

Life’s Work

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1136

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 extraordinary efforts, Caesar pinned the Gauls in their fortress town of Alesia (Aliese-Sainte-Reine) and destroyed their army, finally ending the Gallic Wars. According to Caesar, he had fought thirty battles, captured eight hundred towns, and defeated three million enemies, of whom almost a million had been slain, another million captured. Although these figures are surely exaggerated, they do illustrate the extent of Caesar’s victory. Its long-lasting effect was the opening of northern Europe to the influence of Greek and Roman culture and the rich heritage of the Mediterranean civilization.

Caesar’s Gallic victories, however, had not secured his position in Rome. The Triumvirate had drifted apart, and Pompey was now allied with the senate and the conservatives. They demanded that Caesar give up his governorship and return to Rome. Knowing that such a move would be fatal, Caesar instead attacked his opponents. In January, 49 b.c.e., he led his troops across the Rubicon, the narrow stream that marked the border of his province. He took this irrevocable step with a gambler’s daring, remarking, “Jacta alea est” (the die is cast).

Pompey and the senatorial forces were caught by surprise, and within three months they had been driven from Italy to Greece. Caesar turned west and seized Sicily to secure Rome’s grain supply, then attacked Pompey’s supporters in Spain. He trapped their army near the Ebro River at Ilerda (now Lerida), and when they surrendered, he showed considerable clemency in pardoning them, in marked contrast to his earlier harsh treatment of the Gauls.

Returning to Rome, Caesar became dictator for the first time and proceeded to tackle numerous social problems, especially that of widespread debt, caused by the breakdown of the Republic. In 48 b.c.e., he daringly crossed the Adriatic Sea in winter and besieged Pompey’s larger forces at their base of Dyrrachium (Durazzo). Forced to retire into Thessaly, Caesar turned and defeated Pompey at the Battle of Pharsalus, destroying his army. Pompey fled to Egypt, hoping to rally support, but instead was murdered; the whole Roman world was in Caesar’s grasp.

Following Pompey to Egypt, Caesar intervened in a power struggle between Cleopatra VII and her younger brother. In this, the Alexandrian War, Caesar narrowly escaped death on several occasions but was successful in placing Cleopatra on the throne. There followed an intense affair between the young queen and Caesar, and the son born in September, 48 b.c.e., was named Caesarion.

After more campaigns against foreign states in the east and the remnants of Pompey’s supporters, Caesar returned to Rome in 46 b.c.e. to celebrate four triumphs: over Gaul, Egypt, Pontus, and Africa. Cleopatra arrived soon after to take up residence in the city; perhaps along with her came the eminent Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes of Alexandria, who aided Caesar in his reform of the calendar. This Julian calendar is the basis of the modern system.

Caesar was active in other areas. He settled many of his veterans in colonies throughout the Empire, and with them many of the poor and unemployed of Rome, thus reducing the strain on the public economy. Numerous other civic reforms were instituted, many of them laudable, but most of them giving increased power to Caesar alone. Although he publicly rejected the offer of kingship, he did accept the dictatorship for life in February, 44 b.c.e.

This action brought together a group of about sixty conspirators, led by Cassius and Marcus Junius Brutus. Brutus may have been Caesar’s son; certainly he was an avowed, almost fanatic devotee of the Republic who thought it his duty to kill Caesar.

Realizing that Caesar planned to depart on March 18 for a lengthy campaign against the Parthian Empire in the east, the conspirators decided to strike. On March 15, the ides of March, they attacked Caesar as he entered the Theater of Pompey for a meeting of the senate. As he fell, mortally wounded, his last words are reported to have been either “Et tu, Brute?” (and you too, Brutus?) or, in Greek, “And you too, my child?”

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