Ancient History & Civilisation



In 46 BC, two years before he was assassinated, Julius Caesar was voted some extraordinary honours by the Senate of the Roman republic. It was decreed that he be called Liberator and that a Temple of Liberty be built and dedicated in his honour.1 And yet the man who had freed the Roman people was now their dictator. The man who had liberated the Romans was also partly responsible for thousands of their deaths in a civil war. Indeed, Caesar, the great champion of the people, had now become in effect an autocrat, on the verge of being worshipped as a god. Two years after the Senate’s vote of honours in 46 BC he would even be murdered in the name of liberty. How had such a state of affairs come to pass? What had happened to the glorious Roman republic? What had happened to its cherished liberties?

In Rome, during the hundred years before Christ, the idea of liberty became the subject of a fierce debate. In that debate two freedoms clashed time and again: the freedom of the aristocratic élite and the freedom of the Roman people. The two different ideas of liberty amounted to two different versions of what the republic was all about. It was this clash of ideas that would entwine the lives of Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, and that would rock the entire Roman world to its foundations.

Settling the question of which freedom was supreme would bring the state of the Roman republic crashing down in a bloody civil war. The ancient system of public voting, popular elections, annual office holding and joint government by the Senate and the Roman People would cease to function, and would eventually be replaced with a dictatorship, with rule by one man. Elections did indeed continue under Caesar, but now they were no longer free: it was the dictator who influenced them, who had the last vote. It would prove to be one of the greatest turning points in all Roman history.

But the destruction of the Roman republic was not the consequence of a dry clash of ideas. What turned this ideological debate about freedom into a bloody, violent and messy revolution was a highly personal quality, one that went to the very core of Roman aristocratic values: dignity. A Roman noble’s sense of prestige, honour and political standing was paramount – prized by aristocrats above everything else. Ironically, it would be the very same quality that would drive Julius Caesar to fight a civil war and to destroy the corrupt aristocratic milieu that so cherished it. It was this quality that would fuel the titanic power struggles of Rome in the last years of the republic. It was this quality that would lie at the heart of the republic’s complete meltdown.


The murder of the tribunes Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus cleaved a fatal divide in the politics of the late Roman republic. Their mother Cornelia declared the Forum of Rome, where both men had been martyred at the hands of the conservative faction of the aristocratic élite, a sacred ground. The very heart of the city thus became their open, public tomb, and around it grew the cult of the popular politician. Henceforth, over the next hundred years, ambitious young men on the make faced a choice: to use the winning of political office to protect the interests of the conservative élite, or to follow the example of the Gracchus brothers and enact legislation that increased the power of the Roman people. One fork of the political path allowed the noble senators to maintain their traditional grip on both the wealth of the ever-increasing empire and the levers of influence in the republic, while the other fork tried to reform the balance of power and wealth in favour of the people.

The contemperorary writer Varro called these factions the ‘two heads’ of the republic. It is a fitting image, for in the war of attrition that marked the last decades of the republic, there were striking similarities between the two sides. For example, both sides claimed to be defending the republic. On the other hand, they disagreed profoundly over the question of what was to be defended. The conservative constitutionalists claimed they were defending the republic from assault by the revolutionary state-wreckers, while the populists said they were defending the republic from corruption at the hands of a self-serving aristocratic élite.

The political slogan for both sides was the same too: ‘Liberty’. But, predictably, their definitions of this word were very different. The constitutionalists were fighting for their traditional freedom to exercise their dignity equally and without interference from others in the pursuit of a glorious career; the people they feared were tyrants, would-be kings and powerful individuals who put their interests above those of the republic. The populists, on the other hand, were struggling for the people to have freedom from domination by the élite, and the freedom to pass their own laws. Between these two political groups and their increasingly entrenched positions the pendulum would swing dramatically and violently.

The battlefield of this struggle was the Plebeian Assembly; the weapon of choice for both sides was the popular vote. The legacy of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus was to give the people’s assembly a new, more authoritative role in the republic at the expense of the Senate. But while the Plebeian Assembly had become more powerful, it was also more susceptible to exploitation. Most Roman citizens who made up thirty-one of the thirty-five electoral tribes lived far away from the city, and it was impractical and costly for them to vote. As a result, the majority never did. Those who could afford to leave their farms tended to be the landed gentry whose sympathies lay with the conservative élite in Rome rather than with the needy. Only the urban mob could be counted on to make up the majority of voters, and they could be easily influenced: the poor might see it in their interests to be swayed by a wealthy benefactor with money to spend; small businessmen and traders by the patronage of their aristocratic customers; former slaves by loyalty to their old masters. In one way or another the voters could be bribed. And as money from the empire flowed into Rome, bribery became rampant. The Gracchus brothers may have shown the potential of the people as a political weapon, but in the last decades of the republic that weapon could be used by both sides.2

Thus armed, the populists and the conservative aristocrats in the Senate joined battle. Spoiling for a fight after the murders of the Gracchus brothers, it was the populists who landed the first blows. In the 110s BC anti-corruption laws were passed to curb the excesses of provincial governors. Senators were tried and driven out of public life. At the same time the two sides clashed over another flashpoint issue: how were military commands to be allotted – by the Senate or the people? When aristocratic generals proved to be failures in Roman wars against enemies in North Africa and Gaul, the senators responsible were brought to trial by the people for incompetence. They were then promptly replaced with men not of high birth but of proven ability, and on the say-so of the people, not the Senate. On this basis the general Gaius Marius won an unprecedented series of consulships between 108 and 90 BC, even though he had no senatorial ancestry.

The populist cause went as far as all-out war. Between 90 and 89 BC the armies of the Roman republic went into battle with its disgruntled Italian allies. That bloody, violent war, known as the Social War, came to an end when the Senate agreed to extend Roman citizenship to all Italian communities in Italy south of the river Po. Roman citizenship brought with it the benefits of protection against the arbitrary actions of aristocratic office holders. It was another success marked up by those championing liberty for the Roman people.

The backlash came in the 80s BC. When Rome clashed with King Mithridates of Pontus, a contender for power in the east, the Senate appointed an arch-conservative, Lucius Cornelius Sulla, the consul for 88 BC, to take command of the war. The campaign promised much booty for both the general and the soldiers involved. The appointment was short-lived, however. A tribune of the people vetoed Sulla and proposed instead that the great general Marius be enticed out of retirement and once again given command. Conservative generals peremptorily forced from office in this way would usually have acceded to the sovereign will of the people, however outraged they were. Not Sulla. His response was efficient and devastating. First he won the loyalty of the army under his command. He claimed that if Marius were to win the appointment, it would be veterans from his previous campaigns who would be chosen to reap the rich rewards of victory in the east, not they. The appeal to the soldiers’ financial interests worked. The allegiance of the army sealed, Sulla then marched on Rome, killed the tribune responsible for the veto against him, took over the republic by force in a lightning coup d’état and appointed himself dictator. This position had its origins in an ancient republican office that gave one man emergency powers for a short period of time. Sulla, however, decided to make the office serve one specific purpose: to destroy his political enemies.

After finally defeating Mithridates in 83 BC and stripping the eastern provinces of wealth, Sulla returned to Rome, defeated his opponents in a battle at the gates of the city, and then proceeded to wreak a brutal and violent revenge on the populists. Proscription lists were posted in the Forum, and Sulla’s soldiers and supporters were charged with hunting down his enemies. Many were killed in the city or forced to flee, their property confiscated. The dictator Sulla’s raft of legislation, designed to cripple the power of the populists and bolster that of the Senate, was equally reactionary.

Among the new laws was a decree that political offices had to be held in a strict sequence according to the hierarchy of magistracies. It was thus rendered impossible for upstart populists to be fast-tracked straight to the consulship by the people’s vote. The Senate was also enlarged from three hundred to six hundred members, swollen by the intake of Sulla’s supporters. The most provocative laws, however, concerned the office of tribune of the people. This magistracy became a shadow of its former self. Now no tribune, once elected, could stand for any other office (thus the office was made unattractive to men of ambition); a tribune’s every bill had to meet the prior approval of the Senate; and, in addition, the office was stripped of its power of veto. The pendulum of conservative reaction had swung emphatically against the populists.

His clinical and bloody work done, Sulla returned the republic to the Senate, then retired to Puteoli and the pleasures of a private life in 79 BC. It took the best part of the following decade to restore the ancient powers of the tribunes and to untie the hands of the popular assemblies. The consul who won lavish praise from the people for restoring the last of the tribunician powers in 70 BC was a surprise to many people. He was Rome’s most successful general of the day, and he had proved it by winning two triumphs before he was forty. His reputation, however, had germinated in a bloodier, darker time: he had once been the savage henchman of Sulla. Indeed, as the general who, on behalf of the conservatives in the Senate, had spent much of the 80s BC going to war against the leading populists of the day, he had earned the nickname the ‘Teenage Butcher’. His real name was Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus – Pompey ‘the Great’.3

Although the son of a consul and the inheritor of the largest private estate in Italy, Pompey should not be mistaken for an aristocrat at the heart of the Establishment. He was a young man on the make and unencumbered by any sentimental attachment to the political traditions of the republican past. He was, above all, an extraordinary soldier. Ambitious, daring and famed for his mane of blond hair, he was called Magnus (the Great) by his own soldiers (in an echo of his boyhood hero Alexander the Great). He had justified the name with his brilliant execution of a campaign in Africa in 80 BC at the age of twenty-six. His greatest gift, however, was an ability to spot an opportunity that might further his glory. As consul in 70 BC, he seized such an opportunity, changed sides and joined the populists. He not only reinstated the power of the tribunes, but reformed the court juries so that they no longer favoured senators. In addition, he saw to it that sixty-four second-rate senators, all Sullan appointees, were struck off the census list. The people fell in love with him. Although many senators opposed Pompey, the great general had the backing of a young senator, Gaius Julius Caesar.

With the entry of Pompey and Caesar into the ring of Roman politics in 70 BC, the pendulum of popular politics was about to swing back in favour of the populists, but this time in the most spectacular fashion. There was one simple reason for this. Learning from the ruthless example set by Sulla, Pompey and Caesar would, over the next two decades, accumulate more personal power and influence in Rome than any politician before them. Unlike Sulla, however, they sought to boost not the power of the Senate, but the power of the populists. It was no coincidence that they had restored the power of the tribunes because now, to win such power, they were going to need them.


Pompey blazed the trail. In 67 BC a tribune proposed to the popular assembly that the people’s hero, even though he held no office at the time, be awarded a special command to rid the Mediterranean of pirates, who were then profiteering in the lawless wake of Rome’s many wars of conquest. The situation had reached crisis point because the pirates’ grip on the Mediterranean was now causing a grain shortage in Rome. The job of defeating the pirate fleets over such a vast geographical space was huge. To pull it off Pompey would need more ships, more soldiers and more time in command than any general had been awarded before.

Alarm bells went off in the Senate. The power Pompey would have at his disposal – five hundred ships, 120,000 soldiers and a three-year command – would make a mockery of the equality of members of the élite. Granting him that power was as good as establishing a monarch over the republic in all but name. Nonetheless, the people ratified the bill and Pompey set to work. His success astounded everyone. He not only defeated the pirates, but did so in just three months. He then used the rest of his time in command to outstrip this achievement and carry out the single greatest sweep of Roman conquest in the east. It was a feat to rival the great conquest of Greece in the second century BC. Swimming on a tide of extraordinary success, the general was rewarded with another command. Once again, a tribune put a law before the people that would grant Pompey the command of the war to finish off King Mithridates in Asia.

Pompey was no less ambitious in this task – and his results were even more staggering. Over the next three years, he not only defeated Mithridates, but created and settled – through a combination of diplomacy and war – two new Roman provinces: Syria and Judaea. As a result of both his campaigns, Pompey could boast that he had captured 1000 fortified places, nine hundred cities and eight hundred pirate ships. He had founded thirty-nine cities and, in addition to the 20,000 talents with which the coffers of the public treasury bulged, the public revenue from taxation in the east had nearly doubled – all thanks to Pompey. The senators back in Rome were by turns delighted, amazed and horrified. In Pompey’s appointment of a king here, in his striking of a peace treaty there, or in his capture of a foreign city, it was almost as though he was indeed a new and all-powerful Alexander. The senators’ fear remained: would he and his army seize absolute power on his return to Rome?

Crucially, when Pompey returned to Italy, he dispersed his troops and submitted to the Senate. It was an acknowledgement that, although at the very height of his popularity and power, he had no intention of wielding these attributes against the republic. He had his terms, however: the settlement of his soldiers on plots of Italian soil as a reward for their service, and the ratification of the treaties he had made in the east. This was still a source of concern for the conservatives in the Senate. To agree to these terms would be to acknowledge the preeminence of Pompey in the republic. It would confirm that he had won the personal loyalty both of the Roman army and of kings, potentates and peoples in the east. The conservatives in the Senate did eventually award the people’s hero an unprecedented third triumph, but stopped short of meeting his wishes. They delayed and delayed, shutting the general out in the cold. Here Pompey the Great now languished, with only his growing bitterness for company.

Meanwhile, in the 60s BC Gaius Julius Caesar, six years Pompey’s junior, was also building personal power. Unlike Pompey, Caesar came from an ancient patrician family that claimed descent from the Trojan Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome. Aeneas was thought to have been the son of Venus, so Caesar was also able to claim descent from the gods. This was a claim he lost no opportunity to make; it established him as more blue-blooded than anyone else in the Roman republic could possibly be. At the grand, aristocratic funeral of his aunt and his first wife he laid out the two planks of his political career with the economy and effectiveness of a public relations company. He praised his aunt’s divine ancestry (and thus by implication his own too) and also demonstrated his political sympathies, not through words, but actions. As his aunt had been married to the great general Marius, he ensured that mourners paraded her husband’s wax masks. In this way Caesar declared that his was the cause of the populists. Such flamboyance was matched by his dress. Caesar had a reputation as a dandy: he wore his hair carefully parted and combed, and sported his toga with a dashing loose belt.4 Such displays of behaviour offended the conservatives in the Senate. Little did they realize that there was much worse to come.

In the early 70s BC Caesar made his political sympathies apparent when he undertook to prosecute two corrupt aristocratic governors of the provinces of Macedonia and Greece. Although he lost the trials, he gained great popularity with the plebs. Through his eloquence, ebullient charm and friendly good manners, he showed how easily he could win people over.5 However, he realized that to win sufficient favour with the Roman people to reach the highest offices in the republic it was necessary to make a much bigger splash than that. With this ambition in mind, Caesar exploited office after office for all it was worth.

The post of curule aedile, for example, carried with it the responsibility of staging public games on state holidays. Elected to this position in 65 BC, Caesar duly seized the opportunity to wow the people of Rome by putting on the most spectacular gladiatorial games the city had ever seen. No fewer than 320 pairs of gladiators clad in burnished silver armour prepared to compete for glory and delight the public. The anticipated occasion caused such a sensation with the Roman people that the conservatives in the Senate immediately proposed a bill curtailing the number of gladiators any individual might keep in the city.6 In this way, they tried to deter the politician from so shamelessly winning popular favour. In the event, the people had to make do with a more modest show, but the impact had been made.

Such lavish events required money – and lots of it. To recoup his massive debts, Caesar next set his sights on being elected to administer a province, plundering it for booty and repaying his debtors on his return. After his praetorship, he did just this – in the province of Further Spain in 61 BC. Straying from his ordinary duties of governor, he set about warring with the independent tribes of northern Portugal, and proved himself to be as much a fighter and general abroad as he was a suave and debonair populist politician at home. So successful was he that he focussed his ambitions on requesting a triumph – the perfect launch pad, the young general thought, for his election campaign to the highest office of the republic: the consulship. However, on his return to Rome, all did not go according to plan.

The man who was determined to scupper Caesar’s smooth path to the consulship was the arch-constitutionalist of the day, Marcus Porcius Cato. Inflexible, humourless and much older in character than his thirty-five years, Cato wanted his life to embody an ideal of austere and ancient republican virtue. His hair was dishevelled in the manner of a peasant, his beard hoary and unkempt, and in protest at the fad among the élite for wearing a light, luxurious purple, Cato insisted on wearing black. His contemporary Cicero said of him that he walked around Rome as if he were living ‘in the ideal republic of Plato, not the cesspit of Romulus’.7 Dinner chez Cato was no self-respecting senator’s idea of a fun night out. Indeed, as Caesar returned to Rome, Cato showed how he lived and breathed the constitutional laws of the republic, how determined he was to use them to stop the populists from gaining power.

Outside the city walls Caesar sent in his formal request to the Senate for a triumph to mark his conquests in Spain. He also stated that he wished to stand for the consulship in the imminent July elections. Cato’s reply came back: according to law, he could not have both. Caesar was caught in a dilemma. To receive a triumph he had to wait outside Rome until the day of celebration. To stand for the consulship, however, he had to enter the city immediately and offer his candidacy in person. Caesar, said Cato, had to decide between the two: the glory of a grand popular procession through Rome, or a bid for a top job in the republic.8

Caesar chose to stand for the consulship. As we shall see, it was a decision that would change the course of Roman history for ever. However, the outcome of the election was not guaranteed. In order to secure the office of consul and also recoup the popular favour he had lost in forgoing his triumph, Caesar now urgently needed both money and influence. The only man in the republic who was willing and able to provide these things was none other than the sulking Pompey the Great. The two great populists of the day now made a pact. Pompey would give Caesar financial and popular support to win election to the consulship; and Caesar, once elected consul, would give Pompey what he most wanted. On Pompey’s behalf, he would propose the very laws that the fearful conservative senators had long refused – the settlement of Pompey’s veterans and the ratification of his treaties in the east.

The alliance of the two men was potentially so powerful and threatening that, at the election for the consulship in the summer of 60 BC, the conservatives led by Cato would stop at nothing to prevent Caesar and Pompey getting their way. The two sides, constitutionalists and reformers, conservatives and populists joined battle once more. In the build-up to the election in July 60 BC the deep pockets of Pompey and his wealthy ally Marcus Licinius Crassus ensured that bribes flooded into the Campus Martius, the place where the people voted in the elections for consul. Even Cato, the priggish adherer to the letter of law, resorted to bribery to promote a conservative candidate, his son-in-law Marcus Bibulus.9 Cato and his conservative allies were so desperate to ensure that at least one of the consuls could be relied upon to restrain Caesar that they were prepared to play as dirty as the populist bloc fronted by Caesar, Pompey and Crassus. In the event, Caesar won a massive majority, but Cato could claim success too. By a whisker, Bibulus was elected as Caesar’s fellow consul. But the battle had only just begun.

The year of Caesar’s consulship represents the logical conclusion of the long struggle between the populists and the constitutionalists. Above all, it shows how the populists had now gained the upper hand. For the striking innovation of 59 BC was that the leading populist of the day, the man who was prepared to buck tradition and defy the wishes of the Senate, was no longer a tribune of the people. He was a man in possession of one of the greatest sources of power in the republic – the consulship. The radical tactics of the tribunes were now applied to that post. When, for example, Caesar proposed Pompey’s land bill to settle his troops, he met with a wall of resolute opposition rallied by Cato. So instead of backing down to the collective will of his fellow senators, as was customary for a consul to do, he simply walked out of the Senate House, took the bill direct to the popular assembly and had it passed there. But Caesar was prepared to go to even greater extremes. When, on other days of voting on Caesar and Pompey’s programme, his fellow consul Bibulus repeatedly tried to obstruct the public business by declaring that the omens were not good, Caesar simply ignored him and pressed ahead anyway. Was Caesar breaking the law? Cato certainly thought so.

In the feverish tension of 59 BC Caesar and Pompey compounded their ‘illegalities’. They introduced once again an ominous element used by both sides in the war of popular politics: brute force. When Cato obstructed any discussion of the land bill in the Senate, Caesar had his lictors seize the braying senator and throw him into prison. It was a small taste of things to come. The menacing threat of Pompey’s veterans, of thousands of former soldiers loyal to one man, now descended on Rome. In order to make sure that the vote on the land bill went their way, gangs of Pompey’s thugs simply entered the Forum on the day of voting and cleared it of all opponents to the bill. In one encounter Cato and Bibulus were carried off, their entourage of officials beaten up and the magistrate’s rods of office smashed. As a final humiliating insult, a bucket of excrement was thrown over the consul’s head.

The next day Bibulus called a meeting of the Senate and complained about how he had been so violently and illegally treated. The sympathetic senators were at a loss how to respond. For the rest of the year Bibulus stayed indoors in constant fear of his life. The energetic Caesar, meanwhile, simply boycotted the Senate House and the normal procedures of politics, and brought all his populist legislation without hindrance direct to the people’s assembly. It was an extraordinary year. And it was not over yet.

It was the custom of every consul, once his year in office had come to an end, to govern a Roman province, chosen by the Senate, as proconsul. In one last-ditch attempt at restraining the ambitious, calculating Caesar, Cato and the conservatives decided to send him to the quiet pastures of Italy. Here there were no wars to fight, no mass of booty to plunder and no opportunity to win the loyalty of an army. In short, it spelt the premature end of Caesar’s brilliant, show-stealing career. But Caesar had other ideas. He instigated a loyal tribune of the people to bring a new law to the assembly, granting him the more promising provinces of Cisalpine Gaul (Gaul on the eastern side of the Alps, see map, page 119) and Illyricum (the Dalmatian coast) for a period of five years. By an extraordinary stroke of luck, however, the governor of Transalpine Gaul (on the western side of the Alps) died in the spring of 59 BC, leaving that province too in urgent need of a commander. This region of Gaul was the gateway to lands untouched by Roman rule. It offered an appetizing prospect for war, conquest and riches.

In the Senate Pompey proposed that Caesar be awarded the new command of Illyricum and the Gallic provinces. The sad, broken remnants of the aristocratic élite still prepared to show up for senatorial meetings duly granted it. If they had refused, the people’s assembly would have given it to him anyway; by granting the command to Caesar themselves, they saved face and gave the impression, at least, of retaining some power over the people’s assembly.10

But even in their gloom, the traditionalists could find something to raise a meagre cheer. By the time Caesar left for Gaul, he had alienated not just the entire Senate, but even some of the people too. His legislation had not benefited all sections of the plebs, and some were now asking if his methods were not just as corrupt as those of the discredited aristocrats from whom he said he was liberating Rome. ‘The truth is,’ wrote the senator Cicero at the time, ‘the present regime is the most infamous, most disgraceful, most uniformly odious to all sorts and classes and ages of men that ever was . . . Those “populist” politicians have taught even quiet folk to hiss!’11 Above all, however, Caesar had successfully galvanized one gritty, single-minded enemy in particular: Cato.

The dour, tenacious senator remained utterly determined to stop Caesar’s accumulation of power, and now he believed he had the weapon with which to do it. Cato assured his allies that he had grounds for prosecuting Caesar in a court of law over the illegalities perpetrated during his consulship. Yes, it was true that while Caesar was still in office, Cato could not touch him. But as soon as the term of his commands in Gaul came to an end and he returned to Rome, Caesar would be taken to court like a common criminal.

Nonetheless, Cato’s plans for revenge lay a long way off in the future. When Caesar rode off to Gaul in the spring of 58 BC, he and his ally Pompey seemed untouchable. The consuls and tribunes elected for that year were their loyal friends, and in this way they made sure that all the legislation they had enacted would not be undone. The two men had also sealed their alliance in an old-fashioned and aristocratic manner. Caesar had offered Pompey the hand of his only daughter, Julia, in marriage, and in the spring of 59BCthe ageing general had duly wed his charming young bride.

And yet the supreme alliance between the two men was now about to be tested to the limit. For while Pompey remained behind in Rome surrounded by enemies baying for his blood, Caesar was about to win unimaginable glory. And with that glory would come unimaginable power.


The status of the small Roman province of Gallia Transalpina, in what is now the south of France, is reflected in its modern name: Provence. The Romans called the northern territory beyond it ‘Long-haired Gaul’ because of the horrendous, unkempt specimens of barbarity said to live there. The simple fact was that although the Roman Senate had made some leaders of the more powerful tribes official ‘Friends of the Roman People’, and although pioneering Roman merchants had penetrated along the rivers of the Rhone and Garonne to ply a roaring trade in wine, the dank and cold woods of the north were regarded by most civilized Romans as a threatening unknown. Worse, to many minds the region represented the greatest source of danger to Roman rule.12

What prompted such fear? In 390 BC, savage hordes of barbarian warriors from Gaul had achieved what even the great Carthaginian Hannibal had not. Rampaging their way through Italy, they had successfully sacked the city of Rome. More recently, those ancient Roman fears were painfully revived when, in 102 and 101 BC, it took the might of Marius’s well-drilled, highly organized legions to defend Italy from another fierce invasion of Gallic and Germanic tribes. But with the governorship of Julius Caesar, the legendary fear in which Gaul was held was about to come to a permanent end.

When Caesar arrived in Gaul he had no instructions or legal authority to wage war. Indeed, just the year before a law had been passed curbing the arbitrary actions of Roman provincial governors. Caesar would have known all about this. It was none other than he, as consul, who had devised and proposed the bill. And yet even regarding his own populist laws, Caesar was meticulous in calculating the moment to break them. In 58 BC the tribe of the Helvetii migrated from their home in present-day Switzerland and passed close to the doorstep of Caesar’s province. In response, the proconsul deliberately stationed his army 16 kilometres (10 miles) outside the boundaries of his province, directly in their path. Falling into his trap, the Helvetii attacked the Roman army. To the Roman commander this was a gift. Caesar quickly exploited a time-honoured legal loophole: he was, he said, defending the Roman republic from aggression and repairing the injury done to his dignity.13

Caesar called together his three legions stationed at Aquileia in northern Italy, raised two more legions in Cisalpine Gaul, and promptly taught the Helvetii a harsh lesson in battle. There was uproar in the Senate, Cato’s being the loudest voice. Caesar, he said, was simply doing as he pleased: illegally instigating wars with independent tribes not subject to Rome; illegally levying troops and filling up his legions with non-Roman citizens; and illegally granting them citizenship. He was becoming, cried Cato, his own self-appointed judge and jury, heaping crime upon crime against the republic!

The reality was that in the war against the Helvetii Caesar had declared in unambiguous terms his true intention as governor in Gaul. On whatever grounds, on whatever pretext, however flimsy, he was going to single- mindedly pursue a series of wars with the Gallic tribes beyond his province until the whole of Gaul, the sprawling and unknown tracts of that dark, sinister northern land, had been completely pacified and brought under Roman rule. Over the course of the next eight years Caesar set about honouring that intention with seemingly limitless confidence and ambition.

In 57 BC he demonstrated to the Gauls the extraordinary might of his legions by defeating the tribe of the Belgae. They were widely considered to have been the hardiest and bravest of the Gauls because they lived in the north ‘furthest away from the culture and civilization of the Province’.14 When, in 55 BC, two Germanic tribes, the Usipetes and the Tencteri, crossed the Rhine and attacked the Romans, Caesar did not simply lead his army in battle, cutting the 400,000-strong enemy to pieces. He used the survivors’ retreat into Germany to stage perhaps the most daring action of his command.


Across the 350-metre (1155-feet) width of the Rhine’s swelling rapids, Caesar ordered his army engineers to build a bridge. Such a feat of engineering had never before been contemplated, let alone attempted. But as the Romans drove great piles of wood into the river bed to yoke the river, it was almost as though they could control Mother Nature herself. The bridge complete, Caesar then crossed the river with his army and invaded the alien country. The Germanic tribes of the Suevi and Sugambri, who had never seen a bridge before, were so awestruck by the outlandish feat that they retreated into the deep forests and hid. Caesar then burnt and ravaged the nearby lands, and told all those who remained to pass on to the German tribes one very clear message: never again make an enemy of Rome. Then, as quickly as they had come, he and his army disappeared and returned to Gaul, dismantling the bridge en route. The entire exploit had taken a mere twenty-eight days.

A glimpse into what was driving Caesar in Gaul is revealed in his own account of the Gallic Wars. He built a bridge because he considered crossing the river by boat beneath ‘his dignity’.15Dignitas was the pre-eminent quality of a patrician Roman politician, and it was rooted in an historic sense of worth, rank and prestige. The more ancient and aristocratic the Roman family, the greater the dignity accumulated and the higher the point at which that sense of worth was pegged. Caesar’s own acute sense of his dignity had been at the heart of his pursuit of office in Rome, had motivated his actions as consul, and was now driving him on to ever greater feats of glory in Gaul. To cap his achievements abroad, in 55 and 54 BC Caesar prepared a fleet, crossed the English Channel and launched an invasion of Britain, a country that many Romans did not believe even existed. On his second attempt, Caesar stayed in Britain for the summer, getting as far as the river Thames and securing tribute from several British tribes. Although no permanent Roman base was established, Caesar had succeeded in making another dramatic statement of his ambition.

The effect of that ambition was to build for Caesar an unprecedented power base both abroad and at home. In Rome the news of his exploits thrilled and delighted the people of Rome: they were the stuff of fairy tales, adventure stories, the kind of fable with which Roman parents would excite and inspire their children. While Cato and his allies were carping on about the deformity and sickness of Caesar’s dignity, the people saw that very same thing bringing honour in abundance to the Roman republic. To them, Caesar was putting on the greatest show on earth and the stage was Gaul: ancient, barbaric enemies were being defeated, and not even rivers or oceans could restrain the unfurling arm of Roman power. By the end of 53 BC, Caesar was able to announce that the whole of Gaul was ‘pacified’. Accordingly, his glory was not just being restored – it was rocketing.16

But Caesar did not rest on the laurels of his foreign exploits to wow the people; he played an active part too. Every winter he set up camp as close to the border of Italy as his province would allow. From there would flow news of extraordinary gifts and benefactions for the Roman people. The centrepiece was Caesar’s announcement that in the heart of Rome a glorious new forum was to be built, paid for with the spoils of Gaul.17 Gifts of a more personal nature also streamed freely into Rome. A rich seam of bribes, as well as letters of recommendation, ensured that Caesar could influence the election of like-minded magistrates prepared to help him and defend his name. Traffic also flowed in the opposite direction. Ambitious young Romans seeking opportunities for wealth and military success thronged in ever-increasing numbers to the one place where the real action was: with Caesar, in Gaul, on campaign. But although Caesar was highly successful in wooing the fast set of Roman politics, Cato and his constitutionalist allies could reassure themselves that at least they had the measure of such opponents. They had been fighting the populist faction in the Forum and the Senate for decades now. What they weren’t prepared for, however, and what was new and far more threatening to their interests, was Caesar’s power base abroad: the army.

For all the struggle of populist politics, the issue of Rome’s citizen-militia fighting long campaigns, only then to discover they had no farms to return to, had never been solved successfully through land reform. Pompey’s demobilized veterans may have been settled on plots of land during Caesar’s consulship, but they were the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, reforms of the army had only made the problem of rootless soldiers worse: the general Marius may have bolstered the number of army recruits by abolishing any property qualification in 107 BC, but the result of this was to fill the legions with men who had no stake at all in the republic. Their only hope for wealth was an army salary and the chance of winning booty on campaign. In Gaul, Caesar was able to provide both in spades. As a result, a new and very dangerous codependent relationship developed between the general and his men. The soldiers were no longer loyal to the republic and its ancient ideology of freedom. Their only loyalty was to the benefactor who was now responsible for their interests: the general. The historian Sallust put it succinctly:

When anyone seeks power his greatest help is the man in direst poverty, because he is restrained by no attachment to his property, having none, and considers anything honourable for which he receives pay.18

The same, of course, was even truer of the Germans and Gauls whom Caesar was levying into his army. These new recruits had never set foot in a Roman province, let alone Rome itself. As the years passed, Caesar’s legions grew from the three authorized by his proconsulship to a staggering ten. This put into his hand a weapon more dangerous than any the republic had yet seen: the fierce might of no fewer than 50,000 battle-hardened soldiers, each and every one devoted to his name. It was no wonder, then, that Cato and his allies among the nobles tried to put an end to his power. However, on their first attempt, Caesar, even from his distant outpost of Gaul, knew how to swat it away.

In 56 BC a senator by the name of Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus announced that he was preparing to stand for the consulship with a view to depriving Caesar of his command in Gaul. With his finger on the pulse of Roman politics, Caesar quickly neutralized this threat by renewing his alliance with Pompey. At a meeting in Lucca in northern Italy, he encouraged him and their ally Crassus to stand in elections and beat Ahenobarbus to the consulship. They would then be in a position to help Caesar: through laws proposed by them in the popular assembly, they could make sure that Caesar would be granted an extension of his command for another five years. In return, Pompey and Crassus would be able to consolidate their power and independence from the Senate with lucrative proconsular commands abroad. They would all get what they wanted.

In Rome Cato spotted the rearguard action of Caesar and Pompey a mile off. He now urged Ahenobarbus not to give in, but to contest the election tooth and nail. ‘We are not fighting,’ said Cato, ‘merely for office, but for liberty against our oppressors!’19 On the day of voting, Pompey’s armed gangs of veterans once again beat up Ahenobarbus and Cato, barred them from entering the Campus Martius and routed their supporters. Pompey and Crassus were duly elected consuls for 55 BC, and Caesar was safe once more. Caesar’s friendship and alliance with Pompey had saved the day. However, the next time Cato and his allies launched a strike against Caesar, the general would not be so lucky.

Three years later 52 BC saw a turning point in the relationship between Caesar and Pompey. In this year the fatal flaw in Pompey’s character was revealed. The decline in their alliance had begun two years earlier. Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter, Julia, had died in childbirth, the baby surviving the mother for only a few days. In their grief, both men knew that the one key bond that set their alliance beyond politics was now broken. While Caesar grieved over the news in Gaul, in Rome the depth of what was considered to be Pompey the Great’s unbecoming love for Julia was so widely known that even his conservative enemies in the Senate briefly took pity on him.20

However, it would take a more cataclysmic event before the conservatives actively wooed the man whom they had long feared and suspected. That event began with the murder of Publius Clodius Pulcher, an ally of Caesar’s. As a populist tribune of the people, Clodius had successfully established himself as the chief agitator and benefactor of the urban plebs in Rome. In this bid for power his timing had been perfect: in the mid-50s BC the senators, swamped in a mire of allegations of bribery and corruption, were increasingly discredited. Clodius’s sparkling, controversial career suggested that perhaps the people did not want freedom after all, but simply fair, generous masters.21When he was stabbed on a street in a brawl with a rival gang, his death triggered widespread fury. His devout supporters – a motley crew of shopkeepers, street urchins, traders, and the needy and poor of the city’s slums – united in grief on the streets of Rome in their thousands. They descended on the Forum and proceeded to make a funeral pyre for their champion. The place? The Senate House. The fuel? The wooden benches of the senators. No one could stop them. As the Senate House burnt to the ground, a riot quickly swept across the city.

In the late republic there was no police force. To quell the emergency gripping Rome and restore order, the alarmed senators turned for help to the only man who was able to summon the necessary authority and manpower. That man also happened to be the person whom the conservative majority so despised and mistrusted: Pompey the Great. With the Senate House now a desolate, charred carcass, the nobles swallowed their pride and met in a building attached to a spanking new marble theatre Pompey had built. It was a fitting setting for the meeting. Here the senator Bibulus proposed that the republic’s ablest citizen, Pompey the Great, be granted a new appointment: sole consulship, with exceptional powers to end the anarchy consuming the city. In an even more striking volte-face, Cato, biting his tongue, now stood up and urged his colleagues to agree to the proposal. Grudgingly, he – leader of the constitutionalists – was extending an olive branch to his old enemy.22

Such an invitation secretly delighted Pompey. Although he had been the people’s hero, Rome’s greatest general, and the power broker behind Caesar’s rise, this had never been quite enough. The reality was that Pompey had always wanted acceptance from the senatorial establishment too. But he wanted the senators to accommodate him on one condition: that they recognized his extraordinary ability, his pre-eminence in the republic, ‘his special position’. To acknowledge that, however, went against every instinct, every fibre in every noble senator. It was contrary to their closely held belief in equality among the Roman élite, their belief that power was circumscribed by annual elections. Their ancestors had founded the republic when they expelled the kings from Rome. Why on earth should they welcome one now? Pompey had always been shut out in the cold. Now, at last, the door was fractionally ajar. What would the great general do?

While Pompey appeared modest and unassuming, one clever con- temporary had already got his measure: ‘He is apt to say one thing and think another, but is usually not clever enough to keep his real aims from showing.’23 Pompey accepted his command, and his troops duly marched into Rome. Ten years since his extraordinary, triumphant return from the east, the star of Pompey the Great was rising once more. Would it now eclipse even that of his old ally? The answer would not be long in coming.


While Caesar waited in his winter base near the border of Italy, anxious to see what Pompey would do, in the rest of Gaul the news of the anarchy in Rome spread like wildfire. The leaders of the Gallic tribes now met in a secret forest location. Embellishing and exaggerating the rumours of a Rome in free fall, they spied an opportunity: to take full advantage of Caesar’s absence from his legions’ winter camps in the north of the country and revolt against their Roman oppressors just when they were at their weakest.24There was no time to delay. The Carnutes swore an oath to take the initiative, and they promptly honoured it. They descended on the settlement of Cenabum and slaughtered its Roman citizens. As soon as other tribes heard the news, they rallied in support. Of all the tribes in Gaul, however, the Arverni had the distinction of being mustered by a young noble who would become the leader of the united rebellion. His name was Vercingetorix.

Sending out embassies, Vercingetorix quickly made alliances with the Senones, Parisii, Cadurci, Turoni, Aulerci, Lemovices, Andes and all the Gallic people along the Atlantic coast. Money was raised and armies of Gallic warriors were assembled. Vercingetorix then quickly showed that he had the discipline and determination to match his skills of organization. To bring waverers into line he resorted to cutting off ears, gouging out eyes and even death by burning. Caesar observed respectfully, ‘In his command he combined extreme conscientiousness with extreme severity.’25 In short, Vercingetorix was showing the virtues that Caesar himself most admired – those of a Roman. Vercingetorix was appointed commander of the alliance of Gallic tribes, and within a matter of weeks, most of the tribes of central and northern Gaul had joined the rebellion.

Caesar responded with lightning speed. Cut off from his legions in the north, he rode south through enemy territory and secured his province from immediate attack, before returning north to reunite with his two legions at their winter quarters. His achievement in stabilizing the situation was all the more extraordinary because it was the depths of winter and central Gaul was sunk beneath 2 metres (6 feet) of snow.26 Rivers were frozen, forests had become impenetrable snowscapes and, where the biting temperatures eased, the rush of flood water from the hills made lakes of the marshy plains.27 Despite these disadvantages, once Caesar had successfully assembled his entire army, he recognized that the united rebellion in fact presented him with a unique opportunity: to crush the resistance and pacify Gaul once and for all.

With this in mind, Caesar inflicted setback after setback on Vercingetorix’s allies. In response, Vercingetorix changed tactics. He decided not to defeat Caesar in battle, but to starve the Romans out of his land by destroying the food supplies of towns close to them. The decisive encounter in the battle of wills between the two men eventually took place in the summer of 52 BC, after Vercingetorix, defeated in open battle, withdrew his army to the town of Alesia.

Alesia was built on an elevated plateau, but despite its vast natural defences Caesar did not hesitate to put the town under siege by building a huge impregnable wall around it. A staggering 18 kilometres (11 miles) in circumference, the wall featured twenty-three forts and eight camps along its length. In addition, the eastern side featured three trenches, each approximately 6 metres (20 feet) wide and deep. Caesar ordered the innermost trench to be flooded. To that end the two rivers that flowed on either side of the town were diverted. Although, after six years on campaign, the tasks of putting up earthworks, walls and watchtowers were routine to Caesar’s well-drilled soldiers, the sheer scale and ambition of the siege remain awe-inspiring to this day. But Caesar was not finished yet. When he learnt from Gallic deserters that Vercingetorix was expecting reinforcements, he simply ordered a second wall to be built – facing outwards to protect the besieging Romans from attack in the rear and running parallel to the inner wall. This outer wall was no less than 22 kilometres (14 miles) in circuit.

Inside the city walls, Vercingetorix decided to wait for reinforcements to arrive before launching his attack. However, he knew the clock was ticking. In Alesia the Gauls had enough food for just thirty days.28 As the weeks passed, the rations were shared out ever more sparingly. When they were nearly finished and the Gallic reinforcements were still nowhere to be seen, a meeting was convened at which some leaders proposed a horrific solution: to survive by eating the flesh of those who were too old to fight in the campaign. Vercingetorix rejected the plan. But the pressure was now on him to come up with a way out. So he did. The outcome of this battle would decide the fate of Gaul for ever, he said. Surrender would mean just one thing: the end of Gallic liberty. To win the battle ahead it was essential to do whatever was in their power to preserve the remaining rations for those who were able to fight. His solution was to hand over all the women, children and the elderly to the Romans. He knew Caesar would then be forced to take the prisoners in, feed them, and thus further deprive the Roman army.

But Vercingetorix had not banked on how ruthless and single-minded Caesar could be. As thousands of Gauls were forced out of the city gates and begged the Romans to take them in, Caesar and Vercingetorix went eyeball to eyeball. Neither man blinked, and as a result, over the coming days, every single one of those women, children and the elderly died from starvation and cold, trapped between the walls of the city they had left behind and the Roman siege wall. One ancient author said of Caesar’s conquest of Gaul that one million Gauls were killed and another million enslaved.29 Today these figures are considered by most scholars to be exaggerated. Nonetheless, in them is the suggestion of the awesome, terrifying coldness of Caesar’s decision at Alesia, the extremes to which he was prepared to go in the name of his dignity and that of the Roman people.

Eventually, the Gallic reinforcements arrived and assembled on the heights looking down on the plain below. They numbered more than 200,000 infantry and 8000 cavalry. So it was that one hot day in the summer of 52 BC the full, terrible onslaught of two Gallic armies descended headlong to trap the Romans, the allies attacking the outer wall, while Vercingetorix’s armies broke out of the city and assaulted the inner fortifications. The yells and screams of the Gallic allies were matched and echoed by those rising up from inside Alesia. The Romans spread out along their walls. They held out determinedly for the first days of fighting. However, the Roman cavalry did not fare so well, and were saved only when an auxiliary German cavalry routed the Gauls. When night fell, the Gauls once again scampered down the hill under cover of darkness and filled in the trenches with earth; when day broke they attempted once more to breach the Roman wall and unite with their allies. This time, they were repulsed by volleys of sling bullets, heavy-duty catapults and stakes hidden in the ground. On the third day, however, spies alerted the Gauls to a point of weakness at the Roman camp stationed halfway up a hill.

Immediately, the reinforcements of Gallic cavalry massed at the top of the hill and attacked from above, while once again Vercingetorix’s men attacked the wall from below. The Romans, terrified by the noise on either side, were running out of strength, numbers and weapons. This was the critical moment of the battle, and both sides fought with utter ferocity. Caesar rode along the ramparts to rally his men in person, shouting at them and explaining how ‘all the fruits of their labour depended upon that day, that hour’.30Finally, he deployed his reserves of cavalry to attack the Gauls in the rear, and, riding at their head, he now threw himself into the frenetic fighting.

As the scarlet colour of his cloak heralded his arrival, a booming shout went up from the Roman defences. The tables had turned, and it was now the allied Gauls who were trapped on both sides by the Romans. When they saw the Roman cavalry arrive, they turned tail and fled. Under the eyes of Vercingetorix’s army still inside Alesia, the huge allied army of Gauls was supremely routed, melting away ‘like a ghost or a dream’.31 Caesar’s description of the battle’s conclusion was typically terse: ‘Massive slaughter followed’.32 Only utter exhaustion prevented the Roman soldiers from giving chase and killing more.

Completely outnumbered, Caesar had relied on daring, tactical genius, the efficiency of his unprecedented siege operations, and the bravery of his men to pull off one of the greatest victories in all Roman history. Although there were pockets of resistance to mop up, Gaul was now Roman – another province of a vast empire. In due course it would provide Rome with an annual tribute of 40 million sesterces.33

The conquest of Gaul also brought its proconsul astounding personal riches, as well as unparalleled glory in the eyes of the Roman people and a quasi-private fighting force of ten Roman legions prepared to do whatever he asked of them. Cato knew it, his allies in the Senate knew it, and even Pompey knew it. The knowledge only brought with it unease. For the question that was now uppermost in Caesar’s mind was how to do what no other Roman – not even Pompey the Great – had yet achieved: translate his power into power in Rome.

The day after the massacre of the Gauls at Alesia, seventy-four of the Gallic standards were brought to Caesar. Vercingetorix himself rode out of the city gates resplendent in his Gallic armour of bronze helmet embossed with animal figures, his iron cuirass and gold-plated belt. Halting before Caesar, he stripped himself, handed over his javelin and long broadsword and lay prone on the ground in abject surrender.34 Caesar’s great adversary had been vanquished. And yet, as he looked on, Caesar knew that the real showdown was only just about to begin.


When Caesar’s dispatches from Gaul brought the news of his victory to Rome, the Senate decreed an unprecedented twenty days of public celebration. Caesar, too, contributed to the party: he paid for gladiatorial games, as well as a lavish public banquet in memory of his daughter. To give the impression that the feast was his very own special gift to the Roman people, he had some of the food prepared in his house. Indeed, he let slip no opportunity for generosity. Corn was distributed ‘without limit or measure’ to the plebs, and low-interest loans were given to those in need of money. Senators and knights (the rank below senator) who were in debt, as well as slaves and freedmen accused of crimes, all took advantage of Caesar’s largesse.35

Later, there would be treats of a more cerebral kind. Caesar’s eight volumes of Commentaries on the Gallic War were published in 50 BC. These books glorified his dazzling exploits, even eclipsing the collective memory of Pompey’s conquests in the east. Easily copied and distributed, they would be a public relations coup like no other. They also showed that Caesar was not just a master general, but a master of literary technique. Written in crystal clear, quotable language accessible to many, Caesar’s compositions reminded everyone who read them of the sheer sophistication of his mind. Indeed, he even wrote a scholarly essay on Latin grammar. But the Commentaries on the Gallic War were also a timely reminder of the central political principle for which Caesar stood: ‘All men by nature desire liberty and hate the condition of slavery.’36 It was with the liberty of the people in mind – at least the liberty of the Roman people – that Caesar made his first preparations for a return to Rome and to his enemies in the Senate.

The battle lines of the old conflict between Caesar and Cato’s conservative allies were now reconfigured in one burning question: when would Caesar give up his command? Caesar knew that as soon as he became a private citizen, Cato would pounce and prosecute him for his alleged crimes as consul in Rome and proconsul in Gaul. Yet the idea that he, Caesar, the man who had sweated blood to win Gaul for the glory and benefit of the republic, might be treated like a petty criminal was absolutely out of the question. Who was the whinging Cato to tell Caesar what to do? Such a prospect was completely beneath Caesar’s dignity.

There was only one way out of Cato’s trap: to stand again for the consulship. It was not customary to hold the consulship more than once within a ten-year period. It clashed with the principle of republican power-sharing. So, with his sights set on standing for office for 49 BC, Caesar marshalled all his allies in Rome to bypass the conservatives in the Senate and propose a special bill direct to the people. This proposed law would extend his command in Gaul until 49 BC, then allow him to stand for office without having even set foot in the city. Although his enemies in the Senate hissed, such was Caesar’s popularity after Gaul that all ten tribunes of the people supported the bill and it was passed in 52 BC. But the law was only the beginning of the debate.

As the months passed, Caesar’s command came under attack after attack. Every time a senator tried to revoke the bill and deprive him of his command, a carefully deployed tribune would veto. ‘You know the routine,’ wrote one contemporary observer. ‘There will be a decision about Gaul. Somebody will come along with a veto. Then somebody else will stand up . . . So we shall have a long, elaborate charade.’37 As if by centrifugal force, the members of the Roman élite found themselves forced to take a stand on one side or another. A clique of Caesareans, young, ambitious and growing in numbers, believed that Caesar was the stronger, that reform of the republic and its corrupt, discredited senators was paramount and, above all, that greater political and financial rewards lay with him. Cato, meanwhile, rallied the traditional senators under the banner of defending the constitution of the republic. They came in their droves. Caesar’s unprecedented demands made it easy for Cato to present him as the would-be tyrant, as the man bent on destroying the republic, the man whose grotesque greed and ambition were driving him to seize power. But on the question of which side to take, there was one man who had yet to declare his hand.

Since his appointment to the sole consulship, Pompey’s behaviour towards his old ally had been highly ambivalent. In the last months of his office in 52 BC he had used his influence to support the bill of ten tribunes granting Caesar the special privilege of standing for the consulship in absentia. However, the warm overtures of the aristocratic constitutionalists, and their appointment of him to stand for the sole consulship, had persuaded him that the path to winning both power and respect did not lie exclusively with Caesar and his maverick ways. So when, after the death of Julia, Caesar offered Pompey his great-niece Octavia in marriage, Pompey turned him down flat.

The woman he eventually chose was beautiful, graceful and cultivated in literature, music, geometry and philosophy. The union caused quite a scandal because his new wife was half Pompey’s age. But in Cornelia, Pompey had found not just a woman to love, but also a place in high society, for the blood running in her veins could not have been bluer. She was the daughter of Quintus Caecilius Metellus Scipio, a scion of one of the great patrician families in Rome, a family that could boast among its forebears Publius Scipio, the slayer of Hannibal; a family now at the very heart of the senatorial establishment.

So while he was supposed to have been restoring order to the streets of Rome, Pompey had donned wedding garlands and married Cornelia. As if to spell out just how cosily he was now bedded down with the constitutionalists, in August 52 BC, once peace had returned to the streets of Rome, Pompey willingly gave up his sole consulship before his term of office had expired and invited his new father-in-law Metellus Scipio to join him as his consular colleague.38 The former gangster was now behaving like a pillar of republican respectability. Cato knew he had Pompey just where he wanted him. Now he went for the kill.

In a bid to drive an unmistakable wedge between Pompey and Caesar, an intense pressure offensive began. While the consuls of 51 BC attacked Caesar publicly in the Senate for holding on to his command, Cato worked on Pompey privately, playing to the general’s insecurity. Caesar was now a far more powerful man than Pompey, went his line of reasoning. Was Pompey the Great just going to sit back and watch his old ally return to Rome at the head of an army and tell everyone what to do? What right did Caesar have to dictate to us? No man’s dignity was greater than the republic. Cato’s sniping soon showed signs of paying off. In September 51 BC Pompey made an announcement. Caesar, he said, should give up his command in the spring of the following year and allow for a successor to be appointed. Pompey was pressed on the matter: what if one of Caesar’s tribunes vetoed the proposal? ‘... and supposing my son chooses to take his stick to me?’39 With these words, Pompey abandoned the comfort of the fence and severed all ties with Caesar.

Although the conservative politicians had now secured their strongman, it took a massive outpouring of love and support from the people to make Pompey feel like one. When he recovered from a serious illness while in Naples, Roman citizens up and down Italy rejoiced, in bouts of sacrificing and feasting. As he made his way back to Rome, Pompey was mobbed by people wearing garlands, carrying torches and pelting him with flowers. The effect of this enormous public celebration proved intoxicating, even blinding: ‘Pompey began to feel a kind of over-confidence in himself, which went far beyond considerations based on facts.’40

Pompey’s lack of a grasp on reality was now made worse. The Senate requested that both he and Caesar give up one legion from their commands to quell unrest on Rome’s eastern frontier in Parthia. As Caesar had borrowed an extra legion from the republic’s army, both legions were to come from Caesar’s army. The Senate’s request allowed him the opportunity to pose as a friend of peace, as the man who wanted to bring about a resolution to the crisis. With that in mind, Caesar willingly handed over both legions. When they arrived in Italy, one of their officers by the name of Appius belittled Caesar’s army and his achievements in Gaul. Pompey did not need any troops other than these two legions, he said. They were sufficient to handle the threat posed by Caesar. Pompey’s confidence was boosted even higher. He had easily built Caesar up, the great general thought to himself; now he could just as easily pull him down. When, later on, a senator, alarmed at Pompey’s lack of preparation, asked him with what legions he would defend the republic should Caesar march on Rome, Pompey serenely replied that there was nothing at all to worry about. ‘I have only to stamp my foot upon the ground,’ he said, ‘and there will rise up armies of infantry and armies of cavalry.’41

In mid-50 BC a dissolute ally of Caesar by the name of Marcus Caelius Rufus declared that the love affair between Pompey and Caesar was over.42 From the slave to the tax collector, from the beggar to the senator, there were now only two words on the lips of every Roman: civil war. And yet as both sides stepped ever closer to outright confrontation in the latter half of the year, the majority of the Senate wanted to pull back from the precipice. In November the senators voted by 370 to 22 for peace.43 But that meant only one thing: giving in to Caesar’s wishes. To Cato that was simply unconscionable.

The weakness of the Senate now served to stiffen the resolve of Cato and his closest allies, provoking even the arch-constitutionalists to actions with no legal authority. After the vote the consul of 50 BC Gaius Claudius Marcellus cried, ‘Have your way. Be slaves to Caesar!’ and stormed out of the Senate. He and his fellow consul then went to Pompey’s house on the outskirts of the city and, in a highly staged piece of melodrama, put a sword in his hand. With it they commanded him to take the field against Caesar in defence of the republic, and granted him both the legions stationed in Italy and the right to levy more. Pompey did his best to avoid appearing the aggressor, replying solemnly, ‘If there is no other way.’ In reality, though, he too now wanted war.44

On the first day of the new year 49 BC Caesar again presented himself as the advocate of peace, believing he had the Senate cowed. The newly elected tribune Mark Antony, Caesar’s mouthpiece in Rome, read out a letter from the proconsul: for his many successes in Gaul, the Roman people had granted him the legal right to stand for office in absentia. While he expected that privilege to stand, he was prepared to lay down his arms on the one condition that Pompey did too.

In response, one of the new consuls, Lucius Cornelius Lentulus launched a tirade. Now was not the time to be weak, he said. If the senators caved in, the consuls would have no option but to deploy Pompey and his army anyway. He was the source of the republic’s safety and if they did not act now, they could not rely on Pompey’s help later. The majority were so stung by these threats that when Pompey’s father-in-law Metellus Scipio stood up and proposed that a date should be fixed by which Caesar must lay down his arms or else be declared an enemy of the state, the majority of the Senate agreed with him. When the motion was taken to the people’s assembly, Mark Antony vetoed it, so the stalemate continued.45

Caesar tried again. If the Senate would not lay down arms, then nor would he simply give up his office and hand himself over to them for prosecution. He was, however, prepared to make concessions. He proposed giving up both provinces of Gaul and the ten legions stationed there so long as he could retain the province of Illyricum and its one legion. Once again, this proposal collided with the steamroller of Cato and his faction. On no account was Caesar to dictate conditions to the Senate, they cried. With this, the political process came to a dead end and war was now inevitable. The consuls passed an ‘ultimate decree’ of the Senate. Steps must now be taken, it said, o ensure that the republic came to no harm. Bellowing threats and abuse, the consul Lentulus then promptly threw Mark Antony and his followers out of the Senate House.46

The lives of Caesar’s allies in Rome were now in danger. Mark Antony, Caelius and the former tribune Gaius Scribonius Curio were given six days to leave the city or be killed. They disguised themselves as slaves and made their escape stowed on the back of wagons. Such an unseemly exit was a fitting conclusion to the stand-off, for it gave Caesar one final proof of the Senate’s injustice, one last piece of propaganda. The contemptuous, corrupt and arrogant senators had yet again insulted the liberty of the Roman people by threatening the tribunes and violating the sanctity of their persons. To illustrate the point Caesar paraded his humiliated friends before his army, clad just as they were in the clothes of slaves.47

The action now moved south. The Rubicon is a small river that once marked the boundary between Gaul and Italy. It was against the law for Roman commanders to bring troops out of their province and into Italy, so the decision to cross the river under arms amounted to an irrevocable declaration of war. But on 10 January 49 BC it was to the Rubicon that Caesar, upon hearing the news from Rome, now sent ahead a detachment of his boldest soldiers. This decision was typical of the man. He was against collecting the full weight of his ten legions from the other side of the Alps because ‘better results could be obtained by surprise, daring and taking the quickest advantage of the moment’.48 On the afternoon before he set off from his camp to join them, Caesar watched some gladiators exercise. He then took a bath, got dressed in the toga of his rank and sat down to make polite conversation with his friends over dinner. It was as though he had no fear. When it became dark he quietly took leave of his guests and slipped away.

Today no one knows where the Rubicon lies or whether it even still exists. To add to the mystery, the river is not even mentioned by Caesar in his account of the civil war. Nonetheless, all other Greek and Roman historians have focused their accounts on the moment before he crossed the Rubicon. Their attention to this reflects the ancient world’s enduring fascination with trying to work out what was going through Caesar’s mind at this critical instance. Some say he hesitated and nearly lost his nerve, paralysed at the thought of going to war with his fellow Romans.49 Others say that a spirit appeared, stole a trumpet from one of his soldiers and, letting out a loud blast, crossed to the other side; Caesar took it as a sign and did the same.50 All agree, however, that Caesar said, ‘The die is cast,’ and with those words, he crossed the river.

The republic, with its ancient system of free elections, democracy and concord between the classes of Roman society, was in the hands of Pompey and Caesar. Although they did not yet know it, the very thing that both sides were fighting for was to become the very thing they would destroy. The fight for liberty would reverberate across the entire Roman world.


The march of Caesar’s thirteenth legion through Italy was as swift and clinical as a bolt of lightning. But just as effective was Caesar’s clever campaign of spin. Its slogan was ‘Clemency’. Within a day, he had reached Ariminum (now called Rimini); the town voluntarily opened its gate and came over to Caesar without so much as the unsheathing of a sword. Other towns, including Auximum, Asculum, Picenum and Corfinium, followed suit, even though they had troops stationed there who had been levied in Pompey’s name. The form these engagements took was the same. The Pompeian officers attempted a meagre resistance; once captured, they were immediately discharged, free to decide which side they were on; the majority of their soldiers deserted to Caesar’s army and the towns were thanked. The general himself described his spin offensive in a letter of the time: ‘I have of my own accord decided to show all possible clemency and to reconcile myself to Pompey . . . Let this be a new style of conquest, to make mercy and generosity our shield.’51 That style was proving very effective.

In Rome, Caesar’s enemies were thrown into a fit of panic. They had hoped that the respectable classes in towns throughout Italy would rise up as one in defence of the republic against the invader. But as Caesar waged his blitzkrieg without significant opposition, they quickly realized that they had hopelessly misread the majority view. The senator Cicero was astonished by the complete reversal of advantage between Pompey and Caesar:

[Do] you see what sort of man this is into whose hands the state has fallen, how clever, alert, well-prepared? I truly believe that if he takes no lives and touches no man’s property, those who dreaded him most will become his warmest admirers. Both town and country people talk to me a great deal. They really think of nothing except their fields and their bits of farms and investments. And look how the tables are turned! They fear the man they used to trust and love the man they used to dread.52

Militarily too, the constitutionalists were utterly wrong-footed. Pompey did not expect Caesar to attack so swiftly, believing that their forces would not meet until the spring.53 Blinded by arrogance, Caesar’s opponents had failed to complete the levy of the troops in Italy, and there was now no time to wait for Pompey’s legions in Spain to reach Rome. The two legions that Pompey did have outside the city walls were simply no match for Caesar’s eleven.

A plague of quarrelling and rabid recrimination broke out in the senatorial faction, infecting even the mind of their champion. Indeed it paralysed him. Pompey’s old friendship with their common enemy was to blame for arming Caesar in the first place, cried one senator. And where were those armies that he had so proudly boasted would come to him at the stamp of his foot, whinged another. Was Pompey stamping now?54 The anarchy in the senatorial ranks was echoed on the streets of Rome in one poetic account. All magistrates threw off their robes of office, ordinary people moved through the streets like ghosts heavy with sorrow and fear, and the temples were thronged with women in mourning who threw themselves on the floor and tore at their hair.55 The city was convulsed with the fear of Roman fighting Roman, of Caesar’s unstoppable, relentless advance on Rome.

Finally, Pompey emerged with a plan, painful and shocking though it was to the ears of the senators. To defend the republic, he said, it was necessary to abandon Rome, to evacuate their legions and set sail for the east, where he could rely on his allies in Greece to complete the levy of an army. Only with the support of the friends of the Roman people would he relish the prospect of facing Caesar, not before. Anyone who stayed behind, Pompey added, would be considered a traitor and a partisan of Caesar.56

The strategy sank the senators deeper into despair. Although Pompey was proposing a tactical retreat, they could not escape the feeling that they were taking flight before a tyrant. Caesar had forced this miserable plan upon them. Adding to their humiliation and disillusionment, they knew that they would have to abandon every physical manifestation of their cherished republic – their beloved temples, the homes of the city’s gods, and, above all their ancestral property. What was the republic if not the city of Rome itself, they protested to Pompey. Cato went about as if in mourning, lamenting and bewailing the senators’ losses and the fate of Rome. Cicero, yet to decide whether to stay or go, complained of the indignity of having to walk around ‘like a beggar’. Any peace terms would have been better than abandoning the mother city to Caesar and his ‘underworld’ of disgraced and bankrupt outcasts, he wrote.57 Nonetheless, they all realized that, with their backs against the wall, they had no choice but to leave.

So, after a night of hurriedly packing up their trunks and bags, laying their hands on whatever property they could ‘as if they were robbing their neighbours’, and barricading their houses, the majority of the senators, their slaves, friends and dependants kissed the ground, invoked the gods and fled from Rome. There was not even time for the consuls to make the usual sacrifices. The city’s poor were left behind, many in tears, morose and resigned to being taken captive.58 It left the impression that perhaps Caesar was indeed right: the rich did not care for the Roman people, but just for themselves.

But few took any notice of the reproaches of the people. For the Pompeians now formed a massive column of evacuees, making their way along the straight roads that cut through the Italian countryside. Their destination was Brundisium (modern-day Brindisi); their goal, to seize the Roman fleet based there and get to safety as quickly as possible. The port of Brundisium was situated on the heel of Italy, at the point where the crossing to Greece was at its shortest. It became the target of Caesar too. When he received news of Pompey’s strategy, he knew that all he had to do was cut his enemy off at the port to bring about an early, bloodless end to the war. The race was on.

By the time Caesar arrived at Brundisium in the company of six legions, Pompey had successfully requisitioned ships and evacuated half his army. The other half now remained with their general. The challenge they faced was daunting: to defend themselves against Caesar’s legions until the ships returned from ferrying the first dispatch of soldiers. Caesar made the first move. With typical ambition and clarity of purpose, he immediately blockaded the harbour of Brundisium across the narrowest part of its mouth by building a causeway made of rafts. On top of these his army piled earthworks. Pompey immediately countered by commandeering whatever ships he could and building on to their decks three-storey-high siege towers. From this great height his harassing legionaries attacked and bombarded the barricade with arrows, firebrands and ballistic missiles.59

While the battle for the port raged, Caesar pressed home a slender advantage and sent in one of his officers, Caninius Rebilus, to negotiate for peace. But if Caesar expected Pompey to roll over, he was to be quickly disappointed. The retired general, who was seeing action for the first time in over ten years, chose to gamble. Believing that he could pull off an extraordinary evacuation, Pompey fobbed Rebilus off. He gave the reply that without the consuls present, he could never reach a settlement with his enemy. Caesar saw through this pathetic excuse. His verdict on it was unsentimental: ‘Caesar finally determined to abandon these repeated vain efforts at peace and to wage war in earnest.’60

To Pompey’s delight, the ships returning from Greece were now spotted on the horizon. Before long they had smashed their way back into the harbour. While Caesar organized his legionaries for a frontal assault on the city, Pompey made every preparation to restrain such an attack and protect the evacuation. The gates of the town were barricaded, trenches embedded with vicious spikes were dug in the roads, and the walls of the town were lined with slingers and archers. Under cover of darkness, Pompey’s soldiers boarded their ships and looked set to escape. The people of Brundisium, angry at their harsh treatment by Pompey, had other plans. They signalled to Caesar’s men from their rooftops that Pompey was preparing to cast off. Then, helping them up the scaling ladders and over the defences, the townspeople told them where the traps were laid and pointed out the detour to the harbour. Charging headlong through the town, Caesar’s legionaries finally managed to reach some skiffs and small vessels just in time to scupper two of Pompey’s ships snagged on Caesar’s causeway. However, as daylight returned, the rest were nowhere to be seen.61

As the bows of his ships beat out spuming foam from the blue of the Adriatic Sea, Pompey knew he had snatched an extraordinary escape from the jaws of disaster. He was now safely on his way to visit friends and allies, the many wealthy kings, dynasts and potentates of Greece and Asia, who would provide him with further levies of soldiers with which to fight Caesar. It now perhaps came as a gentle surprise to Pompey that the plan to abandon Rome was actually working. But Caesar too could reflect on his own success to date. After all, within sixty days and without shedding any blood, he had become master of all Italy. And were it not for his lack of ships, he would without hesitation chase after and attack Pompey and his men before they had time to strengthen their forces abroad. But, on further reflection, he realized that now was not the time to go pursuing Pompey. This would only leave both Gaul and Italy exposed to Pompey’s four legions still in Spain.62 Indeed, Caesar stood to lose everything he had won for his Roman republic unless he dealt with this threat immediately. Before he collected all his legions together, however, and marched north to defeat the Pompeian army in Spain, he had a little stop to make en route.

When Caesar rode into Rome at the end of March 49 BC, he was greeted not by cheering, jubilant crowds celebrating their hero’s return, but the sullen faces of a Roman people struck dumb by terror. In this civil war, they wondered, would Caesar regard Rome as just another foreign city to be captured wholesale, its riches plundered and its gods thoughtlessly desecrated?63 Over the next ten days, despite the absence of the consuls and praetors, and the emptiness of the chairs of office, Caesar did everything to maintain a semblance of legitimate government. He called a meeting of the Senate in a temple, and a handful of disgruntled senators showed up. But when he asked them to join him in taking over the government they hesitated, still unable to commit to one side. After three days of discussion and excuses, Caesar, despising the weakness of these little men, gave up his patient show of legality and acted according to his own dignity.64

To fight the war against the armies of Pompey and Cato, Caesar told the Senate, he needed money from the state treasury. A tribune of the people called Metellus vetoed the request, protesting that it was against the law. Caesar snapped, stormed out of the meeting and declared that in the war against the enemies of the republic he was going to take the money anyway. When the keys to the doors of the Temple of Saturn could not be found, the general ordered his soldiers to take a battering ram to it. The tribune Metellus, however, again tried to stop Caesar by standing in their way. The people’s politician, the man whose whole career had depended on his alliance with the tribunes of the people and the defence of their sanctified rights, now forced Metellus aside with the words, ‘It’s easier for me to kill you than argue with you’.65 The gold reserves of the republic were Caesar’s. But before he left the city, there was time for one last act of illegality. As if a king, he appointed a praetor to take care of affairs in Rome on his behalf. With that, Caesar and his army headed west.

It took a matter of months to defeat Pompey’s three armies in Spain. But while Caesar drove his legionaries to the physical limits of exhaustion and endurance, the same could not be said of Pompey. In Greece he recruited his army at leisure. His army coffers were in rude health too, as he had forced the tax-farming companies of the east to hand over their gold.66 Despite knowing that Pompey held these major advantages, in the winter of 49–48 BC Caesar returned to Brundisium. Here Mark Antony had collected a fleet, and together they prepared to set sail for the great confrontation with Pompey. The republic had come to a fork in the road: would it fall into the hands of the old guard constitutionalists or to Caesar’s new order – to those protecting the liberty of the élite or that of people?

Although it was the depths of winter and the Adriatic was crawling with Pompey’s ships, Caesar’s fleet, shuttling between the two coasts of Italy and modern-day Albania, outwitted the blockade of his enemies and safely landed seven legions near Dyracchium (Durres). When the rest of his soldiers were delayed by the enemy fleet, Caesar was so determined for them to join him that he disguised himself and forced the captain of a twelve-oared fishing vessel to ferry him back to Italy in the midst of a violent storm.67Close to being shipwrecked, Caesar gave up the plan and put his trust in his deputy across the water. Mark Antony duly rose to the occasion, ran the gauntlet and successfully ferried over Caesar’s remaining legions.

Once in northern Greece, one principle of war dictated the tactics that both sides adopted: the need for supplies. Pompey was in friendly territory, had secure supply lines and was in control of the seas. Caesar, by contrast, was utterly outnumbered, in enemy territory and had very few supplies. As a result, Pompey wanted to wage a war of attrition, to grind down Caesar’s men by putting off any engagement with them, and to watch starvation destroy all their vigour. Yes, Caesar’s soldiers were experienced and battle-hardened, but the years of war, of long marches, of building camps and besieging cities had taken their toll too. Time and again Caesar tried to lure Pompey into battle to win a quick victory. Time and again Pompey resisted the temptation.

A psychological battle ensued, the Pompeian soldiers testing the endurance of Caesar’s gritty, bloody-minded legionaries. When Caesar besieged Pompey’s camp near Dyrrachium, Pompey thought he had Caesar’s army starved of supplies. However, the soldiers, more wild beast than human, were determined to maintain the blockade in the face of illness, fatigue and extreme privation. They found a solution in a local root called ‘chara’, from which they managed to bake loaves and survive. When the Pompeian army goaded its enemies with taunts of famine, the Caesareans replied by throwing a few loaves over the walls into its camp just to rattle the enemy with their tenacity, just to prove their invincibility, their superhuman powers.68 Nevertheless, the Pompeian legionaries would not be rattled for long.

When Pompey finally engaged his enemy at Dyrrachium, he routed Caesar’s army. The ninth legion took the brunt of the casualties. Crucially, however, Pompey did not drive home his advantage, but let his enemy’s army escape to safety. Distraught at his first defeat in years, Caesar came to a tough realization. He needed to exhaust his enemy, to draw Pompey away from the sea into the mountainous countryside where both armies would be poorly supplied. So Caesar, his risks already running high, gambled on a strategy that approximated to a collective death wish: to march his tired, starving and disease-ridden legions further inland, further into hostile territory, where the chances of finding food were even more remote. In August 48 BC, although the order ran counter to all their instincts, Caesar’s soldiers picked themselves up and pressed on through the rocky, forested hills of Thessaly. En route they took the Greek towns of Gomphi and Metropolis, and plundered them for wine and food. Their health and spirits restored, the legionaries finally set camp near a town called Pharsalus.

Believing that he had his enemy on the run and that he now held all the aces, Pompey was quick to follow Caesar. After his first success in battle, he was jubilant, pumped up, giddy with anticipation of victory. But, as his army too set camp near Pharsalus, Pompey had overlooked his one critical weakness: the value he placed on the opinion of the senatorial establishment. That Achilles heel now became fatally exposed. As the days passed and Pompey did nothing, Cato and his faction ran out of patience and turned on the pressure. Surely Pompey had Caesar just where he wanted him, they pestered. Why wouldn’t their great general simply engage Caesar and deliver the death blow? Was he too old? Had his judgement gone? Or was he just so glad to be the general once again, so drunk on power that he did not even want to win the war, but only to hold on to his glorious command ad infinitum?69

Wearily but with steel, Pompey resisted. All the senators seemed to care about, came his acerbic rebuke, was money and whether or not they missed the fig season in Tusculum! His concern, however, was to minimize the loss of Roman life. The strategy of delay, he insisted, was the best way of ensuring that. Besides, what did they, with their soft, metropolitan manners and worries, know about war? Nothing! But as time wore on, and as the insults and nicknames continued to pique, so Pompey showed signs of caving in.70 Meanwhile, the daily dance was maintained: Caesar and Pompey led out their armies in formation, the bait of battle was offered, and Pompey refused to bite.

On the bright morning of 9 August 48 BC, his supplies again running dangerously low and his strategy failing, Caesar decided to strike camp and march once more inland. But just as the tents were being dismantled and the baggage animals loaded up, scouts rushed in to report that they had noticed something different. Pompey’s line of soldiers had advanced further forward from the rampart than usual.71 The signal was unmistakable. At long last Pompey the Great was ready for battle. The bait had been taken. Caesar was overjoyed, and as a signal to prepare for war he ordered his purple tunic to be hoisted in front of his tent.

The flurry of activity surrounding the two commanders could not have been more different. The politicians in Pompey’s camp cried ‘On to Pharsalus!’ and rubbed their hands at the prospect of witnessing a glorious victory. They argued jovially over who on their triumphant return to Rome would be allocated the priesthoods, who would stand for the offices of praetor and consul, and who would rent which Palatine villa to whom. Caesar and his officers, by contrast, were utterly focused on the task ahead. Buoyed up, they knew they had been handed a life-line. It was one they were now going to seize.72

When the two lines of battle came face to face, the landscape shone with the glitter of their javelins, short swords, bows, slings and quivers full of arrows.73 Caesar’s 22,000 infantry were confronting an army twice that size, while his 1000 cavalry faced an opponent seven times greater. But where his army was smaller, his strategy was shrewder. Seeing that Pompey’s cavalry were all aligned on their general’s left flank, Caesar knew that his old ally’s plan was to encircle one of Caesar’s wings. To neutralize that threat, Caesar took a series of cohorts from each of his legions and from them created a fourth line of infantry. Placing them behind his three existing lines, he gave them the following instructions: on the signal of his flag and not before, they were to advance and engage Pompey’s cavalry. Above all, they were to use their javelins as pikes and thrust up at the faces of the enemy. Victory that day, he told them, depended on their valour.

Caesar rallied his army with a final speech. To Crastinus, a loyal centurion of the tenth legion who had served with him throughout Gaul, Alesia and Spain, he said, ‘Only this one battle remains. After it Caesar will regain his dignity and we our freedom.’ Crastinus replied, ‘Today, General, I shall earn your gratitude either dead or alive.’74 And with those words, Crastinus and 120 crack troops, bellowing at the tops of their voices, charged. The impetus lying with Caesar’s infantry, Roman now clashed with Roman, each side hacking down the other with mirror-image technique and brutality.

Soon enough, Pompey deployed his cavalry too. Immediately they succeeded in unsettling their enemy. Their assault was so committed, so convincing that Caesar’s cavalry was forced to give ground. However, as Pompey’s cavalry formed into squadrons and surrounded Caesar’s line on its exposed flank, Caesar gave the signal for his secret detachment to break away. Its standards brandished aloft, the fourth line swiftly attacked Pompey’s cavalry, jabbing their javelins upwards at enemy faces. It was a moment of military genius. Caesar had correctly guessed that the flower of Rome’s aristocratic youth, the scions of senators, might well have the eagerness for battle, but they had neither the experience nor the stomach for it. The decisive action threw them into a panic. They turned and fled to the hills.

Now it was Pompey’s flank that was exposed. The fourth line pressed home its advantage and attacked the rear. Caesar, scenting blood, dealt the death blow. He had kept his third line in reserve and inactive. Now, swooping into the bloody mêlée, fresh, unscathed and battle-hardened veterans from Caesar’s long-serving campaigns replaced the weary. Without mercy, they smashed and stabbed their way through the bloodied, exhausted Pompeian ranks. Eventually, Pompey’s grand coalition, unable to hold the new assault, gave out and was routed.

Seeing his forces flee, Pompey had the look of a man half-crazed or ‘whom some god had deprived of his wits’.75 After waiting silently in his tent while his legionaries outside were slaughtered, he was suddenly taken by the belief that he could regroup and counter-attack. So, in the company of thirty cavalrymen, Pompey the Great also fled from Pharsalus. In reality, he had been utterly defeated. Caesar had decisively won the civil war. Pompey would launch no second offensive.

Caesar ordered his men to storm the fortifications of the enemy camp. The Pompeian cohorts guarding it either joined the flight or surrendered. Once inside Pompey’s camp, Caesar’s soldiers saw the evidence of a final hubris committed by the senatorial faction. A victory banquet had already been beautifully laid out on silver platters in arrogant expectation of a victory celebration. Every tent was decorated with wreaths of myrtle, the dining couches were strewn with flowers, and drinking vessels were filled to the brim with wine.76 But now it was not the aristocratic faction, the fathers and sons of the wealthy Roman élite who sat down to feast. That privilege now fell to Caesar and his men.


The next day 24,000 of Pompey’s army surrendered to Caesar, throwing themselves on the ground, weeping and begging for their lives to be spared. Of the estimated 15,000 dead, 6000 were Roman citizens. To the enemy Romans who survived, Caesar showed clemency once again in a first step to heal the sick republic. He also pardoned the noblemen who had fought against him.77 Many of them, however, had fled in an effort to reorganize and retrench. Pompey reunited with his wife and set sail from Cyprus, seeking refuge in Egypt. Perhaps he could raise a new army there and fight Caesar another day? Caesar followed him in pursuit. As Pompey stepped ashore at Alexandria, however, he was assassinated. An influential eunuch in the court of the Egyptian pharaoh had decided that the best way to make a friend of Caesar was to murder his adversary. Nothing could have been further from the truth. As Caesar looked on the decapitated head of his old ally and friend and then at his signet ring, which depicted a lion holding a sword, he burst into tears. This was no honourable, dignified way for a great Roman to die.78

Although the battle of Pharsalus had decided the civil war in Caesar’s favour, it would take further campaigns in North Africa and Spain to mop up the pockets of senatorial resistance. On his return to Rome in 46 BC, Caesar celebrated four lavish triumphs; his veterans were given a lifetime’s salary, and there was a gift of money for every Roman citizen. Between 49 and 44 BC Julius Caesar was voted four consulships and four dictatorships. With the power that these offices granted him, he honoured his pledges to reform the republic and restore the liberty of the people. Legislation, ranging from the suspension of rent for a year to the settlement of veterans and the urban poor in Italy and in colonies abroad, was enacted, but it was by no means the revolutionary, radical overhaul that the conservatives feared. Indeed, Caesar could be equally repressive. In a bid to curb the power of the mob in the future, for example, he put a stop to the practice of people gathering in clubs and colleges unless they had a licence.

The dictator also increased the number of senators and knights filling those ranks with new men from ordinary families. As it was Caesar who had made their social rise possible, these men willingly heaped more and more honours on him. In January 44 BC he ostentatiously rejected the title and crown of a king, yet a religious cult and statues suggest that he accepted deification. When, in February, he agreed to the office of dictator in perpetuity, it was hard to escape the reality that Caesar now ruled as an autocrat, as Rome’s first emperor. It seemed that rather than reforming the republic by building a relationship with the new senatorial élite, and governing with them towards genuine reform of the republic, Caesar ultimately cared more about his patrician dignity and the honours accorded it than the liberty of the people.

The end of the civil war, therefore, did not mean the end of the debate about liberty. Indeed, Caesar’s perpetual dictatorship fanned its flames once more. In mid-March 44 BC, Mark Antony suddenly found himself having a long conversation with a senator outside the Senate House built by Pompey. A strong, physically imposing man, he did not realize that he was being deliberately detained. Inside a group of senators made a pretence of petitioning against Caesar. They approached him and soon they were hemming him in. Then, one of the men broke cover, flashed the blade of his dagger and plunged it into the dictator. The others piled in, frenetically pulling at their togas to release the weapons hidden in their folds. They stabbed their political enemy twenty-three times. Brutus, who was a close family friend of Caesar but who had fought on the side of Pompey at Pharsalus, delivered one of the blows. Afterwards he left the Senate House in the company of some of the conspirators. Their bloody knives still in their hands, they marched to the Capitoline Hill and called out to the people. ‘Liberty,’ they cried, had been ‘restored’.79

The lifeless, bleeding body of Caesar now lay alone in the Senate House, the very building that his adversary had paid for and bequeathed to Rome. Indeed, the spot where he had fallen was at the foot of a statue of Pompey. While it might be thought that with this murder Pompey had got his revenge, the truth was that the republic was dead. Although Brutus and all the other patrician senators who wanted to end the ‘tyranny’ of Caesar and bring back the old idealized republic did not yet know it, Caesar had correctly seen the future. Popular elections and votes in the assemblies of Rome were no way to successfully govern a vast Roman empire. That could only be done by a single head, one ruler – an emperor.

Peacefully winning over both the aristocratic élite and the Roman people to that view, and persuading them to accept that liberty was finished for all of them, was a gargantuan task that required a clever political vision and a clinical, glacial ruthlessness. It was a happy coincidence, then, that the task fell to Augustus. This man’s genius for politics would perhaps surpass that of all Romans who came before and after him. So too, however, would his capacity for cruelty, his assiduous ability to do whatever it took to seal power.

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