The world around war

A Mediterranean war

The Civil War affected the entire Roman world and ultimately destroyed a centuries-old political system. Many ordinary citizens were swept up into the armies, to serve in brutal conditions. Some died in battle, many more probably through disease and privations, while others were permanently crippled. At least some soldiers, especially auxiliary troops such as Gauls, were accompanied on campaign by their wives and children, who in turn suffered from the rigours of hard journeys and poor food. Yet it was not just soldiers and their families who were caught up in the conflict, for many civilian communities also suffered. An extreme case was a town like Gomphi in Thessaly, which Caesar permitted his soldiers to sack in an effort to restore their spirits after the retreat from Dyrrachium. In such circumstances Roman soldiers were extremely brutal, impossible for their officers to restrain even had they wished to do so. Caesar deliberately did not march into Corfinum at night in 49 because he did not trust his men to keep their discipline once they slipped off into the dark streets, and he did not wish to begin the campaign by plundering an Italian city. In 46, it was also considered a considerable achievement when Caesar's men were camped outside Hadrumentum and he was able to prevent them from plundering it.

Communities within the area of any of the campaigns were likely to suffer even if they were not subjected to a sack. The armies needed food in vast quantities. Most hoped to gain as much of this as possible from willing allies or to ship supplies in from elsewhere, but this was not always possible, especially as operations became more protracted. The needs of the local population mattered little when the armies sent out foraging expeditions to gather up all the grain and cattle they could find. There were also cases when the armies clashed within urban areas, often causing damage. The siege of Caesar's small force in Alexandria brought considerable destruction on the city, as buildings were demolished or set on fire.

The Civil War pitted legion against legion and made Rome vulnerable to foreign enemies. The most spectacular success was enjoyed by Pharnaces, until his army was destroyed at Zela. Other threats failed to materialise. Parthia had already invaded Syria once after its victory over Crassus, and seemed on the brink of doing so once again in late 50. Internal problems, during which the victorious commander at Carrhae was executed by the king as a potential rival, absorbed Parthia and delayed a new offensive. In the west, Caesar's conquest of Gaul had been quick and spectacularly successful, but the new province had not yet been properly consolidated. In fact there were no repeats of the rebellions that had broken out between 54 and 51 during Caesar’s lifetime, but it did take another generation and further unrest before the province was fully pacified. Other allied countries sought to benefit from involvement in the Civil War. Deiotarus sent troops to aid Pompey in part because he was his client but also in the hope of securing his kingdom. Juba’s attitude was similar. In Egypt the rivals in their own civil war tried to win favour from victors in the Roman conflict, Cleopatra gaining greatly from this and preserving some measure of independence for an area that had been in something of an anomalous position between ally and province for some time.

‘Sulla did not know his political alphabet’—Caesar’s dictatorship

In the first years of the Civil War Caesar spent little time in Rome. In 46 he spent the greater part of the year there, having just been appointed dictator for ten years, and then after his return from Spain in October 45 remained there until his assassination on 15 March 44. The rest of the time Caesar was busy on campaign and ruled Rome through deputies. He was planning to leave once again to fight a war in the Balkans against Dacia and then to move east and confront Parthia in spring 44, a task which at the very least would have kept him away from Italy for several years. Yet, although he spent little time in the city, the period of Caesar’s rule profoundly and permanently changed the nature of Roman political life. Caesar is supposed to have declared frequently that Sulla showed his political illiteracy when he resigned his dictatorship. Evidently, Caesar did not plan to withdraw from politics and so the Republic would inevitably be dominated by a single all-powerful individual on a permanent basis, the very thing Rome’s constitution was supposed to avoid.

However, it is much harder to say precisely what sort of position Caesar envisaged for himself in the long term. Civil war was renewed within months of his death, as his supporters sought vengeance against his murderers, and it was obviously in the interests of both sides to distort the record of what Caesar had done and, even more, what he planned to do. The conspirators needed to show that Caesar was bent on becoming an autocratic monarch who would have denied freedom to the rest of the Senate. Therefore he had to be killed because of what he would become. Caesar’s heirs and supporters maintained the opposite view, pointing out that Caesar’s rule had been and would have continued to be benevolent and that he had not wanted to become anything as un-Roman as a king. We have very few contemporary sources for details of the last months of Caesar’s life, since most of Cicero’s letters from that period were not preserved, and virtually all our accounts are later and inevitably influenced by the propaganda of both sides. Eventually Caesar’s adopted son Octavian (Augustus) would make himself Rome’s first emperor after his defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31. As part of the adoption, his name became Caius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Therefore if either Caesar himself or Octavian passed a law, it would be recorded as a Julian law (lex Julia), and if they founded a colony it would be a Julian colony (colonia Julia). This makes it very easy to confuse the actions of the two men, and it is not always clear when Augustus actually implemented a measure that Caesar had planned.

Initially Caesar was given a ten-year dictatorship with the additional title of praefectus morum (prefect of morals). This was an invention that seems to have given him most of the powers of the censors, in particular the ability to appoint and expel senators and add names to the roll of citizens. In effect his power was greater than the consuls and, not only did he sit among the magistrates, but his opinion was always called for first. Even more importantly, he appointed all the significant magistrates. This provided him not only with control of the important offices of state, but also with the ability to reward the loyalty of his followers during the Civil War. The Senate grew enormously in size as Caesar’s partisans were rewarded. By his death it had almost 1,000 members, compared with the 600 established by Sulla. Many of the new appointments were considered utterly unsuitable by traditionalists, for throughout the war Caesar’s party had been seen as a haven for all the disreputable men and failures in the state. As Cicero joked grimly, how could you expect such men to guide the Republic when they could not even manage their own fortunes for a couple of months? Rumours circulated that in former years Caesar had gone round recruiting such wastrels by telling them that what they really needed was a civil war to restore their fortunes. Other appointments were unpopular, less because of the reputation of the individuals in question, but because of their nationality, for there were many aristocrats from the towns of Italy. In addition, Caesar, who had as consul granted citizenship to Cisalpine Gaul and during his campaigns extended the franchise to many noblemen north of the Alps, appointed several Gallic senators. This move again prompted caustic comments about barbarians, only recently bereft of their trousers and put into a toga, wandering aimlessly around the city as they failed to find the forum. Throughout his career Caesar had taken pride in always rewarding those who assisted him, and his actions as dictator simply confirmed this.

Sulla had filled his enlarged Senate with his partisans. Caesar to a great extent did the same thing. However, although most of the older and more famous senators who had sided against him were now dead, other, younger, men who had received Caesar’s clemency were taken back and given honours and magistracies. Brutus and Cassius, the two main leaders in the conspiracy that would murder Caesar, had both fought against him in 49-48. Caesar appointed both men to the praetorship in 45. Yet all such honours were devalued by the freedom with which he doled them out to his supporters. The number of praetorships was increased to accommodate the number of men whose loyalty demanded a magistracy. The number of consuls was not increased from two, but Caesar encouraged men to resign before their year of office, allowing him to appoint others as suffect or replacement consuls. Such men were entitled to all the insignia of the full rank. An extreme case was Caius Caninius Rebilus, who had served as an officer with Caesar throughout much of the Civil War. When one of the consuls for 45 died on the last day of his office, Caesar appointed Caninius to hold a suffect consulship for less than 24 hours. Cicero quipped that he proved one of the Republic’s most dedicated magistrates, never sleeping a wink while he held power, and that everyone needed to rush and congratulate the new consul before he had to relinquish it. In spite of this he, and many other senators, resented Caesar’s disdainful treatment of the hallowed offices of the Republic.

At first Caesar was assisted by the dictator’s traditional subordinate, the Master of Horse (Magister Equitum), a post held by Antony and later Lepidus. In 45 eight prefects were appointed to aid the Master of Horse, marking another stage between Pompey’s indirect rule of his Spanish provinces and the use of legates and prefects by the later emperors to govern the empire. Though large, the Senate lacked any real freedom of debate and was becoming distanced from the main decision-making processes that tended to occur in private and involved only Caesar and his trusted advisers. If senators had, in 59 and afterwards, resented the need to go to one of the triumvirs if they wanted to secure any post or favour for a client, now the situation was much worse. It is possible that Caesar had become too accustomed to supreme military command to adapt his style of leadership to the more tactful needs of political life. He had spent most of his life for more than a decade issuing orders, which had always ultimately resulted in success. Caesar knew his own abilities, trusting them far more than he trusted the capacity of anyone else. His manner often suggested impatience with display and the feelings of others whom he did not respect.

On one occasion he caused offence when he failed to rise from his work and greet the consuls as soon as they came into his presence. The people loved the lavish games and spectacles he staged in Rome, but did not like his habit of listening to and answering correspondence while he sat in his box.

Caesar certainly displayed all the energy he had shown as an army commander during his dictatorship and the range of reforms he initiated during such a short time is truly remarkable. In some cases this consisted of tidying up an existing situation, as when he reformed the constitutions of the towns in Italy. The provinces too were affected, with renewal of the taxation system, usually in favour of the provincials. Plans were drawn up for a massive programme of colonisation throughout the provinces. This was to include not only the vast number of soldiers enrolled during the Civil War and now nearing retirement or no longer required, but also a significant number of the urban poor. Caesar had resisted pressure to abolish debt completely, the habitual desire of many citizens who lacked regular employment and lived in rented apartments, and arranged a more equitable system of repayment, but this measure would have eased the plight of many as well as adding to the number of prosperous citizens. It is uncertain just how many of these colonies were actually founded, for as mentioned above they are easily confused with the more numerous Augustan foundations. However, the programme was certainly already underway in Transalpine Gaul by the time of Caesar’s death and had probably also begun elsewhere. Perhaps as many as 100,000 colonists were settled in Spain, Gaul and Africa.

This coin was minted by Caesar during his dictatorship and shows him wearing the laurel wreath of a triumphant general. The right to wear this on all public occasions was especially attractive to Caesar who had lost much of his hair (AKG Berlin)

The removal of part of Rome’s population, which by this time was close to the one million mark, helped to relieve some of the city’s problems. Laws were passed banning the trade guilds which men like Clodius and Milo had turned into gangs of thugs, although this measure may not have achieved much, as it still allowed ‘legitimate’ organisations. The number of poor citizens receiving a handout of wheat purchased and distributed by the state was reduced by more than half to only 150,000 recipients, many of those removed from the list being sent out as colonists. As a further measure to improve the food supply to the city, Caesar ordered the construction of a massive new harbour at Ostia, but this does not appear to have moved beyond the planning stage. A major building programme was begun in Rome, with older temples and public buildings being heavily restored and new monuments built. An entire forum complex, the Forum Julium, containing a new Senate House or curia to replace the one burnt down by Clodius’ supporters, was begun. Occupying a prominent place within the complex was a grand temple dedicated to his divine ancestor, Venus Genetrix. Apart from making the city more splendid, projects such as this provided work for large numbers of the urban poor who might otherwise be a source of instability.

Apart from the grand parades that marked Caesar’s triumphs in 46 and 45, he held many spectacular public entertainments, and in particular gladiatorial displays. On a more cultural note, a large public library was planned, supervised by the polymath (wide-ranging scholar) Varro. Caesar seems to have interested himself in practically everything, and probably his most enduring measure was the reform of the calendar. The traditional Roman calendar required constant attention from the priests, and had long since ceased to conform to the natural season, creating problems for Rome’s political year. Caesar replaced this with a calendar of twelve 30-day solar months. In 46, 67 days were added to the year so that the new calendar would begin at the right time. The modern Gregorian calendar, created in the late sixteenth century and slowly adopted throughout the world, modified Caesar’s system but left it substantially intact. The month of July still bears the name of the Roman dictator.

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