Ancient History & Civilisation


The Rise of Julius Caesar

I have had a visit from Cornelius – Balbus, I mean, the intimate of Julius Caesar. He assured me that Caesar will follow my advice and Pompey’s in all things and will try to bring Pompey and Crassus together. This course offers the following advantages: an intimate association for me with Pompey, with Caesar too if I want it, a return to favour with my enemies, peace with the populace, tranquillity in my old age

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 2.3 (late 60 BC)

The truth is that the present regime is the most infamous, most disgraceful and uniformly odious to all sorts and classes and ages of men that ever was, more so upon my word than I could ever have wished, let alone expected. Those ‘populist’ politicians have taught even quiet folk to hiss

Cicero, Letters to Atticus 2.19, between 7 and 14 July 59 BC, on Caesar’s consulship and its deal with Pompey and Crassus

Julius Caesar, the most famous Roman, proved to be the most masterly populist in Roman politics. For more than twenty years he pursued this line, yet by birth and manners he was a true patrician, descended from the oldest nobility in Roman history. The founding father, Aeneas, was claimed as his family’s ancestor and beyond him, the goddess Venus herself. The ‘traditions’ of ordinary senators were latecomers in the long view of such an ultimate aristocrat. He stands in sharp contrast to the assumed traditionalism of Cicero, the man made good.

Caesar had a proud, patrician sense of his own high worth, or dignitas, but, first as a consul, then ten years later as a dictator, he forced through detailed populist laws which ‘traditional’ senators had resisted and continued to obstruct. They ranged from curbs on extortion by provincial governors and checks on the use of violence in public life to the granting of plots of land to tens of thousands of settlers, not all of whom were veteran soldiers. There were values behind such laws, a sense of justice which made them more than personal bids for preeminence. Yet Caesar, the ‘people’s politician’, ended by limiting the urban poor’s right of free association in their clubs and colleges in Rome. They might be a threat to his own preeminence, not least during his absence from the city. Until the years of his dictatorships, he correctlyrelied on tribunes, the popular magistrates, to propose his legislation to the people’s assemblies and to veto proposals against his interests. Yet he ended by deposing holders of the tribunate simply because their actions displeased him. Eventually he nominated Rome’s magistrates himself.

Artfully, Caesar had encouraged ‘open government’. In 59, as consul, he caused the business of the Senate to be published and made accessible for the first time: Hadrian, nearly two hundred years later, would be ‘curator’ of the published senatorial ‘acts’. Those senators like Cicero who spoke contemptuously of the people as ‘cattle’ or the ‘dregs’ in the Senate house, but praised them before their assemblies, would not exactly welcome the new publications. Caesar himself spoke clearly and forcefully, dictated letters freely (even while on horseback) and became the first Roman nobleman to make a real contribution to Latin literature. For, as a general abroad, Caesar sent lucidly written ‘commentaries’ back from his prolonged command in Gaul. ‘Avoid an unfamiliar word,’ he used to say, ‘as a sailor avoids the rocks.’1 His prose works are unusually clear in structure and form, but they are also highly economical with the truth. They were composed so that a wider public in Rome, in Italy, and perhaps even in southern Gaul, could read of his prowess. Probably, they were issued year by year, but they ended in 52, long before Caesar’s return to Rome. Publication of these exercises in ‘spin’ had important political relevance for his career at that time. These artful ‘commentaries’ presented a Roman Caesar who was more than the equal of Pompey the great conqueror. Whereas Pompey was glorified by Greek historians and Greek orators around him, Caesar was now glorified by his own clear Latin. Written in the third person, the commentaries use the word ‘Caesar’ 775 times.

In Julius Caesar, charm and ruthlessness, daring and deceit were intertwined. Above all, he proved to be a superb general. He was indifferent to personal comforts or luxuries and he was a fine horseman who could even ride fast with both hands clasped behind his back. From 58 to 50 he was the conqueror of vast territories in the West, all of which he identified as Gaul. In 55 he crossed the Channel and became the first invader of Britain, ‘beyond the Ocean’s limit’ which had bounded Alexander the Great. Yet the British invasion failed and the conquests in Gaul went far beyond a strict interpretation of the commands which had been given to him. When these commands ended he reckoned to have caused the death in battle of no less than 1,192,000 enemies in his Gallic campaigns. Even so, civilian casualties were excluded from this total, so glorious to him, but not to us.

Caesar also showed stunning daring in further wars between 49 and 45, fought in Greece, Egypt, Asia, north Africa and Spain at places which Hadrian’s peaceful touring would later encompass. However, he never published the casualties for these battles, because they were fought in a civil war against fellow Roman citizens. For, in 49, Caesar embarked on civil war inside Italy, like a ‘new Hannibal’, while professing the need to defend the ‘liberty’ of the ‘Roman people’, the ‘sanctity of the tribunes’ and, more honestly, his own ‘dignity’. For nearly five years political life became subjected to the personal will of Caesar himself. He was certainly not the inevitable consequence of the times in which he lived. The Roman Republic could, indeed should, have survived him. Ultimately, he overthrew it for his own impressive ‘dignity’, to which all else, the populism, the inclusiveness, the much-advertised ‘clemency’, were secondary. He overthrew a flexible constitution which had evolved over more than four centuries, and in due course he was murdered by some sixty conspirators in Rome. But his example, and his fate, coloured the next acts in the long-running drama of the Roman Republic. These acts did then prove to be its end, a turning point for liberty.

Julius Caesar was born six years after Cicero, in the year 100 in the month which was later named July in his honour. Historians of his early years are at risk from hindsight: could contemporaries really have feared his cool ability very early in his life? Most of his historians would now postpone the ‘making of Caesar’ until his late thirties or forties, but contemporaries may have seen the signs much earlier. Aged (probably) fifteen, Caesar was chosen to be the ceremonial Priest of Jupiter, a job for patricians only. Since the Priest was not allowed so much as to look at troops under arms, was the offer of this priesthood an early attempt to block this feared young noble from any public career? These years were those of Sulla’s awful rise to power, and Caesar was married to the noble young daughter of Sulla’s enemy, Cinna. Through his aunt, he was a nephew of the great Marius, Sulla’s greatest foe. In fact, Sulla refused to let Caesar hold on to the priesthood (as if he saw no immobilizing purpose in it) but he is also said to have warned against the casually dressed young Caesar’s potential. Is this story, too, only the creation of hindsight?

Caesar escaped execution and left for military service in the East. Here, hostile gossip later claimed that he became a sexual favourite of the king of Bithynia. There was nothing in it, but when Caesar was later insulted as ‘womanish’ he retorted brilliantly that Amazons had once ruled most of Asia and so his threat to dance on the heads of his senatorial enemies was not an empty one.2 In 80 BC a brave exploit in the Aegean won him the ‘civic crown’, a very high military distinction for saving a citizen’s life in battle: its oak wreath could then be worn in public and even senators would have to stand up in his presence at public games, a privilege which cannot have been lost on his high sense of dignity. He returned to Rome and gained fame, and hostility, for prosecuting a respected ex-consul for plundering his province. He then returned to the Greek East to study and let the hostility cool at Rome. Unlike the rising star, Pompey, Caesar had a quick, educated mind which was always interested in literature. But he too was a born fighter. He took a sweet, swift revenge on some pirates in the Aegean who tried to hold him to ransom. Aged twenty-six, he took troops back into Bithynia to stop defections there to Rome’s great enemy, Mithridates. Already, he was acting without orders.

Back at Rome, as Sulla’s reactionary settlement broke up, Caesar held fast to the alternative populist line. His aunt was the widow of the popular hero Marius, and when she died he gave a funeral speech in the Forum which dwelt on her (and therefore his) very noble descent from gods and kings. The words would eventually seem prophetic when he himself seemed to rival both these types of dangerous ancestor. People noticed him, as they did when he displayed the insignia of Marius, the long-suppressed popular hero, in his aunt’s funeral procession. He even displayed Marius’ trophies, long concealed, up on the Capitol. Then, later in 69, Caesar left to serve as a junior magistrate in southern Spain. Here, he went on the usual assize-tour, hearing cases. In Cadiz, he is said to have seen a statue of Alexander the Great in the town’s main temple, and to have wept that he had done nothing memorable, although at his same age Alexander had already conquered the world.3 Again, historians mostly doubt this story, but perhaps unwisely; it is a less likely story that Caesar also dreamed that he was raping his mother, signifying a wish to dominate (mother) Earth, the world. In Spain, at any rate, occasional attacks of epilepsy are specifically attested as beginning to afflict him.

At Rome, this ambitious young man was still very far indeed from global prominence. That honour went to the great all-conquering Pompey, whose exceptional command against the Mediterranean pirates had been supported by Caesar, the one senator to vote for it in 67 (a victory over the pirates would help the people by reducing the price of grain imports). Nonetheless, as an aedile (a citymagistrate) in 65, it was Caesar who was the greater showman. He paid for the customarygames, but added hugelyto their popular appeal by offering 320 pairs of gladiators in public combat, to be dressed with silver weaponry. They were intended, he said, as a funerary honour for his dead father. But his father had died twenty years earlier and this enormous show caused an anxious Senate to ‘recommend’ a prompt limit on the number of gladiators which anyone could present. Like the games, the cost of Caesar’s show would have been enormous. The higher reaches of a public career at Rome required huge expense, and never more so than in the intensely competitive late 60s. But Caesar borrowed hugely to pay for the costs and in the absence of glorious Pompey he borrowed from the vastly rich Crassus. Amid charges of corruption and conspiracy, the two of them were even suspected of plotting a coup in 65, so that Crassus could sort out the highly rewarding kingdom of Egypt and Caesar, still only an aedile, could serve as Crassus the dictator’s second-in-command. Pompey, indeed, was absent and Egypt was certainly the great unresolved prize, whose grain and treasure would make its ‘captors’ uniquely powerful. Other partners were wrongly alleged later to have been in on the deal, but in 64 Cicero did hint that Crassus had been up to something.4 We can only guess or reject the story (as most scholars do), not least because such a role for a humble aedile seems wholly incredible. But was Caesar a typical aedile?

What we do know is that he played prominent roles in the year 63, the fateful pinnacle of Cicero’s career. At the start, it was Caesar who promoted a sham trial in public to warn Cicero and others about abuse of the Senate’s so-called ‘ultimate decree’. In December, when Cicero then abused precisely this decree against living citizens who were already under arrest, it was Caesar who spoke so forcefully in the Senate in favour of imprisoning the offenders but not killing them. Here, too, he took a populist approach in support of ‘freedom’, one which he, but not Cicero, would never regret. In Cicero’s unpublished ‘inside story’, Caesar would later be roundly blamed (with Crassus) for backing Catiline in the first place and causing a near-revolution. Was this charge only the old Cicero’s sour hindsight or had there once again been more to Caesar’s early discredit than we know? Whatever the truth, it did not stop Caesar from two fine successes in this same year. He won the immensely prestigious ‘High Priesthood’ (as Pontifex Maximus he had an office, henceforward, in the heart of the Roman Forum and a house on the adjoining Sacred Way) and he was also elected to the praetorship, the next career step, for the year 62. The priesthood cost him a fortune in bribery and the praetorship began with his controversial support for the returning hero, Pompey: it did not stop Caesar gaining a command in Further Spain for 61 BC.

This provincial command did not make him by first awakening his ambition (it was surelythere from his adolescence) but it was certainly crucial to his survival. On his return, a failure to pay his debts would be terminal, obliging him to become an exile. The recognized wayfor Romans to repay such debts was to soak a province for spoils, bribes and booty. By late 61 Caesar had done just that, byattacking enough outlying tribes in Spain, and so he could start to think of the ultimate honours, a triumph and then a consulship back in Rome. This prospect really alarmed his traditionalist contemporaries, especially Cato, the arch-conservative who would never give Caesar the benefit of any doubt. Cato therefore obliged Caesar to choose between a triumph (already voted, in principle) or standing as consul. Coolly, Caesar chose to go for the consulship, obliging Cato to compromise and try to beat him at his own game by amassing a big fund for electoral bribery and ensuring that his own reliable kinsman, Bibulus, would be elected as Caesar’s fellow consul.

Both of them were dulyelected for the year 59, but, unlike Bibulus, Caesar prepared for his year of office by the artful ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ with Pompey and Crassus, a couple hitherto divided by personal enmity. Cunningly, Caesar saw they both had needs which he, as consul, could help them meet. As a major financier, Crassus needed a renegotiation of the tax-collecting contract in the province of Asia. Pompey needed two things, the ratification of the arrangements which he had personally imposed on Asia and the settlement of his veteran soldiers, who were still unrewarded from their victories in the East in the 60s. As for Caesar himself, he had a populist programme which would lead (so he hoped) to an ever greater and more profitable provincial command. Economic tension in Rome was running very high. Seeing trouble coming, surely, the senators had already allotted humdrum commands to these consuls after their year of office: not a Spain or Gaul, but ‘woods and tracks’ in Italy itself.

The year 59, Caesar’s consulship, is a climactic moment in Roman history. Previous ‘populists’ had fallen prey to the same weakness, their failure to escape reprisals from ‘traditionalists’ either during or after their hated year of office. Caesar’s plan was brutally simple: to carry Pompey and Crassus with him in a mutual balance of favours; to put laws directly to the people’s assemblies, despite the Senate’s opposition; to work with and through supportive tribunes who could veto such opposition; to ‘fix’ supportive tribunes for the following year and supportive consuls too, if possible; to be voted a major provincial command and then to leave Rome with the powers to carry it out, thus being untouchable by prosecution as he left the city. But his fellow consul, Bibulus, was flatly against him, and Caesar’s ‘populist’ legislation would have to go straight to the people to become law, because the senators would surely never recommend it. Traditionalists, as usual, would hate the tactic.

The ensuing manoeuvres are unforgettable in Roman public and political life: the addresses to public meetings; the gangs and cliques in the Forum; the parade of ‘imprisoning’ the intransigent Cato, although he was a tribune; the harassment of the obstructive consul Bibulus (a bucket of dung was once poured publicly over his head). Attempted ‘intercession’ byother hostile tribunes was evaded byviolence; it all sounds chaotic, but already in 62 even the man of principle, young Cato, had prevented a tribune from reciting an unwanted bill by having a fellow tribune jam his hand over the man’s mouth. In 59 Caesar’s colleague Bibulus countered by withdrawing to his house and claiming that irregularities in the heavens (observed only by him) made each possible day in the calendar unfit for the due course of public business. He also distributed posters with such scandalous attacks on Caesar that the common people crowded round to find out their fascinating contents, thereby blocking traffic in Rome’s streets.

Nonetheless, sufficient laws in Caesar’s programme were forced through. One, long planned, set out an eminently reasonable programme for the settlement of Pompey’s veteran soldiers and other needy citizens on land in Italy. Cleverly, the proposals would not involve confiscations from any private owner. Another law lowered the Asian tax contract to suit Crassus’ interests: Cato was still bitterly opposed to it. In April a second law then proposed the allotment of rich lands in Campania, behind the Bay of Naples, lands which had been first taken as ‘public’ after Roman victories over Hannibal in 211. It was deeply contentious. One aim was to give land to some 20,000 poor citizens in Rome and their families, part of the ‘dregs’, in the traditionalists’ view of them, who were such a distress and a possible danger in the city. To Cicero, this fine proposal seemed an outrage.

Even as late as August good legislation was still being brought forward, especially a complex law against unchecked extortion by Roman governors abroad. But to go so far Caesar had had to play extremely hard. Not only had Cato continued to oppose him, especially on the proposed assistance to Crassus and the tax-contractors. There was a real danger that once Pompey’s main needs were met he too would veer off to join the conservative senators’ groupings, his more natural resting place. In the spring Pompey had married Caesar’s beloved only daughter, Julia, but even a tie by marriage was very fragile. In summer 59 Caesar therefore promoted an informer (it seems) to warn the ever-nervous Pompey of a high-grade plot against his life. The final allegations included the names of almost every ‘traditional’ senatorial opponent, whereupon the informer was conveniently killed while in prison.5 Cicero was surelyright to see Caesar’s hand behind the affair: it scared Pompey, sure enough, and so it kept the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ in existence. But once again, it stank.

Friendly consuls could not, after all, be fixed for the following year, but a friendly tribune (Clodius) and a provincial command were forthcoming. Overturning the Senate’s earlier proposals of ‘woods and tracks’, Caesar obtained for himself by popular vote the far greater provinces of Cisalpine Gaul (nowadays north Italy) and Illyricum (what is now the Dalmatian coast), a promising base for conquests inland. Furthermore, they were voted for five whole years. To his great good fortune, the allotted commander for Transalpine Gaul had died in April and on news of danger from the surrounding tribes, even the senators panicked and anxiously added Transalpine Gaul to Caesar’s provinces. He was, after all, a proven general for what might be a major crisis and the combined commands would certainly preoccupy him.

What had shocked senatorial conservatives so far was Caesar’s sheer forcefulness, his contempt for their opposition (and themselves) and the populism of the laws for which he would now receive great public credit. The political footling of Bibulus and his obstructions were basically irrelevant but it was at least arguable that Caesar’s entire legislation was technically invalid as a result: if the matter was judged in court, the senators would probably‘fix’ a juryto uphold their view of ‘illegality’. Meanwhile, senators had seen their old, once-famous general Lucullus forced to grovel at Caesar’s feet. They were not above making a counter-proposal: could not Caesar wait and bring forward his legislation in the following year when they might no longer oppose him or even not threaten prosecution? But Caesar did not trust them and his dignity would never permit it. This time, the customary ‘concord’ among senators after a crisis could not be cosilyreasserted.

In the first weeks of 58, following his consulship, Caesar was outside Rome’s city-boundary, recruiting troops for his provincial command, but he was still accessible to the senators and daily news of politics within the city. It was imperative that attempts to undo his legislation in the new year did not succeed. In fact, Clodius (his supportive tribune) proved well up to the challenge. The incoming consuls were cleverly bought off with the offer of valuable provincial commands; populist laws continued to be brought forward, and there was even a fear that Clodius would become too powerful in his own right. Certainly Clodius had one grudge to settle, against Cicero, who (he felt) had let him down in 63 BC. As neither Pompey nor Caesar was willing to intervene, Cicero anticipated his fate by leaving the city. By mid-March Caesar, too, was off on his way to Gaul.

As he rode north, he cut a fine figure on horseback, dark-eyed, tall for a Roman and already balding. As in Spain, three years earlier, a governorship would more than restore his finances and ought to allow for no end of future bribes back in Rome. But what then? If Caesar laid down his command and re-entered Rome as a private citizen, his enemies would prosecute him at once for the ‘illegalities’ in his year as consul. If he wanted to become a consul yet again, how could he realize his aim when he had to wait a statutory ten years before standing and when he would surely be forced to return to Rome so as to campaign for his election in person? Pompey and Crassus would not assist him for nothing and Cato, certainly, would not go away. The consulship of 59 BC had been sensational, but it had created as many problems as it had addressed. With his armies in Gaul, proud Caesar was really out on a limb.

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