‘Born into the most noble family of the Julii, and tracing his ancestry back to Anchises and Venus - a claim acknowledged by all those who study the ancient past - he surpassed all other citizens in the excellence of his appearance.’ - Velleius Paterculus, early first century AD.1
‘In this Caesar there are many Mariuses.’ - Sulla.2
Caius Julius Caesar was born on 13 July 100 BC according to the modern calendar. The day is certain, the year subject to just a little doubt, as by chance the opening sections of both Suetonius’ and Plutarch’s biographies of Caesar have been lost. A few scholars have dated his birth to 102 or 101, but their arguments have failed to convince, and the consensus of opinion remains firmly with a date of 100. By the Roman calendar Caesar was born on the third day before the Ides of Quinctilis in the consulship of Caius Marius and Lucius Valerius Flaccus, which in turn was the six hundredth and fifty-fourth year ‘from the foundation of the City’. Quinctilis - the name is related to quintus or fifth - was the fifth month of the Republic’s year, which began in March (Martius). Later during Caesar’s dictatorship the month would be renamed Julius in his honour, hence the modern July. The Ides of Quinctilis, as in March, fell on the fifteenth, but the Romans included the day itself when they counted back or forward from such dates.
Names revealed much about a person’s place in Roman society. Caesar possessed the full tria nomina or ‘three names’ of a Roman citizen. The first name (praenomen) served much the same purpose as its modern equivalent, identifying the individual member of a family and being used in informal conversation. Most families employed the same first names for their sons generation after generation. Caesar’s father and grandfather were both also named Caius, as presumably had been many more first sons of this line of Julii Caesares. The second or main name (nomen) was most important for it was the name of the ‘clan’ or broad group of families to which a man belonged. The third name (cognomen) specified the particular branch of this wider grouping, although not all families even amongst the aristocracy were distinguished in this way. Caesar’s great rival Cnaeus Pompey and his own lieutenant Mark Antony both belonged to families who did not possess cognomina. A few individuals acquired an additional, semi-official nickname, which, given the Romans’ robust sense of humour, was often at the expense of their appearance. Pompey’s father was known as Strabo or ‘Squinty’, as was a distant cousin of Caesar’s, Caius Julius Caesar Strabo. Caesar’s name was never added to in this way. As a boy he received the full three names, but had he been born a girl he would have been known only by the feminine form of the nomen. Caesar’s aunt, sisters and daughter were all called simply Julia, as indeed was any female member of any branch of the Julian clan. If a family had more than one daughter, in official contexts their name was followed by a number to distinguish them. This disparity between the sexes says much about the Roman world. Men, and only men, could play a role in public life and it was important to know precisely who each individual was in the competitive world of politics. Women had no political role and did not need such specific identification.3
The Julii were patricians, which meant that they were members of the oldest aristocratic class at Rome, who in the early Republic had monopolised power, ruling over the far more numerous plebians. Little is known about the dozen or so members of the clan who won election to the higher magistracies in the first two centuries of the Republic. Unlike other more successful patrician clans such as the Fabii and Manlii, the Julii do not appear to have preserved and promoted the achievements of their ancestors as effectively. Several of these other families continued to be very influential while the patricians’ exclusive hold on power was gradually eroded as the plebians demanded more rights, and wealthy plebian families forced their way into the ruling elite. From 342 BC one of each year’s consuls had to be a plebian. By the end of the second century BC the majority of the most influential families amongst the senatorial elite were plebian. A few honours continued to be open only to patricians, who in turn were barred from becoming tribunes of the plebs, but on the whole the differences between the two were minimal. Merely being patrician did not guarantee political success for a family. There was no process for creating new patricians, and over the centuries a number of families died out altogether or faded into obscurity. The Julii survived, but enjoyed little prominence in public life. A Julius Caesar - the first man known to have had that cognomen - reached the praetorship during the Second Punic War. A much later author claimed that this man took the name because he had killed an enemy war elephant in battle and that it was copied from the Punic word for elephant. Another story was that the name meant ‘hairy’ and that the family were renowned for their thick heads of hair. The story may be an invention. It does seem that around about the same time the line divided into two distinct branches, both called Julius Caesar but registered in different tribes in the census. In 157 BC Lucius Julius Caesar reached the consulship, the only Caesar in the second century BC to manage this. He was not an ancestor of Caius, but came from the other, marginally more successful branch of the family. In the early years of the first century a number of Julii Caesares would begin to enjoy greater electoral success. In 91 BC Sextus Julius Caesar was consul, as was Lucius Julius Caesar in 90. The latter’s younger brother, Caius Julius Caesar Strabo, was aedile in the same year. Aediles were junior magistrates whose responsibilities included the supervision of public festivals and entertainments. Lucius and Caius were from the other branch of the family, and so distant cousins of Caesar’s father. Strabo was widely respected as one of the leading orators of his day. Sextus Julius Caesar is something of a mystery, as it is unclear from which branch of the family he came. It is even possible that he was Caesar’s uncle, the younger, or perhaps more probably older, brother of his father Caius, but there is no positive evidence for this and he may instead have been a cousin.4
Although the Julii had made less of an impact on the Republic’s history than other clans, their antiquity was widely acknowledged. They were said to have settled in Rome in the middle of the seventh century BC after the capture and destruction of the neighbouring city of Alba Longa by Tullus Hostilius, the Romans’ third king. Yet the association with Rome’s earliest days did not begin with this event, for the family claimed that their name was derived from Iulus, the son of Aeneas, the leader of the Trojan exiles who had settled in Italy after the fall of Troy. Aeneas himself was the son of the human Anchises and the goddess Venus, so that the ancestry of the Julii was divine. As yet the myths of these early times had not crystallised into the form they would take in the Augustan age, when the poet Virgil and the historian Livy would recount the stories in some detail. Even Livy would acknowledge that there were differing versions of the story of Aeneas and his descendants. He was unsure whether it was Iulus or another son of Aeneas who had founded Alba Longa and became its first king, establishing the dynasty that would in time produce Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus. There is little suggestion that in the early first century BC many Romans were aware of such a possible association between the Julii and Romulus. In contrast the clan’s claim of descent from Venus was fairly widely known and presumably not of recent invention. Part of the oration delivered by Caesar at his aunt’s funeral in 69 BC is recorded by Suetonius:
My Aunt Julia’s family is descended on her mother’s side from kings, and on her father’s side from the immortal gods. For the Marcii Reges - her mother’s family - descend from Ancus Marcius; the Julii - the clan of which our family is part - go back to Venus. Therefore our blood has both the sanctity of kings, who wield the greatest power amongst men, and an association with the reverence owed to the gods, who in turn hold power even over kings.5
Caesar clearly assumed that his audience would not be surprised by such statements. Some scholars have pointed out that the name Rex (King) may have been derived from a role in religious ceremonies early in the Republic rather than connection with the monarchy. This is almost certainly correct, but such distinctions are unlikely to have been too clear in the first century BC.
Virtually nothing is known about Caesar’s grandfather, Caius Julius Caesar, but it is just possible that he may have held the praetorship. His wife was Marcia, daughter of Quintus Marcius Rex, who had been praetor in 144 BC. They had at least two children, Caesar’s father Caius and his aunt Julia, who was to marry Caius Marius. As we have seen it is also possible that there was another son, Sextus, who reached the consulship in 91 BC. Caius embarked upon a public career with some success, holding the quaestorship either just before, or soon after the birth of his son. His wife was Aurelia, who came from a highly successful family of plebian nobles. Both her father and grandfather had reached the consulship, in 144 and 119 BC respectively, and three of her cousins, Caius, Marcus and Lucius Aurelius Cotta would also achieve this distinction. Marriage into this family probably did much to help the political prospects of Caius Caesar, but these were boosted even more as a result of his sister’s marriage to Marius. As already noted, Caius was one of ten commissioners tasked with overseeing part of the colonisation programme created by Saturninus for Marius’ veterans in 103 or 100 BC. In due course he would be elected praetor, but the year in which he achieved this is unknown, and estimates have varied from 92 BC to as late as 85 BC. An early date seems more likely, for the year as magistrate was followed by a period as governor of the province of Asia and the most likely time for this is about 91 BC. Caius died early in 84 BC, and we cannot know whether or not his connections would have been enough to lift him to the consulship. If his praetorship had indeed been as early as 92 BC, then he would certainly have been old enough to seek the highest magistracy - and if Sextus Caesar was in fact his brother, then his electoral success in 91 BC would surely have encouraged his brother. However, if Caius ever stood for the consulship then he evidently failed. Ultimately, our evidence for Caesar’s family is so poor and confusing that there is very little that we can say with any certainty, beyond the overall conclusion that his father’s career was reasonably successful, if unspectacular. We cannot say whether his achievements satisfied or disappointed Caius himself and his immediate family.
Caius and Aurelia are known to have had three children, Caesar and two sisters, both of course called Julia. It is more than possible that other children were born but failed to survive into adulthood for the rate of infant mortality was staggeringly high at Rome (and indeed throughout the ancient world), even amongst the aristocracy. Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, is said to have given birth to twelve babies, of whom only three - Tiberius, Caius and their sister Sempronia - survived. This was probably exceptional, but two or three children reaching maturity does seem to have been a steady average for senatorial families. There were exceptions; the Metelli, a plebian noble family of considerable wealth and influence, seem to have been especially fertile and as a result figure heavily amongst the ranks of the senior magistracies in the last hundred years of the Republic.6
EARLY YEARS AND EDUCATION
Little has been recorded about Caesar’s earliest years, but some things can be inferred from what is known more generally about the aristocracy in contemporary Rome. As in most societies until the comparatively recent past, babies were usually born at home. The birth of a child was an important event for a senatorial family and tradition demanded that it be witnessed. When the event seemed imminent, messages would be sent to inform relatives and political associates, who would usually then go to the house. Traditionally their role had been in part to act as witnesses that the child was truly a member of the aristocracy, and an element of this remained. Neither the father nor these guests would actually be present in the room where the mother was confined, attended by a midwife and probably some female relations as well as slaves.
In a few cases a male doctor might attend, but he was the only man present with the mother. Although the procedure would later bear his name, there is no ancient evidence to suggest that Caesar was delivered by Caesarean section, although the procedure was known in the ancient world. In fact, it is extremely unlikely, since the operation was usually fatal for the mother and Aurelia lived on for decades. (One much later source claims that one of Caesar’s ancestors was born in this way.) Indeed, no source indicates that his birth was anything other than normal - breech deliveries or other difficult births were seen as a bad omen and are recorded for some individuals, most notably the Emperor Nero. Once the baby was born the midwife would lay it down on the floor and inspect it for abnormalities or defects, at the most basic level assessing its chance of survival. Only after this would the parents decide whether or not to accept and try to raise the child. In law this decision was to be made by the father, but it seems extremely unlikely the mother was not involved, especially when she was as formidable a character as Aurelia.7
Once a child had been accepted fires would be lit on altars in the parents’ house. Many of the guests would perform the same ritual when they returned to their own homes. Birthdays were important to the Romans and were widely celebrated throughout someone’s life. When a boy was nine days old - for obscure reasons the same ceremony occurred a day earlier for a girl - the family held a formal ceremony of purification (lustratio). This was intended to free the child of any malign spirits or pollution that may have entered it during the birth process. On the preceding night a vigil was held and a series of rites performed, culminating on the day itself in sacrifices and the observation of the flight of birds as a guide to the child’s future. A boy was presented with a special charm, usually of gold, known as the bulla. This was placed in a leather bag and worn around the boy’s neck. As part of the ceremony the child was named, and the name subsequently registered officially. Ritual and religion surrounded every Roman, especially an aristocrat, throughout every stage of his life.8
Normally the mother played the dominant role in the early years of raising a child. It is unlikely that Aurelia breast-fed any of her babies, for much earlier in the second century BC the wife of Cato the Elder was seen as exceptional for doing this. This and other stories suggest that it was no longer normal for an aristocratic woman to breast-feed her children.9 Most probably a wet nurse was found amongst the substantial slave household maintained by any aristocratic family, even one of such comparatively modest wealth as the Caesars. Selecting a nurse and other slaves to care for the infant were important tasks for a mother, who supervised them closely and performed many tasks herself. Another tale celebrating the importance Cato attached to his role as father tells of his care to be present whenever his wife Licinia bathed their son. This rather implies that the mother’s presence was taken for granted on such occasions. Mothers were not supposed to be distant figures to children looked after principally by servants, but even so their authority was considerable. Tacitus, writing in the late first or early second century ad, discussed the mother’s role in raising children in a passage that presented Aurelia as an ideal:
In the good old days, every man’s son, born in wedlock, was brought up not in the chamber of some hireling nurse, but in his mother’s lap, and at her knee. And that mother could have no higher praise than that she managed the house and gave herself to her children.... In the presence of such a one no base word could be uttered without grave offence, and no wrong deed done. Religiously and with the utmost diligence she regulated not only the serious tasks of her youthful charges, but their recreations also and their games. It was in this spirit, we are told, that Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, directed their upbringing, Aurelia that of Caesar, Atia of Augustus: thus it was that these mothers trained their princely children.10
Aurelia’s influence on her son was clearly very strong and lasted well beyond his childhood. Caesar was forty-six when he finally lost his mother, who had lived on as a widow for three decades. In itself this was not uncommon amongst the aristocracy for husbands were often considerably older than their wives, especially in the second, third or even fourth marriages that senators might contract for political reasons. Therefore, assuming that the wife survived the rigours of child bearing, it was more than probable that she would outlive her spouse, and so a senator was far more likely to have a living mother than father by the time that he began to reach important office. Mothers, especially those like Aurelia who conformed so closely to the ideal of motherhood, were greatly admired by the Romans. One of their most cherished stories was told of Coriolanus, the great general who, mistreated by political rivals, had defected to the enemy and led them against Rome. On the point of destroying his homeland he withdrew his army, moved less by a sense of patriotism than by a direct appeal from his mother.11
For the aristocracy education was managed entirely within the family. Many Romans took pride in this, contrasting it with the prescriptive State-controlled systems common in many Greek cities. At Rome, it tended to be those of middle income who sent their children to the fee-paying primary schools, which took children from about the age of seven. For the aristocracy, education continued to occur in the home and, at least initially, boys and girls were educated alike, being taught reading, writing and basic calculation and mathematics. By Caesar’s day it was rare for senators’ children not to be brought up to be bilingual in Latin and Greek. Early tuition in the latter probably came from a Greek slave (paedagogus) who attended to the child. There would also be much instruction in the rituals and traditions of the family and in the history of Rome. This last invariably emphasised the role played by the boy’s ancestors. These and other great figures from the past were held up as object lessons in what it meant to be Roman. Children learned to admire such quintessentially Roman qualities as dignitas, pietas and virtus, all words with a far more powerful resonance than their English derivatives, dignity, piety, and virtue. Dignitas was the sober bearing that displayed openly the importance and responsibility of a man and so commanded respect. This was considerable for any citizen of Rome, greater for an aristocrat, and greater still for a man who had held a magistracy. Pietas embraced not merely respect for the gods, but for family and parents, and the law and traditions of the Republic. Virtus had strongly military overtones, embracing not simply physical bravery, but confidence, moral courage and the skills required by both soldier and commander.12
For the Romans, Rome was great because earlier generations had displayed just these qualities to a degree unmatched by any other nation. The stern faces carved on funerary monuments of the first century BC, depicting in detail all the idiosyncrasies and flaws of the man in life and so unlike the idealised portraiture of Classical Greece, radiate massive pride and selfassurance. The Romans took themselves very seriously and raised their children not simply to believe, but to know that they were special. Their pride in themselves and in belonging to the Republic was very strong amongst even the poorest citizens, and even more pronounced in those of greater wealth and more privileged birth. Roman senators had long come to see themselves as the superiors of any foreign kings. Young aristocrats were brought up to know this, but also to believe that they and their family were distinguished even amongst the Roman elite. Caesar’s family, with few ancestors who had reached high office and done great deeds in the service of the Republic, still doubtless had some achievements to recount, as well, of course, as the great antiquity of the line and its divine origins. With this sense of importance came a massive sense of duty and of the obligation to live up to the standards expected by the family and the wider community of the Republic. Children were raised to see themselves as intimately connected with their family’s and Rome’s past. As Cicero would later declare, ‘For what is the life of a man, if it is not interwoven with the life of former generations by a sense of history?’13
Caesar was raised to think of himself as special. In itself this was nothing unusual, but as the only son to carry on the family line, and with a particularly forceful and admired mother, he from the beginning doubtless developed an unusually high, though probably not unique, sense of his own worth. Roman education had an essentially practical purpose of preparing a child for its role as an adult. For an aristocratic boy this meant a career in public life and the chance to win new glory for the family, as well as becoming one day the head of his own household, the paterfamilias, in charge of raising the next generation. From around the age of seven boys began to spend more time with their fathers, accompanying them about the business. At the same stage a girl would watch her mother as she ran the household, overseeing the slaves and, at least in traditional households, weaving clothes for the family Boys saw their fathers meet and greet other senators, and were permitted to sit outside the open doors of the Senate’s meeting place and listen to the debates. They began to learn who had most influence in the Senate and why. From an early age they saw the great affairs of the Republic being conducted, and so naturally grew up feeling a part of that world and expecting to participate in it once they were old enough. Informal ties of favour and obligation bound Roman society together in a system known as patronage. The patron was the man with wealth, influence and power, to whom the less well off (or clients) came to ask for help, which might take the form of securing a position, winning a contract, assistance in business or legal disputes, or even at its most basic level gifts of food. In return the client had duties to assist his patron in various ways. Most would come to greet him formally each morning. The number of clients a man had added to his prestige, especially if they were distinguished or exotic. Senators might well include entire communities, including towns or cities in Italy and the provinces, amongst their clients. It was quite possible for a patron, even some less distinguished senators, to in turn be the client of an even more powerful man, although in this case the name itself would not have been used. A great part of a senator’s time was spent in seeing his clients, in doing enough for them to ensure their continued attachment, while in turn ensuring that they provided him with the support he wanted. Much of Roman politics was conducted informally.14
At the same time more formal education continued, perhaps involving attendance at one of the twenty or so schools teaching grammatica or, probably more often, similar instruction at home or with other children at the house of a relative. Caesar was educated at home and for this stage of his life we know that his tutor was a certain Marcus Antonius Gnipho. Originally from the Hellenistic East and educated at Alexandria, Gnipho had been a slave, but had subsequently been freed by the Antonius family, presumably out of their satisfaction at his teaching of their children. He was highly respected as a teacher of both Greek and Latin rhetoric. In this secondary stage of education there was detailed study of literature in both languages as well as practice in rhetoric. Literature occupied a central role in learning and the aristocracy had the advantage of being able to afford copies of manuscripts in a world before the printing press made the copying of books so much easier. Many senators maintained extensive libraries in their houses, which their young relatives and associates were able to use. Caesar’s own future father-in-law Calpurnius Piso possessed a very large collection of books, mainly dealing with Epicurean philosophy, remnants of which have been discovered in the ruins of his villa near Herculaneum. It was also common to entertain visiting scholars and philosophers, further adding to the cultural environment in which young aristocrats were raised. For Caesar, like many other young aristocrats, it was not enough simply to read great literature - he was also inspired to compose his own works. Suetonius mentions a poem praising Hercules as well as a tragedy entitled Oedipus. The quality of these immature works may not have been especially high - though probably no better or no worse than those written by other aristocrats who later went on to greater things - and they were suppressed by Caesar’s adopted son, Emperor Augustus.15
Some learning by rote continued, as children memorised such things as the Twelve Tables, the ultimate basis of Roman law. In 92 BC an edict closed down schools teaching rhetoric in Latin, stating that instruction in Greek was superior, even for teaching a man to make speeches in Latin. It is possible that this measure was in part intended to prevent the oratorical skills useful in public life from becoming too common, for such schools were most likely to have taken pupils from those families outside the Senate. Some skill at public speaking was essential in the Roman political environment, so this continued the emphasis on what would be useful rather than on acquiring purely academic learning. Cicero, who was six years older than Caesar, recalled how in 91 BC he had gone ‘almost every day’ to listen to the finest orators speaking in the Popular Assemblies and in the courts. He also described how ‘I wrote, read, and declaimed all the time with great energy, but was not content to restrict myself just to rhetorical exercises’ and soon began observing the activities of one of the leading jurists of the day. Caesar seems to have been particularly influenced by the oratorical style of his relative Caesar Strabo, so may well have heard him in action.16
Physical training was directed by similarly utilitarian aims to academic education. In the Hellenistic world athletic perfection was pursued as an end in itself and was not direct preparation for the duties of an adult. In the gymnasia exercise was carried out naked and in many cities these institutions tended to celebrate homosexuality, both aspects very alien to the Romans. For them exercise was intended to promote physical fitness and had a strongly military flavour. Most usually on the Campus Martius - the plain of Mars the war god, where the army had mustered when Rome was still a small city - young aristocrats learned how to run, swim in the Tiber and fight with weapons, most particularly the sword and javelin. They were also taught to ride, and Varro, a near contemporary of Caesar’s, tells us that at first he rode bareback rather than with a saddle. Much of the instruction in all these skills was supposed to be given by the father or another male relative. It was highly significant that all this occurred in public view. Boys of a similar age, who would in time go on to be competitors in the scramble for political office, trained in full view of each other, and even at this early stage in life might begin to forge a reputation. Caesar was slightly built and not particularly robust, but his great determination seems to have made up for this. Plutarch tells us that he was a natural horseman and we also read that he accustomed himself to riding with his arms folded behind his back, guiding the trotting horse with his knees. In later life his skill at arms was also praised, and the Romans believed that all good commanders should handle sword, javelin and shield as well as they controlled whole legions.17
THE LULL AND THE STORMS
After the savage suppression of Saturninus and Glaucia in the autumn of 100 BC, Roman public life had returned to something like normality. Marius’ reputation had suffered through his earlier association with the pair, even though he had led the forces of the Republic against them. There were rumours that he had been tempted to join Saturninus. One of the wilder stories claimed that on the night before the final confrontation he had received both the radical leaders and a delegation from the Senate in his house at the same time. Marius is supposed to have feigned a nasty attack of diarrhoea, using this pretext to dash suddenly out of the room and leave one group whenever he wanted to talk to the others. Yet apart from his questionable role in this affair, Marius was simply not skilful enough at the political game to make the most of his wealth and military glory The daily business of greeting friends and associates, of doing favours to as many people as possible and so placing them under an obligation without making them feel inferior, occupied a great part of a senator’s time, but were not things at which Marius excelled. Plutarch tells us that few people chose to seek his assistance, even after he had constructed a new house for himself close to the Forum, declaring that visitors should not have to walk too far to see him. We do not know how much contact the young Caesar had with his famous uncle during the nineties BC, but it seems doubtful that he learned much from him about how to gain influence in the Senate.18
The legislation of the Gracchi and Saturninus had provoked much opposition, but in the end it was the fear of the power and influence that these radical tribunes would win through their actions that contributed most to their violent deaths. Ultimately, most of the Roman elite preferred to allow some of the major problems facing the Republic to go unanswered rather than see someone else gain the credit for dealing with them. Yet the issues remained, many of them connected with the fundamental question of who should benefit from the profits of empire. A magistrate proposing a new distribution of land, State-subsidised corn for the urban poor or an extension of the public role of the equestrian order as jurors could expect to find ready support. The success of the radical tribunes in the last decades had demonstrated this clearly, just as their violent ends had shown how difficult it was to maintain popularity with such disparate interest groups over the long term.
One group whose favour offered less immediate advantage to a senator were the Italian allies or socii. Tiberius Gracchus had incurred the hostility of the Italian aristocracy by his land law, since many of these men held large sections of ager publicus. Directly, such men had no power at Rome but they were able to influence sufficient important senators to oppose the tribune. Caius Gracchus had sought to win over the Italians by granting Roman citizenship to them, but in the process had alienated many of his Roman supporters. The Roman elite disliked the idea of the wealthiest new citizens adding to the competition for public office, while the poor, especially the urban poor, feared that crowds of Italians would overwhelm them at games and entertainments and make their votes of less value in the assemblies. The failure of Caius’ legislation seems to have increased existing resentment of their treatment amongst Rome’s Italian allies. These communities invariably supplied at least half of the soldiers in any Roman army - and it is possible that in recent decades the proportion had risen even higher - and suffered casualties accordingly. Yet they do not by this time seem to have shared the spoils of expansion to the same degree. The arrogant behaviour of some Roman magistrates in their dealings with the socii offered a further source of resentment. In 125 BC the colony of Fregellae, which possessed Latin status and so was comparatively privileged, had rebelled against Rome and been brutally suppressed. Many Italians seem to have reached the conclusion that only when they became Roman citizens would Rome’s rule be made more palatable. Some drifted to Rome and somehow managed to get themselves enrolled as citizens, but during the early first century a series of especially strict censors did their best to remove the names of such men who had no real claim to be Romans.19
In 91 BC the tribune Marcus Livius Drusus once again advocated granting citizenship to the allies. This was the centrepiece of a series of reforms strongly reminiscent of those of the Gracchi - ironically, since Drusus’ father had been one of Caius’ chief opponents. Like the brothers, Drusus came from an extremely wealthy and influential family, which allowed him to be bolder in his legislation, while also adding to fears of what his long-term ambitions were. There was considerable opposition to the tribune, particularly to his plan to extend the franchise. However, before the citizenship law could be voted on by the Assembly, Drusus was fatally stabbed with a leather worker’s knife while greeting callers in the porch of his house. The identity of the murderer was never established, but it was clear that his law would never now be passed. A large number of Italian noblemen, some of them close associates of Drusus, soon resolved to take things into their own hands. The result was the rebellion of large sections of Italy in what became known as the Social War - the name comes from socii, the Latin for allies. The rebels created their own state, with a capital at Corfinium and a constitution heavily based on the Roman system, having as its key magistrates two consuls and twelve praetors elected every year. Coins were minted showing the bull of Italy goring the Roman wolf and a large army speedily mobilised, its equipment, training and tactical doctrine identical to those of the legions. By the end of 91 BC heavy fighting had broken out, with considerable losses on both sides. Allegiances in the struggle were complex and at many points it resembled more closely a civil war than rebellion. Many Italian communities, including virtually all the Latin towns, remained loyal to Rome, while numbers of captured Roman soldiers were willing to enlist in the Italian armies and fight against their fellow citizens.20
Caesar was too young to take part in the Social War, but a number of those who would play major roles in his story, notably Cicero and Pompey, had their first taste of military service during this conflict. It is quite possible that Caesar’s father served in some capacity, but the sources are silent on this. If he was indeed governor of Asia in 91 BC then he would have missed the start of the war, but probably returned before it was complete. The Lucius Julius Caesar, who was consul in 90 BC and proved an uninspired commander in his operations against the rebels, was a member of the other branch of the family Sextus Julius Caesar, who as already mentioned may or may not have been Caius’ brother, had held the office in the previous year and also took part in the conflict. He died of disease while a proconsul in command of an army. The sheer scale of the fighting in the Social War, added to the deaths of several magistrates at the hands of the enemy and the incompetence shown by others, ensured that many experienced senators received commands as pro-magistrates. Marius played a major role in the first year of fighting, winning a number of small actions and, perhaps more importantly, avoiding defeat. He was now in his late sixties, which the Romans considered very old for a general in the field, and there was some criticism of his conduct as too cautious. Whether because of this, or through failing health, he does not seem to have played any active role in the war after 90 BC. Two other commanders, Lucius Cornelius Sulla and Cnaeus Pompeius Strabo, were credited with doing more than anyone else to ensure Rome’s military victory. Yet the Social War was won as much through diplomacy and conciliation as by force, and from the beginning the Senate had started to grant what the Italians had unsuccessfully demanded in the first place. Allied communities who had remained loyal were given citizenship, as were those who quickly surrendered and, very quickly, those who had been defeated. The readiness with which the Romans extended the franchise to virtually the entire free population of Italy south of the River Po underlined the essential pointlessness of the conflict. The way in which it was done also illustrated the reluctance to alter the existing political balance in Rome itself, for the new citizens were concentrated in a few voting tribes to minimise their influence.21
Sulla had gained much credit for his role in suppressing the rebels and by the end of 89 BC he returned to Rome and won election to the consulship for the following year, defeating as one of his main competitors Caius Julius Caesar Strabo. In many ways Sulla’s career foreshadowed that of Caesar. Both were patricians, but ones whose families had long since fallen from prominence so that their own progress in public life was almost as hard fought as that of any ‘new man’. Sulla began his career rather later than was normal, but served as Marius’ quaestor in Numidia and played the principal role in arranging the betrayal and capture of Jugurtha. It was an achievement that he constantly paraded, fuelling a growing jealousy in his former commander who felt that this diminished his own glory. Although during the war with the Cimbri Sulla at first served under Marius, he soon transferred to the army of his colleague and relations between the two men seem never to have been cordial after this. As consul in 88 BC the Senate gave Sulla the war with King Mithridates VI of Pontus as his province. Mithridates ruled one of the Hellenised eastern kingdoms, which had grown in power with the decline of Macedonia and the Seleucids. While the Romans were busy with the war in Italy, the king had overrun the Roman province in Asia and ordered the massacre of the Romans and Italians in the region. This success was followed by an invasion of Greece. For Sulla this command was a great opportunity to campaign amidst the famous, and extremely wealthy, cities of the east and he set about forming an army to take with him. There seems to have been little shortage of recruits, for wars in the east were renowned for the easy fighting and rich plunder.22
In ordinary circumstances Sulla would simply have gone to the war and done his best to add new lustre to his family name. However, a tribune named Sulpicius passed a bill through the Assembly giving the eastern command to Marius in place of Sulla. It was one of a series of laws in which he tried to follow in the path of the Gracchi and Saturninus by using the tribunate for a wide-ranging reform programme. Another bill was designed to spread the newly enfranchised citizens more evenly amongst the voting tribes. Marius was happy to use Sulpicius as he had once used Saturninus, and Sulpicius was equally content to benefit from association with the popular war hero. It is unlikely that either would have hesitated to break with the other if this offered more advantage, especially once their immediate objectives had been achieved. We must always remind ourselves that politics was about individual success and not parties. For the moment Marius had clearly decided that he needed once again to fight a war in order to win back the adulation he had enjoyed after defeating Jugurtha and the northern barbarians. Sulpicius as a tribune with great sway in the Assembly could provide him with the opportunity to fight another war. Marius was sixty- nine and had not held an elected magistracy since 100 BC, while Sulla’s own record had demonstrated his competence so that there was no reason for such a break with the traditional methods of allocating commands. However, the Gracchi had confirmed that the Popular Assembly could legislate on any matter. Sympathy and all precedents were with Sulla, but technically there was nothing illegal about this. Sulpicius backed up this legality with mob violence and one story maintained that Sulla only escaped with his life by taking refuge in Marius’ house.23
Sulla had been unfairly treated, his dignitas as an aristocrat, senator and consul severely dented. If his bitterness was understandable, his response was shocking. Leaving Rome he went to his army and told the soldiers that now that he had been supplanted in the eastern command, it was inevitable that Marius would raise his own legions to fight the war. Rather than let this happen, he called upon the legionaries to follow him to Rome and free the Republic from the faction that had seized power. None of the senatorial officers, save one, responded to his appeal, but this reluctance was not shared by the remainder of the army Whether through fear of being denied the chance of booty from the war, or even a sense of the injustice of their commander’s treatment, the legions followed Sulla to Rome. It was the first time that a Roman army had marched against the city Two praetors sent to confront the army were roughly handled, their robes were torn and the fasces, carried by their attendants to symbolise that they held imperium, were smashed by the angry legionaries. Later, other senatorial delegations asking the consul to halt and allow time for a peaceful settlement were received cordially, but ignored. When the entry into Rome of a small force was stopped by hastily organised forces loyal to Marius and Sulpicius, Sulla responded with greater force, his men fighting their way through the streets and burning down a number of houses in the process. Opposition was initially fierce but poorly equipped, and was soon crushed. Sulla outlawed twelve of the opposing leaders, including Marius and his son, as well as Sulpicius, making it legal for anyone to kill them and then claim a reward. The tribune was betrayed by one of his own slaves and killed. (Sulla gave the slave his freedom and then had the man thrown to his death from the Tarpeian Rock for disloyalty to his former master. Such a severe gesture was well in keeping with Roman traditions of respect for both law and duty) The other fugitives avoided pursuit and escaped. Marius, after a series of picturesque adventures - no doubt much embellished by later legend - eventually reached Africa where he was welcomed by the communities of his veterans established there after the Numidian war. Sulla took some measures to restore normality and then left with his army to fight Mithridates, not returning to Italy for almost five years.24
The two consuls for 87 BC swiftly fell out and one, Lucius Cornelius Cinna, was declared an enemy of the Republic and expelled from office after attempts to undo Sulla’s legislation. Copying Sulla, Cinna fled to one of the armies still engaged in stamping out the last embers of the Italian revolt and persuaded the soldiers to support him. Soon he was joined by Marius who had returned from Africa with a mass of volunteers, who were little more than a rabble. Most notorious of all were the Bardyaei, a band of freed slaves who formed Marius’ personal bodyguard and often acted as executioners. Near the end of the year Marius and Cinna marched on Rome and were ineffectually opposed by the consul Cnaeus Octavius, a man of high principle but very modest talent. The ambiguous behaviour of Pompeius Strabo, who was still at the head of his army and had been angling for a second consulship for several years, only made matters worse. Sulla had sent Quintus Pompeius, his fellow consul for 88 BC, to take charge of Strabo’s legions. Quintus and Strabo were distant cousins, but that did not prevent the former from being murdered by the latter’s legionaries, almost certainly with their commander’s approval. Strabo may well have been unsure of which side to join and probably made overtures to both. In the event he joined Octavius, but failed to support him effectively and their forces were defeated. Strabo died soon afterwards, perhaps from disease or just possibly after being struck by lightning.
Octavius refused to flee when the enemy entered the city and was killed as he sat in his chair of office on the Janiculum Hill. His severed head was brought to Cinna, who had it fastened to the Rostra in the Forum. It was soon joined by the heads of a number of other senators. In our sources Marius receives the chief blame for the wave of executions that followed, but it seems likely that Cinna played as full a part. The famous orator Marcus Antonius - the grandfather of the Mark Antony who would follow Caesar - was killed, as were the father and older brother of Marcus Licinius Crassus, and Lucius Caesar and his brother Caesar Strabo. A few men were given sham trials, but most were simply killed as soon as they were caught. Sulla’s house was burned to the ground in an important symbolic gesture, for a senator’s residence was not only the location for so much political activity but was a visible sign of his importance. His wife and family were sought out, but managed to evade capture and eventually joined him in Greece. If Sulla’s seizure of Rome had been shocking, the brutality of this second occupation was far worse. Marius and Cinna were elected consuls for 86 BC, but the former died suddenly a few weeks after taking up the office. He was seventy.25
The role, if any, of Caesar’s father in these events is unknown. Nor is it possible to say whether or not the young Caesar was actually in Rome on either of the occasions when the city was stormed, or saw the corpses floating in the Tiber and the heads hanging from the Rostra. The education of young aristocrats was highly traditional and they were supposed to learn much by watching their elders conducting their daily affairs. Yet in these years public life was so disordered and often violent that they were inevitably absorbing a very different impression of the Republic to earlier generations. Worse was to come.