‘This is what I wish for my orator: when it is reported that he is going to speak let every place on the benches be taken, the judges’ tribunal full, the clerks busy and obliging in assigning or giving up places, a listening crowd thronging about, the presiding judge erect and attentive; when the speaker rises the whole throng will give a sign for silence, then expressions of assent, frequent applause; laughter when he wills it, or if he wills, tears; so that a mere passer-by observing from a distance, though quite ignorant of the case in question, will recognise that he is succeeding and that a Roscius [a famous actor of the day] is on stage.’ - Cicero, 46 BC.1

A number of portrait images of Caesar survive as busts or on coins, some either made during his lifetime or copied from originals that were, but all portray him in middle age. They show the great general or the dictator, his features stern and strong, his face lined and - at least in the few more realistic portraits - his hair thinning. These images radiate power, experience and monumental self-confidence, and at least hint at the force of personality of the man, although no portrait, whether sculpted, painted or even photographic can ever truly capture this. Ancient portraits often seem especially formal and rather lifeless to the modern eye and it is all too easy to forget that many were originally painted, for we have a deeply entrenched vision of the Classical world as a place of bare stone and marble. Even enhanced by paint - and the great statue painters were as revered as the great sculptors - a portrait bust revealed only some aspects of character. In Caesar’s case they do suggest a keen intelligence, but do not hint at the liveliness, wit and charm that his contemporaries commented upon so often.

It is also difficult when looking at portraits of the mature Caesar to imagine his features softened by youth, though some sense of his appearance is provided by our literary sources. According to Suetonius, Caesar ‘is said to have been tall, with fair skin, slender limbs, a face that was just a little too full, and very dark, piercing eyes’. Plutarch confirms some of this when he notes that Caesar was slightly built and pale, which made his feats of physical endurance during his later campaigns all the more remarkable. Much of this is highly subjective and it is hard to know, for instance, just how tall he was. Suetonius’ comment may well mean no more than that Caesar did not strike people as particularly small even though he was rather slim. We really have no idea of what sort of stature first-century-BC Romans considered to be tall or indeed of average size. In most respects there was nothing especially unusual in Caesar’s physical appearance, for there were surely plenty of other aristocrats who had dark eyes, dark brown or black hair (presumably, since we have no explicit comment on its colour) and pale complexions. It was his manner that most marked out the young man as unusual. We have already encountered the extraordinary boldness with which he stood up to Sulla, when everyone else seemed terrified into submission. Caesar revelled in standing out from the crowd, and dressed in a highly distinctive way. Instead of the normal short-sleeved senator’s tunic, which was white with a purple stripe - the evidence is unclear as to whether this ran vertically down the centre or horizontally around the border - he wore his own unconventional version. This had long sleeves that reached down to his wrists and ended in a fringe. Although it was not normal to wear a belt or girdle with this tunic, Caesar did so, but perversely kept it very loose. Sulla is supposed to have warned the other senators to keep an eye on that ‘loose- girded boy’. It is just possible that this style was intended to serve as a reminder of his earlier designation for the flaminate, given that the flamen was not permitted to have knots in his clothing, but it may simply have been mere affectation. Whatever its purpose, the result was the same. Caesar dressed so that he was recognisably a member of a senatorial family, but at the same time marked himself out as not quite the same as his peers.2

Appearance and grooming were very important to the Romans, and especially the aristocracy. It was no coincidence that the bath-house, a complex devoted to the comfort and cleanliness of citizens, required some of the most sophisticated engineering ever devised by the Romans. The very nature of political life, where senators frequently visited or were visited by potential allies and clients, and where they walked through the streets to attend public meetings, ensured that dress and bearing were always under scrutiny. Caesar was very much the dandy, his turnout impeccable even if his clothing was a little eccentric. The same was true of many other young aristocrats in a Rome whose wealth ensured that expensive and exotic materials were readily available. Young men of senatorial families had the money to spend on such things, as well as great numbers of slaves to pamper to their needs. Those who lacked the funds for such a lavish lifestyle were often willing to place themselves in debt so that they could keep up with those who could. Yet even amongst the ‘fashionable set’ in Rome, Caesar’s fastidiousness about his appearance was seen as excessive. To be closely shaven and have short, neatly trimmed hair was entirely proper, but rumours circulated that Caesar had all his other body hair removed. In many ways it was perhaps the contradictory nature of his character that perplexed observers. Most of the fashionable young aristocrats in Rome spent as lavishly on wild living as they did on their own appearance. In contrast Caesar ate sparingly and drank little and never to excess, although his guests were always well entertained. He thus presented an odd mixture of traditional frugality and modern self indulgence.3

Caesar’s family was not especially wealthy by aristocratic standards and the loss of Cornelia’s dowry had doubtless been a heavy blow. A senator’s prominence and wealth were usually indicated by the location of his house, with the leading men in the Republic living on the slopes of the Palatine along the Sacra Via, the road taken by processions through the heart of the city. Marius had signalled his success over the barbarians by purchasing a house in this area, close to the Forum. Some of the great houses were very old, but it seems to have been rare for the same family to remain in one house for many generations. In part this was because the Roman aristocracy had no concept of primogeniture and instead tended to divide property between their children, often along with political associates whom it was felt important to honour by a legacy. To facilitate this, houses and other property appear to have been bought and sold with great frequency. The house that the orator Cicero would own at the height of his career had originally been owned by Marcus Livius Drusus until his murder in 91 BC. Cicero had bought it from another senator, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a prominent supporter of Sulla who is known to have bought up a lot of property during the proscriptions. The same house had at least two other, unrelated owners in the decades following Cicero’s death in 43 BC. This was a grand building in a position that indicated the great prominence of its occupant. In contrast the young Caesar had a smaller place in the unfashionable district known as the Subura. Situated in a valley between the Esquiline and Viminal hills, and some distance from the main Forum, the Subura was dominated by large areas of slum housing, where many of the poorest occupants lived in badly built blocks of flats off narrow streets and alleys. It was an area of constant bustle, teeming with people and notorious for a number of disreputable activities, most notably prostitution. The occupants were probably mainly citizens, including many former slaves, but may well also have included substantial foreign communities. There is evidence for a synagogue in the area at a later date and it is not impossible that one already existed in Caesar’s day4

Much of a senator’s business was conducted in his home and this was reflected in the design of houses. A porch for meeting visitors, including the clients who were expected formally to greet their patron each morning, and for displaying the busts or ancestors and the symbols of honours and achievements won by them or the present resident was essential. Equally important were rooms for more private discussions and places to entertain dinner guests. The usual layout with a central, enclosed courtyard did offer some privacy, but ambitious men were reluctant to shut out the world. Livius Drusus’ architect is supposed to have offered to construct his house so that he would be free from all outside gaze, prompting the reply that if it were possible he would prefer it built so that everything he did was visible.5 For all their wealth, status and influence, men in public life could not afford to close themselves off from the life and business of the wider city Therefore, though he doubtless lived on the fringes of the Subura, and certainly is most unlikely to have had a house in the very poorest part of the region, Caesar cannot have been entirely detached from what was going on around him. It may even be that daily contact with the less well off taught him some of the skill he would later show in handling crowds and in talking to the rank and file of the legions.

Living in the Subura may have proved advantageous, allowing the foppish aristocrat to understand better the wider population, but the reason for living there is unlikely to have been anything other than his own modest means. The young Sulla had been even worse off, having to rent a flat in an apartment block since he could not even afford a house, and paying only a little more for his accommodation than the freedman who lived above him. Caesar’s house indicated both his lack of funds and his comparative unimportance in the Republic. To an extent his desire to stand out conflicted with this, as did his willingness to spend beyond his means. Usually this was to further his career, but occasionally it seemed little more than whim. Suetonius tells us that he decided to have a country villa constructed on one of his estates. However, when the foundations had already been laid and building was underway, he was dissatisfied with the design. He immediately ordered the structure to be demolished and a new one built in its place. The date of this incident is uncertain, and it may well have occurred somewhat later in his career, but it helps to illustrate the point that, at least in certain things, Caesar demanded perfection. For much of his life he was an enthusiastic collector of fine art, gems and pearls, which was a rather expensive hobby given his circumstances.6


Caesar had gone abroad soon after escaping from Sulla’s men and did not return to Rome until after the dictator’s death. During these years he began the military service that was the legal preliminary to a public career. He served first with the governor of Asia, the propraetor Marcus Minucius Thermus. Caesar’s father had governed the same province about a decade before, so that the family name was already a familiar one to the provincials and the son inherited a number of important connections with leading men in the region. Thermus was a prominent Sullan and Caesar became one of his contubernales (‘tent-companions’), young men who messed with the commander and performed whatever duties he allocated to them. Ideally this provided the governor with a pool of useful subordinates for minor staff functions, while at the same time teaching the youths about soldiering and command. The contubernales were supposed to learn by observation, just as younger boys learned how the Republic worked by accompanying prominent senators in the daily duties at Rome. Like so many aspects of an aristocrat’s early years, the details of where and with whom he would serve were not centrally controlled by the State, but arranged by individual families. The connection between Caesar and Thermus is obscure and may well have been indirect, via someone else with whom both parties had bonds of political friendship.7

Under normal circumstances Asia was a peaceful and prosperous province, making it the sort of posting where a Roman governor and his staff could expect to make a handsome profit during their service. Yet it was only seven years since Mithridates of Pontus had overrun the whole area and ordered the communities to massacre all the Romans living amongst them. Sulla had defeated Mithridates and for the moment the king was once again at peace with Rome, but some of his recent allies had yet to be defeated. One of Thermus’ main tasks was to defeat the city of Mytilene, which was besieged and eventually taken by storm. During the course of the fighting the nineteen-year-old Caesar won Rome’s highest award for gallantry, the civic crown (corona civica). Traditionally this decoration was given only to those who had risked their own life to save that of another citizen. The rescued man was supposed to plait a simple wreath of oak leaves - a tree that was sacred to Jupiter - and present this to his saviour as an open acknowledgement of his debt. However, by Caesar’s day it was normally awarded by the magistrate commanding the army. The wreath was worn at military parades, but winners of the crown were also permitted to wear them during festivals in Rome. None of our sources preserve any details of the exploit that led to Caesar being awarded the crown, but the corona civica was never lightly bestowed and commanded immense respect. During the crisis of the Second Punic War, when the Roman Senate had suffered huge casualties and needed to replenish its numbers, men who had won the corona civica were one of the main groups chosen for admission. It is just possible that Sulla had decreed a similar measure, so that aristocratic winners of the crown were immediately enrolled in the Senate, but even if this was not true, the decoration was guaranteed to impress the electorate and help a man’s career.8

Not all of Caesar’s first term of overseas service was so creditable. Before the storming of Mytilene, the propraetor had sent him to the court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia (on the north coast of modern Turkey) to arrange for the despatch of a squadron of warships to support the Roman campaign. Bithynia was a client kingdom, allied to Rome and obliged to make such contributions. Nicomedes was elderly and had doubtless encountered Caesar’s father, which probably ensured that the welcome given to the son was especially warm. The youth seems to have revelled in the luxury he encountered, and was accused of lingering far longer than was necessary to perform his task. Caesar was young, had led a comparatively sheltered life because of the burdens of the flaminate, and was getting his first taste of the wider world and of royalty. He was also moving amongst those steeped in the Hellenic culture that was so admired by the Roman aristocracy. Any of this might explain his tarrying overlong at the king’s court, but gossip soon spread that the real reason was that Nicomedes had seduced the youth. Stories began to circulate portraying Caesar as a very willing lover, claiming that he had acted as the king’s cup-bearer at a drunken feast attended by a number of Roman businessmen. Another tale had him being led by the royal attendants into the royal bedroom, dressed in fine purple robes and left reclining on a golden couch to wait for Nicomedes. The rumours spread rapidly and were fed when Caesar returned to Bithynia not long after leaving, claiming that he needed to oversee the business affairs of one of his freedmen.9

It was a scandal that would dog Caesar throughout his life. The Roman aristocracy admired most aspects of Greek culture, but it never openly accepted the celebration of homosexuality that had been espoused by the nobility of some Greek cities. Those senators who took male lovers tended to do so discreetly, but even so would often be held up to public ridicule by political opponents. The dislike of homosexuality appears to have been fairly widespread in most social classes at Rome, and it was seen as something that weakened men. In the army homosexuality within the camp was a capital offence from at least the second century BC. During the campaign against the Cimbri, Marius awarded the corona civica to a soldier who had killed an officer after the latter had tried to force his attentions on him. The legionary’s conduct was held up as an example of virtue and courage, while the officer’s death was seen as fitting punishment for his excessive passion and abuse of authority. This was in spite of the fact that the dead man was a relation to the consul. Senators were not subject to such rigid rules as ordinary soldiers, but faced at the very least criticism and mockery if they showed a fondness for male lovers. During his censorship Cato the Elder expelled a senator because the man had ordered the execution of a prisoner at a banquet merely to please the boy with whom he was then enamoured. The man’s fault was his abuse of imperium, but his motives were felt to have made the crime worse. Particular contempt was reserved for the boys or young men who were the objects of passion, and the passive partners in sex. Such a role implied extreme effeminacy and, if anything, was felt to be worse than the behaviour of the older, more active lover. That Caesar was said to have been submissive in this way made the rumours all the more damaging, for this meant that the young aristocrat had acted in a way that was thought unfitting even for a slave. The enthusiasm with which the stories claimed he had taken on the role compounded the crime.10

Ultimately, it was a very good piece of gossip, playing on well-established Roman stereotypes. The Romans were suspicious of easterners, seeing the Asiatic Greeks as corrupt and decadent, in no way resembling the admired Greeks of the Classical past. Kings were especially disliked, and royal courts seen as places of political intrigue and sexual depravity. Thus the tale of the ageing, lecherous old ruler deflowering the young, naive aristocrat on his first trip abroad had a wide appeal. It helped that the story involved Caesar, a youth whose unusual dress and massive self-esteem had doubtless made him cordially disliked, since as yet neither he nor his family could boast sufficient achievements to justify such vanity It was deeply satisfying for others to think that this overconfident young man had behaved so submissively to gratify some decrepit old lover. Later in Caesar’s career, as he acquired more and more political enemies, the affair with Nicomedes offered them plentiful ammunition to use against him. The story was widely repeated throughout Caesar’s life, so that at times he was dubbed the ‘Queen of Bithynia’. Another of his opponents styled him ‘every woman’s husband and every man’s wife’. Whether or not men like Cicero, who joyfully repeated the charges, actually believed them to be true is hard to say Whatever they believed, they wanted the allegations to be true and relished hurling them at a man that many disliked, and some came to loathe. Political invective at Rome was often extremely scurrilous, and the truth very rarely got in the way of a juicy story of rampant or perverted desires. Yet it was not just his opponents who mocked Caesar over this episode, for in later years his own soldiers also enjoyed repeating the joke. Interestingly, this does not appear to have diminished in any way from their respect for their commander, and their mockery was affectionate, if characteristically crude.11

The story that Caesar became Nicomedes lover persisted, but it is now impossible to say whether or not it was actually true. Caesar himself fervently denied this, on one occasion offering to take a public oath that there was not a fragment of truth in the allegation, although all this achieved was to increase the ridicule. In later life he was extremely sensitive about the subject, one of few that led him to lose his temper in public. At the time, his rapid return to the royal court had fired the rumours. Was this an indication of his infatuation, a sign of his naivety that such an action might be interpreted as it was, or a conscious decision to ignore the gossips when there was no truth in the rumours about him? The last is a distinct possibility given Caesar’s urge not to be confined by some of the rules that bound others. In the end we simply cannot know. Perhaps the nineteen-year-old did feel and succumb to an attraction to an older man - ‘experimenting with his sexuality’ would probably be the fashionable modern euphemism. If so, then this was the only occasion on which this happened, for it is absolutely certain that homosexuality did not play a part in the rest of Caesar’s life. Given the nature of political debate at Rome, it was striking that the affair in Bithynia was almost the only insult of this sort that others were ever to hurl at him. Other rumours of a similar nature, including a scurrilous work by the poet Catullus, did not win widespread belief, though they clearly bothered Caesar himself. Caesar’s sexual exploits were a rich source of gossip and scandal, and earned him an extremely dubious reputation, but his frequent affairs were always with women. The lack of restraint he displayed in his relations with his female lovers makes it all the more unlikely that he also slept with men or boys, but that this was not commented upon by contemporaries. Caesar’s appetite for women was almost insatiable and his conquests - who often came from the most distinguished families - very numerous. The knowledge of this doubtless added further to the delight others took in repeating the accusation that the great womaniser had once played the woman himself for Nicomedes. Once again, whether or not the story was true mattered far less than that it struck a raw nerve and embarrassed Caesar. All in all, it is more than probable that there was no real truth in the story, although of course absolute certainty is impossible.12

Caesar had married Cornelia when he was at most sixteen, but it is extremely improbable that this resulted in his first sexual experience, even if it most probably did for his bride. It was common for an engaged girl to live in the house of her future husband until they were sufficiently old to wed, so that Cossutia (whom Caesar forsook in order to marry Cornelia) may well have been numbered amongst the household of the Caesars for a year or two. However, it would have been most unusual for the couple to have anticipated their wedding, and Cossutia was probably anyway some years younger. Yet we should never forget that the Romans accepted slavery as a normal aspect of life, and that in any aristocratic house there would be large numbers of slaves who were literally the property of their owners. Household slaves were often chosen for their physical appearance, for their duties ensured that they would be highly visible to their masters and the latter’s friends. Good-looking house slaves invariably fetched high prices at auctions. Should a slave girl or woman - or indeed boy - attract the owner’s attention they had no legal right to resist, for in the end they were property and not human beings. It was assumed to be quite normal for aristocratic Romans to take pleasure with their slaves in this way, and rarely warranted special comment. That paragon of old-fashioned virtue, Cato the Elder, had regularly slept with a slave girl after the death of his wife. During the civil war Marcus Licinius Crassus had fled to Spain and was sheltered by one of his father’s clients. Living in a cave to evade detection by Marian agents, his host regularly sent him food and drink, but soon decided that such hospitality was insufficient given the youth of his ‘guest’, who was in his late twenties. Therefore he sent two pretty slave girls to live in the cave with Crassus and cater to the natural requirements of a virile young man. An historian who wrote much later in the century claimed to have met one of these slaves, who even in her old age had fond memories of those days. Slaves had no choice in such things, for the owner could use force if he chose and punish them or sell them on a whim. Yet doubtless some female slaves welcomed the attention of their master or their master’s sons and hoped to benefit from a more privileged position. If so then it was a dangerous hope, for they were likely to incur the jealousy of other slaves, as well as, perhaps, the owner’s wife if he were married. It was so normal for owners to make love to their slaves that it seems very likely that Caesar’s first sexual experiences were with female slaves owned by the family. Like many other young men he may also have visited the more expensive brothels with which Rome was so plentifully supplied, for again this was to a fair extent viewed as normal and acceptable. It is tempting to read a note of incredulity into Caesar’s statement in his Gallic War Commentaries that the German tribesmen thought it ‘a most shameful thing to have carnal knowledge of a woman before they were twenty years old’.13


Sometime after the fall of Mytilene, Caesar transferred to the staff of the governor of Cilicia, Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus, who was operating primarily against the pirates that infested the area. However, in 78 BC the news of Sulla’s death reached the eastern provinces and prompted Caesar to return to Rome. The city was once again facing the threat of civil war, as the consul Marcus Aemilius Lepidus came into conflict with the main body of the Senate. Lepidus was soon engaged in raising an army to seize power by force just as Sulla, Cinna and Marius had done. Caesar is said by Suetonius to have contemplated joining the rebels, and even to have been offered great incentives by Lepidus. However, he soon decided against siding with the consul, doubting both the latter’s ability and ambition. This may simply be one of a number of stories invented in later years under the assumption that Caesar was always aiming at revolution. Yet in itself it does not seem unreasonable. Caesar had suffered at Sulla’s hands and, although he had escaped execution and in the end been pardoned, he had little reason to feel a great affection for a Senate packed with the dictator’s supporters. We should also remember that he had grown up in the years when Rome had been stormed three times by legions supporting ambitious senators. It was a real possibility that this might occur again, and if so, then it was better to be associated with the winning side than the losers, so it may simply have been a question of opportunism, deciding whether or not it was advantageous to join with Lepidus.14

In the end Caesar chose a more conventional political path, appearing for the first time as an advocate in Rome’s courts. The seven courts established by Sulla in his codification of earlier practices were each presided over by a praetor and had a jury drawn from the Senate. Trials were very public affairs, held either on raised platforms in the Forum or sometimes in one of the grand basilicas, and in either case open to public view. Roman law had no concept of the State prosecuting an individual, and charges had always to be brought by an individual, though he might be acting on behalf of others or indeed an entire community. During their term of office magistrates were not subject to prosecution, but all were aware that they were vulnerable to being attacked in the courts once they had laid down imperium. In theory the fear of subsequent prosecution was intended to prevent their abusing their office. There were no professional lawyers as such, for although a class of prosecutors (accusatores) existed, they came from outside the aristocracy and were not highly esteemed. Instead the parties would usually be represented by one or more advocates who were normally men pursuing a career in public life. Their status and auctoritas greatly added to the force of the case they made. Appearing on someone’s behalf in court was an important way of cementing political friendships or placing other men under an obligation, and also of being seen by potential voters.

In 77 BC Caesar prosecuted Cnaeus Cornelius Dolabella for extortion during his term as proconsul of Macedonia. Dolabella had gone out to his province after his consulship in 81 BC and had won a triumph for his military exploits. He was a supporter of Sulla, as is indicated by his electoral success under the dictator, but it would be a mistake to understand the court case as motivated by this connection. Caesar was not seeking to attack the Sullan regime, but was simply choosing a prominent man to prosecute. The trial of an ex-consul, and a man who had triumphed, was bound to attract more public interest than that of someone more humble, and offered to place the young prosecutor in the limelight, if only for a short time. The case was most likely inspired by complaints made by some of the provincial communities in Macedonia who had suffered under Dolabella’s rule. As non-citizens they could not bring charges against him themselves, so instead had to go to Rome and persuade a Roman to take the case on for them. Why they chose Caesar is unknown, but it may have been the result of some tie of friendship with the community leaders, perhaps inherited from his father or an earlier ancestor. It is more than likely that Dolabella had abused his power to enrich himself, for such behaviour was all too common amongst Roman magistrates in this period. Men spent lavishly to win election at Rome and frequently went to their province desperate to pay off their massive debts. Governors were not salaried, although they received modest expenses, but they were the supreme power in their province, able to bestow or withhold favours to provincials or businessmen. The temptation to take bribes was great, as was the urge to confiscate as plunder anything they desired. The poet Catullus would later give ‘How much did you make?’ as the first question a friend asked him after his return from a junior post on the staff of a provincial governor. The difficulty for provincials of using the law against their rulers, since they had to travel to Rome and find advocates, further encouraged corruption on a massive scale. In 70 BC the orator Cicero prosecuted a particularly notorious governor of Sicily, who is supposed to have declared that a man needed three years in a post - the first year to steal enough money to make himself rich, the second to provide the money to hire the best legal defence team, and the third to accumulate the bribes for the judge and jury to ensure that he escaped justice.15

Something of the odds usually stacked against the provincials were evident at Dolabella’s trial. His prosecutor was Caesar, twenty-three years old, of little achievement and from a poorly connected family The proconsul was defended by Rome’s leading orator, Quintus Hortensius, and the very distinguished Caius Aurelius Cotta. The latter was a cousin of Caesar’s mother, but it was not uncommon for relations to represent opposing parties in court. This was considered to be entirely proper, allowing them both to honour or create new obligations to other senators, and did not indicate any bad blood between the advocates. Caius had been one of the men who persuaded Sulla to pardon Caesar and was to win the consulship for 75 BC. Cicero later recalled watching Hortensius and Cotta in action at this and other trials:

In those days there were two orators who so surpassed all the rest that I craved to emulate them - Cotta and Hortensius. One was relaxed and gentle, phrasing his sentences readily and easily . . . the other ornate and passionate . . . . I saw too in cases where both were on the same side, as for Marcus Canuleius, and on behalf of Cnaeus Dolabella the ex-consul, that although Cotta was the principal advocate, even so Hortensius played the greater part. The bustle of the Forum needed a powerful orator, a man of passion and skill, and with a voice that carried.16

Caesar was therefore facing one of the most formidable teams then active in the courts. This was not surprising since acting for the defence was considered to be a more honourable role than prosecution. Prosecutors were essential to allow the legal system to function, but their success often meant the ending of the career of another senator. A governor found guilty of extortion in theory faced the death penalty, for Rome had few prisons and tended to punish all serious crimes with execution. In practice the condemned man was allowed to flee the city with all his movable possessions and go into comfortable exile. Massilia (modern Marseilles), the old Greek colony on the coast of Gaul and now part of the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul, was one of the favourite locations for this. Yet for all its consolations such exile was permanent, for the man could never return to Rome. Prosecution was therefore an aggressive action and defence was held to be more honourable. By the standards of the senatorial aristocracy it was better to support a friend facing charges, even if he were guilty, than to seek to end another man’s career. Almost always the defending counsels were older, more experienced men who had long since proved their skills in the courts. It was considered worthier for such men to demonstrate their loyalty to political allies. Prosecution was usually left to the young and ambitious, who hoped to win the fame that would assist them in climbing the political ladder.

When the case came to trial Caesar delivered a speech that greatly impressed onlookers. Caesar subsequently published a version of this speech - a not uncommon practice, which Cicero was to follow throughout his career. Although it has not survived, we know from ancient commentators that it was widely admired. It may well have been this speech that showed how much Caesar had been influenced by the rhetorical style of Caesar Strabo - in another of his published speeches he actually copied a substantial section of one of the latter’s orations. The words of a speech were only part of the performance - for performance it was as Cicero admitted when he compared the gifted orator to a famous actor (see the opening quote, page 61). How the orator stood, how he dressed and held himself, letting his toga fall in just the right way, his expressions, the power and tone of his voice were all vital aspects of an advocate’s job. During the trial Caesar impressed the crowd watching proceedings as well as those taking part, while the publication of the speech helped to build on the reputation he had won. His voice was a little high pitched, but his delivery evidently gave it force and power. He did well out of his first appearance as an advocate, even though the prosecution ended in failure with Dolabella’s acquittal. The outcome was probably not unexpected, since most governors charged with extortion were exonerated. As usual the defence had been composed of men with far greater experience and auctoritas than the prosecution with the almost inevitable result. The fame won by Caesar was probably little consolation to the Macedonians who had persuaded him to undertake the case, but they had at least demonstrated their capacity to bring a former governor to trial, even if he had escaped conviction.17

Caesar did a little better in his next appearance in the same court, although once again the accused evaded punishment. This was the trial of Caius Antonius in 76 BC for his rapacity while serving in the war against Mithridates. The court was presided over by the praetor Marcus Licinius Lucullus, the brother of Lucius who had been the only senator to accompany Sulla on his march on Rome in 88 BC. Caesar made a very good case against a man whose guilt seems to have been patent, but Antonius appealed to the tribunes of the plebs, prompting one or more of these to veto the proceedings. As a result the trial broke up without delivering its verdict and Antonius escaped, although his subsequent career proved extremely chequered - he was expelled from the Senate by the censors in 70 BC, restored in 68 and even managed to reach the consulship in 63, holding office jointly with Cicero. Although once again the provincials had seen a corrupt Roman official go unpunished, Caesar had further added to his reputation. However, Suetonius claims that his activities had incurred the hostility of influential men, notably the associates of Dolabella, prompting him to decide to go abroad in 75 BC, ostensibly to study.18

caesar travelled first to Rhodes, where he planned to study with Apollonius Molo, the most distinguished teacher of oratory of his day. Apollonius had been sent to Rome by the Rhodians as part of an embassy a few years before, when he had been permitted to address the Senate in Greek - the first person ever to be granted this privilege. By the early first century BC it was common for young Roman aristocrats to round off their education by attending the famous schools of philosophy and rhetoric in the Greek East. In rather a similar way to caesar, cicero had left Rome for further study after being active in the courts for a couple of years. In his case he spent time in Athens and in several cities of Asia Minor in 78-77 BC, before also going to Rhodes to learn from Apollonius. Cicero describes him as:

. . . famous as an advocate in important cases and as a speech writer for others, and also skilled at dissecting and correcting mistakes and very wise teaching. He focused in particular, as far as it was possible, on cutting out the redundant and over florid aspects of my style, which was then characterised by the over enthusiasm and lack of restraint of youth, as if it were a river, to confine it within its banks.19

It is not known in what specifics Caesar received tuition from the famous teacher.

Before Caesar reached Rhodes his ship was intercepted by pirates near the island of Pharmacussa off the coast of Asia Minor. Piracy was a major problem throughout the Mediterranean in the early decades of the first century BC. In part this was a legacy of the Romans’ own successes, which had destroyed the Kingdom of Macedonia, crippled the Seleucid Empire and helped the decline of Ptolemaic Egypt. All of these great Hellenistic powers had once maintained powerful navies, but with their decay piracy flourished in the Aegean and eventually became endemic throughout the Mediterranean. Further encouragement and direct support came from Mithridates of Pontus, who saw these freebooters as useful allies against Rome. The rugged coastline of Cilicia in Asia Minor was home to many pirate strongholds, and the campaigns of Servilius Isauricus, under whom Caesar himself had served, and others had made little headway in controlling the problem. The pirates were extremely numerous, at times operating in large squadrons and even launching plundering raids on the coastal communities of Italy itself. Although they were not united under a single leader, but had many chieftains, there does seem to have been a considerable degree of mutual co-operation between the different pirate communities. At the height of their power in the late seventies BC the pirates were even able to raid Ostia, and on another occasion kidnapped two Roman praetors along with all their attendants. Although they did occasionally kill Roman prisoners - allegedly telling one haughty aristocrat to disembark when they were at sea, in a story to some extent anticipating the walking of the plank so beloved of the fiction dealing with a later generation of pirates - their main aim was to ransom them.20

The young patrician was a valuable prize and his captors decided to demand a payment of 20 talents of silver for his release. Caesar is supposed to have laughed at the amount, declaring that he was worth far more than that and pledging instead to pay them 50 talents. He then sent off most of his travelling companions to the nearest cities in the provinces where they could raise loans to obtain the necessary money. This left Caesar attended only by his doctor and two slaves in the pirates’ camp. According to Plutarch he was in no way overawed by his fierce captors, but:

... he held them in such disdain that whenever he lay down to sleep he would send and order them to stop talking. For thirty-eight days, as if the men were not his watchers, but his royal bodyguard, he shared in their sports and exercises with great unconcern. He also wrote poems and sundry speeches which he read aloud to them, and those who did not admire these he would call to their faces illiterate Barbarians, and often laughingly threatened to crucify them all. The pirates were delighted at this, and attributed this boldness of speech to a certain simplicity and boyish mirth.21

After his friends returned with the ransom, which had been dutifully provided by allied communities eager to oblige a man who might in time become a useful connection at Rome, Caesar was released. The city of Miletus on the western coast of Asia seems to have provided the bulk of the money and Caesar immediately hurried there. He was twenty-five years old and a private citizen who had never held elected office, but this did not prevent him from persuading and cajoling the provincials to gather and crew a number of warships. Taking charge of this force, he led it straight back to Pharmacussa to attack his former captors. Complacently the pirates were still in the camp on shore, their ships beached and in no position to resist. Caesar’s improvised squadron took them prisoner and captured their amassed plunder, including his own ransom. The 50 talents was presumably repaid to the donor communities, while Caesar took the prisoners to Pergamum where they were imprisoned. He then went to the Roman governor of Asia to arrange for the pirates’ execution. However, the propraetor Marcus Iuncus showed little interest in imposing the punishment that Caesar had repeatedly promised to inflict. He was currently occupied in organising Bithynia into the Roman province, for Nicomedes had recently died and bequeathed his realm to Rome. Iuncus saw the opportunity to profit by selling the pirates as slaves, and was also eager to appropriate some of their captured plunder for himself. When it became clear that he would not act quickly at the behest of some young patrician, Caesar hastened back to Pergamum and ordered the prisoners to be crucified. He had no legal authority to do this, although no one was likely to question the execution of a group of raiders. In this way Caesar fulfilled his promise. However, he had clearly developed some regard for the men during his time with them, and anyway wished to show his merciful nature, so that he had each pirate’s throat cut before they were crucified, sparing them a lingering and extremely painful death.22

Thus runs the story. In so many ways it encapsulates the legend of Caesar, who was always in charge whatever the situation. Here is the young aristocrat who mocked his captors, scorned the ransom they demanded, and never once lost his poise. Once again we have the same self-confidence that had faced down Sulla the dictator, as the patrician failed to be cowed by overwhelming force. There is also the charm, which could win over a band of cut-throats as easily as Roman citizens or soldiers. After his release Caesar acted swiftly, his force of character making others do his bidding even though he had no power to command them, and won a sweeping victory. Caesar had promised to capture and execute the pirates, and that is precisely what Caesar had done, in spite of the reluctance to act of the propraetor who actually governed the province. It was a display of his fearlessness, determination, speed of action and ruthless skill, while the final act provided an instance of the clemency he would later parade as one of his greatest attributes. It is a very good story and one which doubtless leant itself to embellishment with each retelling. Given that Caesar’s travelling companions had left him and that only his slaves and doctor were present during his time with the pirates, it is interesting to wonder who first told the tale. Was this an early instance of Caesar’s skill in celebrating his own achievements? Perhaps not, but even if the rumours only began in the communities after his release or were spread by his friends, Caesar doubtless did little to discourage this version of events. How much was true and how much romantic invention is obviously impossible to say.

At the end of this adventure Caesar finally reached Rhodes and studied with Apollonius. He proved an adept pupil, his rhetorical style fluent and deceptively simple. Cicero and others considered him one of the best orators of the period and suggested that he might even have achieved first place if he had concentrated on oratory to the exclusion of other pursuits. Yet for Caesar skill with words remained a means to the wider aim of political success. He was exceptionally good at it, but then he was also proving himself very good at other things, most notably soldiering. There was another opportunity to demonstrate this during his time as a student on Rhodes. Open war had once more broken out with Mithridates in 74 BC and a detachment of Pontic troops had launched a raid into Asia, plundering the territory of peoples allied to Rome. Caesar laid aside his studies and took a ship to the province, where he raised troops from the local communities and with this hastily formed force defeated the invaders. The action - once again so swift, confident and competent - was believed to have prevented some allies from defecting to Mithridates since the Romans had proved unable to defend them. Once again it is worth emphasising that he was a private citizen without any legal authority to act in this way No one would have held him responsible for the damage being done in Asia if he had simply sat quietly at Rhodes. Yet for Caesar it was his duty to act since there was no properly constituted Roman officer available. It was also a splendid opportunity for him to make a name for himself. Serving the Republic and winning personal glory in the process were entirely proper ambitions for the senatorial aristocracy.23


Towards the end of 74 or early in 73 BC Caesar was appointed to a priesthood, but one that was far less restrictive than the office of Flamen Dialis. The college of pontiffs, fifteen strong and headed by the Pontifex Maximus, voted to admit him to the vacancy created when one of their number died. This was Aurelia’s relation Caius Aurelius Cotta, who had in the past pleaded for Caesar’s life with Sulla and then been on the opposing side at Dolabella’s trial. Pontiffs were supposed to pass on their religious knowledge by word of mouth, so that it was normal to have a broad age range within the college. It is more than likely that the family connection was one of the reasons for Caesar’s selection, but it is also an indication that the young man was already displaying talent. One of the pontiffs was Servilius Isauricus under whom he had served after winning the corona civica. Given that the majority of the pontiffs were also very much Sulla’s appointees it is also an indication that Caesar was not perceived as a dangerous radical. The appointment was a great honour, marking the holder out as an up and coming man likely to do well in public life. The fifteen pontiffs, along with the equal number of men belonging to the other two important orders, the augurate and the quindecemvirate, represented an elite within the senatorial class. In the main only members of noble families, who included consuls amongst their ancestors, were given these posts and the admission of anyone else was a great distinction. If they lived long enough, the majority of these priests gained the consulship.24

The news of his appointment prompted Caesar to abandon his studies and immediately return to Rome to be formally admitted to the priesthood. Travelling with only two friends and ten slaves in a small boat, he had once again to pass through seas infested with pirates, who had been given little cause to love him by his recent escapade. At one point during the voyage the Romans thought that they had sighted a pirate vessel, prompting Caesar to remove his fine outer clothes and strap a dagger to his thigh. Presumably he hoped to blend with his attendants and the crew and escape at any favourable opportunity. In the event it proved unnecessary, as he soon realised that he had mistaken a wooded shoreline for the silhouette of a ship. Once back in Rome, he was soon active in the courts again, and seems to have prosecuted Marcus Iuncus in the extortion court. Most probably he was acting on behalf of the Bithynians, for he preserved his connection with their royal family in particular. At some later date he represented Nicomedes’ daughter Nysa in a legal dispute, and gave a strong speech recounting his debt to the Bithynian king. This is said to have prompted the retort from Cicero of ‘No more of that please, when everyone knows what he gave to you and what you gave to him.’ The scandal clung to Caesar, but does not seem to have damaged him politically. The outcome of Iuncus’ trial is unknown, but it is more than probable that he was acquitted, since so many obviously guilty former governors managed to escape punishment. As with his earlier appearances in court, the outcome of the case was in some ways less important for his own career than his personal performance.25

Sometime near the end of the decade he stood for his first public office and was successfully elected as one of the twenty-four military tribunes. This was probably for either 72 or 71 BC, although our sources are vague. The military tribunes were very different from the tribunes of the plebs, for their role was exclusively military Each legion of the army had around six tribunes and, since there were now many more than four legions in existence at any one time, many of these officers were appointed. However, there was considerable prestige attached to the elected posts and this was seen as often the first opportunity to test a young aristocrat’s popularity with voters. None of our sources mention a posting to a province at this time, which suggests that Caesar served his time in Italy itself, for the great Slave War was raging at that time. In 73 BC a small group of gladiators led by a Thracian called Spartacus had escaped from their training school outside Capua, sparking a huge slave rebellion throughout the Italian Peninsula. Spartacus won a series of stunning victories, smashing one Roman army after another, and it was not until 71 BC that he was finally defeated by Marcus Licinius Crassus. Caesar may well have served under Crassus and if so it would mark the first known connection between the two men.26

Crassus had won the praetorship for 73 BC and was given the command against the slaves in the following year after both the consuls had been defeated in battle. He was about forty, but had gained considerable experience of high command during the civil war. Forced to flee Italy after the murder of his father and brother by the Marians, Crassus at first sought refuge in Spain. This was the occasion when he is supposed to have been hidden in a cave, where one of his family’s clients provided him with food and two slave girls as companions. Later he joined Sulla and fought with distinction for him, saving the day at the battle of the Colline Gate outside Rome in 82 BC.

Crassus became bitter because he believed that the dictator never gave him sufficient credit for his achievements, but in other respects he did very well out of Sulla’s rule, acquiring property on a massive scale from the victims of the proscriptions. A shrewd and utterly ruthless businessman, he soon became one of the richest men in Rome. His conduct of the campaign against the slaves was similarly efficient. To restore the discipline of troops dismayed by earlier disasters, he ordered the decimation of a number of units. One soldier in ten was chosen by lot and beaten to death by his comrades, who then underwent the symbolic humiliations of eating barley rather than wheat and pitching their tents outside the rampart of the army’s camp. Cornering the slaves in the toe of Italy, Crassus had a huge line of fortifications built to trap them. Spartacus managed to break out, displaying once again the truly remarkable skill and force of character that had allowed him to turn a disparate horde of runaway slaves into a highly effective army. The Romans pursued and in the end brought the slaves to battle and destroyed them. Crassus ordered 6,000 male prisoners to be crucified at regular intervals all along the Appian Way from Rome to Capua. There was no talk of slitting their throats to be ‘merciful’, for the Slave War had terrified the Romans and this ghastly spectacle was intended to show all slaves the folly of further rebellion.27

So little is known about Caesar’s spell as military tribune that we cannot know whether he actually took part in the Slave War, and if so what part he played in the affair. Years later, when he led his legions against the German tribes for the first time, Caesar would encourage his soldiers by recalling that there had been many Germans amongst the defeated slave army, but his own account makes no mention of personal service in the earlier conflict. This is not necessarily a strong indication one way or the other, since the Commentaries rarely include autobiographical detail. On balance it is more probable than not that he did serve in the war, and presumably that he displayed the competence he had shown in the past, though perhaps he did nothing especially distinguished that might have earned mention in the sources. It is known that during his time as military tribune he spoke in favour of a proposal for some restoration of the powers of the tribunes of the plebs, which Sulla had taken from them. There was clearly widespread enthusiasm for this amongst the electorate and Caesar was most likely wanting to gain popularity by associating himself with this cause. Such opportunism was common amongst those seeking to climb the political ladder and need not be taken as a sign of deep hostility to the Sullan regime or to a Senate still packed with the dictator’s supporters. Caesar’s relation Caius Aurelius Cotta had brought in a bill during his consulship in 75 BC that permitted former tribunes of the plebs to seek other magistracies, preventing the office from being a political dead end as Sulla had intended.28

The possibility of an early connection with Crassus is intriguing, for the latter was highly skilled in using his wealth to gain political influence by assisting those whose ambitions outstripped their funds. In the next decade Caesar certainly benefited from substantial loans from Crassus and it is possible that he received some similar aid earlier on. Yet we should not exaggerate Caesar’s importance, for he was one of many senators assisted in this way by Crassus, and few could have guessed at his eventual success. He was flamboyant, talented - as demonstrated by his military service and activity in the courts - and had a gift for self-publicity which helped to attract the attention of the electorate, while the scandal surrounding him at least ensured that his name was widely known. Such things were assets for a man aspiring to a career in public life, but to a greater or lesser degree they were also displayed by many of his contemporaries. Nor were they automatic guarantors of success. Personal talent did appeal to the voters, but it was not the sole, nor even the most important factor in winning their favour. Though he might dress distinctively and display an immensely high opinion of his own worth, Caesar’s career so far had been conventional in most important respects. His independent actions against the pirates and the Pontic raiders in Asia had been exceptional, but were proper enough for a dutiful citizen and, even more importantly, successful. Such behaviour was a good indicator of virtus, a quality that lay at the heart of the Roman aristocracy’s self-image. By the time that he was thirty Caesar had shown considerable promise - something that his admission to the pontificate indicated - and was in no way considered a revolutionary. It remained to be seen how far up the political ladder he might climb, his talent balancing his comparative poverty and the mediocre achievements of his recent ancestors.

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