Gaius Julius Caesar (July 13, 100 BC - March 15, 44 BC) was a Roman military and political leader whose conquest of Gallia Comata extended the Roman world all the way to the Oceanus Atlanticus and introduced Roman influence into modern France, an accomplishment whose direct consequences are visible to this day. Caesar fought and won a civil war which left him undisputed master of the Roman world, and began extensive reforms of Roman society and government.
He became dictator for life, and heavily centralized the already faltering government of the weak republic. His dramatic assassination on the Ides of March became the catalyst of a second set of civil wars which became the twilight of the Roman Republic and the dawn of the Roman Empire under Caesar's grand-nephew and adopted son, Caesar Augustus. Caesar's military campaigns are known in detail from his own written Commentaries (Commentarii), and many details of his life are recorded by later historiographers like Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus, Mestrius Plutarch, and Lucius Cassius Dio.
Caesar was born in Rome to a well-known patrician family (gens Julia) which supposedly traced its ancestry to Julus, the son of the Trojan prince Aeneas, who according to myth was the son of Venus. At the height of his power in 45 BC, Caesar began building a temple to Venus Genetrix at Rome, signifying his link to the goddess. His father and namesake, Gaius Julius Caesar, achieved the rank of praetor (see cursus honorum). His mother was an Aurelia from the Cottae branch, a rich and influential family of plebeian stock. As a young boy, he lived in a modest house in the Subura quarter, where he apparently learned to speak several languages, including Hebrew and Gallic dialects.
The Julii Caesarii, although of impeccable aristocratic patrician stock, were not rich by the standards of the Roman nobility. Due to this, no member of his family had achieved any outstanding prominence in recent times, though in his father's generation there was a renaissance of their fortunes. His paternal aunt, Julia, married Gaius Marius, a talented general and reformer of the Roman army. Marius was also the leader of the Populares faction of the Senate, frequently opposed to the Optimates conservatives.
Towards the end of Marius' life in 86 BC, internal politics reached a breaking point. Several disputes of the Marius faction against Lucius Cornelius Sulla led to civil war and eventually opened the way to Sulla's dictatorship. Caesar was tied to the Marius party through family connections. Not only he was Marius' nephew, he was also married to Cornelia Cinnilla, the youngest daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, Marius' greatest supporter and Sulla's enemy.
Thus, when Sulla emerged as the winner of this civil war and began its program of proscriptions, Caesar, not yet 20 years old, was in a bad position. Sulla ordered him to divorce Cornelia in 82 BC, but Caesar refused and prudently left Rome to hide. Only the intervention of his family and closest friends saved him from certain proscription and death. Despite Sulla's pardon, Caesar did not remain in Rome and left for military service in Asia and Cilicia. During these campaigns he served under the command of Lucius Licinius Lucullus and distinguished himself for bravery in combat.
Back in Rome in 78 BC, when Sulla died, Caesar began his political career in the Forum at Rome as an advocate, known for his oratory and ruthless prosecution of former governors notorious for extortion and corruption. Aiming at rhetorical perfection, Caesar traveled to Rhodes for philosophical and oratorical studies with the famous teacher Apollonius Molo.
On the way, Caesar was kidnapped by pirates. When they demanded a ransom of twenty talents, he laughed at them, saying they did not know who they had captured. Instead, he ordered them to ask for fifty. They accepted, and Caesar sent his followers to various cities to collect the ransom money. Thirty-eight days later, they returned with the ransom and Caesar was set free. As soon as he was ransomed, he organized a naval force, captured the pirates and their stronghold and put them to death by crucifixion.
In 69 BC, Caesar became a widower after Cornelia's death trying to deliver a stillborn son. In the same year, he lost his aunt Julia, to whom he was very attached. During the funerals Caesar delivered eulogy speeches from the rostra. Julia's funeral was filled with political connotations, since Caesar insisted on parading Marius's funeral mask. This was the first attack on the Sullan proscription laws of the former decade. Although Caesar was very fond of both women (according to Suetonius), these speeches were interpreted by his political opponents as propaganda for his upcoming election for the office of quaestor.
Caesar's cursus honorum
Caesar was elected quaestor by the Assembly of the People in 69 BC, at the age of 30, as stipulated in the Roman cursus honorum. He drew the lots and was assigned with a questorship in Hispania Ulterior (a Roman province roughly situated in modern Portugal and southern Spain).
On his return to Rome, Caesar pursued his judicial career until his election as curule aedile in 65 BC. The functions of this office were similar to a present day mayor and included regulation of construction, traffic, commerce and other aspects of Rome's daily life. It was also a dangerous office because it included the organization of the Roman games in the Circus Maximus.
The public funding for this event was limited and, if the aedile wanted to offer the city magnificent games, in order to push forward his political career, this meant heavy expenses to their own purse. Caesar threw spectacular games that included the diversion of the Tiber River for a specific representation in the Circus. He ended the year in glory but in bankruptcy. His debts reached several hundreds gold talents (millions of euros in today's currency) and threatened to be an obstacle for his future career.
His success as aedile was, however, an enormous help for his election as Pontifex Maximus (high priest) in 63 BC, following the death of the previous holder Quintus Caecilius Metellus Pius. This office meant a new house – the Domus Publica (public house) – in the Forum, the responsibility of all Roman religious affairs and the custody of the Vestal virgins under his roof. For Caesar, it also meant a relief of his debts.
Caesar's debut as Pontifex was however marked by a scandal. Following the death of his wife Cornelia, he had married Pompeia, a granddaughter of Sulla. As the wife of the Pontifex and an important matrona, Pompeia was responsible for the organization of the Bona Dea festival in December. These rites were exclusive to women and considered very sacred. However, Publius Clodius Pulcher managed to get in the house disguised as a woman. This was absolute sacrilege and Pompeia received a letter of divorce. Caesar himself admitted that she could be innocent in the plot, but, as he said: "Caesar's wife, like the rest of Caesar's family, must be above suspicion."
Sixty-three BC was an especially difficult year, not only for Caesar, but for the Roman Republic itself. Marcus Tullius Cicero was senior Consul and Caesar had been elected Urban Praetor by the Centuriate Assembly. During his consulship Cicero revealed a conspiracy to overthrow the elected magistrates organized by Lucius Sergius Catilina, a patrician aristocrat frustrated about his own political failure.
The result was the conviction to death of five notable Roman men, Catiline's allies, without a trial. This scandalized democratic Roman society, and Caesar opposed this violent measure with all his strength. His views were eventually defeated in a famous meeting of the Senate, due to Cato the younger's insistence, and the men were executed in the same day. (This was also the day when Caesar saw his affair with Servilia Caepionis exposed to the public eye.) Caesar's opposition led to accusations – never proved – of involvement on the conspiracy.
If Caesar was implicated in the Catiline affair, it did him no lasting damage. In 61 BC, after his praetorship, he served as governor of the province of Hispania Ulterior. This term permitted him to pay part of his debts.
The First Triumvirate and the Gallic War
In 59 BC Caesar was elected senior Consul of the Roman Republic by the Centuriate Assembly. His junior partner was his political enemy Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, a member of the Optimates faction and personal friend of Marcus Porcius Cato. The first act of Bibulus as Consul was to retire from all political activity in order to search the skies for omens. This apparently pious decision was designed to make Caesar's life difficult during his Consulship. Indeed, he needed allies and he found them where none of his enemies expected.
At this time the leading general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey the Great) was fighting in the Senate for farmlands for his veterans, without success. A former Consul, Marcus Licinius Crassus, allegedly the richest man in Rome, was also having problems in obtaining his long-desired military command against the Parthian Empire. Caesar the Consul was in desperate need of Crassus's money and Pompey's influence, so an informal alliance was created. Historians call this union the First Triumvirate (rule by three men). To confirm the alliance, Pompey married Julia Caesaris, Caesar's only daughter. Despite the differences in age and upbringing, this political marriage proved to be a love match.
Following a difficult year as Consul, Caesar was given Proconsul powers to govern Gaul (southern France) and Illyria (the coast of Dalmatia) for five years. He was not content with an idle governorship. Instead, he started the Gallic Wars (58 BC-49 BC) in which the all of Gaul (the rest of France) and parts of Germania were annexed to Rome. Among his legates were his cousins Lucius Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius, Titus Labienus and Quintus Tullius Cicero (Cicero's younger brother).
Caesar waged war against various peoples, defeating the Helvetii (in Switzerland) in 58 BC, the Belgic confederacy and the Nervii in 57 BC and the Veneti in 56 BC. On August 26th 55 BC he attempted an invasion of Britain and, in 52 BC he defeated a union of Gauls led by Vercingetorix at the battle of Alesia. His accounts of these campaigns were recorded in his commentaries De Bello Galico ("On the Gallic Wars").
According to Plutarch, the whole campaign resulted in 800 conquered cities, 300 subdued tribes, one million men sold to slavery and another three million dead in battle fields. Ancient historians are notorious for exaggerating numbers of this kind; Caesar's conquest of Gaul was certainly the greatest military triumph since the campaigns of Alexander the Great.
Despite his successes and the benefits they brought to Rome, Caesar remained unpopular among his peers, especially with the conservative faction, who always suspected him of wanting to become king. In 55 BC, his partners Pompey and Crassus were elected consuls and honored their agreement with Caesar by prolonging his proconsulship for another five years. This was to be the last act of the First Triumvirate.
In 54 BC, Julia Caesaris died in childbirth, leaving both Pompey and Caesar heartbroken. Crassus was killed in 53 BC during his ill-fated campaign in Parthia. Without Crassus or Julia, Pompey began to drift towards the Optimates faction. Still away in Gaul, Caesar tried to secure Pompey's support by offering him one of his nieces in marriage, but Pompey refused. Instead, Pompey married Cornelia Metella, the daughter of Metellus Scipio, one of Caesar's greatest enemies.
The civil war
In 50 BC, the Senate, led by Pompey, ordered Caesar to return to Rome and disband his army because his term as Proconsul had finished. Moreover, the Senate forbade Caesar to stand for a second consulship in absentia. Caesar knew that he would be prosecuted and politically eliminated if he entered Rome without the immunity enjoyed by a Consul or without the power of his legions. So Caesar refused to act as ordered and crossed the Rubicon river (the frontier with Italy) on January 10, 49 BC and civil war broke out. Historians differ as to what Caesar said upon crossing the Rubicon; the two competing lines are "The die is cast" and "Let the dice fly high!" (a line from the New Comedy poet Menander), the former in Latin (Alea iacta est) and the latter in Greek. This minor controversy is occasionally seen in modern, contemporary literature when an author wishes to underscore his or her superior knowledge by attributing the less popular Menander line to Caesar.
The Optimates, including Metellus Scipio and Cato the younger, fled to the south, not knowing that Caesar had only his Tenth Legion with him. Caesar pursued Pompey to Brundisium, hoping to patch up their deal of ten years before. Pompey eluded him, however, and Caesar made an astonishing 27-day route-march to Spain to defeat Pompey's lieutenants in Spain. He then went back east, to challenge Pompey in Greece where on July 10, 48 BC at Dyrrhacium Caesar barely avoided a catastrophic defeat to Pompey. He decisively defeated Pompey's numerically superior army -- Pompey had nearly twice the number of infantry and considerably more cavalry -- at Pharsalus in an exceedingly short engagement in 48 BC.
Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered by an officer of King Ptolemy XIII. In Rome, Caesar was appointed dictator, with Marcus Antonius as his master of the horse (magister equitum, or chief lieutenant); Caesar resigned this dictatorate after eleven days and was elected to a second term as consul with Publius Servilius Vatia Isauricus as his colleague. He pursued Pompey to Alexandria, where he camped his army and inadvertently got tangled in the Alexandrine civil war between Ptolemy and his sister, wife, and co-regnant queen, the Pharaoh Cleopatra VII. Perhaps as a result of Ptolemy's role in Pompey's murder, Caesar sided with Cleopatra; he is reported to have wept at the sight of Pompey's head, which was offered to him by Ptolemy's chamberlain Pothinus as a gift. In any event, Caesar defeated the Ptolemaic forces and installed Cleopatra as ruler, and began an affair with her which produced his only known natural son, Ptolemy XV Caesar, better known as "Caesarion".
After spending the first months of 47 BC in Egypt, Caesar went to the Middle East, where he annihilated King Pharnaces II of Pontus in the battle of Zela; his victory was so swift and so complete that he commemorated it in his triumph with the words Veni, vidi, vici ("I came, I saw, I conquered"). Thence, he proceeded to Africa to deal with the remnants of Pompey's senatorial supporters. He quickly gained a significant victory at Thapsus in 46 BC over the forces of Metellus Scipio (who was killed in battle) and Cato the Younger (who committed suicide). Nevertheless, Pompey's sons Gnaeus Pompeius and Sextus Pompeius, together with Titus Labienus, Caesar's former propraetorian legate (legatus propraetore) and second in command in the Gallic War, escaped to Spain. Caesar gave chase and defeated the last remnants of opposition at Munda in a fiercely contested battle in March 45 BC. During this time, Caesar was elected to his third and fourth terms as consul in 46 BC (with Marcus Aemilius Lepidus) and 45 BC (without colleague).
Immediately after his return from the East (and before his departure for Spain), Caesar began extensive reforms of Roman society and government. He tightly regulated the purchase of State-subsidized grain and forbade those who could afford privately supplied grain from purchasing from the grain dole. He extended the Roman citizenship to all communities in Gallia Cisalpina, thus enfranchising the remainder of the Italian peninsula. He made plans for the distribution of land to his veterans and for the establishment of veteran colonies throughout the Roman world. In one of his most wide-ranging reforms, Caesar ordered a complete overhaul of the Roman calendar, establishing a 365-day year with a leap year every fourth year (this Julian calendar was subsequently modified by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582 into the modern calendar); as a result of this reform, the year 46 BC was in fact 445 days long to bring the calendar into line.
Caesar returned to Rome, where he began to receive increasingly grandiose honors from the Senate (Plutarch even records that he at one point informed the Senate that he felt his honors were more in need of reduction than augmentation, but withdrew this position so as not to appear ungrateful). He was given the title Pater Patriae ("Father of the Fatherland") and authorized to dress in triumphal regalia at all times. He was appointed dictator a third time, and then nominated for nine consecutive one-year terms as dictator, effectually making him dictator for ten years; he was also given censorial authority as prefect of morals (praefectus morum) for three years.
In 44 BC, Caesar became consul a fifth time with Marcus Antonius as his colleague; he was soon appointed perpetual dictator (dictator perpetuus) and began wearing the knee-high red boots of the kings of Alba Longa, from whom the Julii Caesares were descended. In February 44 BC, Antonius, having just been appointed as flamen to Caesar, publicly offered him a diadem, a white linen strip worn on the forehead which was the Hellenic symbol of monarchy; Caesar refused the diadem, but to this day there remains scholarly dispute about whether or not Caesar intended to make himself King of Rome.
The Roman Senate traditionally met in the Curia Hostilia, but it had been destroyed by fire years before. As a result, Caesar summoned the Senate to meet in the Theatrum Pompeium (built by Pompey) on the Ides of March (March 15) 44 BC. As the Senate convened, Caesar was attacked and stabbed to death by a group of senators who called themselves the Liberators (Liberatores); the Liberators justified their action on the grounds that they were preserving the Republic from Caesar's alleged monarchical ambitions. Among the assassins were Gaius Trebonius, Decimus Junius Brutus, Marcus Junius Brutus, and Gaius Cassius Longinus; Caesar had personally pardoned most of his murderers or personally advanced their careers (Decimus Brutus was a distant cousin of Caesar and named as one of his testamentary heirs). Caesar sustained 23 stab wounds, which ranged from superficial to mortal, and fell at the feet of a statue of Pompey. His last words have been various reported as:
Kai su, teknon? (Gr., "And you, son?")
Tu quoque, Brute, fili mi! (Lat., "You too, Brutus, my son!")
Et tu, Brute? (Lat., "And you, Brutus?")
Caesar's violent death caused considerable unrest in Rome. A series of civil wars broke out, the first of which between Decimus Brutus and Antonius resulted in the creation of the Second Triumvirate of Caesar's distant cousin Antonius, his lieutenant Lepidus, and Caesar's grand nephew Gaius Octavius (posthumously adopted by Caesar as "Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus"). This Triumvirate deified Caesar as divus iulius and - seeing that Caesar's clemency had resulted in his murder - proscribed its enemies and conducted a second civil war against Brutus and Cassius, whom Antonius and Octavianus defeated at Philippi. A third civil war then broke out between Octavianus on one hand and Antonius and Cleopatra on the other. This final civil war, culminating in Antonius's and Cleopatra's defeat at Actium, resulted in the ascendancy of Octavianus, who became the first Roman emperor, under the name Caesar Augustus. In 42 BC, Caesar was formally deified as "the Divine Julius" (Divus Iulius), and Caesar Augustus henceforth became Divi filius ("son of god").
The literary Caesar
Caesar was considered during his lifetime to be one of the finest orators and authors of prose in Rome; even Cicero spoke highly of Caesar's rhetoric and style; among his most famous works were his funeral oration for his paternal aunt Julia (Marius's widow) and his Anticato, a document written to blacken Cato's reputation and respond to Cicero's Cato memorial. Unfortunately, the majority of his works and speeches have been lost. The most famous of his surviving works are:
The Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War), campaigns in Gallia and Britannia during his term as proconsul; and
The Commentarii de Bello Civilo (Commentaries on the Civil War) , events of the Civil War until immediately after Pompey's death in Egypt.
Other works historically attributed to Caesar, but whose authorship is doubted, are:
De Bello Hispaniensis (On the Hispanic War) , campaigns in modern Spain;
De Bello Africo (On the African War) , campaigns in North Africa; and
De Bello Alexandrino (On the Alexandrine War) , campaign in Alexandria.
These narratives, apparently simple and direct in style -- to the point that Caesar's Commentarii are commonly studied by first and second year Latin students -- , are in fact highly sophisticated advertisements for his political agenda, most particularly for the middle-brow readership of minor aristocrats in Rome, Italy, and the provinces.
The military Caesar
Historians place Caesar's generalship on the level of such geniuses as Alexander the Great and Napoléon Bonaparte. Although he suffered occasional tactical defeats such as Gergovia during the Gallic War and Dyrrhachium during the Civil War, Caesar's tactical brilliance was highlighted by such feats as his circumvallation of Alesia during the Gallic War, the rout of Pompey's numerically superior forces at Pharsalus during the Civil War, and the complete destruction of Pharnaces's army at Zela.
Caesar's successful campaigning in any terrain and under all weather conditions owes much to the strict but fair discipline of his legionaries, whose admiration and devotion to him was proverbial. Caesar's infantry and cavalry was first rate, and he made heavy use of formidable Roman artillery; additional factors which made him so effective in the field were his army's superlative engineering abilities and the legendary speed with which he maneuvered (Caesar's army sometimes marched as many as 40 Roman miles a day).
Caesar levied several Roman legions and most of them remained strategically important until the 5th century. They were: Legio I Germanica, Legio III Gallica, Legio IV Macedonica, Legio V Alaudae, Legio VI Ferrata, Legio VII Claudia, Legio VIII Augusta, Legio IX Hispana, Legio X Gemina (his favorite legion, which accompanied him in the Rubicon), Legio XI Claudia, Legio XII Fulminata and Legio XIII Gemina.
Roman battles fought by Caesar:
58 BC -
June - Battle of the Arar (Saone): Caesar engages and defeats the Helvetii
July - Battle of Bibracte: Caesar engages and defeats the Helvetii
57 BC -
Battle of the Axona (Aisne): Caesar engages and defeats the Belgae
Battle of the Sabis (Sambre) - Caesar defeats the Nervii.
52 BC -
Battle of Alesia: Caesar lays siege to Alesia and is simultaneously lain under siege by the Gallic leader Vercingetorix; Caesar defeats Vercingetorix
48 BC -
July 10 - Battle of Dyrrhachium: Caesar lays siege to Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus at Dyrrhachium and withdraws before his forces can be decisively beaten
August 9 - Battle of Pharsalus: Caesar engages and defeats Pompey
47 BC -
February - Battle of the Nile: Caesar engages and defeats King Ptolemy XIII of Alexandria and Egypt
May - Battle of Zela: Caesar engages and defeats King Pharnaces II of Pontus
46 BC, February - Battle of Thapsus: defeats the Pompeian army of Metellus Scipio in North Africa.
45 BC March 17 - Battle of Munda: defeats the Pompeian forces of Titus Labienus and Gnaeus Pompeius
Using the Latin alphabet as it existed in Caesar's day (i.e., without lower case letters, "J", or "U"), Caesar's name is properly rendered "GAIVS IVLIVS CAESAR" (the form "CAIVS" is also attested and is interchangeable with the more common "GAIVS"). It is often seen abbreviated to "C. IVLIVS CAESAR". (The letterform "Ć" is a ligature, which is often encountered in Latin inscriptions where it was used to save space, and is nothing more than the letters "ae".) In classical Latin, it is pronounced "GUY-us YOOL-yuhs KUY-sahr", where "guy" and "kuy" are pronounced as the English "sky". In Ecclesiastical Latin, the familiar part "Caesar" is pronounced "CHAY-zahr".
Roman nomenclature is somewhat different from the modern English form. "Gaius", Iulius, and Caesar are Caesar's praenomen (given name), nomen (surname), and cognomen (familial nickname), respectively. In modern usage, his full surname would be "Iulius Caesar". The cognomen "Caesar" means "hairy" and indicates that this branch of the family was conspicuous for having fine heads of hair (hence Caesar's later sensitivity about his ironically thinning hair). His grand-nephew, Gaius Octavius duly took Caesar's name as "Gaius Iulius Caesar Octavianus" upon his posthumous adoption in 44 BC, and the name became fused with the imperial dignity; in this sense it is preserved in the German and Russian words Kaiser and czar, both of which refer to an emperor.
An alternative derivation for the name "Caesar" is that it is comes from the Latin phrase a matre caeso (meaning "cut out of his mother"), which refers to the popular story that Caesar was born by Caesarean section. This story is probably untrue, as the name "Caesar" had already been in the family for generations before the famous Caesar's birth, without even considering the medical likelihood of a successful Caesarean section having been performed in 100 BC.
Other derivations suggest that the root of the name may not be of Latin origin; the Rosetta Stone contains a hieroglyphic cartouche transcribed as "k-e-s-r-s" and supposed to be related to the Latin sense. Another suggested foreign derivation is the Persian Kasrá (pl. Akásirah), the title of four great dynasties of Persian kings, via Ahasuerus (i.e., Khshayarsha, better known as Xerxes I, the grandson of Cyrus the Great); eventual relationship between kisri and kasrá is seen as less meaningful, mostly referred to later times (Sassanides).
Caesar's marriages and offspring
First marriage to Cornelia Cinnilla
Julia Caesaris, married to Pompey
a stillborn son, unnamed
Second marriage to Pompeia
Third marriage to Calpurnia Pisonis
Affair with Cleopatra VII
Ptolomy XV Caesar (Caesarion), Egyptian pharaoh
Posthumously adopted son, Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, Roman emperor
July 13, 100 BC – Birth in Rome
82 BC – Escapes the Sullan persecutions
81/79 BC – Military service in Asia and Cilicia
70s – Career as an advocate
69 BC – Quaestor in Hispania Ulterior
65 BC – Curule aedile
63 BC – Elected pontifex maximus and praetor urbanus; the Catilinarian conspiracy
59 BC – First consulship; beginning of the First Triumvirate
54 BC – Death of Julia
53 BC – Death of Crassus: end of the First Triumvirate
52 BC – Battle of Alesia
50 BC – Crossing of the Rubicon, the civil war starts
48 BC – Defeats Pompey in Greece; made dictator; second time consul
47 BC – Campaign in Egypt; meets Cleopatra VII
46 BC – Defeats Cato and Metellus Scipio in northern Africa; third time consul
45 BC –
Defeats the last opposition in Hispania
Returns to Rome; fourth time consul
44 BC –
appointed perpetual dictator
February, Refuses the diadem offered by Antony
March 15, Assassinated