First Roman emperor; b. 12/13 July 100 BC ? (Rome, Italy), d. 15 March 44 BC (Rome).
Julius Caesar belonged to one of the original aristocratic families of ancient Rome. For someone aiming at political office this was not necessarily an advantage at Caesar's time, because his relations - the Julii - were no longer wealthy enough to easily find the substantial financial resources required for a political career.
The Roman empire was in turmoil at the time. Its political fate was mainly determined by bribery and conspiracy in the Senate. The tribunes of the plebs, who in theory had to look after the interests of the common people, were bought off by the nobility, who was only interested in gaining access to the loot that could be obtained from the provinces.
At the age of about 16 Caesar associated himself with one side of the competition for office and spoils by marrying the daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, an enemy of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, who was engaged in the east of the empire at the time. When Sulla returned he ordered Caesar to divorce his wife. Caesar refused and decided to absent himself from the capital by joining the army and serving in the provinces.
After Sulla's death in 78 Caesar returned to Rome and entered his political career. By 59 he had made his way up to consul, which usually came with a lucrative provincial governorship. However, a hostile Senate had already decided to give him the rather unprofitable supervision of Italian forests and cattle runs. Caesar's answer was the organization of a surprising alliance of political forces, the triumvirate.
The triumvirate brought together Caesar, Sulla's general Pompey and the millionaire Marcus Licinius Crassus of the anti-Sulla faction. Crassus supplied the finance, Caesar pushed a bill through the Senate that allocated public land to Pompey's troops, and Caesar received the governorship of Gaul for a five year tenure.
Caesar used the five years to recruit troops, to extend his province to the Rhine river in the north and to conquer Normandy and Brittany in today's France. He had to finance some of his campaigns with loans, which he could easily repay with profit from the loot.
Caesar's successes placed great strain on the triumvirate. To accommodate Pompey's envy a meeting in 56 agreed that a law should go through the Senate to give Caesar another five years of rule over Gaul, Pompey five years over Spain and Crassus five years over Syria. The law passed without difficulty, helped by some of Crassus' money, but the outcome was not quite what had been planned. Crassus did not enjoy his share - his army was destroyed by the Parthians - and a powerful faction opposed Caesar's second appointment as governor of Gaul.
In the end the issue was whether there should be a brief interval of civil life between Caesar's first and second appointment. Such interval would have given Caesar's enemies an opportunity to open legal proceedings against him. Caesar decided that preventative action was appropriate. In January 49 he took his troops across the river Rubicon, the border between his province and the Italian homeland, and started a civil war that lasted five years.
Caesar's aim was not control of Rome, it was control of the empire. He chased Rome's army - which was under the command of Pompey - through Spain, Greece and Asia Minor into Egypt, where Pompey was murdered by an agent of the Egyptian king. In 47 he returned to Rome, only to leave again to crush opponents in northern Africa. In the following year he fought again in Spain. Less than one year after his final return to Rome he was assassinated on the Ides of March (15 March) 44.
Caesar was a military commander of great ability. Technically the Roman army with its slow and clumsy infantry and second-rate cavalry was no match for the agile and determined cavalry of the barbarian tribes. Caesar conquered Gaul by dividing his enemies and applying superior tactics.
Caesar's assassination led to another 13 years of civil war before his great-nephew and adopted son Octavian (Augustus) established himself as his successor. Caesar's brief rule as emperor can therefore be seen as the end of the Roman republic and the beginning of autocratic imperial rule.
The less than 12 months he spent in Rome before his death provide some evidence that as emperor Caesar probably would have reformed the Roman political system in a way that could have stabilized it into a period of peace. He reorganized the calendar to exclude its use for political bribery and blackmail (see Lecture 7). He granted Roman citizenship to some provinces (which freed them from the duty to pay tribute) and embarked on a reform of local government. Before his death he had already returned city status to Capua, Carthage and Corinth, which had lost that status 150 years earlier under the republican government.
Besides his political career Caesar is also known as a writer of some standing. His two major works Commentarii de bello Gallico ("The Gallic War") and Commentarii de bello civili ("The Civil War") are historically valuable accounts of his military campaigns.
Image: Roman bust, Museum of the Vatican; public domain