Julius Caesar

          As Greek thinkers like Thucydides, Aristotle, and Polybius knew (and I’m sure you history majors know), political chaos almost always results in the the rule of one strong man, either as a monarch or a dictator.  By the 50's BC, the Romans had suffered through 80 years of sporadic civil war, and it looked like even worse was to come.  To many, many Romans, the rule of one man began to look appealing–provided only that that man could end the turmoil of Rome’s civil wars.  To many Romans (including to Caesar himself) that man seemed to be Gaius Julius Caesar, the most capable, most versatile, and most controversial man Rome ever produced.  On the other hand, there were Romans who dreamed of a return to true Republican government, and to many of these (including to Caesar himself) that man seemed to be Gaius Julius Caesar, the most capable, most versatile, and most controversial man that Rome ever produced.  And on the other hand, there were those who feared that an overly-ambitious man unchecked would plunge Rome into chaos once again and perhaps destroy forever the Roman Republic.  And there were many who thought that that man was Gaius Julius Caesar, the most capable, most versatile, and most controversial man Rome ever produced.

          Was Caesar the man who almost saved the Republic, only to have his life cut short by assassination?  Was Caesar the man who could have averted a decade of chaos for Rome had only his life not been cut short by his assassination?  Or was Caesar the man who would have destroyed utterly Republican government had not his life been cut short by his assassination?  And is there somehow a lesson in all this to those who love American democracy?

          For the answer to these, and other important questions, well...just join us as we return for the next installment of the all-time greatest reality show, let’s destroy the Roman Republic.  Yes, we’re back: with more exciting adventure, even bigger prizes, and the return of many of your all time favorite contestants.

          In our last episode, it at first seemed like we would have three big winners: Crassus, Pompey and Caesar.  In 59 BC, the informal arrangement of these three men known as the First Triumvirate secured for each some very valuable prizes. And then, the renewal of the triumvirate in 56 BC won them even more valuable prizes: Crassus and Pompey consulships in 55 and military commands to follow, Caesar, a continuation of his proconsulship in Gaul.  Minor prizes for our sentimental favorite Cicero as the great orator is recalled to Rome–perhaps to secure more happy dates for the Roman state.  But happy dates were not to be....

          Pompey lost Julia in childbirth, and Crassus lost his life against the Parthians.  And things begin to fall apart in Rome.  So bad, Romans can’t even elect a consul in 54 BC and part of 53 BC!  As it’s time to choose the 52 BC consuls,  Thugs alligned with Clodius and Milo are fighting in the streets; Milo’s thugs kill Clodius, and the senate declares a state of emergency.  They call on Pompey to be sole consul...and now, once again, he seems like our grand prize winner.  He restores order in Rome, and earns the distinction every Roman senator hoped for: princeps senatus, the first man of the Roman senate.  His new marriage (into the Metelli family) secured him the support of the optimate faction.  He could count on Cicero’s support as well.  Not bad....

          But what of Caesar, the man in whom Sulla said there were many Marii?  Surely he shouldn’t be counted out of the game...not just yet.

          Caesar perhaps not as strongly positioned as Pompey, but he had many things going for him:

A.  Gifted speaker (Cicero admired him–second greatest in Rome, though different in style).  Won legal cases... perhaps an important ability. Won some impressive court cases–secured himself loyalty of some provincials by winning cases for them against corrupt officials.

B.  Gifted writer (Gallic Wars–published–Civil Wars–left unfinished: Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres: simple style...deceptively simple.  Seems like report of facts...talks about himself in 3rd person: tremendous ability to justify himself. Civil War–seems to be talking about what a great defender of Republic he is...quits writing, probably when he realizes he has Roman government in his clutches and doesn’t need to pretend to be a defender of the Republic–or, maybe, because of Cleopatra..of whom more later.)

C.  Great general
1.  Victories in Spain as propraetor
2.  Victories in Gaul...very impressive
3.  Very disciplined in military matters
Moved very quickly
5.   Displayed great personal courage–and was able to rally defeated troops to come back and win

D.  Some real supporters in the senate and among the tribunes who would defend his interests as sometimes great personal risk.

E.  Lots of indifferent senators who didn’t really care what happened so long as their own property was untouched

F.  Lots of troops in Gaul, extremely loyal to Caesar personally and with high personal stake in Caesar’s success.

G.  Anything but risk averse.  During time of Sulla, married to a daughter of Cinna whom he refused to divorce.  Gave speech in honor of his aunt Julia (wife of Marius) at her death–and brought out images of Marius.  Very risky!  Life was endangered, not only from Sulla, but when he was captured (captured by pirates is good).  Well...sometimes, perhaps.  Willing to take financial risks as well.  Spent an enormous sum of money campaigning for office, and (if he doesn’t get office) it’s all gone.  His whole fortune!

H.  Knew how to make himself popular.  Gladitorial games 320 pairs of gladiators...lavish shows.

I.  And, as if this weren’t enough, Caesar had bought himself plenty of friends in Rome.  Appropriating the spoils from his Gallic conquests gave Caesar the resources to relieve the Tribune Curio of his thousands of talents in debt.   He gave lavish gifts to others as well.

          But Caesar had some problems too.  His conduct as consul in 59 BC had been filled with illegalities, and his political enemies had good grounds for bringing accusations against him. He was certainly guilty of appropriating for himself the fruits of his Gallic victories which, arguably, belonged to the people as a whole.  And, on top of that, there was even the possibility of being prosecuted for war crimes.  One defeated contingent: he cut of both hands of every captured soldier.  At other times, he was guilty of what amounts to genocide.  More than a million Gauls were killed during his invasion, and another million sold into slavery.  He wiped out 60% of the Helvitii.

          His imperium as consul and proconsul protected him from prosecution, but any interval out of office was potentially a disaster.  That’s why his negotiations with Pompey and Crassus made sure they would pass laws enabling him to run for consul in abstentia and forbidding anyone from replacing him in Gaul.

          But as then end of Caesar’s proconsulship drew near, Caesar was concerned about the actual details of his new office, and there were those in the senate maneuvering against him.  Pompey tried a campaign reform proposal, specifying a gap of five years between one’s magistracy and a proconsulship or propraetorship.  This may or may not have been aimed at Caesar: clearly designed to stop out-of-control spending by those who hoped to get money back by pillaging a province or two.  Pompey was hesitant to break his alliance with Caesar, but worried about him too..

          As things turned out, Caesar’s opponents began taking action against him; his supporters, at some risk, vetoing these bills.  Maybe a compromise?  Pompey and Caesar could both set aside their troops?  Cicero tried negotiating as well.  No luck.  Caesar got permission to run for consul in abstentia, but his request to retain his proconsular authority until the election was turned down.  Caesar gathered his forces at the Rubicon river...hesitated...and crossed.  49 BC.  The die is cast.

          Caesar, as always moving swiftly, approached Rome before Pompey could be ready.  Pompey and other senators headed to Brundisium and got on board ship for Greece where Pompey could count on raising sufficient force to confront Caesar.  Caesar took over in Rome...made himself dictator.  To get the funds he needed, he raided the Roman treasury. To a tribune who tried to stop him he said, “If what   I have done displeases you; leave the place.  War allows no free talking.  When I have laid down my arms, and made peace, come back and make what speeches you please.”

          Caesar followed after Pompey in 48 BC.  He Suffered an initial defeat at Dyrrhachium, and it could have been catastrophic.  Caesar said, “the battle was won for the other side if they had a general who knew how to win it.”  But perhaps Pompey's real problem was a reluctance to throw Roman soldier at Roman soldiers–a reluctance Caesar himself maybe didn’t have.  In any case, Caesar regroups and wins at Pharsalus.  Pompey flees to Egypt, but is betrayed there by Ptolemy XIII who was trying to win favor with Caesar so that Caesar would side with him against his beautiful wife and sister, the 24-year-old Cleopatra in their dynastic dispute.   Caesar, for some reason, sides with Cleopatra: putting her securely on the throne of Egypt.  And, also, providing her with an heir, their son Caesarion.  Meanwhile Caesar has to move quickly to secure the eastern provinces of the empire.  He wins a quick victory at Zela (veni, vidi, vici), and heads back for Rome.

          Victory not totally secure.  He has to defeat King Juba and Cato in N. Africa at Thapsus (47) and some of the remaining Pompeians at Munda (45 BC).  Cato committed suicide at the former, and one of Pompey’s sons dies in the latter.

          But, meanwhile, back at the ranch, Caesar has got a task for himself at Rome.  Princeps is not quite enough of a kick, I guess, so Caesar needs more.  Consul in 48.  Consul again and Dictator for one year in 47.  Consul again and Dictator for 10 years in 46.  Consul again and Dictator for life in 45.  He gets the powers of a censor.  Tribunician power. Four triumphs.  Imperator.  What more can you be.... King??? Well, that’s what people usually focus on.  But Caesar wanted something more.  His image put alongside that of Romulus in temple of Quirinius.  A temple is built to his clemency and a priest installed to guide the worship.

          And then...well there are his achievements:

1.  Of the million in Rome, 320,000 receiving free corn.  This cut to 150,000 remainder sent to colonies (80,000).   Also trying to get Rome less congested.

2.  Required landowners to hire free herdsman, not slaves.

3.  Public works (draining marshes, canal through Corinth isthmus, buildings)

4.  Debtors and creditors mediated: some debts to be paid, others forgiven.

5.  Regularized local govt.

6.  Established overseas colonies.

7.  Extended citizenship to Cisalpine Gaul and to others who had served Rome.

8.  Tax relief for distressed provinces.

9.  Raised army pay

10.  Sosigenes (Julian) calendar

11.  Public library

          Very impressive!

          How does one evaluate a man like this?  Some, evaluate him very favorably.  They point to Caesar’s clemency, a point Caesar himself emphasized.  Caesar claimed he would have spared Pompey and Cato.  And he was merciful to Cicero and to Pompeians like Brutus and Cassius, raising them to high office.

          He knew how to handle subordinates.  Antony (his magister equituum) replaced by Lepidus when Antony got out of hand.  He quelled an army mutiny by addressing his soldier as “citizens.”

          Experienced.  Great diplomat.  Great speaker.  Great writer.  And, from some points of view, a great lover as well.  Soldiers: Caesar’s in town: look to your wives.  Many, many affairs in addition to the famous one with Cleopatra.  Personal life affects public life, and, if we knew just a bit more about Caesar’s personal life, we might get an extra insight or two into his character.  One clue: Caesar could handle all sorts of insults–but one.  As a young man, he had had to flee for refuge to Nicomedes king of Bithynia, and it was widely rumored that Nicomedes had taken advantage of the good looking young man.  Bibulus called Caesar the “Queen of Bithynia”–and it’s very likely that something strange was going on.... There is little so devastating to a young man’s image of his own masculinity than to be sexually assaulted, and perhaps what we see in Caesar is a never-attending attempt to prove that he really is a man.

          Well, his supporters thought he was.  Antony calls him (in Shakespeare’s version) “the noblest man that ever lived in the tide of times.”  And maybe that’s the trouble.  “You’re the man” says Antony.  The man.  The only man.

          For the senatorial class, Caesar was an enormous problem, as Shakespeare shows so well.

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that 'Caesar'?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?
Write them together, yours is as fair a name;
Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;
Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with 'em,
Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.
Now, in the names of all the gods at once,
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed,
That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!
Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!
When went there by an age, since the great flood,
But it was famed with more than with one man?
When could they say till now, that talk'd of Rome,
That her wide walls encompass'd but one man?
Now is it Rome indeed and room enough,
When there is in it but one only man. O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brook'd
The eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.

          All this was too much for many of the senators to but up with. Sixty of so (a small portion of the senate really) conspire, so for patriotic reasons, others perhaps for other reasons.  Caesar seemed to be about to make himself directly a king (Antony presenting him 3 times with a crown that Caesar refused), but it was obviously just a matter of time.  So conspiracy is joined.

          Plutarch (Shakespeare’s source) shows Caesar ignoring warnings: dreams, portents, etc.  He says there was even a letter warning of the conspiracy pressed into Caesar’s hand that Caesar didn’t take time to read.  Coward’s die many times before there deaths, the valiant merely taste of death but once.

          Trebonius delays Antony.  Casca strikes first blow.  All strike.  Caesar defends himself.  Brutus strikes.  Et tu Brute? 
Then fall, Caesar.

          The assassins ran through the streets crying, "Liberty! Freedom!  Tyranny is dead!"

          But they were wrong.  It was the Republic that was dead.

          And if the senators had been honest with themselves, they might have acknowledged the truth of Cassius line “The Fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars but in ourselves.”