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.
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?
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....
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.
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
D. Some real supporters in the senate and
among the tribunes who would defend his interests as sometimes
great personal risk.
2. Victories in
3. Very disciplined
in military matters
4. Moved very quickly
5. Displayed great personal courage–and was able to
rally defeated troops to come back and win
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.
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.
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..
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
4. Debtors and creditors mediated: some debts to be paid,
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
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.
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.
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
There was a Brutus once that would have brook'd
The eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king.
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.
(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.
delays Antony. Casca strikes first blow. All
strike. Caesar defends himself. Brutus strikes.
Et tu Brute?
Then fall, Caesar.
assassins ran through the streets crying, "Liberty! Freedom!
Tyranny is dead!"
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.”