Show Summary Details

Page of
PRINTED FROM Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. © Oxford University Press, 2017. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single article in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy).

Caesar [Gaius Julius Caesar]free

(100–44 bc)
  • T. P. Wiseman

Caesar (100– bc44)

head

© Copyright The British Museum

Caesar [Gaius Julius Caesar] (100–44 bc), politician, author, and military commander, was born on 13 Quinctilis (July) 100 bc, probably at Rome, the son of Gaius Julius Caesar, a patrician of old but recently undistinguished family whose brother-in-law was Gaius Marius, and Aurelia, probably daughter of Lucius Aurelius Cotta (consul in 119 bc). He had two sisters, married to Quintus Pedius and to Marcus Atius Balbus of Aricia; the latter's grandson, adopted in Caesar's will, became the emperor Augustus.

Nothing is known of Caesar's education. He was twelve when his uncle Marius was driven into exile by Sulla's march on Rome, and thirteen at the time of Marius's vengeful return with Lucius Cornelius Cinna. When he was fifteen, his father died; the following year Caesar broke off his engagement to a girl from a wealthy equestrian family to marry Cinna's daughter Cornelia (d. 69 bc). In 82 bc Sulla returned victorious from the east; by now Marius and Cinna were both dead, and Caesar went into hiding. His relatives successfully pleaded for his life, but the dictator sourly commented 'There are many Mariuses in that boy' (Life of Caesar). Caesar left Rome to serve in Asia Minor, where he was decorated for bravery in the attack on Mytilene. He came back to Rome at the news of Sulla's death, and announced his arrival on the political scene with the prosecution (unsuccessful) of a senior senator for extortion. In 75 bc, sailing to Rhodes to study rhetoric, he was captured by pirates; on payment of the ransom, he raised a squadron to defeat them, and had them crucified.

Caesar's first public office was the elective military tribunate (probably in 72 bc); in 69 he was quaestor, serving in Spain; in 65, curule aedile. It was a period of revived hope for popularis politicians: the Sullan oligarchy had proved itself corrupt, and the people's tribunes had regained the powers of which Sulla had stripped them. Caesar advertised his allegiance by his funeral speech for his aunt Julia, widow of Marius, in 69 bc, and by restoring to public view, as aedile, the Marian trophies Sulla had pulled down. In 63 bc, though still a junior senator, and in competition with two distinguished ex-consuls, he got himself elected to the high office of pontifex maximus. He was thirty-seven, already a formidable politician, and no friend of the conservative ‘establishment’ in the senate.

After a stormy praetorship in 62 bc, Caesar's first military command came with his proconsulship of Further Spain, in campaigns against the Callaeci and Lusitani conducted with characteristic decisiveness and dash. He was granted the right to a triumph, which for most Romans was the height of ambition. Caesar chose to forgo it. He wanted the consulship, and by entering the city to declare his candidacy he had to abandon his military command. His ambitions were not those of ordinary Romans. After the consulship there would be a greater command, one like those the people had conferred on Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey the Great), whose triumph over the pirates and Mithridates, an affair of unprecedented splendour, had taken place in 61 bc.

'Caesar has the wind in his sails just now', wrote Cicero in June 60 bc (Cicero, ad Atticum, ii.1.6). Certainly Caesar's enemies thought so, and did their best to prevent his election as consul, or to commit him in advance to a harmlessly administrative consular command (the forests and drove-roads of Italy). It was in vain: Caesar was elected consul for 59 bc, with the powerful backing of Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus, and, having swiftly neutralized his optimate colleague Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, forced through a programme of land distribution in the teeth of furious conservative opposition.

The people's consul was rewarded with an extraordinary command (like those for Pompey in 67 and 66 bc) passed by a tribune's law in May 59 bc: he was to have Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum (that is, northern Italy and the eastern coast of the Adriatic) for five years; Pompey subsequently got the senate to add Gallia Narbonensis (Provence). So the great campaigns of conquest, to rival Pompey's in Asia, would be either eastward or north-westward (in modern terms, either on the middle Danube or in France and Belgium) according to opportunity. As it turned out, the migration of the Helvetii took Caesar west and north. He left Rome as proconsul on or about 19 March 58 bc. When he next entered it, just over nine years later, it would be as an invader in a civil war.

As consul, Caesar's first act had been to make public the proceedings of the senate. As proconsul, he reported his campaigns to the Roman people in annual ‘commentaries’, which have been recognized ever since as masterpieces of military narrative. First (58 bc), the defeat of the Helvetii, and of Ariovistus's Germans; second (57), the defeat of the Nervii (a very close-run thing) and the conquest of the Belgic peoples; third (56), the conquest of Brittany and Aquitaine. In three years, Caesar had conquered to the ocean and the Rhine; now it was time to go beyond.

Again, Caesar kept his options open. The fourth commentarius, for 55 bc, reports the bridging of the Rhine and the punitive raid into Germany, and after that the preliminary expedition to Britain in late summer. Either of those could be repeated on a larger scale the following year, for his allies Pompey and Crassus were now consuls, and the people duly voted him a five-year extension to his command. Britain was the more glamorous option, an adventure beyond Ocean itself, and public opinion in Rome was excited about the conquest of this people at the very ends of the earth (ultimi Britanni, Catullus, 11.11f).

The show of force in September 55 bc was very nearly a disaster. Caesar's main cavalry force was unable to make the crossing; he had the greatest difficulty in getting his two legions disembarked (near Deal in Kent), against fierce opposition; four days after the landing a violent storm and high tides seriously damaged his transports; and when one of the legions was ambushed, only the last-minute arrival of reinforcements prevented its total defeat. In the end Caesar was glad to be able to get back to Gaul in his patched-up transports before the equinox.

For the main assault the following year Caesar ordered the building of large numbers of new transport ships, low in draught to be beached easily, and able to be worked by oars or sail. In the midsummer of 54 bc he set sail from Portus Itius (Boulogne) with five legions and 2000 cavalry, in an armada of 800 ships. Tides and currents made it an awkward crossing, and oars were needed to get the transports to the landing place, probably not far from the previous year's, though this time undefended. The British forces had withdrawn inland to higher ground; Caesar disembarked, left his ships at anchor, and marched inland the same night. His forces had crossed the Stour and captured a British defensive stronghold, probably Bigbury, when news came that a storm had driven the ships ashore, with great damage. Caesar had to return to the coast, organize repairs, send for replacements from Gaul, and bring the ships on shore behind a defensive fortification. In the meantime the Britons had put Cassivellaunus, the powerful king of the Catuvellauni, in command of their forces.

Resuming his advance through Cantium (Kent), after hard fighting against well-organized British cavalry and charioteers, Caesar forced a crossing of the Thames (possibly at Brentford) and eventually found Cassivellaunus's fortress and stormed it. Meanwhile, an attack on the base camp and Caesar's ships was successfully beaten off. Cassivellaunus asked for terms; Caesar accepted his surrender, demanded hostages and an annual tribute, and took his army back to Gaul.

On his return Caesar was told of the death of his only child, his beloved daughter, Julia, Pompey's wife, in childbirth in her early twenties. (Julia's mother, Caesar's first wife, Cornelia, had also died young; his second wife, Pompeia, was divorced in 62 bc, for not being 'above suspicion'; he then married Calpurnia, who outlived him—it was she who had bad dreams on the night before the ides of March.) He also found dangerous unrest in Gaul, which was why he had come back so quickly. It soon blew up into full-scale rebellion in the Belgic lands, with one Roman winter camp wiped out and another, under Cicero's brother Quintus, only narrowly saved from the same fate. One and a half legions, about 7000 men, were lost in the disaster.

It is not known where or when the fifth book of commentaries was written; Caesar was desperately occupied in the winter of 54–53 bc. But it contains, among other things, the first ever account of the geography and ethnography of Britain: 'The island is triangular in shape, with one side facing Gaul … The second side faces westward, towards Spain' (Caesar, v.12–14). As Caesar's contemporary Catullus confirms (ultima occidentis insula, Catullus, 29.12), the Romans thought of Britain as in the far west, close to Spain. It was a fitting scene for a heroic epic, duly composed by Cicero from material supplied by his brother (Cicero, Ad Q. fratrem, ii.14.2, 16.4, iii.7.6). But now that adventure was over, as Quintus, after his narrow escape, knew better than most.

Caesar spent the next four years reconquering his conquests. The great pan-Gallic rebellion of Vercingetorix in 52 bc came very close to destroying his whole achievement, and him with it. His enemies in Rome took heart: Crassus was dead, Pompey could be seduced to their side as the protector of the republic. They were determined to destroy Caesar, and he was determined not to be destroyed. In January 49 bc he threw the dice in the air and marched into Italy.

With his battle-hardened army of veterans, Caesar fought his civil war against Pompey and the republicans all over the empire of Rome, and beyond: Spain in 49 bc, Thessaly in 48 (defeating Pompey at Pharsalus), Alexandria in 48–7 (where he probably wrote the three books of his De bello civili commentaries), Asia Minor in 47 ('I came, I saw, I conquered'), and above all north Africa in 46, where Marcus Porcius Cato, symbol of the old republic, killed himself after Caesar's victory at Utica. In September 46 bc, by the then calendar, Caesar at last held the great triumph that would outshine Pompey's of fifteen years before. He was now dictator for a ten-year term, with a formidable programme of projects of which the most lasting was the Julian calendar, introduced on 1 January 45 bc. But warfare still preoccupied him: first against Pompey's sons in Spain, won only by a hair's breadth at the battle of Munda (March 45 bc), and then a planned campaign against the Parthians, to avenge Crassus. But by now his autocracy was openly regal, and deeply offensive to the senate. He was careless of his own security, trusting perhaps in the luck that had protected him for so long. The latest of his long line of mistresses was Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, now conspicuously living in Rome; in 44 bc he was made dictator for life; the month of his birth, Quinctilis, was renamed ‘July’; a cult of Caesar, with his own priest (flamen), was instituted. It was too much. On 15 March he was murdered in the Curia Pompei in Rome by republican senators under the leadership of Cato's son-in-law Marcus Junius Brutus.

The body lay where it fell, unworthily fouled with the blood of a man who had forced his way to the west as far as Britain and Ocean, and intended to force his way to the east against the empires of Parthia and India.

Nicolaus of Damascus, 95

So Nicolaus of Damascus, writing about twenty years after the event, sums up the many-sided genius of Caesar in the way he would probably have wanted, as an imperial conqueror.

In 42 bc Caesar was deified. The heir to his name and fortune was his great-nephew Gaius Octavius, whom he adopted in his will as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus and who dedicated the temple of Divus Julius on 18 Sextilis (later ‘August’) 29 bc, immediately after his own triumph over Cleopatra's Egypt. The young Caesar ‘Octavian’ became Caesar Augustus, and thereafter Caesar's name became synonymous with imperial autocracy throughout the history of Europe.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was first performed in 1599 and has always been one of his most frequently performed plays. Shakespeare's source was Plutarch's Lives (written some 150 years after Caesar's death) in the translation by Sir Thomas North of 1579, or its reprint of 1595. Shakespeare's play deals with the final days and assassination of Caesar and shows no interest in his role as Britain's first invader.

Sources

Likenesses

  • coin, 44BC, repro. in A. Alföldi, Antike Kunst, 2 (1959), 27ff.
  • bust, Turin Museum, Turin, Italy
  • bust, Vatican Museum, Vatican City
  • bust, Museo Torlonia, Italy
  • head, BM [see illus.]