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Greatest of all Romans, Julius Caesar bestrode the world like a colossus

Posted in Ancient History, Famous battles, Famous crimes, Famous Last Words, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about Ancient Rome originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Ides of March, picture, image, illustration

‘The Ideas of March’ by Sir Edward John Poynter, depicts  Calpurnia trying to persuade Caesar not to go to the Senate

‘This young man,’ said the Roman dictator Sulla, ‘hides the soul of a Marius.’

Marius was Sulla’s great and deadly political rival, one of the most powerful men in the Roman republic in the last century before the birth of Christ.

The tousled-haired young man of whom Sulla spoke did indeed hide the soul of a Marius. But he hid much more than that. For although the daggers of assassins were to bring the career of Gaius Julius Caesar to an untimely end, he stands as one of the few men who, single-handed, changed the history of the world.

Arguably the greatest soldier of all time, a scholar and writer of distinction, and an orator and statesman of wonderful insight, Caesar, born in the year 100 B.C., was the greatest of all the Romans.

His parents were wealthy patricians, but there was nothing aloof about young Caesar. He had a ready smile and wore his clothes carelessly. Who would not have laughed to scorn the suggestion that this relaxed and affable youth would some day be the conqueror of the world and the most powerful man in Rome?

During the civil wars between Marius, of the popular or plebeian party, and Sulla, of the aristocratic or patrician party, Caesar had to hurry into exile. This was because Sulla, during the period of his dictatorship, was brutally executing all who had supported his rival Marius.

When he returned to Rome at Sulla’s death, Caesar concealed a shrewd purpose under that smiling exterior. He had seen in exile how vast the Roman dominions had grown, and yet how corrupt was the rule of the republic in Rome. In that rule the distribution of wealth was fearfully unequal, and capital and pauperism faced each other menacingly. There was only one way to put that right, Caesar decided, and that was by the iron rule of one man.

And that one man was himself.

During his period of struggle, every aspiring ruler needs loyal friends. Caesar chose two of the most powerful in Rome, the wealthy Crassus and the popular general Pompey the Great. Crassus was the commander whose army defeated Spartacus the gladiator, and Pompey was a soldier who thought that the Senate had not treated him well enough for all his victories. Like Caesar, both men were thoroughly discontented with the way things were going in Rome.

In the year 61 B.C. against formidable opposition from the wealthy aristocrats, Caesar was elected consul. At once he proposed a sweeping land reform which would give land to the poor. Angrily, the Senate revolted against him. Then Caesar turned to his two powerful military friends and addressing the Senate in cool, detached terms, made it clear that if persuasion failed it would be replaced by force.

Suddenly, all opposition to him vanished. And Caesar’s eyes glinted with satisfaction at his first real taste of power.

The rule of Caesar, Pompey and Crassus was called the triumvirate (three men). Against them the Senate was powerless, for they represented between them all the great factions in Rome. They divided the responsibilities of government between them, with Pompey staying in Rome, Crassus leading an attack on the Parthians in Asia Minor and Caesar, his year as consul over, taking on the governorship of Roman Gaul (modern France).

In Gaul, Caesar showed his brilliance as a soldier. He drove out the Helvetii tribesmen who were ‘squatting’ there and then subdued all that part of Gaul that was unconquered. Twice, in 55 B.C. and 54 B.C., he led his army across the hostile waters of the English Channel to the land he called Britannia (modern England).

The reasons for Caesar’s success were clearly apparent. He worked with his soldiers, fought alongside them, and endured all their hardships. Once he quelled a mutiny by telling the legions that he would march into unknown dangers alone and without them.

Always at the head of the legions, bareheaded, Caesar marched in all weathers sometimes for dozens of miles a day. If a stream or river was difficult to cross, he swam it with his men. Sometimes he would retire to the litter that was carried for him on the march, where he wrote his journal and other books in a simple but highly literate style.

Caesar’s journal, which he called ‘Commentaries on the Gallic Wars’ is today one of the great classics of world literature. It is one of the first historical books that Latin students read.

When battle was joined, as with the Gaulish rebel Vercingitorix, whom Caesar skilfully defeated, his tactics were cautious, but punctuated occasionally by bursts of what seem daring manoeuvres. Caesar allowed his soldiers all kinds of luxuries, for, he reasoned, they fought better if life, was made worth living.

While Caesar was campaigning in Gaul, his friend Crassus died. In Rome, the other member of the triumvirate, Pompey, was becoming jealous of the popularity that Caesar was getting for his victories, and he decided to join with the Senate against Caesar. Now, suddenly, Caesar was on his own.

‘Come back to Rome at once,’ Pompey ordered him curtly. ‘And disband your army before you enter the city.’

Caesar knew what this would mean – the end of his political career.

‘I will come back,’ he replied. ‘With my army and ready to fight.’ So saying, he led his soldiers across the little River Rubicon in northern Italy, which was the boundary between Gaul and Italy, and marched upon Rome.

From this dramatic and hostile action, which amounted to a declaration of war against the Senate, we have gained the expression ‘crossing the Rubicon,’ which means taking an action which cannot be undone.

The sound of tramping feet proved too much for the arrogant Pompey. Terrified, he fled to Illyria, where he thought he could organise resistance to Caesar.

Pompey had many supporters among the Roman legions in Spain and Caesar decided to deal with them first, before giving chase. Again he won the day and again even his critics praised him for his generous treatment of his enemies when he defeated them.

Then Caesar went to Pharsalus, in Greece, where he met an army that Pompey had raised. Here he won a great victory, but Pompey escaped.

The vanquished general sailed to Egypt for there, he was sure, Ptolemy, the ruler of that land, would give him shelter. But Ptolemy feared the new, all-powerful man in Rome. As Pompey came ashore an Egyptian assassin, ‘planted’ in the royal welcoming party, stepped forward and stabbed him to death.

It says much for Caesar’s humanitarianism that when he heard about this barbaric act, even to his enemy, he was so angry that he deposed Ptolemy from the throne and proclaimed the King’s sister, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt.

There were more of Pompey’s supporters at Munda, in modern Asia Minor, and at Thapsus, in North Africa, and Caesar went to these places to defeat them. It was after his easy victory in Asia Minor that he sent his famous message to the Senate in Rome: ‘Veni, vidi, vici’ (‘I came, I saw, I conquered’.)

Caesar returned to Rome as the undisputed master of the Roman world. More reverenced than a god, he was proclaimed dictator (‘Imperator’) for life. He knew too well how much the Romans hated the title of king, so he did not take the crown he would perhaps have liked. But he had achieved his ambition – to rule Rome single-handed.

What was he like at the zenith of his power, this man who perhaps is the best remembered figure in history after Our Lord? He was tall for a Roman and well built. His black eyes seemed to penetrate whatever they alighted upon. His hair was already thinning, revealing a dome-shaped head.

On his pale, gaunt and strained face were etched the hardships of the long campaign in Gaul and the responsibilities of the civil war against Pompey. In middle age Caesar was showing his years.

But if we could turn back the clock of history through twenty centuries and meet him, undoubtedly we would be awe-struck by his commanding presence, for Caesar’s personal magnetism inspired men at once to admiration and fear. Although he never took a king’s throne, Romans instinctively adopted the etiquette of courtiers when they were in his presence.

And how the ordinary Romans loved him. ‘Caesar,’ they told each other, ‘is sacred!’ As a political reformer, he seemed like one of them. To all the people of Gaul he gave the rights of Roman citizens. He sent Romans abroad to colonize and spread their civilisation and gave them land of their own to cultivate. Typically, he allowed all Pompey’s supporters to return to Rome.

In Rome, Caesar started the project to drain the Pontine Marshes – 25 miles of malarious waste in western Italy – and reformed the calendar, which was called after him the ‘Julian’ calendar. The new system divided the year into months, which are substantially the same as those we use today, and gave the name of Julius (July) to one of them.

Caesar’s great interest in the well-being of the Romans was his ultimate undoing. As always, there were reactionaries who were opposed to reforms, who saw only mischief in alleviating the misery of the poor and improving the lot of ordinary folk.

Some of them, claiming that the dictatorship would cripple Rome, formed a conspiracy. They were, in the main, men whom Caesar had befriended, like Marcus Junius Brutus, a Roman of stern virtue.

On March 15 – called by the Romans the ‘Ides of March’ – in the year 44 B.C., the Senate was to hold a meeting. And on that day the conspirators decided that Caesar had to die.

A soothsayer warned the dictator to ‘beware the Ides of March’ and his wife Calpurnia, fearing some ill would befall him, begged him to stay at home that day. But the conspirators persuaded him to attend the Senate meeting.

In one of the great key scenes of history, as soon as Caesar entered the Senate chamber was surrounded by the conspirators, who pretended to present him with a petition. At a signal they drew their daggers from beneath the folds of their togas (cloaks) and stabbed viciously at him.

At first Caesar tried to defend himself, but when he saw that no one came to help him, he gave up the struggle and fell under the fury of blows. Tradition says that when he saw his friend Brutus among the conspirators he gasped. ‘Et tu, Brute?’ (You, too Brutus?) and fell dead from his wounds at the foot of Pompey’s statue.

‘Caesar was killed because his rule became tyrannical!’ shouted his enemies, but the eye of envy distorts most vision and the truth was that Rome was prematurely deprived of her greatest son, a man who might have written’ even more glorious chapters in her history.

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