Julius Caesar had a profound impact on the Roman Empire, permanently altering the course of the Greco-Roman world. His bravery and power allowed him to establish a formidable empire. To comprehend how he became a powerful ruler of Rome, it is essential to examine his early political career and the formation of the first triumvirate. These events contributed to his ascent and dominance over the other two members. Specific factors influenced Caesar’s decision to seize control, leading him to become Rome’s dictator. As dictator, he implemented significant changes throughout his rule. Understanding the events leading up to his assassination is crucial for comprehending the circumstances surrounding his death, as well as grasping the historical importance of its aftermath. With exceptional strength and effective war strategies, Julius Caesar played a crucial role as both a Roman general and statesman during Rome’s transition from republic to empire under his dictatorship. His youth coincided with one of Rome’s most violent decades.
The city was assaulted twice and captured by Roman armies. The first assault occurred in 87 BC by the populares leaders, Marius and Cinna, who happened to be Caesar’s uncle. Unfortunately, Cinna was killed the same year that Caesar married his daughter Cornelia. The second attack on the city was carried out by Sulla, Marius’ enemy and leader of the optimates, in 82 BC after returning from the East. Both assaults resulted in the massacre of political opponents and the confiscation of their property. The proscriptions of Sulla, which came before the enactment of reactionary political legislation during his dictatorship, left a bitter memory that lasted for a long time.
Caesar left Rome for Asia under the condition of divorcing his wife because Sulla only allowed him to leave under that condition. When he learned that Sulla had been killed, he returned to Rome. He received education in rhetoric from the esteemed teacher Molon. During the winter of 75-74 BC, Caesar was taken captive by pirates. While in their custody, he threatened them with crucifixion until his ransom money arrived. After being released, he immediately fulfilled his threat. He then went back to Rome to pursue a regular political career, starting with his role as a quaestor in Further Spain from 69-68 BC. In the political landscape of the 60s in Rome, Pompey and Crassus challenged the dominance of the optimates.
The optimates, led by Quintus Lutatius Catulus and Lucius Licinius Lucullus, were primarily individuals whose careers had been shaped by Sulla. Both Pompey and Crassus served as consuls in 70 BC and reversed the most controversial policies implemented by Sulla. From 67 to 62 BC, Pompey was engaged in campaigns against the Mediterranean pirates, Mithridates, and his jealous rival, Crassus. Following Cornelia’s death, Caesar married Ponpeia and became an aedile in 65 BC. As an aedile, Caesar restored Marius’ trophies to their previous place of honor in the Capitol, effectively asserting his leadership over the populares.
During Caesar’s praetorship, he showed his support for a tribune’s cause of recalling Pompey to restore order in Rome. Consequently, Caesar faced suspension from office and incurred the wrath of Catulus. Prior to departing for his year-long governance in Further Spain, Caesar divorced his wife Pompeia due to allegations of her involvement in Publius Clodius’ offense. This offense consisted of Clodius breaking into Caesar’s house in December, disguised as a woman, during the festival of the Bona Dea, an event strictly prohibited for men to attend.
After successfully administering Spain, Caesar returned and was elected consul for 59 BC with the support of Pompey and Crassus, forming the first triumvirate. Caesar’s objective was to obtain a significant military command, while Pompey sought ratification of his Eastern settlement and land allotments for his discharged troops. Crassus aimed to revise the contract for collecting taxes in Asia province. In January of 59 BC, an agrarian bill was passed authorizing the purchase of land for Pompey’s veterans. However, during a disorderly public assembly, Caesar’s fellow consul Calpurnius Bibulus was forcibly removed from the platform and his consular insignia were damaged.
Bibulus attempted to obstruct Caesar and his allies from passing further laws, but he could only delay the implementation of the new laws by claiming that bad weather prohibited it, taking advantage of their superstitions. Caesar disregarded Bibulus’ actions, and the rest of the legislative program of the triumvirate was successfully carried out. As a consequence, Caesar and his associates faced severe criticisms. Their political adversaries continuously argued that all the legislation was unconstitutional and invalid. Caesar had managed to secure a five-year governorship of three provinces, namely Cisalpine Gaul, Transalpine Gaul, and Illyricum.
Caesar left Rome and stayed in Gaul until his invasion of Italy. He would go north of the Alps every summer and leave his army there during the winter while he conducted the civil administration of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum and stayed in contact with Rome. His goal was to conquer and make a province out of all of Gaul. After defeating the Belgic tribes and gaining submission from the maritime tribes on the Atlantic seaboard, he thought he had nearly completed his mission. Caesar then decided to go on two short reconnaissance expeditions, including one across the Rhine.
Caesar started an invasion of Britain by crossing the Straits of Dover. In a more significant invasion, he crossed the Thames and gained the submission of Cassivellaunus, supreme commander of southeastern Britons. Instead of returning to Rome after his five-year command, Caesar formed a new agreement with Pompey and Crassus at Luca. The optimates, who controlled the senate, became aware of Caesar’s increasing power, wealth, and prestige. They allowed Pompey to stay in Italy and govern his Spanish provinces through deputies. However, Pompey’s connection to Caesar was broken when Julia, Caesar’s daughter whom Pompey had been happily married to since 59 BC, passed away in 54 BC. Crassus met his end by the hands of the Parthians in Mesopotamia.
Caesar anticipated that once he lost the protection of his military command, his political enemies would try to exile him through legal actions for alleged bribery or use of force in politics. In the Roman senate, there was some support for a compromise proposed by Curio. Under this proposal, Caesar would give up his military command and personally stand for election as consul, on the condition that Pompey also relinquish his military command. On January 7, 49 BC, Antony and one of his fellow tribunes were warned that their lives would be in danger if they continued to veto the proclamation of military law, which ultimately passed. Caesar was advised to leave his troops behind and enter Rome alone by crossing the Rubicon. However, he understood that this would result in his death and instead chose to march into the city with his troops, sparking a civil war.
Caesar defeated Pompey’s troops in multiple battles and assumed the position of dictator in Rome. Ever since his first encounter with battle in Gaul, where he discovered his own military genius, Caesar became captivated and fixated on military and imperial matters. He placed these concerns above the more delicate yet equally important task of revising the Roman constitution. In the latter realm, there was a need for a solution that would incorporate authoritarian elements to combat corruption and administrative weaknesses. Initially, Caesar’s first dictatorship was granted solely for the purpose of holding elections in the absence of the consuls who were accompanying Pompey. However, after the news of Pharsalus, Caesar was once again appointed dictator. Following his triumph at Tapsus, he was granted a dictatorship that lasted ten years. Finally, in the winter of 45 BC, he received the title of perpetual dictator.
After 49 BC, when Caesar was absent from Italy, the true power was held by his representatives. The most significant of these representatives was Mark Antony, who served as Caesar’s “master of the horse”. This concentration of power and influence provoked resentment among prominent senators like Cicero. Despite the fact that Caesar’s military dominance was unchallenged, the senate bestowed upon him numerous personal honors that deviated from the Roman tradition. These honors mirrored the extravagant distinctions previously bestowed upon Hellenistic kings. Additionally, July was named after Caesar and his statue was placed in the temple of Quirinus.
Caesar was known as a lifelong dictator, a role that, according to the traditional Republican constitution, was supposed to last only six months during a crisis. Additionally, Caesar acquired prestigious honors, such as wearing the robe, crown, and scepter of a victorious general, and using the title imperator. Moreover, he held command over the armies.
Caesar utilized his dictatorship to enhance his authority, effectively making him the ruler of Rome. Mark Antony, a prominent supporter, played a crucial role in persuading others to grant Caesar these powers. However, this decision resulted in certain complications. Concerned about Caesar’s excessive power and the potential for corruption if he were to become king, a group of conspirators formed an opposition. This conspiracy, led by Marcus Brutus and consisting of sixty members from the senate, resented Caesar’s current position and ultimately aimed to assassinate him.
On the Ides of March, just two days before his departure from Rome for his significant expedition in the east, Julius Caesar was assassinated during a senate meeting held at Pompey’s newly built theater. He succumbed to his injuries right by the statue of Pompey, thus satisfying Pompey’s desire for vengeance, as well as the desires of Bibulus and Cato. Posthumously, Caesar’s body was burned by the unruly crowd in the forum, following a captivating eulogy delivered by Mark Antony. The appearance of a comet during the games held in his honor the following July further solidified the belief in his divine status. Consequently, he was officially declared “divus Julius,” or divine Julius. Octavius, later known as Caesar Octavianus after being adopted in Caesar’s will, successfully resolved the constitutional issue that Caesar himself had failed to resolve by implementing the Roman principate system.
Initially, Caesar served as a consul and joined forces with Crassus and Pompey to establish the first triumvirate. Together, they held power over Rome for a while. Nevertheless, following Crassus’ demise, an agreement was made requiring both Pompey and Caesar to give up their military control and return to Rome in pursuit of a rightful ruler. It was anticipated that Pompey, who knew about this arrangement, would take on the role of leader.
Caesar, aware that entering Rome alone would result in his death by Pompey, chose to cross the Rubicon with his troops and launch an attack on the city. This daring move ultimately led to his appointment as a lifelong dictator and gaining substantial power. Although holding the official position of a dictator, he enacted laws granting him near-absolute authority like a monarch. Recognizing this concern, conspirators formed a plot to assassinate Caesar on the Ides of March.
Caesar’s assassination resulted in the creation of a new triumvirate. He was an influential military commander who exhibited power and courage while capturing the city. Moreover, he effectively built a flourishing civilization that prospered in both military and political realms.