The Man Who Would Be Caesar

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The career of Gaius Julius Caesar can be divided into three parts. The final stage – his civil war, dictatorship and assassination – earned him a place as one of the most momentous individuals in human history, the man whose very name became synonymous with autocracy. The second stage – his conquest of Gaul – proved that he was one of the great captains of warfare, an equal to Napoleon, Hannibal and Alexander. What is often brushed over, however, is the first stage – his long climb up the greasy pole of Roman politics. But it was these during these years that Caesar demonstrated the superhuman ambition, intellect and ruthlessness, which – alongside a total disregard for norms and traditions – made him the most gifted politician of his age. 

Caesar was born in the year 100 B.C. The century prior had witnessed Rome’s rapid ascent to superpower status, as Macedon, Greece, Asia Minor, North Africa, Eastern Spain and Southern France all fell before the advancing legions. Yet having conquered the world, Rome was defeated by its own success. While poor economic conditions, a demographic crisis and the constant demands of military service bankrupted much of the Italian peasantry, the loot brought back from Rome’s campaigns made a handful of aristocrats astronomically wealthy. Armed with their new fortunes, these aristocrats had bought out the small plot holders, carved Italy up like a turkey and created vast megaplantations, farmed by the slaves captured in Rome’s endless wars. A vicious cycle soon set in; those farmers who had previously managed to remain afloat quickly discovered that they could not compete with slave labour. For a pittance, they too were forced to sell their land to the aristocrats, whose estates grew ever larger and ever more profitable.

Unemployed and penniless, these former farmers had flooded into the capital, joining the ranks of the capite censi, the poorest of the poor. Sensing a chance to improve their own position, rabble-rousing demagogues such as the Gracchi brothers courted personal power and votes by promising economic relief for bankrupt veterans and the urban poor. But these men, the populares, were thwarted at every turn by the optimates, the prospering patricians, who grew a thousand times richer as Italy fell into an economic death spiral.

The Julii Caesares did not, however, enjoy in the success of their aristocratic peers. They were certainly an ancient family; they traced their lineage back to the Trojan hero Aeneas and his mother Venus, but they had long since fallen on hard times. In the century before 100 B.C., only three of the Julii Caesares had enjoyed successful political careers, and none were direct ancestors of Gaius. Moreover, Caesar’s family was effectively bankrupt, meaning that the descendant of the goddess of love grew up in a slum called the Subura. Despite this, Caesar’s early life was relatively peaceful, and he appeared to be destined for a career as a priest.

But when Caesar was twelve, disaster struck. The Roman general Sulla, desperate to finally eclipse his great rival Marius (Caesar’s uncle by marriage), declared civil war. Breaking taboo, Sulla marched his legions on Rome itself, conquered the city and forced Marius to flee to Africa. A lengthy civil war ensued, but Sulla eventually emerged victorious. The memory of Marius was expunged from Rome, and a generation of his supporters were extralegally butchered in a bloody series of purges known as the proscriptions. Caesar immediately went into hiding. When it became clear that this was unsustainable, however, his mother Aurelia begged Sulla to spare her son. With great reluctance, Sulla agreed. But although his life had been spared, what little wealth Caesar had possessed was confiscated, as were all the religious posts the Marians had promised him. Sulla himself went into retirement not long after and died within a year.

As a young man, Caesar was an attention seeker, a flamboyant dandy and an obsessive spender. He also established a reputation for himself as a serial womaniser, who took particular delight in making cuckolds out of leading senators. How much of this was due to lust, a hunger for political intrigue or as a means to deflect rumours that Caesar had once been romantically involved with an Eastern king (Nicomedes of Bithynia) is debated. All sorts of stories abound about the young Caesar’s escapades, but almost all of these are inventions by later writers – the dramatic tales of what should have happened in a great man’s youth, rather than a chronicle of what actually occurred.

Around the age of thirty, Caesar was enrolled in the Senate, the body which ruled the Republic. He spent a year serving in Spain as a junior administrator (a quaestor) and returned to Rome in 69 B.C. to resume his political career. Roman electioneering was absurdly expensive – candidates were expected to lavish voters with games, entertainment and bribes, and the people would inevitably punish any perceived stinginess at the ballot box. While no-one could ever accuse Caesar of thriftiness (or – for that matter – financial prudence), he did not have the funds to bankroll his rise to prominence; his family was poor but his ambition enormous. However, he had become acquainted with Marcus Crassus – Rome’s richest citizen, greatest landlord and leading firefighter. Crassus often lent money to young politicians, hoping they would later provide him political support, and he agreed to help fund Caesar’s various eye-wateringly expensive ventures. The largest of these was the renovation of the Appian Way; despite being a key artery of the Italian Peninsula, the road connecting Rome to Southern Italy had fallen into disrepair decades ago. Accordingly, Caesar volunteered to organise its complete restoration, entirely at his own personal expense. 

A combination of political pandering, a reputation for generosity and a willingness to simply bribe voters ensured Caesar was elected as an aedile (a magistrate tasked with city maintenance and festival organisation) for the year 65 B.C. It is all but impossible to know the true details of Caesar’s personal finances at this time, but we are told that – even before he decided to repair one of Rome’s largest highways – he owed his creditors around 31 million sesterces. For perspective, that was one-sixth the net worth of Crassus, the richest man in Roman history. The dire nature of his finances did not, however, prevent Caesar from borrowing even greater sums to put on absurdly lavish games to mark his year as aedile. Despite their immense popularity with Roman voters, gladiatorial contests could only legally be organised as funeral events. Undeterred, Caesar hired an astonishing 320 gladiators, equipped them with solid silver armour and claimed that his games were in honour of his father, who had been dead for twenty years. The games went ahead, but the Senate was so worried about how many armed men Caesar had at his disposal that it would later put restrictions on how many gladiators an individual could hire at one time.

The festivities were as successful as Caesar could have hoped, and they earned him astonishing popular support. Caesar was emboldened. One evening, in the dead of night, he snuck up to the Forum and restored all the trophies to Marius that Sulla had torn down at the end of the last civil war. When Caesar’s actions were discovered that morning, many senators still loyal to the memory of Sulla were furious. One patrician (Catulus) even declared that Caesar had brought a battering ram to the gates defending the Republic. Yet the people were slightly less histrionic, and most seem to have responded favourably; Marius had been the great champion of the urban poor, and Caesar was now seen by most as the heir to his movement.

Caesar decided to capitalise on his popularity. The Pontifex Maximus was Rome’s chief religious official, and accordingly was an office which conferred enormous prestige, along with certain spiritual powers, on its holder. Unlike most other magistracies, which were usually held for a single year term, a Pontifex Maximus served until the end of his days. Usually, however, this only meant a man enjoyed being chief priest for a few years; the post was seen largely as a reward for a successful career already spanning several decades, and was normally held by one of Rome’s oldest and most august senators. In 63 B.C., Metellus Pius dropped dead and the position of Pontifex Maximus became vacant. Two leading candidates, Catulus and Isauricus, both of whom had served as senior magistrates more than decade ago, quickly emerged.

Traditionally, the Senate appointed new Pontifices Maximi. However, a young man named Titus Labienus, who was then serving as a tribune (a magistrate from a non-patrician family who possessed the power to propose laws and veto legislation), suggested that the decision be deferred to the Popular Assembly, as had once been done in the earlier Republic. The Senate concurred and Caesar immediately put himself forward as a candidate. It was an absurd proposition. Caesar was young enough to be Catulus’ son, and had hardly enjoyed a lengthy career of public service; far from being a grizzled statesman, Caesar had not even held all the positions that made one eligible to run for the senior magistracy. Had the Senate still been tasked with choosing new Pontifices Maximi, Caesar would likely have been laughed out of the meeting. Yet considering that Labienus was known to be a friend of Caesar’s and would later serve as his deputy in Gaul, it is quite likely the would-be chief priest had realised this. Accordingly, he had subtly removed the decision from the Senate’s hands in order to make his own election possible.

Caesar still faced an uphill battle, but he had two advantages. The first was that he had appeared before and courted the voters far more recently than his two rivals, who hadn’t been elected to anything in years. The second was his willingness to spend colossal sums (he borrowed around 20 million sesterces) on his campaign. Too late in the day, Catulus realised that he faced a serious rival, and he hurriedly offered Caesar a huge bribe to drop out. Smelling blood in the water, Caesar doubled down, borrowed more and threw himself into the campaign’s closing stages. He knew that if he lost, his creditors would lose faith in his political acumen and would demand their money back, money that he could not possibly hope to repay. On the morning of the election, he warned his mother that he would either return as Pontifex Maximus or leave Rome as an exile. He won the election. 

Unfortunately for Caesar, disasters lay ahead. Catalina, a fearsome politician whom Caesar was loosely associated with, was caught attempting to depose Cicero (the sitting consul) in a bloody coup. Cicero rounded up Catalina’s mob of incompetent supporters, hauled them before the Senate and presented the assembly with irrefutable evidence of their guilt. The Senate was, at first, minded to execute all the conspirators. Then Caesar rose to speak. He argued so forcefully against the death penalty that even those who had earlier proposed capital punishment were swayed. For Marcus Cato – a dogmatic, die-hard optimate who saw himself as a pillar of virtue – this was too much. The young man was, in an age when most politicians were ultimately opportunists, an ideological fanatic, who strove to serve as a beacon of the Republic’s oldest traditions.

Though no definitive link between Caesar and the conspiracy could be proven, the new chief priest seemed to have played some shadowy role backing Catalina. Now, Cato felt, Caesar was trying to save his co-conspirators. A bitter a debate broke out between the two men. At one point in the argument, a letter arrived for Caesar. Cato, assuming it was a dispatch from the still uncaptured Catalina, demanded Caesar read it to the whole assembled Senate. Caesar refused, but Cato insisted. Presumably with a wry smile, Caesar read the letter, which was not, in fact, a letter from the master conspirator, but an extremely explicit love letter from Servilia – Cato’s half sister. The Senate burst into laughter, but eventually sided with Cato, executed the conspirators and hunted down Catalina. 

A few months after the great debate came the Bona Dea festival. Tradition dictated the ceremony occur in the home of a leading politician, but under no circumstances was any man, including the owner of the house, permitted to observe the rites or even to be in the house while the ritual was being performed in on the sacred evening. By chance, the festival of 62 B.C. was to be held in Caesar’s home. Unfortunately, a young aristocrat named Clodius decided this occasion provided the perfect opportunity to seduce Caesar’s wife, Pompeia. He disguised himself as a woman, snuck into the house and was promptly discovered by Aurelia.

The scandalised Roman nobility immediately took Clodius to court on charges of sacrilege. Ridiculously, Clodius claimed he hadn’t even been in the city on the night in question, but only Cicero would testify that these claims were nonsense – an act which earned him Clodius’ eternal enmity. Caesar reacted swiftly. Clodius was wildly popular with the Roman people, and Caesar had no intention of alienating his political supporters; he therefore immediately divorced Pompeia, supported Clodius and claimed that nothing had occurred between his wife and the aristocrat. When someone reasonably asked why Caesar had divorced his wife if he believed she had not been unfaithful, Caesar responded “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion.” Clodius was ultimately acquitted through, as was always the answer in Roman politics, extensive bribery. 

For Caesar, however, there was light at the end of the tunnel. High ranking magistrates were often sent to govern distant regions of the Republic and, after a year spent as a praetor (a judge), Caesar was tasked with governing Hispania Ulterior, a province in Spain. It is a sign of how abysmal Caesar’s finances were that his creditors only allowed him to leave the city when Crassus pledged to guarantee Caesar’s debts. Yet in the provinces, governors were laws unto themselves, and they could grow fabulously wealthy by embezzling state accounts, accepting bribes and claiming the loot of defeated foes. Most men went to their provinces poor and returned to Rome rich.

On reaching Spain, Caesar immediately levied a new legion, Legio X (later renowned as the Equestris legion of the Gallic Wars) and provoked a series of campaigns against Iberian tribes. Though they were later eclipsed by the Gallic Wars, Caesar’s Spanish campaigns made him a popular hero and provided some much-needed financial relief. His successes were deemed so impressive by the Senate that he was awarded a triumph, a victory parade in which a conquering commander entered the city to present his army, plunder and enslaved foes to cheering crowds. 

Caesar returned to Italy in order to celebrate his triumph and to finally run for the highest magistracy in the state. Every year, two men were elected consuls, Rome’s joint heads of state –the idea of one man holding power without a colleague was anathema to all good Republicans. Consuls chaired the Senate, set the year’s political agenda and had the opportunity to speak first on any new legislation. But the office was especially sought after because of the rank it conferred; a man who had served as consul had to be accorded a certain degree of respect, and an individual’s pedigree was determined entirely by how many of their ancestors had held the chief magistracy. No Roman could consider himself succesful unless he had been elected consul. The ultra-competitive Caesar was especially desperate to secure the top job and, now that he finally had reached the minimum age to run for the position, let all of Rome know he planned to stand in the elections of 60 B.C. But Cato saw an opportunity to thwart his rival’s ambitions.

An ancient technicality insisted that men declare that they were standing in an election in the city itself, but if a successful general entered Rome before celebrating his triumph, he waived his right to the victory parade. Caesar asked the Senate to schedule his triumph before the deadline for announcing one’s candidacy, but the ever obstinate Cato filibustered, meaning the motion never came to a vote. Cato’s motives were utterly transparent – it was no secret that he loathed Caesar and viewed him as a self-serving demagogue. In addition, his son-in-law Bibulus was also standing in that year’s elections, and did not stand a chance of garnering more votes than Caesar.

Caesar was now locked on the horns of a dilemma; he could either celebrate his triumph or run for consul, but he could not do both. On average, a triumph was awarded once every four years, making a politician eight times more likely to serve as consul. Most would have waited for their victory parade. But Caesar had no intention of trading power for prestige; to the astonishment of all, he entered the city, declared his candidacy and waived his right to the triumph. A stunned Cato quickly countered by swaying the Senate to announce that the consuls of 59 B.C., whoever they were, would not be sent to govern provinces after their year in office. Instead, they would be tasked with protecting the Italian countryside, a task offering absolutely no glory, wealth or conquests; if Cato could not stop his nemesis becoming consul, he would make sure his career went no further.

But Cato had finally overplayed his hand, as Caesar had not been the only ambitious politician he had spent years using the Senate to obstruct. Two titans had dominated politics after Sulla’s death – Marcus Crassus and Pompey the Great, a brilliant general who had celebrated no fewer than three triumphs. Each loathed the other, meaning it had been relatively easy for Cato and the Senate to use one to thwart the other’s ambitions. Gridlock had ensued. Pompey had helped stop Crassus securing financial aid for his allies the tax collectors, and Crassus had helped stop Pompey securing land for his veterans and ratifying the treaties he had made during his rampage through the Eastern Mediterranean. The delighted optimates had simply watched as pettiness led the two great men to mutual destruction.

What Cato had not counted upon was that, eventually, senatorial obstruction would grow so frustrating that the two would contemplate any option, including co-operation, to achieve their goals. Caesar, in an inspired piece of politicking, realised he had an incredible opportunity. Sometime in 60 B.C., he persuaded Pompey and Crassus to make peace with each other and throw their combined weight behind him. Thus the First Triumvirate was born. Initially, no-one in Rome realised that a political earthquake had just occurred, but the combined gravitational weight of Crassus’ wealth, Pompey’s veterans and Caesar’s cunning would eventually bend Rome to their will. 

With his new allies’ aid, Caesar was chosen as next year’s consul, but so was Cato’s son-in-law, Bibulus. This strange result, the simultaneous election of a radical populist and an arch-aristocrat, reveals the ludicrous levels of bribery that the elections of 60 B.C. later became known for. Six months later, the two men took office. Caesar immediately summoned the Senate and proposed an ambitious land reform bill, that would purchase land from willing aristocrats and distribute it to members of the urban poor and Pompey’s veterans. The bill was so well crafted that, when Caesar read it line by line to the Senate, no-one could think of any objections to it. That did not stop Cato from filibustering. An enraged Caesar ordered a guard to arrest Cato, hoping to cow the man into silence, but Cato made a great show of being a victim of tyranny, and a stampede of senators stormed out of the meeting in sympathy.

Compromise was impossible, and so Caesar began playing hardball. Much like modern Britain, Rome had never codified its constitution, and the ship of state was guided by precedent and tradition instead of strict rules. Although its decisions had de facto acquired the force of law, the Senate did not technically ratify legislation – that was the duty of the Popular Assembly, a body which usually served as a mere rubber stamp for whatever conclusion the Senate had already reached. Caesar now argued that no senator had voiced serious objections to his bill, that the people’s will was being stymied by a clique and that he would simply circumvent the Senate by summoning the Popular Assembly. The optimates were appalled. To their horror, however, both Crassus and Pompey supported Caesar’s actions and became vocal proponents of his land bill. It slowly dawned on the optimates that their obstruction had forged an alliance between all of men they feared most, and it became increasingly common to speak of a “three headed monster” devouring the Republic.

On the day of the vote, Bibulus stormed down to the Popular Assembly. As a sitting consul, he had the power to unilaterally block legislation simply by declaring “Veto” before voting began. When Caesar saw Bibulus, he realised this was what his colleague was intending to do, and he whipped the assembled crowd into a fever. This was made easier by the fact that Caesar had strategically packed the meeting with Pompey’s veterans, who served as his hired muscle, his loyal voters and now as his agent provocateurs. When the throng realised Bibulus was in their midst, they first began heckling him, then shoving at the consul and attacking his bodyguards. In the chaos, Bibulus attempted to veto the land bill, but Caesar pretended not to hear him. Bibulus fell to his knees, daring a member of the crowd to kill him and stain the proceedings with his blood. Instead, Caesar had a member of the crowd drop a barrel of dung on Bibulus. The humiliated head of state fled, and Caesar’s land bill was promptly passed. 

The next day, Bibulus demanded the Senate formally criticise Caesar and repeal his illegal legislation. Yet when it became clear Pompey and Crassus were united behind their ally, the Senate was cowed into refusing Bibulus. Doubly humiliated, Bibulus retreated to his home, sealing himself off from the world. From the comfort of his self-imposed house arrest, Bibulus devised one final stratagem. A sitting consul could suspend public business if they claimed to see ill omens, and so Bibulus began sending letters from his home whenever Caesar had a debate or a vote scheduled, announcing that he was being haunted by divine spectres. Whenever this happened, however, Caesar simply declared that, as Pontifex Maximus, he sat higher on the spiritual totem pole than his colleague, and ignored Bibulus’ amateurish attempts at divination. Unfortunately for the Senate, there was little else the optimates could do; filibusters, vetoes and omens had all failed to slow Caesar. Furthermore, a sitting consul or governor possessed legal immunity, meaning Caesar’s liberal interpretation of the law could not be challenged in the courts. 

Meanwhile, Caesar continued his legislative avalanche. A bill offering concessions to the tax collectors was passed, as were laws which organised further land distribution, cracked down on provincial corruption, ratified Pompey’s conquests and formed an alliance with Ptolemaic Egypt. The Triumvirs carried all before them, and opposing the alliance became increasingly dangerous. Lucius Licinius Lucullus, one of the wealthiest, most venerable and most successful politicians, came out of retirement to speak against Caesar in the Senate. Caesar threatened such harsh measures in response that Lucullus fell to his knees to beg for mercy. One morning, Cicero denounced the Triumvirate in public. That afternoon, Caesar used his powers as Pontifex Maximus to authorise Clodius’ adoption into a plebeian family, making the young man eligible to run for the office of Tribune of the Plebs. Clodius would subsequently use his tribunal powers to declare Cicero an outlaw, hound him from Italy and burn down this beloved house.

Finally, a friendly tribune named Vatinius summoned the Popular Assembly and suggested that, instead of safeguarding Italian sheep, Caesar should be awarded the provinces of Northern Italy and Dalmatia for an unprecedented five years. When the governor of Southern France died unexpectedly, Vatinius suggested Caesar be awarded that province as well. Most ex-consuls received one province for one year – Caesar had received three provinces for five years. Having secured legal immunity, an army and the chance to gain military glory, Caesar prepared to depart. The Triumvirate ensured next year’s consuls were their political supporters, and Caesar cemented the alliance by marrying his daughter to Pompey – despite the fact that Pompey was older than Caesar himself. Then, Caesar left Italy to begin the Gallic Wars.

Bibulus had been defeated, the Senate muzzled and the shattered remnants of optimate opposition began the slow process of regrouping. By resorting to extreme measures, Caesar had achieved astonishing success and had broken the gridlock that had paralysed the Republic. Yet victory came at a cost. Caesar was now a lightning rod for the hatred of the optimates, and it was clear that the moment Caesar’s legal immunity ended, he would be hauled before a kangaroo court and found guilty of making a mockery of the law. The punishment would – at the very least – be exile, ignominy and consignment to the dustbin of history. When it came time for Caesar to return to Rome, it is perhaps unsurprising then that he did so at the head of an army.

Cicero., Selected Letters

Goldsworthy, A., 2006. Caesar: The Life of a Colossus. Orion

Holland, T., 2003. Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic. Abacus

Plutarch., Life of Caesar

Plutarch., Life of Pompey

Watts, E. J., 2018. Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny. Hachette Book Group