Today in 44BC Gaius Julius Caesar was assassinated in Rome. His rise to power against seemingly impossible odds and his subsequent rule has made him a figure of both derision and curiosity more than twenty centuries after his death.
Caesar's childhood was consumed by the fires of war. His uncle, Gaius Marius, was an influential politician and military leader in Rome. When Caesar was a teenager his uncle engaged in a civil war with Lucius Cornelius Sulla, another Roman general. Sulla seized control of Rome and subsequently executed many of Marius’s supporters and forced the rest into exile, including Caesar.
After being forced from Rome, Caesar joined the military and served in Asia. He served with distinction and was awarded the civic crown, a headpiece woven from oak leaves that was the second highest military honor in ancient Rome. In 78 BC Lucius Sulla died and Caesar attempted to return to Rome. However, his bad luck persisted and he was captured by Cilician pirates and held for ransom. When Caesar learned the pirates had only asked for twenty talents of silver he felt insulted and insisted the pirates raise the bounty to fifty talents. After the ransom was paid Caesar returned to Rome where he raised a private army. He then set sail and captured the pirates, fulfilling the promise he made while in captivity. Caesar crucified the pirates as an example. However, Caesar had their throats cut to demonstrate his ability for mercy. He was already becoming a cunning politician.
Upon returning to Rome, Caesar was elected as military tribune. His political career gained momentum when Caesar formed a three way division of power. This alliance known as The First Triumvirate included Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus or Pompey, and Marcus Licinius Crassus. Each man controlled considerable territory and possessed political and military strength. This powerful alliance dominated the Senate and controlled Rome.
In 69 BC while Caesar was in modern Spain to supervise financial affairs he encountered a statue of Alexander the Great. Caesar was roughly the same age that Alexander was when he had conquered most of the known world. Perhaps Caesar felt inadequate when he looked upon Alexander, a vision of success that mirrored the shadows of his ambition. Motivated, Caesar resigned from his post and returned to Rome. He was elected Pontifex Maximus, or head priest, of the Roman state religion. Using his shrewd political tactics Caesar climbed the ranks of the government until he was appointed Consul, or Governor, of Gaul, an area that encompassed most of Western Europe. Caesar used his military prowess to raise an army and began expanding the borders of the Roman Republic. In fact, his conquests spread to the shores of England. This military accomplishment gained Caesar a powerful reputation among Rome’s citizens. In 50 BC Caesar’s former political ally and friend Pompey was in control of the Senate. He ordered that Caesar disband his army and return to Rome as Caesar’s Consulship had expired. Caesar rolled the dice and marched his legion on Rome. When his army crossed the Rubicon River in northern Italy on its way south, it ignited a civil war. Although Pompey’s forces outnumbered Caesar’s, Pompey retreated from Rome with the Senate. Caesar pursued them across the known world, winning decisive battles along the way. Finally, in Egypt, Pompey was killed.
While in Egypt Caesar met Cleopatra. This started a romantic relationship that would last for more than a decade. While in Egypt Caesar once again exercised his power and overthrew the existing government. In 47 BC Caesar installed Cleopatra as Queen of Egypt. This led to a prosperous trade alliance that contributed to the growing wealth of the expanding Roman Republic.
Upon returning to Rome in 49 BC the Senate had no choice but to elect Caesar as Dictator of Rome. At this time Caesar’s arrogance had alienated him as much as his position as Dictator did. Caesar made himself into a God. He claimed to be a descendant of Aeneas who was a hero of the Trojan War and the son of a Roman Goddess. Aeneas is the mythical father of Rome so by Caesar tracing his lineage to Aeneas he solidified himself as rightful heir of Rome. He used this association to further tighten his grip on Rome. He became the first living Roman to put his face on a coin, an honor normally reserved for those who had been deified after death.
A growing hostility in the Senate transformed a group of some 60 Senators into conspirators, and on the Ides of March, 44 BC they confronted Caesar and stabbed him twenty-three times as he made his way to the Senatorial forum.
William Shakespeare romanticized and glorified the epic tale of Julius Caesar. There are many different ideas of what exactly Caesar’s dying words were. The most famous are the ones penned by Shakespeare. “Et tu brute?” meaning: you, too, Brutus? This referred to Caesar’s friend Brutus, who was among the conspirators. It seems that Caesar’s ambitions had left him, at the end, a man alone in the world.
In history and fiction Caesar didn’t fear death. He feared irrelevance. The following monologue from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar best exemplifies this mentality.
Cowards die many times before their deaths;
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear;
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.
Julius Caesar was responsible for transforming the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. His actions were a catalyst that allowed his adopted grand-nephew Augustus to become Rome’s first Emperor. Julius Caesar was followed by five Emperors of his lineage, known as the Julio-Claudians. They reigned until 68 AD. Rome was never again returned to a Republic.