A sixteen year old youth becomes pater familias. A soldier captured by pirates. A man smeared by his enemies because of their fear of him. A man who divorced his wife due to infidelity. A great soldier and premier orator. A man who despised elitism and corruption, but wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. Turned on by his partners, he was victorious, only to be savagely murdered by his compatriots. This man shaped history like few others have. I can’t think of anyone better to start this series with than Gaius Julius Caesar.
Born in 100 BC into the Julii. The Julii were an ancient family, but were not especially notable, either financially or politically. His father, also Gaius Julius Caesar, was governor of Asia. His aunt married Gaius Marius, who was known for reforming the military into the mobile infantry force we think of when picturing the Roman legions. “Marius’ Mules” they were called because of the amount of gear carried and their unfaltering stubbornness in battle.
When Caesar was 16, his father died and the care of the family fell to him. Being the pater familias was no joke. You carried the responsibility of your entire extended family and were expected to provide for and protect them. A heavy weight for a young man still developing. How many of us could have handled that? I doubt that I could have.
Around this time, his uncle Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla went into political war over control of Rome. It was during this time that Caesar married for the first time, to Cornelia, the daughter of one of Marius’ allies. Young Julius also became a high priest of Jupiter.
From this conflict, Sulla emerged victorious, and Caesar was stripped of everything, only his life was spared, and this only due to the intervention of some of Sulla’s supporters. Ironically, losing the priesthood made Julius available for military service. And a legend begins.
He served with distinction and it is during this time that people start to feel threatened by him, and nasty rumors fly about him being involved in a homosexual affair with King Nicomedes. These were nothing but smears attempting to make him seem unfit for higher office and/or command.
Be prepared. If you begin to make a name for yourself, you will see people do things that you never thought possible. People you thought were with you will turn on you quickly if they feel you are surpassing them. Press on and ignore them if possible, but if pushed, don’t be afraid to push back harder.
Sulla dies and Caesar comes back to Rome. He lives in a low class neighborhood, and I believe this is where the true impact of the corruption that was pervasive hits home. He becomes a lawyer and known for his oratorical ability.
On a trip across the Aegean Sea he is captured by pirates. They wanted to ransom him for 20 talents of silver, but he demanded that they ask for 50, because he declared he was worth more than 20. He also promised to come back, hunt them down, and kill them. The pirates laughed this off, thinking he was joking. He wasn’t. Julius raised a fleet, chased the pirates down, and crucified them.
In 69 BC, his wife and aunt die, and he leaves for Spain. While there Caesar comes across a statue of Alexander the Great. Thinking of all that Alexander had accomplished at their shared age of 31, Caesar was despondent that he had not risen to that height. I believe this spurred him into action. He had witnessed first hand the corruption in Rome and now he had inspiration to go with the desire for change.
In debt, Julius turns to two older men for alliance. Pompey Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus, the later the wealthiest man in the Republic. They secretly formed the First Triumvirate, manipulating affairs of state and watching each other’s backs. Caesar then was elected consul. He had to give up his right to a triumph to do so.
Bibulus was consul as well. Caesar knew of Bibulus affinity for young boys, so he blackmailed him into basically going into solitude. This freed Caesar to push the changes he wanted to see. One of these was taking some of the unused public lands and giving it to the poor. On the surface this looks like socialism, but it would serve two purposes that I see. First, it would alleviate a lot of the disease and filth caused by over crowding. Second, these people would then be off of the public dole and self-sufficient, producing more food for the city.
At the end of his consulship, Caesar left for Gaul. This season would catapult him as the penultimate figure in Rome.
The Romans feared the Gauls were preparing to migrate south, closer to Italy, and that they had warlike intent. Caesar raised two new legions and defeated these tribes.
In response to Caesar’s earlier activities, the tribes in the north-east began to arm themselves. Caesar treated this as an aggressive move and conquered the tribes piecemeal. Meanwhile, one of his legions began the conquest of the tribes in the far north, directly opposite Britain. The conquest of the north was soon completed, while a few pockets of resistance remained. Caesar now had a secure base from which to launch an invasion of Britain.
In 55 BC, Caesar repelled an incursion into Gaul by two Germanic tribes, and followed it up by building a bridge across the Rhine and making a show of force in Germanic territory, before returning and burning the bridge. Late that summer, having subdued two other tribes, he crossed into Britain, claiming that the Britons had aided one of his enemies the previous year. His intelligence information was poor, and although he gained a beachhead on the coast, he could not advance further, and returned to Gaul for the winter. He returned the following year, better prepared and with a larger force, and achieved more. He advanced inland, and established a few alliances. However, poor harvests led to widespread revolt in Gaul, which forced Caesar to leave Britain for the last time.
While Caesar was in Britain his daughter Julia, Pompey’s wife, had died in childbirth. In 53 BC Crassus was killed leading a failed invasion of the east. Rome was on the brink of civil war. Pompey was appointed sole consul as an emergency measure, and married the daughter of a political opponent of Caesar. The Triumvirate was dead
Though the Gallic tribes were just as strong as the Romans militarily, the internal division among the Gauls guaranteed an easy victory for Caesar. Vercingetorix’s attempt in 52 BC to unite them against Roman invasion came too late. He proved an astute commander, defeating Caesar in several engagements, but Caesar’s elaborate siege-works at the Battle of Alesia finally forced his surrender. During this battle, Caesar built not one, but two, walls encircling the city, with his army in between the two walls. When a relieving Gallic army arrived, the Romans fought off attacks from two sides and won.
Another interesting tidbit about this siege is that the Gauls sent out all of their women, elderly, and children from the city, hoping that the Romans would take them in and feed them. Caesar refused to do so, leaving them exposed to the elements and starving.
Victory at all costs. Do not let emotions get the best of you.
Despite scattered outbreaks of warfare the following year, Gaul was effectively conquered. Plutarch claimed that during the Gallic Wars the army had fought against three million men (of whom one million died, and another million were enslaved), subjugated 300 tribes, and destroyed 800 cities.
Return to Rome
The senate, backed by Pompey, demanded that Caesar return to Rome and disband his army. No fool, he knew that to disband his forces was a death sentence. He was too popular to leave alive. He had a decision to make. Give in to the political pressure and see the Republic continue to rot from within, or take a chance and try to enact real change. It was no contest. He arrived at the Rubicon, a place where Roman soldiers had never crossed prepared for war, and rode across boldly. It was time.
Don’t let people pressure you into “going with the flow”. Do what needs to be done, no matter the personal cost.
Pompey and the Senate fled. Caesar gave chase and eventually met and defeated Pompey, who fled to Greece, then Egypt. When Caesar arrived in Egypt he was met with messengers bearing a basket. In the basket was Pompey’s head. Caesar was distraught. He wept and ordered the envoys killed. He then proceeded to smash his way into the Egyptian civil war and install Cleopatra as a puppet ruler. Rome now ruled Egypt.
Julius then defeated Pompey’s sons in Spain and solidified his grasp on the Republic. Caesar had seen how chaotic and dysfunctional the Roman Republic had become. The republican machinery had broken down, the central government had become powerless, the provinces had been transformed into independent principalities under the absolute control of their governors, and the army had replaced the constitution as the means of accomplishing political goals. With a weak central government, political corruption had spiraled out of control, and the status quo had been maintained by a corrupt aristocracy, which saw no need to change a system that had made its members rich. Sound familiar?
Caesar ordered a census be taken, which forced a reduction in the grain dole, and he passed a law that rewarded families for having many children, to speed up the re-population of Italy. Then, he outlawed professional guilds, except those of ancient foundation, since many of these were subversive political clubs. He then passed a term-limit law applicable to governors. He passed a debt-restructuring law, which ultimately eliminated about a fourth of all debts owed.
Caesar had not proscribed his enemies, instead pardoning almost all, and there was no serious public opposition to him. But all was not as wonderful as it seemed. A faction in the Senate did not want the corruption and graft to end. They rather enjoyed it. So they plotted to assassinate the great Caesar.
On the Ides of March, 44 BC, Caesar was attacked in the Senate house by men that he thought were his friends.
And so ended the life of one of the greatest men in history. A man who took the chaos of the late Roman Republic and began to shape it into the dominant Roman Empire. A man whose protege, Octavian, would finish what his mentor started and bring about the Pax Romana, ushering in a time of prosperity and security unknown before then.
Do not let circumstances dictate your accomplishments. You can take what seems impossible odds and turn them around through diligence and confidence. Be willing to ally yourself with unsavory characters, but always be on guard and ready to push back when they turn on you. Listen to everyone, you can learn from them all.
And lastly, pass on what you have learned and your dreams and aspirations to a worthy successor, for that is how greatness continues. In the church, we drive home the point that we are one generation away from apostasy. So we also are one generation away from feckless men who allow destruction to occur. We see the effects of matriarchal homes and absent fathers in the chaos of the left. Let us not replicate that. Find a virtuous woman, marry her. Stay faithful and rear children. Let’s bring order back to chaos.
As always, thanks for reading.