ulius Caesar is one of the most famous and influential war generals and politician of all time. His influence on history is nearly unparalleled. It’s hard to comprehend all the things he’s accomplished in his relatively short life. Most impressively, most of his accomplishments were achieved by using the power of his brain rather than his body.
Caesar was born in 12 July 100 BCE. His father, also Gaius Julius Caesar, was a Praetor who governed the province of Asia and his mother, Aurelia Cotta, was of noble birth. Both held to the Populare ideology of Rome which favored democratization of government and more rights for the lower class as opposed to the Optimate factions’ claim of the superiority of the nobility and traditional Roman values which favored the upper classes. It should be understood that the Optimate and the Populare were not political parties in conflict with each other but, rather, political ideologies which many people shifted toward and from, regardless of class in society. The concept of appealing to the people for support, rather than seeking approval from the Roman Senate or the other Patricians, would work well for Caesar later in life.
At the age of 16, Caesar’s father passed away and he became the head of the family. Deciding that belonging to the priesthood would bring the most benefit to the family, he managed to have himself nominated as the new High Priest of Jupiter. As a priest not only he had to be of patrician stock, but also married to a patrician, Caesar broke off his engagement to a plebian girl and married the patrician, Cornelia, daughter of a high profile and influential member of the Populares. When the Roman ruler Sulla declared himself dictator, he began a systematic purge of his enemies and particularly of those who upheld the Populare ideology. Caesar was targeted and fled Rome but his sentence was lifted through the intercession of his mother’s family. Still, he was stripped of his position as priest and his wife’s dowry was confiscated. Left without means of supporting himself or his family, Caesar joined the army.
He proved himself an effective soldier, even being awarded the civic crown for saving a life in battle, and was promoted to the staff of the military legate to Bithynia to secure a fleet of ships. In this, Caesar was successful and, when Sulla died, he decided to return to Rome and try his luck as an orator (a modern-day lawyer). In this, too, he proved a success and became well known as an eloquent speaker.
Back in Rome, Caesar was elected military tribune and, his wife Cornelia having died, married Pompeia, a wealthy Optimate granddaughter of the Emperor Sulla. Rising now in prominence in Rome, Caesar had enough prestige to effectively support Gnaeus Pompeius (later known as Pompey the Great) for a generalship. During this time he also became friends with the wealthiest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus, it is thought, helped fund Caesar’s bid for election to the position of Chief Priest which he won back in 63 BCE. In 62 he was elected praetor, divorced Pompeia after a scandal she was implicated in with another man, and sailed for Spain in 61 as Propraetor (governor) of Hispania.
In Spain, Caesar defeated the warring rival tribes, brought stability to the region, and won the personal allegiance of his troops through his skill on the battlefield. He was awarded a consulship by the senate. Returning to Rome with high honors, Caesar entered into a business/political agreement with Pompey and Crassus, in 60 BCE, dubbed The First Triumvirate by modern scholars and historians. Caesar married Calpurnia, the daughter of a wealthy and powerful Populare senator, and married his daughter Julia to Pompey to further cement their arrangements. The three men together then effectively ruled Rome, Caesar as consul, by pushing through measures favored by Pompey or Crassus in the senate. Caesar proposed legislation for reform of government, opposing Optimate sentiment, and a redistribution of land to the poor, both long-held Populare goals. His initiatives were supported by Crassus’ wealth and Pompey’s soldiers, thus solidly aligning The First Triumvirate with the Populare faction. As long as Caesar was a public servant he was safe from prosecution by his Optimate enemies for his legal indiscretions but, once his consulship ended, he was sure to be indicted. Further, Caesar was deeply in debt, both financially and politically, to Crassus, and needed to raise both money and his prestige.
Recognizing the wealth to be gained through conquest, Caesar left Rome with his legions and went to Gaul in 58 BCE. He defeated the tribes there just as he had done in Spain and secured the borders of the provinces. When the Germanic tribes seemed threatening to invade, Caesar built a bridge over the Rhine River, marched his legions across in a show of force, then marched them back and had the bridge dismantled. The Germans understood the message and never invaded. He defeated the tribes of the north and twice invaded Britain. At the Battle of Alesia, in 52 BCE, Caesar defeated the Gallic leader Vercingetorix and completed the conquest of Gaul. He was now effectively the sovereign of the province of Gaul with all the attendant wealth at his disposal.
Back in Rome, however, The First Triumvirate had disintegrated. Crassus was killed in battle against the Parthians in 54 BCE and, that same year, Julia died in childbirth. Without Caesar’s daughter and his financial and political backer tying him to Pompey, the latter aligned himself with the Optimate faction in Rome which he had long favored. Pompey was now the sole military and political power in Rome and had the senate declare Caesar’s governorship of Gaul terminated and, further, ordered him to return to Rome as a private citizen. This would mean Caesar could be prosecuted for his actions when he was consul.
On March 15, 44 BCE, Caesar was assassinated by the senators in the portico of the basilica of Pompey the Great. Among the assassins were Marcus Junius Brutus, Caesar’s second choice as heir, and Gaius Cassius Longinus, along with many others. Caesar was stabbed twenty three times and died at the base of Pompey’s statue. The assassins, however, made the mistake of neglecting to plan what they would do following Caesar’s death and, in so doing, mistakenly allowed Marcus Antonius, Caesar’s cousin and right-hand man, to live. Mark Antony turned the tide of Roman popular opinion against the conspirators and, allied with Octavian, defeated the forces of Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE.