In Our Time: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is one of the most well known Roman historical figures. He conquered Gaul, changed the nature of the Roman state from republic to almost empire (although it took Augustus to finish that job), and his writings are still read today in Latin classes. Discussing him on In Our Time were Christopher Pelling (University of Oxford), Catherine Steel (University of Glasgow) and Maria Wyke (University College London).

Caesar was born in 100BC and grew up in a turbulent time for the Roman Republic. He was the son of a patrician family, which meant his family could trace their lineage back to the beginning of Rome and beyond (somewhat mythologised as these things often are – apparently he could trace his ancestry to Aeneas and thence to Venus). Theoretically being a patrician didn’t give you any extra power, but in practice there was still a certain degree of political cachet attached to this status and it was the ticket to an easier entry into politics. During Caesar’s teens and early 20s the Republic was embroiled in a civil war, which the general Sulla eventually won – this was not the side that Caesar’s family were on. Sulla carried out purges of those who had been on the opposing side, so this was a time of danger for the young Caesar, he was also under pressure to divorce his wife. He began his military career as a way to keep out of the way. Although they didn’t mention it explicitly on the programme another destabilising event during these years was Spartacus’s slave revolt (post about the In Our Time episode on that).

After Sulla’s death Caesar embarked on a political career (they said on the programme that the military and politics were very closely intertwined). During this time he often promoted populist policies. These included things like ensuring people had a right to a trial rather than magistrates being able to order executions just as they saw fit. The experts said this was a deliberate political strategy on Caesar’s part, in order to have popular support during elections. Caesar was successful in his career, becoming Consul in 59BC.

After his consulship Caesar became Governor in Gaul. Generally after being a Consul you got a province to look after for a while. Gaul at the time really only consisted of the south of what is now France, plus the region spanning the Alps in modern Italy (then called Cisalpine Gaul). Under Caesar’s rule Gaul was extended to the Rhine in the north and the coast in the west. He also (as I’m sure we all know) crossed the Channel to Britain but wasn’t inclined to spend the time conquering it. Caesar established a reputation for being ruthless and fast moving as a general. He conquered large amounts of territory by the practice of marching his legions deep into the non-conquered territory then defeating one of the tribes there. He would then declare the territory behind that point conquered and work on pacifying it.

During this time Caesar wrote the work that is still taught in schools – the Commentaries on the Gallic War. I had to translate a chapter of this in my Latin GCSE nearly 25 years ago, so I suppose I don’t know more recently than that but given it’s 2000 years old plus/minus 25 years gets lost in the rounding errors 😉 Caesar wrote this is a propaganda tool and it was probably sent back to Rome piece by piece as he wrote it. He was out of Rome for 5 years during these campaigns and this was a way of keeping him in the minds of the people. He wrote it in a third person format, as if it was an objective report, but it seems clear that he picked and chose his events to suit his needs.

On his return to Rome Caesar had fallen somewhat from favour, and his alliances had broken down (despite his propaganda). He had for a while been allied with Pompey, who was married to Caesar’s daughter as a means of sealing that alliance. But Julia died in childbirth, and Pompey didn’t renew the alliance. Caesar felt that if he came back to Rome without his army (as was customary) he would be arrested and prosecuted, so he brought his army with him. This ignited a civil war between Caesar and a Senate faction led by Pompey. It is from this return to Rome that we get the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” – the Rubicon was the river that marked the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul (where Caesar was entitled to have an army) and the territory of Rome itself (where Caesar was not).

Most of the early fighting of this civil war took place out in mainland Greece. The experts said this was what tended to happen at the time – the armies would move eastwards and actual battles didn’t happen near Rome. Although his opponents were tenacious (and good Generals) Caesar was victorious. This was probably due to the fact that his army were men he’d commanded and worked with for the last 5 years, rather than the newly raised forces of the opposition. It’s during this war that Caesar spent time in Egypt and met Cleopatra. During the war and after he had won Caesar used his now overwhelming support in the Senate to become first Dictator for a year (a customary position someone could be appointed to in a time of crisis) and subsequently Dictator for life (rather less customary).

After the war was over Caesar embarked on reforming the government of the Roman Republic – harking back to his original populist politics. The experts said it wasn’t a grand programme of cohesive reform, more that Caesar was focusing on things he saw as causing the problems he saw in his time growing up in the chaos of civil war. He also established himself as a god, and more shockingly flirted with kingship. A large part of Rome’s underlying mythos at the time was that they had Got Rid of Kings. So looking like you might want to be King – by, say, wearing the traditional ceremonial robes of a king – was a good way to unsettle and upset the Senate. This, then, was what lead to Caesar’s political opponents assassinating him – and many of that faction hoped it would bring a return to the previous political situation before Caesar had started edging towards kingship. Sadly for them instead it ignited yet another civil war, which eventually lead to the establishment of the Empire by Caesar’s grandnephew Augustus.

At the end of the programme they spent a little bit of time talking about what we know about Caesar’s personality – which is not really very much. One of the experts (Wyke or Steel) emphasised his ruthlessness and compared him to more recent figures such as Mussolini. They’d also a little earlier in the programme talked about how he was also known for his debauchery and jadedness – his fling with Cleopatra wasn’t an aberration in otherwise abstemious lifestyle!