Who Was Julius Caesar?
Gaius Julius Caesar was a leader of ancient Rome who significantly transformed what became known as the Roman Empire by greatly expanding its geographic reach and establishing its imperial system.
Allegedly a descendant of Trojan prince Aeneas, Caesar’s birth marked the beginning of a new chapter in Roman history. By age 31, Caesar had fought in several wars and become involved in Roman politics.
After several alliances and military victories, he became dictator of the Roman Empire, a rule that lasted for just one year before his death.
While Caesar hailed from Roman aristocrats, his family was far from rich. When he was 16, his father, an important regional governor in Asia also named Gaius Julius Caesar, died. He remained close to his mother, Aurelia.
Little is known of Caesar's early years, but during his youth an element of instability dominated the Roman Republic, which had discredited its nobility and seemed unable to handle its considerable size and influence.
Around the time of his father's death, Caesar made a concerted effort to establish key alliances with the country's nobility, with whom he was well-connected.
In 84 B.C., Caesar married Cornelia, the daughter of a nobleman. Together they had a daughter, Julia Caesaris, in 76 B.C. In 69 B.C., Cornelia passed away.
Caesar’s marriage to Cornelia drew the ire of the Roman dictator Sulla, as Cornelia’s father was Sulla’s political rival. Sulla ordered Caesar to divorce his wife or risk losing his property.
The young Roman refused and escaped by serving in the military, first in the province of Asia and then in Cilicia. With the help of his influential friends, Caesar eventually convinced Sulla to be allowed to return to Rome.
After Sulla’s death, Caesar began his career in politics as a prosecuting advocate. He relocated temporarily to Rhodes to study philosophy.
During his travels he was kidnapped by pirates. In a daring display of his negotiation skills and counter-insurgency tactics, he convinced his captors to raise his ransom, then organized a naval force to attack them. The pirates were captured and executed.
Caesar’s stature was further enhanced in 74 B.C. when he put together a private army and combated Mithradates VI Eupator, king of Pontus, who had declared war on Rome.
Caesar began an alliance with Gnaeus Pompey Magnus, a powerful military and political leader. Soon after, in 68 or 69 B.C., he was elected quaestor (a minor political office). Caesar went on to serve in several other key government positions.
In 67 B.C., Caesar married Pompeia, the granddaughter of Sulla. Their marriage lasted just a few years, and in 62 B.C., the couple divorced.
In 61 to 60 B.C., Caesar served as governor of the Roman province of Spain. Caesar maintained his alliance with Pompey, which enabled him to get elected as consul, a powerful government position, in 59 B.C.
The same year, Caesar wed Calpurnia, a teenager to whom he remained married for the rest of his life. (He also had several mistresses, including Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, with whom he had a son, Caesarion.)
At the same time Caesar was governing under Pompey, he aligned himself with the wealthy military leader Marcus Licinius Crassus. The strategic political alliance among Caesar, Pompey and Crassus came to be known as the First Triumvirate.
For Caesar, the First Triumvirate partnership was the perfect springboard to greater domination. Crassus, a leader known as the richest man in Roman history, offered Caesar financial and political support that proved to be instrumental in his rise to power.
Crassus and Pompey, however, were intense rivals. Once again, Caesar displayed his abilities as a negotiator, earning the trust of both Crassus and Pompey and convincing them they'd be better suited as allies than as enemies.
Early Rule and Gallic Wars
In a controversial move, Caesar tried to pay off Pompey's soldiers by granting them public lands. Caesar hired some of Pompey's soldiers to stage a riot. In the midst of all the chaos, he got his way.
Not long after, Caesar secured the governorship of Gaul (modern-day France and Belgium). This allowed him to build a bigger military and begin the kind of campaigns that would cement his status as one of Rome's all-time great leaders. Between 58 and 50 B.C., Caesar conquered the rest of Gaul up to the river Rhine.
As he expanded his reach, Caesar was ruthless with his enemies. In one instance he waited until his opponent's water supply had dried up, then ordered the hands of all the remaining survivors be cut off.
All the while, he was mindful of the political scene back home in Rome, hiring key political agents to act on his behalf.
Civil War Against Pompey
As Julius Caesar’s power and prestige grew, Pompey grew envious of his political partner. Meanwhile, Crassus still had never completely overcome his disdain for Pompey.
The three leaders patched things up temporarily in 56 B.C. at a conference in Luca, which cemented Caesar's existing territorial rule for another five years, granted Crassus a five-year term in Syria and accorded Pompey a five-year term in Spain.
Three years later, however, Crassus was killed in a battle in Syria. Around this time, Pompey—his old suspicions about Caesar's rise reignited—commanded that Caesar disband his army and return to Rome as a private citizen.
Crossing the Rubicon
Rather than submit to Pompey's command, on January 10, 49 B.C., Caesar ordered his powerful army to cross the Rubicon river in northern Italy and march toward Rome.
As Pompey further aligned himself with nobility, who increasingly saw Caesar as a national threat, civil war between the two leaders proved to be inevitable.
Pompey and his troops, however, were no match for Caesar’s military prowess. Pompey fled Rome and eventually landed in Greece, where his troops were defeated by Caesar's legions.
Julius Caesar and Cleopatra
By late 48 B.C., Caesar had subdued Pompey and his supporters in Italy, Spain and Greece, finally chasing Pompey into Egypt. The Egyptians, however, knew of Pompey's defeats and believed the gods favored Caesar: Pompey was assassinated as soon as he stepped ashore in Egypt.
Caesar claimed to be outraged over Pompey's murder. After having Pompey's assassins put to death, he met with the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.
Caesar and Cleopatra forged an alliance (and a sexual relationship) that ousted her brother and co-regent, Ptolemy XIII, and placed Cleopatra on the throne of Egypt. A skilled political tactician, she and her son by Caesar, Caesarion, proved instrumental in international affairs for years, culminating in her liaison with Roman general Mark Antony.
Upon his triumphant return to Rome, Caesar was hailed as the father of his country and made dictator for life. Although he would serve just a year's term, Caesar’s rule proved instrumental in reforming Rome for his countrymen.
Caesar greatly transformed the empire, relieving debt and reforming the Senate by increasing its size and opening it up so that it better represented all Romans. He altered the Roman calendar and reorganized the construction of local government.
Caesar also resurrected two city-states, Carthage and Corinth, which had been destroyed by his predecessors. And he granted citizenship to a number of foreigners. A benevolent victor, Caesar even invited some of his defeated rivals to join him in the government.
At the same time, Caesar was also careful to solidify his power and rule. He stuffed the Senate with allies and required it to grant him honors and titles. He spoke first at assembly meetings, and Roman coins bore his face.
While Caesar's reforms greatly enhanced his standing with Rome's lower- and middle-class populations, his increasing power was met with envy, concern and angst in the Roman Senate. A number of politicians saw Caesar as an aspiring king.
And Romans had no desire for monarchical rule: Legend has it that it had been five centuries since they'd last allowed a king to rule them. Caesar's inclusion of former Roman enemies in the government helped seal his downfall.
Caesar was assassinated by political rivals on the Ides of March (March 15th), 44 B.C. It's not clear whether Caesar knew of the plot to kill him: By all accounts, he planned to leave Rome on March 18 for a military campaign in what is now modern-day Iraq, where he hoped to avenge the losses suffered by his former political ally Crassus.
Who Killed Julius Caesar?
Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus, former rivals of Caesar who'd joined the Roman Senate, led Caesar’s assassination. Cassius and Brutus dubbed themselves "the liberators."
Brutus' involvement in the killing packed the most complicated backstory. During Rome's earlier civil war, he had originally sided with Caesar’s opponent, Pompey.
But after Caesar's victory over Pompey, Brutus was encouraged to join the government. His mother, Servilia, was also one of Caesar's lovers.
After Caesar’s Death
After his death, Caesar quickly became a martyr in the new Roman Empire. A mob of lower- and middle-class Romans gathered at Caesar's funeral, with the angry crowd attacking the homes of Cassius and Brutus.
Just two years after his death, Caesar became the first Roman figure to be deified. The Senate also gave him the title "The Divine Julius."
A power struggle ensued in Rome, leading to the end of the Roman Republic. Caesar's great-grandnephew Gaius Octavian played on the late ruler's popularity, assembling an army to fight back the military troops defending Cassius and Brutus.
His victory over Caesar's assassins allowed Octavian, who assumed the name Augustus, to take power in 27 B.C. and become the first Roman emperor.
In November 2017, archaeologists announced the discovery of what they believed to be the first evidence of Caesar's invasion of Britain in 54 B.C.
The excavation of a new road in Ebbsfleet, Kent, revealed a five-meter-wide defensive ditch and the remains of pottery and weapons. Experts from the University of Leicester and Kent County Council said the location was consistent with accounts of the invasion from the time period, and enabled them to pinpoint nearby Pegwell Bay as the likely landing spot for Caesar's fleet.
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