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Summary Article: Caesar, (Gaius) Julius from Chambers Biographical Dictionary

100 or 102-44BC

Roman general, statesman and dictator

Caesar was a member of the Julii, an ancient patrician family. His aunt was the wife of Marius, and in 83BC he married Cornelia, daughter of the radical Cinna; this alliance incurred the hostility of the conservative reformer Sulla. To avoid Sulla's revenge, Caesar took up a military command in Asia (81BC). On his way to Rhodes, to study under a Greek rhetorician, Caesar was captured by pirates for a ransom. After his release, he caught and crucified them as he had said he would. He was elected pontifex (73BC), supported the attack on Sulla's legislation (71-70BC), was quaestor in Spain (69BC), and supported Pompey's commands (67-66BC). In 65BC as curule aedile (chief magistrate) he spent lavishly on games and public buildings; he was elected pontifex maximus in 63BC and praetor for 62BC. He may have been implicated in or privy to the conspiracy of Catiline. He was elected consul for 59BC. He reconciled Pompey and Crassus, and with them established the informal alliance known as the "First Triumvirate". Caesar gave Pompey his daughter Julia in marriage, while he married Calpurnia (Cornelia had died in 67BC, and Caesar had divorced his second wife Pompeia because the wife of Caesar, according to Plutarch, "must be above suspicion").

For a period of nine years (58-50BC), Caesar was occupied with military campaigns which extended Roman power to most of Gaul; these are vividly described in his Commentaries. He invaded Britain in 55 and 54BC; in the second year he crossed the Thames, and enforced at least the nominal submission of the south-east of the island. Pockets of unrest in Gaul were followed by a general rebellion headed by Vercingetorix. The struggle was severe; at Gergovia, the capital of the Arverni, Caesar was defeated. But by capturing Alesia (52BC) he crushed the united armies of the Gauls. In the meantime Crassus had been defeated and killed in Asia (53BC) and Pompey was moving away from Caesar.

The Senate called upon Caesar, now in Cisalpine Gaul, to resign his command and disband his army (50BC), and entrusted Pompey with large powers. Pompey's forces outnumbered Caesar's legions, but were scattered over the empire. Supported by his victorious troops, Caesar moved southwards (49BC) and famously crossed the Rubicon, the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy. Pompey withdrew to Brundisium, pursued by Caesar, and from there to Greece (49BC); in three months Caesar was master of all Italy. In contrast to others before and after him, Caesar showed mercy in dealing with his enemies, and earned a reputation for clementia ("clemency"). After defeating Pompey's legates in Spain, he was appointed dictator. Pompey had gathered a powerful army in the east, and his fleet controlled the sea. Caesar, crossing the Adriatic, was driven back with heavy losses from Dyrrhachium. But in a second battle at Pharsalus (48BC), the senatorial army was routed, and Pompey himself fled to Egypt, where he was murdered.

Caesar, again appointed dictator for a year, and consul for five years, instead of returning to Rome, went to Egypt where he engaged in the "Alexandrine War" on behalf of Cleopatra, who was now his mistress (47BC). He overthrew a son of the King of Pontus (Asia Minor), Mithridates VI, and after a short stay in Rome, routed the Pompeian generals, Scipio and Marcus Porcius Cato, the Younger, at Thapsus in Africa (46BC). After his victories in Gaul, Egypt, Pontus and Africa he had still to put down an insurrection by Pompey's sons in Spain (45BC). He received the title of "Father of his Country", was made dictator for life, and consul for 10 years; his person was declared sacred, his statue placed in temples, his portrait struck on coins, and the month Quintilis renamed Julius in his honour.

Ambitious plans were ascribed to him. He proposed to codify the whole of Roman law, to found libraries, to drain the Pontine Marshes, to enlarge the harbour at Ostia, to dig a canal through the Isthmus and to launch a war against the Dacians in central Europe and the Parthians in the east. In the midst of these vast designs he was assassinated on the Ides (15th) of March. The conspirators, mostly aristocrats led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Cassius, believed that they were striking a blow for the restoration of republican freedom, which Caesar's autocracy was negating. But they merely succeeded in plunging the Roman world into a fresh round of civil wars, in which the Republic was finally destroyed.

Caesar was of a noble presence, tall, thin-featured, bald and close shaven. As general, if not as statesman, he ranks among the greatest in history. Highly talented, and with a wide range of interests, he was second only to Cicero as orator, and his historical writings (on the Gallic and Civil Wars) are simple and direct; yet for all his genius, he failed to find a solution to the political problems of the late Republic, and it was left to his adopted son Octavianus (the future emperor Augustus) to achieve this.

    Caesar is alone among the great generals of antiquity in having left a surviving account of his campaigns: the Commentarii (Commentaries: notes on the Gallic and Civil Wars). These are important historical evidence despite their undoubted propaganda value to Caesar (the Civil War is virtually a political pamphlet).

    There is a biography by Plutarch. Other sources are those for the end of the Roman Republic generally, including the speeches and letters of Cicero.

    There are many references to Caesar in literature; notable ones are Shakespeare, Julius Caesar (c.1600) and George Bernard Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra (1901).

  • Meier, Christian, Caesar (Eng trans 1995); Bradford, E, Julius Caesar: The Pursuit of Power (1984); Fuller, J C, Julius Caesar (1965).

Veni, vidi, vici."I came, I saw, I conquered."

- Words written on a titulus (placard) carried along in triumph after the campaign in Pontus (46BC).

© Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd 2011

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