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The Historical Caesar

Like most major figures in History, Julius Caesar can be portrayed positively or negatively, simply by choice of perspective and language.

Some see parallels between his peremptory style and Donald Trump's.  Both share towering egos, confidence in their unmistakable judgments, their misogyny, and crash or crash through tactics.

At the funerals of both his aunt, Julia, and his wife, Cornelia, Caesar emphasized his connections with Marius and the ancient nobility of his family, descended from the first kings on his mother's side and from the gods on his father's (revealing a notable talent for self-dramatization and a conception that there was something exceptional about him).

His megalomania was fed by ostentatious displays of monuments.  He had a lot of busts made of himself, liberally spread around.  He was also the first leader to have his image stamped on coinage.  His name Caesar has become synonymous with power; Tsars/Czars of Russia, Kaiser in Germany.  Whether or not he was delivered by "Caesarian section" is open to dispute. 

His contributions to Rome were large and significant.  He engaged in large scale projects in infrastructure; roads, bridges, buildings and open spaces (parks) for the general population. He introduced the practice of bread and circuses for the common or ordinary people with open air smorgasbords in the forum.  He was generous with his pardons for minor misdemeanors  which made him popular.  

He divorced his second wife, Pompeia because of her involvement in a scandal with another man, although the man had been acquitted in the law courts; Caesar is reported to have said, “The wife of Caesar must be above suspicion,” suggesting that he was so exceptional that anyone associated with him had to be free of any hint of scandal.

In 60 BCE, He returned from Spain and joined with Pompey and Crassus in a loose coalition called by modern historians “The First Triumvirate” and by his enemies at the time “the three-headed monster.”

In 59 BCE Caesar was elected consul against heavy Optimate (Aristocratic) opposition led by Marcus Porcius Cato, a shrewd and extremely conservative politician. Caesar married his only daughter, Julia, to Pompey to consolidate their alliance; he himself married Calpurnia, the daughter of a leading member of the Popular faction.

He then spent the next nine years in northern Europe, conquering all of Gaul and was the first Roman General to cross the English Channel and set up Roman empire in Britain. His is the first  account of Kent in recorded history.

Meanwhile back in Rome, the triumverate was disintegrating with Pompey attempting to rule alone. Caesar was warned that his arrival would lead to his arrest.  His decision to take his troops across the Rubicon, a small river dividing the northern empire from the south, was a defiant act that led to civil war.  As Pompey’s forces were in Spain, Caesar easitly gained control of Rome and then went off to attack Pompey’s forces in Spain.  Pompey had sailed to Greece leading to Caesar’s famous saying: “I am off to meet an army without a leader; when I return, I shall meet a leader without an army.”

Caesar easily defeated a much larger army of Pompey by superior military strategy and pardoned the losing soldiers including Brutus, becoming supreme commander of the Roman Empire by the year 48 BCE.  Unfortunately Pompey had evaded capture and Caesar spent the next  two years in Egypt and the middle east subdueing revolts while Mark Antony maintained the fort at home.  After his successful sweep of the mid east he uttered the famous slogan: veni, vidi, vici (“I came, I saw, I overcame”).

After a brief return to Rome he planned to sail across the Mediterranean to put down a resurgence of the nobility under Cato, but was faced with a mutiny of soldiers.  In a remarkable speech he managed to change their minds and he won another major victory.

From July 25, 46 BCE, the victorious and now unchallenged Caesar arrived back in Rome and celebrated four splendid triumphs (over the Gauls, Egyptians, Pharnaces, and Juba).

His political aims were “tranquility for Italy, peace for the provinces, and security for the Empire.” His program for accomplishing these goals—both what he actually achieved and what he planned but did not have time to complete—was sound and farsighted (e.g., resolution of the worst of the debt crisis, resettlement of veterans abroad without dispossessing others, reform of the Roman calendar, regulation of the grain dole, strengthening of the middle class, enlargement of the Senate to 900), but his methods alienated many of the nobles. Holding the position of dictator for life, Caesar governed autocratically, more in the manner of a general than a politician. Although he nominally used the political structure, he often simply announced his decisions to the Senate and had them entered on the record as senatorial decrees without debate or vote.   Caesar knew how to communicate directly with the people, (like Trump's tweets) and bypass the powerful Senate.

A further revolt by the sons of Pompey was thwarted, the resulting “Triumph” became controversial because they were traditionally only celebrated for foreign conquest, rather than civil disturbances.  It is at this stage that Shakespeare begins his Play.

What others have said:

Matthias Gelzer, Caesar: Politician and Statesman, trans. Peter Needham (Cambridge: Harvard university Press, 1968), 329-331:

Caesar, if anyone, deserves to be called a master of politics. He was equally great in understanding general political trends as in directing them. With consummate skill he handled the machinery of political details, without ever sacrificing his major aim of winning decisive power. . . . What a tragedy lies over the life of the greatest genius produced by Rome—to be snuffed out by Romans who imagined that they were acting on behalf of their res publica! ……

Thus, although he was a Roman through and through and intended only to use his rule in order to raise the imperium populi Romani to the level of perfection required by the circumstances, nevertheless the flights of his genius lifted him to a lonely eminence where others were unable to follow him.

Zwi Yavetz, Julius Caesar and His Public Image, Aspects of Greek and Roman Life (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1983), 212-213:

Many were enchanted by him, yet not a few felt repulsed. Since he neither wanted, nor could afford, to base his rule on a single class of society, he tried to curry favour with heterogeneous groups, at one and the same time. In his struggle for the support of the masses he overcame Pompey, but at the same time made considerable efforts to appease the nobilitas. He was called a benevolent ruler, but also a cruel despot. . . . He was on the whole a moderate statesman, who was nevertheless unable to avoid the impression that he put through his moderate policies by ruthless force. . . . Caesar did not have the gift of what the Romans called humanitas. Pliny the Younger defined it as the capacity to win the affections of lesser folk without impinging on greater (Ep. IX, 5). With his gifted intuition, Caesar ushered in a new epoch in Roman history. But he relied so much on his personal charm that he overlooked the need for tact, especially when he thought that he was in the right. Success lay open to a less brilliant and therefore more tolerant man [i.e., Augustus].

Other views:

Julius Caesar

Some historians claim Julius could, by today’s standards, be tried as a war criminal.  His brutal total massacre of the Germanic tribes in 55 BC in the Netherlands constitutes genocide as he ordered his soldiers to kill all men, women and children.  There are many other examples of dire cruelty and merciless killing of women and children in conquering Gaul.

After over running most of Northern Europe including Gaul, Caesar was lauded as one of Rome’s greatest conquering Generals.  However to return to Rome and claim his accolades he was expected to give up the command of his army.  Any General crossing the Rubicon while in command of his army was in effect declaring war on the Republic of Rome.

In defiance, on the 10th of January, 49 BC, by leading his army across the Rubicon Caesar passed “the point of no return”.

With Crassus having been defeated by the Persians in 56, BC, the Senate authorised Pompey to defend the Republic.  Pompey’s forces were no match for the well trained soldiers led by Caesar, so he fled to Egypt with Caesar close behind.  After Pompey’s defeat’, Caesar had a dalliance with Cleopatra producing a son, his only potential male heir.

When a victorious Caesar returned to Rome it was  celebrated by a major Triumph.

Cicero was one of many who raised ominous warnings about the rise and rise of Caesar.  Cicero was a prominent and prolific conservative lawyer, politician and orator.   He cautioned about the threat of the destruction of the Republic  to no avail.  By 44 BC, Romans celebrated Caesar’s birthday with honours.  Caesar became more and more authoritarian, tyrannical and imperious.  He longed to be crowned as a King for life.

It was this phenomenon that motivated a group of senators to assassinate him in the Rotunda in order to restore the Republic and end the despotic rise of a dictator. Cicero justified the murder and congratulated the Senators.  It was only the persuasive ploys of his faithful lieutenant, Mark Antony who rescued Caesar’s reputation forcing Cassius, Brutus and other putative “conspirators” to flee Rome for their patriotic lives.

Mark Antony’s funeral speech is one of the greatest feats in turning the moods of a crowd of people illustrating how fickle and easily manipulated the masses can be.

    “People totally like Brutus

    As much as they like Caesar 

    And when did it become okay 

    For one person

    To become the boss of everybody?

    Huh?

    Because that’s not what Rome is about

      WE SHOULD TOTALLY JUST STAB CAESAR”

NEW STATESMAN


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