Historical Caesar

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 10^(th) 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?
Because that’s not what Rome is about


Augustus #

Augustus Caesar, aka Octavian reigned 27BC – 14 CE

August, a word that means “inspiring reverence or admiration,” is the name of the eighth month of the year in our Gregorian calendar. It’s the sixth month of the ancient Roman calendar used by the Roman kingdom and republic. Back then, the month of August was known as Sextilus, Latin for “sixth month.” In 8 BCE, the month was named in honor of Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor. Caesar had no legal heirs, as his son, born to Cleopatra was considered illegitimate.

Augustus was born Gaius Octavius, the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. He took the extended name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus in 44 BC after Caesar’s assassination. Though in English texts, he was often referred to simply as Octavian.

He was part of a triumverate with Mark Antony and Lepidus but in 31 BC, he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra to gain control over the empire. Finally in 27 BC, when he was named emperor, he was given the honorary title Augustus.

August, means majestic and inspires reverence or admiration. The word can also take the form of an adverb (augustly) and a noun (augustness).

August also relates to augury, the act of divination (telling the future), particularly by the behavior of birds and animals and the examination of their entrails and other parts.

His legacy is conflicted, fairly well regarded by some, but realistically, the first and greatest pragmatic, enlightened despot who dismantled the Republic and consolidated dynastic unaccountable authoritarianism.

Though a sickly man with many near death experiences, his life-long strong arm, henchman, Marcus Agrippa, propped up his leadership, giving Augustus, the appearance of an overpowering dictator.

Also, renown for the dark arts of ancient propaganda and Machiavellian power machinations to seize absolute power. His advsior Maecenas, set up a public relations unit led by Horace. Like Trump he was a deal maker; most ended up, through duplicity, to his advantage. He betrayed both Lepidus and Antony by not honoring his side of the bargain.

Antony was denounced as ”an enemy of the people”, Cicero was executed, Ovid banished, while Horace was offered sanction if he wrote propaganda for Augustus’ cause.

Augustus and his successors tried to eradicate subversive writings, but the emperors soon learned that the memory of such works would outlast them.

Virgil composed the Aeneid (19 BC). This Latin epic casts a patriotic spell over its audience in its evocation of the foundation of Rome from the ashes of Troy to the glory of the Augustan Age. Unlike his poetic successor, however, Virgil is alert to literary censorship under the reign of Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), Rome’s first emperor, and carefully navigates its perilous terrain.

To raise money, over 2000 wealthy families were accused of treason, a process of proscription, declared enemies of the state, assassinated, their lands, wealth and other assets confiscated for the state.

More positive civic reform, statecraft legacies include: ending nepotism by appointing civil servants on merit, eliminating corruption, establishing a professional army loyal to the empire, rather than their commanders, criminalised adultery – for others – not his cohort.

When his messy family tree, as a result of divorces and forced marriages, died out, he simply named his successor.

Cicero was a critic of Julius Caesar, but became an exceptional advisor to Octavious, who changed his name to Augustus Caesar. Cicero based many of his ideas on Plato.

…the arrogance of officialdom need to be tempered and controlled,….

Augustus delegated his legal authority to Jurists (lawyers) as a token to the restoration of the Republic.

Marcus Agrippa, became the husband of Julia, the daughter of Augustus

Horace #

Horace lived in volatile times where the rise and fall of fortunes was subject to that of those you serve. Horace had sided with Brutus and Cassius so when Augustus and Antony won the Battle of Actium in the year 34 B.C. he was in great danger. He was extremely fortunate that his poetic skills were valued and found favour with Maecenas, Octavian’s rich and influential ally, who was fostering and patronising a talented literary circle in the emperor’s interests.

In Rome Panegyrists, like Horace, were paid performers, subsidized by those they celebrated.

As spin doctor, for celebrating the emperor and portraying his regime as the beginning of a Golden Age of peace and prosperity, Horace was rewarded with a large country estate called the Sabine farm. While appreciating his good fortune, he recognised the fragility of life and came up with the philosophy of Carpe Diem - of living for the moment. Dead Poet’s Society brings this alive here:


Ovid #

Ovid experienced a world of chaos and iron firsthand when, in AD 8, he was banished by Augustus. His wrongdoings were, in his own words, carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”).

The poem was the Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a three-volume lovers’ handbook that explains the dos and don’ts of personal grooming, how to organise trysts with married women (get her maid “on side”), repairing a broken heart (surprise your “ex” while she’s in the middle of her beauty routine.

What irritated Augustus sufficiently enough to relegate the poet to the middle of nowhere was his perception that the Ars Amatoria made a mockery of his moral reforms. Not one for frolic, Augustus had spearheaded and implemented a series of legislative campaigns that raised the moral bar for the goodly citizens of Rome. Adultery, while always illegal in Rome, was made especially so under the watchful eye of the emperor and legal ramifications were more actively enforced than in previous decades.

The mistake that Ovid mentions is more difficult to identify – with scholarly opinions differing on what it was Ovid actually did to offend Augustus. Theories range from Ovid engaging in an affair with one of the imperial women – perhaps Augustus’ daughter (Julia the Elder) or granddaughter (Julia the Younger) – to his accidentally witnessing an imperial scandal.

Exiled to Tomis, near the Black Sea, in a place where his native Latin was scarcely heard, Ovid’s despair is evoked in one of his most memorable couplets:

“writing a poem you can read to no one
is like dancing in the dark.”

According to Marguerite Johnson, Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages, University of Newcastle :

Indeed, Ovid’s own silencing by Augustus may be seen to be enacted over and over again in the Metamorphoses in the most grotesque of ways. Ovid’s tales describe tongues being wrenched out, humans barking out their sorrows instead of crying, women transformed into mute creatures by jealous gods, and desperate victims bearing witness to their abuse through non-verbal means.

The Metamorphoses is an epic about the act of silencing.

Ovid died in Tomis in AD 17.