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 populist style and Donald Trump’s. Both share towering egos, confidence in their unmistakable judgments, their misogyny, and crash or crash through tactics. However Caesar was by far more heroic and intelligent than Trump. In many ways he is more like Churchill.

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). Julius Caesar’s family famously traced itself back to the mythical Trojan hero Aeneas and, through him, to the goddess Venus, his mother. (It’s no coincidence that, when Caesar built a new temple to Venus in Rome, he gave it the name Genetrix—“the ancestor.”)

Caesar was mentored by Sulla, learning quickly how to survive in “kill or be killed” politics. Sulla initiated proscriptions, eliminating enemies and appropriating their assets. Caesar grew up in a tumultuous time for his family politically, with factions carrying out bloody purges of political enemies. He joined the army, wnet undergrround, caught malaria, sailed to Rhodes for Greek tutoring, was caught and ransomed by pirates, when released returned, recovered the ransom money and hung the pirates, mercifully slitting their throats first.

He divorced his second wife, Pompeia because of her involvement in a scandal with a tribune, Claudios, although he 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. This despite the fact that his successes in the battle field equalled that of his conquests in bed.

In 60 BCE, He returned heroically 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. Frequently he would return to Rome for the winters and consolidate his power base.

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 subduing 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 by including representation from provinces), extending citizenship to all conquered lands and equality of all regions.

His methods alienated many of the nobles who feared loss of their status and power.

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.

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 gave citizenship to many residents of far regions of the Roman Republic. He initiated land reform and support for veterans.
  • He controlled excessive usury and controlled interest rates. He was generous with his pardons for minor misdemeanors which made him popular.

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 the first to be delivered by “Caesarian section” is open to dispute.

Caesar knew how to communicate directly with the people, (like Trump’s tweets) and bypass the powerful Senate. He also becomes captive of his own public image.

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. Realistically the Republic was so degraded by the corruption of processes of bribery and nepotism as to be utterly dysfunctional.

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


Plutarch 64 CE – 119 CE #

According to Britannica, Plutarch (born in Chaeronea, Boeotia [Greece] , the most important works are the (Parallel Lives), in which he recounts and compares the noble deeds and characters of Greek and Roman soldiers, legislators, orators, and statesmen, and the Moralia, or Ethica, a series of more than 60 essays on ethical, religious, physical, political, and literary topics. He is writing some 5o to 100 years after the times .

Plutarch traveled widely where Public duties took him, several times to Rome where he enjoyed the acquaintance of the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. where he lectured on philosophy, made many friends, ,,,A Delphic inscription reveals that he possessed Roman citizenship, visiting central Greece, Sparta, Corinth, Patrae (Patras), Sardis, and Alexandria, but he made his normal residence at Chaeronea, where he held the chief magistracy and other municipal posts and directed a school with a wide curriculum in which philosophy, especially ethics, occupied the central place.

He maintained close links with the Academy at Athens (he possessed Athenian citizenship) and with Delphi, where, from about 95, he held a priesthood for life; he may have won Trajan’s interest and support for the then-renewed vogue of the oracle.

In the treatise on moral virtue Plutarch discusses how virtue must subordinate unreason to reason within the soul, a theme developed in many other of the works dealing with popular ethical problems; those adduce examples from the lives of famous men and contain sound but unoriginal moralizing. Among them are “Vice and Virtue,” “How to Recognize Progress in Virtue”

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “essay summary”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Mar. 2003, https://www.britannica.com/summary/essay. Accessed 7 January 2024.

Parts of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra consist of passages of texts lifted verbatim from Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch, as well as many events, portents, characterizations, expressions.

Marcus Brutus of the play, according to Plutarch, was descended from Lucius Junius Brutus who drove the tyrant Tarquin from Rome, and led in reestablishing the republic some 450 years prior to this play.

In his conception of Brutus’ character he follows Plutarch, but goes further than his authority, as was his poetic entitlement.

Shakespeare wished to enlarge and idealize Brutus, and to obscure and vulgarize Caesar. For this procedure with regard to Caesar he found a shadow of warrant in his historian.

Plutarch is a gossip, by no means always careful to tell of his heroes only the grand achievements by which they won renown. Caesar appears in his pages quite subject to the infirmities of human nature.

From North’s Plutarch’s Life of Caesar: " we learn that Caesar was a good swimmer,…had the falling sickness (the which took him the first time, as it is reported, in Cordoba, a city of Spain)."

In the “Life of Brutus” Plutarch, says,

“These three . . . did set up Bills of Proscription and Outlawry, condemning two hundred of the noblest men of Rome to suffer death; and amongst that number, Cicero was one.”

In the battles, Plutarch tells us: “Brutus prayed Cassius he might have the leading of the right wing, the which men thought was farre meeter for Cassius: both because he was the elder man, and also for that he had the better experience. But yet Cassius gave it to him,"

In his life of Antony, Plutarch says: “When they had passed over the seas, and that they began to make warre, they being both camped by their enemies, to wit, Antonius against Cassius, and Caesar against Brutus: Caesar did no great matter, but Antonius had alway the upper hand, and did all.”

It is interesting to consider why Shakespeare, who in so many things follows Plutarch exactly, prefers not to follow him in this.

Plutarch gives the number of Caesar’s wounds as twenty-three; but to change Shakespeare’s statement is to make arithmetic out of poetry

It is obvious that while Shakespeare follows Plutarch in many ways, he also freely choses to alter the situations when it suits him.

Adapted from: Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. Ed. Samuel Thurber. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1919. Shakespeare Online. 15 May. 2013. < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/plays/julius_5_5.html >.

Augustus 63 BCE - 14 AD (77 years) #

Augustus Caesar, aka Octavian reigned 27 BC – 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 the second triumverate, from 43 BCE, with Mark Antony and Lepidus but in 31 BC, (aged 32) 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) Females took the title of Ausgutina.

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. In troubled uneay times people look to soothsayer, clairvoyants or prophets.

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. Horace resorted to writing suble satire to survive.

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.

The Theatrical Death of a Lifelong Actor

Augustus’ death was also nothing if not theatrical. Which was appropriate, given that his entire life had been nothing but an act.

The great British historian Ronald Syme once described Augustus as a chameleon, adept at adapting his appearance but never able to change his substance. It’s a powerful analogy, bringing to attention an often-overlooked aspect of Augustus’s character.

Augustus was essentially a warlord who had achieved power through targeted murder, merciless brutality, and civil war. He held onto power by ruthlessly putting down his enemies and creating a well-oiled propaganda machine that would have put the state of George Orwell’s 1984 to shame. Stalin, Putin and many other tyrants emulate these tactics.

The image we have of the pious, peaceful, avuncular emperor is more a product of this effective propaganda than an accurate reflection of history.

Augustus’s whole life had been an act of what the Romans called dissimulatio, keeping up appearances, concealing one’s real thoughts and emotions behind a carefully positioned public mask. Augustus wore this persona right up until his last days, sitting through public performances and fulfilling his public duties while his body was wrecked by diarrhoea and a digestive infection.

On his deathbed, he requested a mirror so he could rearrange his hair, and repeatedly asked if his demise was causing any trouble on the streets. Augustus’s entire life had been about projecting his image as a fundamentally good, moral, family-centred emperor. We should not be surprised that death was no different.

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.

From Horace’s Odes, the Latin saying: ‘Dulce et decorum est Pro patria mori’ translates into: “Sweet and decorous (noble, becoming) it is to die for one’s country”. Wilfred Owen used it in irony for his famous poem. Was Horace using it likewise?

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.