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Caesar [Gaius Julius Caesar] (10044 BC), politician, author, and

military commander, was born on 13 Quinctilis (July) 100 BC, probably


at Rome, the son of Gaius Julius Caesar, a patrician of old but recently
undistinguished family whose brother-in-law was Gaius Marius, and
Aurelia, probably daughter of Lucius Aurelius Cotta (consul in 119 BC).
He had two sisters, married to Quintus Pedius and to Marcus Atius
Balbus of Aricia; the latter's grandson, adopted in Caesar's will,
became the emperor Augustus.

Nothing is known of Caesar's education. He was twelve when his


uncle Marius was driven into exile by Sulla's march on Rome, and
thirteen at the time of Marius's vengeful return with Lucius Cornelius
Cinna. When he was fifteen, his father died; the following year Caesar
broke off his engagement to a girl from a wealthy equestrian family to
marry Cinna's daughter Cornelia (d. 69 BC). In 82 BC Sulla returned
victorious from the east; by now Marius and Cinna were both dead,
and Caesar went into hiding. His relatives successfully pleaded for his
life, but the dictator sourly commented There are many Mariuses in
that boy (Life of Caesar). Caesar left Rome to serve in Asia Minor,
where he was decorated for bravery in the attack on Mytilene. He
came back to Rome at the news of Sulla's death, and announced his
arrival on the political scene with the prosecution (unsuccessful) of a
senior senator for extortion. In 75 BC, sailing to Rhodes to study
rhetoric, he was captured by pirates; on payment of the ransom, he
raised a squadron to defeat them, and had them crucified.

Caesar's first public office was the elective military tribunate


(probably in 72 BC); in 69 he was quaestor, serving in Spain; in 65,
curule aedile. It was a period of revived hope for popularis politicians:
the Sullan oligarchy had proved itself corrupt, and the people's
tribunes had regained the powers of which Sulla had stripped them.
Caesar advertised his allegiance by his funeral speech for his aunt
Julia, widow of Marius, in 69 BC, and by restoring to public view, as
aedile, the Marian trophies Sulla had pulled down. In 63 BC, though
still a junior senator, and in competition with two distinguished ex-
consuls, he got himself elected to the high office of pontifex maximus.
He was thirty-seven, already a formidable politician, and no friend of
the conservative establishment in the senate.

After a stormy praetorship in 62 BC, Caesar's first military command


came with his proconsulship of Further Spain, in campaigns against
the Callaeci and Lusitani conducted with characteristic decisiveness
and dash. He was granted the right to a triumph, which for most
Romans was the height of ambition. Caesar chose to forgo it. He
wanted the consulship, and by entering the city to declare his
candidacy he had to abandon his military command. His ambitions
were not those of ordinary Romans. After the consulship there would
be a greater command, one like those the people had conferred on
Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey the Great), whose triumph over the
pirates and Mithridates, an affair of unprecedented splendour, had
taken place in 61 BC.

Caesar has the wind in his sails just now, wrote Cicero in June 60 BC
(Cicero, ad Atticum, II.1.6). Certainly Caesar's enemies thought so,
and did their best to prevent his election as consul, or to commit him
in advance to a harmlessly administrative consular command (the
forests and drove-roads of Italy). It was in vain: Caesar was elected
consul for 59 BC, with the powerful backing of Pompey and Marcus
Licinius Crassus, and, having swiftly neutralized his optimate
colleague Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus, forced through a programme of
land distribution in the teeth of furious conservative opposition.

The people's consul was rewarded with an extraordinary command


(like those for Pompey in 67 and 66 BC) passed by a tribune's law in
May 59 BC: he was to have Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum (that is,
northern Italy and the eastern coast of the Adriatic) for five years;
Pompey subsequently got the senate to add Gallia Narbonensis
(Provence). So the great campaigns of conquest, to rival Pompey's in
Asia, would be either eastward or north-westward (in modern terms,
either on the middle Danube or in France and Belgium) according to
opportunity. As it turned out, the migration of the Helvetii took Caesar
west and north. He left Rome as proconsul on or about 19 March 58
BC. When he next entered it, just over nine years later, it would be as
an invader in a civil war.

As consul, Caesar's first act had been to make public the proceedings
of the senate. As proconsul, he reported his campaigns to the Roman
people in annual commentaries, which have been recognized ever
since as masterpieces of military narrative. First (58 BC), the defeat of
the Helvetii, and of Ariovistus's Germans; second (57), the defeat of
the Nervii (a very close-run thing) and the conquest of the Belgic
peoples; third (56), the conquest of Brittany and Aquitaine. In three
years, Caesar had conquered to the ocean and the Rhine; now it was
time to go beyond.

Again, Caesar kept his options open. The fourth commentarius, for 55
BC, reports the bridging of the Rhine and the punitive raid into
Germany, and after that the preliminary expedition to Britain in late
summer. Either of those could be repeated on a larger scale the
following year, for his allies Pompey and Crassus were now consuls,
and the people duly voted him a five-year extension to his command.
Britain was the more glamorous option, an adventure beyond Ocean
itself, and public opinion in Rome was excited about the conquest of
this people at the very ends of the earth (ultimi Britanni, Catullus,
11.11f).

The show of force in September 55 BC was very nearly a disaster.


Caesar's main cavalry force was unable to make the crossing; he had
the greatest difficulty in getting his two legions disembarked (near
Deal in Kent), against fierce opposition; four days after the landing a
violent storm and high tides seriously damaged his transports; and
when one of the legions was ambushed, only the last-minute arrival of
reinforcements prevented its total defeat. In the end Caesar was glad
to be able to get back to Gaul in his patched-up transports before the
equinox.

For the main assault the following year Caesar ordered the building of
large numbers of new transport ships, low in draught to be beached
easily, and able to be worked by oars or sail. In the midsummer of 54
BC he set sail from Portus Itius (Boulogne) with five legions and 2000
cavalry, in an armada of 800 ships. Tides and currents made it an
awkward crossing, and oars were needed to get the transports to the
landing place, probably not far from the previous year's, though this
time undefended. The British forces had withdrawn inland to higher
ground; Caesar disembarked, left his ships at anchor, and marched
inland the same night. His forces had crossed the Stour and captured
a British defensive stronghold, probably Bigbury, when news came
that a storm had driven the ships ashore, with great damage. Caesar
had to return to the coast, organize repairs, send for replacements
from Gaul, and bring the ships on shore behind a defensive
fortification. In the meantime the Britons had put Cassivellaunus, the
powerful king of the Catuvellauni, in command of their forces.

Resuming his advance through Cantium (Kent), after hard fighting


against well-organized British cavalry and charioteers, Caesar forced
a crossing of the Thames (possibly at Brentford) and eventually found
Cassivellaunus's fortress and stormed it. Meanwhile, an attack on the
base camp and Caesar's ships was successfully beaten off.
Cassivellaunus asked for terms; Caesar accepted his surrender,
demanded hostages and an annual tribute, and took his army back to
Gaul.

On his return Caesar was told of the death of his only child, his
beloved daughter, Julia, Pompey's wife, in childbirth in her early
twenties. (Julia's mother, Caesar's first wife, Cornelia, had also died
young; his second wife, Pompeia, was divorced in 62 BC, for not being
above suspicion; he then married Calpurnia, who outlived himit
was she who had bad dreams on the night before the ides of March.)
He also found dangerous unrest in Gaul, which was why he had come
back so quickly. It soon blew up into full-scale rebellion in the Belgic
lands, with one Roman winter camp wiped out and another, under
Cicero's brother Quintus, only narrowly saved from the same fate.
One and a half legions, about 7000 men, were lost in the disaster.

It is not known where or when the fifth book of commentaries was


written; Caesar was desperately occupied in the winter of 5453 BC.
But it contains, among other things, the first ever account of the
geography and ethnography of Britain: The island is triangular in
shape, with one side facing Gaul The second side faces westward,
towards Spain (Caesar, v.1214). As Caesar's contemporary Catullus
confirms (ultima occidentis insula, Catullus, 29.12), the Romans
thought of Britain as in the far west, close to Spain. It was a fitting
scene for a heroic epic, duly composed by Cicero from material
supplied by his brother (Cicero, Ad Q. fratrem, II.14.2, 16.4, III.7.6).
But now that adventure was over, as Quintus, after his narrow escape,
knew better than most.

Caesar spent the next four years reconquering his conquests. The
great pan-Gallic rebellion of Vercingetorix in 52 BC came very close to
destroying his whole achievement, and him with it. His enemies in
Rome took heart: Crassus was dead, Pompey could be seduced to
their side as the protector of the republic. They were determined to
destroy Caesar, and he was determined not to be destroyed. In
January 49 BC he threw the dice in the air and marched into Italy.

With his battle-hardened army of veterans, Caesar fought his civil war
against Pompey and the republicans all over the empire of Rome, and
beyond: Spain in 49 BC, Thessaly in 48 (defeating Pompey at
Pharsalus), Alexandria in 487 (where he probably wrote the three
books of his De bello civili commentaries), Asia Minor in 47 (I came, I
saw, I conquered), and above all north Africa in 46, where Marcus
Porcius Cato, symbol of the old republic, killed himself after Caesar's
victory at Utica. In September 46 BC, by the then calendar, Caesar at
last held the great triumph that would outshine Pompey's of fifteen
years before. He was now dictator for a ten-year term, with a
formidable programme of projects of which the most lasting was the
Julian calendar, introduced on 1 January 45 BC. But warfare still
preoccupied him: first against Pompey's sons in Spain, won only by a
hair's breadth at the battle of Munda (March 45 BC), and then a
planned campaign against the Parthians, to avenge Crassus. But by
now his autocracy was openly regal, and deeply offensive to the
senate. He was careless of his own security, trusting perhaps in the
luck that had protected him for so long. The latest of his long line of
mistresses was Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, now conspicuously living in
Rome; in 44 BC he was made dictator for life; the month of his birth,
Quinctilis, was renamed July; a cult of Caesar, with his own priest
(flamen), was instituted. It was too much. On 15 March he was
murdered in the Curia Pompei in Rome by republican senators under
the leadership of Cato's son-in-law Marcus Junius Brutus.
The body lay where it fell, unworthily fouled with the blood of a man
who had forced his way to the west as far as Britain and Ocean, and
intended to force his way to the east against the empires of Parthia
and India. (Nicolaus of Damascus, 95)
So Nicolaus of Damascus, writing about twenty years after the event,
sums up the many-sided genius of Caesar in the way he would
probably have wanted, as an imperial conqueror.

In 42 BC Caesar was deified. The heir to his name and fortune was his
great-nephew Gaius Octavius, whom he adopted in his will as Gaius
Julius Caesar Octavianus and who dedicated the temple of Divus Julius
on 18 Sextilis (later August) 29 BC, immediately after his own
triumph over Cleopatra's Egypt. The young Caesar Octavian became
Caesar Augustus, and thereafter Caesar's name became synonymous
with imperial autocracy throughout the history of Europe.

Shakespeare's Julius Caesar was first performed in 1599 and has


always been one of his most frequently performed plays.
Shakespeare's source was Plutarch's Lives (written some 150 years
after Caesar's death) in the translation by Sir Thomas North of 1579,
or its reprint of 1595. Shakespeare's play deals with the final days and
assassination of Caesar and shows no interest in his role as Britain's
first invader.

T. P. Wiseman