The Hinge of Roman History
By Matt McKeown
With the rise of Julius Caesar, the history of Rome, the Mediterranean, and ultimately of civilization was permanently changed.
Over the first two centuries before Christ, Rome saw one of the most massive periods of upheaval in its history. Its decisive triumph over Carthage in the Third Punic War had given way to domestic strain: the Populares (“populists”) pushed to redistribute land, political power, and other resources to the poor of Rome, many of them veterans and their families, while the Optimates (“the best people”) tried to maintain the class privileges of the wealthy Senate. Alliances, conspiracies, and political murders roiled the Republic, and a civil war erupted in 85 BC, when a minor member of the Roman aristocracy named Julius Caesar, whose family had connections with the Populares, was just sixteen years old.
It was around this time that Caesar’s career began, first as the high priest of Jupiter, then as a lawyer noted for his skilled oratory. He went on to become involved in politics, and, as was common for ambitious men at the time, to serve in the army. In 59 BC he held his first consulship, the highest office in the Roman Republic, with the support of Pompey, a brilliantly successful general, and Crassus, the richest man in Rome at the time. This alliance was known as the First Triumvirate. It was shortly after this that Caesar embarked on the conquest of Gaul—a campaign widely but mistakenly thought to have yielded one of his wittily arrogant epigrams, “Veni, vidi, vici” (he in fact wrote this about a campaign in Asia Minor).
What the conquest of Gaul did produce, besides the Roman provinces of Gaul, was his first major work that survives, Commentaries on the Gallic War. (Though Caesar was a prolific author and—even according to Cicero, who loathed him—an outstanding stylist, only two of his significant works have come down to us today.) These cover the eight-year period during which he waged war against the Celtic and Germanic peoples living in what is now France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Rhineland Germany, ultimately subduing the whole territory, which was converted into a handful of Roman provinces about twenty years after his death.
His other surviving book, Commentaries on the Civil War, is his account of the other principal war he waged on leaving Gaul in 49 BC. Crassus had died and Pompey had turned against Caesar, siding with the Senate and the Optimates; fearing ruin if he entered Rome without the protection of his troops, Caesar illegally brought them with him into Italy. Pompey tried to marshal resistance, but was outwitted and outfought by Caesar, and decisively defeated at the Battle of Pharsalus in central Greece. He fled to Egypt, where he was murdered on the orders of Pharaoh Ptolemy XII; Caesar claimed to be outraged by this, and helped Ptolemy’s famous sister Cleopatra oust her brother and reclaim the throne.
Judging from his subsequent actions, the professed outrage may well have been real. After vanquishing his enemies and being appointed dictator, Caesar proved to be not only an expert general but an intelligent and benevolent ruler, granting amnesty to his political opponents rather than executing them; the only significant foe who did die was Cato the Younger, who committed suicide rather than accept his enemy’s clemency. Caesar embarked on an extensive campaign of legal and civic reforms, from canceling massive amounts of debt to instituting new public works. The most famous of these reforms was the Julian calendar, which was so well-designed that it continued in use unchanged for sixteen centuries, and is still employed today by much of the Eastern Orthodox Church.
It was, in fact, this efficiency and good will, and the popularity they engendered, that moved a group of Senators to conspire against Caesar, fearing not only political irrelevance but the restoration of the monarchy, which had been abolished nearly five hundred years before. On March 15, 44 BC, a group of conspirators surrounded him on the Senate steps and stabbed him to death. This in turn provoked another civil war, which eventually completed the transition from republic to empire.
The assassination also helped mythologize Caesar himself: passing his name on to the first full-blown emperor, Augustus, it became synonymous with the imperial office and even with rulership (Caesar is the root of the German kaiser and the Russian tsar). To this day, from calendar to cuisine, the world is shaped by the memory of Julius Caesar.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
If you enjoyed this post, check out some of our other content here at the Journal, like these profiles of Beowulf and Harriet Beecher Stowe or these “Great Conversation” posts on inductive logic and film studies. And don’t miss our weekly podcast on education and culture, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.