In this lesson, we keep our eyes fixed on the Roman people and the most famous Roman of all: Julius Caesar. His significance can only be understood by those who know of the history of Rome before him: the founding by Romulus, the early kings, the creation of the Roman Republic and the Punic Wars. We must take a moment and establish the context of the life of Julius Caesar so that we can appreciate him.
At the time of Caesar’s birth, the Romans had full control over the Mediterranean Sea and all of the lands around it. The power of the Roman Republic stretched from the city itself all the way into northern Europe and west to the “ends of the earth”. To the south, the Romans controlled everything as far as the Libyan deserts. To the east, Roman power was moving throughout Palestine and into Mesopotamia. All that Alexander had gained 200 years earlier was slowly coming under Roman control.
The Life of Caesar
Any time we consider a man’s life, we should focus on three things: his birth, his life and his death. By his birth we do not simply mean his date of birth, but the family into which he was born and the advantages or disadvantages he received from it, his natural gifts, health or lack of health and so on. In studying his birth, we also consider the education and training he received as these are normally controlled not by the individual but by the family into which he is born. By his life, we do not merely mean the deeds he performed, but those deeds relative to the advantages or disadvantages he lived with. One man can achieve little yet be very great, while another can accomplish much and have wasted much of his talent and opportunities. Lastly, by death we mean the timing and circumstances of his death, the manner in which his death was received and the overall impact he has had on the world.
I. The Birth of Caesar
Julius Caesar was born in 102 BC (we memorize 100 BC so it’s easier to remember) in the fifth month of the year, which the Romans called Quintilius. His full name was Gaius Julius Caesar and he was born into one of the most famous families in Rome. The Julian family traced its history all the way back to Iulus, the son of Aeneas who arrived with him from Troy 1000 years earlier.
Caesar’s family was wealthy and powerful throughout the history of the Republic. If we look back to the earliest years of the Roman Republic, we find Julians ruling as consuls, tribunes, dictators and praetors . The poet Vergil, however, who lived after Caesar and claimed to be inspired by the Muses, spoke of an ancient prophecy concerning the Julian family that was spoken to Aeneas long ago. At this point in World Chronology, you should understand it all…read slowly:
Thy son (nor is th’ appointed season far)
In Italy shall wage successful war,
Shall tame fierce nations in the bloody field,
And sov’reign laws impose, and cities build,
Till, after ev’ry foe subdued, the sun
Thrice thro’ the signs his annual race shall run:
This is his time prefix’d. Ascanius then,
Now call’d Iulus, shall begin his reign.
He thirty rolling years the crown shall wear,
Then from Lavinium shall the seat transfer,
And, with hard labor, Alba Longa build.
The throne with his succession shall be fill’d
Three hundred circuits more: then shall be seen
Ilia the fair, a priestess and a queen,
Who, full of Mars, in time, with kindly throes,
Shall at a birth two goodly boys disclose.
The royal babes a tawny wolf shall drain:
Then Romulus his grandsire’s throne shall gain,
Of martial tow’rs the founder shall become,
The people Romans call, the city Rome.
To them no bounds of empire I assign,
Nor term of years to their immortal line.
Ev’n haughty Juno, who, with endless broils,
Earth, seas, and heav’n, and Jove himself turmoils;
At length aton’d, her friendly pow’r shall join,
To cherish and advance the Trojan line.
The subject world shall Rome’s dominion own,
And, prostrate, shall adore the nation of the gown.
An age is ripening in revolving fate
When Troy shall overturn the Grecian state,
And sweet revenge her conqu’ring sons shall call,
To crush the people that conspir’d her fall.
Then Caesar from the Julian stock shall rise,
Whose empire ocean, and whose fame the skies
Alone shall bound; whom, fraught with eastern spoils,
Our heav’n, the just reward of human toils,
Securely shall repay with rites divine;
And incense shall ascend before his sacred shrine.
Then dire debate and impious war shall cease,
And the stern age be soften’d into peace:
Thus, we see that the family into which Julius Caesar was born was among the most famous of Roman families, possibly THE most famous family. No disadvantages there.
As a member of such a family, he would have received a very good education, similar to the one available in the CLAA. We know what Julius Caesar’s education was probably like because we know a good deal about the education of the famous Roman Cicero, who lived at the same time as Caesar.
Caesar would have been trained in good morals as a young boy. He would have been taught the virtues of hard work, simplicity of life, devotion to Rome and respect for the gods. As he got a little older, he was taught Latin and Greek Grammar, then Dialectic and Rhetoric. He surely studied Arithmetic, along with Geometry, some Astronomy and maybe even some Music. As a child in a wealthy and powerful family, his education would have been focused on serving the state and honoring his family, not learning how to make a living. When he was finished with his education, he would be appointed to a low position somewhere in the Roman government and begin on what was known as the cursus honorum. This was the “course of honors” that one could climb from the lowest to the highest place in Roman government. Once set on the course by a connection in one’s family, it was up to the individual to make friends, achieve great things and climb as high as possible.
II. The Deeds of Caesar
When his studies were completed at age 15, Julius Caesar was offered his start in the cursus honorum. He was named high priest of Jupiter by his uncle Gaius Marius, who was himself a powerful Roman. Marius served as a Roman governor and consul and gave Caesar his start.
In being a friend/relative of Marius, Caesar grew up in the middle of a great battle. Caesar’s uncle was fighting for control of Rome against a famous Roman names Lucius Cornelius Sulla. As Caesar grew up, Rome was divided between two different groups (called parties). His uncle’s group was the People’s party, known as the Populares. Sulla’s group was the Aristocrats’ party, knows as the Optimates. The Optimates fought for the interests of the wealthy in Rome. The Populares defended the people against the wealthy. As a relative and friend of Marius, Caesar was a member of the Populares, and that put him in danger when Marius died and Sulla took power in Rome. Sulla hunted Caesar down as a supporter of Marius, but the young Caesar was spared. Nevertheless, he was removed from his office as high priest of Jupiter and exiled from Rome. Having been forced out of Rome, Julius Caesar entered into the military life.
Sulla died in 78 BC and Rome was left in disorder. Caesar returned to Rome. After his death, the Populares slowly gained power while Caesar was away. In 70 BC, two populares were elected consuls: Pompey and Crassus. The populares had their opportunity to take power in Rome but they needed a leader—someone to serve as the face of the party and rally the people. Pompey looked like the man for the job, but he was sent away from Rome to lead the army in the east. Caesar began to rise in popularity as a politician, moving back up the cursus honorum, but Pompey was everyone’s choice as leader of the Populares. Caesar knew that he would have to prove himself greater than Pompey to gain control of the party.
Rather than fighting against one another, Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus agreed to form a team and work to support one another. This three-man team was called a triumvirate from the Latin trium (three) and vir (man).
When Caesar was 40 years old (59 BC), Pompey and Crassus helped him to become consul, which was the highest position in the Roman government. While he held that office–which a man only held for one year–Caesar made changes that benefited the triumvirate. When his time of service ended, he took control of Gaul (Lat. Gallia), which was in western Europe, where we find France today. Caesar took command of Gaul not only because he was concerned about serving his country well, but also because he knew that to win the hearts of the Roman people, he would have to prove himself to be Rome’s greatest general. To make sure that his achievements were not forgotten, Caesar wrote a history of his wars in Gaul, which is one of the most famous books ever written. Caesar conquered the Gauls in 50 BC and had developed a powerful army that served him faithfully.
As Caesar finished his triumphs in the north, his thoughts were called home to Rome. He learned that Crassus was killed in battle and, because of his success in Gaul, Pompey was no longer loyal to him, but was moved by envy. The triumvirate was over and Pompey joined the Optimates–betraying Caesar. The Roman government ordered Caesar to give up his command in Gaul and to return to Rome immediately. Caesar obeyed the call to return…but brought his army with him. Hearing that Caesar was coming with his great army, Pompey abandoned Rome to organize an army of his own. Caesar won four great battles against Pompey and his supporters that gave him complete power over the Roman people. Even though Rome remained a Republic with elected leaders, everyone knew that Caesar controlled everything.
However, having grown up in a nation divided and exhausted by civil wars and fighting within Rome among Romans, Caesar knew that to save Rome he needed to end the fighting and bring all Romans together. After seizing power, he pardoned all of his enemies and appealed to the best men for help–no matter what party they belonged to. One of these men was Marcus Junius Brutus, who we will learn more of later. Brutus was a member of the Optimates and a follower of Pompey, but appealed to Caesar for pardon when he realized Pompey was defeated. Caesar forgave him.
Caesar made and planned improvements he knew were necessary for the happiness of Rome. He established a new and better calendar, which was still being developed at that time in history. In fact, the month of his birth (Quintilius) was renamed Julius (July) in honor of him. He organized the laws of Rome so they would be clearer to the Roman people and leadership. He planned great projects to improve the quality of life in Rome and to make travel and trade easier with other nations. He prepared the army to defend the borders of the Republic against outside enemies. He used all of his wisdom and skill to organize and lead the people of Rome.
Unfortunately, Caesar would not be given the opportunity to accomplish these wonderful plans.
III. The Death of Caesar
Let us think back on Roman history to understand the events that led to the death of Julius Caesar.
At the time of Caesar’s life, Rome was a Republic–a nation ruled by the people and under the direction of a Senate. However, if you think back, Rome was not always a Republic. The Republic was established in 509 BC after Rome was abused by arrogant kings. At that time, the people, led by Junius Brutus, cast out Tarquin “the Proud” and made it impossible for a king to ever oppress and threaten the Roman people again.
However, over time, as Rome became more and more powerful, the Republic began to break down. “The love of money is the root of all evil”, and as wealth and power became available to men in Rome, they became more and more greedy for it and less and less concerned about the good of their state. After defeating its enemies overseas, the Romans began fighting with each other. By the time Julius Caesar rose to power in Rome, the nation was a mess.
Whenever the Republic had been in trouble in times past, dictators were called upon to lead them to safety. However, at this time, Rome was growing very quickly and could not afford to be governed any longer by the changing desires of the people. Rome needed strong and wise leadership and that meant a king.
A king! In Rome? No way! Indeed, many knew that this was where Julius Caesar was moving and that he had the wisdom, strength and support to accomplish it. Surely, Rome may have been a city ruled by the people and no kings–but this new Rome was a growing world power and not the Rome of 509 BC. Caesar saw the need for change, but those men who loved their country , who knew the stories of the abuses of the ancient Roman kings and who saw the many abuses of kings in nations around them would never allow it.
The Roman historian Plutarch tells us that a soothsayer came to Caesar and warned him to “Beware of the Ides of March.” The “Ides” on the Roman calendar was a day near mid-month, which for March was the 15th. On the morning of the Ides of March, Caesar met the soothsayer again and jokingly said, “The Ides of March are come.” The soothsayer replied, “Yes, they are come, but they are not past.”
All sorts of signs and omens were witnessed as his death drew near. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia dreamed that she held his murdered body in her arms. The priests of Rome warned Caesar that their divination gave unhappy warnings. A Greek teacher who knew of the conspiracy later delivered a letter to Caesar that he would fail to read.
In the end, it was learned that a conspiracy had formed and the murder of Julius Caesar was planned within the Senate. Among the men involved in this conspiracy was Marcus Junius Brutus–the same Brutus whom Caesar had forgiven earlier. When Caesar appeared before the Senate on the Ides of March in 44 BC (710 AUC), he was stabbed to death by his fellow Senators–led by Gaius Cassius Longinus (a friend of Pompey who had fought against Caesar) and Brutus. It is recorded by one historian that when Caesar saw Brutus among his killers he said, “And you…my son?”
Thus, Caesar’s rise through the cursus honorum, ended in his bloody murder in the Roman Senate. Moreover, his death came at the hands of men to whom he had shown great mercy when their lives were in his hand. Brutus and Cassius have been recognized with Judas Iscariot as the three worst sinners in human history, for there is no sinner great as would betray his own master to his enemies–and that a gentle master. Julius Caesar was honored as a god on earth and was forever remembered as a leader who died as a result of his mercy.
In our next lesson, we will continue this history and learn of the events that followed the death of Julius Caesar. As for Caesar’s birth, we saw that he enjoyed an extraordinary birth–born into the ancient Julian family that traced its roots back to the son of Aeneas. He was afforded every privilege and opportunity in life. As for Caesar’s life, we find that he seized every advantage he was given and, by his own greatness and labor, glorified his family. In his death, he suffered as a result of his famous mercy and was finally honored as a god among men in ancient Rome. He was born into a family most privileged, lived a life full of deeds most extraordinary and died as one of the most famous men to ever live. Truly, Julius Caesar was an honorable man.