breve biografia caio giulio cesare roma

Gaius Julius Caesar, the non-emperor of Rome so feared that he was assassinated

Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) was one of the most important and influential generals and politicians in the history of Rome (and not only). In Res Publica power was contested between two main factions: the popular, who defended the interests of the humblest population, and the optimisedsupporters of the aristocracy. Caesar began his political career in the republic at a young age and belonged to the first of the two groups. His career took a turn in the year 60, when he formed an alliance, known as first triumviratewith two powerful politicians: Pompey and Crassus. Caesar was elected console and subsequently, having assumed command of some legions, he conquered the territory of Gaul.

The enormous power he had acquired frightened the Senate and in 49 a civil warin which Caesar’s legions defeated those of Pompey, who had become his enemy. The triumph of the leader was now complete, but a group of senators, fearing that he might want to become king of Rome, thus restoring the monarchy, decided to eliminate him. In 44 BC, during the Ides of March, Caesar was killed by treachery during a session of the senate. Among the attackers were also the famous Brutus and Cassius.

Caesar’s Youth

Gaius (or Gaius) Julius Caesar was born in Rome in 100 BC. It belonged to the Julia familyone of the most illustrious families of the city. As a young man he was involved in the civil war that pitted the popular driven by Caius Mariushis uncle, and the optimates led by Lucius Cornelius SullaThe war was won by Sulla and in 86 Caesar decided to leave Rometaking refuge first in Sabina and then in the East. From a physical point of view he was tall, had a fair complexion and dark eyes.

The beginning of his political career and the triumvirate

In 78, after the death of Sulla, Caesar returned to Rome and began the career as a “lawyer”accusing some Sullan exponents in court and accrediting himself as one of the most prominent politicians of the popular faction. He lost the main causes, but, after a new journey in the eastern Mediterranean, he began a rapid political rise and was elected to increasingly prestigious positions.

Statue of Caesar
Statue of Caesar

In those years the emerging figures of Roman politics were Gnaeus Pompeythe most prominent military commander of the city, and the very rich Marcus Licinius Crassus. In 60 CE Caesar made an agreement with the two men, which has gone down in history as first triumvirateand in 59 it was elected consulthe most important office of the Republic. At the end of his mandate, which lasted one year, he was appointed proconsul (a sort of governor) of Cisalpine Gaul (i.e. the Po Valley), Narbonensis Gaul (southern France) and Illyricum (Croatian coast), territories already conquered by Rome.

The conquest of Gaul

Caesar left for his provinces in 58 and soon started the conquest of the rest of Gaulsubjugating, with a mixture of force and diplomacy, the territory of the France he was born in Belgium, as well as parts of Switzerland and Germany. Between 55 and 54 he landed twice in Britannia (present-day England), without permanently occupying the island.

The people of Gaul, however, rebelled and a leader of the Arverni people, Vercingetorixmanaged to unite numerous tribes against Roman rule. Caesar therefore had to face a new war. The decisive battle took place near the city of Alesiain north-eastern France, in the year 52. Rome’s legions besieged the city and defeated the Gallic armies that came to the relief of the besieged. Vercingetorix was forced to surrender.

The conquest of Gaul (credit Semhur)
The conquest of Gaul (credit Semhur)

The civil war

In Rome, Caesar was starting to get scarybecause the prestige acquired with the triumph over the Gauls suggested that it could assume complete hegemony over political life. The fear also arose from the fact that the institutions of the Republic, founded in 509 BC when Rome was a small city-state, were inadequate for a vast empire like that of the first century.

The triumvirate had run out of steam: Crassus had died in 53 and Pompey took over as leader of Caesar’s opponents. In 49 the senators decided to remove the proconsular command from the conqueror of Gaul, to force him to return to Rome without his soldiers. Caesar could not accept this solution and, after the attempts at mediation failed, war became inevitable. Caesar’s troops, stationed in Cisalpine Gaul, pushed south of the Rubicona river that flows near Cesena. It was the point of no return: after the Rubicon began the territory of Italy and it was forbidden for any commander to enter there with his legions.

The Roman world at the beginning of the civil war (credit Cristiano64)
The Roman world at the beginning of the civil war (credit Cristiano64)

Upon receiving the news, Pompey and his faction left Rome and brought to Greecewith the aim of joining the legions stationed in the area and starting the counteroffensive. Caesar occupied Rome, led a brief military campaign in Gaul and Spain against Pompey’s supporters and, when the fleet was ready, reached the enemy in Greece. On 9 August 48 in the vicinity of Farsal (Northern Greece) the decisive battle was fought and Caesar’s legions won a clear victory.

Caesar at the height of his power and his relationship with Cleopatra

Pompey sought refuge in Egypt, where a civil war was underway between two members of the ruling dynasty, Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra. Ptolemy’s advisors had the Roman general killed, but Caesar, who arrived shortly after, did not appreciate the gesture (it is said that he cried when he saw the severed head of his enemy) and in the civil war he sided with Cleopatra, who also became his lover and bore him a son, Caesarion. Caesar secured the throne of Egypt for the woman and later led military campaigns in Asia, North Africa and Spain. He returned to Rome in 45. Along with his military skills, he demonstrated great political skill, reintegrating many of Pompey’s supporters into the ruling class: he was aware that reconciliation was necessary to end the conflicts and make the victory lasting.

Caesar and Cleopatra
Caesar and Cleopatra

His power, after all, was now enormous. In 46 he had assumed the office of dictatora magistracy that the senate assigned in circumstances of danger and for a short time. Caesar, however, obtained the dictatorship for ten years and, in February 44, even for life.

The Ides of March and the Assassination of Caesar

Caesar’s power worried many members of the ruling class. It was feared that the leader he wanted to be named kingfounding a dynasty with his son by Cleopatra. Caesar’s true intentions are not known and, formally, he did not hold never charges not provided for by law. For the Romans, however, the mere thought of having a king was an abomination. A group of senators, including many former supporters of Caesar and the famous Brutus and Cassius, organized a conspiracy to eliminate him and March 15, 1944 (the Ides of March according to the Roman calendar), when the leader went to the Senate, the conspirators met him and stabbed to death. The killing of Caesar, however, did not interrupt the changes in progress and a few years later his adopted son, Octavianhad himself proclaimed emperor.

The Death of Caesar in a Painting by V. Camuccini
The Death of Caesar in a Painting by V. Camuccini

Main sources

Gaius Julius Caesar, The Gallic War, Translation by Adriano Pennacini, Einaudi 2006

Luciano Canfora, Julius Caesar. The Democratic Dictator, Laterza 1999

Jérôme Carcopino, Julius Caesar, Rusconi, 1981