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Gaius Julius Caesar was born 100 or 102 BC (accounts of his life vary, and the calendar has been changed since his time).
He was born into the Julian gens, in the Patrician (aristocratic) family of the Caesares. Looking back from our present world-view, which has been influenced by Judeo-Christian concepts of justice, fair-play, honesty and morality, it is easy to become prejudiced and judgmental about pre-Christian Roman society. Caesar was a man of his times, and was prepared to lie, cheat, bribe, and murder his way to the top.
His family was neither rich nor very powerful, and his father died when he was 16. The Republic of Rome was facing a time of turmoil and mismanagement, with unrest and rebellion among the tribes and nations who had been conquered. It seems that Caesar decided to make a bid for political power in order to bring the political system into better order and to restore Rome's greatness.
At the age of 18, he threw in his lot with a radical party led by L. Cornelius Cinna. He broke his engagement to another girl, in order to marry one of Cornelius' daughters, Cornelia. Cornelia bore him his only legitimate child, a daughter, Julia.
In 83-82 BC, Cinna lost power to L. Cornelius Sulla, who ordered Caesar to divorce Cornelia. Caesar refused. Sulla seized his property and put Caesar's name on the death list, so Caesar fled to Asia. Sulla died in 78 BC and Caesar was able to return to Rome, where he became involved in the political struggles between various parties.
After an adventure in which he was captured by pirates, had to raise a ransom, and then turned around and captured the pirates and crucified them, he traveled to Asia, raised his own army, and led it against King Mithridates who had rebelled against Rome.
Returning to Rome, he was awarded the position of military tribune, and commenced a path of military and political advancement, in which he was prepared to give heavy bribes to secure support and votes.
In 68 BC his wife Cornelia died, and Caesar married Pompeia, a relative of his ally Pompey (Gnaius Pompeius). In 62 BC he divorced her after a scandal in which she was involved became public.
In 61 BC he won the governorship of "Hispania ulterior" - Farther Spain, and used his position to lead a military expedition to the north, where he gained enough plunder to pay his soldiers and to clear his outstanding debts in Rome.
In 60 BC he returned to Rome, and stood for election as a consul. The election involved massive bribery by all parties, but Caesar was successful in being elected to one of the consulships. The other consul, M. Calpurnius Bibulus, was so completely overshadowed by Caesar, that he lamented that although Caesar and he together did things, only Caesar got the credit. Suetonius recorded that people made jokes about dating documents, not "in the year of Caesar and Bibulus", but "in the year of Caesar and Julius" (dating the year only by Julius Caesar).
At this time, Caesar entered into a secret alliance with Pompey, and also drew Crassus into the alliance, forming what became know as the first Triumvirate (government by three men). Pompey married Caesar's daughter Julia, and Caesar married Calpurnia, daughter of L. Piso who was made consul in 58 BC.
As part of his consulship, Caesar acquired the governorship of Cisalpine Gaul - the region north of Italy but south of the Alps. When the governor of Transalpine Gaul died, Pompey arranged for Caesar to be given that province also, and Caesar started a campaign of conquest which led him into what is now Europe. Between the years 58-10 BC he conquered the whole of Gaul (what is now France and part of Germany. In 55 BC he invaded Britain and made that a Roman province also.
The Gallic wars enabled Caesar to plunder and loot most of northern Gaul. He used this wealth to hire political agents and allies in Rome. Pompey was jealous of Caesar; Crassus had always been suspicious of Pompey. A temporary patching of the breach was made in 56 BC, when Pompey and Crassus were elected consuls, Caesar was given a five-year governorship of Gaul, Pompey got a five-year governorship of Spain, and Crassus a five-year governorship of Syria.
However, in 53 BC Crassus was defeated by the Parthians, and Caesar and Pompey drifted further and further apart after the death of Julia in 54 BC. The political situation in Rome became very complex and unstable, and in 49 BC the Senate ordered Caesar to give up the command of his army, and effectively become a private citizen again, or else be declared a public enemy - which put him in danger for his life.
Caesar led his army to the border between Cisalpine Gaul and Italy itself - to the Rubicon, a small river in northern Italy. Here, he took the decisive step of leading his army into Italy, thus effectively declaring war against the Senate, and initiating a Civil war.
Pompey led an army against Caesar, but was defeated. After a year of fighting and retreating, Pompey fled to Egypt, where he was murdered in 48 BC.
Caesar had followed Pompey to Egypt, and met up with Cleopatra VII, the last Queen of the Ptolemaic dynasty. They had a son, Caesarion, and at least one daughter. In 46 BC he brought Cleopatra to Rome, and set up house with her, although he was still married to Calpurnia. Cleopatra remained in Rome until the assassination of Caesar, and then took up with Mark Antony.
In 47 BC Caesar led a brief and victorious campaign against Pharnaces, king of the Cimmerians in what is now Turkey. Caesar's famous report on this campaign was "Veni. Vidi. Vici" (I came. I saw. I conquered.)
During the years 46-45 BC Caesar led campaigns in Northern Africa and Spain, and in 45 BC he was appointed Dictator for life. Although he was offered the title of King several times, he declined it. However, his rule was decidedly autocratic, and resentment and opposition grew amongst the other Roman leaders, culminating in the plot to assassinate him.
On the "Ides of March", March 15, 44 BC, Caesar went to the Senate house, although he had been warned that there was a plot against him. On his arrival, one of the conspirators used some excuse to get Mark Antony away from his side (Antony would probably have aided Caesar in a fight). About sixty conspirators clustered around Caesar, on the pretext that one of them was presenting a petition. At the pre-arranged signal of Cimber grabbing Caesar's toga, daggers were drawn from where they had been hidden in the folds of togas, and Caesar fell under the attack.
One of the leading assailants was Marcus Brutus. The words "et tu, Brute?", which Caesar is often quoted as saying, come to us from Shakespeare's play, and were probably not what Caesar actually said.
Suetonuis records that Caesar spoke in Greek, saying "kai su, teknon?" (You too, boy?)
Caesar's murder was followed by several years of fighting between opposing factions in Rome. Many of the conspirators were killed or committed suicide in the next few years.
Caesar's friend Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) led the fight against Caesar's assassins, and was joined by Octavian, Caesar's young nephew and adopted heir.
Mark Antony took up with Cleopatra, and made a bid for power.
Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the naval battle of Actium (on the West coast of Greece).
Cleopatra, and then Antony, fled to Egypt, where they both committed suicide.
Octavian became Dictator and eventually Emperor, taking the name Augustus.
The Republic of Rome was at an end, and the Roman Empire had come into existence.
Copyright © 1999 Shirley J. Rollinson, all Rights Reserved
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Last Updated : December 24, 2010