So far, this short series has covered a number of what most historians consider to be morally ‘good’ men. Discussing what ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is is an entirely new series in itself, if not a whole website. Leaders like Winston Churchill or Marcus Aurelius were in charge during one of their respective nation’s wartime periods. They made decisions that resulted in the deaths of perhaps thousands of people. This, naturally, is part of leadership – especially in times of war. But we mostly agree that their overall and lasting legacy is positive. The man I would like to discuss today is Gaius Julius Caesar, the first dictator of Rome.
Julius Caesar was unmatched in military and political cunning. His bravery on the battlefield was often second-to-none, and his social and economic reforms to a crumbling Republic gave way to another 500 years of Roman domination in Europe. However, Julius Caesar was a murder, often only to gain personal power. Furthermore, he was a dictator; an ultra-authoritarian who had political enemies silenced in order to lengthen his rule.
I will not argue that what Julius Caesar was either good or bad. I will, however, suggest, that he was an excellent general, an excellent politician, and an excellent orator. Hence why he falls into the category of ‘History’s Finest’.
Gaius Julius Caesar was born in July, 100 BC to a wealthy family with strong political connections. This family was said to have family ties dating back as far as the Roman Goddess Venus. The young Julius was set to become a priest, and thus a military career – let alone a political one – appeared highly unlikely. However, a civil war in Rome that included Julius’ family broke out when the to-be consul was only a young man. The war resulted in the defeat of Julius’ father, and soon Julius himself was a target of the government. To flee Rome and re-gain favour for his family’s name, Julius joined the army at 16 and steadily moved through the ranks.
It is said that the young Julius was fearless in battle, charging without regard of personal safety into battle against any that would wish for Rome’s defeat. In his early-20’s Julius was kidnapped by a band of pirates on the Aegean sea, who asked for 20 pieces of silver. Julius, in his ever-growing confidence, insisted his life was worth far more and suggested his captives ask Rome for 50 silver. During his captivity, Julius promised his new friends death by crucifixion. He received a roar of laughter and a pat on the back. The newly requested ransom was paid promptly. Soon after that, Julius raised a fleet, captured the pirates, and had them executed… via crucifixion.
Throughout the next 20 years, Julius engaged in many political and militaristic campaigns, forming bonds with men such as Marcus Crassus and Pompey – alliances that would seal his fate as a chief power in the Roman state. Furthermore, Julius leads legions throughout Spain, conquering and maintaining many regions. However as his prominence rose, so too did his financial debts. While the successful businessman, Marcus Crassus settled many of these, Julius needed to continually conquer new territory to both keep in public favour and reap the countless riches of those lands.
Julius Caesar was born to conquer. He conquered land, people, the political senate, and very near anything else that stood between Julius and absolute power. Allies Crassus and Pompey aided this conquering. The three would be known publicly as the ‘First Triumvirate’ and would dominate trade, war, and politics through fear tactics and military domination. Julius was also given governorship of a large landmass in Europe – a governorship that included four legions.
To pay his debt, Julius opted to exercise his favourite pastime of conquering land. Julius extended Rome’s borders swiftly north, capturing nearly all of Gaul (modern-day France), thus winning favour with the Republic’s people. Hoping to emulate Caesar’s glory, Crassus attempted to lead legions into the Middle East and claim land there. Crassus failed and died in the process.
The death of Crassus left only two of the First Triumvirate alive. Furthermore, as Julius’ power and renowned continued to escalate, Pompey began to grow concerned. Tensions rose with the death of Julia, the daughter of Julius and the wife of Pompey. Word of civil war began to grow within the Republic as the bond between Pompey and Julius ceased with the deaths of Crassus and Julia. Both men started to gather their political and aggressive forces.
In 50 BC Julius’ governorship of what was now most of Europe, had officially come to an end. The Republic’s Senate and Pompey warned that if he did not disband his legions and return to Rome immediately, he would be prosecuted. By crossing the Rubicon in 49 BC, Julius sent a clear message to Rome and cemented his legacy as dictator. Julius would not give up his power, in fact, he was after more. Confident in his retreat, Pompey left for Greece with a large force and the backing of the Senate. Julius opted to follow his former ally into battle, and the two finally met in Pharsalus in 48 BC. Julius returned to Rome and was finally crowned dictator.
Pompey escaped death at the hands of Julius and attempted to find safety in Egypt. Pompey did not find safety and was instead assassinated by the country’s boy-Pharaoh. Julius opted to intervene in Egypt’s civil war, joining Cleopatra to assure victory. After a series of victories over Pompey’s last supporters, Julius secured his dictatorship for ten years at the hands of the Senate. In 44 BC, fearing his ever-growing power, the Senate assassinated Julius. This assassination was lead by Brutus, a man Julius considered a protégé and adopted son.
Rome’s public was outraged at their leader’s assassination and years of political turmoil raged. Gaius Julius Caesar had achieved more in one lifetime than any man (arguably with the exception of Alexander The Great) had before. Endless celebrations and public wealth flowed throughout the Republic during his reign. Even to this day, generals and politicians the world over try to emulate the power and prestige of Julius. He established peace within the lands that would allow Rome– the blueprint for our modern Western civilisation – to be the dominant force within all the world for another half of a millennium. But, Julius Caesar conquered lands, often with the only excuse being to pay his debts. Many historians describe Julius’ conquering of Gaul as a ‘Celtic Holocaust’ – a term that cannot be held lightly.
Was Julius a good man? Did the legacy he leave positively impact our world? That is for the reader to decide.