Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE) was a brilliant Roman general and statesmen whose actions truly changed history and altered its course. Had he never existed, the world today might be a very different one. He was born a patrician and claimed descent from the Trojan hero Aeneas and ultimately the goddess Venus—a distinguished, if fanciful, lineage that stretched back thousands of years.
Caesar became the head of his family at age 16, following the death of his father. He joined the army and served with distinction until his return to Rome in 78 BCE. He then pursued a legal career and thrived as an orator. He was on his way to Rhodes in 75 BCE to study under a respected master of oratory when his ship was seized by Silician pirates and he himself was captured and held for ransom. After it was paid he hunted down the pirates and had them all executed, which he had promised them while he was still in captivity.
Upon Caesar’s return to Rome a number of promotions followed. He was elected first tribune, then quaestor, then successfully ran for the office of pontifex maximus (high priest of the state religion) in 63 BCE; this office permitted him the right to reform the Roman calendar to what we call the Julian calendar, a variation of which (the Gregorian) we now use today. Caesar thus influenced the way the Western world conceives the passage of time. Caesar was then appointed governor of Outer Iberia (in Spain), where he led troops to several victories. He returned to Rome and was elected consul (together with two other statesmen) in 59 BCE. He then formed a political alliance known as the First Triumvirate with the wealthy statesmen and generals Crassus and Pompey. Caesar was then appointed governor of northern Italy, the western Balkans, and then southern France. He proceeded to conquer and annex additional provinces of Gaul (France) that had previously been beyond Rome’s scope. In 55 and 54 BCE he led two campaigns into Britain with reasonable success, and then returned to Gaul, where he continued to secure the unstable regions for the next few years. Caesar had thus succeeded in Romanizing a greater portion of Europe than had ever been done before.
In the meantime, Caesar’s former ally, Pompey, who was head of the Senate (as Crassus had been killed in battle), ordered Caesar to return to Rome, as his proconsul term had expired. Caesar knew that he would have to enter the city as a private citizen and without his army, leaving him open to certain legal prosecution for his actions as proconsul. He decided to ignore this and effectively declared war on his former friend (and son-in-law, as Pompey had been married to Caesar’s daughter until her untimely death). Caesar declared his intentions when he crossed the river Rubicon in 49 BCE. Civil war erupted, and Caesar spent around a year defeating his rival Pompey’s legions across Europe, finally pursuing him as far as Alexandria in Egypt, where Pompey was murdered by the Egyptian court.
Caesar in the meantime was appointed dictator of Rome, and began to interfere in a civil war in Egypt between Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra VII. He began a love affair with the queen and defeated her brother in battle. He then traveled to the Near East for additional campaigns, and to Africa to defeat the last of Pompey’s supporters. He returned to Rome in 45 BCE and named his grand-nephew Gaius Octavius (the future Emperor Augustus) his heir. The Senate named Caesar Dictator Perpetuus (dictator for life), and many feared that he would become king; this led to an assassination plot led by Caesar’s friend, Marcus Junius Brutus and his brother-inlaw, Cassius. On March 15 (the Ides of March) in 44 BCE the assassins struck, stabbing Caesar 23 times on his way to a Senate meeting. Unfortunately, what the assassins had tried to prevent was exactly what they precipitated: the end of the Republic and the beginning of a hereditary monarchy. Mark Antony and Octavian joined forces with Caesar’s cavalry commander Lepidus (to form the Second Triumvirate) and waged war against the armies of Brutus and Cassius, defeating them at Philippi in Greece. Mark Antony and Octavian then came to blows, with Mark Antony forming a legal and amorous alliance with Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra were defeated and committed suicide, and Lepidus went into exile, leaving Octavian free to be declared the first Roman Emperor.
The Roman Empire, which Caesar had effectively created, continued to dominate the Western world for centuries; its influence is still felt in modern language, culture, science, technology, and religion. We can only speculate as to what our world might have become had Caesar himself never existed, or if his life had taken an alternate course.
See also Alexander the Great; Attila the Hun; Charlemagne; Genghis Khan; Rameses II; Rome, Ancient
Caesar, Gaius Julius. (1999). The Gallic war. Oxford, UK:
Oxford World Classics. (Original work c. 45 BCE) Goldsworthy, A. (2008) Caesar: Life of a colossus. New
Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Suetonius. (2003). The twelve Caesars. London: Penguin
Classics. (Original work published 121 CE)