Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1998 R. James Ferguson

Background Briefing:

Caesar and Pompey: The Civil Wars Rejoined



- Civil War Declared

- War in Greece and the East

- The Clemency of the Victor

- Dictator Perpetuus

- For the Length of His Unnatural Life


1. Civil War Declared

Rome had already experienced the ravaging conflicts of Sulla and Marius, but had not developed mechanism to avoid political ambition sliding towards civil war. With the first triumvirate unravelling after the death of Crassus in 53 B.C., both Caesar and Pompey sought to win over his adherents (Lewis & Reinhold 1990, p298). In particular, Caesar was concerned either to continue his special command of the legions in Gaul, or to be allowed to stand for the consulship in absentia, thereby making himself immune from legal prosecution (Lewis & Reinhold 1990, p298). The point was clearly understood by Cicero (who at first had hoped that civil war might be avoided, but in the end sided with Pompey): -

The point at issue, on which those who are the head of affairs are going to fight, is this: Gnaeus Pompey is determined not to allow Gaius Caesar to be elected consul unless he has handed over his army and his provinces; Caesar on the other hand is convinced that there is no safety for him if he once quits his army. He proposes, however, this compromise - that both should deliver up their armies. So it is that their vaunted mutual attachment and detestable alliance is not merely degenerating into private bickering, but is breaking out into war. . . . (Cicero, Letter of 50 B.C., Rome, in Lewis & Reinhold 1990, p302).

The events of 51-49 B.C. are complex. What is clear is that most of the Senators did not want civil war, and the majority were prepared to vote for both Pompey and Caesar disarming, as proposed by Antony on December 1, 50 B.C. Such a motion was blocked by the violent opposition of the consul Lentulus, and by Scipio (Pompey's new father-in-law), and was therefore not formally passed by the Senate (Plutarch Caesar 30). The mutual suspicion of Pompey and Caesar, inflamed by the firm opposition of Lentulus and M. Claudius Marcellus (Plutarch Caesar 29), as well as the opposition of the statesman Cato to Caesar (Caesar Civil Wars I.4; Suetonius Julius Caesar 30), made compromise impossible to reach. Pompey, in particular, viewed the situation as a 'hollow peace' and thought Caesar would either stay in Gaul, or else be defeated if chose to 'play the fool' (Cicero, Letter of December 50 B.C., Formiae, in Lewis & Reinhold 1990, p303).

The persuasion applied by a minority of men in the Senate, backed by the consuls, is described from the point of view of Caesar in his Civil Wars: -

The consul L. Lentulus puts pressure on the senate, and promises that he will not fail the republic if the senators are willing to express their opinions with boldness and resolution; but if they pay regard to Caesar and try to win favour with him as they have done on previous occasions, he says that he will consider his own interests and will not obey their authority. 'I too,' said he, 'can shelter myself under the favour and friendship of Caesar.' Scipio expresses himself in similar terms - that Pompeius is inclined not to desert the republic if the senate follows him; but if it delays and acts remissly, it will in vain solicit his aid should it wish to do so in future.

This speech of Scipio appeared to come from the mouth of Pompeius himself, since the senate was meeting in the city and Pompeius was close at hand. Some had expressed less rigorous views, such as M. Marcellus, who at first embarked on a speech to the effect that the question ought not to be referred to the senate till levies had been held throughout Italy and armies enrolled under whose protection the senate might venture to make such decrees as it wished safely and freely; such, too, as M. Calidus, who expressed the opinion that Pompeius should go to his own provinces in order that there might be no motive for hostilities. Caesar, he said, was afraid, lest it should be thought that Pompeius, having extorted two legions from him, was holding them back and retaining them near Rome with a view to imperilling him; such also as M. Rufus, who with a few modifications followed the opinion of Calidius. All these speakers were assailed with vehement invective by the consul L. Lentulus. He absolutely refused to put the motion of Calidius, and Marcellus, alarmed by the invectives, abandoned his proposal. Thus most of the senators, compelled by the language of the consul, intimidated by the presence of the army and by the threats of the friends of Pompeius, against their will and yielding to pressure, adopt the proposal of Scipio that Caesar disband his army before a fixed date, and that, if he failed to do so, he should be considered to be meditating treason against the republic. (Caesar Civil Wars I.1-2)

Although this account reveals some bias against Pompey, it is also makes clear that Caesar made sure that he only crossed the Rubicon (12 January 49 B.C.) after the Senate motion of 2nd January, which stated that he would be declared a public enemy if he does not give up his Gallic command, probably by March 1, (Plutarch Caesar 29; see Lewis 1985) and do so without the guarantee of a holding the next consulship. Likewise, he acted after the ultimate decree of the Senate of 7 January, which implied that he would be treated as a traitor and public enemy (Caesar Civil Wars I.5). The Senate's decree, and the threats of the consuls, had also alarmed the entire body of tribunes, who made their way to Caesar (Caesar Civil Wars I.5), as did many Senators who feared for their safety under the military dominion now handed to Pompey. The Senate then proceeded to hand over provincial commands, not to the proper promagistrates, including Philippus and Cotta, but to private persons such as Scipio and L. Domitius (Caesar Civil Wars I.6), whom it could trust as staunch anti-Caesarians.

In this light we can see how Caesar attempted to justify his march across the Rubicon into Italy with one of his legions. Against the famous statement that he held the value of his dignity above that of life itself, he argued in The Civil Wars that he 'had always placed the interests of the republic before his own interests' (Caesar Civil Wars I.8) and that he had 'always reckoned the dignity of the republic of first importance and preferable to life.' (Caesar Civil Wars I.9). His actions may be seen as a defensive response to the actions of the controlling group in the Senate; alternatively, he may have been contemplating similar actions in any case in order to resolve the uncertainties of his relationship with Pompey. Matthias Gelzer notes, however, the political difficulties of invading Italy: -

Caesar's invasion of Italy was a military success, but it also had the (for him) undesirable consequence that the legitimate government fled before him. The man who had previously done everything to put his opponents in the wrong before public opinion now appeared as a revolutionary: his intention to carry out his plans at least formally by constitutional means was thwarted. At one blow he lost the sympathy of peace-loving citizens which his previous willingness to compromise had won him: the more so since he was bringing the horrors of civil war to Italy, and the terror which preceded him was increased by the rumour that there were numerous Celtic troops in his train. (Gelzer 1968, p196).

It is true that Caesar seemed the weaker party. He had only one legion with him in northern Italy, while Pompey, backed now by a large section of the coerced Senate, 'had the rest of Italy, Spain, all the eastern provinces, and control of the sea and the corn-supply.' (Scullard 1966, p138). However, Pompey had only two mustered legions (Scullard 1966, p139), and these legions had served for some time with Caesar, who had been a brave, competent and popular commander. Their loyalty could not be fully relied upon, as noted by Cicero (Letter of January 49 B.C., Menturnae, in Lewis & Reinhold 1990, p304). Likewise, Pompey's boast that all he had to do was to stamp his foot on the ground and legions would spring up all over Italy was at best exaggerated. According to Caesar, even Cato, after the war broke out, apparently stated that Pompey had lied to the senate as to his state of preparedness, that he was actually 'utterly unprepared' (Caesar Civil Wars I.30; Syme 1974, p49).

Basically, the speed of Caesar's approach had put Pompey and his followers in an awkward position (Plutarch Caesar 32); they lacked the greater forces required to ensure a victory against a man of Julius' calibre. The folly of this had been shown by L. Domitius Ahenobarbus, who had been appointed governor of Transalpine Gaul after Caesar's 'official' deprivation of this command by the Senate. Domitius attempted to hold out against Caesar at Corfinium, against the advice of Pompey, who refused to try and rescue him (Caesar Civil Wars I.19). Domitius Ahenobarbus was soon forced to surrender (Scullard 1966, p139).

Pompey decided on the rather daring strategy of heading with his forces, and some 200 of the Senators, straight for Brundisium in the south of Italy, where they could embark to Greece to further muster forces from the east. Although this was a controversial strategy, since it left Caesar in possession of Rome, it was not without its strategic advantages. Pompey also had loyal commanders in Spain, and he obviously hoped to invade Italy from the north, using the legions situated in Spain, and himself move back across the Adriatic. Caesar would then find himself cut off from his Gallic reserves, and be squeezed from north and south by much greater forces than he could muster in Italy (Syme 1974, p49). Pompey soon managed to amass an army of six legions, three of them veteran forces (Caesar Civil Wars I.25), comprising some 36,000 legionaries, 300 ships (Scullard 1966, p142), and presumably, further auxiliary forces would later on be drawn from client kings in the east.

While investing Pompey's forces in Brundisium, Caesar still attempted some kind of reconciliation through Caninius Rebilius, who was one of the friends of one of Pompey's advisers, a certain Scibonius Libo. Pompey apparently delayed addressing this offer, arguing that he cannot negotiate while the consuls are not present (Caesar Civil Wars I.26); the consuls, meanwhile, have crossed over into northern Greece. Pompey and his forces soon followed, slipping out of Brundisium according to a carefully staged rear-guard action. From now on Pompey would refuse further attempts at negotiation, perhaps because he wished to polarise the remaining senators into choosing sides in the conflict (se Caesar Civil Wars I.33; III.10). Likewise, it seemed that many of the senators in Rome were not prepared to be sent out as peace negotiators, in spite of Caesar's proposals (Plutarch Caesar 35). The Civil War III.18 reports Pompey as saying "What is the use of life or citizenship to me which I shall be supposed to hold by the bounty of Caesar?" In fact neither man would lower his dignitas sufficiently to fight for peace.

Caesar, now in possession of Rome, took vigorous and immediate action to prevent encircling strategies being taken against him. He broke into the Aerarium, the treasury reserve in Rome, to finance his operations. In a matter of weeks, Caesar had left Aemilius Lepidus in control of Rome (as praefectus urbi), and was moving towards Spain with his land forces (Scullard 1966, pp139-41). He had decided to leave no section of Spain loaded with enemy troops, knowing the large number clients that Pompey and his family had in Spain (Caesar Civil Wars II.18). In three months he had control of the province, an amazing feat considering he was opposed by a total of six legions stationed there, with one more recently levied (Caesar Civil Wars I.84).

It was during this period that Cicero had to make his final choice. Caesar had hoped to have as least his tacit support, but in the end Cicero left to join the Pompeian forces in Greece. Cato, too, though critical of Pompey's conduct of affairs (Scullard 1966, p140), opposed his legates briefly in Sicily, then retreated to North Africa.

2. War in Greece and the East

Caesar then quickly turned against the Pompeian forces in the east. He dispatched several legions (inferred from Plutarch Caesar 37) across the Adriatic in early 48 B.C., even though it was the dangerous winter season. Intervention by Pompey's naval forces, drawn from all over Greece, Rhodes and the east (Caesar Civil Wars III.3 & 27), commanded by Bibulus, prevented Caesar from staging a decisive encounter until M. Antonius managed to bring an extra four legions and 800 cavalry across the Adriatic (Caesar Civil Wars III.29). These combined forces now took up a position just south of Dyrrachium, which Pompey defended with lines strung out across fortified hills. Pompey had concentrated his forces at this spot, including some auxiliary forces drawn from Syria, Macedonia and Thessaly, along with large masses of supplies and corn (Caesar Civil Wars III.4; III.44). Caesar in turn sealed in these forces with an extended outer ring of fortifications, some seventeen miles in length (Caesar Civil Wars III.43 & 63). This reduced the effectiveness of Pompey's superior cavalry, prevented his forces foraging for supplies, and diminished the reputation and moral of Pompey's forces (Caesar Civil Wars, III.43).

This type of warfare was unusual in that the besieged party was itself a strong, undefeated force, and the scale of fortifications used on both sides was huge. The descriptions in the Civil Wars III.45-57 make it almost seem like a kind of trench warfare, though Caesar did try to temp Pompey into a set battle between the camps (Caesar Civil Wars III.55). Indecisive skirmishes continued for almost four month (Suetonius Julius Caesar 35). Unfortunately, Caesar soon found his own men were running short of supplies (Caesar Civil Wars III.74; Plutarch Caesar 39; Scullard 1966, p142), presumably due to Bibulus' naval intervention in the Adriatic. Caesar was also unable to complete the second, outward-facing wall of the fortifications, and found his position turned by a naval landing of Pompey's forces outside this ring (Caesar Civil Wars III.63-4). A second victory by Pompey, pushing Caesar's forces back into their camp, was not followed up sufficiently to give him a decisive victory (Caesar Civil Wars III.69-71). Caesar apparently remarked, 'Today the enemy would have won, if they had a commander who was a winner.' (Plutarch Caesar 39).

Here Caesar engaged in of his classic manoeuvres . He left the siege (Caesar Civil Wars III.73), taking his forces to the south-east through Macedonia and Thessaly, where he could resupply his army (Plutarch Caesar 39). More importantly, he drew Pompey after him, away from the coast where Pompey had naval superiority (Caesar Civil Wars III.78) and away from the set defensive positions that Pompey had so skilfully established. In part this was required because one of Pompey's allies, Scipio, had brought legions from Syria into central Greece (Caesar Civil Wars III.31). Pompey could not really afford to have these legions wiped out by Caesar.

Yet Pompey had superior numbers of men, and a stronger cavalry arm; Plutarch reports that Pompey had 7,000 cavalry to Caesar's 1,000, Pompey 45-47,000 infantry against Caesar's 22,000 (Plutarch Caesar 42; Morgan 1983, p25). The later estimate of Caesar's infantry strength may be too low; if accurate, then most of Caesar's force consisted of his better trained veteran troops, which he had forged into an excellent fighting force in Gaul. It was Pompey's greater numerical strength, perhaps, which encouraged him to engage Caesar near Pharsalus, though it has since been argued that this name should be more correctly identified as Palaepharsalus, with the battle itself occurring near the modern town of Driskoli on the north bank of the Enipeus (see Morgan 1983).

Caesar's victory was gained by a sure insight into the method of attack that Pompey would use, by the greater discipline of his veteran forces compared with Pompey's (Suetonius Julius Caesar 68-69; Plutarch Caesar 28), and by two tactical innovations. First, he trained some of the youngest 'first rank' men, equipped with light arms, to fight in among his cavalry, thereby strengthening the resolve and defensive capacity of his small number of cavalry (Caesar Civil Wars III.84). This tactic he may have learnt from the Germans, where it was reported that 'infantry fought alongside cavalry', apparently holding on to the horse's main in combat' (Dixon & Southern 1992, p25), a unit formation that was taken up by Caesar during the Gallic war (Dixon & Southern 1992, p25, following Caesar Gallic Wars I.48 & VII.85). Second, on the battlefield he stationed 6 cohorts of infantry as an oblique fourth line, directed especially at the enemy cavalry, instructing them to use their pila as pikes against any cavalry which managed to break through or around the wings of his forward lines (Caesar Civil Wars III.89; Scullard 1966, p142). These men were apparently instructed to thrust at the eyes and faces of their cavalry opponents, many of whom were young, upper class men, and not experienced in warfare (Plutarch Caesar 45). This helped offset Caesar's limited cavalry force (see Morgan 1983, p46).

Pompey in fact relied almost entirely on his superior cavalry ring to sweep around and attack the flank of Caesar's right wing (Caesar Civil Wars III.86; Plutarch Caesar 44)). When this failed, rebuffed by the stiffened infantry forces supporting that wing, Pompey found his own left wind exposed and crushed. This is described in Caesar's Civil Wars: -

At the same time the horse on Pompeius' left wing, according to orders, charged in a body, and the whole multitude of archers poured forth. Our cavalry, failing to withstand their attack, gradually quitted their position and retired. Pompeius' cavalry pressed forward all the more eagerly, and deploying by squadrons began to surround our lines on their exposed flank. Caesar, observing it, gave the signal to his fourth line, which he had composed of six cohorts. These advanced rapidly and with colours flying attacked Pompeius' horse with such fury that not one of them stood his ground, and all, wheeling around, not only quitted the positions but forthwith in hurried flight made for the highest hills. When these were dislodged all the archers and slingers, left defenceless, without support, were slain. With the same onslaught the cohorts surrounded the left wing, the Pompeians still fighting and continuing their resistance in their lines, and attacked them in the rear. (III.93)

Thereafter, Pompey's forces were crushed on the field, with the battle then moving to his camp, which was captured, and after some pursuit an earthwork was build to avoid allowing the rest to escape (see Moragn 1983 for a detailed reconstruction). Pompey fled from the field, leaving thousands of dead (Plutarch Caesar 46), and 24,000 captured (Caesar Civil Wars III.99; Morgan 1983, p25). In contrast, Caesar's dead have been as little as 200 (Morgan 1983, p25). Here once again Caesar showed clemency to most of the men he defeated (Suetonius Julius Caesar 75); only 3 men, it is said, were executed after the battle had ended (Suetonius Julius Caesar 75). Nor did Caesar include Pharsalus in his list of formal triumphs from the east.

It was at this time that Caesar was recorded as having said, looking at the dead nobles and cavalrymen on the field, 'hoc volerunt'; 'they would have it thus', (Suetonius Julius Caesar 30; Plutarch Caesar 46), referring to a narrow clique within the optimates who were so determined to break him. His regret at the number of noble and citizen dead may have been real, as was his impatience and resentment that he had been forced to such lengths (Syme 1974, p50). Caesar, though treading in the path of other warlords, did have seek to show a certain nobility and generosity that made him a 'hero' in his own time, and for later generations. Indeed, Caesar's talents and abilities have formed part of the 'great man' tradition in historiography and biography which dominated 19th and early 20th century Germany and Britain. His heroic qualities, however, could not 'heal' the republic. Furthermore, early imperial writers would have to treat his exploits carefully, in case they seemed to overshadow the later pre-eminence of Augustus, e.g. Julius Caesar's personal bravery and direct command of his troops, sometimes form the front (see Wardle 1997, p327).

Pompey, by flying from the field, seemed unable to cope with a serious defeat. He neither tried to extricate his army, nor to muster forces in Greece. Instead, he fled incognito to Cyprus, and after learning that he would neither be received at Rhodes nor Antioch (Caesar Civil Wars III.102), eventually decided to land at Alexandria and seek the support of Ptolemy, the boy King of Egypt (Suetonius Julius Caesar 35). This was a classic miscalculation; neither the young Ptolemy XIII nor his advisers had close ties with Pompey, though Pompey had helped the young boy's father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, to keep his throne (Scullard 1966, p143). Nor was Egypt strong enough to risk opposing a dominant Roman power out of 'friendship'. Ptolemy and his advisers would merely seek to curry favour with the stronger party, especially since he was engaged in a dynastic conflict with his sister Cleopatra (Caesar Civil Wars III.103). They chose, not surprisingly after the defeat at Pharsalus, to try to please Caesar by having Pompey killed. He was murdered on a small boat before he could land at Alexandria (Caesar Civil Wars III.104; Plutarch Pompey 77-79)

Pompey had been viewed as one of the greatest generals in Roman history, only to have this greatness eclipsed by Caesar. As expressed by a later Roman writer: -

But it concerns the glory of the Roman Empire, and not that of one man, to mention in this place all the records of the victories of Pompey the Great and his triumphs, which equal the brilliance of the exploits not only of Alexander the Great but even almost of Hercules and Father Liber [the god Bacchus]. After the recovery of Sicily, which inaugurated his emergence as a champion of the commonwealth in the party of Sulla, and after the conquest of the whole of Africa and its reduction under our sway and the acquirement as a trophy therefrom of the title of the Great, he rode back in a triumphal chariot though only of equestrian rank, a thing which had never occurred before. Immediately afterwards he crossed over to the West, and after erecting trophies in the Pyrenees he added to the record of his victorious career the reduction under our sway of 876 towns from the Alps to the frontiers of Farther Spain . . . Subsequently he was dispatched to the whole of the seas and then to the far East, and he brought back titles without limit for his country, after the manner of those who conquer in sacred contests . . . .

. . . If anybody on the other side desires to review in similar manner the achievements of Caesar, who showed himself greater than Pompey, he must assuredly roll off the entire world, and this it will be agreed is a task without limit. (Pliny Natural History VII.26 in Lewis & Reinhold 1990, pp305-306)

Pompey had indeed been 'Great' in victory, but his character proved unable to cope with the erosion of his auctoritas, which really began as soon as he returned to Italy after settling affairs the east. Minor defeats he had recovered from in Spain, and from the rather difficult engagements at Dyrrachium, but he was unable to recover from the serious blow he received at Pharsalus. When Caesar arrived at Alexandria, he was presented with Pompey's head (Plutarch Caesar 48). Scullard argues that though Caesar was displeased at the sight and manner of Pompey's passing, it was unlikely that he could have regretted the fact of Pompey's death (Scullard 1966, p143). On the other hand, Pompey's death at the hand of other left Caesar without the opportunity to demonstrate his vaunted clementia once again (see Wardle 1997; see further below).

It was during his stay at Alexandria that Caesar ended up supporting Cleopatra in her claim to the Egyptian throne against her brother (Caesar Civil Wars 108-112). During the fighting in and around the canals of Alexandria, Caesar was at one stage forced to jump into the water and swim for his life. According to the story, he carefully held some documents he had with him above the water to avoid getting them wet. Ironically, nearby, a large section of the Alexandrian library, with its thousands of books, was burnt down when ships in the docks were put on fire (Plutarch Caesar 49) After some difficult street fighting in Alexandria and environs, the young Ptolemy and his army was eventually destroyed in the Nile Delta. His throne was transferred to a younger brother, but Cleopatra, backed by Caesar, was the real ruler (Scullard 1966, p144). Caesar was then obliged to head north to Asia Minor in order to crush a revolt led by Pharnaces, the son of Mithridates of Bosphorus (Scullard 1966, p144). The swift campaign leading to a victory at Zela was so decisive that Caesar commented upon it with the famous insciption, 'veni, vidi, vici'; I came, I saw, I conquered, which he apparently had inscribed on a stone displayed during one of his triumphs (Plutarch Caesar 50).

3. The Clemency of the Victor

Things had not gone entirely smoothly for Caesar while he was away on these campaigns. The praetor Caelius Rufus attempted to limit the effectiveness of Caesar's debt-relief program (Caesar Civil Wars III.1), and in the ensuing rioting the consul Servilius, using the consultum ultimum, took the unusual step of having the praetor deposed from office (Caesar Civil Wars III.21; Scullard 1966, p145). Servilius named Caesar Dictator in his absence, with Mark Antony named as his Master of Horse. Civil disturbances continued; Milo had returned from exile to support Caelius Rufus, but was killed in these disturbances (Caesar Civil Wars III.21-22). No consuls were elected for 47 B.C., and Cicero's son-in-law Cornelius Dolabella agitated against the debt-law. Meanwhile Caesar's veterans had not yet been fully re-settled on the land. They even made a 'march' on Rome, only to be shamed by the arrival of Caesar back in Rome, who addressed them in the Campus Martius as 'civilians' (Scullard 1966, p145), a term of abuse for men who thought of themselves as his soldiers and whom he more regularly addressed as 'comrades'. Caesar seems to have given these men cash and land settlements shortly after (Plutarch Caesar 51).

From this time Caesar began to establish sure control of the state. He did not engage in acts of proscription, nor in judicial murders. His clementia, both in the east, and in Rome, was to a major factor in increasing his prestige, and perhaps a means of distracting from the debate about the constitutional debate of his actions (Wardle 1997, p331). This is clearly demonstrated by his treatment of Cicero, who even though he had sided with Pompey, was now treated with 'respect and good will' (Scullard 1966, p145). However, Caesar still had to deal with the Pompeian forces assembling in Africa with the active support of King Juba of Numidia. They had some 10 legions and 15,000 cavalry (Scullard 1966, p145). Once again Caesar carried out a vigorous campaign which destroyed the enemy on the battlefield near Thapsus in North Africa (Plutarch Caesar 53). Few of the Pompeian leaders managed to survive; Labienus and Pompeius' son Sextus managed to link up with Gnaeus Pompey's remaining forces in Spain. Cato, defending Utica, decided that his position was hopeless, and after spending the night reading Plato's Phaedo, which expounds the immortality of the human soul, committed suicide. As noted by H.H. Scullard: -

His [Cato's] death symbolized the death of the Republic, which he had loyally if short-sightedly sought to uphold with unbridled vigour all his life: under the Principate he was idealized as the martyr of Republican liberty and a paragon of Stoic virtues. (1966, p146)

Caesar is reported to have said when hearing this news; 'Cato, I must grudge you your death, as you grudged me the opportunity of giving you your life.' (Plutarch Caesar 54). It was not only likely that Caesar would have spared Cato, as he had spared Cicero and Brutus, but that he hoped thereby to effect some kind of political gain from showing clemency to one of his main political and ideological enemies. Caesar's annoyance at being foiled is showed by his dislike at Cicero's written tribute to Cato, which was widely read. Indeed, Caesar attempted to undercut Cato's position in death by writing an essay called the Anti-Cato (Plutarch Caesar 54). In doing this Caesar was not just venting his annoyance, he was engaging in an exercise in rhetoric and propaganda. By attacking Cato he no doubt hoped to justify his own actions and to prevent Cato being viewed as a kind of martyr. In this Caesar failed.

Caesar was thereafter elected Dictator for ten years, along with special censorial as praefectus morum for three years (Scullard 1966, p146). He celebrated a fourfold triumph of incredible lavishness. Meanwhile, he pardoned his previous enemies M. Marcellus and Q. Ligarius, and Cicero publicly praised Caesar's generosity and clemency (Cicero's letter of 46 B.C. to Aulus Caecina, in Lewis 1985, p45-6). Later on, in 44 B.C. coinage would be issued with the legend CLEMENTIAE CAESARIS, 'to the clemency of Caesar', with a closed temple symbolizing peace on the reverse (Lewis 1985, p156). In 46 B.C. Cicero urged Caesar to restore the health of the Republic through careful reform, and it is possible that a pamphlet (that is, a distributed letter) along similar lines was published under the name of Sallust (the authenticity of these letter has been debated, see Scullard 1966, p149, p415 number 18). In a speech, before the Senate, Cicero made the following comments concerning Caesar: -

For it would be quite impossible for me to refrain from commenting on this remarkable leniency, this unaccustomed and indeed unprecedented clemency, this unique moderation on the part of a ruler whose power is supreme, this unbelievable and almost superhuman wisdom. (Cicero, Pro Marcellus)

Caesar had also managed to settle many of his veterans legions with a cash bonus and small farms (Suetonius Julius Caesar 38), though it is possible that many chose to settle overseas in the colonies set up, according to Suetonius, for some 80,000 men (Suetonius Julius Caesar 42). The disastrous effects of the civil wars can be seen in the census lists reported by Plutarch; the old, pre-civil war census showed some 320,000 names, a new census at Rome recorded only 150,000 names (Plutarch Caesar 55).

We begin at even this early stage to see the factors which would undermine Caesar's prestige. Firstly, he established Cleopatra in a fine house on the outskirts of Rome, on the Janiculum. She was declared a Friend of the Roman People, and her statue is installed in the temple of Venus Genetrix (Scullard 1966, p147). Furthermore, with Cleopatra is the son she has named Caesarion, no doubt intending that he should be viewed as the son of Julius Caesar, a claim supported by Plutarch (Caesar 49). Although this claim was challenged by Caesar's supporter Oppius (Suetonius Julius Caesar 52), this situation was an offence to many Romans, who felt that the influence of foreign kings and queens was not beneficial to Roman politics, to their prestige, or to their morals. Subordinate and distant kings and princes were one thing; a queen resident and Rome and so closely engaged in its politics was another matter.

Leaving his 'agents' Bibulus, Oppius and his fellow consul Lepidus in Rome, Caesar at the end of 46 B.C. left once again to deal with large Pompeian forces that were assembling in Spain. A decisive and difficult battle was fought at Munda, where Caesar's Tenth legion managed to force back the enemy's left wing (Scullard 1966, p147). Most of the Pompeian leaders were killed (only the son Sextus Pompeius managed to escape), and Caesar went on to punish those regions which had supported their cause. Caesar's clemency may have been lessening, especially since the last war had been hard fought and dangerous. He went on to celebrate a triumph for his victory in this war, which Plutarch claims greatly displeased the Romans (Plutarch Caesar 56)

After this he was granted fresh honours, including the title liberator, was appointed to his fifth consulship for 44 B.C., and in February was made Dictator Perpetuus (the list of honours in Suetonius Julius Caesar 76 may exaggerated). In doing so, he also took the right to directly control at least half of the higher offices, and to directly recommend consuls and praetors to the voting centuries. He also, through his influence, could virtually block any opponent from taking up one of the free positions. In doing so, of course, he attempted to freeze the strife-ridden political processes which had been pulling the Republic apart for the last century. But he was also blocking a wide range of ambitions for both optimates and populares who had not had the chance to contend among their peers for pre-eminence. This one step alone would in the end create a mixed body of opposition that would destroy him. In the words of Ronald Syme: -

His rule began as the triumph of a faction in civil war: he made it his task to transcend faction, and in doing so wrought his own destruction. A champion of the people, he had to curb the People's rights, as Sulla had done. To rule, he needed the support of the nobiles, yet he had to curtail their privileges and repress their dangerous ambitions. (Syme 1974, pp51-2)

If these new 'Republicans' fought for libertas, it was only the freedom to pursue their own political and social auctoritas and nobilitas unrestrained by a superior leader (see Wirszubski 1950; Syme 1974). They in no way fought for the right to enjoy their own private civil lives, nor the notion of constitutional rights, which were not at issue. Stoic doctrines, setting up high moral standards for the holders of public office, may have influenced men such as Cato and Brutus, but they were not the basis of Caesar's downfall. Stoic doctrines can be used to support the rule of one man or a narrow group, so long as that rule is based on rationality and humanity. Rather, the kind of virtues supported by Brutus was the Roman ideal of 'constancy in purpose and act, independence of habit, temper and speech, honesty and loyalty' (Syme 1974, p57), an ideal which would never accept Caesar as Dictator, or even as a permanent, sole, princeps.

4. Dictator Perpetuus

Caesar's reforms were numerous; they included the regulation of the calendar to bring its cycle's to coincide with the astronomical and agricultural year. As mentioned earlier, his laws reduced the indebtedness of many Romans, he cut the corn doll from 320,000 to 150,000 (Scullard 1966, p148), intending to push some of this excess population into overseas colonies. Veterans were to be established in colonies in Carthage, Corinth, Arelate and Narbon in Gaul, and some in Italy (Plutarch Caesar 57; Scullard 1966, p150). Likewise, he planned to have Roman law codified, improved on public buildings in Rome, and appointed the scholar Varro to plan a public library. He also sought to regulate local Italian magistrates and local senates, excluding undesirables such as ex-gladiators (Graffiti from Pompeii indicates that such 'sportsmen' were often popular contenders for such posts, see Dill 1919), though freedmen were acceptable. In 48 B.C. he also abolished the tithe for the Asia, replacing it with a more moderate land tax, while he limited 'proconsular governorships to two years and the propraetorian to one year' (Scullard 1966, p149). He also extended Roman citizenship to the single Legion he had drafted as the Alauda legion from Transalpine Gaul (Suetonius Julius Caesar 23), and extended citizenship to foreign doctors and professors of liberal arts in Rome. He also expanded the Senate from its previous 600 (no doubt less than this due to the civil wars) to a total 900, creating a new group of Senators directly responsible to him for their raised status. He also increased the numbers of praetors from 8 to 16, the aediles from 4 to 6, and the quaestors from 20 to 40, but as noted by Scullard, this did not raise the prestige of such offices (1966, p152). On one occasion, after the consul Maximus had died, he allowed someone to take up the lapsed consulship for one day. Since the custom was to escort a new office holder into the forum, Cicero, in Rome at the time, was reported to have said to his companion 'We'd better hurry, or he will be out of office before we get there.' (Plutarch Caesar 59)

It must be remembered that as Dictator Caesar had greater imperium then any other official, could not be vetoed by tribunes, and virtually controlled who would win high posts in the elections. Furthermore, he was granted the sacrosanctity of the tribunes, though apparently not their plebeian powers (Scullard 1966, p153). Honours of a new and excessive kind were given to him; the month Quinctilis was renamed Iulius (our July) after him, he was named the Father of His Fatherland (Parens Patriae), and his statue was placed in the temple of the deified Romulus (Scullard 1966, pp153-4). In 44 B.C. his image appeared on state coins, a practise developed by Hellenistic kings but rarely used in Rome. As noted by Scullard, 'a temple was erected to his Clemency', a college of priests was named after him, and an individual priest was established in his honour, though Caesar was not at this stage worshipped as a God in Rome; it was only after his death that a cult of the Divine Iulius was established in the city (1966, p154). The dramatic popular agitation at this funeral, partly genuine and partly manipulated by Antony, indicate that this cult was more than an elite formulation promoted by his followers and family (see Suetonius Julius Caesar 83-85).

The prestige of Caesar was now such that there seemed to be the possibility of restoring a kingship in Rome. A diadem had been placed on one of the statues of Caesar, and the tribunes Flavius and Marullus had prosecuted those persons who had hailed Caesar as King when returning from the Latin festival. His reply had been 'non sum Rex sed Caesar', rex also being a Roman cognomen as well as a title (Scullard 1966, p154). Following this, on 15 February 44 B.C., his colleague in the consulship, Mark Antony, offered him a diadem, which Caesar publicly refused and dedicated to Juppiter Capitolinus (Suetonius Julius Caesar 79).

The question we must ask is whether Caesar really desired the crown, perhaps following the type of one of his heroes, Alexander the Great, and therefore using the offer as a way to test the mood of the People of Rome (as suggested by Plutarch Caesar 60-1)? Or, was Mark Antony's offer of the crown merely a charade designed to allow him to refuse it again, thereby undermining the propaganda of his enemies? To have refused a crown offered by a fellow consul could only have added to his prestige, and undercut the meanness of the attacks made by his opponents. At the time there was a rumour being circulated, derived, supposedly from a Sibylline oracles, that the Parthians could only be defeated by a king, and in this period Caesar was contemplating an eastern campaign (Plutarch Caesar 59). Caesar may have wished to diffuse such rumours (Scullard 1966, pp154-5). This latter explanation is more likely; to declare himself king would have been to fly in the face of centuries of tradition, and hardened resistance to him by many elements in the state. Furthermore, Caesar had his refusal recorded in the Fasti, that is, in the official records of magistrates (Scullard 1966, p154), once again a clever move in the war of words over his unusual pre-eminence. It must be remembered that the main difference between a king and a dictator-princeps was that a king would usually seek to found a dynasty, directly handing on power to a son or nearest relative. There is no evidence in Caesar's will, or the political arrangements he made for his adopted nephew, Octavian, that he intended to hand power directly over to his descendant, rather than via 'republican' mechanisms (Syme 1974, p55).

5. For the Length of His Unnatural Life

In spite of this restraint, we now find Caesar dominating political life and access to political status to such an extent that opposition emerged from both his earlier enemies and allies. His control of affairs was regarded as an overbearing conduct, superbia (Scullard 1966, p156), which even undermined the dignity of Senate (Suetonius Julius Caesar 78). It is possible that his enemies joined his flatters, hoping by exaggerated honours and flattery (Plutarch Caesar 57) to push Caesar into a more tyrannical style of leadership which would make his downfall more popular and more easily justified. By the middle of 45 B.C., for example, we find that Cicero has become disillusioned with Caesar, as is noted in one of his letters to his friend Atticus (Cicero Book 13, no 52, in Lewis 1985, p51).

Who were the men that decided that Caesar's Dictatorship could not be tolerated? Suetonius records that some 60 persons were involved (Suetonius Julius Caesar 80), including men whom Caesar trusted and supported in political office. C. Cassius Longinus, praetor of 44 B.C., a long associate of Caesar, was one of the main conspirators, apparently a follower of the doctrines of Epicurus (Plutarch Caesar 66). His brother-in-law, M. Iunius Brutus, who claimed descend from the heroic Brutus who had killed the last king Tarquinius Superbus in 510 B.C., and had already issued coins in 60-59 B.C. with the inscription libertas, had come under the influence of Cato. Brutus had been willing to follow Pompey, even though Pompey had killed his father in 77 B.C. (Scullard 1966, p157). Although receiving Caesar's pardon, Brutus married Cato's daughter Porcia in 45 B.C., indicating a renewed connection with the views and faction of Cato (Scullard 1966, p157). This Brutus seems to have been both respected and trusted by Caesar, since he was given the most important of the praetorships for 44 B.C. (Plutarch Caesar 62). Decimus Brutus, too, was one of the leaders of this group (Suetonius Julius Caesar 80), though he was described by the contemporary historian Nicolaus of Damascus as 'a close friend of Caesar's (in Lewis 1985, p59). Qintus Ligarius would be another of Caesar's assassins, though Caesar, acting as a judge, had accepted Cicero's defense arguments and acquitted the man of treason charges (Lewis 1985, p49). Tillius Cimber and the Casca brothers would be among the first to attack Caesar on the evening of the Ides of March, 15th of March 44 B.C. (Suetonius Julius Caesar 82; Plutarch Caesar 66). Cicero was not himself brought into the plot, it was feared that he was not a man of daring, and that he had 'acquired circumspection with old age' (from Plutarch's Brutus, in Lewis 1985, p63). In later memory, it was Cassius and M. Iunius Brutus who would in particular be remembered as the 'liberators', though what they fought for was probably already lost (see Rawson 1986).

Caesar, though warned by soothsayers, informants, and the dreams of his wife, went on with his public business without a bodyguard (Plutarch Caesar 63-4). The conspirators surrounded Caesar during a special session of the Senate, held in the Portico of Pompey, a building erected in his honour as an attachment to the theatre (Plutarch Caesar 66). Antony was delayed in discussion outside. Inside, Caesar was stabbed to death; he is said to have received 23 stab wounds (Plutarch Caesar 67). Caesar died at the foot of a statue of his old enemy Pompey, perhaps one of the statues he had allowed to be restored after the end of the civil war. The rest of the senators, who had recently sworn an oath to protect Caesar's person (Suetonius Julius Caesar, 84; see Cicero Pro Marcellus), watched without interfering; perhaps they were scared, perhaps many of them were secretly pleased. Brutus attempted to make a speech to the Senators, but most of the senators fled to their homes (Plutarch Caesar 67). The 'liberators', proud of their deeds, paraded with their bloody daggers through Rome, but soon found that they had serious opposition. The next day Brutus made a speech to the people. As noted by Plutarch: -

The people listened without expressing either pleasure or resentment at what had been done. Their complete silence indicated that they both pitied Caesar and respected Brutus. The senate passed a decree of amnesty and tried to reconcile all parties. It was voted that Caesar should be worshipped as a god and that there should be no alteration made, however small, in any of the measures passed by him while he was in power. (Plutarch Caesar 67).

This solution, however, was too superficial to hold for more than a few days. Mark Antony gave a simple but stirring speech to the huge crowd gathered at the public funeral of Julius Caesar. Subsequently the populace attempted to storm the houses of the Cassius and Brutus, without success (Suetonius Julius Caesar 85). Caesar seems to have held the loyalty of many ordinary citizens, to whom he left a sizeable legacy in his will (Plutarch Caesar 68; for the enduring popularity of the Caesarian house, see Yavetz 1969), retained the support of the army, and earned the affection of special groups in Roman society such as the Jews (Suetonius Julius Caesar 84), whom he had always treated well. When Caesar was granted divine honours after his death, this 'was more than a mere official decree since it reflected public conviction' (Suetonius Julius Caesar 88). Although he was granted divine status in the east as early as 48 B.C. (an inscription from Ephesus, SIG 760, in Lewis 1985, p83), it is unlikely that he was accorded divine honours as such in Rome before his death 44 B.C. (contra Appian II.105 and Dio Cassius 44.6), with his status as 'divinised' (divus, not deus) after his death being readily accepted on the basis of his virtues and exception life (Wardle 1997, pp336-337). In some later sources the murder would sometimes be described as a parricide, since Caesar had been granted the title of 'father of the fatherland' and his murder therefore the gravest crime and almost a form of sacrilege (Wardle 1997, p334).

Brutus and Cassius withdrew of the city a few days later (Plutarch Caesar 68), perhaps fearful of both Mark Antony and of the anger of the 'people'. Meanwhile, Julius Caesar left much of his inheritance to his young nephew, Gaius Octavius, who was in the will adopted into the family of Caesar as his son (Suetonius Julius Caesar 83). The Liberators would soon have much to fear from this young man, from Mark Antony, and from Lepidus, who had been Caesar's Master of Horse (Suetonius Julius Caesar 82). A sequel of civil wars, triumvirates, and yet more civil wars would follow.

Perhaps we should not leave Caesar with the epigram of Cato, that 'Caesar was the only sober man who ever tried to wreck the Constitution' (Suetonius Julius Caesar 53). Likewise, after the death of Caesar Cicero would speak directly of the Dictator's vaunting ambition: -

Behold, here you have a man [Caesar] who was ambitious to be king of the Roman people and master of the whole world; and he achieved it! The man who maintains that such an ambition is morally right is a madman, for he justifies the destruction of law and liberty and thinks their hideous and detestable suppression glorious. But if anyone agrees that it is not morally right to be king in a state that once was free and that ought to be free now, and yet imagines that it is advantageous for him who can reach that position, with what remonstrance or rather with what appeal should I try to tear him away from so strange a delusion? For, O ye immortal gods! can the most horrible and hideous of murders - that of the fatherland - bring advantage to anybody, even though he who has committed such a crime receives from his enslaved fellow citizens the title of "Father of his Country?" (Cicero On Duties III.xxi.82-83, in Lewis & Reinhold 1990, p315).

We need to balance this against the age and peers with whom Caesar had to deal, as noted in Lucan's 'Caesar could brook no superior, Pompey no equal' (Pharsalia I.125-126, in Lewis & Reinhold 1990, p299). Rather, the dignity of Caesar and the dignity of the state were not entirely consonant. Caesar had to suppress many aspects of the free working processes of the constitution of the Republic in order to repress, if only for a few years, the disastrous effects of stasis and civil war. His particular solution, however, was even less enduring than that of Sulla. However, his example and image would dominate the following centuries through the modified political reality established by Augustus, which we call the Roman imperial age. We can see this complex legacy reflected in the closing section of Ovid's Metamorphoses: -

Caesar is a god in a city that is his own. He excelled in peace and war, but it was not so much the wars he brought to a triumphal conclusion, or his achievements at home, or his majesty swiftly won, but rather his own offspring that caused him to become a new star, a fiery-tailed comet. Among Caesar's exploits, no achievement was greater than this, that he was the father of such a son. He conquered the sea-girt Britons, and sailed a victorious fleet through the seven channels of the papyrus-bearing Nile, he brought the rebellious Numidians under the sway of the Roman people, and Juba too, from the land of the Cinyps, and Pontus that proudly boasts of Mithridates. He earned many triumphs, and celebrated not a few; yet surely none would count this more glorious than to have been the father of one so great. Since Caesar's son became the guardian of the world, the gods have shown abundant favour to the human race. Therefore, so that his descendant might come of more than mortal stock, Caesar had to be made a god. (Ovid Metamorphoses XV)

The debate over whether Julius Caesar is better seen as a tyrant and destroyer of the Republic rather than a great man hero has continued in modern historiography.


Bibliography and Further Reading


APPIAN, The Civil Wars, (Appian's Roman History, Vol III), trans. H. White, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1972

CAESAR Civil Wars, trans. A. Peskett, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1979

CAESAR The Gallic War, trans. H. Edwards, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1981

CICERO Letters to Atticus, trans. by E. Winstedt, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1918

CICERO Pro T. Annio Milone, Pro M. Marcello, Pro Rege Deiotaro, trans. N. Watts, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1931

CICERO Selected Political Speeches, trans. M. Grant, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1989

LUCAN The Civil War (Pharsalia), trans. J. Duff, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1977

LEWIS, Naphtali The Ides of March, Toronto, Samuel Stevens, 1985

LEWIS, Naphtali & REINHOLD, Meyer Roman Civilization, Selected Readings: I, The Republic and the Augustan Age, N.Y., Columbia University Press, 1990

OVID Metamorphoses, trans. Mary M. Innes, Harmondsworth, Penguin 1955

PLUTARCH The Fall of the Roman Republic, trans. by R. Warner, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972

SUETONIUS The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1984

VELLEIUS PATERCULUS Compendium of Roman History, trans. F. Shipley, Cambridge MA, Harvard University Press, 1979


BALSDON, J.P.V.D. "The Ides of March", Historia, 1958, pp86-94

BALSDON, J.P.V.D. Julius Caesar; a Political Biography, N.Y., Atheneum, 1967

COLLINS, J.H. "Caesar and the Corruption of Power", Historia, 1955, ppp445-465

DILL, Samuel Roman Society from Nero to Marcus Aurelius, London, Macmillan, 1919

DIXON, Karen R & SOUTHERN, Pat The Roman Cavalry: From the First to the Third Century A.D., London, B.T. Batsford, 1992

GELZER, M. Caesar, Politician and Statesman, Oxford, Blackwell, 1968

KAHN, Arthur The Education of Julius Caesar, N.Y., Schocken Books, 1986

LEACH, John Pompey the Great, London, Croom Helm, 1978

MORGAN, John D. "Paelaepharsalus - The Battle and the Town", American Journal of Archaeology, 87 no. 1, January 1983, pp22-54

RAWSON, Elizabeth "Cassius and Brutus: the Memory of the Liberators" in Moxon, I.S. et al. (ed.) Past Perspectives: Studies in Greek and Roman Writing, Cambridge, CUP, 1986, pp101-119

SCULLARD, H.H. From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome 133 B.C. - A.D. 68, London, Methuen, 1966

SYME, Ronald The Roman Revolution, Oxford, OUP, 1974

TAYLOR, Lilly Ross Party Politics in the Age of Caesar, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1975

WARDLE, D. "'The Sainted Julius': Valerius Maximus and the Dictator", Classical Philology, 92. No. 4, October 1997, pp323-345

WIRSZUBSKI, C. Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome During the Late Republic and Early Principate, Cambridge, CUP, 1950

YAVETZ, Z. Plebs and Princeps, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969


Essays in History, Politics and Culture Copyright © 1998 R. James Ferguson