Gaius Iulius Caesar, future dictator of Rome, conqueror of Gaul, and arguably the last ruler of the Republic, was born into an aristocratic family the Iulii at Rome on the 13th of July, 100 BCE. His childhood saw the great civil war between Marius and Sulla, and the Social War of the Italians against Rome. He was nominated by Marius to be a Flamen Dialis, a priest of Jupiter, but was removed from the priesthood after Sulla became dictator, who then sought him out as an enemy of the state (since Caesar was the son-in-law of an ally of Marius). After Sulla agreed to stop pursuing him, Caesar joined the military and fought in the wars against Pontus, he won won distinction in both the battle and in diplomacy. He returned home after the death of Sulla to embark on a career a legal career. His skill in oratory was admired by even Cicero, who himself is recognized to be one of the greatest Roman orators.
Caesar then ascended the cursus honorum, being elected as tribunus militum, quaestor in 68, aedilis in 65, pontifex maximus in 63, and finally praetor in 62. During these times he was accused of being involved with the Catiline conspiracy, but was cleared of any wrongdoing. After his praetorship ended, he was appointed to govern Further Spain as a propraetor. After securing the land, he conspired with Pompey and Crassus to attempt to influence the political direction of Rome, forming a triumvirate (group of three) with the two. Incidentally, Caesar had asked Cicero to be a fourth member, but he turned it down.
Caesar was then elected as consul in 59, which he was noted for “disregarding his colleague Bibulus”. There was even a joke about the matter, calling the year the consulship of Julius and Caesar, and these verses were preserved by Cicero:
Non Bibulo quiddam nuper sed Caesare factum est:
nam Bibulo fieri consule nil memini.
Not by Bibulus was anything recently accomplished, but by Caesar:
In fact, I don’t even remember Bibulus being consul!
After his consulship, Caesar lobbied to become governor of Gaul, and there set about to conquer the enemy tribes which still existed in the region. His war there ended up a great boon to both him and to Rome, resulting in the total subjugation of the area. Caesar later compiled his notes he took while there and published them as a commentary – Commentarius de Bello Gallico, or Commentary on the Gallic War. He returned to Rome victorious, but he was still at odds with the conservative faction of the Senate, who opposed Caesar’s populism. They were also worried about his ambitions for kingship. There was yet another joke about the matter:
Brutus, quia reges eiecit, consul primus factus est;
Hic, quia consules eiecit, rex postremo factus est.
Brutus, because he threw out kings, was made the first consul;
[Caesar], because he threw out consuls, was finally made king.
Brutus here refers to Lucius Iunius Brutus, the first consul of Rome, who overthrew the Tarquins, not Marcus Iunius Brutus, one of Caesar’s eventual assassins.
By the late 50s BCE, the triumvirate had begun to fall apart. Crassus was killed in a war against the Parthians in 53. Julia, Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife, had died the year before. Perhaps fearful of Caesar’s new wealth and power gained from conquering Gaul, Pompey allied himself with the Senate and attempted to recall Caesar for trial instead of a triumph. Instead of complying, the latter brought his army to invade Rome. Crossing the Rubicon River, which formed a natural the boundary line between Italy and Gaul, with an army would be considered tantamount to treason, signifying foreign forces invading Italy. Nearing that boundary, Caesar reportedly stated, “Alea iacta est” (“The die is cast”), and thus Rome’s civil war began anew.
In just a year and a half, Caesar’s forces were victorious and his leading opponents—Pompey and Cato the Younger—were scattered. In order to restore the Republic after decades of civil strife, he was made dictator. He left Rome and headed to Egypt, where Pompey had fled. There he learned that Ptolemy XIII had, against the customs of hospitality, murdered Pompey in hoping to secure Caesar’s blessing by serving him with Pompey’s head. Caesar was outraged by the act, noting that Pompey was a Roman still, consular even, and was the widower of Caesar’s only daughter. Instead of welcoming the act, Caesar deposed Ptolemy and placed his sister Cleopatra VII on the throne instead. Nine months later, Cleopatra gave birth to his son, whom she named Caesarion (“Little Caesar”).
After Egypt, Caesar went on to conquer Pontus and to finish off Cato and the rest of the resistance in North Africa and Spain.
Victorious over all his enemies, Caesar—unlike Sulla and Marius before him—did not proscribe his enemies, but instead pardoned them. He was praised by the Senate for this and given titles and honors, including the unprecedented dictator perpetuus “dictator for life,” the first time such a title had ever been conferred.
On the Ides of March (i.e. 15 March), he was assassinated by a group who called themselves the Liberatores, led by C. Cassius Longinus. Among the group, though, was Marcus Brutus, with whose mother Caesar had held an affair for years. According to Suetonius, Caesar’s last words came as he looked at Brutus, “Καί σύ, τέκνον?” (“You too, my son?”)
As a comet flew overhead upon his death, the Senate deified Caesar. In his will, Caesar named C. Octavius as his heir, a child who later would defeat Antony and kill Caesarion to become the sole ruler of the Roman world.
Caesar’s only surviving works are his two histories, the Commentarii De Bello Gallico (often shortened to Bellum Gallicum) and the Commentarii de Bello Civili (often shortened to Bellum Civile).
The De Bello Gallico likely originated in reports (called commentarii) to the Senate detailing Caesar’s actions in Gaul. Their compilation into one text should not be seen as the creation of a history per se; the title instead indicates material for future historians to turn into beautiful prose, though certain stylistic devices become more common in later sections.
Only the first seven of the eight books were written by Caesar himself. The final books were an addition made by his lieutenant Aulus Hirtius in order to connect them to Caesar’s other work, the De Bello Civili.
The contents of the Caesar’s portion cover his campaigns from 58–52, while Hirtius’ addition covers the years 51–50. The books typically narrate the various Gallic and Germanic tribes Caesar conquered because of rebellion or refusal to submit to Roman authority. Caesar also shows interest in ethnography, and begins the whole work with a brief ethnographic and geographical overview, while in book V Caesar touches upon the Britons and in book VI he describes the customs of the Germans.
The book closes with the capture of the Vercingetorix in 52 BCE, a Gallic warlord who attempted to unite the Gauls against Rome. Hirtius’ additions generally narrate the aftermath of conquest, including subduing remnants and, finally, his ultimate triumph in Gaul as he returns to Rome.
The De Bello Civili covered the events of the Civil War after Caesar attempted to return to Rome from his stint in Gaul. It begins with a narration of the grand conspiracy at Rome, in which Pompey and the Senate attempt to block his rightful triumph and instead haul him in court on trumped up charges. The work reads like a cross between a sympathetic history and a propaganda piece blackening the motives of his enemies and painting his own motives as honorable rather than ambitious. It ends with Caesar’s siege of Alexandria after the death of Pompey, following a dynastic struggle between Ptolemy XIII and Cleopatra VII (of Antony and Cleopatra fame).
The work ends suddenly, but is continued by the De Bello Alexandrino, De Bello Africano, and De Bello Hispaniensi, together which make up the Corpus Caesarianum and narrate the rest of the war to its conclusion at the Battle of Munda, though all three works were not written by Caesar, but perhaps subordinates in his army.
Other works of Caesar are lost, but some of their names have survived. Caesar was one of the best orators of his time, and Cicero once famously said that only Caesar could best him in oratory, despite being of the Asiatic school (Cicero used a mixed-model, but generally leaned towards Atticist). While Caesar avoided the courts that made Cicero famous, he was known for his speeches in the Senate, as well as a particularly moving oration for his Aunt Julia at her funeral.
Caesar was also interested in scholarship and linguistic theory. He penned the De Analogia (On Analogy), dedicated to Cicero, in which he argued for a rational approach—as opposed to a historical approach—to grammar and syntax.
Caesar’s political legacy is far weightier than his literary contributions. One only need think of the titles of German and Russian rulers (Kaiser, Czar) to see his name penetrating deep into the modern world. Without Caesar, the Roman empire and therefore Europe would look very different.
However, his influence in literature is not negligible. While his De Analogia had little influence, he was noted for his mastery of Latinitas; Caesar’s Latin is often seen as without blemish, and any mistake is instead granted as acceptable on his authority.
Commentators like Quintilian recognized his mastery of oration, agreeing with Cicero’s opinion that only Caesar could equal or best Cicero in oratory. During Tiberius’ reign when declamation became rather important, orators modeled themselves after the Asiastic style promoted by Caesar than the Atticist or mixed styles promoted by Cicero.
Moreover, his Commentarii have risen in popularity since the 18th century, becoming not only an important part of the canon, but a fundamental text in the teaching of Latin to those learning the language in Europe and the United States, and that does not look like it will change any time soon.
Latin: PHI Latin Texts
English: Perseus (Civil War • Gallic War)
English: Corpus Scriptorum Latinorum (Gallic War • African War • Alexandrian War • Spanish War)
English: Lacus Curtius (Gallic War)
English: Student’s Interlinear Translation
- Michael Grant 1969. Julius Caesar. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- S. Weinstock 1971. Divus Julius. Oxford.
- J. M. Collins 1972. “Caesar as Political Propagandist.” ANRW 1.1: 922–966.
- Tom Holland 2003. Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic. Anchor Books.
- Adrian Goldsworthy 2006. Caesar: Life of a Colossus. Yale University Press.