Julius Caesar is one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in history. Was he ruthless or merciful? Did he have a calculated plan to seize power in Rome or was he forced into his decisions by the actions of the Senate?
Would he have violently held his position and remained a tyrant or would he have stepped down from power after reforming a broken Rome as he claimed? Was his murder just, a last desperate attempt to save the Republic or a bitter, jealous act that deprived the Republic of her best hope?
These are questions that can never truly be answered, but only addressed with eager speculation. However, one thing is certain, Julius Caesar’s character and personality was far more complex than a black and white depiction of a despot or a savior.
Born in 100 B.C., Julius Caesar was fast-tracked into the Roman political scene by his strong family ties. He enjoyed a stellar career as a politician and general. However, he provoked the hatred of many of the Roman Senators by his popularity with the people and the soldiers of Rome and his apparent willingness to use that to his advantage.
The Senate attempted to force him into a no-win situation. Instead, he crossed the Rubicon with an active army, breaking ancient laws of Rome. At the crossing, he uttered his famous line, “the die is cast.”
After a long and brutal civil war against his former friend and father-in-law, Pompey the Great, Caesar emerged victorious and returned to Rome in possession of almost unlimited power. Though he insisted that he was not a king nor desirous of becoming one, the Roman politicians were understandably suspicious of his motives and intentions, and they formed a conspiracy to murder him on the Senate floor.
Part of the reason Julius Caesar enjoyed such success was his vibrant and charismatic
It was a skill he developed early in his life, and demonstrated in a peculiar encounter. After earning a reputation for bravery and the second highest military decoration in Rome for his bravery at the Siege of Mytilene, Caesar was eager to next advance his political career.
He embarked for Rhodes to study oration. However, while still at sea, Cicilian pirates captured his ship and demanded a ransom of twenty talents. Caesar responded by laughing at them. Informing them that they were clueless as to who they had just captured, he insisted he not be ransomed for anything less than fifty.
Caesar’s friends departed to gather the ransom, while Caesar himself remained a captive of the pirates. However, he did not behave as a typical prisoner. Instead, he used his free time to practice speeches and poetry, often reciting his work aloud for the pirates and then calling them unintelligent savages if they did not appreciate his work.
Thoroughly amused by the bold young man, the pirates allowed him to wander freely among their boats and islands. He joined in their athletic exercises and games, would send messages demanding silence for his slumbers, and told them frequently that he would crucify them all.
The pirates would merely laugh at his threats, but they should have taken him more seriously. When his friends brought the ransom and freed him, Caesar sailed to the nearest port, managed to gather a private force just through his personal magnetism, sailed back to the pirates’ lair, defeated and captured them, and followed through on his promise to crucify every last one of them, though he ordered their throats slit in an act of mercy.
He was devastated by his inability to live up to the reputation of one of his greatest heroes
Caesar grew up reading about the exploits of Alexander the Great, the young Macedonian general who conquered Persia and formed the greatest empire of his age, all before his premature death just before his thirty-third birthday. When Caesar was about thirty-eight, he was assigned to govern the Roman province in Spain.
One day, while visiting the temple of Hercules in the large Spanish city of Gades, he saw a statue of Alexander there, and fell to weeping in front of it, lamenting the fact that he was older than Alexander had been when he ruled over most of the known world, and yet he himself had achieved nothing noteworthy. He determined immediately to seek to return to Rome for greater things.
Caesar later traveled to Africa to bring an end to the civil wars. He remained there for some time, enjoying Egypt and his affair with Queen Cleopatra VII, and visited the tomb of Alexander several times. At the time, the Egyptians still held the tomb in high regard.
Cleopatra had even incurred the anger of her subjects by taking gold from the tomb to pay her debts. Caesar’s nephew Octavian also visited the tombs when he visited Alexandria in later years. According to historian Cassius Dio, he accidentally broke off the nose of the great conqueror.
Caesar had three wives and many mistresses, but when he did give his real devotion it remained unshakeable
Caesar married his first wife, Cornelia at the age of seventeen. They had one daughter, Julia, Caesar’s only acknowledged child. Cornelia was the daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, who supported Marius in the civil wars with Sulla. When Sulla triumphed, he commanded the young Caesar to divorce Cornelia.
Apparently devoted to his young wife, not even losing of his priesthood, Cornelia’s dowry, or his family inheritance could persuade him to leave her. Eventually, Sulla put him under order of death.
Caesar escaped the city and remained in hiding until his friends convinced Sulla to reverse the death order. When Cornelia died thirteen years later, possibly in childbirth, Caesar gave her a grand eulogy in the forum. It was an extremely rare occurrence and honor for a young woman at that time.
Caesar’s other devoted lover was Servilia, who was also the half-sister of Cato the Younger, one of Caesar’s greatest opponents. Servilia has often been described as “the love of his life.” He brought her a beautiful black pearl, worth over six million sesterces, after the Gallic Wars. Despite being married, the affair between the two was apparently no secret. On one occasion, Caesar received a small note while on the floor of the Senate arguing with Cato.
Fixating on the note, Cato insisted that it was evidence of conspiracy, and demanded that Caesar read it aloud. Caesar merely smiled and handed the note to Cato, who ashamedly read the saucy love letter from Servilia to Caesar. She remained his beloved mistress until his death.
Some maintained suspicions that one of Caesar’s murderers was actually his illegitimate son
One of the ringleaders of the conspiracy to murder Caesar was Marcus Junius Brutus, the son of Servilia. Rumors flew that Brutus was actually the illegitimate son of Caesar and Servilia, particularly as Caesar was deeply fond of the young man. They are likely to be little more than rumors, for Caesar would only have been fifteen years old when Brutus was born, not impossible for him to have been the father, but less likely.
Regardless of actual parentage, Caesar reportedly treated Brutus as a beloved son. He remained close to the family throughout Brutus’s youth. In the wars against Pompey, Brutus declared against Caesar as well. Even so, at the Battle of Pharsalus Caesar gave strict orders that Brutus was not to be harmed. After the battle, he was frantic to find the young man and greatly relieved when he learned of Brutus’s safety. He even gave him a full pardon and raised him to the rank of praetor after the war.
Despite all this, Brutus feared that the power Caesar was amassing would eventual make him a king. He therefore reluctantly agreed to join in the conspiracy. His ancestor had famously killed the last king of Rome, Tarquinus, in 509 B.C., leaving Brutus feeling even more honor-bound to protect the Roman Republic.
Caesar’s final words are often misquoted due to the popularity of Shakespeare’s play
The conspirators planned the murder for the 15th of March. One member carefully detained Mark Antony in conversation outside the Senate halls, knowing he would not calmly accept the murder of Caesar. They surrounded Caesar, pretending affability, until one gave the signal by pulling Caesar’s toga over his head and they all fell upon him with daggers.
Caesar attempted to fight them off until he saw Brutus was among his attackers. At that point, despairing, he pulled his toga over his head and collapsed. Shakespeare has his final words be “et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar,” which translates as “even you, Brutus. In reality, as reported by the ancient historians, Caesar’s final words to Brutus are far more tragic: “thou too, my son?”