Gaius Julius Caesar was born on 12 July 100 BC into a patrician family, the gens Julia, which claimed descent from Julus, son of the legendary Trojan prince Aeneas, supposedly the son of the goddess Venus. His parents were Gaius Julius Caesar the Elder and Aurelia from the Aureli Cottae.
Despite their ancient pedigree, the Julii Caesares were not especially politically influential. Caesar’s father governed the province of Asiaand and his aunt Julia married Gaius Marius, one of the most prominent figures in the Republic.
In 85 BC, Caesar’s father died suddenly, so Caesar became the head of the family at 16. His coming of age coincided with a civil war between his uncle Gaius Marius and his rival Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Both sides carried out bloody purges of their political opponents whenever they were in the ascendancy.
Marius and his ally Lucius Cornelius Cinna were in control of the city when Caesar was nominated as the new Flamen Dialis (high priest of Jupiter) and was married to Cinna’s daughter Cornelia.
Following Sulla’s final victory Caesar’s connections to the old regime made him a target for the new one. He was stripped of his inheritance, his wife’s dowry and his priesthood, but he refused to divorce Cornelia and was forced to go into hiding.
The threat against him was lifted by the intervention of his mother’s family, which included supporters of Sulla, and the Vestal Virgins. Sulla gave in reluctantly.
The loss of his priesthood allowed Caesar to pursue a military career.
Caesar felt that he would be much safer far away from Sulla should the Dictator change his mind, so he left Rome and joined the army, serving under Marcus Minucius Thermus in Asia and Servilius Isauricus in Cilicia.
He served with distinction, winning the Civic Crown for his part in the Siege of Mytilene. He went on a mission to Bithynia to secure the assistance of King Nicomedes‘s fleet, but he spent so long at Nicomedes‘ court that rumours arose of an affair with the king, which Caesar vehemently denied for the rest of his life.
Hearing of Sulla’s death in 78 BC, Caesar felt safe enough to return to Rome. He lacked means since his inheritance was confiscated, but he acquired a modest house in Subura, a lower-class neighbourhood of Rome.
He turned to legal advocacy and became known for his exceptional oratory accompanied by impassioned gestures and a high-pitched voice along with ruthless prosecution of former governors notorious for extortion and corruption.
On the way across the Aegean Sea, Caesar was kidnapped by pirates and held prisoner. He maintained an attitude of superiority throughout his captivity. The pirates demanded a ransom of 20 talents of silver, but he insisted that they ask for 50.
After the ransom was paid Caesar raised a fleet, pursued and captured the pirates, and imprisoned them. He had them crucified on his own authority, as he had promised while in captivity—a promise that the pirates had taken as a joke. As a sign of leniency, he first had their throats cut. He was soon called back into military action in Asia, raising a band of auxiliaries to repel an incursion from the east.
On his return to Rome he was elected military tribune, a first step in a political career. He was elected quaestor for 69 BC and during that year he delivered the funeral oration for his aunt Julia, and included images of her husband Marius in the funeral procession, unseen since the days of Sulla. His wife Cornelia also died that year.
Caesar went to serve his quaestorship in Hispania after her funeral, in the spring or early summer of 69 BC. While there, he is said to have encountered a statue of Alexander the Great and realised with dissatisfaction that he was now at an age when Alexander had the world at his feet, while he had achieved comparatively little.
On his return in 67 BC he married Pompeia, a granddaughter of Sulla, whom he later divorced in 61 BC after her embroilment in the Bona Dea scandal.
In 65 BC he was elected curule aedile and staged lavish games that won him further attention and popular support. In 63 BC he ran for election to the post of Pontifex Maximus, chief priest of the Roman state religion. He ran against two powerful senators.
Accusations of bribery were made by all sides. Caesar won comfortably, despite his opponents’ greater experience and standing. Cicero was consul that year and he exposed Catiline‘s conspiracy to seize control of the republic. Several senators accused Caesar of involvement in the plot.
After serving as praetor in 62 BC, Caesar was appointed to govern Hispania Ulterior as propraetor. He was still in considerable debt and needed to satisfy his creditors before he could leave. He turned to Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Rome.
Crassus paid some of Caesar’s debts and acted as guarantor for others, in return for political support in his opposition to the interests of Pompey. Even so, to avoid becoming a private citizen and thus open to prosecution for his debts, Caesar left for his province before his praetorship had ended.
In Spain, he conquered two local tribes and was hailed as imperator by his troops. He also reformed the law regarding debts and completed his governorship in high esteem.
Caesar was acclaimed Imperator in 60 BC. In the Roman Republic, this was an honorary title assumed by certain military commanders. After an especially great victory, army troops in the field would proclaim their commander imperator, an acclamation necessary for a general to apply to the Senate for a triumph.
However, he also wanted to stand for consul, the most senior magistracy in the republic. If he were to celebrate a triumph, he would have to remain a soldier and stay outside the city until the ceremony, but to stand for election he would need to lay down his command and enter Rome as a private citizen. He could not do both in the time available.
He asked the senate for permission to stand in absentia, but Cato blocked the proposal. Faced with the choice between a triumph and the consulship, Caesar chose the consulship.
In 60 BC, Caesar sought election as consul for 59 BC, along with two other candidates. The election was sordid and even Cato, with his reputation for incorruptibility, is said to have resorted to bribery in favour of one of Caesar’s opponents. Caesar won along with conservative Marcus Bibulus.
Caesar was already in Marcus Licinius Crassus‘ political debt, but he also made overtures to Pompey. Pompey and Crassus had been at odds for a decade, so Caesar tried to reconcile them. The three of them had enough money and political influence to control public business.
This informal alliance, known as the First Triumvirate, was cemented by the marriage of Pompey to Caesar’s daughter Julia. Caesar also married again, this time to Calpurnia, who was the daughter of another powerful senator.
Caesar proposed a law for redistributing public lands to the poor (by force of arms, if need be) a proposal supported by Pompey and by Crassus, making the triumvirate public.
Pompey filled the city with soldiers, a move which intimidated the triumvirate’s opponents. Bibulus attempted to declare the omens unfavourable and thus void the new law, but he was driven from the forum by Caesar’s armed supporters.
His lictors had their fasces broken, two high magistrates accompanying him were wounded and he had a bucket of excrement thrown over him. In fear of his life, he retired to his house for the rest of the year, issuing occasional proclamations of bad omens. These attempts proved ineffective in obstructing Caesar’s legislation.
When Caesar was first elected, the aristocracy tried to limit his future power by allotting the woods and pastures of Italy, rather than the governorship of a province, as his military command duty after his year in office was over.
With the help of political allies Caesar secured passage of the lex Vatinia, granting him governorship over Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) and Illyricum (southeastern Europe). At the instigation of Pompey and his father-in-law Piso, Transalpine Gaul (southern France) was added later after the untimely death of its governor, giving him command of four legions.
The term of his governorship and thus his immunity from prosecution, was set at five years ( rather than the usual one). When his consulship ended, Caesar narrowly avoided prosecution for the irregularities of his year in office and quickly left for his province.
Conquest of Gaul
Caesar was still deeply in debt, but there was money to be made as a governor, whether by extortion or by military adventurism. He had four legions under his command, two of his provinces bordered on unconquered territory and parts of Gaul were known to be unstable.
Some of Rome’s Gallic allies had been defeated by their rivals at the Battle of Magetobriga, with the help of a contingent of Germanic tribes. The Romans feared these tribes were preparing to migrate south, closer to Italy, and that they had warlike intent. Caesar raised two new legions and defeated them.
In response to Caesar’s earlier activities, the tribes in the north-east began to arm themselves. Caesar treated this as an aggressive move and he conquered the tribes piecemeal. Meanwhile, one of his legions began the conquest of the tribes in the far north, directly opposite Britain.
During the spring of 56 BC the Triumvirs held a conference, as Rome was in turmoil and Caesar’s political alliance was coming undone. The Lucca Conference renewed the First Triumvirate and extended Caesar’s governorship for another five years.
The conquest of the north was soon completed, while a few pockets of resistance remained. Caesar now had a secure base from which to launch an invasion of Britain.
In 55 BC Caesar repelled an incursion into Gaul by two Germanic tribes, and followed it up by building a bridge across the Rhine and making a show of force in Germanic territory, before returning and dismantling the bridge.
Late that summer he crossed into Britain, claiming that the Britons had aided one of his enemies the previous year. His achievements were small however. Then he travelled back to Gaul for the winter.
He returned to Britain the following year, better prepared and achieved more. He advanced inland and established a few alliances. However, poor harvests led to widespread revolt in Gaul, which forced Caesar to leave Britain for the last time.
While Caesar was in Britain his daughter Julia died in childbirth. Caesar tried to re-secure Pompey’s support by offering him his great-niece in marriage, but Pompey declined.
In 53 BC Crassus was killed leading a failed invasion of the east. Rome was on the brink of civil war. Pompey was appointed sole consul as an emergency measure and married the daughter of a political opponent of Caesar. The Triumvirate was dead.
Though the Gallic tribes were just as strong as the Romans militarily, the internal division among the Gauls guaranteed an easy victory for Caesar. Vercingetorix‘s attempt in 52 BC to unite them against Roman invasion came too late. He proved an astute commander, defeating Caesar at the Battle of Gergovia, but with Caesar’s elaborate siege-works at the Battle of Alesia he finally forced to surrender.
Despite scattered outbreaks of warfare the following year, Gaul was effectively conquered. Plutarch claimed that during the Gallic Wars the army had fought against three million men (of whom one million died and another million were enslaved), subjugated 300 tribes and destroyed 800 cities.
In 50 BC the Senate ordered Caesar to disband his army and return to Rome because his term as governor had finished. Caesar thought he would be prosecuted if he entered Rome without the immunity enjoyed by a magistrate. Pompey accused Caesar of insubordination and treason.
On 10 January 49 BC, Caesar crossed the Rubicon river with only a single legion (Legio XIII Gemina) and ignited civil war. Pompey and many of the Senate fled to the south, having little confidence in Pompey’s newly raised troops.
Pompey despite greatly outnumbering Caesar did not intend to fight. Caesar pursued Pompey, hoping to capture him before his legions could escape.
Pompey managed to escape before Caesar could capture him. Heading for Spain, Caesar left Italy under the control of Mark Antony. After an astonishing 27-day route-march, Caesar defeated Pompey’s lieutenants.
He then returned east to challenge Pompey in Illyria. On 10 July 48 BC, in the battle of Dyrrhachium, Caesar barely avoided a catastrophic defeat. In an exceedingly short engagement later that year, he decisively defeated Pompey at Pharsalus (Greece) on 9 August 48 BC.
In Rome Caesar was appointed dictator with Mark Antony as his Master of the Horse (second in command). Caesar then pursued Pompey to Egypt, arriving soon after the murder of the general. There, Caesar was presented with Pompey’s severed head and seal-ring, receiving these with tears. He then had Pompey’s assassins put to death.
Caesar then became involved with an Egyptian civil war between the child pharaoh and his sister, wife, and co-regent queen, Cleopatra. Perhaps as a result of the pharaoh’s role in Pompey’s murder, Caesar sided with Cleopatra.
He withstood the Siege of Alexandria and later he defeated the pharaoh’s forces at the Battle of the Nile in 47 BC and installed Cleopatra as ruler. Caesar and Cleopatra celebrated their victory with a triumphal procession on the Nile in the spring of 47 BC.
Caesar continued his relationship with Cleopatra throughout his last marriage and most likely fathered a son called Caesarion. Cleopatra visited Rome on more than one occasion, residing in Caesar’s villa just outside Rome across the Tiber.
Late in 48 BC Caesar was again appointed dictator, with a term of one year. After spending the first months of 47 BC in Egypt he went to the Middle East, where he annihilated the king of Pontus. On his way to Pontus, Caesar visited Tarsus from 27 to 29 May 47 BC where he met enthusiastic support.
Then he proceeded to Africa to deal with the remnants of Pompey‘s senatorial supporters. He was defeated by Titus Labienus at Ruspina on 4 January 46 BC but recovered to gain a significant victory at Thapsus on 6 April 46 BC over Cato, who then committed suicide.
After this victory, he was appointed dictator for 10 years. Caesar chased and defeated the last remnants of opposition in the Battle of Munda in March 45 BC.
When Caesar returned to Rome the Senate granted him triumphs for his victories, professedly those over Gaul, Egypt, Pharnaces and Juba. Triumphal games were held with beast-hunts involving 400 lions and gladiator contests. A naval battle was held on a flooded basin at the Field of Mars.
At the Circus Maximus two armies of war captives, each of 2,000 people, 200 horses, and 20 elephants, fought to the death. Some bystanders complained for Caesar’s wasteful extravagance. A riot broke out and stopped only when Caesar had two rioters sacrificed by the priests on the Field of Mars.
After the triumph, Caesar set out to pass an ambitious legislative agenda. He ordered a census be taken, which forced a reduction in the grain dole, and decreed that jurors could only come from the Senate or the equestrian ranks.
He passed a sumptuary law that restricted the purchase of certain luxuries. After this, he passed a law that rewarded families for having many children, to speed up the repopulation of Italy. Then, he outlawed professional guilds, except those of ancient foundation, since many of these were subversive political clubs.
He also passed a term-limit law applicable to governors and a debt-restructuring law, which ultimately eliminated about a fourth of all debts owed.
The Forum of Caesar was then built, among many other public works. Caesar also tightly regulated the purchase of state-subsidised grain and reduced the number of recipients to a fixed number, all of whom were entered into a special register. From 47 to 44 BC, he made plans for the distribution of land to about 15,000 of his veterans.
The most important change, however, was his reform of the calendar. The Roman calendar at the time was regulated by the movement of the moon. By replacing it with the Egyptian calendar, based on the sun, Roman farmers were able to use it as the basis of consistent seasonal planting from year to year. He set the length of the year to 365.25 days by adding an intercalary/leap day at the end of February every fourth year.
To bring the calendar into alignment with the seasons, he decreed that three extra months be inserted into 46 BC (the ordinary intercalary month at the end of February, and two extra months after November). Thus, the Julian calendar opened on 1 January 45 BC.
Shortly before his assassination, he passed a few more reforms. He established a police force, appointed officials to carry out his land reforms, and ordered the rebuilding of Carthage and Corinth.
He also extended Latin rights throughout the Roman world and then abolished the tax system and reverted to the earlier version that allowed cities to collect tribute however they wanted, rather than needing Roman intermediaries.
Shortly before his assassination, the Senate named him censor for life and Father of the Fatherland. The month of Quintilis was also renamed July in his honour.
He was granted further honours, which were later used to justify his assassination as a would-be divine monarch.
On 15 March 44 BC Caesar was due to appear at a session of the Senate. Several Senators had conspired to assassinate Caesar. Mark Antony, having vaguely learned of the plot the night before from a terrified liberator named Servilius Casca and fearing the worst, went to head Caesar off.
The plotters, however, had anticipated this and fearing that Antony would come to Caesar‘s aid, had arranged for Trebonius to intercept him just as he approached the portico of the Theatre of Pompey and detain him outside. When he heard the commotion from the Senate chamber, Antony fled.
According to Plutarch, as Caesar arrived at the Senate, Tillius Cimber presented him with a petition to recall his exiled brother. The other conspirators crowded round to offer support.
Casca produced his dagger and made a glancing thrust at the dictator’s neck. Within moments, the entire group, including Brutus, was striking out at the dictator. Caesar attempted to get away, but blinded by blood, he tripped and fell. The men continued stabbing him as he lay defenceless on the lower steps of the portico. According to Eutropius, around 60 men participated in the assassination and Caesar was stabbed 23 times.
Caesar‘s last words are not known with certainty and are a contested subject among scholars and historians alike.
The version best known in the English-speaking world is the Latin phrase “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?”, commonly rendered as “You too, Brutus?”) best known from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
After the assassination Brutus and his companions then marched to the Capitol while crying out to their beloved city: “People of Rome, we are once again free!” They were met with silence, as the citizens of Rome had locked themselves inside their houses as soon as the rumour of what had taken place had begun to spread. Caesar’s dead body lay where it fell on the Senate floor for nearly three hours before other officials arrived to remove it.
Caesar‘s body was cremated. A crowd which had gathered at the cremation and started a fire, which badly damaged the forum and neighbouring buildings. On the site of his cremation, the Temple of Caesar was erected a few years later. A life-size wax statue of Caesar was later erected in the forum displaying the 23 stab wounds.
In the chaos following the death of Caesar, Mark Antony, Octavian (later Augustus Caesar) and others fought a series of five civil wars, which would culminate in the formation of the Roman Empire.