The most famous Roman of them all was never himself Emperor. But Julius Caesar’s military and political domination of Rome – as popular general, consul and finally dictator – made the switch from republican to imperial government possible.
Born to power
Caesar was born into the Roman political ruling class, on 12 or 13 July 100 BC.
He was named Gaius Julius Caesar, like his father and grandfather before him. Both had been republican officials, but the Julian clan’s greatest link to high power when Julius was born was through marriage. Caesar’s paternal aunt was married to Gaius Marius, a giant of Roman life and seven times consul.
Caesar learned early that Roman politics was bloody and factional. When Gaius Marius was overthrown by the dictator Sulla, the Republic’s new ruler came after his vanquished foe’s family. Caesar lost his inheritance – he was often in debt throughout his life – and he headed for the distant safety of overseas military service.
Once Sulla had resigned power, Caesar, who had proved himself a brave and ruthless soldier, began his political climb. He moved up the bureaucratic ranks, becoming governor of part of Spain by 61-60 BC.
Conqueror of Gaul
There is a story that in Spain and aged 33, Caesar saw a statue of Alexander the Great and wept because by a younger age, Alexander had conquered a vast empire.
He made it to the top as part of a team, joining forces with the massively wealthy Crassus and the popular general Pompey to take power as the First Triumvirate, with Caesar at its head as consul.
After his term ended he was sent to Gaul. Recalling Alexander the Great, he set upon a bloody campaign of eight years of conquest, which made him fantastically wealthy and powerful. He was now a popular military hero, responsible for Rome’s long-term safety and a huge addition to its northern territory.
Crossing the Rubicon
Pompey was now a rival, and his faction in the senate ordered Caesar to disarm and come home. He came home, but at the head of an army, saying “let the die be cast” as he crossed the Rubicon River to pass the point of no return. The ensuing four-year civil war sprawled across Roman territory leaving Pompey dead, murdered in Egypt, and Caesar undisputed leader of Rome.
Caesar now set about putting right what he thought was wrong with a Rome that was struggling to control its provinces and was riddled with corruption. He knew that the vast territories Rome now controlled needed a strong central power, and he was it.
He reformed and strengthened the state, acted on debt and over spending and promoted child birth to build Rome’s numerical strength. Land reform particularly favoured military veterans, the backbone of Roman power. Granting citizenship in new territories unified all of the Empire’s peoples. His new Julian Calendar, based on the Egyptian solar model, lasted until the 16th century.
Caesar’s assassination and civil strife
The Roman office of dictator was meant to grant extraordinary powers to an individual for a limited period in the face of crisis. Caesar’s first political enemy, Sulla, had overstepped those bounds but Caesar went further. He was dictator for just 11 days in 49 BC, by 48 BC a new term had no limits, and in 46 BC he was given a 10-year term. One month before he was killed that was extended to life.
Showered with further honours and powers by the Senate, which was packed with his supporters and which in any case he could veto, there were no practical limits on Caesar’s power.
The Roman Republic had rid the city of kings yet now had one in everything but name. A conspiracy against him was soon hatched, led by Cassius and Brutus, who Caesar may have believed was his illegitimate son.
On the Ides of March (15 March) 44 BC, Caesar was stabbed to death by a group of around 60 men. The killing was announced with cries of: “People of Rome, we are once again free!”
A civil war saw Caesar’s chosen successor, his great nephew Octavian, take power. Soon the republic really was over and Octavian became Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.