The most famous Roman of them all was a soldier, statesman and, crucially, an author.
Gaius Julius Caesar (July 100BC – March 15, 44 BC) was never actually emperor, he ruled while Rome was still a republic, though he had the powers to match any monarch. His domination was secured by force of arms, returning from his conquest of Gaul (modern France, Belgium and parts of Switzerland) to vanquish his domestic rivals.
Caesar’s writing was highly praised by contemporaries. It means there is at least some possibility of hearing the words of the man first hand.
Caesar has been seen as an archetypal Great Man, a shaper of events. This was a view quickly arrived at. Later Roman emperors often adopted the name Caesar to echo his status and the word is still used to mean a man of great power.
1. The die is cast
Written in 121 AD, Suetonius’ The 12 Caesars, takes Julius Caesar as his first subject – Caesar’s enormous legacy was quickly established.
By crossing the Rubicon, (the river that marked Italy’s northern boundary with Gaul) – an action that itself has become a phrase – in 49 BC, Caesar had put himself at odds with the senate, broken Roman law and signalled the start of the civil war with Pompey that would see him rise to his greatest power.
“Let the die be cast,” is the actual phrase according to some translators, and it may have been a quote from an older Greek play.
“Alea iacta est,” is the most famous Latin version, though Caesar spoke the words in Greek.
2. I came, I saw, I conquered
Probably the best known Latin phrase there is can accurately be attributed to Caesar. He wrote “veni, vidi, vici” in 47 BC, reporting back to Rome on a speedily successful campaign to defeat Pharnaces II, a prince of Pontus.
Pontus was a kingdom on the shores of the Black Sea, including parts of modern Turkey, Georgia and Ukraine. Caesar’s victory came in just five days, concluding with the brilliant surprise attack at the Battle of Zela (now the city of Zile in Turkey).
Caesar could see he had coined a memorable phrase, also including it in a letter to his friend, Amantius, and using it in the official triumph to celebrate the victory.
3. Men willingly believe what they wish
We still look to Ancient Rome because, the truth is, human nature doesn’t seem to alter much.
Caesar’s realisation of this rather cynical view is reported in his, Commentarii de Bello Gallico, his own history of the Gallic War.
Caesar spent nine years defeating the tribes of Gaul. It was his defining military triumph. The eight-volume (the final book is by another author) commentary he wrote on his victories is still considered brilliant historical reporting.
If your introduction to Ancient Rome came through the Asterix comic books then you’ll find much that is familiar in the Commentarii. It’s used as a beginner’s Latin textbook in French schools, and the Asterix authors poke fun at it throughout their series.
4. Cowards die many times…
Julius Caesar never said these words, of that we can be sure. They are the work of William Shakespeare in his 1599 play, Julius Caesar. Shakespeare’s original lines, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; The valiant never taste of death but once,” are often shortened to the snappier: “A coward dies a thousand deaths, a hero only one.”
Caesar’s legend was probably transmitted to the Bard of Avon through a translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, a collection of paired biographies of great Greeks and Romans written in the 1st century AD. Caesar is paired with Alexander the Great.
If the European Renaissance that began in the 14th century had one driving force, it was the rediscovery of the glories of ancient Greece and Rome. Plutarch’s Lives was a key text. It was brought from Constantinople (previously Byzantium, now Istanbul) to Florence in 1490 and translated from Greek to Latin.
Shakespeare used Thomas North’s English Translation, which brought Plutarch to British shores in 1579, as the model for his dramatic retelling of Caesar’s life.
5. Et tu, Brute?
Shakespeare gives Caesar history’s most often quoted final words too. The full line is, “Et tu, Brute? Then fall Caesar!”
Assassination was the fate of many Roman leaders. Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by a group of as many as 60 men, who landed 23 knife wounds on him. There are good descriptions, and it was an ugly, squalid killing, on the Ides of March (March 15), 44 BC.
Among the conspirators was Marcus Brutus, a man who Caesar had raised to great power despite his decision to side with Caesar’s enemy Pompey in the Civil War of 49 BC.
It was a great betrayal, in Shakespeare’s hands, so shocking that it destroys the great Caesar’s will to fight. Plutarch reports only that Caesar pulled his toga over his head on seeing his friend among the killers. Suetonius though, reported Caesar’s words as, “And you, son?”
Marcus Junius Brutus committed suicide just two years later after defeat in the Battle of Philippi, the end of the power struggles triggered by Caesar’s death.