Though his name has come to mean monarch or ruler, Julius Caesar was never an Emperor of Rome. However, first as Consul then as Dictator for life, he paved the way for the end of the Republic and the dawn of the Empire. A victorious general, popular political leader and prolific author, his memoirs are a vital historical source for the era.
Born to power
1. Julius Caesar was born in July 100 BC and named Gaius Julius Caesar
His name may have come from an ancestor being born by caesarean section.
2. Caesar’s family claimed to be descended from the gods
The Julia clan believed they were offspring of Iulus, son of Aeneas Prince of Troy whose mother was supposed to be Venus herself.
3. The name Caesar may have had many meanings
It could be that an ancestor had been born by caesarean section, but might have reflected a good head of hair, grey eyes or celebrated Caesar killing an elephant. Caesar’s own use of elephant imagery suggests he favoured the last interpretation.
4. Aeneas was legendarily a forefather of Romulus and Remus
His journey from his native Troy to Italy is told in the Aeneid by Virgil, one of the great works of Roman literature.
5. Caesar’s father (also Gaius Julius Caesar) became a powerful man
He was governor of the province of Asia and his sister was married to Gaius Marius, a giant of Roman politics.
6. His mother’s family was even more important
Aurelia Cotta’s father, Lucius Aurelius Cotta, was Consul (the top job in the Roman Republic) like his father before him.
7. Julius Caesar had two sisters, both called Julia
Julia Caesaris Major married Pinarius. Their grandson Lucius Pinarius was a successful soldier and provincial governor. Julia Caesaris Minor married Marcus Atius Balbus, giving birth to three daughters, one of whom, Atia Balba Caesonia was the mother of Octavian, who became Augustus, Rome’s first emperor.
8. Caesar’s uncle by marriage, Gaius Marius, is one of the most important figures in Roman history
He was consul seven times and opened up the army to ordinary citizens, defeating invading Germanic tribes to earn the title, ‘Third Founder of Rome.’
9. When his father died suddenly in 85 BC. the 16-year-old Caesar was forced to go into hiding
Marius was involved in a bloody power struggle, which he lost. In order to stay away from the new ruler Sulla and his possible revenge, Caesar joined the army.
10. Caesar’s family was to remain powerful for generations after his death
The Emperors Tiberius, Claudius, Nero and Caligula were all related to him.
Caesar’s rise to power
11. Caesar began his military career at the Siege of Mytilene in 81 BC
The island city, situated on Lesbos, was suspected of helping local pirates. The Romans under Marcus Minucius Thermus and Lucius Licinius Lucullus won the day.
12. From the start he was a brave soldier and was decorated with the Civic Crown during the siege
This was the second highest military honour after the Grass Crown and entitled its winner to enter the Senate.
13. An ambassadorial mission to Bithynia in 80 BC was to haunt Caesar for the rest of his life
He was sent to seek naval help from King Nicomedes IV, but spent so long at court that rumours of an affair with the king started. His enemies later mocked him with the title ‘the Queen of Bithynia’.
14. Caesar was kidnapped by pirates in 75 BC while crossing the Aegean Sea
He told his captors the ransom they had demanded was not high enough and promised to crucify them when he was free, which they thought a joke. On his release he raised a fleet, captured them and did have them crucified, mercifully ordering their throats cut first.
15. When his enemy Sulla died, Caesar felt safe enough to return to Rome
Sulla was able to retire from political life and died on his country estate. His appointment as dictator when Rome was not in crisis by the Senate set a precedent for Caesar’s career.
16. In Rome Caesar lived an ordinary life
He wasn’t rich, Sulla having confiscated his inheritance, and lived in a working class neighbourhood that was a notorious red-light district.
17. He found his voice as a lawyer
Needing to earn money, Caesar turned to the courts. He was a successful lawyer and his speaking was very highly praised, though he was noted for his high-pitched voice. He particularly liked prosecuting corrupt government officials.
18. He was back in military and political life soon
He was elected a military tribune and then quaestor – a travelling auditor – in 69 BC. He was then was sent to Spain as a governor.
19. He found a hero on his travels
In Spain Caesar is reported to have seen a statue of Alexander the Great. He was disappointed to note that he was now the same age as Alexander had been when he was master of the known world.
20. More powerful offices were soon to follow
In 63 BC he was elected to the top religious position in Rome, Pontifex Maximus (he had been a priest as a boy) and two years later he was governor of a large part of Spain where his military talent shone through as he defeated two local tribes.
Spend, spend, spend
21. Popularity and political office were expensive in Rome
Caesar was forced to leave Spain before his term of office ended, opening him to private prosecution for his debts.
22. Caesar sought out rich friends to back his ambitions
As a result of his debt Caesar turned to the richest man in Rome (and possibly in history by some accounts), Marcus Licinius Crassus. Crassus helped him out and they were soon to be allies.
23. In 65 BC he spent a fortune he didn’t have on gladiators
Caesar knew that popularity could be bought. Already deeply in debt, he staged a massive gladiator show, apparently to honour his father, who had died 20 years previously. Only new Senate laws on gladiator numbers limited the display to 320 pairs of fighters. Caesar was the first to use gladiators as such public, crowd-pleasing spectacles.
24. Debt might be one of the most important drivers of Caesar’s career
His conquests in Gaul were partly financially motivated. Generals and governors could make large sums from tribute payments and plunder. One of his first acts as dictator was to pass debt reform laws that eventually wiped clean around a quarter of all debts.
25. Bribery brought him to power
Caesar’s first taste of real power came as part of the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus. Pompey was another popular military leader and Crassus the money man. Caesar’s successful election to the consulship was one of the dirtiest Rome had seen and Crassus must have paid Caesar’s bribes.
26. Rome was already expanding into Gaul by the time Caesar went north
Parts of northern Italy were Gallic. Caesar was governor of first Cisalpine Gaul, or Gaul on ‘our’ side of the Alps, and soon after of Transalpine Gaul, the Roman’s Gallic territory just over the Alps. Trade and political links made allies of some of Gaul’s tribes.
27 The Gauls had threatened Rome in the past
In 109 BC, Caesar’s powerful uncle Gaius Marius had won lasting fame and the title ‘Third Founder of Rome’ by stopping a tribal invasion of Italy.
28. Inter-tribal conflicts could mean trouble
A powerful tribal leader, Ariovistus of the Germanic Suebi tribe, won battles with rival tribes in 63 BC and could become the ruler of all of Gaul. If other tribes were displaced, they might head south again.
29. Caesar’s first battles were with the Helvetii
Germanic tribes were pushing them out of their home territory and their path to new lands in the West lay across Roman territory. Caesar was able to stop them at the Rhone and move more troops north. He finally defeated them in the Battle of Bibracte in 50 BC, returning them to their homeland.
30. Other Gallic tribes demanded protection from Rome
Ariovistus’ Suebi tribe were still moving into Gaul and at a conference other Gallic leaders warned that without protection they would have to move – threatening Italy. Caesar issued warnings to Ariovistus, a previous Roman ally.
31. Caesar showed his military genius in his battles with Ariovistus
A long preamble of negotiations finally led to pitched battle with the Suebi near Vesontio (now Besançon). Caesar’s largely untested legions, led by political appointments, proved strong enough and a 120,000-strong Suebi army was wiped out. Ariovistus returned to Germany for good.
32. Next to challenge Rome were the Belgae, occupants of modern Belgium
They attacked Roman allies. The most warlike of the Belgian tribes, the Nervii, nearly defeated Caesar’s armies. Caesar later wrote that ‘the Belgae are the bravest’ of the Gauls.
33. In 56 BC Caesar went west to conquer Armorica, as Brittany was then called
The Veneti people were a maritime force and dragged the Romans into a long naval struggle before they were defeated.
34. Caesar still had time to look elsewhere
In 55 BC he crossed the Rhine into Germany and made his first expedition to Britannia. His enemies complained that Caesar was more interested in building personal power and territory than his mission to conquer Gaul.
35. Vercingetorix was the Gauls’ greatest leader
Regular rebellions became particularly troublesome when the Arverni chieftain united the Gallic tribes and turned to guerrilla tactics.
36. The Siege of Alesia in 52 BC was Caesar’s final victory
Caesar built two lines of forts around the Gallic stronghold and defeated two larger armies. The wars were all but ended when Vercingetorix rode out to throw his arms at Caesar’s feet. Vercingetorix was taken to Rome and later strangled.
The height of Caesar’s power
37. The conquest of Gaul made Caesar hugely powerful and popular – too popular for some
He was ordered to disband his armies and return home in 50 BC by conservative opponents led by Pompey, another great general and once Caesar’s ally in the Trumvirate.
38. Caesar ignited civil war by crossing the Rubicon River into northern Italy in 49 BC
Historians report him saying ‘let the die be cast.’ His decisive move with just one legion behind him has given us the term for crossing a point of no return.
39. The civil wars were bloody and long
Pompey first ran to Spain. They then fought in Greece and finally Egypt. Caesar’s civil war was not to end until 45 BC.
40. Caesar still admired his great foe
Pompey was a great soldier and might easily have won the war but for a fatal mistake at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 48 BC. When he was murdered by Egyptian royal officials Caesar is said to have wept and had his killers executed.
41. Caesar was first briefly appointed Dictator in 48 BC, not for the last time
A one-year term was agreed later that same year. After defeating Pompey’s last allies in 46 BC he was appointed for 10 years. Finally, on 14 February 44 BC he was appointed Dictator for life.
42. His relationship with Cleopatra, one of the most famous love affairs in history, dates from the civil war
Although their relationship lasted at least 14 years and may have produced a son – tellingly called Caesarion – Roman law only recognised marriages between two Roman citizens.
43. Arguably his longest lasting reform was his adoption of the Egyptian calendar
It was solar rather than lunar, and the Julian Calendar was used in Europe and European colonies until the Gregorian Calendar reformed it in 1582.
44. Unable to celebrate the killing of fellow Romans, Caesar’s triumph celebrations were for his victories abroad. They were on a massive scale
Four-hundred lions were killed, navies fought each other in miniature battles and two armies of 2,000 captured prisoners each fought to the death. When rioting broke out in protest at the extravagance and waste Caesar had two rioters sacrificed.
45. Caesar had seen that Rome was becoming too big for democratic Republican government
The provinces were out of control and corruption was rife. Caesar’s new constitutional reforms and ruthless military campaigns against opponents were designed to turn the growing Empire into a single, strong, centrally-governed entity.
46. Advancing the power and glory of Rome was always his first aim
He reduced wasteful expenditure with a census that cut the grain dole and passed laws to reward people for having more children to build up Rome’s numbers.
47. He knew he needed the army and the people behind him to achieve this
Land reforms would reduce the power of the corrupt aristocracy. He made sure 15,000 army veterans would get land.
48. His personal power was such that he was bound to inspire enemies
The Roman Republic had been built on the principle of denying outright power to one man; there were to be no more kings. Caesar’s status threatened this principle. His statue was placed among those of the former kings of Rome, he was an almost divine figure with his own cult and high priest in the shape of Mark Anthony.
49. He made ‘Romans’ of all the Empire’s people
Granting citizen’s rights to conquered people would unite the Empire, making new Romans more likely to buy into what their new masters had to offer.
50. Caesar was killed on 15 March (the Ides of March) by a group of as many as 60 men. He was stabbed 23 times
The plotters included Brutus, who Caesar believed was his illegitimate son. When he saw that even he had turned against him he is said to have pulled his toga over his head. Shakespeare, rather than contemporary reports, gave us the phrase ‘Et tu, Brute?’
50. Caesar’s rule was part of the process of turning Rome from a republic into an empire
Sulla before him had also had strong individual powers, but Caesar’s appointment as Dictator for life made him an emperor in all but name. His own chosen successor, Octavian, his great nephew, was to become Augustus, the first Roman Emperor.
51. Caesar expanded Rome’s territories
The rich lands of Gaul were a huge and valuable asset for the Empire. By stabilising the territories under imperial control and giving rights to new Romans he set the conditions for later expansion that would make Rome one of history’s great empires.
52. Emperors were to become god-like figures
Caesar was the first Roman to be granted divine status by the state. This honour was to be granted to many Roman Emperors, who could be proclaimed gods on their death and did what they could to link themselves to their great predecessors in life. This personal cult made the power of institutions like the Senate much less important – if a man could win public popularity and demand the loyalty of the military he could become Emperor.
53. He introduced Britain to the world and to history
Caesar never achieved a full invasion of Britain, but his two expeditions to the islands mark an important turning point. His writings on Britain and the Britons are among the very first and provide a wide-ranging view of the islands. Recorded British history is reckoned to start with the successful Roman takeover in 43 AD, something Caesar set the grounds for.
54. Caesar’s historical influence is greatly increased by his own writings
To the Romans Caesar was undoubtedly a figure of great importance. The fact that he wrote so well about his own life, particularly in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico, a history of the Gallic Wars, has meant that his story was easily passed on in his own words.
55 Caesar’s example has inspired leaders to try to emulate him
Even the terms Tzar and Kaiser derive from his name. Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini consciously echoed Rome, seeing himself as a new Caesar, whose murder he called a ‘disgrace for humanity.’ The word fascist is derived from fasces, symbolic Roman bunches of sticks – together we are stronger. Caesarism is a recognised form of government behind a powerful, usually military leader – Napoleon was arguably a Caesarist and Benjamin Disraeli was accused of it.