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Discussion Thread 8: Caesar Consolidates Power: The Roman
Civil War and the End of the Republic
After such a beginning, those who knew nothing of the conspiracy were seized with
consternation and horror, insomuch that they durst neither fly, nor assist, nor even
utter a word. All the conspirators now drew their swords, and surrounded him in such
a manner, that whatever way he turned he saw nothing but steel gleaming in his face,
and met nothing but wounds. Like some savage beast attacked by hunters, he found
every hand lifted against him, for they all agreed to have a share in the sacrifice and
taste of his blood. Therefore Brutus himself gave a stroke in the groin. Some say he
opposed the rest, and continued struggling and crying out, till he perceived the sword
of Brutus; then he drew his robe over his face, and yielded to his fate. (from Plutarch’s
account of the assassination of Julius Caesar)
In 60 BC JULIUS CAESAR returned to Rome from victorious
service in SPAIN. He constructed the FIRST TRIUMVIRATE,
which was an informal coalition between himself, General
POMPEY, and CRASSUS. Crassus had wealth & support: he
was of the Equestrian Order. Pompey had the Military support
and loyalty of his soldiers.
It was Caesar’s goal to become a CONSUL, get command of an
ARMY and win great military distinction, and then embark on
his PUBLIC CAREER. He won, but repeatedly violated the
law while a consul. Since Roman law protected him from
prosecution while he remained a MAGISTRATE, he was now
compelled to remain in PUBLIC LIFE. This later drove him to
fight a CIVIL WAR, and become the uncrowned KING of
After carefully making arrangements to avoid attack at home,
Caesar left to conquer GAUL in April 58 BC. H e first had to
subdue the Germanic tribes—he reserved acts of great cruelty
for them, NOT the Gauls. When he finally completed the
conquest, a LIGHT burden was imposed upon the Gauls. The
tribute was SMALL and collected by locals instead of Roman
officials. Local SELF-GOVERNMENT went on as before. No
attempt was made to Romanize Gaul, but Roman Civilization
spread quickly as the Gauls adopted it.
Caesar had brought millions of Europeans into the Roman
Empire who were now capable of joining future armies. In a
wider historical sense, his actions determined for all time that
the area between the Rhine, the Alps, & the Pyrenees was to be
LATIN rather than GERMAN in culture. And so, Caesar was
one of the most influential shapers of medieval and modern
This was a TURNING POINT in the career of Caesar. It gave
him wealth, reputation, the devotion of an army, and lifted him
to a level equal to General Pompey. Because of what happened
in Gaul, Caesar was no longer just a mere politician, but a
general and a statesman.
The TRIUMVIRATE ended when Crassus was killed during a
campaign in the SYRIAN DESERT. This paved the way for
the Roman Civil War. Three ambitious warlords might make a
balance, but two such as JULIUS CAESAR and GNAEUS
POMPEY never could.
POMPEY made his first attack on CAESAR to the SENATE.
He questioned the validity of Caesar’s election to the position
of CONSUL, and began an anti-Caesar campaign by
advocating laws that would work against Caesar (e.g., making
it necessary to wait for 5 years to become pro-consul). Pompey
incited more anti-Caesar sentiment in the senate.
Neither side wanted WAR. Pompey wanted to force Caesar
into a subordinate position which would give him control of the
state. Caesar would not dare accept such a position, as he
would be permanently WEAKENED. Caesar was eligible for
CONSUL again in 49 BCE; he was determined to hold into his
GAUL COMMAND until then.
Caesar recognized that war was INEVITABLE. On January 1,
49, a letter from Caesar was read to the Senate. Caesar would
disband his LEGIONS and retire to PRIVATE LIFE if
Pompey would do the same. If these terms were rejected, he
would MEDIATE no more, but would fight Pompey.
Pompey declared that, if the senate wavered, he would no
longer defend it. He obtained a Senate proclamation ordering
Caesar to hand over his army to his SUBORDINANTS or be
considered OUTLAWS. When Caesar’s friends sought to veto
this resolution, they barely escaped with their lives, and then
only by disguise. These friends were TRIBUNES, and so now
Caesar could pose as a defender of PLEBIAN rights.
The issue was no longer between REPUBLICANISM and
MONARCHY. A MONARCHY was now inevitable. When the
renegade TRIBUNES reached CAESAR, he was at the
Southern Point of his command. The RUBICON river
separated his command from Italy, and he ordered his soldiers
to cross it. This was an ACT OF WAR, since it was done
without the permission of the SENATE. So, Caesar could
either put the noose around his neck by returning to Rome or
commit what amounted to TREASON. There was no turning
back; the sword would decide which of the two warlords—
POMPEY or CAESAR, would rule the ROMAN EMPIRE.
The CIVIL WAR lasted from 49-45 BC. When Caesar crossed
the Rubicon, he made his famous quote: “The die is cast.” He
had the following advantages when going into battle: (1) He
was a master TACTICIAN; (2) He had the best LEGIONS
whose ranks were swelled with VETERANS; (3) Pompey was
inept in politics and had to take the bad advice of SENATORS.
These were the factors that ultimately led to Caesar’s
Caesar’s defeat of Pompey in Italy was SWIFT. Caesar’s
treatment of captured officers was astonishingly GENTLE.
They were set free without any conditions, and no
After securing ITALY, Caesar next attacked Pompey’s forces
in SPAIN. Once these forces were defeated, Caesar next set
forth after Pompey in GREECE. In Greece, Pompey had
SUPERIOR FORCES and won the first BATTLE. Pompey
could have destroyed Caesar’s army, but failed to pursue him
well and so Caesar lived to fight another day.
The devastating blow for Pompey was the battle of
PHARSALUS. Here, Caesar demonstrated his brilliant skills
as a TACTICIAN. He used CAVALRY to prevent an attack to
his flanks. Caesar lost only 200 dead; Pompey lost 15,000. In a
fatal move, Pompey fled to EGYPT.
In Egypt, there was a civil war between CLEOPATRA and her
brother, PTOLEMY XII. Pompey appealed to Ptolemy for
permission to land, but Ptolemy MURDERED Pompey for fear
of what CAESAR would do if he learned that Egypt had given
ASYLUM to Pompey. However, CAESAR punished them
anyway. He intervened into Egyptian politics on the side of
CLEOPATRA. At 52 (or so) he fell in love with her (22). They
had a son named Caesarion.
One final campaign before returning to Rome: the 5-day
MITHRIDATES war. This is the origin of the famous
statement “I Came, I saw, I conquered.” He had been away
from Rome for 18 months. He returned to mend his political
fences, and then, in the Spring of 46, he set out for AFRICA to
wipe out the remaining pockets of resistance loyal to Pompey.
In the battle of THASPUS, Caesar won an overwhelming
victory (lost 50 men, Pompey loyalists lost 50,000). The few
enemy officers who escaped went to SPAIN, where they were
pursued and annihilated by CAESAR. The year was 45 BC,
and Caesar was now the undisputed leader of the Roman
As the sole surviving member of the Triumvirate, Caesar was
in effect a MONARCH, except in NAME (he hadn’t adopted
the title of KING). He permitted himself to be WORSHIPPED;
there was even a PRIEST appointed for his cult. The
SEVENTH month of the year was named after him.
His laws were NON-PARTISAN. He worked to DIMINISH the
power of the SENATE, as this governing body had NO PLACE
in the AUTOCRATIC government he envisioned. But he could
not ABOLISH the senate. Instead, his followers sought to
He conceived of a GRANDIOSE plan for ordering all of
ROMAN LIFE. He created magnificent new buildings (called
JULIAN form). Also developed the Julian calendar and
foresaw a Rome with no class distinctions; all Romans would
be EQUAL under a common MASTER. Yet, he would have
very little time to institute his REFORMS.
As time passed and it was recognized that the REPUBLIC was
undergoing drastic changes, the ENEMIES of Caesar grew.
Many, even some of his SUPPORTERS, began to feel that the
health of the EMPIRE demanded his DEATH.
During the winter of 45-44 BCE, rumors began to spread that
he was about to assume the title of KING. 60 Senators formed
a conspiracy against him, including not only senatorial
supporters of POMPEY but also Caesar’s supporters of long
standing, such as DECIMUS BRUTUS. Their task was made
much easier because Caesar had no fear of personal danger; he
kept no guards.
On the Ides of March (March 15th) he was invited to the Senate
House. Despite two warnings he still went. He was stabbed to
death—tradition says 23 wounds—and fell dead at the feet of
the statue of Pompey.
What happened next? Again, we turn to Plutarch…
Next day, Brutus and the rest of the conspirators came down from the capitol, and
addressed the people, who attended to their discourse, without expressing either
dislike or approbation of what was done. But by their silence it appeared that they
pitied Caesar at the same time that they revered Brutus. The Senate passed a
general amnesty; and to reconcile all parties, they decreed Caesar divine honors,
and confirmed all the acts of his dictatorship; while on Brutus and his friends they
bestowed governments and such honors as were suitable; so that it was generally
imagined the commonwealth was firmly established again, and all brought into the
best order.
But when, upon the opening of Caesar’s will, it was found that he had left every
Roman citizen a considerable legacy, and they had beheld the body, as it was
carried through the forum, all mangled with wounds, the multitude could no longer
be kept within bounds. They stopped the procession, and tearing up the benches
with the doors and tables, heaped them into a pile, and burnt the corpse there. Then
snatching flaming brands from the pile, some ran to burn the houses of the
assassins, while others ranged the city, to find the conspirators themselves and tear
them into pieces; but they had taken such care to secure themselves, that they could
not meet with one of them.
Caesar died at the age of fifty-six, and did not survive Pompey above four years.
His object was sovereign power and authority, which hew pursued through
innumerable dangers, ad which by prodigious efforts he gained at last. But he
reaped no other fruit from it, than an empty and invidious title. It is true, the divine
power which conducted him through life, attended him after his death, as his
avenger pursued and hunted out the assassins over sea and land, and rested not till
there was not a man left, either of those dipped their hands in his blood, or of those
who gave their sanction to the deed.
It is too simplistic to look upon Caesar as the destroyer of the
Republic and the founder of the empire. Beginning with the
Gracchi, the republic had been falling for a long time, and
some sort of monarchy was inevitable. Caesar was perhaps the
first Roman politician to realize this. Pompey had envisioned a
government in which the magistrates, the senate, and the
traditional institutions of the Roman Republic would still be
important; the notion of Patrician Privilege would still be
preserved. Pompey would be “First Citizen” and care for the
tasks that were too big for the state. Caesar’s notion was
VERY different. In his autocracy, one would dominate all,
with citizens and government officials being reduced to a
single level under a single autocrat. And what was the result
of his assassination? Did the republic with its institutions
magically reappear? Far from it, as Rome was plunged into
many years of civil war.