Research paper for History of Ancient Rome by Darci Clark
“Remember you are mortal.”
These are the words a slave would whisper in Caesar’s ear while his military deeds were glorified during his triumph parade. While Julius Caesar’s military exploits are well documented the question of whether he planned to rule Rome as an Hellenistic monarch with divine status remains a mystery. Rome was originally founded as a monarchy but became a Republic around 500 B.C. after the last king, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown. Ever since the founding of the Republic the Roman people had become very wary of any one person gaining too much power and establishing another monarchy. As Caesar’s power and popularity with the common people grew, his political critics found many reasons to accuse him of destroying the Republic and would eventually accuse him of making himself king. The suspicion surrounding Caesar’s involvement with Cleopatra VII, the queen of Egypt, in addition to his acceptance of unprecedented honors by the Senate and his own penchant for adopting regal trappings would lead to his assassination.
Even as a young man Caesar was determined to gain political prestige and influence (auctoritas) for himself and his family. This was a common desire among the aristocratic classes (patricians) who already thought of themselves as superior to foreign monarchs. During Sulla’s dictatorship (82-79 B.C.), Caesar showed great courage and a rebellious nature when he stood up to the dictator. Caesar refused to follow Sulla’s order to divorce his wife, Cornelia, who was the daughter of one of Sulla’s rivals. He was forced to flee Rome and run for his life until Sulla was persuaded by Caesar’s prominent relatives to pardon him. When he issued his pardon, Sulla compared Caesar to Marius, who had held the office of consul an unprecedented five times:
“Very well then, you win! Take him! But never forget that the man whom you want me to spare will one day prove the ruin of the party of optimates which you and I have so long defended. There are many Mariuses in this fellow Caesar.”
This comment by Sulla certainly implies that he thought Caesar would emulate Marius by endeavoring to gain unprecedented political power contrary to the political traditions and laws of Rome. After Sulla’s pardon Caesar began his military career in the service of the governor of Asia. He earned great honor by winning the civic crown (corona civica) for gallantry during the fighting. Unfortunately Caesar earned another scandalous distinction while serving in Asia that would follow him throughout his life, and would become a favorite insult by his political enemies. While on a military errand to request naval assistance from King Nicodemes of Bithynia, Caesar was rumored to have been seduced by the King. Such behavior was looked down on in Roman society and Caesar vehemently denied that it ever happened, even taking a public oath years later to officially deny it. This was Caesar’s first encounter with an Eastern monarch and, if there was any truth to the rumor, it is worth considering that the affair may have happened because of his fascination with royalty and their extravagant lifestyle.
After his military service in Asia, Caesar returned to Rome and entered public life, first as a military tribune and then as quaestor. He served his quaestorship in Further Spain where Seutonius reports of Caesar’s visit to the Temple of Hercules where he saw a statue of Alexander the Great. Lamenting the fact that he had accomplished so little in his life so far in comparison to Alexander, Caesar left his appointment as quaestor in Spain and returned to Rome, ostensibly to expedite his political career and gain greater auctoritas. Up until this point in his public life Caesar had backed controversial legislation and popular causes to gain attention from his peers as well as the Roman voting public. This is something he would continue to do, but the opportunity to run for aedile offered a new way for him to impress the voters by planning lavish entertainments and games during important festivals and holidays.
During his term as aedile, Caesar was openly accused of an attack on the Republic when he secretly set up a display glorifying the victories of Marius which had been previously outlawed by Sulla. Marius was Caesar’s uncle and a hero of the common people (plebians). This act endeared Caesar to the plebians even more but caused problems for him in the Senate. Catulus, the leader of the optimates is quoted as stating: “This Caesar is no longer trying to undermine the Republic secretly, but is now attacking the state openly with machines of war.” The optimates were traditional aristocratic members of the Senate who did not pursue political power by supporting issues popular with the common people. The optimates were always concerned a popularis politician with extraordinary support of the plebians like Caesar would bring down their beloved Republic.Caesar was able to convince the Senate his actions in support of Marius were not intended to be a threat to the Republic, but the accusations against him would continue. Seutonius states that Caesar was even involved in a plot with his political ally Crassus to murder two consuls and reorganize the Roman government. It is highly unlikely that Caesar would risk his life and career by taking part in such a plot and the evidence for his involvement is certainly weak. The accusation alone is proof that Caesar’s critics believed he was capable of any act against the Republic.
The next step on the political ladder for Caesar was a term as praetor where he governed the province of Further Spain and earned the honor of a military triumph on his return to Rome. Caesar’s plan was to stand for election as consul which had to be done in person in the Forum but he could not enter Rome before celebrating his triumph. He sent a request to the Senate for an exception to be made so he could be accepted as a candidate without appearing in person at the Forum. Cato, who was Caesar’s harshest optimate critic in the Senate, debated the issue until the session ended so no vote was possible. This effectively denied Caesar the opportunity to stand for election to the office of consul. Even though the triumph was a great honor few men received, Caesar decided the consulship was more important so he gave up the right to his triumph and entered the city as a candidate.
This move was the right one and Caesar was elected as consul. During his term as consul, Caesar became the third part of a powerful political alliance with Crassus and the famous general Pompey. Caesar’s position as consul allowed him to help pass legislation that Crassus and Pompey wanted. Caesar’s co-consul, an old political rival named Bibulus, tried to stop the passage of Caesar’s legislation, but he failed and refused to continue his consul duties after that. This made Caesar’s job much easier and he was able to basically govern alone. Such an unconventional consulship coupled with the fact that many of the optimates were already suspicious of Caesar’s alliance with Crassus and Pompey led to the threat of an official inquiry into his conduct as consul. The Senate, however, decided not pursue the charges and Caesar left for his proconsular governorship of Gaul. He would spend the next nine years in Gaul and achieve military success, immense wealth, and even greater auctoritas.
The controversy over Caesar’s conduct during his consulship did not subside during his time in Gaul. Caesar knew it was likely he would face legal prosecution which would destroy his political career when he returned to Rome. It was therefore necessary that he be accepted as a candidate for a second consulship as soon as his proconsular term ended in Gaul.Of course his enemies in the Senate led by Cato did not want Caesar to be allowed the chance to win a second term as consul, so they attempted to pass legislation which would end his proconsular term in Gaul early and bar him from an absentee campaign. This was the crux of the problem which led to Caesar’s involvement in the Civil War. It had not been Caesar’s plan to confront his enemies with military force and assume singular control of Rome. He had simply requested an exception to run an absentee campaign for consul. This should not have been considered an extreme or unusual request by any means since Crassus and Pompey had been allowed to do the same thing earlier in their own careers. By this time Caesar’s alliance with Crassus and Pompey had effectively ended. Crassus had been killed on military campaign in Parthia and Pompey had decided to align himself with Cato and Caesar’s enemies in the Senate. Further negotiations failed to resolve the problem and the situation escalated to the brink of Civil War. In Caesar’s memoir, The Civil War, he states:
“Prestige has always been of prime importance to me, even outweighing life itself; it pained me to see the privilege conferred on me by the Roman people being insultingly wrested from me by my enemies, and to find that I was being robbed of six months of my command and dragged back to Rome, although the will of the people had been that I should be admitted as a candidate in absentia at the next elections. However, for the sake of Rome, I bore this loss of privilege with good grace. When I wrote to the Senate suggesting a general demobilization, I was not allowed even that. Troops are being raised all over Italy, my two legions, which were taken from me on the pretext of a Parthian campaign, are being retained, and the whole Senate is in arms. What is the aim of all these preparations but my destruction?”
These do not seem to be the words of a man who was planning to conquer Rome at any cost. Caesar’s enemies had backed him into a corner and forced his hand to use military force. Seutonius notes a different opinion though, when he states that Caesar was unwilling to give up the power he enjoyed in Gaul and he “took this chance of fulfilling his youthful dreams of making a bid for absolute rule.”It is impossible to know if Caesar even entertained the idea he could gain absolute power in Rome, but it is clear by his words and actions that he did not plan to use excessive force while he pursued what he thought were his lawful rights. Once Caesar entered Italy with his troops he showed great clemency to those he defeated. His enemies were allowed to go free and his troops were told to fight only if they met resistance.In a letter Caesar wrote on his march to Rome he says, “Let us see if by moderation we can win all hearts and secure a lasting victory, since by cruelty others have been unable to escape from hatred and to maintain their victory for any length of time except L. Sulla, whose example I do not intend to follow.’When Sulla invaded Italy and became dictator he named all of his enemies outlaws which meant they could be legally killed. Instead, Caesar was considering “a new way of conquering, to strengthen one’s position by kindness and generosity.”
Caesar’s legions eventually engaged Pompey’s army at Pharsalus in Greece. Although he was greatly outnumbered Caesar was victorious and destroyed Pompey’s legions. He pursued Pompey when he fled to Alexandria in Egypt. On Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria he discovered the Egyptian king Ptolemy XIII had ordered the execution of Pompey in an attempt to win his favor. Caesar was not pleased to hear of Pompey’s sordid murder and would have preferred the chance to offer him clemency as he had done with his other rivals. He stayed in Alexandria to mediate a dispute between Ptolemy XIII and his sister/wife Cleopatra VII. Caesar and his soldiers supported Cleopatra when the dispute escalated to civil war. They prevailed against Ptolemy XIII and Caesar entrusted Cleopatra to rule Egypt. During this time they had begun an affair and Cleopatra bore Caesar a son, named Caesarion, or “Little Caesar.” It was this episode that likely aroused early suspicion of Caesar’s monarchical intentions. Having an affair and son with a Hellenistic monarch like Cleopatra could be taken as the first step in an attempt to set up a monarchy in Rome.
After Caesar’s return to Rome, Cleopatra, Caesarion and her court arrived for a visit. Caesar allowed her to stay in one of his houses where they likely resumed their affair. He even dedicated a gold statue of Cleopatra in the Temple of Venus. It is difficult to determine what the Roman people thought about Caesar’s involvement with an Egyptian queen, not to mention what Caesar’s wife Calpurnia thought of his royal mistress’ visit. Caesar’s intentions were questioned as a rumor circulated that he planned to move the capital to Alexandria or Troy.There is no doubt Cleopatra was important to Caesar, as a companion as well as a political ally, but the fact is Caesar made no provision for her or Caesarion in his will which was written in the last months of his life. This is the strongest evidence against Caesar’s premeditated plan to install a true Hellenistic monarchy with Cleopatra. In his will Caesar named his grand-nephew Octavian as his heir and adopted son. Ironically Octavian would become the first emperor Augustus and firmly establish one man rule in Rome.
If his affair with Cleopatra wasn’t enough to worry his critics, Caesar’s own penchant for adopting regal trappings also aroused suspicion. His own ancient family clan, the Julii, claimed to trace their ancestry back to Iulus, the son of the Aeneas, a Trojan hero mentioned in Homer’s Iliad. Furthermore, Aeneas was said to be the son of Venus which meant the Julii could also claim divine ancestry. When Caesar delivered the oration at his aunt’s funeral he claimed:
“My Aunt Julia’s family is descended on her mother’s side from kings, and on her father’s side from the immortal gods. For the Marcii Reges—her mother’s family—descend from Ancus Marcius; the Julii—the clan of which our family is part—go back to Venus. Therefore our blood has both the sanctity of kings, who wield the greatest power amongst men, and an association with the reverence owed to the gods, who in turn hold power even over kings.”
As a reminder of his royal heritage Caesar began wearing what he claimed was the garb of the early kings of Rome, including distinctive red leather calf-length boots. Caesar completed his formal wear with a laurel wreath and a reddish-purple toga, a color frequently worn by royalty.
There were several events in the months before Caesar’s assassination which brought the question of kingship fully out in the open. He upset a group of senators when he did not rise from his chair when they came to announce the newest honors the Senate had bestowed on him. Caesar’s behavior was considered more kingly than Roman and showed great disrespect to the senators. To minimize the insult Caesar insisted he had felt unwell and that was the reason why he had not received his colleagues properly. In another incident Caesar laughed when someone in the crowd called him “king” and responded, “My name is Caesar, not Rex [king].”
The strangest incident occurred just one month before Caesar’s assassination on February 15 44 B.C. during the Lupercalia festival. Mark Antony, Caesar’s political ally and co-consul at the time, made a show of offering a crown to Caesar so he could accept it or reject it based on the response from the large crowd in the Forum. The great orator Cicero described the scene in one of his famous speeches denouncing Antony after Caesar’s death:
“Your co-consul [Caesar] was sitting on the speaker’s platform dressed in his purple toga, crowned on his golden throne. Up you [Antony] climb, approach the throne (and although you were a priest of the Lupercalia, you should have remembered that you were also a consul) and show the royal crown. The whole Forum groans. Where did you get the crown? You did not just pick one up lying around: you brought it from home—a premeditated and considered crime. You kept trying to crown him as the people wailed; he kept rejecting it as they applauded. So it was that you, you accursed person, were alone exposed as a kingmaker, who had as a fellow-consul a man you wanted as your master, and who also tested how much the Roman people could suffer and bear.”
The whole episode was likely planned in advance as Cicero suggests, but the question is whether Caesar was aware that Antony was going to offer him the crown. If Caesar was in on the plan then this was undoubtedly a ploy to see if the people would accept him as king. The people were clearly not ready to make Caesar king and this show of arrogance against the Republic would be the final straw for his enemies.
By the time of his assassination Caesar was king in all but name whether the Roman people accepted it or not. The Senate had voted to give him the unprecedented honor to serve as dictator for life as well as many other symbolic honors. Caesar was named “Father of his Country” and his birthday declared a public festival with his birth month renamed Julius in his honor. Coins were minted with Caesar’s image during his lifetime which was another first. In addition to the civic honors Caesar received there is some evidence he may have been officially declared semi-divine as well. Statues of Caesar were placed in temples and included in ceremonial processions. One statue was inscribed ‘To the Unconquered God” but Caesar insisted the inscription be removed. While the divine kingship of Hellenistic monarchs such as Cleopatra was accepted in the East, the concept was foreign to Rome.
The fact that Caesar accepted such unprecedented civic and divine honors is a strong indicator that he planned to transform the Republic into a permanent monarchy. The question is why he would have toyed with the idea of divine kingship when he already held supreme power in Rome as a result of his success in the Civil War. It must have been obvious to Caesar that his optimate rivals would never accept any form of kingship. Not only would that mean the end of the Republic but it would also mean the end of their opportunities for financial gain and political power. It can be truly said that “Caesar was killed not for what he might have become but for what he was.”He was a threat to the political and financial futures of every other politician in Rome.
We can never know what Caesar’s intentions were for the future of Rome. His enemies were threatened by his power and influence over the common people but more so by the thought of their own political demise. Caesar will always be remembered as a brilliant military leader who was magnanimous toward his defeated rivals. He took risks to achieve political power and, unlike other patrician politicians, used that power to benefit the lower classes of Roman society. If Caesar did wish to institute one man rule in Rome his dream was eventually realized through the enduring reign of Augustus. The controversy over kingship was inevitable as Caesar strived to gain effective control and meet the changing needs of a rapidly growing empire. Caesar may have thought the political competition which had deadlocked the Senate could only be replaced by a new form of government and it was his responsibility to make the necessary changes. Caesar’s enemies may have seen him as the uncrowned king of Rome, but his influence and achievements created the foundation for one of the greatest empires the world has ever known.
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