The Twelve Caesars (Excerpt)

History buffs! Take a peek at Matthew Dennison’s The Twelve Caesars, out on June 25:

An unforgettable depiction of the Roman empire at the height of its power and reach, and an elegantly sensational retelling of the lives and times of the twelve Caesars.

One of the them was a military genius, one murdered his mother and fiddled while Rome burned, another earned the nickname “sphincter artist”. Six of their number were assassinated, two committed suicide—and five of them were elevated to the status of gods. They have come down to posterity as the “twelve Caesars”—Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius, Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Under their rule, from 49 BC to AD 96, Rome was transformed from a republic to an empire, whose model of regal autocracy would survive in the West for more than a thousand years. Matthew Dennison offers a beautifully crafted sequence of colorful biographies of each emperor, triumphantly evoking the luxury, license, brutality, and sophistication of imperial Rome at its zenith. But as well as vividly recreating the lives, loves, and vices of this motley group of despots, psychopaths and perverts, he paints a portrait of an era of political and social revolution, of the bloody overthrow of a proud, five-hundred-year-old political system and its replacement by a dictatorship which, against all the odds, succeeded more convincingly than oligarchic democracy in governing a vast international landmass.



(100–44 BC)

‘Too great for mortal man’


Isolated by eminence, ‘the bald whoremonger’ Gaius Julius Caesar conceals from us the innermost workings of heart and mind. ’Twas ever thus. Repeatedly he came, saw, conquered; he wrote too, and with impassioned gestures and in a high-pitched voice he importuned his contemporaries if not for love, then for acquiescence, assistance, acknowledgement, awe, acclaim, an approximation of ardour and, above all, admiration and action. He did not stoop to explanations, but asserted unblushingly that dearer to him than life itself was that public renown the Romans called dignitas (a quality he rated higher than moral decency, according to Cicero).

The scale of his achievements dazzled and repelled his contemporaries. (So too a habit of playing fast and loose with the strict legalities of those offices of state he won by bribery, force of will and sheer charisma.) Ancient sources, including Cicero’s letters, betray this ambivalence: they omit to unravel any motive bar vaunting self-belief. Openly Caesar regarded himself as the leading man of the state. He could tolerate no superior and once announced that he preferred the prospect of pre-eminence in a mountain backwater to second place in Rome. Suetonius claims that he ‘allowed honours to be bestowed on him which were too great for mortal man … There were no honours which he did not receive with pleasure.’ We know too well the outcome.

Intermittently his character was cold, the white heat of ambition his defence against the loneliness of epic hubris. We learn as much of the man himself from the handful of portraits which survive from his own lifetime: long-nosed and broad-browed, with strong cheekbones, a resolute, direct gaze and the receding hairline which caused him such anguish. Their style has yet to evolve that bland idealization which will transform the public face of his successor Augustus from autocratic wunderkind to ageless marble dreamboat. As the written sources confirm, Caesar’s was not the appearance of a hero (nor was blandness among his characteristics). He dressed with eccentric flamboyance, customizing the purple-striped tunic that was the senator’s alternative to the toga with full-length fringed sleeves and a belt slung loosely about his waist; later he affected scarlet leather boots. Fastidiousness bordering on vanity reputedly extended to depilation of his pubic hair. It is the sort of detail by which the Romans habitually found out their heroes’ feet of clay and we may choose to disregard it if we will.

Of the twenty-three dagger wounds inflicted on Caesar on the Ides of March 44 BC by that conspiracy of friends, Romans and countrymen – not to mention cuckolded husbands and former colleagues – only one was fatal, poetically a wound to the heart (or near enough). It was not a poet’s death, although Caesar had written poetry – one composition, appropriately called ‘The Journey’, undertaken on the twenty-four-day march from Rome to Further Spain. Rather it was the death of a man who had sown and reaped mightily. As he announced at Marcus Lepidus’ dinner party while dissent fomented, his choice had always been for a speedy death. Conspiracy did not thwart that final ambition. Given his apparent disregard for the good opinion of Rome’s governing class, his destiny, as Plutarch concluded, was ‘not so much unexpected as … unavoidable’.

Compulsively adulterous, subject to the aphrodisiac of power as he resisted submission in every other aspect of his life, he cultivated a legend of personal distinction and vaulting audacity in which none believed more fully than he. At a time when unbridled self-esteem was inculcated in the majority of senators’ sons, Caesar succumbed in splendid fashion. He dreamed, a soothsayer explained to him, that he was destined to rule the world: a restless spirit, unchecked energy and an irrational need for paramountcy drove him towards that preposterous goal. ‘Caesar’s many successes,’ Plutarch wrote, ‘did not divert his natural spirit of enterprise and ambition to the enjoyment of what he had laboriously achieved, but served as fuel and incentive for future achievements, and begat in him plans for future deeds, and a passion for fresh glory, as though he had used up what he already had.’ Those achievements were to change the political map of Europe and divert the course of Western history, connecting the untamed lands of the north with the culture and, in time, belief systems of the south; against that, reorganization of the calendar and a month named in his honour appear small beer. What Suetonius describes as ‘incredible powers of endurance’ facilitated feats of comic-book daring and derring-do, and doggedness in the face of opposition which, in different forms, proved unrelenting.

For seven days following Caesar’s murder, the sun was dark as if eclipsed; skies above Rome thrilled to the nightly appearance of a comet of surpassing splendour universally acknowledged by the credulous as the dead man’s soul. In death he was deified; his legend had begun in life. If some of the evil that he did lives after him, as Shakespeare has Mark Antony assert in his funeral oration for Caesar, not all of the good lies interred with his bones. Revisionism began with the last of those dagger wounds. Even Cicero, whose relationship with Caesar was notoriously troubled, admitted that ‘his character was an amalgamation of genius, method, memory, culture, thoroughness, intellect and industry’.

* * *

On every level Caesar was himself the architect of his own mythology: we shall discover that it is a trait of those who aspire to pre-eminence. His seven books of Commentaries on the Gallic War, covering the period of his proconsulship of Gaul from 58 to 52 BC, present his self-appointed task of subduing Gaul for the empire (and himself) in the light of military manoeuvres necessitated in the interests of national security. The truth is both different and less clean-cut. Those who contributed to his successes, notably his second-in-command Quintus Atius Labienus, scarcely check the progress of this narrative of military apotheosis; nor are rare setbacks acknowledged as failure or wrong calls on Caesar’s part. (Not surprisingly, Labienus later transferred allegiance away from Caesar.) It would be easy to dismiss him as a fraudster or a confidence trickster, but none was convinced more fully than he. In Suetonius’ account, belief in his own superhuman destiny shapes Caesar’s thoughts throughout his mature career, attested in the unusually large number of direct quotations the biographer preserves. This for Suetonius was central to any understanding of Caesar, as well as his interest as a biographical subject. It probably explains why Suetonius felt able to dismiss the conquest of Gaul in a single paragraph, focusing instead on those qualities which permitted Caesar to pull off such a grandiose scam by inspiring and sustaining a relationship of lover-like devotion between himself and the soldiers who followed him year after eventful year, and who even offered to fight for him without pay. For Suetonius’ Caesar, dogged by debt, the attraction of proconsulship of Gaul was that, of all provinces, Gaul was ‘the most likely to enrich him and furnish suitable material for triumphs’. By dint of iron will, and relentless exploitation of blood and iron, his guess came good. This was not heroism in the cause of the senate and the people of Rome. In placing self before service, Caesar acted in the spirit of the times. An ailing republic failed to enforce – or to generate – those mechanisms needed to contain the ambitions of dangerous men. In his Parallel Lives, written in the century after his death, Plutarch twinned Caesar with Alexander the Great. No shrinking violet, Caesar made the same comparison himself, regretting his own tardiness in the face of Alexander’s prodigiously well-spent youth. Like his all-conquering predecessor, in time he bestrode the earth like a Colossus. In the final call, such might could not be reconciled with a republic dedicated through five centuries to curbing individual eminence.

* * *

Gaius Julius Caesar was an aristocrat when noble birth was still at a premium in Rome. The family into which he was born on 13 July 100 BC was ancient, obscure and of slender means: patricians, members of the city’s oldest aristocratic class. In his veins, he claimed, flowed the blood of kings, heroes and a goddess: invincibility was coded into the physical chemistry of his being like lesser men’s predisposition to freckles or thick ankles. Among descendants of the Julii were Venus, her son Aeneas (Trojan hero and progenitor of the Roman race) and those kings of Alba Longa who counted among their offspring Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus and Remus. It was as hard to disprove as to prove, although Velleius Paterculus, that enthusiastic chronicler of the Julio-Claudians, described it as ‘a claim acknowledged by all those who study the ancient past’. Perhaps. Such lofty assertions overrode the curiously unelevated etymology of the ‘Caesar’ cognomen, which may have referred to Punic elephants or blue-grey eyes or the family trait of a luxuriant thatch of hair (the last singularly inappropriate in Caesar’s case) or, more graphically, to birth by caesarean section. Years later, triumphant in Spain, Caesar would commend his troops for storming the heavens; from the outset he claimed for himself by dint of birth something approaching direct heavenly access. ‘Our stock … has at once the sanctity of kings, whose power is supreme among mortal men, and the claim to reverence which attaches to the Gods, who hold sway over kings themselves,’ Caesar told mourners in a funeral oration for his father’s sister in 69 BC. Of such is the discourse of omnipotence. It was a language with which he kept faith lifelong.

Despite holding a priesthood of Jupiter and the prestigious office of pontifex maximus, nothing survives to illuminate Caesar’s religious outlook bar his unshakeable belief in a goddess Fortuna directly concerned with his own destiny and his hunch concerning the benefits of heavenly paternity, however remote. Later, in a gesture that combined family piety and caste complacency, he built a temple to Venus Genetrix. He also made use of his aedileship in 65 BC to challenge convention by hosting, after a delay of twenty years, funeral games in honour of his father, another Gaius Julius Caesar. The 320 pairs of gladiators who appeared in front of Rome’s crowd that year dressed in elaborate silver armour testified not only to Caesar’s lavish generosity but to the distinction of the older Caesar and, by implication, the whole Julian gens, including of course Caesar himself.

Patricians the Caesars may have been: in recent generations they were mostly strangers to prominence or effective power. Caesar’s father died when his son was sixteen. He collapsed putting on his shoes. It was symptomatic of decline and fall, as was the marriage Caesar père had organized for his son to the daughter of a wealthy equestrian. (The teenage Caesar subsequently broke off the engagement – or terminated the marriage if indeed the young couple were actually married – choosing instead Cornelia, daughter of Lucius Cornelius Cinna, four times consul, fellow patrician and, at the time, the most powerful man in Rome. It ought not to surprise us.) A recent history of family mediocrity, added to his marriage to Cornelia, would play a pivotal role in determining the course of Caesar’s life.

Caesar’s legacy has been debated since the moment of his slaughter. His great-nephew Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, exploited the memory of his murdered forebear to destroy for ever the Republic which in its turn had destroyed him. It was Octavian who had the sarcophagus and body of Alexander the Great removed from its shrine so that he could honour Alexander in death with flowers and a golden crown. The great-nephew discerned the same parallels which afterwards inspired Plutarch and had inspired Caesar himself. Alexander, of course, was not the only recipient of a golden crown in Octavian’s lifetime. It was symbolically his own reward for realizing through conquest, mass-manipulation and deft political sleight of hand what Caesar’s less compromising self-promotion had foretold but flunked: an autocracy – monarchy by another name – in place of that ‘democratic’ oligarchy which was the proud boast of the Republic. The conquest of an empire, including Caesar’s own contributions of Gaul and Lusitania, made Rome rich: Gaul alone yielded an annual tribute of forty million sesterces (and incidentally cleared Caesar’s chronic debt). Caesar’s heirs enjoyed riches and empire. Provincial legions and provincial governors, both products of empire, would ultimately destabilize the settlement created by Caesar’s heirs – witness the turbulent ‘king-making’ of the Year of the Four Emperors – just as Caesar had exploited legionary loyalty and the fruits of provincial governorship to provoke, and in time prevail in, civil war.

Covetousness killed him: the longing for absolute power. ‘The animal known as king is by nature carnivorous,’ Cato the Elder had said in the century before Caesar’s birth; in Rome, kingship remained an impermissible aspiration. That Caesar himself betrayed aspects of ‘carnivorousness’ is undeniable: Plutarch estimates that a million Gauls were killed in the Gallic campaign, with another million taken into slavery. Too late in the wake of conquest to repudiate Mark Antony’s gift of a crown at the festival of the Lupercalia or to spurn the crowd’s acclaim with the statement ‘I am Caesar and no king.’ Too late in 46 to demand the erasing of a statue inscription which labelled him a demi-god. His face appeared on coins – a first for a living Roman; like the monarchs of the East he had humoured divinity to the extent of permitting his own statue to be set up in Rome’s Temple of Quirinus. His cult was integrated within state worship: his lieutenant Mark Antony was nominated its priest. In February 44, Caesar was appointeddictator in perpetuum, king in all but name. He had held the dictatorship before, as early as December 49: opportunities for repudiation had surely not been lacking. Plutarch asserts without equivocation that ‘the most open and deadly hatred towards him was produced by his passion for the royal power’. Like Gaius and Domitian after him, he paid for the tyrannous impulse with his life.

* * *

In the last years of the family’s aristocratic obscurity, a daughter of the Julii married a man considered by Romans a novus homo or ‘new man’ (one whose family had not previously entered the senate and held the consulship): Gaius Marius. Among the outstanding generals of Roman history and elected seven times a consul, Marius was rich, famous and prominent. He was also closely associated with one of late-Republican Rome’s two loose political groupings which, while not equivalent to the political parties of modern democracies, represent a roughly similar bifurcation of opinion. Neither group was motivated by altruism; both targeted power. The Populares apparently embraced the aspirations of the mob, setting popularism against the dominance of Roman politics by the senate. The Optimates championed the interests of ‘the best’, where ‘the best’ were drawn for the most part from the city’s oldest and grandest families. Theirs was a defence of the status quo, but since many of the Populares were themselves aristocrats, it was clearly an evolving status quo on the brink of transformation. In answer to his own question, ‘And who are the best?’, Cicero scorned impartiality and hazarded an increase in the Optimates’ power base. ‘They are of all ranks and infinite in number – senators, municipal citizens, farmers, men of business, even freedmen … They are the well-to-do, the sound, the honest who do no wrong to any man. The object at which they aim is quiet with honour. They are the conservatives of the State.’ Marius led the Populares. After his death, he was succeeded by Caesar’s father-in-law Cinna – strong ties twice over on Caesar’s part.

At the outset of his career, Popularist sympathies unexpectedly placed Caesar on the back foot. ‘Quiet with honour’ held no interest for the tall but slight young man already nurturing vigorous ambitions (though almost certainly not at this stage the settlement he ultimately achieved in the months preceding his assassination). Like many men in Rome, he found himself opposed to Sulla, who in 82 BC, in pursuit of a long-term, self-appointed purpose of preventing the city from being overwhelmed by a single faction – Marius’ Populares – seized control by military force. Sulla revived the role of dictator which Caesar would later annex. This granted him a temporary award of supreme power and allowed him to outlaw any whom he considered enemies of the state. It was a process known as proscription which placed prices on heads while stripping its victims of their estates, citizenship, legal protection and ultimately their lives. At eighteen, in possession of a single priesthood and no fortune, well born but not well known, Caesar lacked the public profile to provoke proscription. Instead, Sulla ordered him to divorce his wife (Cinna’s daughter) and forfeit her dowry to the state’s depleted coffers. Invariably cash-strapped, Caesar yielded the money. His refusal to divorce Cornelia left him no alternative but to flee. He escaped from the dictator’s agents only once his mother Aurelia had used her influence with the Vestal Virgins and a number of prominent kinsmen to obtain from Sulla a grudging and prophetic pardon: ‘Bear in mind that the man you are so eager to save will one day deal the death blow to the cause of the aristocracy.’ Rightly Sulla discerned in Caesar many Mariuses. Like his deceased uncle, Caesar would retain ever after Popularist sympathies and the mistrust of the Optimates. He learned early to exploit the support of the Roman masses to advance his personal agenda. Eschewing, and often prevented from, cooperation with the senate, his behaviour instead demonstrates a repeating pattern of crowd-pleasing spectaculars in public and illicit political manoeuvring behind closed doors.

Before then, scandal swiftly followed success. It is a combination which recurs throughout Suetonius’ Lives: oscillating good and bad – leavened with scurrilous details, tittle-tattle and superstition – alternately humanize and demonize the author’s portraits of Rome’s rulers. In Caesar’s case, both success and scandal arose during his first overseas military posting. In the province of Asia, alongside its governor Marcus Minucius Thermus, the nineteen-year-old Caesar took part in the siege of Mytilene. There he acquitted himself with such conspicuous and outstanding valour – although the sources do not divulge details – that he won the civic crown, Rome’s highest award for bravery and one traditionally reserved for exceptional gallantry in the protection or preservation of another man’s life.

Perhaps the oak-leaf chaplet which marked the award turned his head. On his subsequent dispatch to Bithynia, entrusted with a diplomatic mission of persuading King Nicomedes IV to send a fleet to Asia at Thermus’ request, Caesar forgot himself. He indulged in a dalliance with the ageing Eastern monarch. Short in duration, nevertheless it dogged him for the remainder of his life. That the teenage war hero should have consented to be buggered by a geriatric royal pederast – one version has Caesar arrayed in purple robes, recumbent and alluring on a golden couch, an image better suited to his future mistress Cleopatra – would continue to titillate Caesar’s enemies for the next four decades. For there was a subversive quality to such submission: an instance of Roman vigour in thrall to the degeneracy of the East; a client king dominant over Rome’s representative; decrepitude corrupting and overwhelming youth; a suggestion that Caesar was open to influences Rome would not condone. Heedless or unaware of the rumours he generated, Caesar tarried at Nicomedes’ court. Afterwards he compounded that initial indiscretion by returning to Bithynia on unnamed business which Roman gossips derided with undisguised scepticism.

Suetonius describes Caesar as seducing ‘many illustrious women’. His paramours included queens and consorts, notably Eunoe the Moor and Cleopatra. Closer to home, his ‘unbridled and extravagant’ intrigues did not baulk at the wives of political associates. On Servilia, mother of his best-known assassin Brutus, he lavished a magnificent pearl valued at six million sesterces: it was Servilia he loved best. In 81 BC, in Bithynia, his surrender to Nicomedes is a lone instance both of sexual passivity and of homosexuality. Caesar’s enemies clung to it with relish. His wholesale cuckolding made him fair game. Nicomedes’ seduction was the only recompense for small fry blistered by the trail of this dazzling comet. Their taunts retained a bitter tang absent from the baser ribaldry of Caesar’s troops, for whom an old man’s cock was laughing matter. Suetonius claims the soldiers’ ditty became proverbial: ‘All the Gauls did Caesar vanquish, Nicomedes vanquished him.’ In the long term, damage (save to the pride of a libidinous Lothario) was limited. Nero, the last of Julius’ line, would pay more heavily for playing the woman’s part and subverting Roman expectations of male and female, active and passive, dominant and submissive.

* * *

In Rome, Sulla surrendered the dictatorship. (That action would afterwards earn him Caesar’s contempt, a statement in itself of the value the younger man attached to power.) He retired and shortly died. He had declared war on his fellow Romans and been rewarded with sole rule. In the process Caesar was one of many men forced into exile. Undoubtedly, personal animosity aside, Sulla’s record impressed him. When he returned to Rome in 78 BC, Caesar did not accept the invitation of the new leader of the Populares, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus, to join him against the Optimates, proof that ambition was balanced by a degree of political acumen. He turned his hand to law instead, prosecuting the former governor of Macedonia, the prominent Sullan Gnaeus Cornelius Dolabella, for irregularities in his governorship. Although Caesar lost the case, he won friends and reputation. He also made powerful enemies. Fleeing voluntarily on this occasion, he headed for Rhodes and lessons in rhetoric from a leading teacher of oratory, Apollonius Molo. But he was stopped halfway. The hiatus was caused not by politics but money. Pirates took Caesar prisoner. For their bumptious cargo they demanded the large ransom of twenty talents of silver. Caesar set his own value at more than double that amount, the enormous sum of fifty talents.

In total, Caesar spent thirty-eight days as the pirates’ prisoner. In Plutarch’s version, the experience singularly failed to unnerve him. Rather, he treated the men, whom he openly dismissed as barbarians, as shipmates-cum-bodyguards, a captive audience for the speeches and poems with which he diverted the tedium. The fifty-talent ransom was probably provided by the city of Miletus, to which Caesar hastened once the pirates had set him free. There he commandeered a clutch of vessels and returned to the pirates’ ship, where former captive turned captor. He took the same pirates prisoner and requested the governor of Asia to order their execution at Pergamum. That last functionary delaying, Caesar himself organized their death by crucifixion. It was no more than the promise he had made the pirates when first they captured him. Their mistake had been to ‘[attribute] his boldness of speech to a certain simplicity and boyish mirth’. Suetonius reports the same incident to illustrate Caesar’s ‘mercy’: ‘When he had got hold of the pirates who had captured him, he had them crucified since he had sworn beforehand that he would do so, but ordered that their throats be cut first.’ In its way it was a variant on Caesar’s theme ofveni, vidi, vici, ‘I came, I saw, I conquered.’ Dispassionately he had fulfilled his threats; justice (as Caesar saw it) had been done and seen to be done, even if numerous legal irregularities were suggested by the rapid process of its accomplishment – a man with no official standing demanding the payment of his ransom by a provincial city, then bypassing the procedures for justice ordinarily administered by the governor. For the next four decades, Caesar would pursue just such a course. He himself supplied courage, bravado, energy, an inflated sense of personal worth, and impatience with the minutiae that clogged the political process. In return, resistant to scrutiny, he expected compliance and enhancement of his dignitas.

* * *

Caesar was elected to a vacancy in the College of Pontiffs in 73 BC; three years later, he served as military tribune, an undertaking in his life of which virtually nothing is known. After adventures, acclaim and a degree of notoriety, it represented a point of embarkation, first steps on that ladder of magistracies which constituted the senatorial career of many of Rome’s aristocratic young men, the cursus honorum, or course of honours. These first appointments reveal neither novelty nor distinction: the path was preordained. Earlier, probably in 76 BC, Cornelia had given birth to the couple’s only child, a daughter called Julia. Cornelia herself died around 69 BC. Her death, like her life, aside from cementing first loyalties to the Popularist cause, apparently made only limited impact on the direction of Caesar’s fate. His decision to hold a large public funeral for Cornelia, the first of its sort in Rome for such a young woman, increased his popularity with the mob, who interpreted the gesture sentimentally as proof of affection between husband and wife (Nicomedes and numerous affairs on Caesar’s part notwithstanding). Later he would hold a similar funeral for Cornelia’s daughter.

In the wake of bereavement came a departure. In this instance, Caesar’s destination was Further Spain, at that stage a province of limited attractiveness to a sophisticated, cosmopolitan Roman still not thirty. He could not have chosen to serve out his quaestorship so far from the capital; he remained no longer than he had to, returning to Rome after a year. In Spain, however, in the city of Gades (modern Cadiz), Caesar came face to face with a statue of Alexander the Great and the certain knowledge of the magnitude of the task that lay ahead of him. Perhaps that encounter shaped his response to those offices which he assumed on his return to Rome. Caesar served as aedile in 65 (two years ahead of the minimum age qualification of thirty-seven) and praetor in 62. On both occasions he found himself coupled in office with Marcus Bibulus, inimical and Optimate, a staid conservative. In the case of the aedileship, Caesar exploited the appointment for maximum political capital. Rigorously he curried the favour of the masses and consistently overshadowed his less dynamic partner in a dazzling and extravagant programme of public games and spectacles which included those belated gladiatorial funeral games held in honour of his father; he also restored to positions of prominence trophies of victories against the Germans won by Marius, his uncle by marriage (previously Sulla had destroyed these).

In 64 BC, proof that the direction of Rome’s political winds was changing, Caesar presided as a magistrate over the trials of those who had accepted payments from Sulla in return for killing proscribed men. Generous to the defeated as he would remain in every important contest in his life bar his treatment of Germans and Gauls, he did not approach the task in a spirit of vindictiveness. Instead the undertaking provided him with further opportunities to lay claim to Marius’ legacy, a rich ‘inheritance’ of populist distinction and martial prowess. At the end of 63, as a result of further large-scale spending, Caesar won the position of pontifex maximus, head of the College of Pontiffs to which he already belonged and chief priest of the state cult. This prestigious appointment provided him with a house in the Forum. It was a foothold in the very centre of Rome which the cash-strapped Caesar, modestly housed in the Subura, had previously lacked.

As it turned out, Spain bookended Caesar’s ascent of the cursus honorum. He returned to the province in 61 BC as proconsul, his first overseas command. Spanish proconsulship earned him a triumph in Rome. Caesar forfeited public adulation in order to stand as a candidate for the consulship of 59 (an example of close observance of legal niceties on Caesar’s part, necessitated by the vocal hostility of arch-Republican and drunkard Cato). His candidacy was successful. As with the aedileship and praetorship, Caesar’s colleague was Bibulus.

Spain had served as the location for Caesar’s quaestorship, his first proconsulship and the award of an (albeit uncelebrated) triumph. More than this, in time it was the site of his first epileptic fit and, in the wake of war waged against fellow Romans, that dream which an unidentified soothsayer interpreted as foretelling world dominion. The dream itself left Caesar shaken – understandably, since its substance was his rape of his mother Aurelia. On his return to Rome, he remarried. His choice fell on a granddaughter of Sulla and distant kinswoman of Pompey the Great. Her name was Pompeia and he would divorce her in time on suspicion of an affair with an audacious rabble-rouser who donned women’s clothes to make good a secret assignation. Justification for that divorce inspired Caesar’s well-known assertion that, guilty or otherwise – taking no account of double standards – his wife must be above suspicion.

* * *

In the long term, Caesar’s achievement was not to be a programmatic ascent of the offices of state as prescribed by Republican precedent, culminating in a benign term as consul. Nor perhaps should it have been, given those extraordinary capabilities to which even hostile sources attest. Such was Caesar’s mental agility and the acuteness of his concentration that he merited inclusion in the thirty-seven-volume encyclopedia of natural history compiled by Pliny the Elder. ‘I have heard,’ Pliny wrote, ‘that Caesar was accustomed to write or dictate and read at the same time, simultaneously dictating to his secretaries four letters on the most important subjects or, if he had nothing else to do, as many as seven.’ (As dictator, Caesar later courted popular disfavour by dictating and reading letters while watching gladiatorial fights.) As with his mind, so too his body. It was as if his pulse beat to a tempo of its own and his limbs were endowed with more than human strength and facility. Suetonius commends his horsemanship, his skill in arms, that vitality which never flagged:

On the march he headed his army, sometimes on horseback but oftener on foot, bareheaded both in the heat of the sun and in rain. He covered great distances with incredible speed, making a hundred miles a day in a hired carriage and with little baggage, swimming the rivers which barred his path or crossing them on inflated skins and very often arriving before the messengers sent to announce his coming.

The biographer records an occasion when, harried by the enemy in the waters off Alexandria, Caesar left the one safe small skiff to his men and himself plunged into the sea. He swam using a single arm, his left arm holding important papers clear of the water. For good measure he dragged his cloak behind him, clenching it between his teeth in order to prevent the enemy from snatching it as a trophy. Less hair-raising journeys he beguiled, as we have seen, in writing or poetry. He was a stranger to idleness and the greater part of reasonable fear. Little wonder that he inspired in the men with whom he fought such fervent devotion. His standards of discipline were high without approaching that martinet cruelty which afterwards proved Galba’s undoing: he closed his eyes to minor misdemeanours. He led by inspiration, without undue recourse to the mumbo-jumbo of omens and portents, trusting in that lodestar which seldom deserted him on the battlefield, his generalship as much a matter of speed and novelty as of tactical finesse; and he treated his soldiers, whom he addressed as ‘comrades’, with something approaching love.

Such capabilities, married to Caesar’s overweening confidence, could not easily be confined within the orderliness of year-long magistracies. That power which Caesar eventually exercised in Rome arose in part from an accumulation of dignitas, auctoritas and military glory, from full-throttle cultivation of popular support and from his ability to judge whose coat-tails afforded the best ride at any given moment. Caesar’s loyalties lay consistently with himself: throughout the decade of the sixties, which he began as a virtual unknown, he sought to create a network of personal alliances which would serve as a springboard to mastery. If Suetonius’ Caesar does not breathe the word ‘revolution’, it is implicit in the many twists and turns of the second half of his career. With the consulship attained, Caesar aimed at some larger channel of power, an aspiration in which he was not alone in this period of flux anticipating meltdown. His thirst could be slaked only by creating alternatives to the Republican mechanisms of government which had served the city through five centuries. Others thought the same, and had done for years now. ‘Soon Gaius Marius, from the lowest class, and Lucius Sulla, the most savage of the nobles, turned free government, conquered by arms, into tyranny,’ Tacitus wrote. ‘Gnaeus Pompey came next, less obvious but no better, and now nothing was sought except dominion of the state.’ Marius, Sulla, Pompey … Caesar … Given the nature of the contest, only one man could prevail.

* * *

In advance of his consulship in 59 BC, Caesar brokered what Suetonius calls a ‘compact’. His partners were that same Gnaeus Pompey, pre-eminent among the current generation of Roman generals and the son of a Sullan loyalist, and Marcus Licinius Crassus, the richest man in Roman history and vanquisher of Spartacus to boot. At the heart of the arrangement was an agreement ‘that no step should be taken in public affairs which did not suit any one of the three’. A secret, if informal, alliance between Rome’s leading militarist and that magnate whose vast riches had bankrolled several of Caesar’s election bids, it demonstrated a recognition on Caesar’s part that, in 60 BC, power in Rome rested on twin foundations of money and might.

Prior to Caesar’s intervention, the relationship of Pompey and Crassus was discordant. Cassius Dio describes them as ‘at enmity with each other’: Crassus’ jealousy supplies an explanation. In the short term, the certainty of mutual advantage overrode the larger misgivings of all three members of what historians have called the ‘First Triumvirate’. Caesar undertook as consul to expedite measures of Pompey and Crassus previously blocked by the senate; in return, their influence would secure for him a province sufficient to clear his enormous debts. And this is what happened. But in riding roughshod over the inevitable objections of his fellow consul and old sparring partner Bibulus, Caesar came close to acting illegally. Such was Bibulus’ determination not to cooperate with Caesar that he sought to derail the latter’s programme entirely by declaring every day inauspicious for senatorial business and all transactions suspended accordingly. Caesar, inevitably, discovered an alternative methodology: he published daily accounts of government business and moved to check bureaucratic rapacity in the provinces. Neither Bibulus, unmellowed by long familiarity, nor his supporters would quickly forget the chamber pot emptied over his head. Irregularities in his consulship – in his own mind forced upon him – made doubly pressing Caesar’s need to escape from Roman justice (or revenge) into a lucrative province at the end of 59. He did not entertain the senate’s derisory offer of stewardship within Italy, a custodianship of forests and woods. Instead, thanks to the triple inducement of that money (Crassus), armed force (Pompey) and mob support (Caesar) which the triumvirate commanded, Caesar was awarded Cisalpine Gaul (north Italy) and Illyricum for a five-year period. Against the advice of Cato, who regarded the step as akin to ‘placing the tyrant in the citadel’, the senate subsequently added Transalpine Gaul on the Mediterranean coast. In military terms it represented a total of four legions at Caesar’s disposal. The stage was set. Following his divorce from Pompeia, Caesar married for the fourth and last time – Calpurnia, daughter of Lucius Piso – and departed Rome for immortality.

For the next eight years, acting upon his own initiative, Caesar divided each year into two seasons. He spent the summer campaigning season north of the Alps: in addition to the conquest of Gaul, an achievement unrivalled by the greatest of his contemporaries, he crossed the Rhine and twice journeyed to Britain. The winter season he devoted less showily to civil administration in the peaceful provinces of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum on the Balkan coast. (Subsequently, in 49, he bestowed citizenship on the inhabitants of Cisalpine Gaul north of the River Po, thereby completing the unification of Italy.)

There were setbacks: Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus’ threat that, if elected consul for 55, he would demand Caesar’s recall to Rome to answer charges about his behaviour in 59, a curtailment and an indictment the latter dare not countenance; and the revolt of the Gaulish chieftain Vercingetorix, king of the Arverni, in 52, backed by a large coalition of the tribes of central Gaul. But nothing seriously challenged Caesar’s overwhelming, passionate and entirely self-serving desire for what Sallust described as ‘an unprecedented war’ which gave his ability the chance to display itself. Lavishly Plutarch enumerates the magnitude of his achievement: ‘He took by storm more than eight hundred cities, subdued three hundred nations, and fought pitched battles at different times with three million men, of whom he slew one million in hand-to-hand fighting and took as many more prisoners.’ As he had always intended, as we know he had to, Caesar exploited the killing fields of Gaul for that glory an intractable senate stubbornly withheld from him. The cost of so personal a victory included wholesale destruction of two tribes: the men, women and children of the Tencteri and Usipetes, mown down by Roman cavalry in a day of fighting which yielded a death toll estimated by Caesar at 430,000. It was genocide in the service of self-promotion; at best the killings were political. Although Romans thrilled to the grandeur of Caesar’s victories, awarding him extended celebrations of thanksgiving, when the smoke of sacrifice darkened the city’s altars and the gods themselves were besought to witness the empire’s growing magnificence, such unambiguous brutality directed against a civilian population provoked mixed reactions even in Rome. Such ruthlessness, even if we dismiss it as blinkeredness, must colour our assessment; certainly it stimulated reflection among Rome’s senators. ‘All that part of Gaul which is bounded by the Pyrenees, the Alps and the Cervennes, and by the Rhine and Rhône rivers,’ Suetonius wrote, ‘a circuit of some 3,200 square miles … he reduced to the form of province.’ Secure as long as he remained in that province (in which he now had at his disposal no fewer than ten legions), Caesar was at last rich and great. He was not yet fifty.

* * *

In 55 BC, in response to Ahenobarbus’ threat, the members of the triumvirate had met at Luca (modern Lucca). On that occasion, fissures were more evident than goodwill in this flimsiest of opportunist coalitions. Caesar’s diplomacy, spiced by charm, won the day. Crassus and Pompey held the consulship in 55 in Ahenobarbus’ place, electoral victory theirs through purchase and intimidation. They extended Caesar’s proconsulship of Gaul for a further five years and devised on their own behalf a bill that was passed by the tribune Trebonius. This granted each of them a similar five-year proconsulship – Syria for Crassus and two provinces of Spain for Pompey. (In the event, permitted to remain in Italy through an additional commission which placed him in charge of Rome’s grain supply, Pompey governed the latter through legates, preferring to remain on his country estates with his young wife, Caesar’s daughter Julia.) Afterwards Caesar planned a second consulship, for 48, beginning, as Roman law dictated, a decade after completion of his previous term. Despite his victories and that inordinately enhanced dignitas by which he set such store, the misdeeds of his first consulship could not be erased. Caesar remained a man on the run.

Only as consul invested with imperium, that power of military command possessed by magistrates and pro-magistrates for their term of office, could Caesar survive in Rome unscathed: any other return risked legal proceedings. At that point, all the achievements of the last two decades became forfeit to technical niceties maliciously exploited by enemies who, quite correctly, saw in Caesar a threat not only to their own positions but to the very continuance of the Republic as they knew it. It may be true that even now Caesar’s principal aim was not supreme power for himself per se. But a man so lavishly endowed with dynamism could scarcely embrace the treading-water prevarication of a system whose impotence he had explicitly recognized in the triumvirate. That alliance had attained its ends outside the ordinary sphere of senatorial action: its was the new reality of Roman politics. Where even the qualified democracy of the senate was powerless, iron-fisted authoritarianism promised to break through every impasse. For its protagonists it offered action and progress. Impossible that Caesar should forsake either. Authoritarianism then it must be, a policy which precluded the senate’s self-regarding inertia. A second consulship for Caesar would avert for another year indictment and crisis. It also promised to place him once again nearer to that position from which he could bypass senatorial constitutionalism in pursuit of his own goals.

But Caesar had failed to consider the omnipresence of death. In the event, not one but three deaths served to unravel his best-laid plans. A year after the triumvirate’s meeting at Luca, in August 54, Pompey’s wife and Caesar’s daughter, Julia, died in childbirth. Briefly, mismatched father- and son-in-law were united in grief. That the bond between them was weakened, both surely acknowledged. ‘Their friends were greatly troubled too,’ according to Plutarch: ‘they felt that the relationship which alone kept the distempered state in harmony and concord was now dissolved.’ Pompey declined Caesar’s suggestion that the older man marry Caesar’s great-niece Octavia, while he marry Pompey’s daughter Pompeia (an instance of politic bed-hopping which would have required three of the four participants to divorce existing spouses). In 53, Crassus was roundly defeated by the Parthians at Carrhae, his body decapitated, his troops butchered, Roman standards seized by the enemy. A crucial intermediary between Caesar and Pompey had vanished at a stroke. In the aftermath of Rome’s humiliation, which Caesar later vowed to avenge, on 6 December Publius Clodius Pulcher, patrician-born rabble-rousing tribune of the plebs and one-time rumoured lover of Caesar’s third wife Pompeia, was killed. Assassinated in Suetonius’ account, he may have died in an outbreak of politically motivated gang violence on the Appian Way outside Rome. Certainly Clodius’ funeral gave rise to rioting, which in turn engendered panic on the part of the senate; in the air a sense of escalating lawlessness, of the state inadequate to address new challenges. ‘There were many,’ Plutarch reports, ‘who actually dared to say in public that nothing but monarchy could now cure the diseases of the state.’ Attention turned to Pompey. At Cato’s suggestion Caesar’s remaining fellow triumvir was appointed sole consul without an election but with enhanced powers, which he in turn used to legitimize Caesar’s desire to stand for the consulship in his absence. He also obtained a five-year extension to his own command in Spain. Shortly afterwards, in an unexpected change of heart, Pompey passed a law preventing absenteeism among candidates for the consulship. Late in 52 he sugared the pill by sanctioning a second public thanksgiving – on this occasion twenty days long – for Caesar’s defeat of Vercingetorix. In Plutarch’s version, Pompey’s former contempt for Caesar as his junior in age, achievement and distinction had belatedly turned to fear.

For Caesar, thanksgiving in Rome was a sideshow. What mattered was his election to the consulship for a second time and, equally importantly, the management of that election in such a manner that his enemies were denied any opportunity of placing him on trial for previous misdemeanours. This was possible only if he retained proconsular imperium, which obtained only so long as he remained outside Rome. Electoral victory in absentia had become a point of honour, more important to Caesar than the evident loss of Pompey’s former amity. In the service of the Republic he had won victories unrivalled in its history: he refused to countenance the possibility of arraignment for transgressions of the previous decade. While the senate’s line hardened, Caesar issued an ultimatum: either he be allowed to stand for election as proconsul of Gaul or, in the event that he was forced to give up his province, other holders of military commands (a reference to Pompey) behave in like manner. They were, in his own words, ‘very mild demands’. Cicero described it as a ‘fierce and threatening letter’. Either way, the import was clear. Caesar would not compromise. Nor in the event would a hostile senate. On 7 January 49 BC, the senate approved the senatus consultum ultimum which made Caesar a public enemy of Rome. Plutarch claims Pompey’s new father-in-law Scipio as instigator of the decree. Caesar’s response determined the future of his life. It also changed history, and not only that of Rome.

Early in the morning, on 11 January, in company with a single legion, Caesar crossed the Rubicon. In crossing the narrow stream which separated Cisalpine Gaul from Italy, he crossed from legality to illegality, from the status of heroic outlaw to traitor. It was a step not lightly made in Suetonius’ account, in which, at this critical juncture, an intervention of the supernatural strengthened Caesar’s resolve. ‘There appeared hard by a being of wondrous stature and beauty, who sat and played upon a reed … [T]he apparition snatched a trumpet … rushed to the river, and sounding the war-note with mighty blast, strode to the opposite bank.’ The ancient sources vie with one another in their presentation of Caesar’s historic transgression. ‘The die is cast,’ cries Suetonius’ hero, admitting the possibility of fatalism, then tearfully he implores his troops, tearing the clothes from his breast. Plutarch offers instead a quotation from the Greek dramatist Menander: ‘Let the die be thrown!’ It is a challenge, a compact with destiny, the stuff of legends: impossible to remain unmoved. Except that Caesar is not a victim unfairly penalized. Defence of his dignitas is the only justification he offers for a war in which his own countrymen will suffer and die – that self-seeking cause is victorious, of course. It is a conflagration with no foundation in ideology, principle or hope. As with so much in our story, its focus is power.

* * *

In the aftermath of victory, gifts and games. Suetonius records ‘a combat of gladiators and stage plays in every ward all over the city … as well as races in the circus, athletic contests and a sham sea-fight’. So great were the crowds of spectators that many were killed in the crush. There were public banquets, gifts of grain and oil; a payment of 300 sesterces to members of the public, booty to Caesar’s foot-soldiers and land for their retirement.

Pompey had led the army of the Republic, pursued by Caesar, to Thessaly. There, at Pharsalus, Caesar won a decisive victory; Pompey escaped only to be murdered by the king of Egypt. Ignorant of his fate, Caesar arrived in Egypt to find Pompey already dead. He consoled himself with Cleopatra, whom he put on the throne in place of her brother Ptolemy XIII and took as his mistress. There were hostile legions in Spain and at Massilia, in Pontus and in Africa. At Thapsus, on the African coast, Caesar’s men overwhelmed fourteen legions of the Republican army. On that April day in 46, if we choose to believe the sources, 10,000 Pompeians died; Caesar’s side sustained little more than fifty casualties. Three months later, Caesar was back in Rome. His victory had taken three-and-a-half years. In a gesture redolent of past glories, the senate voted him forty days of thanksgiving. He celebrated four triumphs. At the end of the Gallic triumph, Vercingetorix was killed by strangulation: a prisoner, he had waited six years for his humiliation on the streets of Rome. Exhibits in the Pontic triumph included a bronze tablet inscribed with the legend ‘veni, vidi, vici’ in celebration of that speediest victory. For his part, Caesar received the right to be preceded through the streets of Rome by seventy-two lictors. It constituted an unprecedented distinction. That same year also witnessed his third consulship, an appointment to the dictatorship for ten years, and an award which encompassed aspects of the censorship including controlling membership of the senate. The consulship was renewed in the following year and the year after. In February 44 Caesar was named dictator for life – as Plutarch describes it, ‘confessedly a tyranny, since the monarchy, beside the element of irresponsibility, now took on that of permanence’. It was an accumulation of honours akin to Banquo’s commendation of Macbeth: ‘Thou hast it now: King, Cawdor, Glamis, all…’ For Caesar, as for Rome, endgame had been reached.

* * *

Once Cato had claimed that Caesar was the only man who undertook to overthrow the state when sober. Unrivalled power – corrupting or intoxifying, as we will – overrode that sobriety, muddied his responses to those around him, occluded his vision, blurred the boundaries of possibility. Arrogant in eminence, he offended senate and commons alike. ‘So far did he go in his presumption,’ Suetonius reports, ‘that when a soothsayer once reported direful inwards without a heart, he said, “They will be more favourable when I wish it; it should not be regarded as a portent, if a beast has no heart.”’

In the Rome of the sources, portents are never superfluous (Tacitus described it as ‘a city which found a meaning in everything’). They punctuate the rise and fall of human existence as surely as life and death. To overlook – or worse, disdain – the asomatous was just another instance of Caesar’s failing judgement. Overworked and tired, increasingly plagued by epilepsy, he made plans nevertheless for a three-year absence from Italy, beginning on 18 March, to avenge Crassus’ defeat in Parthia. His plan finally ended the procrastination of that conspiracy of sixty senators under Marcus Junius Brutus, which, on the Ides of March, forcibly prevented his departure, almost on its very eve. Anticipating tragedy, horses left by Caesar to graze the banks of the Rubicon wept copiously; a bird called a king-bird, flying into the Hall of Pompey with a sprig of laurel in its beak, was pursued and killed by larger birds; a burning slave, cloaked in flames, survived uninjured; and Caesar’s wife Calpurnia dreamed that the pediment of their house collapsed and that Caesar was stabbed in the arm. On more than one occasion, a soothsayer called Spurinna warned Caesar to beware of danger that would come to him no later than the Ides of March. In response he disbanded his Spanish bodyguard.

And so it came to pass that Gaius Julius Caesar, described by Suetonius as invariably kind and considerate to his friends, died at the hands of a conspiracy whose members were all known to him. Many centuries later, the scene was painted by the Italian Neoclassicist Vincenzo Camuccini. Camuccini’s re-creation depicts a frieze-like orchestration of balletic fury, its focus a crimson-clad Caesar languid in fearless profile. The truth cannot have been so orderly. Under the rain of dagger blows, a single groan escaped Caesar’s lips; also, in some accounts, the words ‘You, too, my child?’, uttered in Greek to Brutus. Thanks to Shakespeare, who rendered that dying cadence ‘Et tu, Brute?’, the murdered tyrant became a tragic hero. Our story is rich in such apparent contradictions and ambiguities.


The Twelves Caesars © Matthew Dennison 2013


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