JULIUS CAESAR: DON’T CROSS THE STREAM!
Big Julie gets a bad rap. He’s often associated with the fall of the Roman Republic and, while he certainly played a role in it, he was just one of many people who contributed to the end of a bold social experiment that lasted for a few hundred years. There’s a lot we can learn from his story and plenty that’s relevant to understanding the world around us today.
Gaius Julius Caesar (in English we normally ignore the Gaius) was born in 100 BCE to a family that had a long history in Rome. He was of the patrician class, meaning his family could trace its roots back to the earliest families that created the Roman Republic. Unfortunately, they didn’t have the wealth that often went with being patricians, and wealth was critical if you wanted to rise through the ranks of Roman power, known as the “cursus honorum”, the career ladder for patrician men. You needed wealth to bribe the populace to vote for you in elections, to put on entertainments for the masses, to build temples and roads as a demonstration of your love of Rome, and to buy your way out of legal trouble when your enemies came after you. Caesar’s father died when Julius was quite young and soon after he got himself into a great deal of trouble.
Rome in the early years of the first century BCE was going through bloody factional violence. Two powerful generals, Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla, were duking it out to see who was the most powerful man in the land, and this lead to actual blood in the streets. Both men were responsible for executions of members of enemy factions, political purges of other Romans, culminating in beheadings under Sulla, known as the ‘proscriptions’.
Violence of this kind had been going on in Rome for a few decades, starting with the assassination of the Gracchi brothers and hundreds of their supporters, who had the temerity of trying to pass a law whereby the rich elite would have to give up some of their extensive land holdings to the poor. The lives of the working classes was brutal, as it has been throughout all of human history, while the top one percent, the patricians, aristocrats and elite, were living in mansions and eating stuffed goose off of gold plates. The aristocratic Romans shut that reforming shit down by having Tiberius Gracchus and his supporters clubbed to death. When his brother Gaius tried to pass a similar law ten years later, the aristocrats came after him and his supporters, too. He committed suicide before they could grab him, but three thousand of his supporters weren’t as lucky. They were arrested and executed – for passing a law that threatened the wealthy elite. A lot of history, and a lot of modern conflicts, comes down to the rich either trying to either grow or defend their mountain of gold coins. I find it’s very useful, when considering the genesis of wars and political machinations, to start with the question popularised by one of Caesar’s contemporaries, the lawyer, politician and author Cicero: cui bono? (Who benefits?)
Marius died, and Sulla ended up as the last man standing, being declared dictator, an official title bestowed upon a leading citizen in times of great duress and the breakdown of normal government. Unfortunately for Caesar, who was Marius’ nephew though marriage, and was married to the daughter of one of Marius’ closest allies, Cinna, he ended up on Sulla’s shit list. When Sulla demanded Caesar divorce his wife as a show of fealty, Caesar told him to go fuck himself and went into hiding, stripped of his inheritance and titles (he was a member of the priesthood). He was eventually granted clemency through the pleading of his mother and others close to Sulla. Instead of returning to Rome, Caesar decided to join the army, biding his time until Sulla was out of the picture.
This all happened before Caesar was 20 years of age.
When he heard Sulla had died a couple of years later, he started his voyage back to Rome. Along the way he was captured by pirates. Seriously. FUCKING PIRATES. They held him captive and demanded a ransom for his safe return. When he heard how much they were asking for, he laughed in their faces and called them stupid. “Don’t you know who I am?”, he snorted in derision, and demanded they ask for more money, which they did, probably wondering who the fuck he was.
When the ransom was paid, they sent him on his way, but before he left, he assured them with a smile that he would one day return and execute every mother-fucking last one of them. They had a good laugh about that, and were probably still laughing about it when he did return and crucified every mother-fucking last one of them. But he wasn’t an animal – he had their throats slit before he crucified them. So say what you like about Julius Caesar, but he had a sense of humour, and always did what he said he was going to do. So there’s that.
Over the next couple of decades he climbed slowly up the cursus honorum, but because he was relatively poor, he had to borrow a shit ton of money, mostly from the richest guy in Rome at the time, Crassus. Crassus probably funded a lot of guys, covering his bets. The name of the game in Rome, if you had money, was to have as many people in your debt as possible, in order to make sure that when they were in positions of power, they would support policies that favoured your particular interests. And nothing much has changed. Today’s politics runs in very much the same way. The political campaigns and careers of individuals are financially supported by the wealthy who expect payback if their candidate wins. Today that process is hidden more than it was in ancient Rome, but the result is the same. Democracy is an illusion for the most part. You end up with the candidates that the elite want you to vote for.
In 63 BCE, while Cicero was one of the two consuls, Rome had another civil war, this time lead by Lucius Sergius Catilina, known in English as Catiline. Catiline had run against Cicero in the elections and lost, largely because he was another economic reformer, who wanted to make life better for the working class, and most of the wealthy elite were against any such reforms. He was hauled up on charges dating back to the Sulla proscriptions by members of the elite, but was acquitted. Then, according to Cicero, Catiline hatched a conspiracy to murder the consuls and other aristocrats and overthrow the Republic. The conspiracy was revealed (whether or not it was real, we don’t really know, it’s certainly possible) and Catiline got the fuck out of dodge, returning later with an army, which was defeated. Catiline himself was killed during the battle, his corpse later found, out in front of his men’s. He was called a traitor by Cicero and the elite – but was still loved by the working class as someone who tried to reform the system and improve their lives a little.
Crassus’ biggest political foe in those days was a guy called Pompeius Magnus, known to us as Pompey the Great. He called himself “the Great”, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about him. He had been a successful general, often leveraging the hard work done by other generals, and taking credit. Along the way, he made himself very rich. Caesar befriended both men, convinced them not to go toe-to-toe like Marius and Sulla, and together the three of them formed a secret pact, whereby they would use their combined leverage to rule Rome. This is known as the “First Triumvirate”.
In my opinion, Caesar doesn’t get enough credit for acting as the peacemaker in this situation. He possibly prevented a continuation of the decades of blood in the streets by negotiating a political compromise. At least that may have been one of his objectives. Both Pompey and Crassus had ready access to wealth and soldiers, and both had egos the size of Jupiter, so it’s entirely likely that they could have come to blows if tensions had continued to rise.
Unfortunately, however, Caesar didn’t prevent war for very long.
He used their combined pull to get himself elected as one of the consuls of Rome, equivalent to a President or Prime Minister, the highest position on the cursus honorum, in 59 BCE. Rome always had two consuls at any given time who took turns running Rome, month on, month off, and the position lasted for one year. While consul, Caesar finally managed to fulfil the dreams of the Gracchi brothers, by passing a land reform law. To prevent opponents from doing to Caesar what earlier generations of the rich had done to the Gracchi, Pompey filled Rome with soldiers. Although one of the richest men in Rome, he had an interest in seeing the law passed, as a way of rewarding many of his retired veterans with some land.
After his tumultuous year as consul, Caesar was granted a five-year stint as the military governor of a distant Roman province – Gaul, basically modern France, which was fairly new territory for Rome, and was inhabited by a bunch of Celtic tribes the Roman thought of as barbarians. Caesar ended up spending ten years as the governor of Gaul, an unusually long time (which caused a lot of complaints in the Senate), and managed to accomplish a number of objectives. He whipped the Gauls into shape, going to war with one tribe after another until they submitted to Rome. He wrote his own accounts of these battles as reports to the Senate, which were widely published in Rome, and helped build his reputation as a brilliant, bold and brave military strategist. Luckily for us, his reports are one of the rare documents from the first century BCE that survive.
During his decade in Gaul, he defeated a number of Germanic tribes which were trying to move into Gaul, was the first Roman to invade Britain (despite common beliefs that the land itself was a myth), siphoned off a massive amount of the wealth from his province into his own bank account (a fairly standard manoeuvre for Roman governors at the time), and developed a very strong loyalty from his large Roman army due to his brilliant strategic mind, many great victories, and his willingness to be one of the men, living with them, enduring their hardships, and leading from the front when going into battle.
Unfortunately, during his decade in Gaul, the alliance he had put together with Crassus and Pompey started to fall apart. Crassus got himself killed during an ill-conceived invasion of Persia. His army was destroyed, and he was captured, beheaded, and molten gold poured down his throat. “Oh you like gold? Here, eat as much as you want.” Needless to say, this was a major disgrace for the glory of Rome.
And then there were two.
Pompey started to worry about Caesar’s increasing popularity and wealth rivalling his own. He had the Highlander mentality – “There can be only one!” Some of the Senators in Rome were also worried about Caesar and were determined to put him on trial for corruption and embezzlement when he returned to Rome. This was the sport of the elite in those days – nearly everyone embezzled during the provincial governorships and the game was to keep as much of it as you could, buying off your opponents in the Senate to avoid legal trouble which, if it went against you, could result in having your assets confiscated and exile from Rome. In many ways, it reminds me of the mindset of modern corporations. They after often caught out cheating, stealing, bribing and lying. Corporate mathematics appears to go something like this: if the profit to be made from illegal and immoral behaviour exceeds the cost of fines, legal support and brand damage if we get caught, then let’s proceed. Not much different from the mindset of the Roman elite.
Despite multiple written pleas from Caesar suggesting they should sit down like grown-ups and work out their differences, and despite being happily married to Caesar’s daughter Julia until her recent untimely demise during childbirth, Pompey sided – perhaps conspired – with the senators who wanted Caesar to face charges. He confidently pronounced that if, as some feared, Caesar marched his army towards Rome, all Pompey needed to do was “stamp my foot” and a massive army of Romans and their allies stationed in surrounding nations would answer his call. In these days, Rome didn’t have a standing army for national defense and it was illegal to bring armed soldiers into Italy unless you had “imperium”, the right to command troops in Italy.
When the Senate declared Caesar’s governorship of Gaul was officially terminated, he was faced with a difficult situation. On one hand, he could stay in Gaul for the rest of his days and try to convince his army to be loyal to him personally and not Rome, a tricky proposition to say the least. Even if he succeeded, it would be a kind of exile which would have been insulting to Caesar and ruinous for the family name (in those days, Romans cared a great deal about the prestige of the family name). On the other hand, if he resigned his governorship and returned to Rome as a normal citizen, he would be immediately put on trial and, quite probably, lose everything he had worked for over the course of his lifetime, still facing a permanent exile.
Of course, he had one more option – to march on Rome. Which is exactly what he did. He tried to negotiate with Pompey and the Senate first. He wanted to stand for election to another consulship in absentia. This would mean that when he returned to Rome he would have imperium long enough to buy off his enemies. But they wouldn’t reply to his letters. So, with his back against the wall, he put together a small force of a single legion, around five thousand of his most loyal men, and, uttering the famous phrase, “the die is cast” (or “let the die be cast”, depending on which ancient source you believe), crossed the Rubicon, a relatively small river, more of a stream really, that separated Italy from Gaul. Caesar had imperium while he was in Gaul, but he had none in Italy at that time, so what he was doing, bringing an army into Italy, was highly illegal.
But from his perspective, he had been backed into a corner by the Senate and Pompey. While it would be a mistake to remove all blame from Caesar, it is also a mistake to completely exonerate the Senate and Roman elite. Rome was incredibly corrupt and dysfunctional. Outside of the Gracchi, Marius and Sulla incidents which had occurred in the eighty years before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Rome also had elections that were regularly fraudulent and often violent, criminal charges were routinely brought against innocent men (or, at least, men who had done nothing worse than their compatriots), court cases were decided by bribery, the working classes were treated poorly by the elite (not to mention the slaves, who had revolted with Spartacus a couple of decades earlier), as were women and Italians from the regions outside of Rome (which had lead to the ‘Social Wars’, a semi-civil war between Rome and regional Italians when Caesar was a young man).
So it’s fair to say that while crossing the Rubicon Caesar definitely had his own interests in mind, it’s also true that Rome was broken and there wasn’t much worth protecting. The lofty ideals of the once-great Roman Republic had been squandered over the previous century, as a small section of the elite used the increasing might of the Roman army to skim the wealth of conquered provinces into their personal coffers, then used that wealth to buy influence and power back at home, making a mockery of the purported “res publica” (a Latin phrase meaning ‘public affair’).
None of us can really know what Caesar was thinking just before he took that fateful step across the Rubicon river. But my guess is that it was something to the effect of “Meh, fuck Rome, it’s done.” It probably sounded more profound in Latin.
Like populist European leaders from the twentieth century who rose to power during times of great distress, Caesar believed the time was right for a revolution. And it’s pretty hard to argue with him, unless, of course, you were one of the rich, toffee-nosed elite who lost everything. Or, I guess, the working classes who got caught up in the war, but sometimes you have to fight for a better life for your children, and let’s face it – they were being called to war anyway, but it was usually to fatten the coffers of the rich.
When Rome learned that Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, there was, at first, utter disbelief. Then, panic set in. Despite Pompey’s grandiose statements about stomping his foot, there wasn’t enough time to get the word out to his forces in remote provinces, and he hadn’t believed Caesar would have the balls to attempt a direct confrontation, so he didn’t have a few legions standing near by. Pompey, like the rest of the Senate, got the fuck out of dodge. So when Caesar arrived in Rome, he waltzed in without much trouble.
He quickly set out after Pompey and his legions, some of whom were recent recruits, some who were veterans but stationed far from Italy. Pompey himself turned out to be a huge disappointment to his supporters. After losing a major battle, he fled the scene, going to Egypt, where he believed he had the loyalty and friendship of the royal family. As soon as he landed, he was beheaded on the orders of the young Egyptian king, who hoped to curry favour with Caesar, the obvious victor of the Roman civil war. Perhaps surprisingly, Caesar was livid! No barbarian had the right to execute a Roman citizen, let alone a citizen as prominent and illustrious as Pompey, regardless of their personal enmity. As a result, Caesar ended up siding in the Egyptian civil war with the young king’s elder sister and co-ruler – Cleopatra.
Caesar ended up back in Rome rather briefly, where he was declared dictator just long enough to be elected again as consul. He then resigned the dictatorship and left Rome to mop up Pompey’s forces and allies. This took him a few years. When he finally returned to Rome the Senate (albeit a Senate made up mostly of his supporters and people who owed their very lives to him) asked him to be dictator for life. He pushed through a series of reforms that most modern historians agree were sensible and justified.
His reign, as it turned out, was fairly short. Just before he was to leave Rome again to revenge the execution of Crassus by the Persians, Julius Caesar was assassinated by a cabal of these same Senators, stabbed to death, ironically enough, at the feet of a statue of Pompey, during a meeting of the Senate on the Ides of March (the middle of March, and a day Romans recognised as a deadline for settling debts) in 44 BCE. Most of the people wielding the daggers were former enemies, men who had sided with Pompey during the civil war, and who had subsequently received clemency from Caesar. Unlike Sulla, he didn’t have his enemies murdered. He forgave them. He turned the other cheek. And they killed him for it. The man who dealt the final blow was Marcus Junius Brutus, one of the lead conspirators, who had been quite a close friend of Caesar’s and who Caesar had fostered from a young age – perhaps because Caesar had a long running affair with Brutus’ mother, Servilia. Some wags suggested Brutus might actually have been Caesar’s illegitimate son, although for the maths to work out, Caesar would have had to have fathered him at age fifteen. After the civil war, in which Brutus had sided with Pompey’s faction, Caesar forgave him and made him governor of Gaul and, later, urban praetor (essentially the mayor of Rome). This, apparently, wasn’t enough for Brutus, who, like the other conspirators, allegedly feared that Caesar wanted to make himself king of Rome, despite him repeatedly turning down the title when it was offered to him. The last king of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, had been overthrown 450 years earlier in 495 BCE during an uprising lead by Brutus’ famous ancestor, Lucius Junius Brutus.
According to legend, Caesar’s dying words were “You too, child?”
William Shakespeare used a modified version in his famous play: “Et tu, Brutus? (And you too, Brutus?) Then fall, Caesar.”
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. It’s just the beginning! Not having any official male heir of his own (he did have an illegitimate son with Cleopatra, but there was little chance of him ever being accepted by the Romans as Caesar’s heir), in his will Caesar left a large portion of his inheritance to his great-nephew, Octavianus, the son of his sister’s daughter, who he also adopted posthumously. Octavianus was only 18 years old when Caesar died and had only just begun his military training. Despite his parents warning him against it, Octavianus travelled to Rome to claim his inheritance and accept the new name bestowed upon him by the adoption – Gaius Julius Caesar. One thing lead to another and there was another civil war, another triumvirate, another civil war (really just one long civil war with a few breaks to catch their breath), and, eventually, Octavianus was the last man standing. He adopted a new name – Augustus Caesar…. and that’s a story I’ll get to later in the book. Suffice to say that the assassination of Julius Caesar didn’t restore the Republic – if anything, it just assured its demise.
What can we learn from Caesar?
Forgiving your enemies is a worthy and honourable thing to do – but keep a bodyguard around you at all times, just in case. Watch your back! Caesar refused to keep one, believing that if his enemies wanted him dead, then fair enough, they should be given their chance. Hardly the mindset you’d expect from a ruthless dictator, but exactly the mindset you’d expect from a Roman general who had put his life on the line for over a decade and come out on top every time. Seriously, it’s the boldness of his actions that impress me the most. He had almost the entire Roman elite against him, which included some very successful generals, like Pompey, and even some of his own protégés, like Titus Labienus (we had a fun nickname for him on the Caesar podcast, see if you can guess it) and Brutus. It would have been entirely natural to think “oh well, I’m out-gunned, better take my beating” and retire into exile with his tail between his legs. But no! That’s not the Caesar way! Caesar, inspired, I think, by his hero Alexander The Great (I’ll take about him in the next chapter, be patient, my friends), marched boldly into the abyss of the unknown and danger. BRING IT ON. COME AT ME, BRO. Was this hubris? Vanity? Ego? Perhaps. But he had ten years in Gaul behind him, not to mention a legion of tried and true soldiers who had his back. But , more importantly, I think, he also had the courage of his convictions. Why should he be punished for doing nothing different from the men who came before him, that is, “wetting his beak” (as the Mafia would say) while putting his life on the line for ten years to conquer Rome’s enemies and send untold wealth back home? Yes, he also killed hundreds of thousands of people, and while some Romans didn’t like some of his actions in that regard, it wasn’t anything unusual for Rome. It had become the superpower of the Mediterranean through conquest. He knew that his enemies wanted to see him taken down, not because of his actions, but because of the threat he posited to their own domination of Roman politics. And Caesar was not going to bow down before them. He took the Alexanderish position of “Regardless of whether I live or die, glory will be mine.” He figured that if he died trying to reform Rome, then at least he gave it the ol’ Roman try. If he succeeded, well, then he would be remembered forever. And he was right.
Corruption Leads to Revolution
When a society becomes corrupt beyond repair, someone will eventually rise up to try to fix it or take advantage of the decay. Sometimes, like the Gracchi and Catiline, they will fail, often because they are taking on the combined wealth and force of the elite. But, occasionally, as in the case Julius Caesar, they will succeed.
Rome had almost an entire century between the murder of the Gracchi brothers and the Caesar’s civil war in which to address the underlying issues of corruption and greed. But the very people who could have fixed the system were the same people who benefited from it. There weren’t any effective check and balances. Measures that had been put into place to allow the common people (known as the plebeians or plebs for short) to act as a check against the elite were eventually weakened and corrupted by the elite. The role of the Tribune of the Plebs had been established not long after the expulsion of the kings. This was a group of elected officials who represented the interests of the working class. Over time they were granted the power to veto legislation, introduce legislation, and call meetings of the Senate. The tribunes themselves were considered sacrosanct – no harm was allowed to come to them. However in the last century of the Republic, this form of regulation of the elite had been corrupted. Sulla, while dictator, had removed much of their power. While most of those powers were restored after his death, the reputation of the office had been forever tarnished. The First Triumvirate managed to get a member of the elite, Publius Clodius Pulcher, elected as a tribune of the Plebs through some dodgy shit involving an unorthodox adoption. Clodius (as he’s known) owed Caesar one – a few years earlier he had been caught in Caesar’s home, dressed up as a woman, during a secret religious festival that only women were allowed to attend. He was, according to Cicero, trying to seduce Caesar’s wife into adultery. Even though there was no evidence that he succeeded, Caesar divorced his wife anyway, because, as he himself said, “Caesar’s wife must be beyond suspicion”. If only he’d taken the same stance regarding himself and his supposed desire to be king! If he’d been above suspicion, he might still be here with us today. Clodius, by the way, was charged with violating the religious festival but was acquitted – thanks to his benefactor Crassus, who bribed the entire jury en masse. It’s a common problem in societies where enormous wealth resides in the hands of the few. That wealth is eventually used to manipulate and corrupt the very institutions designed to protect against them. Democracies are only as good as the protections put into place to prevent their corruption. Pass a law to regulate corruption, and some members of the elite will try to get it overturned. They will use their wealth to bribe politicians, judges, witnesses, the media, and anyone else they need to in order to get the law eliminated, weakened or altered. As I pointed out in my book “The Psychopath Economy”, there will always be psychopaths who care about nothing other than their own wealth and power. This was true in Ancient Rome and it’s true today. To protect ourselves from psychopaths, we need to build robust systems of regulation that can’t be easily influenced by wealth.
I’ll have more stories about Caesar later on in the book, so I’ll keep some other lessons up my sleeve for then.