Julius Caesar (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.7)

One of the most influential politicians in the history of Rome was Julius Caesar. Caesar was able to gain power for himself through wise leadership, charisma, and cunning. Caesar’s actions changed Rome forever. To this day Caesar is remembered as one of the greatest Roman men.

Julius Caesar was born into a wealthy and powerful patrician family in 100 BC. His family was deeply involved in politics even before Caesar was born. His father was a member of the Senate and his uncle had served as a Consul. From an early age, Caesar’s parents trained him to become a great politician and leader. He was sent to the best schools in Rome, where he learned reading, writing, mathematics, and rhetoric.

Caesar was especially interested in rhetoric because he knew that speaking well was one of the most important parts of being a great leader. He wanted people to listen to him and to agree with him. He wanted to be able to persuade them using his speaking abilities. As a young man, Caesar sought out the best teachers he could find.

Once, while travelling to the home of a great rhetoric teacher on an island in the Mediterranean Sea, the ship Caesar was on was taken over by pirates. The pirates knew from Caesar’s clean and expensive clothing that he was from a wealth family. They decided to kidnap him and demand a ransom from his family. While he was a prisoner of the pirates, Caesar treated them as if they were his prisoners. He ordered them around and yelled at them to serve him. When the pirates laughed at Caesar, he promised that once he was free he would return and show them who was in charge.

After Caesar’s family paid the ransom money, Caesar went back to Rome and asked the Senate to provide him with a small navy. He told them that with enough ships and sailors he could take care of the problem of pirates on the Mediterranean. The Senate decided to let Caesar try to get rid of the pirates. Using the ships and sailors the Senate had given him, Caesar was able to track down the pirates who had kidnapped him. He captured them and had them all put to death. From then on, the Mediterranean Sea was safe for Romans to travel without fear of attacks by pirates.

Because of his excellent leadership abilities, the Senate appointed Caesar as governor of Spain. Once, while he was in Spain as governor, Caesar sat in his home with some friends reading a biography of Alexander the Great. As he read, Caesar began to cry. When his friends asked Caesar why he was crying, he responded, “By the time Alexander was my age he had conquered a great empire and I am only the governor of one province!”

Eventually, Caesar was able to convince the Senate to make him a Consul. Because there were already two Consuls, Caesar became the third Consul. The three Consuls – Caesar, Crassus, and Pompey – were together called the Triumvirate.

Even being a Consul was not good enough for Caesar, however. He wanted to prove himself on the battlefield by expanding Roman power to new territories. In 55 BC, Caesar invaded the island of Britain and tried to conquer it from the fierce barbarian people who lived there. Although Caesar won many battles during his war in Britain, he also lost many. He only wrote home to the people of Rome about his victories, though, and never told them about his defeats. He became known throughout Rome as a great military leader. He was once asked what his strategy in battle was, to which he responded, “Veni. Vidi. Vici.” In Latin this means, “I came. I saw. I conquered.”

In 53 BC, Crassus died in battle, leaving Caesar and Pompey as the two remaining Consuls. Pompey had also become Caesar’s son-in-law by marrying Caesar’s daughter. Caesar thought that his power was secure. The Senate, however, was becoming very afraid of Caesar’s increasing power. They were especially jealous of his popularity among the plebeians. They ordered that Caesar be arrested. Caesar’s own son-in-law and Co-Consul Pompey even decided to take the Senate’s side and arrest Caesar!

When Caesar heard about what was happening back in Rome, he rushed from Britain back to Italy. When he arrived in Italy, he had to make a very important decision. Everything on the Italian peninsula south of a river called the Rubicon was considered the land of the Senate. If he crossed that river and headed toward Rome he would be challenging the Senate to a battle. There would be a civil war in Rome with Caesar’s armies fighting on one side and the armies of the Senate, led by Pompey, on the other. If Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Rome would change forever and there would be no turning back. Caesar decided to cross the Rubicon on January 10, 49 BC. He headed for Rome.

Caesar’s well-trained and experienced legion easily made their way to the capital. As they arrived, Pompey fled the city in fear. He went to Egypt, hoping that the Egyptians would help him in his fight against Caesar. The rulers of Egypt were the descendants of Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals. After Alexander’s death, Ptolemy had taken charge of Egypt and his family had ruled ever since. The two rulers of Egypt at that time, Cleopatra and her brother, also named Ptolemy, were fighting with each other over who would be the only ruler of Egypt. Both of them wanted Caesar, who was now the most powerful man in the world, on their side. Ptolemy thought that he would make Caesar happy by killing Pompey, so he had Pompey’s head cut off and sent back to Caesar as a gift. Ptolemy had made a horrible mistake, though. Although Pompey was Caesar’s political enemy, Pompey was still Caesar’s son-in-law and had been his friend for many years. Caesar was angry at Ptolemy and decided to take over Egypt.

Cleopatra saw this as her chance to get Caesar on her side. Like her ancestors before her, was a very clever ruler. She was also very beautiful. She spoke to Caesar and convinced him to help her get rid of her brother. Caesar agreed and used his armies to fight against Ptolemy. Ptolemy drowned in the Nile River during the battle, leaving Cleopatra as ruler of Egypt. Caesar fell in love with Cleopatra and even had a son with her, whom she named Caesarion. When Caesar returned to Rome the next year, Cleopatra went with him.

Caesar returned to Rome, he was greeted by cheering crowds. Even the Senate agreed to give him awards for his great military victories. He was given the title of dictator, meaning that he had all of the powers of a king but not the title. He used his new power to pass laws that reformed taxes and land policies in Rome. He also passed other laws that were helpful to the plebeians. One of the most important laws he passed was a change to the Roman calendar. Until then, the Roman calendar had been based on the cycles of the moon. Caesar decided to make the Roman calendar like the Egyptian calendar and base it on the time it takes for the earth to go around the Sun, which is about 365 days. This is why we have 365 days in a year on our calendar today.

Even all of this power and praise were not enough for Caesar, however. He did not want to just have the powers of a king, but to actually be called a king. He believed that the rulers of other nations and empires would not respect him unless he was a king. The Senate agreed to make him king and told him to come to the Senate building in the morning on March 15, 44 BC to be crowned. March 15 was called the Ides of March by the Romans. It is a date that is still remembered for what happened in the Senate building that day.

When Caesar arrived, the senators began to act strangely toward him. One of them pulled at his cloak, another bowed to him, and finally another senator ran at him with a dagger. Sixty senators and other patricians attacked Caesar. They stabbed him 23 times. They had secretly decided to assassinate him because they believed he had become too powerful and too ambitious. Finally, Caesar slipped and fell. As he lay on the floor bleeding from his many wounds, he looked up and saw one last senator, his best friend and most loyal supporter, a man named Brutus. As Caesar reached out to Brutus, Brutus also pulled out a knife and stabbed Caesar. Caesar’s last words were “Et tu, Brute?” In Latin this means, “And you too, Brutus?” Above where Caesar lay dead was a statue of Pompey.


 Review Questions

 1. What was the name of Julius Caesar’s son-in-law?

2. What river did Caesar cross, causing a civil war?

3. What Egyptian queen did Caesar fall in love with?

4. On what date was Caesar assassinated?

5. Who was the last person to stab Caesar?


Vocabulary Words

 Ambition – having or showing a strong desire or determination to be successful

Dictator – a ruler with total power over a country, typically one who has obtained power by force.

Legion – an army of about 5000 Roman soldiers

Rhetoric – the art of speaking and writing well

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