Roman Life in the Days of Cicero - Alfred J. Church


At eight-and-twenty, Cæsar, who not thirty years later was to die master of Rome, was chiefly known as a fop and a spendthrift. "In all his schemes and all his policy," said Cicero, "I discern the temper of a tyrant; but then when I see how carefully his hair is arranged, how delicately with a single finger he scratches his head, I cannot conceive him likely to entertain so monstrous a design as overthrowing the liberties of Rome." As for his debts they were enormous. He had contrived to spend his own fortune and the fortune of his wife; and he was more than three hundred thousand pounds in debt. This was before he had held any public office; and office, when he came to hold it, certainly did not improve his position. He was appointed one of the guardians of the Appian Way (the great road that led south-ward from Rome, and was the route for travellers to Greece and the East). He spent a great sum of money in repairs. His next office of ædile was still more expensive. Expensive it always was, for the ædile, besides keeping the temples and other public buildings in repair (the special business signified by his name), had the management of the public games. An allowance was made to him for his expenses from the treasury, but he was expected, just as the Lord Mayor of London is expected, to spend a good deal of his own money. Cæsar far outdid all his predecessors. At one of the shows which he exhibited, three hundred and twenty pairs of gladiators fought in the arena; and a gladiator, with his armour and weapons, and the long training which he had to undergo before he could fight in public, was a very expensive slave. The six hundred and forty would cost, first and last, not less than a hundred pounds apiece, and many of them, perhaps a third of the whole number, would be killed in the course of the day. Nor was he content with the expenses which were more or less necessary. He exhibited a great show of wild beasts in memory of his father, who had died nearly twenty years before. The whole furniture of the theatre, down to the very stage, was made on this occasion of solid silver.

Julius Caesar


For all this seeming folly, there were those who discerned thoughts and designs of no common kind. Extravagant expenditure was of course an usual way of winning popular favours. A Roman noble bought office after office till he reached one that entitled him to be sent to govern a province. In the plunder of the province he expected to find what would repay him all that he had spent and leave a handsome sum remaining. Cæsar looked to this end, but he looked also to something more. He would be the champion of the people, and the people would make him the greatest man at Rome. This had been the part played by Marius before him; and he determined to play it again. The name of Marius had been in ill repute since the victory of his great rival, Sulla, and Cæsar determined to restore it to honour. He caused statues of this great man to be secretly made, on which were inscribed the names of the victories by which he had delivered Rome from the barbarians. On the morning of the show these were seen, splendid with gilding, upon the height of the Capitol. The first feeling was a general astonishment at the young magistrate's audacity. Then the populace broke out into expressions of enthusiastic delight; many even wept for joy to see again the likeness of their old favourite; all declared that Cæsar was his worthy successor. The nobles were filled with anger and fear. Catulus, who was their leader, accused Cæsar in the Senate. "This man," he said, "is no longer digging mines against his country, he is bringing battering-rams against it." The Senate, however, was afraid or unwilling to act. As for the people, it soon gave the young man a remarkable proof of its favour. What may be called the High Priesthood became vacant. It was an honour commonly given to some aged man who had won victories abroad and borne high honours at home. Such competitors there were on this occasion, Catulus being one of them. But Cæsar, though far below the age at which such offices were commonly held, determined to enter the lists. He refused the heavy bribe by which Catulus sought to induce him to withdraw from the contest, saying that he would raise a greater sum to bring it to a successful end. Indeed, he staked all on the struggle. When on the day of election he was leaving his house, his mother followed him to the door with tears in her eyes. He turned and kissed her. "Mother," he said, "to-day you will see your son either High Priest or an exile."

The fact was that Cæsar had always shown signs of courage and ambition, and had always been confident of his future greatness. Now that his position in the country was assured men began to remember these stories of his youth. In the days when Sulla was master of Rome, Cæsar had been one of the very few who had ventured to resist the great man's will. Marius, the leader of the party, was his uncle, and he had himself married the daughter of Cunia, another of the popular leaders. This wife Sulla ordered him to divorce, but he flatly refused. For some time his life was in danger; but Sulla was induced to spare it, remarking, however, to friends who interceded for him, on the ground that he was still but a boy, "You have not a grain of sense, if you do not see that in this boy there is the material for many Mariuses." The young Cæsar found it safer to leave Italy for a time. While travelling in the neighbourhood of Asia Minor he fell into the hands of the pirates, who were at that time the terror of all the Eastern Mediterranean. His first proceeding was to ask them how much they wanted for his ransom. "Twenty talents" (about five thousand pounds) was their answer. "What folly!" he said, "you don't know whom you have got hold of. You shall have fifty." Messengers were sent to fetch the money, and Cæsar, who was left with a friend and a couple of slaves, made the best of the situation. If he wanted to go to sleep he would send a message commanding his captors to be silent. He joined their sports, read poems and speeches to them, and roundly abused them as ignorant barbarians if they failed to applaud. But his most telling joke was threatening to hang them. The men laughed at the free-spoken lad, but were not long in finding that he was in most serious earnest. In about five weeks' time the money arrived and Cæsar was released. He immediately went to Miletus, equipped a squadron, and returning to the scene of his captivity, found and captured the greater part of the band. Leaving his prisoners in safe custody at Pergamus, he made his way to the governor of the province, who had in his hands the power of life and death. But the governor, after the manner of his kind, had views of his own. The pirates were rich and could afford to pay handsomely for their lives. He would consider the case, he said. This was not at all to Cæsar's mind. He hastened back to Pergamus, and, taking the law into his own hands, crucified all the prisoners.

This was the cool and resolute man in whom the people saw their best friend and the nobles their worst enemy. These last seemed to see a chance of ruining him when the conspiracy of Catiline was discovered and crushed. He was accused, especially by Cato, of having been an accomplice; and when he left the Senate after the debate in which he had argued against putting the arrested conspirators to death, he was mobbed by the gentlemen who formed Cicero's body-guard, and was even in danger of his life. But the formal charge was never pressed; indeed it was manifestly false, for Cæsar was too sure of the favour of the people to have need of conspiring to win it. The next year he was made prætor, and after his term of office was ended, governor of Further Spain. The old trouble of debt still pressed upon him, and he could not leave Rome till he had satisfied the most pressing of his creditors. This he did by help of Crassus, the richest man in Rome, who stood security for nearly two hundred thousand pounds. To this time belong two anecdotes which, whether true or no, are curiously characteristic of his character. He was passing, on the way to his province, a town that had a particularly mean and poverty-stricken look. One of his companions remarked, "I dare say there are struggles for office even here, and jealousies and parties." "Yes," said Cæsar; "and indeed, for myself, I would sooner be the first man here than the second in Rome." Arrived at his journey's end, he took the opportunity of a leisure hour to read the life of Alexander. He sat awhile lost in thought, then burst into tears. His friends inquired the cause. "The cause?" he replied. "Is it not cause enough that at my age Alexander had conquered half the world, while I have done nothing?" Something, however, he contrived to do in Spain. He extended the dominion of Rome as far as the Atlantic, settled the affairs of the provincials to their satisfaction, and contrived at the same time to make money enough to pay his debts. Returning to Rome when his year of command was ended, he found himself in a difficulty. He wished to have the honour of a triumph (a triumph was a procession in which a victorious general rode in a chariot to the Capitol, preceded and followed by the spoils and prisoners taken in his campaigns), and he also wished to become a candidate for the consulship. But a general who desired a triumph had to wait outside the gates of the city till it was voted to him, while a candidate for the consulship must lose no time in beginning to canvass the people. Cæsar, having to make his choice between the two, preferred power to show. He stood for the consulship, and was triumphantly elected.

Once consul he made that famous Coalition which is commonly called the First Triumvirate. Pompey was the most famous soldier of the day, and Crassus, as has been said before, the richest man. These two had been enemies, and Cæsar reconciled them; and then the three together agreed to divide power and the prizes of power between them. Cæsar would have willingly made Cicero a fourth, but he refused, not, perhaps, without some hesitation. He did more; he ventured to say some things which were not more agreeable because they were true of the new state of things. This the three masters of Rome were not willing to endure, and they determined that this troublesome orator should be put out of the way. They had a ready means of doing it. A certain Clodius, of whom we shall hear more hereafter, felt a very bitter hatred against Cicero, and by way of putting himself in a position to injure him, and to attain other objects of his own, sought to be made tribune. But there was a great obstacle in the way. The tribunes were tribunes of the plebs, that is, of the commons, whose interests they were supposed specially to protect; while Clodius was a noble—indeed, a noble of nobles—belonging as he did to that great Claudian House which was one of the oldest and proudest of Roman families. The only thing to be done was to be adopted by some plebeian. But here, again, there were difficulties. The law provided that an adoption should be real, that the adopter should be childless and old enough to be the father of his adopted son. The consent of the priests was also necessary. This consent was never asked, and indeed never could have been given, for the father was a married man, had children of his own, and was not less than fifteen years younger than his new son. Indeed the bill for making the adoption legal had been before the people for more than a year without making any progress. The Three now took it up to punish Cicero for his presumption in opposing them; and under its new promoters it was passed in a single day, being proposed at noon and made law by three o'clock in the afternoon. What mischief Clodius was thus enabled to work against Cicero we shall hear in the next chapter but one.

His consulship ended, Cæsar received a substantial prize for his services, the government of the province of Gaul for five years. Before he left Italy to take up his command, he had the satisfaction of seeing Cicero driven into banishment. That done, he crossed the Alps. The next nine years (for his government was prolonged for another period when the first came to an end) he was engaged in almost incessant war, though still finding time to manage the politics of Rome. The campaigns which ended in making Gaul from the Alps to the British Channel, and from the Atlantic to the Rhine, a Roman possession, it is not within my purpose to describe. Nevertheless, it may be interesting to say a few words about his dealings with our own island. In his first expedition, in the summer of 55 B.C. , he did little more than effect a landing on the coast, and this not without considerable loss. In the next, made early in the following year, he employed a force of more than forty thousand men, conveyed in a flotilla of eight hundred ships. This time the Britons did not venture to oppose his landing; and when they met him in the field, as he marched inward, they were invariably defeated. They then changed their tactics and retired before him, laying waste the country as they went. He crossed the Thames some little way to the westward of where London now stands, received the submission of one native tribe, and finally concluded a peace with the native leader Cassivelaunus, who gave hostages and promised tribute. The general result of ten years' fighting was to add a great province to the empire at the cost of a horrible amount of bloodshed, of the lives, as some say, of two millions of men, women, and children (for Cæsar, though not positively cruel, was absolutely careless of suffering), and to leave the conqueror master of the Roman world. The coalition indeed was broken up, for Crassus had perished in the East, carrying on a foolish and unprovoked war with the Parthians, and Pompey had come to fear and hate his remaining rival. But Cæsar was now strong enough to do without friends, and to crush enemies. The Senate vainly commanded him to disperse his army by a certain day, on pain of being considered an enemy of the country. He continued to advance till he came to the boundaries of Italy, a little river, whose name, the Rubicon, was then made famous for ever, which separated Cisalpine Gaul from Umbria. To cross this was practically to declare war, and even the resolute Cæsar hesitated awhile. He thought his course over by himself; he even consulted his friends. He professed himself pained at the thought of the war of which his act would be the beginning, and of how posterity would judge his conduct. Then with the famous words, "The die is cast," he plunged into the stream. Pompey fled from Rome and from Italy. Cæsar did not waste an hour in pursuing his success. First making Italy wholly his own, he marched into Spain, which was Pompey's stronghold, and secured it. Thence he returned to Rome, and from Rome again made his way into Macedonia, where Pompey had collected his forces. The decisive battle was fought at Pharsalia in Thessaly; for though the remnants of Pompey's party held out, the issue of the war was never doubtful after that day.

British chieftain


Returning to Rome (for of his proceedings in Egypt and elsewhere there is no need to speak), he used his victory with as much mercy as he had shown energy in winning it. To Cicero he showed not only nothing of malice, but the greatest courtesy and kindness. He had written to him from Egypt, telling him that he was to keep all his dignities and honours; and he had gone out of his way to arrange an interview with him, and he even condescended to enter into a friendly controversy. Cicero had written a little treatise about his friend Cato; and as Cato had been the consistent adversary of Cæsar, and had killed himself rather than fall into the hands of the master of Rome, it required no little good nature in Cæsar to take it in good part. He contented himself with writing an answer, to which he gave the title of Anti-Cato, and in which while he showed how useless and unpractical the policy of Cato had been, he paid the highest compliments to the genius and integrity of the man. He even conferred upon Cicero the distinguished honour of a visit; which the host thus describes in a letter to Atticus. "What a formidable guest I have had! Still, I am not sorry; for all went off very well. On December 8th he came to Philippus' house in the evening. (Philippus was his brother-in-law.) The villa was so crammed with troops that there was scarcely a chamber where the great man himself could dine. I suppose there were two thousand men. I was really anxious what might happen next day. But Barba Cassius came to my help, and gave me a guard. The camp was pitched in the park; the house was strictly guarded. On the 19th he was closeted with Philippus till one o'clock in the afternoon. No one was admitted. He was going over accounts with Balbus, I fancy. After this he took a stroll on the shore. Then came the bath. He heard the epigram to Mamurra, (a most scurrilous epigram by Catullus) and betrayed no annoyance. He dressed for dinner and sat down. As he was under a course of medicine, he ate and drank without apprehension and in the pleasantest humour. The entertainment was sumptuous and elaborate; and not only this, but well cooked and seasoned with good talk. The great man's attendants also were most abundantly entertained in three other rooms. The inferior freedmen and the slaves had nothing to complain of; the superior kind had an even elegant reception. Not to say more, I showed myself a genial host. Still he was not the kind of guest to whom we would say, 'My very dear sir, you will come again, I hope, when you are this way next time.' There was nothing of importance in our conversation, but much literary talk. What do you want to know? He was gratified and seemed pleased to be with me. He told me that he should be one day at Baiæ, and another at Puteoli."

Within three months this remarkable career came to a sudden and violent end. There were some enemies whom all Cæsar's clemency and kindness had not conciliated. Some hated him for private reasons of their own, some had a genuine belief that if he could be put out of the way, Rome might yet again be a free country. The people too, who had been perfectly ready to submit to the reality of power, grew suspicious of some of its outward signs. The name of King had been hateful at Rome since the last bearer of it, Tarquin the Proud, had been driven out nearly seven centuries before. There were now injudicious friends, or, it may be, judicious enemies, who were anxious that Cæsar should assume it. The prophecy was quoted from the books of the Sibyl, that Rome might conquer the Parthians if she put herself under the command of a king; otherwise she must fail. On the strength of this Cæsar was saluted by the title of King as he was returning one day from Alba to the Capitol. The populace made their indignation manifest, and he replied, "I am no king, only Cæsar;" but it was observed that he passed on with a gloomy air. He bore himself haughtily in the Senate, not rising to acknowledge the compliments paid to him. At the festival of the Lupercalia, as he sat looking on at the sports in a gilded chair and clad in a triumphal robe, Antony offered him a crown wreathed with bay leaves. Some applause followed; it was not general however, but manifestly got up for the occasion. Cæsar put the crown away, and the shout that followed could not be misunderstood. It was offered again, and a few applauded as before, while a second rejection drew forth the same hearty approval. His statues were found with crowns upon them. These two tribunes removed, and at the same time ordered the imprisonment of the men who had just saluted him as king. The people were delighted, but Cæsar had them degraded from their office. The general dissatisfaction thus caused induced the conspirators to proceed. Warnings, some of which we may suppose to have come from those who were in the secret, were not wanting. By these he was wrought upon so much that he had resolved not to stir from his house on the day which he understood was to be fatal to him; but Decimus Brutus, who was in the plot, dissuaded him from his purpose. The scene that followed may be told once again in the words in which Plutarch describes it: "Artemidorus, of Cnidus, a teacher of Greek, who had thus come to be intimate with some of the associates of Brutus, had become acquainted to a great extent with what was in progress, and had drawn up a statement of the information which he had to give. Seeing that Cæsar gave the papers presented to him to the slaves with him, he came up close and said, 'Cæsar, read this alone and that quickly: it contains matters that nearly concern yourself.' Cæsar took it, and would have read it, but was hindered by the crowd of persons that thronged to salute him. Keeping it in his hand, he passed into the House. In the place to which the Senate had been summoned stood a statue of Pompey. Cassius is said to have looked at it and silently invoked the dead man's help, and this though he was inclined to the sceptical tenets of Epicurus. Meanwhile Antony, who was firmly attached to Cæsar and a man of great strength, was purposely kept in conversation outside the senate-house by Decimus Brutus. As Cæsar entered, the Senate rose to greet him. Some of the associates of Brutus stood behind his chair; others approached him in front, seemingly joining their entreaties to those which Cimber Tullius was addressing to him on behalf of his brother. He sat down, and rejected the petition with a gesture of disapproval at their urgency. Tullius then seized his toga with both hands and dragged it from his neck. This was the signal for attack. Casca struck him first on the neck. The wound was not fatal, nor even serious, so agitated was the striker at dealing the first blow in so terrible a deed. Cæsar turned upon him, seized the dagger, and held it fast, crying at the same time in Latin, 'Casca, thou villain, what art thou about?' while Casca cried in Greek to his brother, 'Brother, help!' Those senators who were not privy to the plot were overcome with horror. They could neither cry nor help: they dared not even speak. The conspirators were standing round Cæsar each with a drawn sword in his hand; whithersoever he turned his eyes he saw a weapon ready to strike, and he struggled like a wild beast among the hunters. They had agreed that every one should take a part in the murder, and Brutus, friend as he was, could not hold back. The rest, some say, he struggled with, throwing himself hither and thither, and crying aloud; but as soon as he saw Brutus with a drawn sword in his hand, he wrapped his head in his toga and ceased to resist, falling, whether by chance or by compulsion from the assassins, at the pedestal of Pompey's statue. He is said to have received three-and-twenty wounds. Many of his assailants struck each other as they aimed repeated blows at his body." His funeral was a remarkable proof of his popularity. The pit in which the body was to be burnt was erected in the Field of Mars. In the Forum was erected a gilded model of the temple of Mother Venus. (Cæsar claimed descent through Æneas from this goddess.) Within this shrine was a couch of ivory, with coverlets of gold and purple, and at its head a trophy with the robe which he had worn when he was assassinated. High officers of state, past and present, carried the couch into the Forum. Some had the idea of burning it in the chapel of Jupiter in the Capitol, some in Pompey's Hall (where he was killed). Of a sudden two men, wearing swords at their side, and each carrying two javelins, came forward and set light to it with waxen torches which they held in their hands. The crowd of by-standers hastily piled up a heap of dry brushwood, throwing on it the hustings, the benches, and anything that had been brought as a present. The flute players and actors threw off the triumphal robes in which they were clad, rent them, and threw them upon the flames, and the veterans added the decorations with which they had come to attend the funeral, while mothers threw in the ornaments of their children.

The doors of the building in which the murder was perpetrated were blocked up so that it never could be entered again. The day (the 15th of March) was declared to be accursed. No public business was ever to be done upon it.

These proceedings probably represented the popular feeling about the deed, for Cæsar, in addition to the genius which every one must have recognized, had just the qualities which make men popular. He had no scruples, but then he had no meannesses. He incurred enormous debts with but a faint chance of paying them—no chance, we may say, except by the robbery of others. He laid his hands upon what he wanted, taking for instance three thousand pounds weight of gold from the treasury of the Capitol and leaving gilded brass in its stead; and he plundered the unhappy Gauls without remorse. But then he was as free in giving as he was unscrupulous in taking. He had the personal courage, too, which is one of the most attractive of all qualities. Again and again in battle he turned defeat into victory. He would lay hold of the fugitives as they ran, seize them by the throat, and get them by main force face to face with the foe. Crossing the Hellespont after the battle of Pharsalia in a small boat, he met two of the enemy's ships. Without hesitation he discovered himself, called upon them to surrender, and was obeyed. At Alexandria he was surprised by a sudden sally of the besieged, and had to leap into the harbour. He swam two hundred paces to the nearest ship, lifting a manuscript in his left hand to keep it out of the water, and holding his military cloak in his teeth, for he would not have the enemy boast of securing any spoil from his person.

He allowed nothing to stand in his way. If it suited his policy to massacre a whole tribe, men, women, and children, he gave the order without hesitation, just as he recorded it afterwards in his history without a trace of remorse or regret. If a rival stood in his way he had him removed, and was quite indifferent as to how the removal was effected. But his object gained, or wherever there was no object in question, he could be the kindest and gentlest of men. A friend with whom he was travelling was seized with sudden illness. Cæsar gave up at once to him the only chamber in the little inn, and himself spent the night in the open air. His enemies he pardoned with singular facility, and would even make the first advances. Political rivals, once rendered harmless, were admitted to his friendship, and even promoted to honour; writers who had assailed him with the coarsest abuse he invited to his table.

Of the outward man this picture has reached us. "He is said to have been remarkably tall, with a light complexion and well-shaped limbs. His face was a little too full; his eyes black and brilliant. His health was excellent, but towards the latter end of his life he was subject to fainting fits and to frightful dreams at night. On two occasions also, when some public business was being transacted, he had epileptic fits. He was very careful of his personal appearance, had his hair and beard scrupulously cut and shaven. He was excessively annoyed at the disfigurement of baldness, which he found was made the subject of many lampoons. It had become his habit, therefore, to bring up his scanty locks over his head; and of all the honours decreed to him by the Senate and people, none was more welcome to him than that which gave him the right of continually wearing a garland of bay."

He was wonderfully skilful in the use of arms, an excellent swimmer, and extraordinarily hardy. On the march he would sometimes ride, but more commonly walk, keeping his head uncovered both in rain and sunshine. He travelled with marvellous expedition, traversing a hundred miles in a day for several days together; if he came to a river he would swim it, or sometimes cross it on bladders. Thus he would often anticipate his own messengers. For all this he had a keen appreciation of pleasure, and was costly and even luxurious in his personal habits. He is said, for instance, to have carried with him a tesselated pavement to be laid down in his tent throughout his campaign in Gaul.