City of the Seven Hills - S. B. Harding

Caesar and the Beginning of the Empire

During the years of Caesar's life in Gaul, the misgovernment of Rome had steadily been growing worse. The elections for consuls could not be held without disorder, and the candidates for office went about with bands of armed men for their protection. Sometimes these bands actually fought at the voting places; and once the election of consuls was prevented, by these quarrels, for six months after the proper time. Thus the Romans were not only failing to rule their provinces justly,—as you have seen was so in the case of Verres in Sicily, but the city itself was now filled with confusion and violence; and many wise and thoughtful men became willing to end the disorder in any way that was possible.

At this time, Cicero was trying to cure the evils of the government by urging the people of Rome to be as unselfish and virtuous as their forefathers had been. His efforts failed, for the people were not willing to believe that their greed and selfishness were ruining their country; and, perhaps, if they had believed it, they could not have changed themselves in order to make their government better. They had no idea of reforming the government by giving it the representative form such as we have now; so the only cure that remained was for the government by the Senate to give way to that of one strong man, who could put down disorder and punish misgovernment.

But where was the strong man to be found who could, and would, force the Senate to step aside and let him carry on the government? To do this, it was necessary that he should have an army, for the Senate would certainly not give up its power without a struggle. Now there were only two men at this time who had armies which they could use in this way. One of them was Pompey, the conqueror of the pirates and the East; the other was Caesar, the conqueror of Gaul.

Pompey might long ago have overturned the government of the Senate, if he had really wanted to do so. But though he could win battles, he did not know much about government, and could not make up his mind what he wanted to do. Caesar, on the other hand, was as good at politics as he was at war. He had long seen that the old government was so bad that it could only be cured by setting up another in its place; and he was quite ready to try to do this himself, if the chance should come to him.

For a while Caesar and Pompey had acted together, and had helped each other in politics. But when news came to Pompey at Rome of the splendid victories which Caesar was winning in Gaul, he began to be jealous of him, and at last he was ready to join with the party of the nobles in any plan that would destroy Caesar's power.

As you will remember, it had been agreed that Caesar was to have his command in Gaul for ten years. When that time should be up, he had arranged that he should be elected consul again. That would give him an army as consul, just as soon as he laid down the command of his army in Gaul; and when his year as consul was up, he would go to one of the provinces as the head of another army for a long term of years. In this way there would be no time when Caesar would not have an army at his command; and so the nobles would not be able to injure him, or put him to death, as they had put Tiberius and Caius Gracchus to death.

The plan which the nobles and Pompey formed, to get rid of Caesar, was this. They would make him give up his government in Gaul before his last five years were over; then, perhaps, when Caesar had no army to protect him against injustice, they would bring him to trial before the courts at Rome on some charge any charge would do and have him convicted. In this way they would get rid of him, and the selfish government of the Senate could go on as before.

To carry out this plan, the Senate ordered Caesar to give up his governorship, and return to Rome. Caesar knew that he could not trust himself there without an army to protect him; still, he made an offer to the Senate to give up his command, if Pompey, who was then at Rome with an army nearby, would give up his command also. The Senate replied that Caesar must give up his army, or become a traitor to his country; and that Pompey need not give up his.

Caesar now saw that his enemies were planning to destroy him; but to resist them meant the beginning of a civil war between himself and Pompey. Nevertheless, he prepared to lead his victorious army across the little river Rubicon, which separated Cis-Alpine Gaul from Italy, and march south to attack his enemies.

The old stories say that after Caesar had drawn up his men on the banks of the river he stood for some time in deep thought, questioning whether it was the wisest thing, after all, for him to go in arms against the government of his country. While he stood in doubt, a wandering minstrel nearby suddenly seized a trumpet from one of the soldiers and sounded the call to advance. Caesar took this as a sign from the gods, and exclaimed:

"Let us go whither the gods and the wickedness of our enemies call us. The die is now cast."

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


Then he led his veteran soldiers across the Rubicon and marched south to meet the army of Pompey.

Pompey meanwhile had made almost no preparations for the war. When someone had asked him what he would do if Caesar should march into Italy, Pompey had replied:

"I have but to stamp my foot, and soldiers will spring up all over Italy to fill the legions of my army."

But after Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, news was soon brought to Rome that the Italian towns were yielding to him without a struggle; and when one of the Senators taunted Pompey with his vain boast, and asked him why he did not stamp his foot, the latter could find no answer. It was too late now to raise men to save Rome; so Pompey had to leave the city to its fate. He retreated with his army to the south of Italy; but Caesar promptly followed him. Then, rather than to fight in Italy, Pompey crossed over into Greece; for his influence was strongest there and in the East, where his greatest victories had been won. Caesar could now follow him no further, for some time for want of ships to carry his men across the sea.

Caesar, accordingly, now turned back to Rome, having driven his enemies from Italy in sixty days, without the shedding of a drop of blood. At Rome he treated the people mildly and generously, and the men who had feared that the terrible times of Sulla and Marius had come again, soon saw that they were mistaken. Caesar punished no one, and he took the property of none. He remained in the city only a short time, and then, although Pompey himself had gone to the East, Caesar set out for Spain, where the greatest part of Pompey's army had been left.

"I go," he said, "to attack an army without a general; I shall return to attack a general without an army."

After some difficulty, Caesar succeeded in getting possession of the Roman provinces in Spain. He now had Gaul, Italy and Spain under his control, and he could turn all his efforts against Pompey and the forces in the East.

He now led his army back through Italy by rapid marches; and, although it was by this time the middle of winter, he immediately crossed into Greece. Then, for about four months, the two armies marched and countermarched? and built camps and threw up earthworks. During all this time Pompey's army was larger than Caesar's; and it was better fed and better cared for also, as Pompey's ships could bring him everything that he needed, while Caesar's men had to live off the country around them. For a long time Caesar tried to bring on a battle, but without success; for Pompey knew that though he had the larger number of men, Caesar had the better soldiers.. At last, however, Pompey yielded to the urging and flattery of his followers, and drew out his men for battle. The result was a great victory for Caesar. Although Pompey had twice as many men as Caesar had, he was defeated and his army was destroyed. .

After this battle, Pompey was forced to fly from Greece and seek refuge in Egypt. There he was basely murdered by men who wished to please Caesar, and thought that this would be the surest way of winning his favor. But when Caesar followed Pompey to Egypt, and was shown the proofs of his death, he did not rejoice, but turned away his face and wept. To all the men who had been in Pompey's army, he showed himself kind and generous; and he wrote to his friends at Rome that "the chief pleasure he had in his victory was in saving every day some one of his fellow citizens who had borne arms against him."

After Caesar's victory over Pompey, he established his power firmly in Greece, Egypt and Asia, as he had already done in the western part of the Mediterranean countries. When he returned to Rome, Africa was the only portion of the Roman Empire that remained unconquered; and all of Caesar's enemies who were left had gathered there. For a time Caesar remained at Rome to attend to public affairs; but as soon as he could, he arranged to go to Africa and conquer this last army of his enemies.

But Caesar's soldiers were wearied with marching from one end of the world to the other. The tenth legion, which had served him so long and well, at last rebelled, and the men demanded that they should be dismissed with the rewards that were due them for their long services. When Caesar heard this, he went out to meet them, and said, coldly:

"Citizens, you shall be dismissed as you desire, and you shall have all the rewards which have been promised you."

When the soldiers heard their beloved commander call them "citizens," instead of "fellow soldiers," as always before, their minds were suddenly changed. They could not bear the cold disapproval which lay in that word. They begged that they might be taken back into his service again; and after that, there was no longer any talk of disobedience on their part.

Caesar was as successful in defeating his enemies in Africa as he had been everywhere else, and when he returned to Rome, he was able to celebrate four triumphs, one after the other, for his victories in Gaul, in Egypt, in Asia, and in Africa. On the day of his triumph over Gaul, he ascended the Capitol at night, with twenty elephants carrying torches on his right hand, and twenty on his left. When he triumphed because of his victories in Asia, an inscription was carried before his chariot which read in Latin, "I came, I saw, I conquered"; this was copied from a message which Caesar had sent to the Senate to announce one of his victories, and it was intended to remind the people how quickly he had ended the troubles in that region.

[Illustration] from City of the Seven Hills by S. B. Harding


Caesar was now master of Rome and of her empire. The Roman army, made up of men of all countries, was the strongest power in the state; and Caesar, who controlled the army, was the first man in the empire. He could now make whatever reforms in the state he thought best. As the Senate and the people had shown so plainly that they were no longer fit for the task of governing the peoples under their rule, he decided to carry on the government himself. He allowed the Senate and the assemblies of the people to meet as before, but he took good care to see that they had no real power. He gathered most of the offices of the state into his own hands; and, besides the titles which went with these offices, he gave himself the name of "Emperor," or commander, and that in time came to be the highest title of all.

Caesar used his great power well. Instead of treating those who had fought against him as Sulla and Marius had treated their enemies, he tried to make them his friends, and allowed them to hold offices under him. There were still some men left who were determined to defy him to the last, and these joined together in Spain under the sons of Pompey, and Caesar was compelled to leave Rome, and lead the army against them himself before they were finally defeated. But the greater part of the people of Rome were satisfied with the rule of Caesar, because it promised to give the peace and safety which they had not enjoyed for many years.

Cesar lived for only two years after the four-fold triumph which followed his return from Africa. In those two years, however, he succeeded in doing much good for Rome. He made laws for the reform of the courts of justice, and others to enable men who were in debt, and could not pay, to settle with their creditors. He tried to reform the manners of life of the Romans by passing laws against extravagance in dress and in banquets. He tried to check the growth of slave labor by requiring that one-third of the laborers on sheep-farms must be free. He planned new colonies to provide for the poor and idle population of Rome; and he passed laws to admit many of the subjects of Rome to an equality with the citizens of the city itself.

Another of the reforms which he carried out is of especial interest to us, because the civilized world to day still profits by it. This was the reform of the calendar. The Romans divided the year into twelve months, as we do; but their months were not long enough, so they had an awkward way of putting in an extra month about every two years, to make the seasons come out right. This plan worked badly, and, by the time of Caesar, the calendar and the real year of the earth's revolution around the sun, had become ninety days apart. As a result of this, the Italian farmer began his work in the fields in June and July, according to the calendar, when it was really March and April. Caesar consulted the most learned men of his time, and the calendar was corrected and made to agree with the seasons. Then, to keep it right in the future, Caesar increased the length of some of the months, so that the ordinary year should have three hundred and sixty-five days; and he arranged that every fourth year, or leap year, an extra day should be given to February. The calendar after this worked very well, and with one small change we use it to this day, with the Roman names for the months and all; and to keep in memory the part which Caesar had in this reform, we still call one of the months "July" from his name, Julius.

Besides these various reforms, Caesar planned many other important works. He planned to collect a large library at Rome, and this was at a time when books were very rare and costly. He was beginning a new theater, and planning to build a new Senate house, as the old one had been burned in the terrible disorders of the late wars. A great temple to Mars was to keep the memory of his victories fresh in the minds of the people. At the mouth of the Tiber, an immense harbor was to be built, and a new road was to lead east through the mountains to the Adriatic Sea. And in the midst of all this he was preparing to lead armies against the barbarians on the Danube, and against those south of the Caspian Sea in Asia; for in both these regions the peoples were forcing their way out of their own lands and seeking to come into the Roman provinces.

But all these plans were left unfinished or were not even begun. Although Rome was now better off than it had been at any time for fifty years, there were some men among her citizens who still thought that there was nothing more shameful than to submit to the rule of one man. They longed for the old government of the Senate with all its faults. At last sixty of the nobles formed a plot to kill Caesar, and so free themselves from his power in the only way that was possible. Almost all of these men had received favors from Caesar, and one of them, Marcus Brutus, had been admitted to close friendship with him. But crafty and selfish men persuaded Brutus that it was his duty to his country to overthrow Caesar, just as his ancestor had overthrown Tarquin long before. So Brutus joined the plot and became one of its leaders.

Caesar was warned of the danger that threatened him, but he would have no guards about him.

"It is better to die once," he said, "than to live always in fear of death."

He had been warned especially to beware of the day which the Romans called the "Ides" of March; but on that day he went to the Senate house as usual. On the way there he saw the priest who had told him to beware of the day; and he laughed at him for a false prophet, because the ides of March had come and nothing had befallen him. But the priest answered:

"The day is come, Caesar, but it is not yet gone."

When Caesar entered the Senate house, all the Senators arose to greet him, as was their custom. Then the plotters advanced to Caesar's chair, one of them pretending to beg a favor of him, while the rest appeared to urge Caesar to grant this request.

Suddenly one of the plotters laid hold of Caesar's toga, and dragged it from his shoulders. This was a signal for the others, and at once they fell upon Caesar with their swords and daggers. For a moment Caesar resisted them, but when he saw his friend Brutus striking at him among the number, he cried out:

"Thou, too, Brutus.!"

With this he ceased his struggles; and wrapping his head in his toga, he fell, pierced with many wounds, at the foot of the statue of Pompey which stood in the Senate house.

Thus died one of the greatest men who ever lived in any country or at any time. There have been many men in the world who have been great in one way; but Caesar was great in many ways. He was a better general, perhaps, than any man before or since his time; but he was more than this. He was a good writer and one of the best orators among the Romans. He was a wise ruler, who saw clearly what his country needed in many different lines, and who spent the short time during which he held the power in planning reforms and improvements for her benefit. But best of all, he had a generous and fearless spirit, and found it easy to forgive those who had injured him, and easier to die than to dread to die.

He was worthy to become, as he did, the first of a long line of Roman emperors. He has made his name, too, a word of honor in the world to this day; for when the Germans call their emperor "Kaiser," they merely give him Caesar's name; and when the Russians speak of their ruler as the "Czar," they, too, are using the name of this great Roman.