• Print

Caesar Bloody Caesar

American International Pictures/Photofest
Richard Johnson as Cassius, John Gielgud as Julius Caesar, and Jason Robards as Brutus in Stuart Burge’s film Julius Caesar, 1970

When Julius Caesar was thirty-one years old in 69 BCE, so the story goes, and serving as a junior Roman magistrate in Spain, he once stood lamenting before a statue of Alexander the Great because he had achieved so little at an age by which Alexander had already conquered the world.

He had good reason for concern. Although his recent election as a quaestor—one of the officials responsible for finances—had given him a lifetime seat in the Senate, Roman politics were more of a funnel than a ladder: twenty quaestors who had been elected at thirty years old could compete nine years later for eight praetorships, and then, three years after that, for just two annual consulships. To rise, you needed political friends, name recognition, and, in order to buy elections, a great deal of money.

Caesar was already admired as an orator, but he was best known for his debts, and he was good at making enemies, especially among the powerful conservatives in the Senate. Furthermore, while he had ably fulfilled the standard military duties of a young Roman nobleman, he had attracted attention only for his first assignment overseas at the age of about twenty: a trip to Bithynia in northern Anatolia, where he had become friendly—many said extremely friendly—with its king, Nicomedes. Whether or not the rumors were true, this was the first hint of a lifelong tendency to test the bounds of Rome’s unwritten moral and legal codes.

What he realized over the next decade was that two very good friends could make up for a lot of enemies if one was Marcus Crassus, the richest man in Rome, and the other its finest general, Gnaeus Pompey—nicknamed, no doubt to Caesar’s annoyance, “the Great.” This clique—which has gone down in history as the overly official-sounding “First Triumvirate,” but was called at the time the “three-headed monster”—got Caesar elected consul for 59 BCE. It also got Pompey a new wife in Caesar’s daughter Julia, apparently a love match despite the thirty-three-year age gap.

In office, Caesar proposed a radical program that included land distribution for the poor and Pompey’s veterans, as well as financial concessions for state contractors under Crassus’s protection. When the Senate rejected it, he took his laws directly to the people, and his co-consul Marcus Calpurnius Bibulus was chased from the Forum at knifepoint when he attempted to veto them. This was a step too far: Bibulus retaliated by retiring to his house for the rest of the year, claiming that he was watching the sky for omens, without which state business could not be conducted. As a result all Caesar’s legislation as consul was, strictly speaking, illegal, putting him under serious threat of prosecution when he became a private citizen again.

He and his friends ensured that wouldn’t happen for some time by securing him an unprecedented five-year military command over three Roman provinces to the north of Italy, including Transalpine Gaul (modern Provence), and later having it extended to the ten years required before he could stand for a second consulship, which would give him the chance to put his earlier legislation and subsequent actions on a firmer legal basis. He further enraged his opponents by turning this assignment into the greatest land grab ever accomplished by a Roman general, bringing all the rest of Gaul under his personal power: still not at the level of Alexander’s achievements, but a worthy rival to Pompey’s.

Caesar himself recorded the first seven years of the Gallic War in seven books of Commentaries; these are included in a new and highly readable translation of Caesar’s work in the Landmark series, along with his memoir of the first two years of the subsequent Civil War and four additional books written by his officers to fill out the account of his campaigns. These are the first Latin texts to receive the sumptuous Landmark treatment already enjoyed by Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Arrian, and it suits them very well, with copious maps, diagrams, illustrations, footnotes, and appendices to help the reader keep track of the people, places, and siege machines involved, as well as another forty-three background essays available online, written by a lively mixture of old hands and Young Turks.

“Gaul, if you take all of it into account, is divided into three regions” is Caesar’s opening line in the Gallic War, and in the first three books he brings these in turn under Roman control: first central France north of the existing Roman province, then the “Belgians” in the north, then the peoples of the Atlantic coast. He makes brief sorties after that across the Rhine and the Channel, while resistance to occupation builds up in Gaul itself. This comes together in early 52 in the general rebellion Caesar describes in Book 7, which culminates in his defeat of the Gallic leader Vercingetorix at Alesia in modern Burgundy. At this point Caesar brings his account of these wars to a close on a suitable note of triumph; in reality, he remained in Gaul for another two years putting down further rebellions, campaigns that were later written up by his legate Hirtius in an eighth book.

Cicero praised Caesar’s Commentaries—the first example we have of Latin historical prose—as “naked, straightforward, and graceful, stripped of rhetorical ornament as of clothing.” Too long and too good a read to be Caesar’s official reports to the Senate, these must have been written for wider public consumption, presumably with an eye to the consular elections of 49: Caesar constantly emphasizes that he is acting on behalf of the Roman state, and that the Roman people are making huge territorial gains in Gaul. He writes with considerable style and attention to narrative, with exciting battles and detailed descriptions of encampments, bridge construction, and ship-building, and with an emphasis on the speed and scale of operations: the word “quickly” occurs sixty-two times, and “big” more than two hundred.

We naturally hear little of Caesar the man as opposed to the calm, decisive, and brilliant general. We must turn to his later biographers for accounts of the trimming, shaving, and plucking, the fringed and belted senatorial tunic, the comb-over he adopted to hide his baldness (and his relief when the Senate voted to give him the honor of wearing a laurel wreath at all times), the mosaic flooring he carried on campaigns to furnish his tent, his “falling sickness” (probably epilepsy), or his notorious aversion to alcohol. And we hear nothing of the vast personal profits that Caesar made in Gaul—enough to pay off his accumulated electoral debts, reward his officers and men, and fund a series of vanity building projects in the heart of Rome that kept the absent general at the center of attention during the 50s. His contemporaries were certainly aware of what was happening: the poet Catullus, writing in Rome, says that one of Caesar’s corrupt officers “has all the riches that used to belong to remotest Britain and Hairy Gaul.”

The Gallic War does paint a revealing picture of Roman imperialism. Conquest beyond provincial bounds was not Caesar’s brief, nor did he refer it to the Senate for authorization; instead he raised legions on his own initiative, and in the first instance with his own money, though his successes embarrassed the Senate into taking over the financing of his additional legions after two years. Of course, he presents his campaigns as fundamentally defensive, a long series of interventions against individual communities motivated by the immediate dangers they posed to his Roman province in the south or to Roman allies in free Gaul. Surrender then brought these communities into permanent subjection, as well as making them “allies” that Caesar had to protect from threats further away. At the same time other neighbors would see which way the wind was blowing, line up to congratulate Caesar on his success, and capitulate before their own conquest. None of this was new to Roman strategy, but the process is laid out here with striking clarity.

It is also a deeply disturbing text. The mortality rate is staggering, as ten legions of highly trained and battle-hardened Roman soldiers methodically work their way through the states of Gaul, targeting entire peoples for destruction. After defeating the Belgian Nervii, Caesar reports that both the people and their name “were reduced almost to annihilation”: survivors tell him that of 60,000 men of fighting age, only five hundred remain. Nor was this absent-minded genocide: when Caesar prepares a campaign against the Eburones in northeastern Gaul, he boasts of his intention “to destroy their stirps ac nomen [stock and name].”

Death was not the only way to destroy a people. When the Atuatuci launched a surprise attack on Caesar’s besieging army after negotiating a surrender, 53,000 of them were sold as slaves in a single lot, and the recently identified site of their city, the Iron Age fortification of Thuin, tells its own tale: a few hoards of gold that must have been hidden in the panic and then missed by Caesar’s solders; piles of sling bullets; and then nothing at all for two hundred years. Nonetheless Caesar presents himself throughout as a man of unusual clemency, and when he has the hands of all the fighting men cut off after the surrender of Uxellodunum, Hirtius reassures us that “Caesar was aware that his merciful disposition was known to everyone, and he did not need to be afraid that if he acted more harshly than usual, it would be ascribed to his cruel character.”

Altogether, later sources plausibly claim, Caesar fought more than four million Gauls, killed one million, and took as many prisoners—most of whom would have been sold into slavery. The Germans too suffered terrible losses, including one episode when Caesar imprisoned a delegation of German migrants who came to negotiate a truce, stormed their camp, killed the men who resisted, and then sent his cavalry to run down and slaughter the women and children as they fled. Those who were not caught drowned in the Rhine. Other sources tell us that 400,000 people died. Was that the culture then? Not everyone’s, it seems, or not exactly: although the Senate voted sacrifices of thanksgiving on news of the victory, Cato the Younger and other senators proposed that Caesar be extradited to the Germans, not for the massacre itself, but for breaking a truce.

With an election on the horizon, Caesar had good reason to be alert to his readers’ sensibilities, and he makes no attempt to disguise or play down the bloodshed. What was attractive to Romans about mass murder in their name? One conclusion a reader could draw from the The Landmark Julius Caesar is that that they saw the “Hairy Gauls” as distant from or less human than themselves, perhaps even as an appropriate target. When Caesar notes, for example, that if Orgetorix had been convicted of attempting to usurp the monarchy of the Helvetii, “his punishment would inevitably have been to be burned alive,” a footnote suggests that this “helps to characterize the Helvetii as savage barbarians.” This is, however, questionable: the same punishment was prescribed in Rome for crimes against the state, and less than fifty years before, Gauls and Greeks had been buried alive in the Roman cattle market just for good luck.

More generally, Caesar does not dehumanize the Gauls; in fact he presents their individual causes and their desire for liberty as rational, even sympathetic. In 52 the chief magistrate of the Aedui, Convictolitavus, asks his countrymen, “Why should the Aedui come to Caesar and make him the arbitrator concerning their own laws within their own justice system, any more than the Romans came to the Aedui?” Caesar calls these Aedui “brothers and kinsmen” to Rome, and he describes these and other Gauls in terms that would have made sense to a Roman reader: they have social systems based on patronage, taxes, and slavery, the same problems of bribery, corruption, and debt as Romans have, and a similar set of gods. Like Rome, their states are governed by aristocratic senates, they have an equestrian class, they make political decisions by formal laws and decrees, and their leaders make marriage alliances to seal political arrangements. (Again, this is not always obvious in the Landmark edition: when Caesar mentions the “senate” of the Remi, the translation corrects this to “council,” explaining that this is “to avoid false associations”—associations that Caesar himself seems to encourage.) The truth is that he didn’t need to justify slaughter and slavery: in Rome, as in Gaul, human rights were nonexistent, life was cheap, and its worth was often reckoned in a brutally utilitarian fashion.

In the end, Caesar took Rome by force rather than persuasion. By the late 50s Roman political institutions were falling apart, as famine and rioting culminated in the torching of the Senate house by protesters. Caesar’s personal relationship with Pompey began to break down with the death of Julia in 54, and Crassus died in a disastrous campaign against the Parthians in 53. Complex negotiations to allow Caesar to stand for election to the consulship of 48 without returning to Rome, which would have caused him to lose his immunity from prosecution, failed. The conservative faction would not permit a compromise, rammed a resolution through the Senate to have Caesar declared an enemy of the state, and persuaded an apparently reluctant Pompey to defend it. When Caesar eventually returned to Italy in January 49 for the first time in nearly nine years, it was to face a civil war.

In his own account of these events Caesar entirely ignores what later seemed the pivotal moment: the crossing of the Rubicon, a river so minor that we still don’t know its location. In his telling he simply leads his men from Ravenna to Rimini. Perhaps he was right to play down the significance of marching into Italy under arms, since he continued to sue for a diplomatic solution. The threat of a military coup had in any case become a relatively familiar tactic in the previous generation, and those that had succeeded had been temporary. It was only in retrospect, knowing what Caesar and Rome became, that this decision appeared a point of no return.

Stiftung Preussische Schlösser und Gärten Berlin-Brandenburg
Julius Caesar; painting by Peter Paul Rubens, 1619

Caesar’s three books of Civil War cover the first two years of campaigning. He defeats Pompey’s generals in Italy and Spain, returns to Rome to supervise his own election as consul, and then follows Pompey east across the Adriatic, eventually chasing him down to Pharsalus in Thessaly. There he defeats his old friend’s far greater numbers with a brilliant display, though he says it himself, of generalship and improvisation.

Self-justification is again a major theme. Caesar presents the civil war as a dissensio, or personal disagreement, and he emphasizes his clemency toward defeated Roman citizens, as well as his constant (and strictly extraconstitutional) attempts to negotiate directly with Pompey. At the same time, he insists that his actions had the support of his own Roman troops and of the towns of Italy, and that they were taken on behalf of the Roman people against a small senatorial faction. Reports of atrocities dry up too, unless they are committed by Pompey’s side.

Caesar seems to have left this work unfinished, and it lacks the polish and tight plotting of his Gallic War. It also peters out: instead of ending with his great victory at Pharsalus, or with the subsequent flight and squalid death of Pompey in Pelusium at the hands of henchmen of the royal household (who delivered his head and signet ring to a horrified Caesar a few days later), Caesar gets bogged down in an Egyptian civil war between four royal siblings over their deceased father’s kingdom.

Another author, perhaps Hirtius again, continued this tale. In Egypt Caesar battled with surprising difficulty two eunuchs, a thirteen-year-old boy, and a girl of perhaps fifteen. He eventually delivered the throne to the twenty-one-year-old Cleopatra and her twelve-year-old brother, whom she married according to Egyptian tradition and, it is generally believed, killed with poison. The author spares his readers such details, as well as the notorious story of Cleopatra winning Caesar’s support by having herself delivered to him through enemy lines in a sack, or what other writers assure us was a considerable delay in his campaigning owing to a cruise they took together on the Nile. Instead, we rejoin him on the Black Sea, where Pharnaces of Pontus was exploiting the general chaos to expand his territory at the expense of Rome’s local allies; Caesar conducted a five-day lightning campaign that he later celebrated with the slogan Veni, vidi, vici: I came, I saw, I conquered.

The last two books tackle Caesar’s final campaigns against the remaining Pompeians in Africa and Spain. They are written by lower-level participants, anonymous even in antiquity, but still with considerable literary ambition. They also offer a rare insight into Roman warfare from the soldier’s perspective, and into Caesar’s methods for training soldiers: we’re told of an elephant who remains remarkably docile even when the cavalry use him for target practice. Both authors idolize their general, defending his actions with even greater tenacity than he does himself, but we also get details Caesar would surely never have advertised, including massacres of other Roman citizens, more hand amputations, and a bizarre account of a temporary camp built in Spain out of the bodies and weapons of defeated Pompeians, topped by the heads of the enemy stuck on sword points.

Caesar defeated his last opponents in Spain in 45. By then he was consul for the fourth time and had the previous year been awarded a ten-year dictatorship to rule the state—a perfectly constitutional position in times of crisis, although the term of office was normally limited to six months. Nothing in Caesar’s own account, or in his actions up to this point, suggests that his aim was to overthrow the Republic, to institute a monarchical system, or to found a dynasty. Instead, he simply insisted on maintaining his own extraordinary political authority and personal immunity, within the fuzzy structure of Rome’s existing institutions.

It was a popular strategy. Under Caesar’s supervision the chaos of recent senatorial government receded. He restored the infrastructure of Roman social and economic life through a program of rent control, debt relief, public works, and settlement abroad for veterans and the poor. He also restored much of the political status quo, filling the gaps left by the deaths of many senators, priests, and magistrates, and he restored time itself by replacing the existing 355-day calendar, which was constantly falling behind the seasons, with a 365-day one with a regular leap year, a system that has worked almost perfectly ever since.

Once again, however, he pushed his fellow politicians too far. It is one thing to accept dictatorship at a time of national emergency, while your own position, dignity, and career prospects still remain more or less intact, but Caesar’s rule was looking more and more permanent: in February 44 he was made dictator for life, and he had recently become the first living person to have his head depicted on a coin minted in Rome. He had also welcomed divine honors, something that had long been an acceptable practice for Roman generals abroad but was traditionally avoided among supposedly equal citizens. The final straw, according to later historians, was that when the Senate approached him as a body, he refused to rise. He was assassinated by a large group of his fellow senators on the Ides of March of that year, in a new Senate house Pompey had built, kicking off another round of civil war. The room in which he was murdered was closed up, and it later became a communal toilet.

His writing too slipped into obscurity for centuries, not least because for over a millennium it was ascribed to other authors. Since the Renaissance, however, Caesar’s simple, direct Latin and his limited vocabulary have made the Gallic War a popular school text. Although it lost some of its attraction in the mid-twentieth century, as career positions in colonial territories become scarce, and the embrace of Caesar by fascist politicians—Mussolini called him “the greatest figure after Christ”—became hard to ignore, it is now back in US classrooms as a central text in the Advanced Placement curriculum. This brutal tale of conquest, enslavement, and genocide might seem a bold, even brilliant choice for classroom discussion, but the reality of the Latin lesson may best be captured by the young Nigel Molesworth’s inimitable English in Down with Skool!, Geoffrey Willans’s immortal rendering of English schoolboy life in the 1950s:

They sa: “The gauls—galli—subject—go on molesworth oppugnant—what does oppugnant mean—they are atacking fossas. Ditches. What did you say molesworth? Why on earth attack a ditch? Keep your mind on the sentence. The gauls are attacking the ditches. What? I am quite unable to inform you molesworth for what purpose the Gauls wished to attack the ditches. The latin is correct. That sufices.

We proceed…. What is that? molesworth for the last time your opinion that it is soppy to atack a ditch does not interest me…. Likewise the question of whether there was buckets of blud is immaterial.*

  1. *

    For an account of the problems of teaching high school Latin through the Gallic War and other standard texts, see Erik Robinson, “‘The Slaves Were Happy’: High School Latin and the Horrors of Classical Studies,” at eidolon.pub, a good-humored site of resistance to the appropriation of classical antiquity by the right.