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…

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