On the morning of March 15, 44 BCE Julius Caesar, dictator of Rome and the most powerful man in the world, was not feeling well. A fortune teller had warned him that he should beware “The Ides of March.” His wife Calpurnia had dreamt of him being murdered, and begged him not to leave the house. However one of the younger senators, Marcus Brutus, whom Caesar treated like a son, had come to the house to persuade Caesar to go to the senate meeting.
Despite the bad omens, Caesar decided to go and as he reached the hall, a group of senators surrounded him as if to engage him in conversation. One man knelt before him and then suddenly grabbed Caesar’s purple robe. This was the signal for the assassins to plunge their daggers into his body. He flailed weakly at them with the only weapon he had; a fountain pen, then slumped to the ground, looked at Marcus Brutus and gasped “Et tu Brute!” (“You too, Brutus”). He died with 23 knife wounds, lying at the base of a statue of the Roman General, Pompey.
EARLY LIFE OF GAIUS JULIUS CAESAR
Views on Julius Caesar have varied over the centuries, but there is no doubting the fact that he was an extraordinary politician, showman, leader, administrator, gifted writer and military genius.
Caesar was born into a noble family, which had lost most of its money. Nevertheless he was well educated and connected. Even at a young age he was combative and a good speaker, who also enjoyed the rough and tumble of politics.
At the age of 25 he set sail for the island of Rhodes to study oratory under a famous tutor. On the way, an incident occurred which demonstrated his calculated
ruthlessness. He was captured by pirates who demanded a ransom for his safe return. Instead of being subservient, he verbally attacked them, scoffing at the small amount of ransom they were asking. Then he strutted about the ship pointing out their weaknesses and said he would kill them after he was released.
Secure in their strong position and admiring his utter disregard for the hopeless situation he was in, the pirates joked back, trying to match wits with the young Roman.
After the ransom was paid, Caesar learned that the local Roman governor was not interested in pursuing the pirates, so, on his own, he organized a fleet of ships and caught the pirates. Then, true to his word, killed them all. News of his actions spread quickly.
At age 30 he became governor of Farther Spain, where he saw a statue of Greek general, Alexander the Great, who had conquered much of the known world by the time he was 30. Caesar felt very inadequate when compared with Alexander’s accomplishments. He was far from Rome and real power.
He returned to Rome and by bribing the right people became first, a high priest, then a high-ranking judge. He was then chosen to go back to Farther Spain once again, but this time, as pro-consul. This allowed him to become a rich man.
Back in Rome he formed an unofficial alliance with two powerful Roman leaders: Pompey, a great general, and Crassus, the richest man in all Rome. It was said that one of the ways Crassus made his money was to bribe the fire department. Then he would negotiate a price for fire services, while the unfortunate homeowner was watching his house burn down. (Today we still talk about “crass” behavior.)
These three men, the first triumvirate, were a powerful political alliance and to cement the relationship, Caesar arranged for his daughter Julia to marry Pompey. Caesar himself married his third wife, Calpurnia (his first wife having died and his second divorced, on account of a scandal, because “Caesar’s wife, must be above suspicion”).
At this point Caesar was ready to make a real name for himself through one of the bloodiest campaigns ever — the invasion of Gaul.
THE CONQUEST OF GAUL
It is Caesar’s conquest of Gaul (France) that is his greatest legacy. Today’s French language and landscape (well planned cities and country villas) and good laws, are a result of Caesar’s ambitions. He knew that to claim outright control of Rome he needed the support of the army and a reputation as a victorious general. He chose Gaul as his vehicle to get there.
The Gauls, also called Celts, lived in many parts of Europe and Britain. Physically bigger than the Romans (whose average height was only about 5 feet 4 inches.) they had long hair and were ferocious warriors. The Roman’s equated them with sheep “Ba-bas” and they became known as Barbarians. In fact they were excellent metalworkers and craftsmen and had developed community systems. Unfortunately for them they were up against the greatest army the world had seen.
The Roman army, properly led, was a highly developed fighting machine. The typical legion had 6,000 men with its own infantry, cavalry, artillery engineers and staff. The soldier was highly mobile, carrying his own weapons (a short thrusting sword and/or, a throwing javelin), plus a woolen cloak, water, three days rations and a pick for digging ditches.
In 58 BCE Caesar turned his ten legions on Gaul by cutting off a migrating tribe called the Helvetii. The Senate, back in Rome, was wary of over-extending its empire, so Caesar kept them informed by means of brilliant but self-serving reports. In these, he gave graphic descriptions of the actions, referring to himself in the third person, for example “Caesar then spoke words of encouragement to his troops.” The Helvetii numbered over 400,000 but the 60,000 Romans cut them down with mechanical precision.
Then he turned north towards the Rhine river and defeated the German chieftain Ariovistus, who had previously insisted that the Romans had no authority in Gaul.
The Roman Senate and citizens were fascinated by stories of the unknown towns and tribes that were being added to the Roman Empire. They could see with their own eyes the slaves and tributes that kept arriving in Rome, especially interesting were the elaborate gold carvings, silver decorated swords, and gem studded jewelry.
Caesar’s victories brought the promise of new land, jobs and wealth.
Caesar continued his rampage including two invasions of Britain, but it wasn’t until 52 BCE that the decisive battle for Gaul was fought. By this stage the Romans had been in Gaul for six years fighting, plundering and imposing their will on their new subjects. Such was the hatred for the Romans that usually feuding Gallic tribes, united under a strong young leader, Vercingetorix.
Still in his twenties, this brash talented warrior squared off against Caesar at the fortified city of Alesia and in a siege that lasted a month, almost defeated the Roman legions.
But once again Caesar’s resolve and leadership carried the day. Wearing a scarlet cloak he rode along the battle lines inspiring his troops. He was a skillful swordsman, unafraid of battle, who sometimes joined in hand-to-hand combat. Although in his mid-forties he was physically tough, able to run with his troops, eat their food and, like them, sleep on the ground. He engendered tremendous loyalty, a fact that would have huge consequences on the years to come.
Vercingetorix finally surrendered, but was shown no mercy. Chained like an animal he was taken to Rome and paraded as proof of Caesar’s success. Years later he was ritually strangled during one of Caesar’s victory celebrations.
CAESAR RETURNS TO ROME AND DICTATORSHIP
Caesar’s successes were widely hailed in Rome but many senators were concerned about his growing independence and power. The triumvirate of Caesar, Pompey and the wealthy Crassus fell apart when Crassus was killed trying to do battle with the Parthians (Persia/Iran).
Supposedly the Parthian king poured molten gold down dead Crassus’s throat and said “Here, you have been greedy for this all your life. Eat it now.”
Caesar’s relationship with Pompey became even worse when Julia, the daughter of Caesar, who was married to Pompey, died. The two men grew apart, each wanting to rule Rome.
To protect themselves, the senate gave their favorite general, Pompey, authority to institute military rule. Caesar decided to act and return to Rome, not alone, as was the tradition, but with his army. “The die is cast” he said as he crossed the Rubicon River, which violated the law prohibiting a provincial governor from commanding troops outside his dominion.
Pompey’s troops were made up of old men and young recruits — no match for Caesar’s hardened veterans from the Gallic wars. Pompey abandoned Rome and fled towards Greece leaving the treasury intact behind him. An expensive mistake. Caesar gained access to the treasury and then set about dealing with Pompey’s armies, one left behind in Spain, and the other with Pompey now in Greece. It took nearly a year but Pompey was finally defeated and he fled to Egypt.
Pompey had once donated soldiers and gold to the Egyptian ruler Ptolemy XII and thought he would be safe there. But Ptolemy had recently died, leaving his four children to fight each other for the throne. The ten-year-old Ptolemy XIII was ruling with an advisor. The advisor suggested they kill Pompey and give his head to Caesar.
Caesar arrived in Egypt a few days later and wept when he saw his former adversary’s head. The once greatest general deserved more respect than that!
When Caesar expressed displeasure at the Egyptian king’s act of beheading Pompey, he found himself, and his small Roman guard, cornered in the Palace in Alexandria, a virtual prisoner. Then a strange event occurred — Caesar was presented with a gift of a large carpet. When it was unrolled it contained a surprise in the form of young Ptolemy XIII’s twenty-year-old sister, Cleopatra.
She had chosen this way to get to Caesar in order to avoid the palace guards. Now face to face with Caesar she appealed to him to support her claim to the Egyptian throne. He not only agreed to her request but found himself in love. Cleopatra was a beautiful, fascinating woman (descended from the Macedonian-Greeks who had previously conquered Egypt under Alexander the Great).
When Roman reinforcements arrived from Syria, a successful battle took the life of young Ptolemy XIII and Caesar put Cleopatra on the throne.
Caesar, weary from years of fighting, decided to take a luxurious cruise with Cleopatra down the Nile River, to see the wonders of Egypt.
After months of feasting and enjoying life with Cleopatra he took his army to Persia and upon defeating the Parthians sent his famous message to Rome, “Veni, vidi, vici” (I came, I saw, I conquered). Rome, although critical of his dalliance with Cleopatra, was delighted and declared Caesar dictator of the Roman Empire.
No Roman had ever received so many victory parades, and Caesar clearly reveled in the adoration. He added to the celebratory atmosphere by staging fantastic exhibitions. An artificial lake was built on which sea battles were fought and real blood flowed in the water. Gladiators fought to the death and prisoners were paraded before being executed, including Vercingetorix.
Caesar’s ascendancy to a position of absolute power meant that the Senate lost most of its power, and for the first time the “Republic” of Rome was dead. There were many who resented his position and plotted against him. Caesar nevertheless took advantage of the situation to give Rome many needed reforms. He redistributed land, increased grain rations to the poor, adjusted the Roman calendar (the month of July is named for him), began vast engineering projects and planned libraries and theaters.
Then it suddenly came to an end on 15 March 44 BCE with Caesar’s assassination. His friend, Mark Antony used the occasion of Caesar’s funeral and his bloody garments, to deliver a speech that worked the audience into a fury. They took Caesar’s body and burned it ceremoniously in the market place and sought out the assassins crying, ”Kill the murderers.” All those who had stabbed Caesar were tracked down and executed while the two main plotters, Cassius and Brutus, committed suicide.
Political chaos reigned after Caesar’s death with Mark Antony (who also had an affair with Cleopatra) and Caesar’s grandnephew Gaius Octavius, as main contenders. They fought it out at the sea battle of Actium. With Octavius victorious, Mark Antony and Cleopatra fled to Egypt where they were cornered and committed suicide, he with a sword while she allowed a poisonous snake (an asp) to deliver the fatal bite.
Octavius was referred to as Augustus as a sign of reverence. He had the month of August named after him, and called himself Caesar to invoke the powers of supreme command. Kings and despots have done likewise — in Russia czar (or tsar), in Germany Kaiser, in Arabia qasar and Persia shah.
At 19 years old, and small, Augustus did not have the physical presence of his uncle, but proved effective as a ruler. He restored order after the civil war that followed Caesar’s assassination, and did much to improve the buildings and infrastructure of the Empire.
During his life there was a small incident in the distant Roman province of Judea that probably never even came to his attention. A thirty-year-old man named Jesus of Nazareth had caused some trouble. Local Jewish priests had insisted he be punished for claiming he was the Son of God and the Roman governor of the province, Pontius Pilate, had reluctantly agreed. Jesus was condemned to death as a common criminal. Crucifixion was a common punishment and the matter was soon forgotten — or so any Roman must have thought!
The Romans, who had many gods, for example, Neptune, Mars, Venus and Mercury, were tolerant of all other religions, with one major condition — Roman gods had to be honored as well. To both Jews and, later, Christians this was incompatible with their beliefs and a collision was inevitable. The Jews revolted in Judea and were put down, while the Christians had to practice their beliefs in secret.
The Roman Empire dominated the Western world for the next four hundred years and the Christians were persecuted for three hundred of these years. Their torture included being thrown into the arena, during gladiator fights, to be eaten by lions. But their faith never wavered and finally won over the Roman Emperor Constantine.
THE ROMAN EMPIRE SPLITS IN TWO,
In 313 CE the whole Roman Empire including France, Spain and Britain became Christian.
Constantine had gained control of the Empire in 306 CE and built a new city in the East called Constantinople (now Istanbul). He transferred the capital there and the Roman Empire later split into the Eastern (Byzantium) and Western (Roman) Empire.
In the West, Barbarian pressure from the North finally became too much for the Romans and in 455 Vandal Chief Genseric besieged Rome and the Roman Empire of the West collapsed. Constantinople (Byzantium) on the other hand, would last another thousand years. Surrounded by a great fortress it withstood attacks from savage Barbarians, Bulgarians, Vikings and especially Arabs. The Eastern Orthodox Christianity (still practiced in Russia, Greece and Eastern Europe) was centered on Byzantium, until 1453 when it fell to Muslim forces of the Ottoman Turks.
Europe, in the meantime, was fractured by Barbarian migrations. Vandals, Goths and Huns plunged the continent into the dark and middle ages from which it would not emerge until the 1400’s. The light of learning was kept burning by monasteries all over Europe, including in England and Ireland.
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many Byzantium scholars came to Western Europe and brought with them a great variety of ancient texts that gave a new perspective to many ancient teachings. Printed books were becoming available and the percentage of people able to read increased by leaps and bounds. Long-held beliefs were challenged and, starting in Italy, there was a great revival of learning with fresh approaches to art in all its forms. This Rebirth or “Renaissance” produced a stream of artists, architects and scientists. In this book we have room to study only two: Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo whose painting and sculpture is probably the most magnificent in the world.
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