Julius Caesar (100–44 BC) was a Roman general who rose to prominence in the first century BC conquering what is now France, Belgium, and western Germany. The Roman Senate, led by Pompey, was threatened by Caesar’s growing popularity and ordered him to disband his army. Caesar refused. He marched his legions on the Capitol, crossing the Rubicon River—the decisive moment from which he could not turn back—and started a civil war. He chased his enemies across Europe and ultimately to Egypt where Pompey was killed. Before leaving Egypt, Caesar fell in love with Cleopatra and installed her as queen. When Caesar returned to Rome, he ruled as dictator. Caesar was assassinated on the Ides (the fifteenth day) of March in 44 BC by a conspiracy that included his best friend, Brutus.
Innumerable legends surround Caesar. When he was still in his twenties, he was captured by pirates in the eastern Mediterranean. After being ransomed by his men, he raised a small army from the local leaders, located the pirates, and crucified them all.
Years later, in 62 BC, when Caesar was climbing through Rome’s political ranks, a scandal erupted. A patrician named Publius Clodius was discovered at a religious ritual where men were prohibited. The ritual was held in Caesar’s house, and a rumor soon spread that Clodius was there because he was having an affair with Caesar’s wife, Pompeia. Caesar knew the rumors weren’t true and said so. Nevertheless he divorced her, noting that Caesar’s wife and family must be above suspicion.
Caesar was declared dictator by the Senate in the midst of his civil war against Pompey. It was a time of crisis, and the leader was thought to require decisive, emergency powers. But the emergency never passed. The Republic was not to be restored. Caesar ruled as dictator, but he was largely careful to maintain the appearance of consulting the Senate—stacked with his supporters—and respecting the Republic’s traditions. However, in the final years of his life, he grew careless, allowing his Asian subjects to worship him as a god, and coins with his image were minted, the first time a living Roman was so honored. They bore the inscription, “Perpetual Dictator.” These gratuitous honors are thought to have fueled the resentment that culminated in his overthrow and murder.
- After a successful military campaign in Asia, Caesar famously declared, “Veni, vidi, vici.” (I came, I saw, I conquered.)