Julius Caesar : Imperialism – Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity

Cyrus the Great : Asiatic Supremacy
Julius Caesar : Imperialism
Marcus Aurelius : Glory of Rome
Constantine the Great : Christianity Enthroned
Paula : Woman as Friend
Chrysostom : Sacred Eloquence
Saint Ambrose : Episcopal Authority
Saint Augustine : Christian Theology
Theodosius the Great : Latter Days of Rome
Leo the Great : Foundation of the Papacy

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity
John Lord

Topics Covered
Caesar an instrument of Providence
His family and person
Early manhood; marriage; profession; ambition
Curule magistrates; the Roman Senate
Only rich men who control elections ordinarily elected
Venality of the people
Caesar borrows money to bribe the people
Elected Quaestor
Gains a seat in the Senate
Second marriage, with a cousin of Pompey
Caesar made Pontifex Maximus; elected Praetor
Sent to Spain; military services in Spain
Elected Consul; his reforms; Leges Juliae
Opposition of the Aristocracy
Assigned to the province of Gaul
His victories over the Gauls and Germans
Character of the races he subdued
Amazing difficulties of his campaigns
Reluctance of the Senate to give him the customary honor
Jealousy of the nobles; hostility between them and Caesar
The Aristocracy unfit to govern; their habits and manners
They call Pompey to their aid
Neither Pompey nor Caesar will disband his forces; Caesar recalled
Caesar marches on Home; crosses the Rubicon
Ultimate ends of Caesar; the civil war
Pompey’s incapacity and indecision; flies to Brundusi
Caesar defeats Pompey’s generals in Spain
Dictatorship of Caesar
Battle of Pharsalia
Death of Pompey in Egypt
Battles of Thapsus and of Munda
They result in Caesar’s supremacy
His services as Emperor
His habits and character
His assassination,–its consequences
Causes of Imperialism,–its supposed necessity when Caesar
arose; public rebuke of Caesar by Cicero
An historical puzzle

Julius Caesar : Imperialism

100-44 B.C.

The most august name in the history of the old Roman world, and perhaps of all antiquity, is that of Julius Caesar; and a new interest has of late been created in this extraordinary man by the brilliant sketch of his life and character by Mr. Froude, who has whitewashed him, as is the fashion with hero-worshippers, like Carlyle in his history of Frederick II. But it is not an easy thing to reverse the verdict of the civilized world for two thousand years, although a man of genius can say many interesting things and offer valuable suggestions.

In his Life of Caesar Mr. Froude seems to vindicate Imperialism, not merely as a great necessity in the corrupt times which succeeded the civil wars of Marius and Sulla, but as a good thing in itself. It seems to me that while there was a general tendency to Imperialism in the Roman world for one or two hundred years before Christ, the whole tendency of modern governments is against it, and has been since the second English Revolution. It still exists in Russia and Turkey, possibly in Germany and Austria; yet constitutional forms of government seem to be gradually taking its place. What a change in England, France, Italy, and Spain during the last hundred years!–what a breaking up of the old absolutism of the Bourbons! Even the imperialism of Napoleon is held in detestation by a large class of the French nation.

It may have been necessary for such a man as Caesar to arise when the Romans had already conquered a great part of the civilized world, and when the various provinces which composed the Empire needed a firm, stable, and uniform government in the hands of a single man, in order to promote peace and law,–the first conditions of human society. But it is one thing to recognize the majesty of divine Providence in furnishing a remedy for the peculiar evils of an age or people, and quite another thing to make this remedy a panacea for all the future conditions of nations. If we believe in the moral government of this world by a divine and supreme Intelligence whom we call God, then it is not difficult to see in Julius Caesar, after nearly two thousand years, an instrument of Providence like Constantine, Charlemagne, Richelieu, and Napoleon himself. It matters nothing whether Caesar was good or bad, whether he was a patriot or a usurper, so far as his ultimate influence is concerned, if he was the instrument of an overruling Power; for God chooses such instruments as he pleases. Even in human governments it is sometimes expedient to employ rogues in order to catch rogues, or to head off some peculiar evil that honest people do not know how to manage. But because a bad man is selected by a higher power to do some peculiar work, it does not follow that this bad man should be praised for doing it, especially if the work is good only so far as it is overruled. Both human consciousness and Christianity declare that it is a crime to shed needless and innocent blood. If ambition prompts a man to destroy his rivals and fill the world with miseries in order to climb to supreme power, then it is an insult to the human understanding to make this ambition synonymous with patriotism. A successful conqueror may be far-sighted and enlightened, whatever his motives for conquest; but because he is enlightened, it does not follow that he fights battles with the supreme view of benefiting his country, like William III. and George Washington. He may have taken the sword chiefly to elevate himself; or, after having taken the sword with a view of rendering important services, and having rendered these services, he may have been diverted from his original intentions, and have fought for the gratification of personal ambition, losing sight utterly of the cause in which he embarked.

Now this is the popular view which the world has taken of Caesar. Shakspeare may have been unjust in his verdict; but it is a verdict which has been sustained by most writers and by popular sentiment during the last three hundred years. It was also the verdict of Cicero, of the Roman Senate, and of ancient historians. It is one of my objects to show in this lecture how far this verdict is just. It is another object to point out the services of Caesar to the State, which, however great and honestly to be praised, do not offset crime.

Julius Caesar. From the bust in the National Museum, Rome

Caius Julius Caesar belonged to one of the proudest and most ancient of the patrician families of Rome,–a branch of the gens Julia, which claimed a descent from Iules, the son of Aeneas. His father, Caius Julius, married Aurelia, a noble matron of the Cotta family, and his aunt Julia married the great Marius; so that, though he was a patrician of the purest blood, his family alliances were either plebeian or on the liberal side in politics. He was born one hundred years before Christ, and received a good education, but was not precocious, like Cicero. There was nothing remarkable about his childhood. “He was a tall and handsome man, with dark, piercing eyes, sallow complexion, large nose, full lips, refined and intellectual features, and thick neck.” He was particular about his appearance, and showed a studied negligence of dress. His uncle Marius, in the height of his power, marked him out for promotion, and made him a priest of Jupiter when he was fourteen years old. On the death of his father, a man of praetorian rank, and therefore a senator, at the age of seventeen Caesar married Cornelia, the daughter of Cinna, which connected him still more closely with the popular party. He was only a few years younger than Cicero and Pompey. When he was eighteen he attracted the notice of Sulla, then dictator, who wished him to divorce his wife and take such a one as he should propose,–which the young man, at the risk of his life, refused to do. This boldness and independence of course displeased the Dictator, who predicted his future. “In this young Caesar,” said he, “there are many Mariuses;” but he did not kill him, owing to the intercession of powerful friends.

The career of Caesar may be divided into three periods, during each of which he appeared in a different light: the first, until he began the conquest of Gaul, at the age of forty-three; the second, the time of his military exploits in Gaul, by which he rendered great services and gained popularity and fame; and the third, that of his civil wars, dictatorship, and imperial reign.

In the first period of his life, for about twenty-five years, he made a mark indeed, but rendered no memorable services to the State and won no especial fame. Had he died at the age of forty-three, his name would probably not have descended to our times, except as a leading citizen, a good lawyer, and powerful debater. He saw military service, almost as a matter of course; but he was not particularly distinguished as a general, nor did he select the military profession. He was eloquent, aspiring, and able, as a young patrician; but, like Cicero, it would seem that he sought the civil service, and made choice of the law, by which to rise in wealth and power. He was a politician from the first; and his ambition was to get a seat in the Senate, like all other able and ambitious men. Senators were not hereditary, however nobly born, but gained their seats by election to certain high offices in the gift of the people, called curule offices, which entitled them to senatorial position and dignity. A seat in the Senate was the great object of Roman ambition; because the Senate was the leading power of the State, and controlled the army, the treasury, religious worship, and the provinces. The governors and ambassadors, as well as the dictators, were selected by this body of aristocrats. In fact, to the Senate was intrusted the supreme administration of the Empire, although the source of power was technically and theoretically in the people, or those who had the right of suffrage; and as the people elected those magistrates whose offices entitled them to a seat in the Senate, the Senate was virtually elected by the people. Senators held their places for life, but could be weeded out by the censors. And as the Senate in its best days contained between three and four hundred men, not all the curule magistrates could enter it, unless there were vacancies; but a selection from them was made by the censors. So the Senate, in all periods of the Roman Republic, was composed of experienced men,–of those who had previously held the great offices of State.

To gain a seat in the Senate, therefore, it was necessary to be elected by the people to one of the great magistracies. In the early ages of the Republic the people were incorruptible; but when foreign conquest, slavery, and other influences demoralized them, they became venal and sold their votes. Hence only rich men, ordinarily, were elected to high office; and the rich men, as a rule, belonged to the old families. So the Senate was made up not only of experienced men, but of the aristocracy. There were rich men outside the Senate,–successful plebeians, men who had made fortunes by trade, bankers, monopolists, and others; but these, if ambitious of social position or political influence, became gradually absorbed among the senatorial families. Those who could afford to buy the votes of the people, and those only, became magistrates and senators. Hence the demagogues were rich men and belonged to the highest ranks, like Clodius and Catiline.

It thus happened that, when Julius Caesar came upon the stage, the aristocracy controlled the elections. The people were indeed sovereign; but they abdicated their power to those who would pay the most for it. The constitution was popular in name; in reality it was aristocratic, since only rich men (generally noble) could be elected to office. Rome was ruled by aristocrats, who became rich as the people became poor. The great source of senatorial wealth was in the control of the provinces. The governors were chosen by the Senate and from the Senate; and it required only one or two years to make a fortune as a governor, like Verres. The ultimate cause which threw power into the hands of the rich and noble was the venality of the people. The aristocratic demagogues bought them, in the same way that rich monopolists in our day control legislatures. The people are too numerous in this country to be directly bought up, even if it were possible, and the prizes they confer are not high enough to tempt rich men, as they did in Rome.

A man, therefore, who would rise to power at Rome must necessarily bribe the people, must purchase their votes, unless he was a man of extraordinary popularity,–some great orator like Cicero, or successful general like Marius or Sulla; and it was difficult to get popularity except as a lawyer and orator, or as a general.

Caesar, like Cicero and Hortensius, chose the law as a means of rising in the world; for, though of ancient family, he was not rich. He must make money by his profession, or he must borrow it, if he would secure office. It seems he borrowed it. How he contrived to borrow such vast sums as he spent on elections, I do not know. He probably made friends of rich men like Crassus, who became security for him. He was in debt to the amount of $1,500,000 of our money before he held office. He was a bold political gambler, and played for high stakes. It would seem that he had very winning and courteous manners, though he was not distinguished for popular oratory. His terse and pregnant sentences, however, won the admiration of his friend Cicero, a brother lawyer, and he was very social and hospitable. He was on the liberal side in politics, and attacked the abuses of the day, which won him popular favor. At first he lived in a modest house with his wife and mother, in the Subarra, without attracting much notice. The first office to which he was elected was that of a Military Tribune, soon after his sojourn of two years in Rhodes to learn from Apollonius the arts of oratory. His next office was that of Quaestor, which enabled him to enter the Senate, at the age of thirty-two; and his third office, that of Aedile, which gave him the control of the public buildings: the Aediles were expected to decorate the city, and this gave him opportunities of cultivating popularity by splendor and display. The first thing which brought him into notice as an orator was a funeral oration he pronounced on his Aunt Julia, the widow of Marius. The next fortunate event of his life was his marriage with Pompeia, a cousin of Pompey, who was then the foremost man in Rome, having distinguished himself in Spain and in putting down the slave insurrection under Spartacus; but Pompey’s great career in the East had not yet commenced, so that the future rivals at that time were friends. Caesar glorified Pompey in the Senate, which by virtue of his office he had lately entered. The next step to greatness was his election by the people–through the use of immense amounts of borrowed money–to the great office of Pontifex Maximus, which made him the pagan Pope of Rome for life, with a grand palace to live in. Soon after he was made Praetor, which office entitled him to a provincial government; and he was sent by the Senate to Spain as Pro-praetor, completed the conquest of the peninsula, and sent to Borne vast sums of money. These services entitled him to a triumph; but, as he presented himself at the same time as a candidate for the consulship, he was obliged to forego the triumph, and was elected Consul without opposition: his vanity ever yielded to his ambition.

Thus far there was nothing remarkable in Caesar’s career. He had risen by power of money, like other aristocrats, to the highest offices of the State, showing abilities indeed, but not that extraordinary genius which has made him immortal. He was the leader of the political party which Sulla had put down, and yet was not a revolutionist like the Gracchi. He was an aristocratic reformer, like Lord John Russell before the passage of the Reform Bill, whom the people adored. He was a liberal, but not a radical. Of course he was not a favorite with the senators, who wished to perpetuate abuses. He was intensely disliked by Cato, a most excellent and honest man, but narrow-minded and conservative,–a sort of Duke of Wellington without his military abilities. The Senate would make no concessions, would part with no privileges, and submit to no changes. Like Lord Eldon, it “adhered to what was established, because it was established.”

Caesar, as Consul, began his administration with conciliation; and he had the support of Crassus with his money, and of Pompey as the representative of the army, who was then flushed with his Eastern conquests,–pompous, vain, and proud, but honest and incorruptible. Cicero stood aloof,–the greatest man in the Senate, whose aristocratic privileges he defended. He might have aided Caesar “in the speaking department;” but as a “new man” he was jealous of his prerogatives, and was always conservative, like Burke, whom he resembled in his eloquence and turn of mind and fondness for literature and philosophy. Failing to conciliate the aristocrats, Caesar became a sort of Mirabeau, and appealed to the people, causing them to pass his celebrated “Leges Juliae,” or reform bills; the chief of which was the “land act,” which conferred portions of the public lands on Pompey’s disbanded soldiers for settlement,–a wise thing, which senators opposed, since it took away their monopoly. Another act required the provincial governors, on their return from office, to render an account of their stewardship and hand in their accounts for public inspection. The Julian Laws also were designed to prevent the plunder of the public revenues, the debasing of the coin, the bribery of judges and of the people at elections. There were laws also for the protection of citizens from violence, and sundry other reforms which were enlightened and useful. In the passage of these laws against the will of the Senate, we see that the people were still recognized as sovereign in legislation. The laws were good. All depended on their execution; and the Senate, as the administrative body, could practically defeat their operation when Caesar’s term of office expired; and this it unwisely determined to do. The last thing it wished was any reform whatever; and, as Mr. Froude thinks, there must have been either reform or revolution. But this is not so clear to me. Aristocracy was all-powerful when money could buy the people, and when the people had no virtue, no ambition, no intelligence. The struggle at Rome in the latter days of the Republic was not between the people and the aristocracy, but between the aristocracy and the military chieftains on one side, and those demagogues whom it feared on the other. The result showed that the aristocracy feared and distrusted Caesar; and he used the people only to advance his own ends,–of course, in the name of reform and patriotism. And when he became Dictator, he kicked away the ladder on which he climbed to power. It was Imperialism that he established; neither popular rights nor aristocratic privileges. He had no more love of the people than he had of those proud aristocrats who afterwards murdered him.

But the empire of the world–to which Caesar at that time may, or may not, have aspired: who can tell? but probably not–was not to be gained by civil services, or reforms, or arguments in law courts, or by holding great offices, or haranguing the people at the rostrum, or making speeches in the Senate,–where he was hated for his liberal views and enlightened mind, rather than from any fear of his overturning the constitution,–but by military services and heroic deeds and the devotion of a tried and disciplined regular army. Caesar was now forty-three years of age, being in the full maturity of his powers. At the close of his term as Consul he sought a province where military talents were indispensable, and where he could have a long term of office. The Senate gave him the “woods and forests,”–an unsubdued country, where he would have hard work and unknown perils, and from which it was probable he would never return. They sent him to Gaul. But this was just the field for his marvellous military genius, then only partially developed; and the second period of his career now began.

It was during this second period that he rendered his most important services to the State and earned his greatest fame. The dangers which threatened the Empire came from the West, and not the East. Asia was already-subdued by Sulla, Lucullus, and Pompey, or was on the point of being subdued. Mithridates was a formidable enemy; but he aimed at establishing an Asiatic empire, not conquering the European provinces. He was not so dangerous as even Pyrrhus had been. Moreover, the conquest of the East was comparatively easy,–over worn-out races and an effete civilization; it gave éclat to Sulla and Pompey,–as the conquest of India, with a handful of British troops, made Clive and Hastings famous; it required no remarkable military genius, nor was it necessary for the safety of Italy. Conquest over the Oriental monarchies meant only spoliation. It was prompted by greed and vanity more than by a sense of danger. Pompey brought back money enough from the East to enrich all his generals, and the Senate besides,–or rather the State, which a few aristocrats practically owned.

But the conquest of Gaul would be another affair. It was peopled with hardy races, who cast their greedy eyes on the empire of the Romans, or on some of its provinces, and who were being pushed forward to invasion by a still braver people beyond the Rhine,–races kindred to those Teutons whom Marius had defeated. There was no immediate danger from the Germans; but there was ultimate danger, as proved by the union they made in the time of Marcus Antoninus for the invasion of the Roman provinces. It was necessary to raise a barrier against their inundations. It was also necessary to subdue the various Celtic tribes of Gaul, who were getting restless and uneasy. There was no money in a conquest over barbarians, except so far as they could be sold into slavery; but there was danger in it. The whole country was threatened with insurrections, leagues, and invasion, from the Alps to the ocean. There was a confederacy of hostile kings and chieftains; they commanded innumerable forces; they controlled important posts and passes. The Gauls had long made fixed settlements, and had built bridges and fortresses. They were not so warlike as the Germans; but they were yet formidable enemies. United, they were like “a volcano giving signs of approaching eruption; and at any moment, and hardly without warning, another lava stream might be poured down Venetia and Lombardy.”

Surrender of Vercingetorix, the Last Chief of Gaul. After the painting by Henri Motte

Surrender of Vercingetorix, the Last Chief of Gaul. After the painting by Henri Motte

To rescue the Empire from such dangers was the work of Caesar; and it was no small undertaking. The Senate had given him unlimited power, for five years, over Gaul,–then a terra incognita,–an indefinite country, comprising the modern States of France, Holland, Switzerland, Belgium, and a part of Germany. Afterward the Senate extended the governorship five years more; so difficult was the work of conquest, and so formidable were the enemies. But it was danger which Caesar loved. The greater the obstacles the better was he pleased, and the greater was the scope for his genius,–which at first was not appreciated, for the best part of his life had been passed in Rome as a lawyer and orator and statesman. But he had a fine constitution, robust health, temperate habits, and unbounded energies. He was free to do as he liked with several legions, and had time to perfect his operations. And his legions were trained to every kind of labor and hardship. They could build bridges, cut down forests, and drain swamps, as well as march with a weight of eighty pounds to the man. They could make their own shoes, mend their own clothes, repair their own arms, and construct their own tents. They were as familiar with the axe and spade as they were with the lance and sword. They were inured to every kind of danger and difficulty, and not one of them was personally braver than the general who led them, or more skilful in riding a horse, or fording a river, or climbing a mountain. No one of them could be more abstemious. Luxury is not one of the peculiarities of successful generals in barbaric countries.

To give a minute sketch of the various encounters with the different tribes and nations that inhabited the vast country he was sent to conquer and govern, would be impossible in a lecture like this. One must read Caesar’s own account of his conflicts with Helvetii, Aedui, Remi, Nervii, Belgae, Veneti, Arverni, Aquitani, Ubii, Eubueones, Treveri, and other nations between the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Rhine, and the sea. Their numbers were immense, and they were well armed, and had cavalry, military stores, efficient leaders, and indomitable courage. When beaten in one place they sprang up in another, like the Saxons with whom Charlemagne contended. They made treaties only to break them. They fought with the desperation of heroes who had their wives and children, firesides and altars, to guard; yet against them Caesar was uniformly successful. He was at times in great peril, yet he never lost but one battle, and this through the fault of his generals. Yet he had able generals, whom he selected himself,–Labienus, who afterwards deserted him, Antony, Publius Crassus, Cotta, Sabinus,–all belonging to the aristocracy. They made mistakes, but Caesar never. They would often have been cut off but for Caesar’s timely aid.

When we consider the dangers to which he was constantly exposed, the amazing difficulties he had to surmount, the hardships he had to encounter, the fears he had to allay, the murmurs he was obliged to silence, the rivers he was compelled to cross in the face of enemies, the forests it was necessary to penetrate, the swamps and mountains and fortresses which impeded his marches, we are amazed at his skill and intrepidity, to say nothing of his battles with forces ten times more numerous than his own. His fertility of resources, his lightning rapidity of movement, his sagacity and insight, his perfection of discipline, his careful husbandry of forces, his ceaseless diligence, his intrepid courage, the confidence with which he inspired his soldiers, his brilliant successes (victory after victory), with the enormous number of captives by which he and the State became enriched,–all these things dazzled his countrymen, and gave him a fame such as no general had ever earned before. He conquered a population of warriors to be numbered by millions, with no aid from charts and maps, exposed perpetually to treachery and false information. He had to please and content an army a thousand miles from home, without supplies, except such as were precarious,–living on the plainest food, and doomed to infinite labors and drudgeries, besides attacking camps and assaulting fortresses, and fighting pitched battles. Yet he won their love, their respect, and their admiration,–and by an urbanity, a kindness, and a careful protection of their interests, such as no general ever showed before. He was a hero performing perpetual wonders, as chivalrous as the knights of the Middle Ages. No wonder he was adored, like a Moses in the wilderness, like a Napoleon in his early conquests.

This conquest of Gaul, during which he drove the Germans back to their forests, and inaugurated a policy of conciliation and moderation which made the Gauls the faithful allies of Rome, and their country its most fertile and important province, furnishing able men both for the Senate and the Army, was not only a great feat of genius, but a great service–a transcendent service–to the State, which entitled Caesar to a magnificent reward. Had it been cordially rendered to him, he might have been contented with a sort of perpetual consulship, and with the éclat of being the foremost man of the Empire. The people would have given him anything in their power to give, for he was as much an idol to them as Napoleon became to the Parisians after the conquest of Italy. He had rendered services as brilliant as those of Scipio, of Marius, of Sulla, or of Pompey. If he did not save Italy from being subsequently overrun by barbarians, he postponed their irruptions for two hundred years. And he had partially civilized the country he had subdued, and introduced Roman institutions. He had also created an army of disciplined veterans, such as never before was seen. He perfected military mechanism, that which kept the Empire together after all vitality had fled. He was the greatest master of the art of war known to antiquity. Such transcendent military excellence and such great services entitled him to the gratitude and admiration of the whole Empire, although he enriched himself and his soldiers with the spoils of his ten years’ war, and did not, so far as I can see, bring great sums into the national treasury.

But the Senate was reluctant to give him the customary rewards for ten years’ successful war, and for adding Western Europe to the Empire. It was jealous of his greatness and his renown. It also feared him, for he had eleven legions in his pay, and was known to be ambitious. It hated him for two reasons: first, because in his first consulship he had introduced reforms, and had always sided with the popular and liberal party; and secondly, because military successes of unprecedented brilliancy had made him dangerous. So, on the conclusion of the conquest of Gaul, it withdrew two legions from his army, and sought to deprive him of his promised second consulate, and even to recall him before his term of office as governor was expired. In other words, it sought to cripple and disarm him, and raise his rival, Pompey, over him in the command of the forces of the Empire.

It was now secret or open war, not between Caesar and the Roman people, but between Caesar and the Senate,–between a great and triumphant general and the Roman oligarchy of nobles, who, for nearly five hundred years, had ruled the Empire. On the side of Caesar were the army, the well-to-do classes, and the people; on the side of the Senate were the forces which a powerful aristocracy could command, having the prestige of law and power and wealth, and among whom were the great names of the republic.

Mr. Froude ridicules and abuses this aristocracy, as unfit longer to govern the State, as a worn-out power that deserved to fall. He uniformly represents them as extravagant, selfish, ostentatious, luxurious, frivolous, Epicurean in opinions and in life, oppressive in all their social relations, haughty beyond endurance, and controlling the popular elections by means of bribery and corruption. It would be difficult to refute these charges. The Patricians probably gave themselves up to all the pleasures incident to power and unbounded wealth, in a corrupt and wicked age. They had their palaces in the city and their villas in the country, their parks and gardens, their fish-ponds and game-preserves, their pictures and marbles, their expensive furniture and costly ornaments, gold and silver vessels, gems and precious works of art. They gave luxurious banquets; they travelled like princes; they were a body of kings, to whom the old monarchs of conquered provinces bowed down in fear and adulation. All this does not prove that they were incapable, although they governed for the interests of their class. They were all experienced in affairs of State,–most of them had been quaestors, aediles, praetors, censors, tribunes, consuls, and governors. Most of them were highly educated, had travelled extensively, were gentlemanly in their manners, could make speeches in the Senate, and could fight on the field of battle when there was a necessity. They doubtless had the common vices of the rich and proud; but many of them were virtuous, patriotic, incorruptible, almost austere in morals, dignified and intellectual, whom everybody respected,–men like Cato, Brutus, Cassius, Cicero, and others. Their sin was that they wished to conserve their powers, privileges, and fortunes, like all aristocracies,–like the British House of Lords. Nor must it be forgotten that it was under their régime that the conquest of the world was made, and that Rome had become the centre of everything magnificent and glorious on the earth.

It was doubtless shortsighted and ungrateful in these nobles to attempt to deprive Caesar of his laurels and his promised consulship. He had earned them by grand services, both as a general and a statesman. But their jealousy and hatred were not unnatural. They feared, not unreasonably, that the successful general–rich, proud, and dictatorial from the long exercise of power, and seated in the chair of supremest dignity–would make sweeping changes; might reduce their authority to a shadow, and elevate himself to perpetual dictatorship; and thus, by substituting imperialism for aristocracy, subvert the Constitution. That is evidently what Cicero feared, as appears in his letters to Atticus. That is what all the leading Senators feared, especially Cato. It was known that Caesar–although urbane, merciful, enlightened, hospitable, and disposed to govern for the public good–was unscrupulous in the use of tools; that he had originally gained his seat in the Senate by bribery and demagogic arts; that he was reckless as to debts, regarding money only as a means to buy supporters; that he had appropriated vast sums from the spoils of war for his own use, and, from being poor, had become the richest man in the Empire; that he had given his daughter Julia in marriage to Pompey from political ends; that he was long-sighted in his ambition, and would be content with nothing less than the gratification of this insatiate passion. All this was known, and it gave great solicitude to the leaders of the aristocracy, who resolved to put him down,–to strip him of his power, or fight him, if necessary, in a civil war. So the aristocracy put themselves under the protection of Pompey,–a successful but overrated general, who also aimed at supreme power, with the nobles as his supporters, not perhaps as Imperator, but as the agent and representative of a subservient Senate, in whose name he would rule.

This contest between Caesar and the aristocracy under the lead of Pompey, its successful termination in Caesar’s favor, and his brilliant reign of about four years, as Dictator and Imperator, constitute the third period of his memorable career.

Neither Caesar nor Pompey would disband their legions, as it was proposed by Curio in the Senate and voted by a large majority. In fact, things had arrived at a crisis: Caesar was recalled, and he must obey the Senate, or be decreed a public enemy; that is, the enemy of the power that ruled the State. He would not obey, and a general levy of troops in support of the Senate was made, and put into the hands of Pompey with unlimited command. The Tribunes of the people, however, sided with Caesar, and refused confirmation of the Senatorial decrees. Caesar then no longer hesitated, but with his army crossed the Rubicon, which was an insignificant stream, but was the Rome-ward boundary of his province. This was the declaration of civil war. It was now “‘either anvil or hammer.” The admirers of Caesar claim that his act was a necessity, at least a public benefit, on the ground of the misrule of the aristocracy. But it does not appear that there was anarchy at Rome, although Milo had killed Clodius. There were aristocratic feuds, as in the Middle Ages. Order and law–the first conditions of society–were not in jeopardy, as in the French Revolution, when Napoleon arose. The people were not in hostile array against the nobles, nor the nobles against the people. The nobles only courted and bribed the people; but so general was corruption that a change in government was deemed necessary by the advocates of Caesar,–at least they defended it. The gist of all the arguments in favor of the revolution is: better imperialism than an oligarchy of corrupt nobles. It is not my province to settle that question. It is my work only to describe events.

It is clear that Caesar resolved on seizing supreme power, in taking it away from the nobles, on the ground probably that he could rule better than they,–the plea of Napoleon, the plea of Cromwell, the plea of all usurpers.

But this supreme power he could not exercise until he had conquered Pompey and the Senate and all his enemies. It must need be that “he should wade through slaughter to his throne.” This alternative was forced on him, and he accepted it. He accepted civil war in order to reign. At best, he would do evil that good might come. He was doubtless the strongest man in the world; and, according to Mr. Carlyle’s theory, the strongest ought to rule.

Much has been said about the rabble,–the democracy,–their turbulence, corruption, and degradation, their unfitness to rule, and all that sort of thing, which I regard as irrelevant, so far as the usurpation of Caesar is concerned; since the struggle was not between them and the nobles, but between a fortunate general and the aristocracy who controlled the State. Caesar was not the representative of the people or of their interests, as Tiberius Gracchus was, but the representative of the Army. He had no more sympathy with the people than he had with the nobles: he probably despised them both, as unfit to rule. He flattered the people and bought them, but he did not love them. It was his soldiers whom he loved, next to himself; although, as a wise and enlightened statesman, he wished to promote the great interests of the nation, so far as was consistent with the enjoyment of imperial rule. This friend of the people would give them spectacles and shows, largesses of corn,–money, even,–and extension of the suffrage, but not political power. He was popular with them, because he was generous and merciful, because his exploits won their admiration, and his vast public works gave employment to them and adorned their city.

It is unnecessary to dwell on the final contest of Caesar with the nobles, with Pompey at their head, since nothing is more familiar in history. Plainly he was not here rendering public services, as he did in Spain and Gaul, but taking care of his own interests. I cannot see how a civil war was a service, unless it were a service to destroy the aristocratic constitution and substitute imperialism, which some think was needed with the vast extension of the Empire, and for the good administration of the provinces,–robbed and oppressed by the governors whom the Senate had sent out to enrich the aristocracy. It may have been needed for the better administration of justice, for the preservation of law and order, and a more efficient central power. Absolutism may have proved a benefit to the Empire, as it proved a benefit to France under Cardinal Richelieu, when he humiliated the nobles. If so, it was only a choice of evils, for absolutism is tyranny, and tyranny is not a blessing, except in a most demoralized state of society, which it is claimed was the state of Rome at the time of the usurpation of Caesar. It is certain that the whole united strength of the aristocracy could not prevail over Caesar, although it had Pompey for its defender, with his immense prestige and experience as a general.

After Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, and it was certain he would march to Rome and seize the reins of government, the aristocracy fled precipitately to Pompey’s wing at Capua, fearing to find in Caesar another Marius. Pompey did not show extraordinary ability in the crisis. He had no courage and no purpose. He fled to Brundusium, where ships were waiting to transport his army to Durazzo. He was afraid to face his rival in Italy. Caesar would have pursued, but had no navy. He therefore went to Rome, which he had not seen for ten years, took what money he wanted from the treasury, and marched to Spain, where the larger part of Pompey’s army, under his lieutenants, were now arrayed against him. These it was necessary first to subdue. But Caesar prevailed, and all Spain was soon at his feet. His successes were brilliant; and Gaul, Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia were wholly his own, as well as Spain, which was Pompey’s province. He then rapidly returned to Rome, was named Dictator, and as such controlled the consular election, and was chosen Consul. But Pompey held the East, and, with his ships, controlled the Mediterranean, and was gathering forces for the invasion of Italy. Caesar allowed himself but eleven days in Rome. It was necessary to meet Pompey before that general could return to Italy. It was mid-winter,–about a year after he had crossed the Rubicon. He had with him only thirty thousand men, but these were veterans. Pompey had nine full Roman legions, which lay at Durazzo, opposite to Brundusium, besides auxiliaries and unlimited means; but he was hampered by senatorial civilians, and his legions were only used to Eastern warfare. He also controlled the sea, so that it was next to impossible for Caesar to embark without being defeated. Yet Caesar did cross the sea amid overwhelming obstacles, and the result was the battle of Pharsalia,–deemed one of the decisive battles of the world, although the forces of the combatants were comparatively small. It was gained by the defeat of Pompey’s cavalry by a fourth line of the best soldiers of Caesar, which was kept in reserve. Pompey, on the defeat of his cavalry, upon whom he had based his hopes, lost heart and fled. He fled to the sea,–uncertain, vacillating, and discouraged,–and sailed for Egypt, relying on the friendship of the young king; but was murdered treacherously before he set foot upon the land. His fate was most tragical. His fall was overwhelming.

This battle, in which the flower of the Roman aristocracy succumbed to the conqueror of Gaul, with vastly inferior forces, did not end the desperate contest. Two more bloody battles were fought–one in Africa and one in Spain–before the supremacy of Caesar was secured. The battle of Thapsus, between Utica and Carthage, at which the Roman nobles once more rallied under Cato and Labienus, and the battle of Munda, in Spain, the most bloody of all, gained by Caesar over the sons of Pompey, settled the civil war and made Caesar supreme. He became supreme only by the sacrifice of half of the Roman nobility and the death of their principal leaders,–Pompey, Labienus, Lentulus, Ligarius, Metellus, Scipio Afrarius, Cato, Petreius, and others. In one sense it was the contest between Pompey and Caesar for the empire of the world. Cicero said, “The success of the one meant massacre, and that of the other slavery,”–for if Pompey had prevailed, the aristocracy would have butchered their enemies with unrelenting vengeance; but Caesar hated unnecessary slaughter, and sought only power. In another sense it was the struggle between a single man–with enlightened views and vast designs–and the Roman aristocracy, hostile to reforms, and bent on greed and oppression. The success of Caesar was favorable to the restoration of order and law and progressive improvements; the success of the nobility would have entailed a still more grinding oppression of the people, and possibly anarchy and future conflicts between fortunate generals and the aristocracy. Destiny or Providence gave the empire of the world to a single man, although that man was as unscrupulous as he was able.

Henceforth imperialism was the form of government in Rome, which lasted about four hundred years. How long an aristocratic government would have lasted is a speculation. Caesar, in his elevation to unlimited power, used his power beneficently. He pardoned his enemies, gave security to property and life, restored the finances, established order, and devoted himself to useful reforms. He cut short the grant of corn to the citizen mob; he repaired the desolation which war had made; he rebuilt cities and temples; he even endeavored to check luxury and extravagance and improve morals. He reformed the courts of law, and collected libraries in every great city. He put an end to the expensive tours of senators in the provinces, where they had appeared as princes exacting contributions. He formed a plan to drain the Pontine Marshes. He reformed the calendar, making the year to begin with the first day of January. He built new public buildings, which the enlargement of business required. He seemed to have at heart the welfare of the State and of the people, by whom he was adored. But he broke up the political ascendancy of nobles, although he did not confiscate their property. He weakened the Senate by increasing its numbers to nine hundred, and by appointing senators himself from his army and from the provinces,–those who would be subservient to him, who would vote what he decreed.

Caesar’s ruling passion was ambition,–thirst of power; but he had no great animosities. He pardoned his worst enemies,–Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero, who had been in arms against him; nor did he reign as a tyrant. His habits were simple and unostentatious. He gave easy access to his person, was courteous in his manners, and mingled with senators as a companion rather than as a master. Like Charlemagne, he was temperate in eating and drinking, and abhorred gluttony and drunkenness,–the vices of the aristocracy and of fortunate plebeians alike. He was indefatigable in business, and paid attention to all petitions. He was economical in his personal expenses, although he lavished vast sums upon the people in the way of amusing or bribing them. He dispensed with guards and pomps, and was apparently reckless of his life: anything was better to him than to live in perpetual fear of conspirators and traitors. There never was a braver man, and he was ever kind-hearted to those who did not stand in his way. He was generous, magnanimous, and unsuspicious. He was the model of an absolute prince, aside from laxity of morals. In regard to women, of their virtue he made little account. His favorite mistress was Servilia, sister of Cato and mother of Brutus. Some have even supposed that Brutus was Caesar’s son, which accounts for his lenity and forbearance and affection. He was the high-priest of the Roman worship, and yet he believed neither in the gods nor in immortality. But he was always the gentleman,–natural, courteous, affable, without vanity or arrogance or egotism. He was not a patriot in the sense that Cicero and Cato were, or Trajan and Marcus Aurelius, since his country was made subservient to his own interests and aggrandizement. Yet he was a very interesting man, and had fewer faults than Napoleon, with equally grand designs.

But even he could not escape a retribution, in spite of his exalted position and his great services. The leaders of the aristocracy still hated him, and could not be appeased for the overthrow of their power. They resolved to assassinate him, from vengeance rather than fear. Cicero was not among the conspirators; because his discretion could not be relied upon, and they passed him by. But his heart was with them. “There are many ways,” said he, “in which a man may die.” It was not a wise thing to take his life; since the Constitution was already subverted, and somebody would reign as imperator by means of the army, and his death would necessarily lead to renewed civil wars and new commotions and new calamities. But angry, embittered, and passionate enemies do not listen to reason. They will not accept the inevitable. There was no way to get rid of Caesar but by assassination, and no one wished him out of the way but the nobles. Hence it was easy for them to form a conspiracy. It was easy to stab him with senatorial daggers. Caesar was not killed because he had personal enemies, nor because he destroyed the liberties of Roman citizens, but because he had usurped the authority of the aristocracy.

Death of Caesar From the painting by J.L. Gerome

Death of Caesar From the painting by J.L. Gerome

Yet he died, perhaps at the right time, at the age of fifty-six, after an undisputed reign of only three or four years,–about the length of that of Cromwell. He was already bending under the infirmities of a premature old age. Epileptic fits had set in, and his constitution was undermined by his unparalleled labors and fatigues; and then his restless mind was planning a new expedition to Parthia, where he might have ingloriously perished like Crassus. But such a man could not die. His memory and deeds lived. He filled a role in history, which could not be forgotten. He inaugurated a successful revolution. He bequeathed a policy to last as long as the Empire lasted; and he had rendered services of the greatest magnitude, by which he is to be ultimately judged, as well as by his character. It is impossible for us to settle whether or not his services overbalanced the evils of the imperialism he established and of the civil wars by which he reached supreme command. Whatever view we may take of the comparative merits of an aristocracy or an imperial despotism in a corrupt age, we cannot deny to Caesar some transcendent services and a transcendent fame. The whole matter is laid before us in the language of Cicero to Caesar himself, in the Senate, when he was at the height of his power; which shows that the orator was not lacking in courage any more than in foresight and moral wisdom:–

“Your life, Caesar, is not that which is bounded by the union of your soul and body. Your life is that which shall continue fresh in the memory of ages to come, which posterity will cherish and eternity itself keep guard over. Much has been done by you which men will admire; much remains to be done which they can praise. They will read with wonder of empires and provinces, of the Rhine, the ocean, and the Nile, of battles without number, of amazing victories, of countless monuments and triumphs; but unless the Commonwealth be wisely re-established in institutions by you bestowed upon us, your name will travel widely over the world, but will have no fixed habitation; and those who come after you will dispute about you as we have disputed. Some will extol you to the skies; others will find something wanting, and the most important element of all. Remember the tribunal before which you are to stand. The ages that are to be will try you, it may be with minds less prejudiced than ours, uninfluenced either by the desire to please you or by envy of your greatness.”

Thus spoke Cicero with heroic frankness. The ages have “disputed about” Caesar, and will continue to dispute about him, as they do about Cromwell and Napoleon; but the man is nothing to us in comparison with the ideas which he fought or which he supported, and which have the same force to-day as they had nearly two thousand years ago. He is the representative of imperialism; which few Americans will defend, unless it becomes a necessity which every enlightened patriot admits. The question is, whether it was or was not a necessity at Rome fifty years before Christ was born. It is not easy to settle in regard to the benefit that Caesar is supposed by some–including Mr. Froude and the late Emperor of the French–to have rendered to the cause of civilization by overturning the aristocratic Constitution, and substituting, not the rule of the people, but that of a single man. It is still one of the speculations of history; it is not one of its established facts, although the opinions of enlightened historians seem to lean to the necessity of the Caesarian imperialism, in view of the misrule of the aristocracy and the abject venality of the citizens who had votes to sell. But it must be borne in mind that it was under the aristocratic rule of senators and patricians that Rome went on from conquering to conquer; that the governing classes were at all times the most intelligent, experienced, and efficient in the Commonwealth; that their very vices may have been exaggerated; and that the imperialism which crushed them, may also have crushed out original genius, literature, patriotism, and exalted sentiments, and even failed to have produced greater personal security than existed under the aristocratic Constitution at any period of its existence. All these are disputed points of history. It may be that Caesar, far from being a national benefactor by reorganizing the forces of the Empire, sowed the seeds of ruin by his imperial policy; and that, while he may have given unity, peace, and law to the Empire, he may have taken away its life. I do not assert this, or even argue its probability. It may have been, and it may not have been. It is an historical puzzle. There are two sides to all great questions. But whether or not we can settle with the light of modern knowledge such a point as this, I look upon the defence of imperialism in itself, in preference to constitutional government with all its imperfections, as an outrage on the whole progress of modern civilization, and on whatever remains of dignity and intelligence among the people.


Caesar’s Commentaries, Leges Juliae, Appian, Plutarch, Suetonius, Dion Cassius, and Cicero’s Letters to Atticus are the principal original authorities. Napoleon III. wrote a dull Life of Caesar, but it is rich in footnotes, which it is probable he did not himself make, since nothing is easier than the parade of learning. Rollin’s Ancient History may be read with other general histories. Merivale’s History of the Empire is able and instructive, but dry. Mr. Froude’s sketch of Caesar is the most interesting I have read, but advocates imperialism. Niebuhr’s Lectures on the History of Rome is also a standard work, as well as Curtius’s History of Rome.

Marcus Aurelius : Glory of Rome

Beacon Lights of History, Volume IV : Imperial Antiquity