The Indefatigable Julius Cæsar — Part 1

It is hard to know where to begin with a man like Gaius Julius Cæsar.  Was he a dangerous egocentric and a genuine threat to Rome, a man undeserving of admiration, or was he the noblest of men — as proclaimed by Shakespeare?  Was he a good man with flaws, a flawed man with streaks of worthiness in him, or was he simply a Roman in touch with his own culture?

The Beginning

Historians tell us that Julius Cæsar was born on 12 July 100 B.C.  That may be true for us, but it wasn’t true for Julius.  We date events of the past as either Before the Common Era (B.C.E.) (also Before Christ (B.C.)), or as occurring in the Common Era (C.E.), or in Latin, Anno Domini (in the year of our Lord).  The Romans recorded their years differently — often spoken of in terms of who served as consul or in the number of years from the founding of Rome.  Later, people may have spoken of years in terms of an emperor’s reign.

Gaius Julius Cæsar was named after his father, who was married to Aurelia.  In manhood, Julius was tall, fair-haired, well-built, and mostly healthy.  He did suffer epileptic episodes.[1]  The historian Suetonius wrote, “He was embarrassed by his baldness, which was a frequent subject of jokes on the part of his opponents; so much so, that he used to comb his straggling locks forward from the back, and of all honors heaped upon him by senate and people, the one he most appreciated was to be able to wear a wreath at all times …”

Of course, since Suetonius wasn’t born until Julius had been dead 113 years, we aren’t sure how he would know these things — but we can chalk it up to interesting, compare it to the busts and statues of Cæsar that survived him, and decide for ourselves what the man might have looked like.

Cæsar grew up in a period of unrest and civil war in Rome.  The increased size of the empire had led to cheap slave labor flooding into the country — which in turn caused Roman workers to lose their work.  The so-called Social Wars created turmoil all over Italy, and Marius and Sulla were the great leaders of the time.

Julius was a member of an old aristocratic family, and as such, Roman culture expected him to assume a modest office on the lower end of a Roman political career pattern.  Julius Cæsar, however, was not your average Roman.  At a young age, he understood that money, audacity, and corruption were key to success in Roman politics.  Gaius the elder died when Julius was 15 years old.  The significance of his father’s death was this: Gaius the younger would have to enter adulthood without the advice of a sage and moderately successful father.  If Julius was to succeed in life, it would be up to him alone.

His first step was to marry into a more distinguished family — and build a network through which he could build his future.  It was walking on eggshells (unguided) because some of his connections were enemies of other connections.  His patron Marius was an enemy of Sulla, the dictator sworn to wipe out every remnant of the Marius household.  Julius learned quickly that a networking mistake could be his last mistake and came perilously close to that on more than one occasion.  When the nineteen-year-old Cæsar was arrested, Sulla chose to spare him.  Influential friends managed to release him, but it was obvious that Cæsar  would have to leave Rome for a while — to let things “cool down.”  It was the beginning of his days as a marine.[2]

Roman Politics

In 60 BC, Cæsar sought election as Consul of Rome for 59 B.C., along with two other candidates.[3]  The election was sordid — even by Washington standards.  Romans, thought to be incorruptible, paid bribes to help defeat Cæsar.  Of the three, Cæsar was the most liberal, and he ended up winning (along with a conservative named Marcus Bibulus) — which tends to suggest there was a “great society” scam long before Lyndon Johnson.

It was no easy matter winning an election in ancient Rome, but the costs of doing so were comparable to modern elections.  It may have been the Romans who first developed the axiom “go big or stay home.”  To meet these expenses, Cæsar borrowed money — actually, a lot of money, from Marcus Licinius Crassus — but it still wasn’t enough, prompting Cæsar to approach Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (Pompey).  His strategy was amazingly brazen because Pompey and Crassus were life-long enemies.  Cæsar wanted to reconcile these men, and while they were at the point of reconciling, why not chip in a few more denarii for an important election?

Between Cæsar, Crassus, and Pompey, there was almost as much money in their campaign chest as one might find in the modern Democratic Party — and for the same purposes: controlling public influence and businesses.  It was an informal coalition of like-minded men seeking to enrich themselves.  Scholars refer to this period as the First Triumvirate (the rule of three men) — a relationship cemented by the marriage of Pompey to Cæsar’s daughter, Julia.  It was also the time when Cæsar remarried — a woman named Calpurnia, the daughter of a powerful senator.  In Rome, many marriages were more about business than romance.

While serving as Consul (and not too long after the election), Cæsar proposed a law for redistributing public lands to the poor — by force of arms, if necessary.  Pompey and Crassus supported this proposal because they, like most Democrats, realized the advantages of bribing voters from the public treasury.

Pompey filled the City of Rome with legionnaires (which publicly revealed the triumvirate) and effectively intimidated nearly everyone inside the city — not unlike the 6 January debacle in Washington, D.C.  Co-Consul Bibulus tried to declare omens unfavorable to the proposed law, thus voiding it.  It might have worked had Julius not sent his ruffians to drive him out of the city.  Then, to ensure that everyone knew there was a new sheriff in town, Cæsar’s boys traveled throughout the city, breaking symbols of his opponent’s power.

Despite this danger to himself, Bibulus continued issuing “bad omens.”  By then, no one paid any heed to his warnings.  Roman satirists began referring to the consulship as the year of Julius and Cæsar.

But the Romans knew their culture, and they knew Julius Cæsar.  Not long after his election, the Roman aristocracy attempted to limit his “future power” by restricting his subsequent military assignments (as was the custom) to various forests and pastures inside Italy rather than the governorship of a Roman province.  Cæsar wouldn’t have it.  He secured the passage of the Lex Vatinia — legislation that gave him the governorship of the provinces of Cisalpine Gaul (Southern France) and Illyricum (the area of Dalmatia)  (for a period of five years … rather than the customary one year).  The law also gave him immunity from prosecution for the length of that time.  The law also gave Cæsar command of four legions.  When his consulship ended, Cæsar left town rather quickly.  His enemies gathered to celebrate his prosecution.

Province of Gaul

In 52 B.C., Cæsar had been in Gaul for seven years.  One might imagine that what Cæsar didn’t know about Gaul by that time probably wasn’t worth knowing.  Nevertheless, a rebellion occurred in that year that seemed to catch the famed general off guard.[4]  He simply didn’t see it coming, and when it arrived, his vast legions were all in the wrong places.  Cæsar, himself, was just outside Rome “keeping an eye” on politics.

Until the time of Charlemagne, Gaul was never a unified region.  Every tribe was independent and hostile toward all other tribes.  Bitter conflicts erupted between individuals and minor noblemen.  But in the winter of 52 B.C., all of these quarrelsome tribal leaders joined in a common cause — to push the Romans and their general out of Gaul.

The result of this effort was war on a massive scale — and a conflict that would test the limits of both Cæsar and his army.  The two aspects of foreign domination that the Roman hierarchy found disturbing were its costs and its politics.  But there being no distinction between Cæsar the politician and Cæsar the general … the fight in Gaul became a two-front war.

In Rome, political success brought opportunities for military command.  Success in war gave a man glory and wealth, allowing him to rise even further up the political ladder.  It was a repeating cycle.  Some Roman commanders were more fortunate than others.

Compared to his contemporaries, Julius Cæsar was not much different.  He had talent, and he was determined to rise to the very top — even if it meant that he had to redefine what “the top” meant.  The connection between Roman war and politics had another important consequence: Roman governors exercised supreme civil and military power within their provinces. They also had complete freedom of action because Rome was too far away.

It is true that some Roman governors received specific instructions before they set out from Rome, admonitions about what the Senate expected of them.  Ultimately, these governors would have to answer for their sins (or successfully hide them), but beyond that, the governors were on their own.

In Cæsar’s case, the senate granted him an especially large command — a combination of three normally separate provinces: Illyria, Cisalpine Gaul, and Transalpine Gaul.  He also enjoyed the security of an unusually long term in the post — initially five years, later extended to ten.[5]

When Cæsar arrived in Gaul, he was massively in debt, and he needed a successful (and profitable) war.  He may have first considered a campaign in the Balkans, but in 58 B.C., the Helvetii tribe (from present-day Switzerland) began migrating and trespassing on lands of tribes that were friendly to Rome.  The situation demanded a Roman response in support of allied Aedui people (and others).  Cæsar had no hesitation in confronting those early Swiss or any of the Germanic tribes — and he was ruthless in doing so.[6]

Cæsar maintained a war footing in Gaul for a full ten years.  If he wasn’t smashing the Belgic tribes of northeastern Gaul, then he was off to visit Britannia.  One of the main themes of Cæsar’s famous War Commentaries was to illustrate how each campaign was undertaken in the interests of the Roman Republic — and by Roman standards, his claim was no doubt true.[7]

The only criticism Cæsar received during his long tenure in Gaul was one that surfaced in 55 B.C.  A senator claimed that Cæsar was a war criminal and should be handed over to the Germans for punishment.  The individual who made that allegation was a political opponent, and the only people who listened to him were politically aligned nabobs.  Cæsar was undoubtedly aware of the allegation, but he ignored it along with everyone else.

Today, scholars call into question whether Cæsar’s Commentaries were accurate and truthful, but one should consider that Julius Cæsar wasn’t the only individual writing letters to Rome.  Cæsar’s subordinates did that too.  They wrote to their family and to their extended relations who might also be in the Senate, always giving accounts of what was going on in Gaul.  Knowing this, Cæsar would not place his professional credibility at risk with frivolous embellishments.

Was Cæsar a war criminal?  It is true that he could be utterly ruthless in the pursuit of victory — this is how battles are won (even now), but as to his empathy for others once the fighting was done, Cæsar clearly believed that it was more practical to be generous in victory than excessively oppressive.  After each of his successful battles, Cæsar took pains to create a viable political settlement with both the vanquished and his allies.[8]  For example, when he sent the surviving Helvetii back to their homeland, he arranged to provide them with food until they had re-established their own farms and harvested their first crops.  He even permitted the Boii, one of several groups that had joined the Helvetii migration, to settle in Gaul “as a favor” to the Aedui, one of his favored tribes.  The Aedui themselves grew in power and influence under Cæsar’s reign as governor, but he was often called upon to arbitrate disputes within the tribes.  He must have had exceptionally gifted and completely trustworthy translators on his staff.

One example of a favored ally was the Aedui leader Diviciacus — and what we find most interesting about this fellow is that he was a Druid and the ONLY one in history known by his name.  Cæsar made Diviciacus an important leader “of senatorial rank” within his tribe.  Diviciacus had a brother named Dumnorix — a competitive sibling. Cæsar did not trust this brother and had him investigated — learning that it was Dumnorix who conspired to convince the Helvetii to migrate in the first place, to conspire against his own tribe.[9]

Cæsar’s patronage had a negative effect, too.  Men whom Cæsar excluded from his inner circle were likely to resort to desperate measures to secure power for themselves.  During the winter of 54-53 B.C., for example, several chieftains conspired to incite a large-scale rebellion among the Belgic tribes and even sought the support of nearby German war bands from across the Rhine.

Initially, the rebels enjoyed a stunning success when one of the tribes lured a Roman garrison into an ambush resulting in the utter destruction of Legio XIV Gemina (and five other cohorts).[10]  It was the first serious defeat Cæsar’s army suffered, and he took an oath not to shave or cut his hair until the massacre had been avenged.  Such an oath may not sound like much, but historians claim it was an especially significant gesture from the ever-fastidious Cæsar.  In this case, Roman vengeance proved both swift and brutal.  In the following twelve months, Cæsar laid total waste to the lands of the insurrectionists.

To replace the lost legion and cohorts, Cæsar created three new legions — a demonstration of the power of Rome.  At the end of the year, Cæsar summoned the leaders of the Gallic tribes to a council at Reims.  During the council, a dispute developed among the tribes.  Cæsar had nothing to do with it, but he used it to his advantage.  He discovered that the individual who created the dispute was a man named Acco.  Cæsar accused him of perfidy, rendered judgment, had him flogged, and then beheaded him.

Subsequently, Cæsar departed Gaul and traveled to the Cisalpine provinces to be nearer to Rome. This was his usual practice after each campaigning season — but the seriousness of the rebellion had kept him in Gaul the previous winter.  This year, there were serious developments in Rome, including civil unrest, gangland activities, and rampant political corruption.

With Cæsar in the Cisalpine region, Gallic leadership met secretly and began to plan another rebellion.  These men had managed to do well for themselves outside of Cæsar’s power circle but believed they could do better without the Romans — full stop.[11]  When Cæsar prohibited armed conflicts among Gallic tribes, there was (in Cæsar’s mind) no justification for maintaining warriors at all.  Cæsar also stipulated that Rome would not recognize any leader who achieved power by force of arms.  These rules, imposed by a foreigner, irritated the Gallic chiefs because they were contrary to cultural traditions.

Gallic chieftains also realized that the Romans had come to stay.  This realization also brought into focus the actual cost of loyalty to Rome.  Roman sycophancy may have served them well in the past, but with Rome having to deal with problems at home, kissing Cæsar’s ring seemed less attractive.

Most of Gaul’s southern and central tribes never opposed Cæsar.  Tribes such as the Aedui, Sequani, and Arverni were the wealthiest and most politically astute of all the Gallic peoples.  The reason for their wealth and affluence was that their lands were situated along the main trade routes from Italy.  Despite protections offered by Rome’s legions, these “allies” came to resent Cæsar and all he stood for.  The general’s execution of Dumnorix and Acco did nothing to inspire friendship with Rome.

Although earlier rebellions had failed, the annihilation of Legio XIV Gemina proved that Rome was not too strong to fail.  Moreover, disturbances inside Rome might work to the advantage of Gallic rebels.  And, of course, it was always possible that Rome’s civil problems could prevent Cæsar from returning to Gaul.


  1. Canfora, L.  Julius Cæsar: The People’s Dictator.  Edinburgh University Press, 2006.
  2. Freeman, P.  Julius Cæsar.  Simon & Schuster, 2008.
  3. Goldsworthy, A.  Cæsar: Life of a Colossus.  Yale University Press, 2006.
  4. Griffin, M.  A Companion to Julius Cæsar.  Wiley & Sons, 2009.
  5. Trollope, A.  The Commentaries of CæsarOnline.


[1] Cæsar suffered from epilepsy for his entire life and tried to hide it from all but his closest associates.

[2] See also Before he was a General.

[3] The Consul of Rome was the highest political office in the Roman Republic.  To secure a system of checks and balances, the law required two (2) consuls serving together for one year.  They had to agree before ordering any changes to the law or declaring war.  

[4] When Cæsar first intervened in Gaul in 58 BC, many of the tribes welcomed him as a friend and liberator. Seven years later, all but a handful had turned against him — and leading the revolt were chieftains he had promoted and rewarded with favor and friendship.

[5] The scale of Cæsar’s appointment reflected the strength of his political alliances — which was also a guarantee that he had almost unparalleled freedom of action.  He raised new legions on his own initiative, doubling and later trebling the forces at his disposal, and it was only after the fact did he obtain senatorial approval and funding.

[6] On the question of casualties during the Gallic Wars, estimates in Cæsar’s time involve fantastical numbers.  Plutarch suggests more than a million were killed and another million captured and enslaved.  Cæsar claimed 430,000 Germani were killed.  Modern scholars estimate between 30-40,000 dead and 10,000 wounded.  How anyone came to these numbers is beyond me.

[7] Cæsar no doubt intended his commentaries to document his intentions and accomplishments — as an official record and perhaps also as evidence of his compliance with Roman law.    

[8] After surrendering, Cæsar’s vanquished handed over hostages as a pledge of good faith.  In doing so, Cæsar demanded that his new allies support future Roman operations with grain supplies and troops.  There were a few “vanquished” that needed a reminder of their obligations.  In one example, Cæsar executed a council of elders of one tribe.  In the main, however, the governor left the conquered people to govern their own affairs in their traditional way, with little or no Roman interference.

[9] Eventually, Dumnorix was killed by legionnaires “while resisting arrest.”  Problem solved.

[10] A cohort was a standard tactical unit, more or less the equivalent of a modern battalion.  A legion would consist of ten cohorts numbering around 5,000 men, identified as First Cohort and so on, with the most experienced legionnaires serving in the First and least experienced men serving in the Tenth. 

[11] In Gaul, a chieftain’s status was judged by the number of warriors in his household.  The more warriors, the wealthier he was, and the more influence he had over affairs within his region. 

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
This entry was posted in Antiquity, Gaul, History, Imperialism, Rome, Western Civilization. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Indefatigable Julius Cæsar — Part 1

  1. Andy says:

    I studied Latin in both high school and university and found this article riveting.

    However, while literary license may permit comparing Ancient Rome to modern American politics, contrasting them might be a bit of a stretch.

    Aside from that, an excellent and accurate account of Caesar’s early life and accomplishments.

    I even found your footnotes to contain stimulating and thought-provoking info.

    All-in-all, a superb work.

    I eagerly look forward to Part II of this fascinating bio.


    Liked by 1 person

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