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Gaius Julius Caesar (July 13, 100 BC-March 15, 44 BC) was a Roman politician, military leader, and dictator. His legacy is mixed: though he revitalized Rome through imperial expansion, he undermined the republican political system through his appointment of himself as dictator for life.
Though this great orator insisted that his actions were carried out in Rome's best interests, another story is told by his masterful manipulation of the public's trust, his building up an army of thousands of personal followers, his invasion of Rome itself with this army, and his declaration of a dictatorship. This leaves his motivations suspect.
Nevertheless, Caesar was crucial to Rome's imperialistic rise, and he left a lasting imprint on world history.
Early Military and Political Career:
The citizens of Rome were classified into two categories: the prestigious or noble elite, called patricians, and the common folk, called plebeians. Originally most political power had been wielded by the aristocratic patricians, but by the time of Caesar, this distinction had become much less important.
Julius Caesar's family was patrician but not highly elevated in the Roman hierarchy. However, his ambition was apparent from the start; his entrance into Roman politics was accompanied by a flurry of alliances and intrigue.
Caesar's befriending of out-of-favor politicians made him a target for the dictator Sulla, and he joined the army to keep some distance between himself and the Roman government. In the army, he received commendations for his selfless actions as a soldier, as well as his charismatic leadership in battles such as the Siege of Mytilene.
The political atmosphere in Rome relaxed in 78 BC when Sulla died, and Caesar was able to return. Starting from 63 BC, he climbed upward through the Roman bureaucracy. From being a Grand Priest to an administrator of Spain, his positions were diverse, further highlighting his leadership. He utilized his military background, his animated public speaking style, and even blatant bribery to gain a widespread populist following. Of course he was not universally adored, but even his harshest critics failed to combat him as he scaled the Roman ranks.
The First Triumvirate (59 BC):
Caesar created the First Triumvirate (a political alliance among three people), with the powerful generals Marcus Licinius Crassus and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (known as Pompey). This was a rather tenuous alliance, yet it was formidable, as can be seen in their opponents' moniker for it: "the three-headed monster".
Through the power of the triumvirate, Caesar became Consul, which was a year-long elected position as the leader of Rome. Though his consulship was marked by bribery and political maneuvering, his strategies were seen as inventive in contrast to an arguably stagnant senate.
Following this, Caesar became Governor of Gaul (holding this position from 59 BC to 49 BC). He was instrumental in conquering or retaining much of Gaul (approximately modern-day France and Belgium). Yet his relationship with large portions of the Roman senate became even more strained, especially when he drove his armies into what are now Germany and Britain in displays of power during the Gallic Wars. Still, these battles, as well as his suppression of major revolts in Gaul in 54 and 52 BC, proved his strength of leadership to the Roman public.
Dictator of Rome:
Because of Caesar's conquests, the Roman Republic soon stretched to the Atlantic Ocean. Yet, the senators' anger with Caesar boiled over, and they took away his governing position in Gaul. Caesar retaliated by invading Rome with his army in 49 BC. This coup d'etát, though relatively bloodless (many of Caesar's opponents had fled in fear) left in tatters the republicanism he had earlier sought to protect. This was highlighted by Caesar's proclamation of himself as dictator in 47 BC, foreshadowing his shift from temporary to lifelong dictator in 44 BC.
The worst suspicions of Caesar's critics had been proven correct. As the self-appointed dictator stood before an uneasy empire, his opposition escalated. Foremost among them was Pompey, who had once been so close to Caesar that he had aided Caesar's rise to power and married his daughter Julia. But Caesar's dismantling of the republic went too far, and Pompey sought to mount a military campaign against the dictator. Yet Pompey's army was much smaller than Caesar's, and Pompey was forced to run. Caesar gave chase, though he was impeded by Pompey's men. The hunt continued until 48 BC, when Pompey was defeated at Thessaly and forced to flee. Caesar again followed, and though Pompey was killed in Egypt, the Roman dictator stayed there for a time—first due to the Alexandrian War, and then because of Queen Cleopatra.
Soon after, in 47 BC, Caesar's famous statement, "Veni, vidi, vici" ("I came, I saw, I conquered"), when he gained a very quick military triumph in Turkey by killing King Pharnaces. For a brief time, it seemed as though Caesar's gloating had finally been proven correct: nobody could best him.
Death and Legacy:
By 45 BC, Caesar had returned to Rome. He quickly implemented many reforms seen as populist, including broader citizenship, the creation of the more modern "Julian" calendar, the outlawing of extortion, the freeing of many slaves, and the granting of clemency to much of the senate for earlier actions taken against him (while also adding new senators who were his allies). Yet this was all too little too late, for his forced dictatorship came far too close to tyranny. The Roman public greatly distrusted anything nearing kingship, so he took steps to distance himself from monarchy, such as refusing to wear a diadem, a type of tiara associated with royalty. Yet he was seen wearing purple (another symbol of monarchy) and, moreover, the public grew suspicious as Caesar did such things as take command over virtually all official appointments and dismissals. He embraced a personal idolatry, with his image beginning to appear on statues and coins. The Roman people were finally starting to agree with the Senate: Caesar had gained far too much power.
This turbulent situation came to a peak on March 15 (the Ides of March), 44 BC. An opposition group of sixty senators, famously including Marcus Junius Brutus as one of the leaders, stabbed Caesar to death during a Senate meeting.
During the subsequent short power vacuum, a number of rivals for power arose, all seeking to take Caesar's place; Rome's republicanism fell by the wayside. These battles at last were resolved as Gaius Octavian, Caesar's great-nephew, emerged as victor. Octavian solidified his position as Caesar's heir by adopting the name Augustus Caesar. He established the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, founding the Roman Empire and becoming the first Roman Emperor in 27 BC.
Julius Caesar was so well-known that his name has been used as an imperial title in many countries—for example, the word Caesar turned into Kaiser in Germany and Tsar (or Czar) in Russia.
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