The Twelve Cæsars


This vivid, racy account of the men who wielded absolute power over ancient Rome - including maniacs, tyrants, warriors, sadists and murderers - is the source for nearly everything we know about one of the most dramatic periods in history.

‘Twenty-three dagger thrusts went home as he stood there. Caesar did not utter a sound…’

Divus Julius

1. He lost his father at the age of fifteen. During the next consulship, after being nominated to be the next flamen of Jupiter, he broke an engagement, made for him while he was still a boy, to marry one Cossutia, for, though rich, she came of only equestrian family. Instead, he married Cornelia, daughter of that Cinna who had been consul four times, and later she bore him a daughter named Julia. The dictator Sulla tried to make Caesar divorce Cornelia, and when he refused he stripped him of the priesthood, his wife’s dowry and his own inheritance, treating him as if he were a member of the opposing party. Caesar disappeared from public view and, though suffering from a virulent attack of quartan fever, was forced to find a new hiding place almost every night and bribe householders to protect him from Sulla’s secret police. Finally he won Sulla’s pardon through the intercession of the Vestal Virgins and his near relatives Mamercus Aemilius and Aurelius Cotta. It is well known that, when the most devoted and eminent men pleaded Caesar’s cause and would not let the matter drop, Sulla at last gave way. Whether he was divinely inspired or showed peculiar foresight is an arguable point, but these were his words: ‘Very well then, you win! Take him! But never forget that the man whom you want me to spare will one day prove the ruin of the party of optimates which you and I have so long defended. There are many Mariuses in this fellow Caesar.’

2. Caesar first saw military service in Asia, where he went as aide-de-camp to Marcus Thermus, the praetorian governor of the province. When Thermus sent Caesar to raise a fleet in Bithynia, he wasted so much time at King Nicomedes’ court that a homosexual relationship between them was suspected, and suspicion gave place to scandal when, soon after his return to headquarters, he revisited Bithynia, ostensibly collecting a debt incurred there by one of his freedmen. However, Caesar’s reputation improved later in the campaign, when Thermus awarded him the civic crown at the storming of Mytilene.

3. He also campaigned in Cilicia under Servilius Isauricus, but not for long, because the news of Sulla’s death sent him hurrying back to Rome, where a revolt headed by Marcus Lepidus seemed to offer prospects of rapid advancement. Nevertheless, though Lepidus made him very advantageous offers, Caesar turned them down; he had small confidence in Lepidus’ capacities, and found the political atmosphere less promising than he had been led to believe.

4. After this revolt was suppressed, Caesar brought a charge of extortion against Cornelius Dolabella, a man of consular rank who had once been awarded a triumph; but he failed to secure a sentence, so he decided to visit Rhodes until the resultant ill feeling had time to die down, meanwhile taking a course in rhetoric from Apollonius Molon, the best living exponent of the art. Winter had already set in when he sailed for Rhodes and was captured by pirates off the island of Pharmacussa. They kept him prisoner for nearly forty days, to his intense annoyance; he had with him only a physician and two valets, having sent the rest of his staff away to borrow the ransom money. As soon as the stipulated fifty talents arrived and the pirates duly set him ashore, he raised a fleet and went after them. He had often smilingly sworn, while still in their power, that he would soon capture and crucify them, and this is exactly what he did. Then he continued to Rhodes, but Mithridates was now ravaging the nearby coast; so, to avoid the charge of showing inertia while the allies of Rome were in danger, he raised a force of auxiliaries and drove Mithridates’ deputy from the province – which confirmed the timorous and half-hearted cities of Asia in their allegiance.

5. On Caesar’s return to Rome, the people voted him the rank of military tribune, and he vigorously helped their leaders to undo Sulla’s legislation by restoring the tribunes of the people to their ancient powers. Then one Plotius introduced a bill for the recall from exile of Caesar’s brother-in-law, Lucius Cinna, and the others who had supported Lepidus and then joined Sertorius after Lepidus’ death. Caesar himself spoke in support of the bill, which was passed.

6. During his quaestorship he made the customary funeral speeches from the Rostra in honour of his aunt Julia and his wife Cornelia, and while eulogizing Julia’s maternal and paternal ancestry he did the same for his own ancestry too. ‘Her mother’, he said, ‘was a descendant of kings, since her family, the Marcii Reges, was founded by Ancus Marcius; and her father, of gods – since the Julii (of which we Caesars are a branch) reckon descent from the goddess Venus. Thus Julia’s stock can claim both the sanctity of kings, who reign supreme among mortals, and the reverence due to gods, who hold even kings in their power.’ He next married Pompeia, Quintus Pompeius’ daughter, who was also Sulla’s granddaughter, but divorced her on a suspicion of adultery with Publius Clodius; indeed, so persistent was the rumour of Clodius’ having disguised himself as a woman and seduced her at a public religious ceremony that the Senate ordered a judicial inquiry into the alleged desecration of these sacred rites.

7. As quaestor, Caesar was appointed to Further Spain, where the praetorian governor sent him off on an assize circuit. At Gades he saw a statue of Alexander the Great in the Temple of Hercules, and was overheard to sigh impatiently – vexed, it seems, that at an age when Alexander had already conquered the whole world, he himself had done nothing in the least epoch-making. Moreover, when on the following night, much to his dismay, he had a dream of raping his own mother, the soothsayers greatly encouraged him by their interpretation of it, namely that he was destined to conquer the earth, our universal mother.

8. At all events, he laid down his quaestorship at once, bent on performing some notable act at the first opportunity that offered. He visited the Latin colonies, which were bitterly demanding Roman citizenship, and might have persuaded them to revolt, had not the consuls realized the danger and garrisoned the district with the legions recently raised for the Cilician campaign.

9. Undiscouraged, Caesar soon made an even more daring attempt at revolution in Rome itself. A few days before taking up his aedileship he was suspected of plotting with Marcus Crassus, a man of consular rank; also with Publius Sulla and Lucius Autronius, who had jointly been elected to the consulship but been found guilty of bribery and corruption. These four had agreed to wait until the new year, and then attack the Senate House, killing as many senators as convenient. Crassus would then proclaim himself dictator and Caesar his master of the horse; the government would be reorganized to suit their pleasure; Sulla and Autronius would be appointed consuls. Tanusius Geminus mentions their plot in his history; more information is given in Marcus Bibulus’ edicts and in the speeches of Gaius Curio the elder. Another reference to it may be detected in a letter of Cicero to Axius, where Caesar is said to have ‘established in his consulship the monarchy which he had planned while only an aedile’. Tanusius adds that Crassus was prevented, either by scruples or by nervousness, from appearing at the appointed hour, and that Caesar therefore did not give the agreed signal, which, according to Curio, was letting his toga fall and expose the shoulder. Both Curio and Marcus Actorius Naso state that Caesar also plotted with Gnaeus Piso, a young nobleman suspected of raising a conspiracy in Rome and for that reason appointed governor of Spain, although he was not qualified for the position. Caesar, apparently, was to lead a revolt in Rome as soon as Piso did so in Spain; the Ambrani and the Latins who lived beyond the Po would have risen simultaneously. But Piso’s death cancelled the plan.

10. During his aedileship, Caesar filled the Comitium, the Forum, its adjacent basilicas and the Capitol itself with a display of the material which he meant to use in his public shows, building temporary colonnades for the purpose. He exhibited wild-beast hunts and stage plays, some at his own expense, some in cooperation with his colleague Marcus Bibulus – but took all the credit in either case, so that Bibulus remarked openly, ‘The temple of the heavenly twins in the Forum is always simply called “Castor’s”; and I always play Pollux to Caesar’s Castor when we give a public entertainment together.’ Caesar also put on a gladiatorial show, but had collected so immense a troop of combatants that his terrified political opponents rushed through a bill limiting the number of gladiators that anyone might keep in Rome; consequently far fewer pairs fought than had been advertised.

11. After thus securing the goodwill of the people, Caesar worked through the tribunes to be put in charge of Egypt by popular vote. His excuse for demanding so unusual an appointment was an outcry against the Alexandrians who had just deposed their king, although the Senate had recognized him as an ally and friend of Rome. However, the optimate party opposed the measure; so Caesar took vengeance by replacing the public monuments – destroyed by Sulla many years ago – that had commemorated Marius’ victories over Jugurtha, the Cimbri and the Teutones. Further, as president of the court concerned with murder, he prosecuted men who had earned public bounties for bringing in the heads of Roman citizens during the proscriptions, although they had been exempted by the Cornelian laws.

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