Julius Caesar (100–44 bce) had a distinguished career as a military man and politician. He was a smart and cultured man, a successful leader and pragmatic military commander. Roman philosopher Cicero (106–43 bce) and other contemporaries describe him as a moderate man, hardworking and inclined toward generosity. Although he could be cunning and ruthless, he was often merciful. Born to a noble but not wealthy family, he was well educated in both Greek and Latin rhetoric. These skills were essential for a Roman politician in the first century bce. Although political intrigues during the reign of Sulla (138–78 bce) affected his early life and career, Caesar was honored as a soldier and later was a successful orator and lawyer in the city of Rome. By 73 bce, Caesar was moving up in Roman society and ready to actively begin his own successful political and military career. First, he became one of twenty-four military tribunes, and, in 69 bce, he became a quaestor, or junior magistrate.
Politically astute, Caesar courted public and senatorial favor. He spent freely, paying for grand gladiatorial games and bribing officials when needed. His oratorical speeches glorified his family history, and he worked to preserve and maintain his reputation and that of his family, even going so far as to divorce his second wife Pompeia to avoid sullying his reputation, famously remarking that even a wife of his must be above suspicion. Caesar went on to serve as senior magistrate and later as governor of the province of Further Spain (present-day Spain).
Political alliances were essential in ancient Rome, and Caesar wisely allied himself with two prominent political figures: Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106–48 bce), better known as Pompey, and Marcus Licinius Crassus (115–53 bce). This alliance of three, called the First Triumvirate, enabled Caesar to become proconsul (governor) of the Roman provinces Transalpine Gaul (present-day southern France) and Cisalpine Gaul (present-day northern Italy). Caesar next set out to conquer Gaul with his legions of soldiers, bringing all of northern and central Gaul firmly under Roman control. Caesar and his legions crossed the English Channel twice, invading Britain in 55 bce and again in 54 bce. As a military commander, Caesar could be harsh to his enemies, but no more so than his contemporaries.
The First Triumvirate dissolved after the deaths of Julia (c. 82–54 bce), who was both Caesar’s daughter and Pompey’s wife, in 54 bce and Crassus in 53 bce. The end of this period of cooperation led to civil war in 49 bce with one faction led by Caesar and the other by Pompey. The civil war was brief, ending with Caesar’s triumphant return to Rome in 46 bce, with a full forty days of celebration and thanksgiving planned.
Caesar issued a general pardon to all those who had fought against him and focused on ruling Rome, setting a pattern of merciful dealings with many of his enemies. He introduced a number of reforms, which affected both the Senate and people of Rome. Caesar was given the title of dictator perpetuus, or dictator for life, by the Senate. Prior to Caesar, the title of dictator was reserved for short periods of extreme need and not considered a permanent position. After Rome’s last king was deposed and the Roman republic was established (509 bce), Romans were hesitant to give too much power to any one individual. Caesar’s life appointment as dictator marks an important shift away from this tradition. Caesar was aided by his consul and close ally, Mark Antony (83–30 bce), and the head of his army, Marcus Aemilius Lepidus (89–12 bce). The Senate honored Caesar with a number of titles and privileges, but dissent and dissatisfaction remained. Although Caesar maintained some of the trappings of the republic, including elections, debate in the Senate, and judicial proceedings, he held the power to make decisions unilaterally, without the support or consent of the Roman Senate.
In March 44 bce, Caesar was preparing to leave the city of Rome to go to war with Parthia, in present-day Iraq. The Ides of March (as March 15 was called in the Roman calendar) was to be Caesar’s last visit to the Senate before he left Rome. Caesar was unguarded, having dispensed with his Spanish bodyguard some months earlier. His wife, Calpurnia (born 75 bce), fearing for his well-being, persuaded him to stay at home that morning, but an early visit from one of his fellow senators, Marcus Junius Brutus (85–42 bce), changed his mind.
Caesar entered the temporary home of the Senate, the portico of the Theatre of Pompey. A group of conspirators, who called themselves the Liberators, were waiting for Caesar, having arrived early at the Senate, daggers concealed in the tubes that normally held their writing styluses. Caesar seated himself in his usual place, a golden chair. The conspirators surrounded Caesar with requests and questions. At an agreed-upon signal, they attacked Caesar, stabbing him twenty-three times. Mark Antony had heard of the conspiracy and intended to warn Caesar but was detained outside the Senate. Several of the conspirators were stabbed in the chaos that followed as Caesar staggered from his seat. He died at the foot of the great statue of Pompey. Caesar’s last words, “You, too, my son?” spoke of his betrayal, according to the second-century Roman historian Suetonius (c. 69–c. 130 ce). This phrase would more famously be remembered as “Et tu, Brute?” (“And you, Brutus?”), as written by English playwright William Shakespeare (1564–1616) in Julius Caesar. Most of the Senate fled to their homes, and Caesar’s body was returned to his home on a litter carried by his slaves. The conspirators walked to the capitol, carrying a pole with a freedman’s cap, a conical cap associated with emancipated slaves, to symbolize that Caesar’s death had freed the Roman people. The crowd at the Forum did not show their support for the conspirators.
Sixty senators of the nine hundred in the Senate joined in the plot to assassinate the fifty-six-year-old Caesar. Two men led the conspiracy: Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus (85–42 bce). Brutus was the son of one of Caesar’s female companions, Servilia (c. 112–c. 42 bce), and the two men had once been close. Cassius was Brutus’ brother-in-law. Both Cassius and Brutus had fought for Pompey in the civil war and been pardoned and promoted by Caesar following the war. Many of the other conspirators had once been supportive of Caesar, siding with him during the civil war. Some were even his close associates and advisers. Although each member of the conspiracy had his own motives, the group was united by a desire to preserve the Roman Republic and the values for which it stood. They sought to eliminate the dictator and return Rome to its republican roots. Although the assassination of Caesar was necessary, the group agreed, at Brutus’ urging, to kill no one else, including Caesar’s close ally and supporter, Mark Antony.
The day after the assassination, the Senate passed a motion to recognize and acknowledge Caesar’s acts and appointments. He was granted a public funeral with full honors. The Senate also pardoned the conspirators, working to create a compromise that would satisfy all sides. At Caesar’s funeral, Mark Antony spoke, reading to the crowd a list of the honors granted to Caesar by the Senate, the oath taken by the Senate to preserve Mark Antony’s life, and Caesar’s will. The crowd demanded Caesar's cremation in the Senate itself, in the heart of the Forum. Benches and seats were broken to feed his funeral pyre. The people of Rome rioted and attacked the conspirators’ homes in the days and weeks following the funeral. Although the conspirators sought to restore the republic, they misjudged the response of the people and the strength of Caesar’s allies.
The conspiracy failed to achieve its desired goal, and rather than restoring the republic, the assassination of Caesar triggered a civil war. Caesar’s will proclaimed his great-nephew Octavian (63 bce–14 ce) his heir, adopting the young man as his son. Octavian, now known as Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus, was only nineteen years old, but he soon showed himself to be an effective leader. He rallied Caesar’s troops and allied himself with Mark Antony and Lepidus against the conspirators who had killed his uncle. The three formed the Second Triumvirate. Within just three years, they had eliminated the conspirators and purged the aristocracy of Rome. Whereas Caesar had generally shown mercy and clemency, the young Octavian and his allies did not.
Like the First Triumvirate before it, the Second Triumvirate eventually dissolved. Lepidus lived out his life in exile in a rural region of the Roman Empire. Antony and Octavian were left to fight for control of the empire. Fourteen years after Caesar’s death, Antony, along with Egyptian queen Cleopatra (69–30 bce), committed suicide, which was considered a noble way to preserve their honor after suffering a humiliating defeat by Octavian. Octavian ruled the empire alone, turning Rome into a monarchy once again.