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In the era just prior to the time of Julius Caesar the Roman Republic was experiencing problems of corruption and governance. Leaders of the Roman Republic recognized that reforms needed to be made but were undecided as the what the reforms must be and how major reforms could be carried out.
One leader prior to Caesar arose that gained the power to make such reforms. His name was Lucius Cornelius Sulla. To understand the events of the life of Julius Caesar it is important to review the life and career of Sulla.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla was born in 138 BCE into a patrician family of Rome, but one with little power and influence. He aspired to a political career but he had little success until 78 BCE when he became quaestor (financial officer) in an army commanded by Gaius Marius. (For more information on the political offices of the Roman government see Roman Governance.) The Senate authorized Marius to go to North Africa to wage ware against the local leader Jugurtha. Jugurtha was a Berber leader that had a turbulent relationship with Rome. Jugurtha was the illegitimate son of a former king of Numidia, which roughly corresponded to what is now Algeria.
In times past Jugurtha had been an ally of Rome, commanding a Berber force fighting in alliance with Rome in Spain. Jugurtha was winning control of Numidia against the rival claimants to the throne when his troops captured a city where his rivals had taken refuge. When the city, which was what is now Constantine, Algeria, was taken all of the inhabitants were slaughtered, along with some important Roman business men. As a consequence Rome declared war on Jugurtha. Jugurtha faught a guerilla wars against the Romans. Finally Jugurtha negotiated a favorable treaty of peace with the Romans. The terms were so surprisingly favorable to Jugurtha that the Roman Senate requested he come to Rome and explain how he had obtained such favorable conditions. The Senate suspected bribery. Under safe conduct conditions Jugurtha journeyed to Rome. The Senate accepted that the treaty was a legitimate one and Jugurtha was allowed to return to Numidia. However before he left Rome Jugurtha arranged the assassination of a rival of his for the throne of Numidia. This so outraged the Senate that the treaty was abrogated and war was to continue against Jugurtha.
It was expected that the war against Jugurtha would be long and difficult. When the Roman Army under the command of Marius arrived in Numidia, Sulla carried out a daring plot. Sulla journeyed to the adjacent kingdom which was in what is now north Morocco and convinced the king, Bocchus, to betray Jugurtha who was a refugee in the kingdom of Bocchus, who happened to be his father-in-law. Sulla had risked his life in this venture but it was successful. People said of Sulla that he had the courage of a lion and the cunning of a fox. For more on Jugurtha see Algeria.
While Sulla was hailed as hero by most Roman, his success was recented by his commanding officer, Marius. Sulla moved up in political rank when he became a praestor, a judge. He also had military responsibilities. Non-Roman allies in Italy were demanding Roman citizenship and grants of land. The battles in this dispute (90-89 BCE) were called the Social War. Sulla suppressed the rebellion but allowed the soldiers to retain the land they had already acquired.
At the time there were two major political groupings in the Senate. The two groupings originated from the class structure of Rome. One grouping was of the patrician class, the old land owning families of Rome. Sulla supported that political grouping. The other had its origin in the plebian class but some patrician families, including the family of Julius Caesar, had allied themselves with it. It was known as the popular party.
Having demonstrated his capabilities as a general in the Social War Sulla was duly elected as one the two consuls of the Roman Republic, the highest political office in the Republic. It was standard procedure for the Senate to put consuls in command of armies to go off and fight Rome's enemies. In 88 BCE Sulla was assigned to go to Anatolia and put King Mithradates VI of Pontus in his place. Pontus was a Hellenized Persian kingdom situated along the Black Sea in the northeast of what is now Turkey.
The kingdom of Phrygia had been part of the Pontic empire but it rebelled and sought the support of Rome. Rome made Phrygia part of its province of Asia. It had thus become an integral part of the Roman empire. Mithradates had the audacity to bring Phrygia back under Pontic control.
In Rome Sulla's old commanding officer, Marius, the one who had become jealous of Sulla solution to the Jugurtha problem, used his influence in the Senate to have himself named commander of the expeditionary force to punish Mithradates instead of Sulla. Sulla with an army already at his command marched on Rome and the decision concerning naming Marius commander was reversed. Marius fled Rome into exile and died about a year later. Marius had been a revolutionary seeking to take power away from the oligarchy represented by the Senate. Sulla was the counter-revolutionary.
Sulla took his force to Greece where he proceded to defeat each general of Mithradates. By the spring of 87 BCE the troops of Sulla had captured most of Greece. Athens resisted but fell in 86 BCE after a long siege.
In 85 BCE Mithradates met with Sulla and accepted a treaty that made him a vassal of Rome. Sulla stayed in Athens until the summer of 83 BCE when he led his forty thousand troops into southern Italy.
In Rome during Sulla's absence the popular party had gained control of the Senate. This group declared Sulla to be a public enemy. The house belonging to Sulla was destroyed and his family had to flee for their lives. The Senate even sent someone to take command of the army which Sulla had been commanding. That replacement happened to have been killed before he could reach Sulla. Sulla then marched to Rome and took control of the city by the end of the year 82. Rome had been militarily occupied before but always by alien invaders rather than a Roman army. Sulla's troops took vengance upon the popular party.
The victorius Sulla was given the office of dictator. For the Romans dictator was a temporary position given to someone to run the government until an election could be held and the subsequently elected official could take office. However prior to Sulla the office of dictator was for a specified period of time. In the case of Sulla his term as dictator did not have a time limit. Sulla promised to relinquish the office as soon as possible.
In power as the dictator of Rome, Sulla carried out an extensive program of governmental reform. For example, he increased the number of courts to try criminal cases. One of the concerns at the time was that popular assemblies with legislative power would wrest effective control of Roman government away from the Senate. Sulla sought to prevent this by enacting legislation that required laws which were to be considered by popular assemblies be first submitted to the Senate for debate. The Senate could thus deny a popular assembly the opportunity to even consider a proposed law. This reform enabled the Senate to reign in any usurpation of power by the popular assemblies.
After carrying out his reform measures Sulla then indulged himself with a celebration of his triumph over Mithradates. Such celebrations were an important element of Roman life and politics. After the celebration, in 79 BCE Sulla then, to almost everone's surprise, resigned his dictatorship and retired to private life. He wrote his memoirs and continued to be active, but a fever killed him in the year 78 BCE when he was about sixty years of age.
Members of Caesar clan had been Roman consuls in the years 91, 90 and 64 BCE. An aunt of Julius Caesar had married Marius, the leader who opposed Sulla in his career.
By holding public festivals as aediles aspiring politicians could become better known to the voting public. Politician who had been quaestors could use the office aedile to move up to the office of praetor. A praetor could be either a commander of an army or a jurist. As a jurist a praetor was of the highest level, roughly a chief justice. The office had been created to relief a chief executive, a consul, of responsibility in judicial matters.
Aspiring politicians who were soliciting support from the plebians, as Julius Caesar was, tended to promote lavish games and festivals. Caesar did so on funds he personally borrowed. He seemed to be heavily in debt most of his adult life.
In the same year the Catiline Conspiracy was uncovered. Catiline was an unsuccessful candidate from an old patrician family. He had promoted a program for the cancellation of debt to attract plebian support. When his rise to power through political office did not materialize he organized a conspiracy that involved the massacre of Senate members and elected consuls. Cicero was tipped off that he was to be the first assassinated. In the Senate Cicero brought charges against Catiline. Catiline left Rome supposedly going into exile as a result of his ill treatment by Cicero and the Senate. Actually Cataline joined an army that was to be the instrument for taking over the government of Rome. Hard evidence was obtained in Rome against five conspirators and they were executed immediately without trial. Caesar objected to this abrogation of the right of that acused to trials and some acused Caesar of being part of the conspiracy. This was deemed groundless.
As consul Caesar introduced into the Senate a law for the distribution of lands in Italy controlled by the government of Rome. Veterans like those of Pompey's had first call in this distribution. The patrician opposition tried very hard to prevent this law from being implemented but Caesar succeeded despite these efforts. Pompey's needs were thus taken care of.
Caesar's daughter Julia, whom Pompey had married, died.
Pompey was elected as the only consul for the year 52. His alliance with Caesar weakened and ended with the two becoming bitter rivals.
Caesar wanted to become consul in the year 48. He knew if there was any time period after the end of his governships in which he was simply a Roman citizen his enemies in the Senate would have him arrested and imprisoned. He needed to keep control of an army as governor until he was elected consul and assumed office. After he and Pompey had become rivals for power Caesar had to make sure that he was never without an army at his command while Pompey had an army at his command.
The consul for the year 50 obtained passage by the Senate of a resolution that Caesar would relinquish his command of his army without any requirement that Pompey give up his command of his army. A tribune and supporter of Caesar then obtained passage of a resolution that the Caesar and Pompey would resign their governorships at the same time. The consul then secretly offered Pompey the command of all troops in Italy. This would have been independent of Pompey's command as governor. Pompey accepted.
Caesar sent a message to the Senate that he would accept an agreement that he and Pompey relinquish their commands at the same time.
Caesar's opponents were no match for his generalship. He drove those opponents in Italy out of Italy. He then took his forces to Spain to crush Pompey's army. Pompey fled from Spain by ship to the eastern Mediterranean.
It is often asserted that a legacy of the life of Julius Caesar is the adoption of his name for the absolute rulers of countries, such as Czar in Russia and Kaiser in Germany. This terminology was not the legacy of Julius Caesar but instead that of his nephew, Octavian, who ruled as Augustus Caesar from 27 BCE to 14 CE. He ruled under his original name as the adopted son of Julius Caesar prior to that time. He was the first Roman emperor and subsequent emperors adopted his name during their rule. It became a title rather than a name. In contrast, Julius Caesar could be considered the ruler of Rome for at most four years. His assassination was evidence that his rule was far less than total. Had Mark Antony been victorious in the civil wars it is unlike that the titles of Kaiser and Czar would have developed.
John Buchan, in his book Augustus (Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1937, pp. 18-19) ruminates on what thoughts and plans Julius Caesar had for the Roman Empire:
Law and order must be restored. The empire must be governed, and there must be a centre of power. The Roman World required a single adminstrative system. This could not be given by the People, for a mob could not govern. It could not be given by the Senate, which had shown itself in the highest degree incompetent, and in any case had no means of holding the soldiers' loyalty. Only a man could meet the need, a man who had the undivided allegiance of an army, and that the only army. A general without an army was a cypher, as Pompey had found, and, since an army was now a necessity, he who controlled it must be the master of the state. The idea of a personal sovereign, which had come from Greece and the East and had long been hovering a the back of Roman minds, must now become a fact, for it was the only alternative to anarchy.
This was Julius' cardinal principle. It followed from it that the old autocracy of the Optimates and the Senate must disappear. That indeed had happened. Julius had always denied -- it was one of the few charges that annoyed him -- that he had destroyed the Republic; he had only struck at the tyranny of a maleficent growth which had nothing repubican about it. He had already quietly shelved the Senate, though he treated it with elaborate respect. He and the new civil service which he was creating would be the mechanism of rule. He himself would appoint the provincial governors and would be responsible for their honesty and competence. He would rebuild the empire on a basis of reason and humanity.
It was to be a new kind of empire. Something had been drawn from the dreams of Alexander, but for the most part it was creation of his own profound and audacious mind. There were to be wide local liberties. He proposed to decentralize, to establish local government in Italy as the beginning of a world-wide system of free municipalities. Rome was to be only the greatest among many great and autonomous cities. There was to be a universal Roman nation, not a city with a host of servile provinces, and citizenship in it should be open to all who were worthy. The decadence of the Roman plebs would be redeemed by the virility of the new people.
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