Julius Caesar possessed the unique combination of skills necessary to take advantage of the death spiral of the Roman Republic that began at Cannae and culminated with the consolidation of power into the hands of one man, first his, and ultimately his adopted son and heir, Octavian.
In short, Webb may actually have as good a handle on the nature of Caesar and what made him tick as any other modern writer 😉 As Caesar himself might say, Euge! – Kevin Johnson
This had been tried before, this imposition of dictatorial power over the Republic, mostly notably by Sulla, but not until Julius Caesar was it successful. Julius Caesar was an ambitious gambler with a strong sense of self-worth and an even stronger sense of destiny. Plutarch’s biography gives numerous examples of this. The application of his personal qualities, as well as his flaws, led to his seizure of power despite the opposition of powerful Roman senators such as Cicero, who were desperate to maintain Republican oligarchical rule. By following the path previously blazed by Sulla he laid the foundation for his own murder, but in his will he achieved his ultimate goal of creating an empire under the rule of a single man.
When considering the remarkable qualities that made Caesar the most powerful man in Rome, a city where power politics was virtually a sport, one has to look past mere good judgment of character or clear insight into probable outcomes that might define many Romans of the period. Rome did, after all, control much of the Mediterranean Basin at the time, a feat not possible without a large number of talented leaders. Mere competence, however, or even inspired leadership, does not necessarily rise to the level of being remarkable. Such an exalted plateau of achievement was shared by far fewer men, and it was to Rome’s great advantage that she was led by two such historical giants back to back, first with Julius Caesar, and then with the man-child that he chose to be his successor.
Great men seem to have a common ability to first see the world as it really is, much like the enlightened man in Plato’s allegory of the cave. The plans and desires of others seem open to them, so that they may then bend circumstances to fit those desires. Reality, to them, is malleable; at least as it regards humanity, because they conform their plans to either influence or coerce others to do their will. We see this in Caesar’s life many times, the first being the episode of his capture by the pirates. First, the very young Caesar openly defied the powerful Sulla at a time of proscriptions, an ambitious gamble that almost cost him his life. Once captured by the pirates, Caesar remained the haughty Roman aristocrat even in the face of imminent danger, and one senses Plutarch’s approval in his description of the event. For example, he states matter-of-factly that Caesar laughed at the pirates’ lowly demand for a ransom of twenty talents and raised the sum to fifty talents, which he would pay himself. After spending his time waiting for the ransom money to arrive playing games with his captors, Caesar makes sure that the first thing he does when freed is to get his money back and to kill his erstwhile captors. This quality of survival in the face of grave danger must have been intuitive, because at such a young age he cannot have had the life experience yet to draw from to show him the best way to survive. By upping the ante of his ransom he gave the pirates all the more reason to keep him alive, and while he interacted with them on a personal level during his captivity, and one can assume seemingly befriended some of them, he was quick to destroy them when given the chance. Plutarch shows us this quality of taking great risks that lead to great rewards throughout his life, as if he is constantly replaying the scenario of the pirates. There is a mythic quality to the adventure that leads one to wonder if Caesar himself was aware of how the incident would seem to a future audience, and given his self-awareness the answer could only be a probable ‘yes.’
This is a recurring theme throughout Plutarch’s biography, this remarkable sense of bravura and courage. Caesar is repeatedly shown to be personally brave, where on numerous occasions during battle it was only his intervention at the crucial moment that saved the situation. Whether bearing a legionary standard forward or using his own sword, Plutarch loses no chance to illustrate how Caesar saved lost battles by his example of Roman manhood. As much as Caesar’s courage led him to ultimate power, though, his intuition and assessment of character was at least as important.
A fair question would therefore be to ask what drove Caesar to be so consumed by ambition. With the material extant it is hard to discern anything more than his education as a Roman nobleman, with all of the attendant cultural mores that implies about sacrifice for the state and the Roman ideal of how to live a proper life. Combined with his unique personality, this stew of talent and influence produced a man who was driven to succeed at all costs. And what evidence does Plutarch give for such a belief? Aside from the numerous instances during Caesar’s life where he risks everything to achieve some higher goal, there is a specific example where he supposedly quotes Caesar himself. During a sojourn in Spain while he was reading a history of Alexander the Great, Caesar supposedly cried while wondering how Alexander could have achieved so much by Caesar’s age at the time, while he, Caesar, had accomplished so little. Whether this quote is accurate or apocryphal, it nevertheless shows how Caesar viewed himself and his accomplishments.
Caesar knew the measure of a man and planned accordingly. Only rarely did this insight fail him, such as in the cases of Marcus Brutus or Decimus Brutus Albinus. He could be quite generous to those who opposed him, a surprising flaw for a Roman politician. Romans were not, after all, noted for their altruism or forgiveness toward enemies. Caesar, however, was noted for exactly that, and one has to wonder whether he did this against his own better judgment simply to be seen as different from other Romans? He would surely have known how remarkable this trait was for a Roman, and therefore how singularly it distinguished him from his fellow politicians. But he should also have been aware of the increased danger in such a policy, an oversight that cost him his life.
Caesar’s ambition seems more easily defined; he wanted to be the King of the Romans. With the idea of a king being anathema to his countrymen, though, he settled for the position of dictator for life. In effect there was little difference in the two, except for the title and the pomp that went with being a royal. It is also possible, if not probable, that he wanted to be king in order to pass on his position to an heir, another idea that ripped at the very fabric of the Roman political system. Hereditary oligarchy was one thing, hereditary kingship, or dictatorship, was quite another.
Beyond merely leading the Romans as supreme ruler, however, Plutarch makes clear that Caesar planned to continue military campaigning far into his old age, first against the Parthians, then intending no less than the complete conquest of the European continent up to what is now Poland, so that the Roman Empire extended to the ocean on all sides. Plutarch relates these plans as if such staggering ambitions were actually possible. Given the age in which he lived this is understandable, since Rome was in the process of expansion during the period when he wrote his biography of Caesar.
Caesar was assassinated out of desperation. Theoretically, the assassins were protecting the Roman Republic and believed they would be thanked by the Roman people. What they did not recognize, and Caesar did, was that the Roman people no longer cared about oligarchical rule. Caesar had clearly seen the growing disconnect between the average Roman and their leaders. This made him dangerous as a politician, but not unique. Other Romans had appealed to the common people before and the Republic had survived. Where Caesar differed from his predecessors, though, was in having veteran legions that were loyal to him and him alone.
Prior to Caesar’s success, the loyalty of the army had remained largely to the state, although beginning with Scipio Africanus it began to adhere more and more to victorious generals who not only led the legions to victory, but rewarded them personally for their service. Plutarch says of Caesar that, “…he had…enriched his soldiers from their campaigns, and had been saluted by them as Imperator” (Plutarch, page 6). Combining Caesar’s impressive oratorical skills and overriding ambition with a first-rate military force willing to follow his every order, created in one man the necessary qualities to once and for all replace the Roman Republic with the rule of an autocrat, be he called a king, dictator or Caesar. And while Caesar seemed more than willing to reward his enemies for their cooperation with his program, he failed to see that what he took as genuine rapprochement was, in fact, deception. This caused the factions arrayed against him to seek a way to end his rule, and because his position was so powerful, there seemed no choice but murder.
The aftermath of Caesar’s murder did not go as planned by the conspirators, being completely stage-managed by Caesar himself. The Romans were nothing if not pragmatic. In the wake of his death some wanted revenge, some were relieved, but mostly there was suspenseful waiting. Even when the crowd exploded in rage during his impromptu cremation, forcing Brutus, et al, to flee Rome, the situation was not irretrievable. But the assassins had not planned for the effects of Caesar’s will. Not only did he leave a large donative to the Roman people en masse, he had the extraordinary foresight to adopt Octavian as his son and to name him sole heir. The future Augustus found a way to pay the Roman people what Caesar left them and made Rome poisonous for those who killed him. Whether or not Caesar can be credited with the clairvoyance of knowing that Octavian would master the situation as completely as he did, and that’s a pretty far stretch, it was certainly Caesar who put into motion the forces that ultimately destroyed the assassins, hunting them down wherever they had fled.
Cicero’s views of Caesar are harder to ascertain from reading Plutarch. Quite clearly, he seems to have been suspicious of Caesar from the start, seeing Caesar’s efforts to realize his desire for one-man rule quite early in the process, but Plutarch also makes him out to be a deceitful coward. For example, when Cicero supposedly had a chance to kill Caesar early his career and stayed the hands of his bodyguard who were ready to do the deed, Plutarch says of him: “…he showed a cowardly fear of the people, who were extravagantly attached to Caesar”. Later, Cicero took Caesar’s side against Pompey in the matter of how many troops Caesar could keep under his command after his consulship in Gaul had expired, and after Caesar had defeated Pompey, Cicero is said to have “…proposed the first honours for him in the Senate…”. Indeed, his sarcasm and cynicism virtually override everything else, as when he comments that Caesar repaired Pompey’s statues so that his own would be all the more revered. This obscures his true feelings and leads to suspicion of Cicero’s underlying beliefs, although on balance he seems to have opposed Caesar.
In considering Cicero’s views on government as represented by the text provided, what is most obvious is not how his views diverged from those of Caesar, but how much they conformed to them. Cicero writes of an idealized king, a central figure who only governs and leaves the running of the state to his lieutenants for the betterment of all. Clearly, he believes in a strong central government, as when he writes, “Without good government, private life cannot be agreeable, nor can anyone be more happy than in a well regulated state”. He does not see overlap between the military man and the ruler, so in this regard he surely must have feared the concentration of power that he was in Caesar’s hands. The clear delineation he makes in his idealized government between the various professions, such as the military, and their separation from the ruler, implies the fear of too much power in the hands of one man, or the tendencies of a ruler steeped in the ways of war to make new wars. Regarding Antony, Cicero must have viewed him as one might a dangerous beast, a man of war prone to hasty decisions and with little appreciation for the rhetorical posturing of Roman politics. He seems the epitome of the man Cicero warns about who is too familiar with the way of war.