Examining the life and generalship of “the noblest Roman of them all”
This is the next installment in a series of posts in which we examine the “Great Captains” of military history. Unusually, we do this in video format; posting compelling biographical material; as well as images and a brief narrative.
Few great generals are better known than Julius Caesar. As the only Great Captain of antiquity to write his own campaign memoirs, both the general public of his day and history students today know of his exploits in more (albeit somewhat subjective) details than is the case with any of his fellow great commanders. This is deliberate: Caesar was not only a great general, he was also a very gifted politician and statesman.
Born in 100 BC, he was the nephew by marriage of another commander of great ability, Gaius Marius. His family was a poor branch of the Julii, a venerable patrician family claiming descent from Iulus, son of the Trojan prince Aeneas, the man who supposedly brought the survivors of Troy to Latium. Aeneas was, in legend, the son of the goddess Venus and Caesar certainly behaved as though he was descended from the goddess of love, always cutting a swath through the ladies of Rome (and elsewhere).
Caesar spent the first half of his life struggling to find financial security and to carve out a place for himself in the rough-and-tumble politics of his day. As the heir to Marius’ place as political champion of the plebeians and military veterans, Caesar built a strong connection with the “people”; who remained loyal to him till the end of his life. He used this political strength with the voters to win election to one political office after another; climbing the ladder known in Roman society as the cursus honorum. But because by Roman law he could not get an opportunity to show his metal as a general until reaching the appropriate age and standing for those offices which granted the recipient military command. It was not till he was 39 that he received his first independent command. This was as propraetor of Hispania Ulterior. This gave him the opportunity to campaign against the Lusitanians; in which he began to exhibit his gift for command.
He forged a strong alliance with two of the leading men in the Rome of his day: Pompey the Great, Rome’s most respected military leader; and Marcus Licinius Crassus, its leading financier and business leader. Between them, this Triumvirate controlled Roman politics and were able to effectively advance each other’s interests. Caesar was able to win election as Consul in 59 BC, and from there to be appointed governor of the Roman territories abutting Gaul.
Gaul was a semi-barbarous land of Celtic tribes (and some German enclaves in the east), comprised of the modern nations of France, Belgium, and Luxembourg. Caesar spent the next eight years in continuous campaigns, subduing the territory and creating a loyal and experienced army of 10 legions, a very substantial force. He also spent some of his time composing a narrative of these Gallic Wars, in the form of his “Commentaries”. These became a powerful propaganda tool, sent back in real-time, chapter-by-chapter as the events occurred, to enthrall and delight the Roman people; casting himself in the popular imagination as the hero of the day. Though self-serving, there is no reason to doubt that these very-well written “Commentaries” were accurate; many of the officers who served under him in Gaul later opposed him politically. None (that we know of) ever cast doubt as to the veracity of the narrative, despite having compelling political reasons to do so. What cannot be disputed is that Caesar’s Gallic Wars added a huge chunk of territory to the empire, and proved his ability to command armies in the field and his mastery of strategy.
In 54 BC Crassus, in an effort to win as much military glory as his co-Triumvir, Caesar, was killed while campaigning against the Parthians at Carrhae. The Triumvirate was thus reduced to two. After the death of his wife, who was also Caesar’s daughter, Pompey was wooed-away from Caesar by his enemies in the Senate. Civil war followed in 49 BC.
This war between Caesar and the Pompeian forces lasted for four years. During this time, Caesar campaigned from Italy to Spain; from Greece to Egypt; from Anatolia to North Africa. In the process he defeated not only his Roman rivals; but intervened in a Civil war in Ptolemaic Egypt, establishing Cleopatra on the throne and defeating the forces supporting her brother, the boy-king Ptolemy XIII. Leaving the young Cleopatra to bear their son, Caesarion, he next marched against and defeated the Pontians in Anatolia (a brief campaign succinctly summed-up with the words, “Veni, vidi, vici“: “I came, I saw, I conquered”) before returning to Rome in triumph.
Caesar was only in Rome briefly, settling affairs in Rome and quelling a mutiny among some of his legions. Then he departed again to campaign in North Africa against the remaining Pompeian forces; culminating in his triumph at the Battle of Thapsus in 46 BC. He would defeat the last Pompeian army in Spain at Munda a year later. This brought Caesar’s military exploits to an end; and he continued to rule Rome as Dictator till his assassination in 44 BC. In the process, he laid the groundwork for the Principate established by his nephew, Octavius Caesar Augustus in the years that followed.
Caesar was a man of genius: brilliant general as well as politician, lawgiver, builder, and administrator. His charisma inspired devotion in his army seldom matched in history, a deep loyalty that lasted beyond his life, and was passed to his heir, Octavian; and it is fair to say that the magic of the name “Caesar” attached itself permanently to the office of the princeps and imperator (to the point that “Caesar” became a title equivalent with that of emperor, the origin of the titles “Czar” and “Kaiser”).
While not as tactically imaginative on the battlefield as either Alexander or Hannibal (he was often content to rely upon the superb fighting qualities of his soldiers, who were always far superior to any foe they faced) he stands with these as among the greatest commanders in all military history. He was without doubt the most audacious commander of the ancient world. Though several times caught off guard by his enemies, he never failed to respond with cool judgement, clear decision, and rapidity of action to any contingency. He routinely seized the initiative from opponents through bold maneuver, and once he had them off-balance he seldom failed to move in for the kill. Like Alexander, he was a master of the art of siege warfare, and his massive field works at Alesia are still studied by military schools today.
This is the first of three parts, found on YouTube
If you enjoyed this, check out the other installments in our series on “Great Captains of War”:
Some of the artwork in this article has been reproduced with the permission of Osprey Publishing, and is © Osprey Publishing, part of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.