Soothsayers Should be More Specific

Caesar spent a great deal of time between 48 and 45 BC travelling between Cleopatra, Italy, and a darn good fight. Realizing he wasn’t immortal, Caesar made a will in 45 which named his grandnephew, Octavian, heir to everything—including his name. Of course, Octavian already had a perfectly good name of his own, but you never know when a moniker will come in handy. If Octavian died before Caesar, everything was to go to his good friend, Brutus. In hindsight, there was probably someone better he could have thought of.

With great power, comes great responsibility, so Caesar decided it was time to clean up Rome’s act. His three main goals were to 1) suppress armed resistance in the provinces, 2) create a strong central government in Rome, and 3) knit the empire into a single unit. He finished the first by defeating Pompey, the second by ruling Rome himself, and he was working on number three. Reforms under Caesar included a census, a sumptuary law restricting luxuries (because the ideal Roman is serious and frugal), re-population rewards (you can only have so many prudes before the country dies out), debt restructuring, public works, the establishment of a police force, and calendar reform. Although, to be fair, he stole the calendar from the Egyptians. He couldn’t come up with all the good ideas himself.

Of course, too much responsibility was dull, so Caesar countered it with a number of lavish triumphs. Among other things there was a mock naval battle on the Field of Mars, and the Circus Maximus hosted a fight to the death between armies of war captives, including 20 elephants (beat that, Pompey!). Caesar felt gypped that he couldn’t have a triumph for winning the civil war (the Romans thought it might be considered bad form to celebrate defeating your own) so he had a lot to make up for. No matter how many people he conquered there was always more barbarians on the frontier. It was after a short war against Pharnaces II in Turkey that Caesar uttered his most famous phrase: “Veni Vidi Vici,” the modern translation of which is, “All your base are belong to us.”

The Romans were pretty impressed with Caesar and the Senate named him Consul-for-life which came with perks like a golden chair and the right to wear triumphal robes whenever he wanted.  The novelty wore off eventually. He was also granted a semi-official cult which was led by Mark Antony. This may have eventually contributed to his demise. It’s very hard to tell people you don’t want to be king when they are busy worshipping you as a god. It just confuses them. In February of 44 BC the Senate declared Caesar dictator-for-life, and he officially ran out of titles to gain. He’d collected the whole set.

This made a bunch of Senators uneasy, and they began to realize the problem with naming someone dictator-for-life was the for-life bit. So they decided to shorten it. While Caesar may or may not have been warned by a soothsayer to beware the Ides of March he certainly wasn’t warned by Mark Antony. Antony discovered the plot the night before, but was delayed by one of the conspirators on the way to the Senate and arrived just in time for the fighting to begin. He then, very bravely, ran away. Inside the Senate, Caesar was surrounded by the group of conspirators and stabbed to death. According to Eutropius 60 or more men participated in the assassination and Caesar was stabbed 23 times. Either Eutropius must have been exaggerating or two-thirds of them had really terrible aim. (You do the math.)

Caesar’s last words are hotly debated, but are most commonly thought to be “Et tu, Brute?” or “You too, you brute?” At least he had the satisfaction of knowing that Octavian was not dead, so Brutus would not inherit after all. Once the assassination was over, Brutus and the other conspirators marched through the city shouting, “People of Rome, we are once again free!” Ironically, this caused people to lock themselves inside their homes and not come out just proving that you can’t have everything.


This is Sparta(cus)!

Romans soon discovered that one of the biggest problems of ruling an empire was the tricky business of governing it. The patricians fought for money and politics, but being at the top of the heap, they didn’t want to ruffle too many feathers. The plebes were still pretty happy about being one rung up the social ladder from slaves. The slaves on the other hand… well, let’s just say they’d have rather been anyone else.

Whenever a few too many slaves got to feeling their oats, they decided to try to make this wish a reality, and up would crop a rebellion. These never lasted long, on account of the Romans having all the weapons, but they made for very dramatic movies later on. The largest of these, and the only one to threaten the heartland of Italy, was the Third Servile War, also known as the War of Spartacus or the Gladiator War. (No, it did not star Russell Crowe. That was fictional. I mean, who in their right mind would choose him to leave an empire to?)

Anyway, 78 gladiators, including Spartacus, escaped and quickly turned into a band of 120,000 men, women, and children wandering around Italy. While this looked great from a recruitment standpoint, it was increasingly hard to hide 120,000 men, women, and children in a field in the middle of Italy. Especially considering that slaves were the backbone of the Roman economy. And if there is one thing the Romans won’t stand for, it’s losing money. Miraculously, the merry little band managed to defeat the first few groups sent after them, and armed themselves with the weapons of the fallen. Rome took a dim view of this, so they finally stopped sending small armies. Instead, they sent Crassus.

Marcus Licinius Crassus (remember him—he’ll be important next week) was a general under Sulla, and not a bad choice of commander with Pompey out smashing heads in the East. He gathered a large army before engaging with the rebels. Trapping them between three groups of legions, he ground the rebellion into the dust. It wasn’t pretty, but made Spartacus a very romantic figure. Everyone loves an underdog.

The defeat of the rebels launched Crassus’s career and popularity among the Roman populous. (The slaves were less enthusiastic.) Following Pompey’s lead, Crassus milked it for all it was worth and refused to disband his troops until he got a triumph in Rome. Fortunately, he learned from history and did not bring an elephant.

Pompey and Circumstances

Well, all went along peaceful and prosperous for a bit, which was a sure sign to Romans that something needed shaking up. Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, also known as Pompey the Great (or in his formative years, Pompey the Sort of Okay) was happy to oblige.

This young upstart joined the military back during the first civil war, and by the time it finished, had already made a name for himself for misappropriation of plunder. Not too keen on exploring life behind bars, Pompey used his brilliant tactical mind to become engaged to the judge’s daughter, Antistia. Somehow, he was rapidly acquitted of all crimes.

Despite his inauspicious beginning, Pompey was actually a darn good general and after a number of victories, managed to impress even the great Sulla himself. In fact, Sulla was so impressed that he insisted Pompey marry his daughter Aemilia Scaura despite the fact that she was already pregnant and married to someone else. Since Antistia had started nagging him about wearing his muddy sandals in the house and never bringing her flowers anymore, Pompey agreed. Besides, it was a good career move. (Later on, Pompey would fall back on this tactic again to marry Caesar’s daughter, Julia.)

Never much of a homebody, Pompey left to go conquer Sicily, securing Rome’s grain supply. Then he marauded down through Africa just for a change of pace. He felt this was pretty impressive, and when he returned home, demanded a Triumph so everybody else could know how impressive this was too. Sulla was less than impressed this time and denied him unless he would disband his legions like the law demanded. Young rebel that he was, Pompey went ahead and did it anyway. He even brought along an elephant which greatly amused the populace when it wouldn’t fit through the city gates. (He should have learned a lesson from Hannibal.)

After that, Pompey went out again to earn a second and third triumph after subduing Hispania, Southern Gaul, Iberia, Albania, Phoenicia, Syria, and the pirates of the Mediterranean. And to finish it all off, he laid siege to Jerusalem and the city fell within three months. This gained him a great deal of popularity except for among the Hispanians, Gauls, Iberians, Albanians, Phoenicians, Syrians, pirates, and Jews. But hey, the man knew his audience and the Romans loved him for it.

Who the Hell were the Punics?

The Punic wars happened because the Romans had already eviscerated the Etruscans and the Sabines, conquered most of Italy, and were just dying for a good fight.  So in 264 BC they packed their bags and prepared to duke it out for the island of Sicily.  The Romans lost magnificently for nearly twenty years, at which point someone realized that a navy might be of some use when attempting to conquer an island. So they slapped some boats together and finally started to win.  Since this war was fought for Sicily, by the Romans and against the Carthaginians, it was naturally called the first Punic War, much to the dismay of high school students everywhere.

Of course, Carthaginians are rather stubborn, so barely twenty years after the first war was over, some young pup named Hannibal read one too many adventure stories, gathered some elephants, and headed out to seek his revenge.  This became one of history’s greatest monuments to stupidity. Hannibal forgot about certain small difficulties such as the Alps, but never let reality stop him. And since in the end all of the elephants made it through it doesn’t seem to matter that he lost at least half his men. Hannibal was fine of course: he was riding an elephant. 

Unfortunately for Hannibal, his great elephant tactic just didn’t seem to work too well, as every major battle the Carthaginians won did not include any elephants at all.  Perhaps this was just an oversight.  It may have worked better with yaks… history will never know. In the end, Scipio was called in and he obliterated Hannibal once and for all.

The third Punic War, however, was not really Carthage’s fault at all. Rome got tired of the way Carthage kept bouncing back after each defeat.  They simply would not look properly downtrodden, and what’s more they even had the nerve to appear prosperous. Something had to be done about such people.  So Scipio the younger, grandson of Scipio Africanus, and not to be confused with any of the other Scipios in Roman history, went to Carthage where he had an excessively dull dream about the insignificance of it all.  This put him in a rather foul temper so he razed Carthage to the ground, putting and end to this nonsense which became the first, second, and third Punic Wars.