Caesar: The Salad Days

Now we get to the most famous Roman of them all, or at least the one you’ve been waiting for since this blog began: Caesar. Gaius Julius Caesar was the son of a patrician family that could supposedly trace their line back to the Trojan prince Aeneas, who was the son of the goddess of love, Venus. And yet somehow Caesar wound up a short, rat faced man, going grey at the temples (on some men, this is thought to look distinguished).

Caesar’s early career was fraught with difficulty. Originally the high priest of Jupiter, he was stripped of his position during the civil war for the crime of being related to Marius, and only his mother’s intervention prevented his death at the hands of Sulla. Thinking it best to make himself scarce for a while, Caesar joined the army and left Rome, returning only after Sulla’s demise.

Armed with a high-pitched, querulous voice and terrier-like tenacity, Caesar returned to Rome and became a lawyer. Unlike modern lawyers, his impassioned speeches won him popularity, aided by his prosecution of former governors on charges of corruption. Caesar’s fame as a tough son-of-a-bitch grew when he was captured by pirates in the Mediterranean.  When the pirates tried to ransom him for twenty silver talents, he insisted that he would not allow himself to be released for less than fifty (proving that pride is all well and good, but really should take a back seat to common sense). Once released, Caesar raised a fleet and captured the pirates and crucified them—a promise he had made to them while in captivity. The pirates were not amused.

 Deciding that too many people still liked him,  Caesar decided to move into the next most despised career: politician. Racking up a huge dept, Caesar mysteriously won his election. He later pointed out that the accusations of bribery were completely unwarranted. Although he governed Spain for several years, his debts grew bad enough that Crassus (I told you to remember him!) had to pay off his creditors before they threw Julius in the slammer. Giving his pocket book a breather, Caesar went back to the military, conquered two local tribes (one guess as to what happened to their money), and reformed the laws on regarding debts. Feeling pretty on top of the world, Caesar decided to try for the highest political power in Rome: the consulship.

Unfortunately, a bunch of fuddy-duddies back in Rome were determined that he wouldn’t get it. But Caesar (come on, we all know this guy later declared himself Emperor. He was ballsy.) didn’t like to take no for an answer.

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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.

The Trouble with Armies

Now by this time you’d expect the Romans to be pretty tired of all this fighting, and the Germanic tribes thought so too. So they snuck into Gaul and the Po valley until they were thicker than rabbits. But the Romans just couldn’t overlook this and quickly decided that something must be done. So the consul, Gaius Marius changed a few laws so that anyone and not just the landholders could be soldiers. Of course, he went on and won the battle since he had righteousness and the gods on his side not to mention more men, but the integrity of the army was lost forever. Now the soldiers were loyal to their commander (and his promise to grant them settlements in the newly conquered areas) rather than the state of Rome, and patriotism was taking a definite down-swing.  

Sulla, who thought he was a pretty good general, thank you very much, quickly became put out with the fame that Marius was generating. Sulla was known for his blazing red hair and two canine teeth he would bare when angry. This would have been great for cartoonists if they weren’t so afraid of him.

Having run out of foreigners, he went after the next best thing: Romans. After seizing Rome and kicking Marius out, he decided that all non-Romans should go too. Marius, of course, was not so fond of this. So they fought it out in the good old-fashioned way, smashing through cities and killing anyone who suggested that perhaps violence wasn’t the answer after all. In time, Sulla came out on top; he had directed Marius’s armies in the first place, and Marius discovered that finding a trusted lieutenant was hard work—apparently the effort of it killed him before Sulla did. Thus ended Rome’s first civil war.