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Gaius Julius Caesar

Bust of Caesar. Antikensammlung, Berlin (Germany). Photo Jona Lendering. Gaius Julius Caesar (13 July 100 - 15 March 44 BCE), Roman statesman, general and author, famous for the conquest of Gaul (modern France and Belgium) and his subsequent coup d'état. He changed the Roman republic into a monarchy and a truly Mediterranean empire.

This is the first part of an article which contains a biography and tries to assess Caesar's historical significance. On overview of all articles can be found here.

Youth (100-82)
Early career (81-59)
Caesar's consulship (59)
The conquest of Gaul (58-54)
The reconquest of Gaul (54-51)
The Civil Wars (51-47)
Domestic policy (47-44)
Constitutional problems
Caesar's inheritance (44-27)
Caesar's writings

Marius. Glyptothek München (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
 (Glyptothek, München)

Youth (100-82)

When Gaius Julius Caesar was born, the leading man in Rome was Gaius Marius, who had saved the Roman republic several years before by defeating two Germanic tribes, the Teutones (102) and the Cimbri (101). The connections between the Marius and the Julius families were very close: Marius was married to a sister of Caesar's father, Julia. So, Caesar belonged to an influential family. 

His contemporaries called Marius a popularis. It is unclear what this label means (for some speculations, see below), but modern historians tend to believe that it means that Marius tried to reach his political aims through the People's Assembly. The opposite group, the optimates, played the political game in the Senate.

When Caesar was still an infant, Marius lost much of his earlier popularity, and eventually left Rome to travel in Greece and Asia Minor, hoping for some new command. But the Marii and Julii were still influential, and in 92, Caesar's father was elected praetor (a magistrate whose most important function was the administration of justice). During the subsequent year, he served as a governor in Asia Minor; it is likely, therefore, that the young Caesar was outside Italy when the Social War started. 

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Sulla. Glyptothek München (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Sulla (Glyptothek, München)

This war originated in the fact that the Roman allies in Italy felt that they had never received a fair share in the spoils of the Roman empire, which in those days included Andalusia, southern Castile, Catalonia, the Provence, Italy, the Dalmatian coast, Greece and Macedonia, Asia Minor, Cyprus, Crete and modern Tunisia. The Italians had fought to conquer the Mediterranean world, but thought that they had not reaped the benefits of it. In 91, they revolted.

Marius was appointed general and had some success; more important, however, were the victories of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a man who was considered to be one of the optimates. By diplomatic ways, Rome divided the rebels: in 90, Lucius Julius Caesar (an uncle) promised Roman citizenship to those Italians who had remained faithful, and in 89 a similar law promised citizenship to those who gave up fighting.

Map of Asia Minor in the age of Caesar. Design Jona Lendering.
While the Romans were fighting at home, an old enemy saw his chance: king Mithridates VI of Pontus (ruled 121-63 BCE) attacked the Roman possessions in Asia Minor in 88. The inhabitants of this province welcomed him as their liberator, and murdered many Italians and Romans. It is unknown where Caesar's family was in those days (it is certain that Caesar's father was no longer Asia's governor). The Romans wanted revenge, and the Senate appointed Sulla as a general in this First Mithridatic War (88-84). After his departure, Marius was given the same command by the People's Assembly. Sulla marched on Rome. This was the beginning of the First Civil War.

Marius was forced to flee to Africa, and Sulla went to Asia Minor again, where he defeated Mithridates. During Sulla's absence, Marius returned, massacred all his enemies, had himself elected consul (86), but died a few days later of natural causes. Two relatives of Caesar's father, Lucius Julius Caesar and Gaius Julius Caesar Strabo, were killed.

Family tree of the Julii Caesares

From now on, Caesar's life was in danger. After all, he was the son of the brother of Marius' wife. His safety did not improve when his father died (85) and the victorious Sulla returned from Asia (82). However, the young man had had a fine education by one of Rome's most important professors, Marcus Antonius Gnipho, who was also the teacher of the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 BCE). Caesar was married to one Cornelia and the young couple had a daughter, Julia

After his return, Sulla had himself appointed dictator. Originally, dictatorship was an extraordinary magistracy, perhaps best translated as 'strong man'. Dictatorship had nothing to do with tyranny. However, Sulla's exercise of the office gave rise to our present meaning of the word: wishing to exterminate the populares, Sulla changed the constitution by curtailing the rights of the People's Assembly. Many were slain; Marius' ashes were scattered in the Tiber. Since Caesar was only eighteen years old, Sulla decided to show mercy, and ordered Marius' nephew to divorce from his wife Cornelia (a daughter of Marius' friend Cinna), as a symbolic act of his loyalty to the new regime. Although the alternative was banishment or worse, Caesar refused. Sulla appreciated the young man's dedication to his bride and pardoned him, prophesying that 'in this young man there is more than one Marius'.

Part two    : Overview Caesar

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