Gaius Julius Caesar: Early career

Gaius Julius Caesar (13 July 100 - 15 March 44 BCE), Roman statesman, general, author, famous for the conquest of Gaul (modern France and Belgium) and his subsequent coup d'├ętat. He changed the Roman republic into a monarchy and laid the foundations of a truly Mediterranean empire.

Early career (81-59)

Asia Minor

Between 81 and 79, Caesar served in Asia Minor on the personal staff of Marcus Minucius Thermus, who was praetor. Caesar was sent on a diplomatic mission to king Nicomedes IV Philopator of Bithynia (ruled 94-74) and was rumored to have had a love affair with this ruler. There is more certainty about another event: during the siege of Miletus, Caesar gained a decoration for bravery (corona civica). All his courage, however, did not help him when - on his way back home - he was captured by Cilician pirates and forced to pay the usual ransom, 25 talents (c.500 kg) of silver.

When Sulla died in the first weeks of 78, Caesar felt save to return to Italy, where he picked up a career as a criminal lawyer. This was a normal thing to do, and Caesar stayed far from politics. In 75, he went to Rhodes for further education, and was again captured by pirates, who asked the usual tariff. Caesar demanded this prize to doubled (after all, he was an aristocrat) and promised to punish his captors. After the ransom was paid, Caesar manned some ships, defeated the bandits and had them crucified. After this incident, he continued his studies (text).


They were interrupted, however, when Mithridates of Pontus attacked Asia Minor a second time (74). On his own initiative and expenses, Caesar raised a small army and defended some towns, giving the official Roman commander Lucius Licinius Lucullus (117-56 BCE) time to organize an army and attack the enemy's homeland. Being a war hero by now, Caesar returned to Rome in 73. A career as a general and a politician had started.

In 68, he was quaestor and served in Baetica, a province in Hispania which is roughly equivalent to modern Andalusia. (A quaestor was a magistrate with financial tasks in a province.) Before his departure, Marius' widow Julia died, and Caesar held a funeral speech in which he praised his aunt and her family. This was a way of claiming Marius' inheritance. That by now he had developed political ambitions is shown by an incident in Hispania: in Gades he saw a statue of Alexander the Great, and lamented that he had as yet performed no memorable act, whereas at his age -33 years old- Alexander had already conquered the whole world.

After his return from Hispania, Caesar was elected aedile (in 65) and responsible for 'bread and circuses'. He organized great games, making sure that the Roman mob would remember his name. In this way, as a true popularis, he would control their votes in the People's Assembly. This same year, he was accused of complicity in a plot to murder the consuls, but was not sentenced. The leader of the plot, one Catilina was able to continue his career as a social reformer.

Two years later, Caesar had himself elected pontifex maximus or high priest. In this capacity, he proposed a moderate line against the followers of Catilina, who had made a second attempt to seize power. This second conspiracy was discovered by the consul Cicero, who had Catilina's followers executed at the instigation of Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger (95-46 BCE), a representative of the traditionalist wing of the optimates. Caesar's opposition to the death penalty again represents his 'popular' policies, and probably he knew a lot more about the plot than he wished to acknowledge.

Caesar's Spain

Nevertheless, he was elected praetor, and the optimates became nervous for the first time, because Caesar was extremely popular with the masses. This time, they managed to rise accusations against Caesar, who they said was involved in a desecration of certain secret ceremonies. These ceremonies of the Good Goddess were celebrated exclusively by women in the house of the pontifex maximus, but a man had been able to be present (5 December 62). The optimates argued that the high priest must have been involved too, and Caesar's only way to prevent larger troubles, was to divorce his wife.

Caesar was bankrupt by now. He had paid for the games of 65, the lobbies for the pontificate in 63 and the praetorship in 62, and had paid a lot of money to get out of the Good Goddess affair. However, the richest man in Rome, Marcus Licinius Crassus, who thought he could use the immensely popular politician, paid Caesar's debts (830 talents, 17,500 kg silver) and Caesar had himself elected governor of Baetica, where he had already been quaestor.

A young Julius Caesar

His governorship in 61 marks an important turning point in Caesar's career. Until now, Caesar's behavior had been more or less normal for a Roman senator with strong ambitions. From now on, however, Caesar's acts were often criminal, and Caesar's problem seems to have been that he had to hold an office or an army command, just to make sure that he had an immunity against prosecution.

Caesar's Spanish War gives a foretaste of the Gallic Wars. There was some unrest in the province, and under the pretext of restoring order, Caesar captured several towns, looted them, made a lightning attack along the west coast (through modern Portugal) and plundered the silver mines of Gallaecia. When a town was under siege and surrendered, it was nonetheless ravaged. The story is told at greater length here.

As a rich man, Caesar returned, being able to sponsor a lobby for both the consulate and the right to enter the city with his army in an official procession (triumphus). Of these two, the triumph would give him most popularity, but the consulship was a necessity: he was likely to be prosecuted as a war criminal and the only way to prevent a law suit was an office. Having both was impossible, as Cato the Younger had already announced the day of the consular elections, and no account of Caesar's candidacy could be taken unless he was a private citizen. Caesar was forced to forego his triumph in order to avoid losing the necessary consulship.