Gaius Julius Caesar: Constitutional problems

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.

Constitutional problems

Julius Caesar

Caesar's most important problem, however, was that he had become too powerful: the Roman republic was an oligarchy in which the powers were shared among the senators. Even though the Senate was defeated, oligarchic sentiments were strong, and Caesar had to find a way to make his rule tolerable. His clemency was important, but nothing more than a precondition.

It is possible that Caesar wanted to evade the question by leaving Rome and starting a new military campaign. In the spring of 44, an expeditionary force - consisting of at least the legions II, IIII, XXVII, XXXV, XXXVI and XXXVII - was on its way to the east, where Crassus' death had to be avenged. Its temporary commander was the son of Caesar's niece Atia, the young Gaius Octavius. The dictator was to follow his legions and planned to attack the Parthian empire (text). Of course, success in the east would not have solved the domestic problem.

Another way to solve the constitutional problem was to behave himself as a king, without actually using this title. The only kings the Romans knew, were the oriental kings, and therefore Caesar used their symbols to show his power. His statue was placed among those of the legendary Roman kings, he was allowed to wear a purple robe, he was given the surname "the country's parent", sat on a raised cushion in the theater and on a golden throne in the Senate, coins showed his portrait, and a temple was erected to Caesar's Clemency: its first priest was Mark Antony, who had rescued Caesar at Dyrrhachium. He was still the pontifex maximus of the Roman state, which allowed him to live in the regia, a house on the Forum Romanum which had once, five centuries before, belonged to the palace of the Roman kings. When people wanted to approach him, he received them without rising. On 15 February, he tried to have himself "spontaneously" crowned by Mark Antony, but the people who were present were very upset and he ordered the crown to be sent to the temple of Jupiter (text).

Roman constitutional law allowed one way to exercise personal rule: the dictatorship. Caesar was made dictator after his return from Ilerda; in October 48 he was appointed again, in 46 he became dictator for ten years and in 44 for life. This was, however, not a solution, since the dictatorship had already been misused by Sulla, and even though it was a legal construction, it smelled like blood.

A permanent consulship seemed to be a better response to the situation, and indeed, Caesar had himself elected consul in 48, 46, 45 and 44 (with Mark Antony). He also experimented with Pompey's innovation, the consulship without colleague (45). Again, this didn't work: although repeated consulships were not unconstitutional, occupying a magistrature permanently made it impossible for other aristocrats to show their importance and created envy. And indeed, many people's feelings were hurt. In the last weeks before his death, Caesar seems to have found a solution: he accepted the powers of several magistratures without occupying the magistratures themselves. In this way, Caesar could control the government without interfering with the careers of the nobles. The settlement by the emperor Augustus in 27 BCE shows that this solution could have been acceptable (below).


However, many Roman senators refused to resign themselves to the new, controlled oligarchy. More than sixty men were brave enough to risk being caught by Caesar's Germanic bodyguard and joined the conspiracy led by Gaius Cassius and Decimus and Marcus Junius Brutus. They decided to kill the dictator when the Senate would meet on 15 March 44 BCE (text).

On this day, Caesar was ill, and he decided to stay at home on the Forum Romanum with his wife Calpurnia, who was discomforted because of some nightmares. Brutus' brother Decimus, however, visited the couple and implored Caesar "not to disappoint the waiting senators". On his way to Pompey's theater, where the Senate convened, several people handed over requests. Caesar kept them in his left hand, intending to read them after the meeting. Accordingly, he did not read a notice revealing the plot.

As he sat down on his raised cushion and had received the senators who had gathered about him to pay their respects, a senator named Lucius Tillius Cimber came forward to make a request. He told Caesar that his brother was in jail and when the dictator started to reply that clemency was his usual policy, Tillius unexpectedly caught Caesar's toga.

Caesar; this portrait was probably based on his funeral mask

"Be careful, there's no need to use force!", Caesar grumbled and ordered his guard to take away the man. However, before the guard could interfere, another senator, Publius Servilius Casca Longus, stabbed the dictator just below the throat. Then his victim understood what was happening, and he caught Casca's arm and run through it with the only weapon he could find, his pen. As Caesar tried to leap on his feet, he was kicked and stopped by another wound. He saw that he was surrounded by men with daggers and knew that he would not survive. He wrapped his head in his robe and covered the lower part of his body with a part of his toga, and was stabbed with twenty three wounds, not uttering a word.

All the conspirators made off, and Caesar lay lifeless at the feet of a statue of Pompey. For hours, nobody dared to come close, until three common slaves put his corpse on a litter and carried him to his home on the Forum Romanum, with one arm hanging down.