One of the more complex characters in history, Julius Caesar has been the subject of histories, plays, books and movies. Brilliant general, Machiavellian manipulator, populist figure and reviled dictator. Even the name Caesar has become a noun used to describe an imperial tyrant.
Cnaeus Julius Caesar was born about 100 BCE into a patrician Roman family, the Julii. Caesar's father was a brother-in-law of the Consul Marius, victor of the Cimbro-Teutonic campaigns of 109-101 BC, who later got into a civil war with the General Sulla. Following Marius’ defeat by Sulla in 82 BCE, Caesar's family ties with Marius put his life in danger and the young Caesar escaped into exile. Given a command in the East, Caesar developed a reputation as a brilliant general and swept the eastern Mediterranean of pirates.
Upon his return to Rome, Caesar become Quaestor (financial office) in 69 BCE and after some astute political maneuvers became a Praetor and earned and was sent to Spain to both add to the empire and suppress a revolt. Returning to Rome in triumph, Caesar entered into a political alliance with the two most powerful men in Rome, Pompey and Crassus. This was called the First Triumvirate and three effectively ruled Rome. In 59 BCE, Caesar was elected Consul and given command of Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum for an unprecedented term of five years. Upon the sudden death of the governor of Transalpine Gaul, that province was quickly added to Caesar's command. Later, in 55 BC, Caesar's tenure was extended for another five years, permitting long military campaigns in Gaul.
For nine years, Caesar campaigned across Europe occupying Gaul (France) and what is now Belgium, defeated German and Swiss tribes and invaded Britain. These years make up the subject of Caesar’s Commentaries on the Gallic Wars.
In 54 BCE Crassus was killed fighting in Asia and Pompey increasingly took control of Rome. Finally, Pompey’s machinations led to a confrontation between the two. Ceasar crossed the river Rubicon with his army thus precipitating a civil war. Caesar was supported by a number of noted Romans such as Marcus Brutus, Ocatavian, and Mark Anthony. Opposing Caesar were most of Rome’s most important leaders including Pompey, Cicero and Cato. The war would end two years later with the defeat of Cato’s army in Africa (and his subsequent suicide), and Pompey’s armies in Spain and Greece and with Pompey’s murder in Egypt.
Following an affair with the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra, Caesar returned to Rome and declared himself Dictator for Life and began to dismantle the structure of the Republic. This move caused much quiet resistance republicans.
Finally, a cabal of disaffected senators led by Cassius and Caesar’s onetime ally Brutus turned on Caesar and on the Ides of March 44 BCE and murdered him in the Senate and precipitating yet another civil war which would ultimately see the deaths of Mark Anthony, Brutus, Cassius, and Cicero and the rise of Octavian Augustus and The Empire.
Commentaries on the Gallic War
Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War (De Bellum Gallico) provide a unique first person account of the Gallic campaigns. It is in depth and give significant space to both tactical information but also cultural observations of the various tribes Caesar’s armies faced and ultimately deafeated.
Caesar's personal record of the Gallic Wars included seven books on the campaigns from 58 to 52 BC, ending with the defeat of the Gaul leader Vercingetorix. An eighth book was later added by Aulus Hirtius after Caesar's death, linking events of the Gallic War to those of the Civil War (50-48 BC).
Written in a simple, documentary style, Caesar's Commentaries are much closer to a memoir than a formal history. It is unique in that the work is also the only report by a military commander of antiquity describing his own campaigns.
As a cultural history, Caesar's account is also invaluable, being the only reliable and contemporary primary source on the Celts of Gaul, Germany and Britain during the 1st century BCE.
Prior to 60 BCE, Roman impact north of Provence had been relatively slight. Bordering tribes such as the Helvetii, Sequani, Bituriges, Aedui, and Arverni had developed primitive state systems and traded with Rome but the rest of Gaul remained tribal, was considered "Barbarian" by Romans.
Caesar's campaigns in Gaul began in 58 BC, when the Helvetii and several neighboring peoples began a mass migration from their homes in Switzerland. Caesar forbade their passage through Roman territory and marched against them. The resulting conflict spread across Gaul and would ultimately move into Germany, Belgian and Britain.
But victories were short lived. Caesar was forced to retreat back over the Rhine and his forages into Britain were unsuccessful. Gallic resistance continued and finally culminated in a massive uprising in 52 BC under Vercingetorix. After several battles, Vercingetorix and the Gauls were cornered and besieged at Alésia. Defeat would have doomed Caesar’s army and any political ambitions he might harbour and the battle was hard fought. Caesar was ultimately victorious and the descriptions of the battle are some of the most riveting in the book.