Julius Caesar is one of the most famous names in all of history and rightly so. It was he who laid the foundations for Rome to become an Empire which would last for hundreds of years, forging a single united entity out of numerous nearly autonomous regions. Caesar’s rise to power and (spoiler) subsequent assassination at the height of his power, along with his reputation as one of the greatest military commanders in history, has secured him a high place in the pantheon of historical figures. This is how he took control of one of the greatest empires of history.
At the time of Julius Caesar’s birth in 100 BC, the Roman Empire was governed primarily by the Senate in Rome, though provinces such as Spain and Cisalpine Gaul (Northern Italy) were ruled by governors, appointed by the Senate. The Senate itself was comprised of the upper class of Roman society (old rich white men; some things never change) and chaired by two elected consuls, who served for a single year.
By 60 BC Caesar had demonstrated his skill as a military man, winning campaigns against several tribes in Spain while he governed the region. Before this he had been a successful orator, a role similar to a modern day lawyer, earning a reputation for excellent and impassioned speaking. At one stage he had also been captured by pirates, who demanded a ransom of 20 silver talents. Caesar took this as an insult, certain he was worth more and insisted they raise his ransom to fifty talents, while also promising to hunt down and crucify the pirates once he was freed, which they took as a joke. The ransom was paid, and sure enough the pirates wound up crucified, though, as an act of leniency, Caesar had their throats cut first, which was nice.
To further his political position, Caesar secured a three-way alliance of himself, distinguished general Pompey the Great and Crassus, who was exceptionally wealthy thanks to real estate speculation (yep, again with some things never changing). This was known as the first triumvirate, and dominated Roman politics after Caesar was elected as a consul for 59 BC. The major move of his consulship was a redistribution of public land to the poor, achieved despite significant opposition when Pompey flooded Rome with soldiers.
With his consulship coming to end that year, the aristocracy attempted to limit Caesar’s future power by giving him military command over not a province, as was customary, but the woods and pastures of Italy. Caesar didn’t fancy gardening leave, and was successful at overturning this judgment and was appointed as governor of modern day Southern France (Transalpine Gaul), Northern Italy (Cisalpine Gaul) and South-Eastern Europe (Illyricum). The term of his governorship was also set at five years, rather than the regular one, to extend his immunity from prosecution for “irregularities” during his consulship. To escape this prosecution Caesar fled from Rome to his provinces as his consulship drew to a close. This fear of prosecution would later prove decisive in one of the most crucial events of ancient history.
It was during his tenure as governor of these regions that Caesar truly displayed his brilliance as a military commander, greatly expanding the empires borders by making war against all of Gaul. Caesar’s success led to the entirety of modern Belgium and most of France falling under Caesar’s control. He also made attempts to invade Britain at this point, but was unsuccessful due to poor information and a poor harvest in Gaul. His great success in the Gallic wars made him immensely popular with his legions and the people of Rome.
However, back in Rome, the triumvirate had collapsed after the death of Crassus and Caesar’s daughter, whose marriage to Pompey cemented the alliance. With Rome on the brink of anarchy Pompey was appointed as the sole consul as an emergency measure.
As Caesar’s governorship drew to a close in 50 BC the senate, now led by Pompey, ordered him to disband his forces and return to Rome. Fearing that he would be prosecuted as he no longer had the immunity enjoyed by a governor, Caesar refused the orders of the senate. In return, Pompey accused him of treason against Rome. Caesar, now certain that he would be prosecuted should he submit to the senate, decided on a drastic course of action.
The Rubicon is a small and shallow river, significant only because it marked the border between Italy as administered by the senate and the province of Cisalpine Gaul in Northern Italy. It would be of no historical note whatsoever if Caesar had obeyed the ultimatum to disband his army and return to Rome. He did not, and on the 10th of January 49 BC Caesar crossed the Rubicon with the XIII legion. Brining an armed force into Italy was strictly forbidden and an act of war against Rome itself. Caesar, fresh from the subjugation of Gaul, was now marching on the capital of the very empire he had served. Armed conflict was made inevitable that day, which Caesar was entirely aware of, uttering the famous phrase “ālea iacta est” (the die has been cast).
Although their forces outnumbered Caesar’s single legion, Pompey and the senate fled Rome in fear of the might and military skill of Caesar, arriving in Greece shortly ahead of Caesar’s forces catching up.
Leaving his staunch ally Mark Antony in charge of Rome, Caesar was able to defeat the Pompey’s forces all around the Mediterranean, from Spain to a final rout at Pharsalus in Greece. Pompey fled once again, this time to Egypt, pursued by Caesar. Pompey was murdered in Egypt, shortly before the arrival of Caesar, who was then presented with his severed head. Moved to tears by the death of his old friend at the hands of non-Romans, Caesar ordered Pompey’s assassins murdered.
Caesar then became embroiled in the Egyptian civil war, with his troops and strategy proving decisive in winning the throne for Cleopatra, with whom he had a child. In 48 BC Caesar was appointed dictator for one year, during which time he subdued the last of the old senate which had stood against him the civil war, including Cicero and Cato the younger, the latter of which committed suicide rather than live under Caesar’s dictatorship.
Just as Cato feared, Caesar was then appointed dictator for 10 years. There was nobody left to outwardly challenge Caesar and he strode on toward absolute control of the Roman Empire to become the most powerful man alive. Julius Caesar was never declared emperor though, as a growing conspiracy would thwart his final ambitions…