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A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 5: The Die Is Cast

With the death of the great dictator, the republic settled into an uneasy new normal, although festering wounds from the civil war and the purges would occasionally flare up into … unpleasantness between fellow citizens.

Caesar, for his part, was free to pursue a promising career now that a metaphorical sword of Damocles was no longer hanging over his head. In 63 BC — the same year a man named Cicero was elected consul and a fellow traveler of Caesar’s named Catiline tried to overthrow the government — Caesar won a long-shot election for Pontifex Maximus — a lifetime position as the high priest of Rome, which was usually given to much older men, but would prove to be very useful in the coming years.

In 59 BC, Caesar was old enough to stand for the consulship himself, and after some legal shenanigans where his enemies in the Senate tried to block his candidacy, he won in a landslide. Unfortunately, Bibulus, his ideological opposite, came in second, which meant he became a consul as well.

Caesar was a dyed-in-the-wool reformer with unapologetically Marian sensibilities — among other things he promised to address the issue of land reform that had gotten the Gracchi brothers into hot water over half a century earlier. Bibulus was a man of the Senate who made it thoroughly clear during the campaign that he was more than willing to veto any and all of Caesar’s harebrained reforms, and now he was in a position to do exactly that.

Unfortunately, Caesar had powerful friends.

The First Triumvirate

Before the election, Caesar had secured the support of Crassus and Pompey — decades ago they had been opposite sides of a brutal and traumatizing civil war, but politics makes strange bedfellows.

Pompey, by this point, had established himself as Rome’s most successful general and had conquered vast swaths of territory for the empire in the eastern mediterranean — conquests that the Senate had yet to formalize, because paperwork is hard and by this point Roman politics were that dysfunctional. The Senate’s dithering undermined Roman prestige and authority in the region, and their failure to provide land for his retiring troops had proven to be a major headache for Pompey.

The First Triumvirate: Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar. Wiki Commons.

Crassus, for his part, had allied himself with the tax collectors — Rome had no permanent bureaucracy and auctioned off the right to tax the provinces to private individuals, who promised a the state a set sum and were empowered to squeeze the provincials to collect it — if they collected more tax than they promised, they were allowed to keep the difference. Crassus’s allies had overbid and undelivered and he wanted the government to bail them out.

Nobody liked Crassus.

But Crassus had deep pockets, and he and Pompey were two of the most decorated politicians in Rome. They promised to help Caesar get elected and get his land reform bill through if he promised to solve their problems.

Caesar agreed, and married off his only legitimate daughter, Julia, the child of his late wife Cornelia, to Pompey, who was several decades her senior. While the union was nakedly political, oddly enough, history tells us the couple were genuinely fond of each other, which was far from guaranteed in such arrangements, and with that happy marriage the alliance that would dominate Roman politics for the next half decade was sealed.

The Year of Julius and Caesar

Caesar hit the ground running when he first took office and immediately brought his land reform bill, the Lex Julia, before the Senate. A filibuster by Bibulus’ father-in-law, a prominent conservative named Cato, blocked its passage, but Rome had seen this particular song and dance before and Caesar went ahead and took it to the Public Assembly anyway. He even invited Bibulus to publicly debate the merits of the bill.

Caesar was by far the more gifted speaker and framed the debate so that it appeared that Bibulus opposed the law for spurious, personal reasons and merely wanted to kneecap Caesar. When it became clear that the crowd overwhelmingly supported Caesar, Bibulus supposedly said in an outburst that “You will not have this law this year, not even should you all want it!” before storming off in a huff.

On the day of the vote, it was obvious that Caesar’s bill was going to pass, but as the vote was beginning Bibulus approached the podium to veto the bill. The crowd immediately released what he was doing and promptly started a riot, assaulting Bibulus and drowning out his voice with their indignant rage.

Bibulus was said to have feared for his life but, rather than killing him, the crowd settled for dumping a bucket of human feces over his head. Bibulus, at that point, understandably withdrew, and the vote continued. Caesar’s law passed.

However, as another consul, Bibulus had the unambiguous right to veto any and all of Caesar’s actions, and he argued that he had been exercising his veto the entire time — making the vote illegal and the law void.

Caesar argued that no one could hear Bibulus’ veto over the raucous crowd, and therefore it didn’t count.

Bibulus brought this impeccable constitutional reasoning before the Senate, and attempted to have Caesar removed from office. However, speaking order in the Senate went by seniority, and that would prove decisive.

Bibulus, as the consul who called the meeting of the Senate, spoke first, and denounced Caesar. Caesar, his consular colleague, spoke next in his own defense. After the current consuls, former consuls were allowed to speak, and two of the most influential former consuls happened to be Crassus and Pompey.

The First Triumvirate, up until this point, had been a secret political deal. When Crassus and Pompey unexpectedly spoke in Caesars defense, many junior senators who otherwise might have condemned Caesar were shocked and backed off. Caesar would remain in office and his law would stand.

Julius Caesar (c100-44 BC) was one of Rome’s most capable generals, as demonstrated by his conquest of Gaul in the 50s BC. Artist Aegidius Sadeler II. (Photo by Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Bibulus was less than enthused with this outcome and did not leave his home for the remainder of his term. However, he did find ways to make a nuisance of himself — Rome had no separation of church and state, so consuls had various religious powers in addition to their secular role. One of those powers was the ability to designate holy days on which no state business was to be done — and Bibulus kept putting his days on dates where Caesar had major votes planned. This should have made all of those votes illegal, under Roman religious law … but Caesar was the high priest of Rome, and he seemed to think his votes were just fine. Caesar outranked Bibulus in Rome’s religious hierarchy and Bibulus had been so thoroughly emasculated by this point that no one really bothered to take his side, so Caesar got his entire legislative agenda through.

He kept his promises to Crassus and Pompey, passed a second land reform bill because he decided the first one wasn’t radical enough, and secured prestigious governorships for himself after his term in office was up.

High ranking officials in the Roman government had imperium — a special legal status that indicated that their actions carried the authority of the Roman state within their assigned jurisdiction and granted them complete immunity from prosecution. That applied to consuls … and to governors.

After their terms in office, ex-consuls and ex-praetors a province to govern for a certain number of years in the many overseas territories Rome had claimed in the last few centuries. Wealthy or war-torn provinces were considered especially desirable because they offered more opportunities for plunder, which was a great way for governors to pay off all the debt they inevitably accrued while campaigning.

When it was clear that Caesar was going to win the upcoming election for 59 BC, his enemies in the Senate assigned the next consuls to the ‘pastoral fields of Italy’, which offered virtually no looting opportunities, but during his year in office Caesar maneuvered his way into a 5 year command of two lucrative provinces on the border between Italy and the frontier — Cisalpine Gaul and Illyricum. When the governor of Transalpine Gaul passed away, that province was folded into Caesar’s command as well, giving Caesar control over 3 major provinces and 4 legions.

The Senate went along with this, partly because they were terrified of Caesar at this point, and partly because they saw it as a convenient way to postpone the Caesar problem. Caesar was wildly popular and well connected — opposing him now seemed impossible. Giving him a 5 year extension on his legal immunity was fine — after 5 years away from the city, Caesar would probably be in a weaker political position and the Senate could revisit his crimes then. If offering him a ridiculously lucrative command was what it took to get Caesar out of Rome, the Senate was willing to do it.

In hindsight, giving Caesar command of several legions stationed just outside the borders of Italy was not a wise decision.

Caesar left office as one of the most successful consuls in Roman history. While Rome had a standard calendar it used for historical and liturgical purposes, most Romans reckoned the year by the consuls who had served during it: 100 BC was the year of Marius and Flaccus, 70 BC was the year of Crassus and Pompey. Caesar had so thoroughly outmaneuvered his political rivals the Romans joked that 59 BC was the year of Julius and Caesar.

The Interlude in Gaul

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Caesar’s governorship over Gaul was also wildly successful. Over the course of about 10 years, Caesar and his lieutenants expanded the Roman foothold in the region and conquered virtually all of modern day France, and even carried out brief forays into Britain and Germany, far further than any Roman force had penetrated before. The conquest made Caesar fabulously wealthy, although by his own estimate about a million native Gauls were killed in the process, and about as many were enslaved.

In addition to solving many of his financial woes and securing his place in the pantheon of Roman generals, Caesar’s Gallic Wars also offered him a massive propaganda victory: a Gallic army had sacked Rome back in 390 BC, destroying most of the city’s records and forever scarring the city’s psyche. No foreign army would breach Rome’s defenses again for another 800 years, but Gallic tribes would occasionally invade other parts of Italy — Gallic volunteers were a significant part of Hannibal’s army when he ransacked the Italian countryside during the Second Punic War.

Caesar’s triumphs over a historic enemy of the Romans and his expeditions into foreign lands won him massive prestige, and he regularly sent dispatches home so that everyone knew he did it.

But while Caesar was growing and forging his armies, the question of his legal immunity remained contentious. 

Vercingetorix throws down his arms at the feet of Julius Caesar. (oil on canvas, 1899) (Photo by Art Images via Getty Images)

Caesar was given a 5 year term as governor, but Sulla’s reforms meant it was illegal for him to run for consul until 10 years after he left office. Consuls and governors could not be prosecuted, which was of vital importance because his term in office Caesar had incited a riot, been an accessory to the assault of his consular colleague, ignored lawful vetoes and broken various Roman religious laws that seem minor in comparison. Caesar was unquestionably guilty and the penalty for those crimes could range from fines, to banishment, to execution.

Cato the Younger, arch conservative, namesake of the modern Cato Institute and an implacable enemy of Caesar, promised that he would personally lead the prosecution against Caesar once the moment his imperium expired.

Caesar’s brilliant plan was to never let it expire.

He had been granted a 5 year term as governor, but in 56 BC The Triumvirate secured a 5 year extension to his term. If Caesar could serve as governor for 10 years, he would eligible to run for consul again, and with his historic victories and the backing of Pompey and Crassus, he would almost certainly win, which would grant him legal immunity for another year, and position him for another term as governor somewhere in the empire, which could be extended, and so on, until eventually he died or the Senate lost interest in prosecuting him.

Collapse of the Triumvirate

Caesar’s continued immunity was dependent on the support of his allies in Rome, however, and over the next few years that would begin to wane.

The first blow would come in 54 BC, when Julia died in childbirth. Caesar lost his only daughter, but he also lost a valuable connection to Pompey, who was already slowly been drawn into the Senate’s camp

The second blow came in 53 BC, after Crassus was appointed governor of the province of Syria.

Unlike his fellow Triumvirs, Crassus was not regarded as a particularly great general. Crassus had won some notable military engagements over the course of his career, but his role in these victories was often overlooked in favor of his more charismatic rivals, because nobody liked Crassus.

Military glory was the political currency in Rome, and while Crassus was wealthy beyond imagination he wanted the glory of his peers. Syria was a prestigious posting and the perfect stepping stone for an invasion of the powerful Parthian Empire. Crassus hoped to subdue one of Rome’s greatest rivals and seize valuable territory in Mesopotamia.

He launched his invasion, failed miserably and died horribly.

Crossing the Rubicon

With one ally dead and the other moving into the enemy camp, Caesar’s political position had weakened substantially — it appeared that the Senate’s gamble might pay off.

Caesar won his final victory over the Gauls at Alesia in 52 BC, but this provided ammunition who said his mission to Gaul was now over and he should resign his command. 

More distressingly, several senators read through the bill that extended Caesar’s term as governor in 56 BC and found it was very poorly written. They argued that based on the text of the bill, rather than adding 5 years to Caesar’s pre-existing term, it had given Caesar a new 5 year term that began in 56 BC and would expire in 51 BC, two years before Caesar was eligible to run for consul.

Caesar argued that that interpretation was ludicrous, and that subsequent legislation had already referenced the fact that his term would expire in 49 BC, so retroactively reading a new meaning into the text because it was ambiguously worded made no sense, but after Caesar’s career he was in no position to make principled arguments in favor of sound legal reasoning so his objections were largely ignored. The Senate appointed a replacement governor and ordered Caesar to resign his command.

Caesar refused.

This exchange continued over the next few years, until in 49 BC Caesar obliged the Senate and approached the Rubicon river, which separated the heartland of Italia from the province of Cisalpine Gaul.

But he brought a legion with him.

Julius Caesar leading his army across the Rubicon. Getty Images.

Up until this point, Caesar could at least hypothetically argue that he was acting on the right side of the law — he was under no obligation to resign early, whatever novel legal theory the Senate came up with. But taking his army into Italy — which at this point was a demilitarized zone, and marching them on Rome was treason. It would be the start of another civil war. It could save him from his enemies, or it could destroy his homeland and everything he had worked to build.

It would be the greatest gamble of Caesar’s life. According to Suetonius, after weighing his options, Caesar ordered his army across. “The die is cast.”

RELATED: A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 1: The Founding Of Rome

RELATED: A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 2: The Public Thing

RELATED: A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 3: Land Reform And The Era Of Gracchi

RELATED: A Brief History Of The Roman Empire, Part 4: Marius And Sulla


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