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The Pursuit Of Power
By Ernle Bradford
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1984 Ernle Bradford
All rights reserved.
Ancestry and Antecedents
CAESAR was an aristocrat. He was an aristocrat by birth and by nature: two things that are far from synonymous. To be born into the so-called aristocracy of a country or an age means little in itself. Some, by their abilities and conduct, earn the right to be called aristocrats. But few over all the centuries are "born to the purple," more than earn their title, and so distinguish themselves that they establish a new standard for "the best." Caesar was one of these: although it must always be accepted that morality (in the sense of moral conduct) played no part in his distinction.
Caius Julius Caesar was born in July 100 BC. He was the only son of Caius Julius and Aurelia and, more important, nephew of the then consul Marius. The Julii were one of Rome's original patrician families, but one that had left relatively little mark upon history. His mother, also of noble birth, seems to have been cast in the mold of the old type of Roman matron: women unaffected by the new fashions from Greece and the East which were so profoundly changing the manners and morals of Rome. It was an old-fashioned family, in fact. His father became a praetor (one of the chief officers of the senate) but never rose to the dignity of consul.
The family was neither rich nor poor, well-born but comparatively undistinguished, and conservative in the real sense of being moderate, cautious and averse to change.
The month in which Caesar was born was formerly called Quintilis but was subsequently renamed July in his honor. His personal name or praenomen was Caius. The first Caius in the clan had been born some seventy years before and had married a certain Marcia of the patrician family which claimed descent from the legendary kings of Rome. Caesar himself laid claim to an ancestry so ancient that it could not be disputed since there were no records except that on both sides his family had been noble since time immemorial. In one public speech he was to declare that his family were descended in direct line from Venus/Aphrodite. Since, according to Homer, the goddess was the mother of Aeneas, the Trojan hero, and since, according to later legend, Aeneas was the founder of the Roman race, Caesar was laying claim to an ancestry that could not be challenged. His admirers seem to have accepted this explanation of his lineage, al-though how much Caesar himself believed it must remain doubtful. Certainly a hallmark of his character was always a strange insouciance, as if—perhaps because of the supposedly divine origin of the Julian line—he felt that nothing could touch him unless decreed by the fates. The name Caesar is connected by tradition with an ancestor who is said to have killed an elephant of the Carthaginian army, the sobriquet deriving from the Punic word for an "elephant."
As was customary at that time among the upper classes Caesar was taught Greek. His tutor was an educated Gaul, most probably from northern Italy, who was said to have been as well versed in Latin as in Greek literature and in later years to have established a school of rhetoric which was attended by Caesar during his praetorship in 66 BC. It might at first seem strange that an aristocratic family should employ a Gaul as a tutor, especially in Greek, when Italy swarmed with Greeks and almost every household of any importance could point to a Greek tutor, secretary or librarian, but it is perhaps an indication of the innate conservatism of the family: Greeks were reputed to be effeminate in their manners, often homosexual, and were considered degenerate by old-fashioned Romans. A Gaul on the other hand, and an educated Gaul, was a very different man to have about the house. In the early days when Rome had been gradually subjugating Italy they had proved the most troublesome, freedom-loving, and bravest of all the tribes whom the Romans had encountered. When Hannibal had swept over the Alps in 218 BC, the Gauls had risen with him and, throughout the fifteen years he had spent in Italy, had proved the backbone of the Carthaginian's army. The Romans accordingly had a great respect for the Gauls: not only for their fighting qualities but, now that they had become settlers and farmers, for their diligence, endurance and faithfulness. It was true that in "Gaul-across-the-Alps" their related tribes still swarmed as wild, fearsome and untamed—except in Romanized Narbonese Gaul—as when they had harried Italy. But now among the rich and noble Romans the big-boned, fair-haired Gauls were a familiar sight and respected for their many qualities, not least for their attachment to the family they served much as once they had been attached to their own clan. In somewhat similar fashion, many centuries later, the rulers of Britain's empire would find in Egypt their trustworthy servants among the Sudanese, and in India and the Far East the amah, or devoted native nurse to care for their children.
Of Caesar's early years nothing is recorded except that he is said to have written a poem in praise of Hercules and a tragedy based on the story of Oedipus. Certainly he was to write poetry until late in his life (though almost nothing has survived), and of course the muscular, limpid prose which distinguishes his seven books of commentaries on the wars in Gaul remains an eternal monument. The subject of Hercules might have been invented for the future hero and cleanser of the Augean stables, but Oedipus seems a curious choice although a Freudian might make too much of the fact that, as a child, his relationship with his mother Aurelia had always been very affectionate and happy, and in later years he was passionately attached to her. His father, having been praetor and then propraetor in Asia, died at Pisa in 85 BC SO that Caesar—with two sisters but no brother—became the man of the family in his sixteenth year. His mother, throughout the storm of his life, remained a steadfast image of the Roman hearthside and of values that everywhere else were collapsing. If Caesar's political, financial, and sexual morals were a far call from those of old Rome, at least in his conduct as a soldier—in his toughness, endurance, and tenacity—he invariably displayed the same qualities which had given the Romans of an earlier century the final victory over Hannibal.
In 84 BC, at the age of sixteen, Caesar put on the toga of manhood. He was at this time in his life, Suetonius tells us, "tall, fair and well-built," while Plutarch adds that "he had a fine white skin" but contradicts Suetonius by saying that he was "slightly built." He had a rather broad face and keen, dark-brown eyes. Since both biographers lived long after Caesar was dead they were relying on busts and statues, hearsay and the memories of old men, themselves recounting tales told them as children. Suetonius, however, had access to the imperial and senatorial archives as well as to a large body of contemporary memoirs, while Plutarch cites lists of authorities for his Lives and was clearly a diligent researcher.
Caesar's marriage had been arranged before his father's death; indeed a formal engagement, as was not uncustomary, had taken place while he was still a boy. The bride whom his father had proposed was Cossutia who, although rich, came only from an equestrian family and therefore, would be of no particular asset to one who was both patrician and noble, patrician signifying the inner circle of the old aristocracy and noble those who belonged to the political inner circle. One thing is clear: after the death of Caesar's father, the engagement with Cossutia was broken off. It is possible that Caesar listened to the voice of his own ambition in this as well as to his mother and, especially perhaps, to her sister, Julia.
The widow of the famous Marius, who had been seven times consul and leader of the "popular" party, was a woman who still exerted considerable influence upon the government of the time. Rome was a republic, and had been so ever since the expulsion of the kings in the distant past. Power was held by the senate, composed of three hundred members, although in theory this was a democratic state since every Roman citizen was a member of the Assembly, the executive and legislative body. Out of the senate were annually elected the chief officers of the state, the two consuls, the six praetors, and others. In a time of emergency a dictator might be elected, who took precedence over all the officials, but his position had to be ratified every six months. This had happened during the terrible invasion of Italy by Hannibal, when the old aristocrat Quintus Fabius Maximus had been elected dictator at a time when the divided command of the consuls had almost delivered Italy into the Carthaginian's hands.
In the years since then, with the conquest of Carthage and the absorption of its African and Spanish empire, and then of nearly all the eastern Mediterranean states deriving from the conquests of Alexander the Great, Rome had become an imperial nation with conquered or otherwise submissive territories all round the Mediterranean shores. The republican framework, which had well suited Italy after the subjugation of the native tribes and the Gauls to the north, was not adequate to deal with the new responsibilities of organizing a multitude of countries, nations and races—with different languages, customs and religions. Even before Caesar was born, and certainly during his early life, the system that had evolved over centuries was collapsing through the pressure of circumstances for which it had never been de-signed. Historians and scholars, looking back with hindsight, have been quick to point out that the republic would have disintegrated even if Caesar had never lived. The fact is that Caesar in his struggle for power threw down the old building and laid the foundations for the Imperial one that would be its successor whether inadvertently or by design.
The acquisition of empire, and particularly the riches of the East, had effected an immense change on the Roman scene, both externally and internally. Externally the principal change was from an army which had formerly been composed of Roman citizens, summoned from their farms and small-holdings in time of national emergency, to a number of large armies situated in the various provinces, and com-posed of paid professional soldiers, not only of Italian but of many other nationalities. Internally, the accessibility of great wealth—especially for the powerful families who could occupy the offices that led to it—had transformed the Roman scene. The Rome of the citizen/farmer/soldier had given way to the Rome of the capitalist, the entrepreneur and the absentee landlord, whose broad acres were farmed by hundreds of slaves from the many subjugated nations within the empire. At the same time the city itself had filled with the dispossessed, the peasants and small farmers, rural villagers whose hamlets had lost their purpose with the advent of slave labor, and all the scourings of the Mediterranean ports and littorals. As Peter Green has written in his introduction to Juvenal's Satires: "Collapsing social standards are as sure a sign of eventual upheaval as the ominous drying up of springs and wells which heralds a volcanic eruption." Although he was writing over a century after Caesar's birth, his was the Rome described by the great satirist:
The wagons thundering past
Through those narrow twisting streets, the oaths of draymen
Caught in a traffic jam ...
If a business appointment
Summons the tycoon, he gets there fast, by litter,
Tacking above the crowd. There's plenty of room inside:
He can read, or take notes, or snooze as he jogs along—
Those drawn blinds are most soporific. Even so
He outstrips us: however fast we pedestrians hurry
We're blocked by the crowds ahead, while those behind us
Tread on our heels. Sharp elbows buffet my ribs,
Poles poke into me; one lout swings a crossbeam
Down on my skull, another scores with a barrel.
My legs are mud-encrusted, big feet kick me, a hobnailed
Soldier's boot lands squarely on my toe. Do you see
All that steam and bustle? The great man's hangers-on
Are getting their free dinner, each with his own
Kitchen-boy in attendance. Those outsize dixies,
And all the rest of the gear one poor little slave
Must balance on his head, while he trots along
To keep the charcoal glowing, would tax the strength
Of a muscle-bound general. Here's the great trunk of a fir-tree
Swaying along its wagon, and look, another dray
Behind it, stacked high with pine-logs, a nodding threat
Over the heads of the crowd.
Juvenal(Trans. Peter Green)
Politically the peninsula was torn apart during Caesar's boyhood by what was called the Social War—the war in which many of the allies of Rome (socii) rebelled against the city. They were tired of paying taxes and being sacrificed for Rome while denied the vote by the old reactionaries of the senate, as well as the privileges of Roman citizenship. It was the cry (later to become familiar) of "No taxation without representation!" The war lasted from 91-87 BC, while Caesar was a boy, and cost on a rough estimate 300,000 lives, but by its end some 80,000 new citizens were enfranchised. Its hero was the great soldier Marius, a man of obscure origins but one of the outstanding Roman soldiers: victor in Spain and in Gaul, his life was almost as tumultuous as his nephew Caesar's was to be. Then, hard on the heels of the social war, came a power conflict between what had gradually become the two main political "parties" in Italy. No parties as such existed in name but distinctions, as between Conservative and Labour, Republican and Democrat, have been in evidence since man became a social and city-dwelling animal. They were very evident in ancient Athens, and since the Romans took almost all their thought, art, political science, science itself, poetry, drama, and philosophy from Greece, it would hardly be surprising if they took their political groupings from the same source.
Although not clearly distinguished by simple names, the two main groups were the Populates (Demos) and the Optimates (Aristoi). These were not organized political parties as are understood today in the western world, but somewhat vague groupings impelled by somewhat dissimilar aims and objectives. Of course, as always with human beings, their principal aim was the same: power and the control of power by their own group. Wealth and all that it brought with it would automatically follow. In the civil strife between the Populates and the Optimates the Populates were headed by Caesar's uncle by marriage, Marius, and the Optimates by the patrician Sulla. During Marius' absence in the East and after his death in 86 BC the Populates were led by L. Cornelius Cinna.
It was almost certainly Caesar's widowed aunt Julia who now took a hand in the first major development in his life, for, after breaking off his engagement to Cossutia, he immediately married Cornelia, the daughter of the now all-powerful Cinna. Marriages were very much matters of politics in the Roman world, and the patrician Julian clan had doubly allied itself with the popular party. Caesar, now in his seventeenth year, was young to marry but no doubt his aunt Julia saw the opportunity as too good to miss. In any case, as events would show, he seems to have been genuinely fond of Cornelia. She bore him a daughter in the following year who was called Julia after her clan. She too was to play an important part in the politics of his life.
Six years older than Caesar was a man who embraced the policies of the Optimates as zealously as Caesar did those of the Populates. This was the great orator and politician, Marcus Tullius Cicero. As a man, a citizen and a politician, Cicero was vain and weak; politically he in many respects resembled the celebrated "Vicar of Bray" in the old English ballad. His real genius was with language; in his letters, his oratorical works, his speculative philosophy, he raised the Latin tongue to the peak of its perfection. His political stand is most clearly seen in a speech written in defense of a man called Sextius, who had been arrested for his involvement in one of the innumerable brawls that disfigured the political face of Rome. The orator paints a dream picture of the party he favored, which never existed in the Rome that he knew and can only have existed in his head.
Excerpted from Julius Caesar by Ernle Bradford. Copyright © 1984 Ernle Bradford. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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