Friday, 14 May 2021 14:36

Episode 9 - Caesar seizes power

On January 10th of the year 49, Caesar "cast the die", he passed the Rubicon with the Legion XIII, 6,000 men only, against the 60,000 that Pompey had already gathered. The Legion XII reached him in Piceno, and the Legion VIII in Corfinio, halfway between Pescara and Rome; the cities opened before him and greeted him like a God. Italy was exhausted and did not resist the rebel, and he repaid it with clemency: no looting, no prisoners, no purges. Caesar kept on seeking a compromise during this advance on Rome without resistance or at least pretended to. But without waiting for answers, he kept on advancing. Pompey and his senators were caught off guard by Caesar's bold and decisive gesture and by the favour he enjoyed; they preferred to leave Italy without fighting, also because the legions of veterans Pompey could dispose of had fought in Gaul in Caesar's service, so their fidelity was uncertain.

Pompey retreated to Brindisi, where he loaded his army on the ships and ferried it to Durazzo. Curious tactics for a general who had at least twice as many men as his opponent. Actually, Pompey counted on the aid from the eastern provinces, taking advantage of the influence he had gained in those lands at the time of the wars against Mithridates, 20 years before. The conservatives, laden with money, pretensions, insolence, each with servants, wives, friends, luxury tents, uniforms and plumes, abandoned Rome in the wake of Pompey after declaring that the senators who remained there would be considered enemies of the Republic.

Caesar entered Rome on March 16th, leaving the army outside the city. He had rebelled against the Republic but respected its regulations. He asked for the title of dictator, but the Senate refused. He also demanded that peace envoys be sent to Pompey, and the Senate refused. He asked to have access to the Treasury, and the tribune Lucius Metellus opposed it. In the end, he declared: “it is as difficult for me to make threats as it is easy to carry them out”. Immediately, the treasure was made available to him.

The Conservatives prepared to counter Caesar by amassing three armies: Pompey’s in Albania, Cato’s in Sicily, and another in Spain. Pompey expected Caesar to head to the East, but after staying in Rome for only eight days, Caesar went to Spain first, to secure wheat supplies and get rid of the enemy forces in the peninsula. He believed that the Pompeians were not so strong, and he faced unforeseen events and difficulties. But he gave his best in times of danger and, in just two and a half months, all the enemy legions surrendered.

The people in Rome, who had been saved from famine, exulted. The Senate gave him the title of “dictator” and, to set things right, Caesar had the People's Assembly proclaim him Consul. Now Caesar was impatient; he wanted to engage Pompey’s army in battle as soon as possible because time was on Pompey’s side, he kept on receiving soldiers from his allies. So, Caesar gathered the army in Brindisi, boarded 20,000 men on the 12 ships he had at his disposal and landed them in Albania, on the other side of the Adriatic Sea, on the trail of Pompey.

Pompey was stunned: he was convinced that no one would dare cross that arm of the sea in winter, which was patrolled by his mighty fleet. Why didn't he attack that reckless enemy, who dared to defy him with so little force, we’ll never know. The weather also favoured Pompey: Caesar's ships shipwrecked, and thus he could not ferry the rest of the army.

The weather finally got good again, and Mark Antony, the best of his lieutenants, with other men and supplies could reach Caesar's demoralized troops. On Pompey’s side, most of his followers persuaded him to look for the fight because they were convinced that Caesar would lose. Pompey ran after the enemy and reached him in the plain of Pharsalus, in Thessaly. He had 40,000 infantrymen and 3,000 cavalrymen; Caesar, 22,000 infantrymen and 1000 cavalrymen. There were great banquets, speeches, drinks, and toasts to celebrate the victory in Pompey's camp on the eve of the battle. Caesar ate grain and cabbage with his soldiers in the mud of the trenches.

The next day, August 9th, 48 BC, Caesar made his masterpiece: Caesar's veterans, whom he had personally trained and led in the battle for so many years, defeated Pompey’s troops, which were less prepared and less motivated, as they were composed mainly of newly enlisted soldiers and auxiliaries provided by provincial communities and client kings. Caesar's army lost only 200 men, killed 15,000, and captured 20,000; Caesar ordered them to be spared and celebrated the victory under Pompey's luxurious tent, eating the lunch that the cooks had prepared for Pompey to celebrate his triumph. After Pharsalus, many Republic supporters preferred to surrender. In fact, Caesar had repeatedly guaranteed that the defeated enemies who surrendered could pass on his side or return unharmed to their private life.

At that moment, Pompey was riding towards the port of Larissa, always followed by a disturbance of aristocrats. There was also a Brutus; he was the son of his old mistress Servilia, and perhaps Pompey was even his father. From Larissa, Brutus sent Caesar a letter asking him for forgiveness for himself and his brother-in-law Cassius, and Caesar immediately acquitted both of them. A gesture that will cost him dearly.

Pompey’s wife had joined him, and he embarked for Africa, intending to put himself at the head of the last senatorial army, the one Cato and Labieno had been organizing in Utica. The ship anchored in front of a port named Pelusium, in the waters of Egypt: Egypt was a vassal state of Rome, which administered it through its young king, Ptolemy XIII. Ptolemy was a young boy at the mercy of his prime minister, Potinus. He already knew about Farsalus and believed he was securing the winner's gratitude by assassinating the loser. As he disembarked from a lifeboat, Pompey was stabbed in the back under his wife's eyes. And, when Caesar arrived, Pompey’s head was presented to him: he turned away with horror.

Now that he was there, before returning to Rome, Caesar wanted to fix things in that land, which had been going wrong for a long time. According to their father’s will, Ptolemy was to share the throne with his sister Cleopatra after marrying her; this was quite common in ancient Egypt, where pharaohs almost always married their sisters. But when Caesar arrived, Cleopatra was not there: Potinus had confined her and locked her up.

Secretly, Caesar sent for her. To reach him, she had herself hidden in a carpet that the servant Apollodorus brought to the apartments of the illustrious guest at the Royal Palace. When the carpet was opened, Caesar found himself in front of a woman, and what a woman!

Cleopatra was not beautiful but sexy, an expert in cosmetics and powders, with a melodious voice. Besides, she was very curious and cultured; she knew the basics of astronomy, geometry, arithmetic and medicine. She was very skilled in rhetoric, and above all, according to Plutarch, she knew at least eight languages, among them Greek and Latin. And Caesar, who was an inveterate womaniser and was also 52, certainly did not back down.

The next day he reconciled brother and sister, that is, he practically gave all power back to her; Potinus was suppressed, discreetly, on the pretext that he was conspiring. But at this point, the whole city rose against Caesar, and the local garrison joined the rebels. With his few men, Caesar turned the Royal Palace into a fort, sent a messenger to his troops in Asia Minor to ask for reinforcements, burnt the fleet so that it did not fall into the hands of the enemy (and unfortunately the fire spread also to the great library, honour and pride of Alexandria). He himself led an assault on the islet of Faro by swimming; here, he waited for reinforcements to arrive. Cleopatra bravely stayed with Caesar; when reinforcements arrived, they easily defeated the Egyptians.

Caesar had prevailed, and promptly he put Cleopatra back on the throne. He stayed with her for nine months, the time it took her to give birth to a child who was called Caesarion so that there was no doubt about who was the father. At least on Caesar’s part, it had to be love to make him deaf to the appeals of Rome; in his absence, the city had fallen prey to the violent squads, led by a Milo. The young queen had earned Caesar's support by exploiting her feminine charm and the weapons of seduction. But at the news that he was about to embark on a long journey with her on the Nile, Caesar’s soldiers rebelled. Caesar then shook himself, put himself again at the head of his troops and first set out for Asia Minor.Here Pharnaces, king of the Bosporus (present-day Crimea) and son of Mithridates VI, was trying to take advantage of the Roman Civil War to expand his kingdom. It was a very short campaign: after a few weeks, Pharnaces was defeated at Zela; when Caesar celebrated the triumph in Rome, he displayed a sign with only three words: "Veni, vidi, vici", I came, I saw, I won.

Then, he embarked for Taranto, taking Cleopatra and their child with him; and as if nothing had happened, he showed up in Rome and to his wife Calpurnia with this living prey of war. Calpurnia did not blink; she was used to her husband's infidelities. The situation in Rome was not good. Grain no longer came from Spain, here Pompey's son had organized an army, and not even from Africa, here Cato was dominant, his forces were equal to those that Pompay had in Pharsalus. In Italy, it was chaos. Caesar had instructed his lieutenant Mark Antony to maintain order, but Antony was a soldier and solved problems the only way he knew, by unleashing his troops. 1,000 Romans had been slaughtered in the Forum, and Milo had fled to organize the revolt outside Rome; here, several legions had rebelled.

To solve the problem, Caesar began from the army. He presented himself, alone and unarmed, to the legions that had revolted. With his usual calm, he said that he recognized their legitimate claims and would satisfy them on his return from Africa. To Africa, he would go with other soldiers. At those words, veterans rose, they shouted that they were Caesar's soldiers, and they intended to stay so. Caesar pretended some difficulties, then surrendered for the simple reason that he had no other soldiers.

He loaded the troops on the ships, landed in Africa in April 46 and found 80,000 men waiting for him under the command of Cato, his former lieutenant Labienus and Juba, the king of Numidia. Once again, he lost the first battle and, once again, he won the decisive battle, which was terrible. Cato, his primary opponent, ran back to Utica with a small detachment, advised his son to submit to Caesar, offered lunch to his closest friends, entertained them about Socrates and Plato. Then he retreated to his room and plunged a dagger into his belly. When he knew, Caesar sadly said that he could not forgive him for taking away the opportunity to forgive him, then he gave Cato solemn funerals and offered his pardon to his son.

After a brief stop in Rome, Caesar embarked once again for Spain to get rid of the last Pompeian army and defeated it in Munda. No one could now oppose Caesar's absolute power; in 47, the Senate had granted him the title of dictator for ten years and then for life.

Caesar was back in Rome in October (after all, he’ll stay in Rome for no more than five months before being assassinated). He took the title of imperator, he could then pass it on to his descendants, and every day he could wear the laurel wreath, the victorious generals wore it only on the day of triumph. His statue was erected among those of the ancient kings of Rome and, in his honour, the fifth month after March, which was the first month of the archaic Roman calendar, was given the name “Iulius”, hence Luglio in Italian and July in English.

After so much war, there was no one left to fight. It looked like peace could last for years, and Caesar devoted himself entirely to the work of reorganizing the State. Formally, the Republic, with its magistrates and assemblies, was still operational. Still, civil, military and religious powers were practically in the hands of a single individual, who acted as a magistrate but in reality had no constraints on his decisions.

The assembly was on his side, and Caesar reduced the Senate to a purely advisory body. Members grew from 600 to 900, with new elements chosen partly from the Roman and provincial bourgeoisie and partly among his old Celt officers, many of whom were children of slaves. He granted Roman citizenship to Gallia Cisalpina, which he had known and ruled as governor; now Italy was Roman, from the Alps to the Strait of Messina, both culturally and legally. And he began to reform the bureaucracy and the army with these provincials of peasant or bourgeois origin.

To reward his veterans and solve the problem of urban, poor citizens, he distributed land to 80,000 heads of families. To avoid expropriating lands, he founded a series of colonies in Gaul, Greece, Carthage.

Also, to have more agricultural land available for distribution and at the same time get more opportunities for work for the urban plebs, Caesar planned the reclamation of the Pontine Marshes, south of Rome. He ordered important public works in Rome: the Forum was renovated, the Basilica Giulia and a new Curia for the meetings of the Senate were built. He also decided to create a new Forum next to the Roman Forum, which was now insufficient for the needs of Rome.

The Forum of Caesar was the first of the Imperial Fora to be built, starting from 54 B.C., as an extension of the ancient Roman Forum. The Forum was built on an area previously occupied by private buildings, which Caesar purchased for an enormous sum, between 60 and 100 million sestertii. Caesar built his Forum following a vow he had made before the Battle of Pharsalus against Pompey, and it was dedicated in 46 B.C.: the work, which remained incomplete, was finished by Octavian after Caesar's death, and a new inauguration took place on May 12th, 113 AD, under Emperor Trajan. The area occupied by the Forum measured initially about 160 m by 75 m, surrounded on three sides by a double colonnade. In the centre of the square stood the statue of Caesar, on a horse whose forelegs had the shape of human feet. The south-western side consisted of a series of shops of varying depths, built with blocks of tuff and travertine. The Temple of Venus Genitrix occupied the bottom of the square and was its real architectural and ideological fulcrum. A statue of Venus Genitrix, the mother of Aenea and the mythical progenitor of the "gens Iulia", stood inside the cell.

Caesar put in these enterprises the same energy that he had put in battle. He wanted to see everything, know everything, decide everything. He did not admit waste and incompetence. The policy of full employment coincided with his ambition to build grandiosely; Caesar was a builder, as he had shown when he was a general. He also innovated the calendar: to heal the growing disagreement between the calendar year and the actual pace of the seasons, Caesar called a Greek astronomer from Alexandria and introduced a year of 365 days, with a leap year of 366 days every four years: it is the Julian calendar that is still used today, with slight modifications.

He was totally indifferent to the dangers that threatened him. He could not ignore that many were plotting around him, but he did not consider his enemies brave enough to dare. And he dreamed of new enterprises: avenging Crassus against the Parts, extending the empire over Germany, finally refounding the whole of Italian society based on the ancient customs.

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Wednesday, 28 April 2021 12:53

Episode 8 - The rise of Julius Caesar

After the death of Silla, power theoretically returned to the Senate. Still, the Senate itself leaned on two lieutenants of Silla, the most potent individuals now in Rome: Pompey and Crassus.

From a wealthy family, Marcus Licinius Crassus had become even richer with the confiscations during the times of Silla, and this wealth allowed him to play a major political role. In 73, slaves at a gladiator school in Capua revolted; they were gladiators, therefore they were well trained and prepared. They were led by a slave from Thrace, Spartacus, who knew the Roman military tactics because he had fought in the Roman army. The revolt started with a small group of skilled fighters, but it quickly spread to large areas of southern Italy; it was a clear sign of the desperation of thousands of slaves; and surprisingly, they were joined by many peasants and small farmers, for many Roman citizens the living conditions were so poor that they chose to join the slaves in the revolt.

To fight this war, which was called "the slave war", the Senate gave Crassus the command of 8 legions, some of which he probably financed himself. After a great battle in Apulia in which Spartacus died, in 71, the war was over: Crassus had 6.000 prisoners crucified along the Appian Way.

The other protagonist of these years is Pompey: after being a supporter of Silla, in 76, he was sent to Spain to fight the Roman governor Sertorius, who ruled his provinces as an independent king. After taming the revolt, he returned and signed a pact with Crassus: both would be consuls in the following year. And so it happened. But it was Pompey that the Senate appointed as leader of a great army to fight pirates in the western Mediterranean.

With extraordinary powers and an army of 120,000 soldiers and 500 ships, Pompeius got rid of the pirates and cleared the sea routes in a few weeks. Then he was ordered to turn against King Mithridates of Ponto (now Armenia), but he went far beyond his mandate: he defeated King Mithridates, subdued Armenia, annexed Syria, and intervened between the two heir brothers to the throne of Judea, and made it a tributary state.

Now the Eastern Mediterranean was controlled, directly or indirectly, by Rome. Pompeius acted without even caring to be authorised by the Senate; he acted on his own initiative, as a monarch: he deposed kings, created others, set territories as Roman provinces, allowed others to remain independent under Rome’s control, which was also a way for him to obtain the future support of these kings. This meant that the Senate, which traditionally had the responsibility of foreign policy, was losing power, and it set a precedent that other generals would follow.

At this point, it was evident that in Rome’s policy, conquest and exploitation prevailed over anything else. Rome no longer needed to justify its aggressive policy since there was no public opinion of any kind anymore; it was the most powerful state in the Mediterranean and thus had the right to dominate all other peoples and establish a universal empire.

Pompey was now immensely rich; he dissolved the army as he was legally compelled to do and returned to Rome in 62. He thought that his popularity and influence were so great as to guarantee him the undisputed supremacy of the state. But he was wrong: now that he did not have an army to back him, senators thought he was not so dangerous, after all. The decisions he had taken in the East were not validated, and his veterans were not even granted the lands he had promised them. This led him to turn against the Senate and look for the help of an old friend, Crassus, and through him of Marius' nephew, who was now the leader of the populares: Julius Caesar.

Caius Julius Caesar came from a poor aristocratic family that traced its origins to King Ancus Martius and the goddess Venus. He was probably born in 100 B.C. He was Marius' nephew, and his family ties put him among the populares. Caesar was a perfect man of the times, elegant, unscrupulous and full of humour.

At that time, the contrast between the senatorial and the popular factions was very violent, and in 74, Caesar left for Cilicia to escape his enemies. A pirate boat captured him at sea, and the pirates demanded 20 talents for his ransom. Caesar replied insolently that it was too low a price for his value, and he preferred to give them 50. He sent his servants to get them; while in prison, he wrote verses and red them to the pirates but also promised to hang them. Which he did because, as soon as he was freed, he ran to Miletus, rented some boats, chased the pirates and captured them, took his money back and had them all slaughtered.

Caesar belonged to an ancient family and its relationships, together with some good marriages and the massive number of votes he literally bought, and he spent a lot of money for them; they secured him a series of important public offices. Finally, in 69, he was appointed Governor of Spain. Here he subdued the area's peoples and brought back to Rome a loot so big that the Senate granted him the triumph.

Back in Rome, Caesar proposed to Crassus and Pompey to forge a three-party private partnership that historians will call “the first triumvirate". Each of the three would manoeuvre the masses of followers at his disposal and pass laws to benefit the other two. Caesar was the least important and influential of the three men, and therefore he benefited most from this pact.

With the support of his new allies, he was elected consul for the year 59. Immediately, he had Pompey’ decisions in the East ratified and lands distributed to Pompey’ veterans. Then, to consolidate the alliance, he gave Pompey his daughter Giulia as a wife. He then appointed himself proconsul (governor) of the provinces of Gallia, for five years, never happened before: thus, he could undertake a lengthy military campaign without having to give up command. His conquest would make him as popular as Pompey and provide his soldiers with enrichment opportunities.

The Gauls belonged to the great family of Celtic peoples and were divided into about 50 tribes. They lived in large villages; their economy was based on agriculture, cattle breeding, iron and metalworking. The various tribes were constantly at war with each other. In Caesar's time, Roman merchants travelled extensively across the region: it was often they who provided the general with directions and news. Caesar focused on these divisions; he only had four legions for all that territory, not even 30,000 men. And just as he took over, 400,000 Helvetii were heading for Gallia Narbonensis, southern  France, from Switzerland, and 150,000 Germans had crossed the Rhine to invade Flanders.

Several Gallic tribes asked for Rome’s protection and Caesar, without even notifying the Senate, enlisted another four legions at his own expense. The two campaigns were dazzling. He beat the Helvetii so hard, despite their enormous superiority, that they asked for permission to withdraw to their homeland, and Caesar allowed it, as long as they accepted to be subjects of Rome. Even the Germans were annihilated in a battle. Now, the underestimated women chaser turned out to be a formidable general on the battlefield, with an intuitive tactical genius but also with absolute contempt for human life.

Caesar's conquests in Gaul made him equal to his associates, both for his military reputation and financial resources. In the dispatches he sent home, Caesar thrilled his fellow citizens with reports of the Rhine crossing in the campaign against the Germans and the exploration of Britannia, Britain, these acts had little strategic value, but their purpose was to increase his legend.

In 56, Caesar met once again with Crassus and Pompey in Lucca. The three decided that Caesar's proconsulate would be renewed for another five years, while Crassus and Pompey would be Consuls in 55. After the consulate, Crassus would have the government of Syria, and from here he could earn that military glory that he lacked, unlike Pompey and Caesar; and Pompey would obtain the government of the two provinces of Spain with the command of some legions; thus he would have his own army again.

The three political leaders now had absolute power. But it was evident that sooner or later, the power struggle would blaze again, and in 54, the agreement began to weaken. The strength of the Triumvirate laid in the fact that neither of its members could stand against the other two. But the precarious balance was broken when Crassus' army was annihilated by the Parthians at Carre, in Asia Minor, nowadays Turkey, in 53: Crassus was killed, and his head was exhibited in a court play. Now Crassus could not be a counterweight anymore, in case Caesar and Pompeius quarrelled.

Back in Gaul, Caesar had a wooden bridge built in 10 days on the Rhine to show the Germans the power of Rome; he made a foray into the Germanic territory and, after returning to the left bank of the river, had the bridge destroyed. In 55 and then in 54, he landed in Britain and advanced to the Thames: never had a Roman army gone so far north.

In Rome and Italy, Caesar's fame was immense. But, in 52, a general uprising united all peoples of Gaul against the Roman occupation, under the command of a young nobleman, Vercingetorix. Vercingetorix stood with his forces between Caesar in the south and his army in the north. With a few soldiers, Caesar crossed the Alps and marched north in an enemy country. He walked day and night, in the snow, and finally managed to reach his troops.

He was alone, one against 10, in a hostile country. He decided to play it all, marching on Alesia, the city where Vercingetorix had amassed his army and besieged it. From all parts of Gallia, the Gauls rushed to free their captain. 250,000 Gauls against 4 Roman legions. Caesar ordered his soldiers to raise two lines of defence, the “valli”, one towards the besieged city and one outwards, facing the incoming forces, and among them he put his soldiers with the few ammunition and food supplies they still had.

After a week of desperate resistance on two fronts, the Romans were starving, but the Gauls were in anarchy, and they began to retreat tribe by tribe. Vercingetorix himself came out of the exhausted city to ask for grace. Caesar granted it to the city, but the rebels became the property of the legionnaires, who sold them as slaves. The unfortunate captain was taken to Rome, and the following year he followed Caesar's chariot in chains during his triumph. With one million dead and another million enslaved, Gaul became a Roman province: the region quickly turned Roman, and Roman citizenship was granted only 100 years later, under Emperor Claudius.

Now, the enemies of Caesar in the Senate opposed to his ambition to return to Rome. With the resources of Gaul at his disposal, he planned to get consulship again for the year 48. But he had to get it “In absentia”, that is, without showing up in Rome. Coming back to Rome before being nominated as consul was too dangerous, without the immunity granted by his current command in Gaul and especially by the protection of his legions, he could be prosecuted and even eliminated.

Now, his adversaries turned to Pompey; they tried to convince him that Caesar was not his ally but his rival. Due to the clashes between rival gangs, it was impossible to elect the Consuls for 54 and much of 53. Followers of the populares even set the Senate on fire. To restore order, in 52, the Senate had Pompey nominated “only” Consul and granted him the office of proconsul (governor) in Spain for five years. Now that even the Senate had resolved to invoke Pompey’s help, there was only one obstacle between him and absolute power: Caesar and his legions.

It was a dead-end, and the general feeling was that civil war was about to break out. Pompey proposed a law according to which anyone competing for consulship should be in the city and had the Assembly site surrounded by his troops. Needless to say, the general assembly approved. Thus, Caesar should go to Rome as a private citizen, far from his army. This would make him completely helpless, whereas Pompey, on the pretext of maintaining public order, kept troops in Italy and near Rome itself.

Under pressure from Pompey, the Senate officially ordered Caesar to dismiss his army by March 1st; otherwise he would be declared a traitor. For Caesar, as he had always shown, attack was always the best defence. He had eight legions in Gaul but only one stationed in Ravenna, and it could provide only 5000 men. However, Caesar knew that, because of the political divisions within Roman society, he was a hero for the populars and would be hailed everywhere in Italy as the people's champion. Caesar spoke to his legionnaires, he called them not “milites” (soldiers) but “commilitones” (comrades) and asked if they felt like fighting against Rome, their homeland: if they lost, they would be called “traitors”. And they answered yes, unanimously.

On January 11th, Caesar ordered the legion to march from Ravenna and camp on the north bank of the Rubicon River, which marked the border between Gaul and Italy. Arriving at the Rubicon, he stopped on the shore. The river itself did not represent a physical obstacle, still, it was a tremendous psychological barrier: it marked the border of Italy, where leading an army was unlawful, Silla had stated it. By crossing it, Caesar would no longer be a servant of the Republic but an enemy.

Around midnight of January 12th, 49 B.C., he made his decision: with the famous motto "Alea iacta est - The die is cast" he crossed the river, starting the civil war. Even though the Republic was formally still alive, its fate was set: whoever won this war would have abolished it.


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