Episode 9 - Caesar seizes power

Friday, 14 May 2021 14:36 Written by
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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.

Read 1471 times Last modified on Monday, 17 May 2021 15:53
Marcello Cordovani

Marcello Cordovani is the founder and co-owner of VITORITALY. He is also the Tour Manager of the private tour of Italy

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