The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome

The Famous and Infamous Rulers of Rome is a new Italian Tribune series that will explore the most famous – and infamous – dictators, leaders and emperors of Rome. The history of the Roman Empire is perhaps unprecedented in its prosperity, considered by most historians and scholars to have been the “perfect empire,” with a stable economy, a strong government and a superb military. The men who ruled this empire varied greatly, from noble leaders like Antoninus Pius to oppressive despots like Caligula. The story of Rome’s rulers has it all – love, murder and revenge, fear and greed, envy and pride. Their history is a roller coaster that lurches from peace and prosperity to terror and tyranny. Over the next few weeks, we will look at some of the most outstanding rulers Roman history created – and who created Roman history. This week we focus on Julius Caesar, one of the greatest military minds in history and credited with laying the foundation for the Roman Empire.

Julius Caesar: The Last Dictator

caesar_statueJulius Caesar’s birth marked the beginning of a new chapter in Roman history. A politically adept and popular leader of the Roman Republic, Caesar significantly transformed what became known as the Roman Empire, by greatly expanding its geographic reach and establishing its imperial system.

While it has long been disputed, it’s estimated that Julius Caesar was born in Rome on July 12 or 13, 100 BC. The Rome of Caesar’s youth was unstable. An element of disorder ruled the Republic, which had discredited its nobility and seemed unable to handle its considerable size and influence. Despite this, Caesar made an effort to side with the country’s nobility, yet a dispute with Rome’s dictator, Sulla, caused young Caesar to find escape in the military.

Following the death of Sulla, Caesar returned to Rome to begin his career in politics as a prosecuting advocate. He relocated temporarily to Rhodes to study philosophy, but during his travels there was kidnapped by pirates. In a daring display of his negotiation and counter-insurgency tactics, he convinced his captors to raise his ransom. He then organized a naval force to attack them and the pirates were captured and executed.

When Caesar returned to Rome he began to work with Pompey, a former lieutenant under Sulla, who had switched sides following the dictator’s death. Not long after, Caesar was elected quaestor and went to serve in several other key government positions. As Caesar was cultivating his political partnership with Pompey, the astute leader was also aligning himself with Marcus Licinius Crassus, a Roman general and politician, who offered financial and political support to Caesar.

Over the years Pompey and Crassus had come to be intense rivals, yet once again Caesar displayed his abilities as a negotiator, earning the trust of both men and convincing them they would be better suited as allies instead of enemies. This partnership among the three men came to be known as the First Triumvirate. For Caesar, this political alliance and the power it gave him was the perfect springboard to greater domination.

Caesar soon secured the governorship of Gaul (now France and Belgium), allowing him to build a bigger military and begin campaigns that would cement his status as one of Rome’s all-time great leaders. As he expanded his reach, he became known far and wide for the ruthlessness he showed his enemies.

Due to a series of events, Caesar waged war against Pompey, leading troops across the river Rubicon on January 10-11, 49 BC. Pompey and his troops were no match for Caesar, and by the end of 48 BC, Caesar had pushed his enemies out of Italy and pursued Pompey into Egypt, where he was eventually killed. There, Caesar aligned himself with Cleopatra, with whom he had a son, Caesarion.

Upon his return to Rome, Caesar was made dictator for life and hailed as the Father of his Country. For Caesar and his countrymen, his rule proved instrumental in reforming Rome.

He would serve just a year’s term before his assassination, but in that short period Caesar transformed the empire. He relieved debt and reformed the Senate by increasing its size and opening it up so that it better represented Romans as a whole. He reformed the Roman calendar and reorganized how local government was constructed. In addition he resurrected two city-states, Carthage and Corinth, which had been destroyed by his predecessors, and he granted citizenship to a number of foreigners. He also proved to be a benevolent victor by inviting some of his defeated rivals to join him in the government.

Caesar’s reforms greatly enhanced his standing with Rome’s lower- and middle-class populations, but his popularity with the Senate was another matter. Envy and concern over Caesar’s increasing power led to angst among a number of politicians who saw in him an aspiring king.

Caesar’s wish to include his former Roman rivals in the government helped spell his downfall. Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus were both former enemies who had joined the Senate. Together, the two of them led the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March 44 BC.

Following Caesar’s death, a power struggle ensued in Rome, leading to the end of the Roman Republic. A mob of lower- and middle-class Romans gathered at Caesar’s funeral, with the angry crowd attacking the homes of Cassius and Brutus. Caesar quickly became a martyr in the new Roman Empire, and just two years after his death he became the first Roman figure to be deified.

Playing on the late ruler’s popularity, Caesar’s great-grandnephew, Gaius Octavian, assembled an army to fight back the military troops defending Cassius and Brutus. His victory over Caesar’s assassins allowed Octavian, who would assume the name Augustus, to take power in 27 BC and become the first Roman emperor.

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