Julius Caesar

> Why is Julius Caesar better known to “us non Roman studies PhD people” than other emperors? – @Daveycam89

Right, first things first: Julius Caesar was not an emperor. I know this contradicts everything you were taught in school, and I know his name is LITERALLY Caesar and we’ve all been told that Caesar is Kaiser is Tsar is Czar and that means emperor all the time, but trust me on this one. Julius (or JC as I like to call him, because I’m fun) was at various times pontifex maximus, consul, proconsular provincial governor, general and dictator for life (and was impressively, relentlessly corrupt in all these roles) but never emperor in the Roman sense. Got that? Good. I’ll do a post on how to become, and what defines, an emperor (it’s more complicated than you think) and then you’ll all agree with me.

But JC is still the most famous of the Romans. From over 1000 years of history, counting from the founding of Rome by Romulus in 753BC to the fall of Rome as a significant power in 476AD(1), and all the consuls, emperors, generals, men and women and children who lived during that time are remembered only in the shadow of Julius Caesar. And @daveycam89 wants to know WHY. And my answer is, lots of reasons, complicated reasons. But here are the main ones:

  1. JC is the winner of a war fought during the one of the most significant periods of Roman history;(2)
  2. There are lots of helpful, detailed narrative sources about Julius Caesar;
  3. He wrote about himself, which was rare;
  4. His great – nephew and adopted son Octavian, later Augustus, made a big deal out of his relationship with JC in order to create the illusion of legitimacy for his own power.

1. Significant period

JC is alive from 100BC – 44BC. His active period is 69-44BC. During that time he, and a few others, destroyed Roman Democracy through a combination of astonishing corruption, deeply selfish civil wars (JC pretty much invaded Rome because he was scared of being prosecuted for crimes he had committed while Consul a decade earlier and had a lot of debt. Wuss), pigheadedness and ego. This period therefore has it ALL. It has sex (3), it has wars, it has intrigue, stabbings, beheading, incest, gayness, bitchiness and pithy one liners (‘the die is cast’), and on top of all that, it has widespread, tangible, lasting effects. What all these things mean is that contemporary and successive writers love to write about it when examining how they got from the idealised Republic to the state of total imperial control. Which is an issue they really really like to write about.

2. Lots of sources

Which brings us to the second point. Not only did later Romans (& Greeks) like to write about JC and the crew with awe, so did his contemporaries. Mostly because they were horrified by JC’s behaviour. Even more importantly, people wrote lots of nice narrative histories of Caesar’s time, with a chronology and specifics. This is a significant issue with a lot of the rest of Roman history: the only detailed sources we really have are biographies by men like Suetonius and Plutarch. And while these biographies are illuminating in a lot of ways, the Roman approach to biography was neither chronological or honest but “thematic”. This means that piecing together whether things happened, when they happened or in what order or why is difficult and sometimes impossible. But not for Caesar, partly because…

3. Caesar’s Writing

Caesar wrote about himself. In the third person, like the egotistical nut he was, but nonetheless. This means we know what Caesar did, why Caesar says he did it, how Caesar wanted to present himself and be remembered (as a badass general mainly), all of which gives us an intimate insight into Caesar’s personality and mind that we don’t have for any other leaders of the Roman empire. We know first hand his side of the story,(4) and that is – when we think about it – facemeltingly exciting for Roman historians. Certainly it was great for historians in the olden days, before postmodernism happened, when a large part of academic history was rewriting ancient sources in English and making some statements with an authoritative tone. But even more significantly for this question it is IRRESISTIBLE for popular historians, for the kind of authors you find on the non-fiction tables in Waterstone’s who write history like novels, and indeed for the novelists themselves. The first hand account of a vitally important war? Why, I can rewrite this in my own words and call it historically accurate and let it sell itself!

On top of JC’s own writing, there are an enormous number of contemporary poems, stories, histories, speeches, letters and plays by people like Cicero, Lucretius, Pliny the Elder, Catullus, Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Sallust that give the first century BC a colour and life and detail that is sometimes missing from other periods of the Roman world. All of this adds up to make JC and the gang a very alluring prospect for writers, film makers and historians alike in the modern world.

So Caesar wrote himself to fame. But he also had help…

4. Use of Caesar by Augustus.

Mainly, his help came from his great-nephew Gaius Octavius, aka Octavian aka Gaius Julius Divi Filius Caesar Octavianus Augustus. Those of you who know a little Latin will spot the important bit here: Julius Divi Filius Caesar. Julius Son of God Caesar. This is central to Octavian’s rise from skinny 19 year old with sticky out ears to emperor of the world (along with a powerful ego, a relentless dedication to himself and a big army): he had Julius deified. Which, given that JC had been murdered by several state actors was pretty damn impressive for a kid. He also declared that he was JC’s adopted son (illegally as he was adopted posthumously in JC’s will), thus making himself a son of a God, and who can compete with the son of a God? May as well try to fight Aeneas himself. Damn Octavian was good. This use of Caesar’s dictatorial and military power as the legitimising mechanism for Octavian’s power, which then becomes Augustus’s Imperial power, places JC at the idealogical centre of Imperial power for the rest of the empire’s lifetime. In the 4th Century, when Diocletian decided to institute radical reforms by splitting the empire between two co-Emperors, each with a sub-emperor, the emperors were given the title Augustus, and the sub-emperors were titled Caesars. So, this bold (and, had it gone wrong, completely mad) decision by Octavian to use JC’s name so overtly in his bid for ultimate power is what makes Caesar the modern byword for imperial power in three languages and most modern fiction.

Footnotes

(1) The date is of course open to interpretation and there are at least three other dates which could be used (312, 410, 526AD). This marks the date that Odoacer, king of the Ostrogoths, quietly and politely stripped the Western Roman emperor Romulus Augustulus of his power and sent him out of Rome thus marking the official administrative end of the Roman empire in Rome.

(2)I know that Romanists are going to argue with me on this one and talk about Tarquin and the end of the kings (maybe mythical), and Late Antiquiarians are going to splutter about either Diocletian or Constantine and you’re both right, ok.

(3) Caesar and Cleopatra mainly, but Pompey also caused a scandal by falling too heavily in love with his wife, JC’s daughter and embarrassing himself. The Romans weren’t a particularly romantic people, ironically.

(4) We also know that he was killer tedious: all together now Latin students “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”

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