Cesare Borgia: Life & Death

Instructor: Victoria Savage
This lesson examines the life and death of Cesare Borgia. Born into the highly ambitious and infamous Borgia family, through his life Cesare carved a lasting legacy for himself and became the most famous of Pope Alexander's children.

Family Background

Cesare Borgia was born the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI and his most famous mistress, Vannozza Catanei in either 1475 or 1476. His father, at that time Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia, had three earlier children by other mistresses. Although Cesare was born in Italy and spent most of his life there, his family and cultural background was actually Spanish. Cesare's father was the first Pope who publicly recognized his children from out of wedlock.

Portrait of the father of Cesare, Pope Alexander VI
Pope Alexander VI

Youth and Education

As the second son, Cesare was educated for a career in the church and was recognized as being exceptionally brilliant in his studies. He ultimately would become a Cardinal in the Church and became one of his father's most trusted advisers. However Cesare wasn't all that interested in a life devoted to the church. He was highly ambitious, ruthless, manipulative, and cunning, but also charming and charismatic. For many years he was rumored to have murdered his brother out of jealousy for the titles and honor his father had given him. Cesare became the first person in history to give up his position as Cardinal, in order to pursue his ambition of uniting the Papal States and becoming King.


Even though his father was Pope, Cesare knew his recent advancements and privileges would all go away when his father died. Therefore in order to further his grand ambitions, he needed to marry well. He tried to win the hand of Carlotta, daughter of the King of Naples but was unsuccessful. Not to be deterred, he traveled to France and married Charlotte d'Albret, sister of the King of Navarre. The French marriage gave Cesare and his father a powerful ally in their plans to reestablish control of the Papal States.

Cesare became general of France's armies as well as leading commander of the Papal Army. Together Cesare and Louis XII invaded Italy and began a successful campaign winning important victories in Romagna and other Papal cities. In 1500, Cesare marched into Rome in triumph, becoming hero of the common people. By all accounts Cesare was a natural-born leader, daring fighter, and brilliant strategist. However his arrogance and ruthlessness made him many enemies. His quest for power (with his father's support) aroused intense opposition within the Papal States and the other Italian states.

Cesare and his father were victims of propaganda in which Cesare was portrayed as a monster of lust and cruelty. Even though many facts about him were hugely exaggerated during and after his life, there can be no doubt Cesare was highly ambitious and would stop at nothing to accomplish his goals. Aut Caesar, aut nihil ('Either Caesar or Nothing') was the motto he adopted to indicate the single-mindedness of his purpose.

Portrait of Cesare Borgia
Cesare Borgia

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