Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets
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In the last century before the Common Era, the Roman Republic was ready to tear itself apart. The Republic was gripped by civil war, as those who supported the rights of the plebs, known as populares, tried to wrest the Republic from the hands of the optimates, who sought to protect the privileges of the aristocracy.
The battle was not going well for the populares. Plebs had lost most of their political power, and their leaders had been rounded up and slaughtered. Defeated in the field, oppressed on all sides, and politically powerless, the plebs of Rome were desperate for a savior.
The first object of their hope was Gnaeus Pompeius, known today as Pompey Magnus, or Pompey the Great. His name was well earned.
Pompey was from a pleb family. His father was the first in his family to serve as consul under the dreadful Sulla. Despite his lowly origins, Pompey was acclaimed as one of Rome's greatest generals. Everywhere he went he brought victory. He'd won campaigns in Sicily, Africa, Spain, and Syria and even cleared the pirates from the seas. These achievements led to Pompey being elected consul.
If the plebs were hoping Pompey would use his newfound authority to restore their political rights, they were sadly mistaken. Pompey was a conservative at heart. He had worked very hard to join the upper class, and he was as jealous of its privileges as any ancient patrician family. Pompey might intimidate the Senate now and again with the threat of his legions, but he had no real interest in undermining the upper class, now that he was a part of it.
Instead of giving the plebs real political power, Pompey gave them presents. Every time Pompey came back from campaign, he showered the plebs with gifts. He threw festivals, financed feasts, and even handed out money. This kept the plebs content temporarily, despite their lack of rights and political power.
This practice proved so effective that it survived long after the Republic had fallen. Buying off the plebs with presents and festivals became so prevalent in the Roman Empire that, a century later, the playwright Juvenal would complain that, 'The people, who once handed out military commands, public offices, legions, everything... now restrain themselves in the anxious hope of being handed Bread and Circuses!'
Pompey had proven that you didn't need to actually help the plebs to gain their support; you just had to buy them. He'd also demonstrated that a victorious general with an army at his back could cow the Roman aristocracy.
As Pompey was reaching the height of his power, an aristocrat named Gaius Julius Caesar started making waves in the Roman political scene. Unlike Pompey, Caesar was from an ancient patrician family. But he was also the nephew of Gaius Marius, the leader of the populares, whereas Pompey had been fighting on the side of the optimates.
In many ways, both men were trying to be a part of both worlds. Pompey was a pleb fighting for the aristocracy, and Caesar was an aristocrat fighting for the plebs. Despite their different origins, both of these men tried to straddle the growing gap between the two classes. And they both used the same strategies to get what they wanted: appeasing the populace with presents while intimidating the aristocracy with soldiers.
Recognizing this kinship, Caesar formed an unofficial alliance with Pompey by marrying his daughter, Julia, to the aging general. With this marriage, Caesar elevated Pompey to the senatorial class and cemented their alliance.
Caesar persuaded Pompey to include a senator named Crassus into their scheming. Crassus had earned some fame putting down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus, but his most notable achievement was that he was the richest man in Rome, perhaps the richest man in all of human history. These three came together to form the First Triumvirate: an alliance between Julius Caesar, Pompey Magnus, and Marcus Licinius Crassus.
Of these three, Caesar was the least powerful. He was a sort of junior member of the Triumvirate. His few military exploits, though successful, were not really noteworthy. His family was ancient but bankrupt. Caesar's role in the First Triumvirate was to ally the wealth of Crassus with the political power of Pompey.
With the help of his new allies, Caesar ran for consul in 59 BCE. Once Caesar was in office, the three men worked together to redistribute public lands to plebs and veterans. This move may have been motivated by sympathy, political maneuvering, or even simple economics. Whatever the reason behind this legislation, it earned Caesar and his allies the devotion of many plebs and veterans.
When Caesar's term as consul was up, he headed to Gaul to do some conquering. When his term ran out, he persuaded Pompey and Crassus to give him five more years for more conquering. When these five years ran out, the Senate recalled Caesar to Rome, but he stayed in Gaul for still more conquering, until he'd conquered all of Gaul and made himself fabulously wealthy and popular in the process.
While Caesar was out conquering Gaul, things were turning sour back at Rome. Caesar's daughter, Julia, died. Without her marriage to Pompey, the Triumvirate was on shaky ground.
The next year, Crassus died in battle in Parthia. This shattered the old Triumvirate and deprived Pompey of his wealthiest supporter. With less money to fling around, Pompey could no longer keep the plebs happy and distracted. The old class struggles came to a head, and the city was descending into riots.
Afraid of Caesar's growing power, Pompey turned against his old ally and formed an alliance with the Senate. The Senate declared Pompey sole consul and declared Caesar an outlaw. It is unclear whether the Senate and Pompey truly meant to threaten Caesar, or if this was all meant to be a bluff to bring Caesar in to line.
But Caesar took it as a threat and, in defiance of Roman law and custom, marched his army on Rome. Caesar moved faster than anyone had expected, and in 49 BCE, he marched his army across the Rubicon. Unprepared and with only raw recruits at hand, Pompey and the Senate fled Rome, surrendering the city without a fight.
As Caesar established himself in Rome, the Senate and Pompey fled to the Eastern provinces to raise an army. With Rome secure, Caesar chased after them. In 48 BCE, the two sides met at the Battle of Pharsalus in central Greece. Though Pompey led the larger force, Caesar's superior tactics won him the battle. His army destroyed, Pompey fled to Egypt, with Caesar hot on his heels.
We're not sure what Caesar intended to do with Pompey when he caught him, but when Caesar arrived in Egypt, he found that Pompey was already dead. The Pharaoh of Egypt, a boy named Ptolemy XIII, presented Pompey's head to Caesar as a gift. Caesar was not amused.
Caesar may have fought Pompey viciously, but the man was still his son-in-law and a consul of Rome. Caesar's displeasure may have been real or feigned, but he took the excuse to meddle in Egyptian politics.
He supported a rebellion by Ptolemy's sister, Cleopatra. After a brief siege and a couple of pitched battles, Cleopatra was queen of Egypt and, according to ancient rumor, carrying Caesar's baby. Caesar now had a client state in Egypt, to provide barges of grain for the hungry plebs in Rome. Egypt seems to have given Caesar a taste for absolute power and some of the luxuries of kings.
Done with Egypt, Caesar completed Pompey's earlier conquest of Asia Minor in an astoundingly short time, then swung back to Africa to mop up the last few senators who stood against him.
In 46 BCE, Caesar returned to Rome, glorious with victory and rich with plunder. With a delicate balance of amnesty and military threat, Caesar got the Senate to name him absolute dictator of Rome for ten years.
In the years that followed, Caesar began dismantling the Roman Republic.
Instead of a few aristocratic families vying with one another for power, Caesar slowly began funneling all of the power to himself. Ironically, his task had been made much easier by the very aristocrats who had opposed him. Rome's aristocrats had already taken political power away from the common people, who now hated the aristocracy with a passion. This meant that the majority of Romans had no stake in the government anyway and did not care if Caesar took power from abusive aristocrats.
Yet, Caesar did not just seize these powers from the aristocracy. Instead, he usurped them in very subtle ways. For example, years of civil war had severely thinned the ranks of the Senate. Rather than refilling it with his natural enemies - the rich and powerful men of Rome - Caesar granted citizenship to the peoples of Hispania and Gaul and used their leaders to fill in the Senate.
Since these new senators owed their new positions to Caesar, this effectively stacked the Senate in Caesar's favor, removing the last restrictions on his power. Caesar's pet senate showered him with titles and honors, and in 44 BCE, they named Caesar dictator for life.
And Rome, which had been without a king for nearly 500 years, now had a king again. He might not have called himself a king, he might not have dressed like a king, but Caesar was a king. There was no doubt about it. The Republic was dead.
In a vain attempt to restore the Republic, a few desperate senators plotted Caesar's assassination.
The coup was led by Marcus Junius Brutus, who was, on the one hand, a close friend of Caesar's, but on the other hand, a direct descendant of Lucius Junius Brutus, who had overthrown the last king of Rome five centuries earlier. History won out over friendship, and on the Ides of March, 44 BCE, Brutus and his fellow senators ambushed Caesar. They stabbed him 23 times, leaving him to die on the Senate floor.
Yet, killing Caesar could not bring the Republic back to life. The Republic was dead. It had been dying for almost two centuries. Without Caesar's intervention, Rome's great empire would likely have fallen apart on its own. By taking power from squabbling aristocrats and establishing himself as a sole ruler, Caesar placed Rome on a more stable foundation, allowing the Roman Empire to prosper and grow for centuries more.
Not long after his death, Julius Caesar was deified, meaning that the Romans revered him as a god. This established the Imperial cult that would endure unto the end of the Empire.
Since then, Caesar has been alternately lionized and vilified by poets, authors, philosophers, and scholars, as each generation has dealt with this larger-than-life figure.
Caesar's legacy lives on even today in the 365-day calendar, with a leap year, which Caesar used to form his own Julian calendar. We can see his mark in our calendars today. Two thousand years later, the month of July still bears the name of Julius Caesar.
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Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets