Famous Men of Rome - John Haaren



Of all the Roman heroes the greatest was Caius Julius Cæsar. He was a very remarkable man in many ways. He was remarkable as a soldier, statesman, scholar, and as an orator. He wrote a history of his own wars which is one of the best ancient histories that have come down to us. It is called Cæsar's Commentaries, and it is used as a text book in all schools where Latin is taught.

Julius Caesar


This famous Roman was tall, handsome, agreeable in his manners, and of a gay disposition. He liked songs and stories, and even when he was a great general he often was as merry and frolicsome as a boy. Sometimes, however, he was stern and cruel instead of kind and forgiving.

Cæsar was a member of the Julian family, which was one of the first families in Rome. Four Cæsars of this family had been consuls of Rome in one century.

The aunt of Julius Cæsar was the wife of the great leader, Marius. Naturally, Sulla was Cæsar's bitter enemy and did all he could against him. "In that young man there is many a Marius," Sulla is reported to have said. However, by keeping out of Rome, Cæsar was able to escape the traps laid for him at Sulla's orders. As soon as Sulla died Cæsar returned to Rome.

Although he was a rich noble, he became a friend of the plebeians and always supported their cause. He spoke a great deal in the Forum upon political questions, and the people looked upon him as their champion. They elected him to several public offices, one after the other, and thus his influence and power were much increased. At last he was appointed governor of Spain, which was then ruled by the Romans.

On his way to Spain he stopped for a night at a little village among the mountains. One of his companions remarked that perhaps in that small place the people had their contests and their jealousies, as well as people in large cities.

"Poor as this village is, I would rather be first here than second in Rome!" said Cæsar.

Cæsar was very successful in Spain, and the Romans were so pleased with his conduct that when he came home they made him consul. During his consulship he had many good laws passed. When about forty years old he was given command of an army, and for some years followed the life of a soldier with wonderful success.

The Roman armies were formed of regiments called legions. Each legion contained over three thousand men, who were sometimes called legionaries. The weapons of the legionary were a short sword and a long spear called a pilum.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Rome by John Haaren


Besides spears and swords the Roman soldiers used slings for hurling stones against the enemy. They also had a machine called a ballista  for throwing stones too heavy for handslings.

The military standard of the Romans was a figure of an eagle borne on the top of a pole. Each legion had one of these and the soldier who carried it was called the eagle-bearer. Other standards also were used by the cohorts  or companies into which the legions were divided.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Rome by John Haaren


Cæsar's first great battles were in Gaul. The Romans called all the inhabitants of that country Gauls, although they were of many nations and spoke different languages. The Gauls were brave, but Cæsar proved to be a great general, and in a few years he conquered all Gaul.

The Roman soldiers had great confidence in Cæsar. When he led them they believed victory was certain. He was strict in his discipline, but very friendly and pleasant with the men, and he often gave them praise. He himself shared in their hardships. Day after day he marched on foot at their head through heat and rain and snow, and fought with them in the front ranks.

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Rome by John Haaren


On one occasion Cæsar built a very remarkable bridge. He wanted to get across the River Rhine with his army, to punish some German tribes who were in the habit of attacking the friends of Rome in Gaul. There was no bridge. The Germans used to get over in small parties by swimming, or in small boats. But a large army could not cross in this way without a great deal of trouble and loss of time, so Cæsar resolved to build a bridge. He quickly set his men to work and they finished the bridge in ten days, though all the wood had to be cut down in the forests and carried to the river side.

One of Cæsar's greatest victories in Gaul was the taking of the Alesia. This town had very strong walls all round it and it was defended by a great army of Gauls commanded by a brave chief named Vercingetorix. Cæsar surrounded the town with his army and prevented food from being sent in to the inhabitants. He also defeated an army that came from other parts of Gaul to help the Alesians. Vercingetorix then had to come out from the town and give himself up to Cæsar.

Vercingetorix and Caesar


After many conquests in Gaul Cæsar sailed over with an army to the island of Britain, now called Great Britain. The natives were a wild, fierce people, and they fought bravely against Cæsar and his army. But the Romans were victorious, and they took possession of Britain, and for over four hundred years the island was a part of the Roman Empire.


Caesar was engaged eight years in his wars in Gaul and Britain. It is said that during these years he conquered three hundred tribes or nations, took eight hundred cities, fought battles with three millions of men and made a million prisoners. He obtained immense quantities of treasure in the conquered lands, and he himself, as commander of the victorious armies, kept a large part of it as his own share, so that he became very rich.

Cæsar's wonderful victories made him a great man in Rome. The plebeians rejoiced at the success of their leader and favorite and were ready to welcome him with the highest honors whenever he should return to the city.

But Cæsar had now made up his mind to become the master of Rome. So he began to plan and to work to destroy the power of Pompey, who at that time ruled public affairs in Rome almost completely.

In order to gain still greater favor Cæsar sent a number of his friends to Rome to spend immense sums of money in various ways to please the people. They got up splendid games and feasts; they divided large quantities of corn among the poor; and they paid the debts of hundreds of men who had influence among the plebeians. The people knew that all this was done at Cæsar's expense, and they praised and loved him for his generosity.

Pompey, with a great show of authority, now ordered Cæsar to disband his army and send the soldiers to their homes, for he said that Cæsar had no need of an army any longer, as he had finished his work in Gaul. But Pompey, too, had an army at this time in Spain, and Cæsar said to him:

"If you will disband your army, I will disband mine."

This made Pompey very angry, and he got the Senate to pass a law declaring that Cæsar was a public enemy and must be put down. One senator asked Pompey what he should do if Cæsar should come to Rome with his army.

"What should I do?" cried Pompey, in a tone of contempt. "Why, I have only to stamp my foot and thousands of men will spring up to march under my orders."

[Illustration] from Famous Men of Rome by John Haaren


At that time Cæsar was with his army in the northern part of Italy. When he heard what the Senate had done he called his soldiers together and made an eloquent speech. He told them of the injustice that Pompey and the Senate had done to him, and he concluded by saying:

"This is my reward for all that I have done for my country. But I shall go to Rome and establish an honest government of the people, if you, my brave soldiers, will be faithful to me."

The soldiers answered with a loud shout, saying:

"We shall be faithful to you. We will stand by you to the last."

Cæsar than started with his army and marched rapidly through northern Italy until he came to the banks of a little river, at that time called the Rubicon, and known as the southern boundary of Gaul. What river this was no one can now exactly tell, but it is supposed that it was some one of several small rivers which flow into the Adriatic Sea south of the River Po.

Cæsar halted his army at the Rubicon and forbade any one to cross it until he gave the order. He stood for some time on the banks in deep thought, as if trying to decide whether he should cross the river and proceed, or give up his dangerous undertaking. He was still within his own territory as commander of Gaul; if he should cross the Rubicon he would be on territory directly under the government of the officers at Rome. By law it was made an act of treason, to be punished with death, for any Roman general to enter this territory with an army, without permission of the Senate.

"We can retreat now," said Cæsar to some of his officers who stood near him, "but once across the Rubicon it will be too late to draw back."

Julius Caesar


While Cæsar was talking a shepherd came along from a field close by, playing lively music on a reed pipe. The soldiers gathered around him to listen to the music, and some of them began to dance. One of Cæsar's trumpeters stood among the soldiers, with his trumpet in his hand. The shepherd saw the trumpet, suddenly seized it and walked to the bridge over the Rubicon, which was but a few steps off. Then he put the trumpet to his lips, sounded the stirring notes for an advance of the troops and began to march across the bridge.

"A sign from the gods!" shouted Cæsar. "Let us go where we are thus called. The die is cast!"

So saying, he turned his horse right into the stream and rode across the Rubicon, followed by his army. It was a daring thing even for Cæsar to do, and the phrases, "he has crossed the Rubicon," "the die is cast," are now often used to mean that a bold or dangerous step has been taken from which there is no drawing back.

There was no one to oppose Cæsar as he marched through Italy. On the contrary, city after city surrendered to him. There was very little fighting. In most places the people seemed glad to have him as their ruler, and gave him a warm welcome and feasted his soldiers. He had only words of kindness for every one, even for those who were against him, and he won hosts of friends and supporters all along his route.

There was great alarm at Rome when it was learned that Cæsar was advancing toward the city. The supporters of Pompey became terrified, and the rich nobles gathered up their money and other valuables and fled. Pompey could do nothing to defend the city against Cæsar, and at last he too ran away. He went to Greece to raise an army to fight Cæsar.

When Cæsar arrived at Rome he met with no opposition. He entered the city amid shouts of welcome from the people. He harmed no one, but he set up a new government and organized a new Senate. He was now the master spirit of the republic.

After arranging everything to his satisfaction in Rome, he went to Spain and defeated Pompey's generals there. Then he came back and turned his attention to Pompey himself.

In the meantime Pompey had been very busy gathering an army in the eastern countries controlled by Rome. In one way and another he collected fifty thousand men. They were stationed on the coasts of Macedonia and Greece. There they waited for Cæsar and his army to cross the Adriatic Sea to give them battle.

Cæsar had a great deal of trouble in getting across the stormy sea with his army of forty thousand soldiers, but at last a landing was made in Greece. Then the two armies had some skirmishing, but no great battle.

This continued for months. Pompey at one time would gain the advantage, and Cæsar at another time. But it was evident that neither of the great rivals was in any hurry to risk the chance of defeat in a general battle. They knew well that such a defeat would entirely ruin the one that was defeated.

But at last the two armies met for battle on the plain of Pharsalia, in Thessaly, a district of Greece. The soldiers on both sides were mostly armed with spears and broadswords. Some carried slings to hurl large stones, and others had bows and arrows. The greater part of the fighting, however, was done with swords.

Eighty thousand men were engaged in the battle, about forty thousand on each side. It was a brave, heroic struggle and lasted for hours. Both armies fought splendidly, but in the end Pompey's army was forced back to its camp, after dreadful slaughter. For a few minutes the camp was bravely defended against the attacks of Cæsar's soldiers and then had to be abandoned. The battle did not last long after this. Pompey's great army was utterly beaten.

Pompey himself, with a few followers, fled to the seashore and sailed across the Mediterranean to Egypt. There he was treacherously murdered by order of Ptolemy, the Egyptian king.

Cæsar gained a splendid victory at Pharsalia, but he was not yet master of the Roman Empire. The rich nobles and senators formed armies to fight him in Asia Minor, Africa, and Spain. Cæsar went with an army to Asia Minor, attacked his enemies, and won a great battle at a place called Zela. This victory was so quickly gained that in sending news of it to Rome Cæsar wrote the famous despatch, "Veni, vidi, vici,"  which is, in English, "I came, I saw, I conquered."

He had equal success in Africa and Spain. In a very short time he destroyed the armies opposed to him. Then he returned to Rome and had the grandest Triumph ever seen in the city.

The celebration lasted four days, and during that time Rome was in a high state of pleasant excitement. Thousands of persons from the surrounding country came to the city to witness the magnificent show.

On each day there were splendid processions, in which there were great numbers of gorgeous chariots, drawn by beautiful horses and filled with Cæsar's principal officers. Behind them marched hundreds of soldiers bearing banners on which were pictured scenes from Cæsar's important battles. Herds of elephants and camels from Asia and Africa appeared in the procession, and there were also long lines of prisoners carrying valuable articles obtained by Cæsar in the lands he had conquered.

In addition to the processions many kinds of entertainments were provided for the people, such as plays, circus exhibitions, combats between gladiators, wild-beast hunts, and chariot races. There were also feasts served to all the people of the city. It was a time of unbounded enjoyment and delighted the Romans so much that they became very devoted to Cæsar.

There was now no opposition to him. Both the nobles and plebeians were willing, and even glad, to have him as their ruler. He was chosen dictator for life and put in command of all the armies of the Empire. He was called imperator, which means emperor.

The people gave him the title of Father of his Country. Statues of him were erected in the public buildings and squares. A grand chair, made somewhat like a throne, was placed in the Senate chamber, and whenever he came to listen to the debates he sat in this chair, as if he were king.

Cæsar now had laws passed making many improvements in the government. He also carried out a number of plans to make Rome of more importance as a commercial city. He erected magnificent buildings, made aqueducts to bring plenty of water to the city, established a great library, and did many other things which were of much benefit to the people.

One of the most useful things he did was to make a new calendar. Before his time the Romans had not a very clear knowledge as to the length of a year. At one time they had only ten months in their year. Afterwards they had twelve, but they counted only 365 days in every year. They did not know or they did not give attention to the fact that the real length of a year is 365 days, 5 hours, 48 minutes, 50 seconds. They did not reckon the extra hours, minutes, and seconds, and so their calendar got quite wrong in the course of a number of years. Cæsar corrected the error by making one year in every four have 366 days, and the calendar thus corrected was called the Julian Calendar.

Cæsar now possessed all the glory and power of a king, and it began to be believed that he wanted to be a king in reality. The Romans had not had a king for five hundred years and would not have one. Their feeling against kings was so strong that none of the men who had ruled Rome, at times with almost kingly power, had ever dared to call himself king.

One day an intimate friend of Cæsar saluted him in public as king. Cæsar replied:

"I am not king, but only Cæsar."

Some of the nobles, however, felt certain that he meant to make himself king, and they formed a plot to kill him in the Senate house, on the Ides of March, that is, on the fifteenth of March. The Romans had certain days in their months which they called Kalends, Nones, and Ides.

One of the persons who made the plot against Cæsar was Junius Brutus, a highly respected Roman. It is said that he was a descendant of the Junius Brutus who, five centuries before, had helped to overthrow the tyrant King Tarquin. Brutus was an intimate friend of Cæsar, but he thought that Cæsar intended to destroy the Republic by making himself king, and therefore he joined the plot against him.

As the Ides of March drew near the plan for putting Cæsar to death was carefully arranged and settled. An augur, or fortune-teller, one day stopped Cæsar in the street and said to him, "Beware the Ides of March!" but the great conqueror laughed at the warning.

On the appointed day the plotters met in the Senate chamber, ready to do the wicked deed they had planned. When Cæsar entered the chamber, all present rose to greet him. He bowed and smiled pleasantly to the people and took his usual seat. Now was the fatal moment.

As had been arranged, one of the plotters went up to him with a request for the pardon of a prisoner. Then the rest crowded around his chair, as if to urge him to grant the request. Cæsar seemed somewhat alarmed at the crowd and rose from his chair. At this moment he was stabbed in the side with a sword. Then there were loud outcries in the chamber, and all was excitement and confusion.

Cæsar used his stylus to defend himself. The stylus was an instrument made of iron, with a sharp point on one end for writing on wax tablets, and with the other end smooth, for rubbing out a word when necessary. For writing on parchment or paper a pen made of reed was used. Educated Romans carried their stylus and tablet in their pockets. From the name of the instrument the word style  is now used to mean a particular manner of writing.

Cæsar had nothing but his stylus to defend himself with. He fought bravely, until he saw his friend Brutus coming to strike him. Then he cried out, "You, too, Brutus!" and made no further resistance.

They stabbed him until he fell dead. Then they went out of the Senate and through the streets of Rome with Brutus at their head. They told the people what they had done and rejoiced at the deed. They said the death of Cæsar saved the Roman Republic.

But the people were very angry and threatened to put to death those who had killed Cæsar. They would have done this only that Brutus and his friends fled from the city.

There was a grand funeral service in honor of Cæsar. The body was laid in the Forum, and a famous Roman named Mark Antony made an eloquent funeral speech over it. He praised Cæsar and spoke so bitterly against Brutus and his party that the people were more angry than ever. This Mark Antony was afterwards a very powerful man in Rome.

Mark Antony

Cæsar died forty-four years before Christ was born. Of course his death did not save the Roman Republic. It had, indeed, already ceased to exist in all but the name. Rome was no longer a republic, but an empire and, as we shall see, the family of Cæsar gave it its first emperor. All the emperors adopted the name of Cæsar as part of their title.