Julius Caesar - Ada Russell

Caesar's Boyhood under Marius and Sulla

Caius Julius Caesar was born on the twelfth day of the Roman month Quinctilis, afterward called July in his honour, probably in the year 102 B.C. His family claimed descent not only from the Roman kings, but from the gods, and was one of the old patrician houses which had kept well to the fore in later democratic days. A Julius Caesar had been consul in 157; various other high State offices had been held by different members of his family; his uncle was consul when he was eleven years old, and both his grandfather and father were praetors.

Very little is known of these people—almost as little as of the great Caesar's childhood. His father died suddenly at Pisa one morning shortly after rising, as he was fastening on his shoes, when the boy was sixteen years of age. His mother, Aurelia, a lady of the great Cotta family, had a good deal to do with his upbringing, and is said to have taught him to speak Latin with the purity and elegance for which his style was noted. She shared his early triumphs, but died while he was absent from Rome on his Gallic wars. A story or two handed down to us seem to show that she approved of the daring boldness of his early political life. He learned Greek from Marcus Antonius Gnipho, a native of Cisalpine Gaul, a learned, witty, courteous, kind, and gentle tutor, who perhaps had a large share in making the boy less cruel and revengeful than the ordinary Roman of his time, and in giving him the interest in Gaul which led to his conquest of that country and his voyage to the shores of Britain

We know that Caesar was clever and spoke well at an early age and that he made some ambitious experiments in authorship; but we have no anecdotes of his childhood, overshadowed as it was by bloody revolutions. Tragedy and personal danger were the only lot possible for a relative of Marius.

Caius Marius, the gifted child of Italian peasants, won his way to fame in the army. He was standing by when some flatterers asked Scipio Aemilianus where the Romans would ever again find a general like himself, and Scipio answered, laying his hand on the shoulder of the young soldier, "Here, perhaps!"

As tribune of the plebs  Marius boldly defied a consul, and so won the favour of the people, and in the disasters of the Jugurthine War the people chose him to be consul so that he might lead the army against Jugurtha. He it was who received the public gratitude when the Numidian monarch fell at last into Roman hands in any B.C. In that year two Roman armies were completely destroyed at Orange, on the Rhone, and the road to Rome lay open to the Germans; and Marius was again chosen consul to thrust back this peril, although he might not legally be re-elected so soon or elected in his absence. Moreover, Marius held the consulship by re-election for the following four years (103-100 B.C.), and was consul, therefore, when his great kinsman first saw the light.

At Aquae Sextiae (Aix) in 102 and at Vercellae (Vercelli) in 101 the German hordes were annihilated, and Marius returned to Rome to be for several months greater than any king. He was the democratic hero, a plebeian Gracchus with a military reputation, and the 'seditious and indigent multitude,' as the Romans were fond of calling their common people, hoped that he would force some popular measures on the senatorial government. But peace was to show up the weak side of his character. He could not mix with the aristocracy on equal terms, and he found that his harsh, abrupt manners, loved by his soldiers, alienated the citizens, and popularity had now become a necessity to him. So his friends were pained by the sight of the Herculean warrior fawning on the people like some fifth-rate tribune, "attempting to seem popular and obliging, for which nature had never designed him."

Thanks to Marius's democratic sympathies, and his discharged soldiers, who controlled the elections, voting even if they were not down on the voters' list, the popular leaders Saturninus and Glaucia were returned as tribune and praetor respectively for the year 100, the beginning of a terrible period of civil strife for Rome. Saturninus carried new agrarian laws and caused the senators to take an oath to observe them. Confident of success, he determined to seek the tribuneship again for 99, while Glaucia, though not eligible by law, was to seek the consulship, and, to ensure his election, the candidate approved by the Senate was murdered. Marius was vexed at this assassination, and, to the Senate's surprise, he obeyed the consul's order to put down the sedition. He called soldiers to follow him, defeated Saturninus and Glaucia and their armed band of released prisoners and slaves, and imprisoned many of them in the Senate House. A band of young patricians then mounted on to the roof of the Senate House and stoned them to death. This slaughter of Roman citizens, which passed unpunished, still further weakened senatorial prestige, already fatally shaken by the Gracchi. The popular party, however, had lost its leaders, and the Senate, no longer afraid of Marius, proceeded to humble him by repealing the laws of Saturninus. Marius retired from the city in dudgeon and sought to win new fame abroad.

A few uneventful years followed, but far worse disorders began in 91 B.C., when the aristocrat Marcus Livius Drusus entered on his office of tribune of the plebs. He passed some measures which were pleasing to the Senate, but, on the other hand, he introduced an agrarian law, which always infuriated it; and it became known that he was contemplating the radical measure of giving the Roman franchise to the Italians. He in his turn was promptly murdered and his laws were cancelled. Drusus, however, became the torch which kindled the great Social War, and his death secured for the Italians the freedom which his life had failed to obtain for them.

Throughout the anxious year 90 the best generals of Rome, including the aged Marius, Sulla, and the consul Lucius Julius Caesar, sought in vain to crush the confederacy, and the war was only brought to an end by the franchise being granted to all those Italians south of the Po who submitted within a certain time.

The general who had shown the greatest ability in its extinction was Lucius Cornelius Sulla. Between Sulla, the champion of the Conservatives and the general of the future, and Marius, the worn-out hero of the democracy, there was to be a mortal conflict, and in their strife the city was rent into parties as it had never been before. Sulla was one of the most extraordinary of the many extraordinary Romans of the first century B.C. He was very remarkable to look at, with his golden hair, glaring blue eyes, and mottled face, 'like a mulberry sprinkled with meal,' and he was one of the new school of Roman aristocrats who went in for building palaces to live in, collecting art treasures from Greece, and—dining well. The menus of Sulla and his friend Lucullus would have seemed simple to the Romans of the Empire, but meantime they formed the wonder and the scandal of Rome. Sulla was a cynic, believing little in others and still less in himself. He never thought that it was because he was particularly well endowed that his career was so triumphant, but always named himself 'Sulla the Fortunate,' and he gave the name Fortunate (Faustus)  to his children. Such was the man who was to hunt Marius to death and put an end for a long time to democratic risings.

Sulla was chosen consul for the year 88 B.C. and appointed by the Senate to conduct the war which had broken out against Mithradates in the East. The heart of Marius overflowed with rage at this, for the old war-horse panted to be off at the sound of the trumpet. Although he was approaching his seventieth year, he thought that this command should have been given to him, and he threw himself into a new revolution which was brewing. The tribune Sulpicius, with an armed band of democratic followers, carried various other measures in the teeth of the consuls' opposition, and then started a day of blood for Rome by causing the people to transfer the command of the war in the East from Sulla to Marius.

Sulla was at Nola, stamping out the last sparks of the Social War, when the tribunes arrived from home to receive his army and lead it to Marius. The Sullan soldiers stoned them for their pains, although the person of a tribune was sacred, and news flew to the city that Sulla was marching on it at the head of his forces. Even the Conservatives were horrified, for no battle had ever taken place in Rome since history began, and no child of the commonwealth had ever entered her walls as a soldier. Two praetors were sent to command Sulla to approach no farther, but, to the horror of respectable citizens, their fasces  were broken and their purple-edged robes rent. Marius and Sulpicius hastily armed what men they could muster, and the unarmed crowded to the roofs of the houses and hurled stones and tiles down on the first Sullan legion as it approached, but in vain. Sulla came up and ordered torches and fire-darts to be cast at the houses, and his army entered Rome, slaughtering everyone it met. Sulpicius was captured and slain and Marius fled from the city. He spent a year in hiding, sometimes in marshes covered with reeds, sometimes sheltered by a peasant, and sometimes falling into the hands of his pursuers and escaping in some miraculous way. News of his whereabouts would be carried in some way to the lurking Radicals in Rome, for they knew where to put their hands on him when the time came; and the heart of the boy Julius Caesar must have been filled with grief at the thought of the evil fate of this aged relative.

Early in 87 B.C. Sulla set out for the East, and while he was destroying army after army of the vast hosts of Mithradates, the Roman democrats secured the control of the State. The Radical consul Cinna went to war with the Conservative consul Octavius, and after heaping the Forum with slain, Octavius drove the former out of the city. Cinna returned with an army of devoted Italians and accompanied by Marius. The frightened Romans submitted without a blow. But Marius wanted revenge for the treatment he had received, and he had brought back with him a band of the most dangerous sort of slaves, of such a character that they were chained together for their work in the fields by day and thrown into the slaves' prisons (ergastula)  at night.

A great concourse of his friends and relatives, among whom would be his wife Julia and other members of Caesar's house, came forth to meet him, and we may be sure that Julius, now fifteen years old, left his Greek books to go and greet his famous uncle. But it was no place or time for kinsmen and friends. This day must have burned itself into Caesar's memory, and perhaps its horror and futility taught him to act otherwise himself when Rome lay at his mercy in years to come. When Marius gave the signal his slaves slew those who approached, and if any of his friends saluted him and he did not return the salutation, the slaves took that also for a sign and cut them down. These murders made Cinna very unhappy, but Marius never wearied. The city gates were closed for five days while the slaughter went on, and minds of soldiers scoured the roads and neighbouring towns for those who had taken flight at his first coming. Among the magnates who fell were the consul Octavius and two of Caesar's uncles. That his father escaped may show that he belonged to the democratic party. Caesar himself won the great man's favour. He assumed the garb of manhood (the toga virilis), and his uncle gave him the high and lucrative position of priest of Jupiter Capitolinus (flamen Dialis). He was now the most important of all the priests of Rome, except, of course, the High Priest (Pontifex Maximus), because Jupiter was the chief god of the Roman people. He was regarded with the utmost reverence, was attended by a lictor, sat in the Senate by virtue of his office, and had a curule chair. He might not look on labour, and so people had to stop their work when a herald cried that he was coming. He was appointed for life, but any evil deed or any unlucky chance happening to him would necessitate his resignation. His wife would partake of his sacred character, and he would be bound to retire in case of her death. He was clad in a woolen purple-bordered toga, supposed to be woven by the wife, and a white leather cap made from the skin of a sacrificed animal, with an olive branch and woolen thread on top of it; and he carried wherever he went the sacrificial knife which he used in the daily slaughter of victims in Jupiter's temple. His wife also would be bound to dress in a special way and carry a sacrificial knife. It was a curious position for a boy to fill.

Marius, as had been foretold to him in his youth, was elected consul for the seventh time, a thing which had happened to no Roman before, but he died on January 13, 86 B.C., shortly after entering on office; and not till then did the massacres come to an end.

For four years after the death of Marius, Cinna held the consulship and nominated whom he chose for his colleague; and however much the Conservatives might dislike his rule it was soon to be looked back to with regret as a peaceful breathing-space between two periods of massacre. Caesar completely identified himself with Cinna, and so from the beginning of his life until he overthrew the Roman constitution he was a democrat. On his father's death he broke off the engagement which he had made for him with a wealthy lady and married Cinna's daughter Cornelia, and soon afterward their daughter Julia was born. Caesar married three times, but Julia, who died when quite a young woman, was his only legitimate child.

At the end of this period of peace the eagle Sulla returned to the dove's nest. He had been recalled by the Senate long before, at the bidding of Marius, and had taken no notice, even disregarding a senatorial army sent out to carry on the war in his place. Now, when he wrote to the Senate agreeing to accept the new laws and promising to punish no one but the ringleaders of the movement against him, the Senate replied that Rome could not negotiate with an armed rebel. Rome and Italy armed against Sulla, but the gentle Cinna wished to spare Italy a new war and set out to take his army over to Greece and meet Sulla there. On the way his soldiers, who were all for Sulla, murdered Cinna, and Sulla, therefore, landed unopposed in the spring of 83. So determined were his opponents that the Civil War which followed lasted for several years, and it was not until the close of 82 that Sulla once more entered Rome with an army at his back.

Sulla was no crazy old man, embittered by Rome's ingratitude, like Marius, but his cruelty made that of Marius seem moderation. As city after city had fallen into his hands during the Civil War, garrisons and prisoners had been slain wholesale, and now Rome again became the scene of massacres. The Senate was forced to revive for him the ancient office of dictator, conferring on him absolute power for an unlimited time. This kept up the fiction of republican rule; but Sulla was in fact king. He was a cruel man, and would calmly address the Senate while the cry of crowds being slain in the Circus penetrated to the ears of his terrified audience, and a ghastly heap of the heads of the victims was kept at the point where the Vicus Jugarius ran into the Forum. The only personal revenge he took was in violating the tomb of Marius and scattering his ashes, but he gave his followers the greatest freedom in this way. People like Catiline and the murderer Oppianicus are said to have got Sulla to put down the names of people whom they had made away with on his black list so that they might escape prosecution. The worst feature of the whole thing was that there were no trials. At last Caius Metellus dared to ask him in the Senate when and where he was going to stop, and the cynical Sulla seized the opportunity of issuing a list of the 'proscribed,' at the same time offering a large reward for their apprehension and making death the penalty for giving succour to any of them. This would have been better than the preceding Reign of Terror had the list been final, but it was not closed until June 1, 81, and nobody knew when he went to the Forum to read it whether his name would be there. The rich men of his own party went in dread, for if one of Sulla's freedmen had cast his eye on a country villa or town house or the gardens or hot baths of some rich man, that man's name, as likely as not, went down on the list.

Caesar, just out of his teens, was not proscribed, but the burly dictator summoned him to put away his wife, Cinna's daughter, and the marriage tie was so loose in those days that it would have seemed a small demand in the eyes of most Romans. Caesar, however, was attached to his wife, and perhaps eager to stand up in some way for his party. He hated the Sullan regime, and servility and hypocrisy were not in his character. He refused to put away Cornelia, lost her dower, his own property and his priesthood, and was forced to flee from Rome. Like Marius, he hid in peasants' huts and marshes, and when shivering with the fever of a quartan ague he was compelled to move on from day to day. Sometimes he fell into the hands of Sulla's bloodhounds, but he had great presence of mind and had taken plenty of money with him and he was able to bribe them to let him go. At last the powerful Roman college of the Vestal Virgins, joined with Aurelius Cotta and other important kinsmen, secured his pardon from the dictator; but, it was said in after-days, when Sulla gave way he warned them impressively. "Have your way," he said, "and let him return, but know that Caius Julius Caesar, for whose safety you are so anxious, will one day destroy our party, for in him there are many Mariuses. And he would often bid people "beware of that ill-girt boy."

Sulla restored the chief power in the State to the Senate. The only political power which he left to the people was the power of electing the magistrates. He made it penal for the peoples' tribunes to abuse their powers, and he enacted that tribunes of the plebs  should not be eligible for any other office, thus making it unlikely that stirring and ambitious men would seek that office. He also decreed that no one who had not held the offices of quaestor and praetor and attained the age of forty-three years might be consul, and that a second consulship could not be held until an interval of ten years had elapsed. Having fortified the State against the attacks of its magistrates, Sulla electrified Rome by laying down his dictatorship at the beginning of 79, and retiring into the country, where he died a year later. His abandonment of his royal position and restoration of the free republic won him the gratitude of all, and he was buried by the people in the Campus Martius, an honour equivalent to interment in Westminster Abbey for a British subject.

Despite Caesar's pardon, his friends had not thought it safe for him to stay in Rome, and he was sent out to Asia Minor in 81 on the staff of the praetor Minucius Thermus. He remained in the East until Sulla's death. We know little of his doings in these four years, but in 80, at the storming of Mytilene, he won the civic crown, a garland of oak, given for saving the life of a fellow-citizen. He then served in Cilicia under Servilius Isauricus against the pirates, but directly he learned of the death of Sulla in 78 he hastened back to Rome, where Lepidus was trying to upset the Sullan constitution.