Julius Caesar - Ada Russell

Caesar as Magistrate

After Caesar's return to Rome from Rhodes at the close of 74 we hear no more for ten years of his prosecution of great men. For long he contented himself with dazzling the common people by prodigality and magnificence, playing the boon companion to the dissolute youths of his own class, and appearing generally to waste his time. It is difficult to imagine him, with his stern, serious face seeming to indicate the subdual of all the passions, as a riotous youth, and it is easy to picture him as reclining on his couch at a feast, the untouched wine cup by his side, his pale face and bright black eyes intently studying the young men of Rome, young men over whom he was one day to be lord and master and now before him as an open book. It is astonishing how late it was before he made a serious reputation, but he was always famous for his fine manners, grace, and courtesy, and he very soon became a social force. The first fruits of his popularity are seen in his election to the rank of an officer in the army (as a military tribune), and in 69 he was made one of the twenty quaestors for the following year.

The quaestorship was the lowest of the higher magistracies, and was obtained by the votes of the people assembled in their tribes. No one might be elected to the office before his thirtieth year. The chief duty of the office was control of the Treasury, and the quaestors were assigned to the various superior magistrates to assist them in their offices. They had, moreover, to pay out of their own pockets for the paving of the public roads. The Roman magistrates afterward obtained many perquisites, but at the beginning of his career a statesman had to empty his purse. Caesar in his quaestorship was attached to the staff of a praetor sent to Spain, did nothing worth recording there, and returned to Rome before he ought to have done. He used his office to bring himself well before the world's eye, and at last got the opportunity of attacking in a mild way the deeds of Sulla, shocking and startling the Senate and confirming his reputation as a daring democrat. The death of Julia, his aunt, the widow of Marius, took place, and he caused the images of Marius, cast down by Sulla, to be borne in her funeral procession. The joy of the crowd, which only remembered that Marius was a great man of their own class cruelly hunted to death by the brutal aristocrat Sulla, knew no bounds, and the Senate dared not interfere. Caesar pronounced an eloquent funeral oration in the Forum and recalled the glories of his aunt's own house as well as the achievements of her husband, for was she not descended like all the Julian family from Ancus Martius, and Iulus, the son of Aeneas and the goddess Venus? It was customary to make funeral orations over Roman matrons like Julia, but he had no precedent for the public speech which he next made in honour of his wife Cornelia, who died, and the splendour of these celebrations was much talked about. Cornelia's place was taken by the young Pompeia, divorced by Caesar in 62 on account of the scandal caused by Clodius' violation of the mysteries of the Bona Dea; for, as this man, born to be king, said, "Caesar's wife must be above suspicion."

[Illustration] from Julius Caesar by Ada Russell


He had still better opportunities of winning over the people as curule aedile in 65. There were two plebeian and two patrician aediles in Rome. The latter were called 'curule' because they were allowed curule chairs, beside the purple-bordered toga. They had charge of the sanitary arrangements of the city and were inspectors of weights and measures, and were to a certain extent censors of morals. These weighty matters thus came into Caesar's province at this time, and he showed in after years that he made himself master of the details of city government. It was also part of his duty to arrange the public games and spectacles and to give games at his own expense, and he did so with exceptional magnificence, splendidly decorating the Forum and Capitol. The Senate was so terrified by the number of gladiators he brought into the city to make a Roman holiday that a law was passed forbidding the bringing in of more than a specified number; three hundred and twenty pairs were nevertheless exhibited. The other curule aedile was Marcus Bibulus, and although he contributed a great deal to the enormous expense of the shows, Caesar got all the credit with the people. He took no interest in these savage sights himself, reading his book with lowered eyes while before him in the arena poor wretches—gladiators or beasts—battered or tore each other to death, and around him every Roman of every rank gloated over the spectacle. The crowning act of the year was the restoration by the popular aedile of the images and trophies of Marius and the figure of Victory to the Capitol.

During the next few years it seems certain that Caesar was meditating a more serious attack on Sullan arrangements, though there is nothing to prove that he joined with Crassus in 65, as is related, in a plot to murder the Senate, or that he joined in the famous Catilinarian Conspiracy of 63. He may have been working with others to undermine the constitution, but he openly prosecuted the agents of Sulla's murders. His attack on Rabirius, who was believed to have struck the fatal blow at Saturninus, was so bitter that it prejudiced people in favour of Rabirius, defended by Cicero.

The year 63 was of the utmost moment to Caesar and a crucial year in the history of Rome. He sought by immense bribery to win the office of High Priest (Pontifex Maximus), although the most influential men in the State were candidates; and he was forced to add to the already huge sum of his debts to do so. Plutarch says that he owed thirteen thousand talents (about 3,000,000) before he ever held any public office, and, although this must be an exaggeration, it is surprising how much young Romans who were expected to rise to the highest positions in the State could borrow. When they obtained their provinces they could pay their debts from the pockets of the provincials, and there were plenty of usurers willing to take the risk in the case of a young man like Caesar. His affairs were in such a desperate plight that he said to his mother, kissing her as he left home on the morning of the elections, "To-day you will see me High Priest or an exile!" He returned as High Priest, and the Julian family removed from their modest house in the Suburra to the pontifical palace in the Sacred Street, the main street of the city. The Sacred Street led into the Forum, where public men used to walk for social purposes even when there was no assembly of the people to be addressed from the Rostra, and it continued to be Caesar's abode until his death. He was an outspoken disbeliever (perhaps he became so as flamen when he was a boy,) but it was by a large majority that he had been raised to a position which gave him immense religious control in Rome. It also gave him a special sort of political influence, for Roman politics were closely bound up with religious usages. Later on in this year he moved up the next step in the regular political ladder, being appointed praetor for 62; and as praetor-elect he sat on the praetor's bench in the Senate House when the Catilinarian Conspiracy was unmasked by Cicero.

The senatorial party, called by Cicero the Best (optimates), the Good (boni) , or Conservatives (conservatores rei), were living at this time in a state of panic like that of the Protestants of England in the time of Titus Oates, for fear of the democrats, called by Cicero sometimes the populaces, sometimes the Evil Ones; and in 63 a plot came to a head. The conspirators were drawn from many ranks of Roman society. Cicero always persisted that they were chiefly debtors who wished for a revolution so that they might mend their financial conditions; and these debtors, he thought, were chiefly young men of fashion, whom he always talked of as though they were the worst class in the community—"the bearded youths (it was an affectation to wear a beard), all that flock of Catiline." Besides these Evil Ones, there was a large class of idle poor, maintained by public or private alms and merely longing for revolution to vary the monotony of the theatre and the gladiatorial shows. Owing to slavery Rome had little of the free working-class element; her poorer citizens had now few qualities which commanded respect, and they were swamped by outsiders—paupers whom the corn doles had attracted to the capital, or foreigners who had drifted there in great numbers. Even a humane man like Cicero could speak with disgust of "the blood-sucker of the Treasury, the wretched and needy mob," and Shakespeare's picture of it in Julius Caesar  seems to be little if at all exaggerated. Then, also, the heirs of those who had lost their property by Sulla's proscriptions dreamed of a counter-revolution in which they should come by their own again. The revolutionists were supposed to hold secret meetings at the house of Caesar or Crassus, but this was never proved against either of the two, and there was very little proof of a plot at all, just sufficient for Cicero to seize some of the ringleaders and bring them to justice.

The head of the movement was said to be Catiline, whose name could not be left out of a list of the world's chief villains, owing to the oratory of Cicero. Sallust, only twenty-three years of age at this time, afterward drew a portrait of Catiline on the lines laid down by Cicero. He speaks of his face stamped with vice and misery, his pale, livid complexion, his baleful eyes, his unequal, agitated step. Every vice possible to humanity was put down to him, and it was believed that he had organized this plot to slay the Senate and consuls and burn the city to ashes. Strange to say, this monster was one of the most popular men in Rome, even as Caesar was, and the friend of many magnates, including, until a short time before, Cicero himself; and when in later years Cicero was defending a client who had been an associate of Catiline's, he pleaded that Catiline had enough show of virtue to deceive people. Cicero's oratory was a wonderful thing. To-day his speeches seem like sensational fiction of the highest kind; we still feel as we read them something of the horror which Roman juries must have felt against the lurid villains he painted, and we know that we must allow for the effect made by his matchless voice. All the more we feel sympathy for the defendant who urged that he ought not to be condemned because the plaintiff had retained such an eloquent advocate, and in the light of Cicero's later admissions many people have felt inclined to whitewash Catiline. Perhaps the small piece of truth which inspired all the tale of horror was that Catiline had really made up his mind to have Cicero and a few other optimates  murdered.

Catiline, impeached for his conduct as propraetor in 67-66, and said to have been leader of the plot of 65, was in 64 competitor with Cicero for the consulship and supported by Crassus and Caesar; but the party of order rallied round Cicero and he was not returned. He tried again in 63 and confidently expected to be successful, but failed again, and, so runs the story, he lost all hope of ever holding the consulship. This meant that he would never have a province to pillage, and that his financial ruin was irretrievable. He therefore began to store arms at various places in Italy, and to attack Cicero openly in the Senate, where the other consul, Antonius, and many of the senators, it was believed, were in the plot. Cicero, as consul, was in a very awkward position, as Pompey, who would probably have kept order in the State, was away in the East. He promised his colleague the richest of the provinces for his pro-consulship if he would stand by him, and he foiled all attempts at murder by never appearing in public without a large bodyguard of friends and clients. At last the appointed day came, the 7th of November. It was a Roman custom to receive at daybreak, and at that hour assassins went to his house and asked to see him; but Cicero's spies had informed him and the murderers were refused admittance. Cicero then went to the Senate and persuaded the Fathers that the situation was very serious.

Moved by his urgent demands they passed the solemn decree which gave extraordinary powers to the consuls—"that the consuls should take care that the State suffered no detriment." Armed with this authority Cicero crushed the whole plot. Military night-watches were stationed in the city, regular troops and gladiators were sent to Etruria and other disaffected parts of Italy, and large rewards were offered for information. The curious thing was that no informers came forward, though it was an opportunity for slaves to win their freedom. On the contrary, the proclamation caused surprise and panic. Throughout the year, although aware that he was suspected by Cicero, Catiline had walked about cool and dauntless, and he even dared to attend the Senate until Cicero arose and made his first famous Catilinarian Oration, on the 8th of November. He sought to answer, still perfectly composed, but there was a great clamour of the Good, and the words "Traitor" "Murderer!" resounded through the Senate House. Turning his ghastly face on his fellow-senators, Catiline menaced them all and fled that night, leaving Lentulus, Cethegus, and others, it was said, to be ready to burn Rome at a given signal. He was thereupon declared a public enemy.

[Illustration] from Julius Caesar by Ada Russell


Shortly afterward letters incriminating the chief conspirators were obtained. The Senate was at once summoned by Cicero to the temple of Concord, less easy to be stormed than the Senate House, and a body of armed Roman knights, with his friend Atticus at their head, was placed on guard outside. The four conspirators who had been arrested by the consul were given into the custody of eminent citizens, and by a piece of acute diplomacy Cicero assigned one to the keeping of Crassus, another to that of Caesar. A debate was then held as to the fate of the prisoners, although it was very doubtful whether the Senate had the right of constituting itself a high court of justice. Moreover, this was a case of life and death, and even the regular law courts had not the right of pronouncing the death sentence on a Roman citizen; from the earliest days of the Republic that right had belonged to the people, and had only been infringed during the disturbances of the Gracchi and the Marian and Sullan revolutions. The consul-elect, however, rose and proposed that the conspirators should be forthwith put to death, and every speaker that followed advocated the same until Caesar rose. A kind of shorthand is said to have been used for taking down the debates, and it is possible that Sallust gives a correct version of Caesar's wise and statesmanlike speech, though it has often been thought that he added a good deal to it. Passion ran too high, at present, Caesar said, and obscured judgment, and so they were proposing a course which was directly contrary to the laws of their country. He spoke courteously of the consul-elect and of the zeal and wisdom of Cicero, but urged the danger to the lives of future citizens of making a precedent of this sort. He proposed perpetual imprisonment in Italian strongholds, and as usual seized the opportunity of shocking the Senate (half of whom agreed with him, but thought that such things should not be said in public) by stating that death would be an insufficient punishment for such evil men, since death ended all. His speech had no weight, for many of his hearers believed that he was only trying to shield his accomplices, but Cicero was to suffer severely in later days for having taken no thought of this side of the question. The young Cato first comes to the front in this debate, and he, of course, was for death. He was a worthy descendant of Cato the Censor, who cut the water-pipes by which certain degenerate Romans led water to their houses. This descendant was the only senator whom Cicero venerated, but the latter was sometimes angry with him for being so unbending. "He thinks he is living in the republic of Plato," he said, "instead of in the dregs of Romulus."

The death sentence was passed, and Cicero himself led away Lentulus, well-guarded, while the praetors look the others. Caesar, leaving the temple, is said to have been threatened by the knights, who had no doubt about his guilt.

Meanwhile Catiline and the ruined youth of Rome were beset by the consular army, and early in 62 were defeated and slain, selling their lives so dearly that almost as many Roman veterans as Roman rakes fell. Catiline, who had been fighting like a great captain and hero, left almost alone on his side, rushed on to the bristling line before him and sank pierced by many wounds. Caesar's revolt against the Republic was to be very different, and to have a very different result.

On the last day of December 63 Cicero's consulship came to an end, and on the first day of January 62 Caesar entered on his praetorship. The praetors, of whom there were then eight in number, controlled the course of justice in Rome, subject to the right of appeal to the people. After a year's service in the city they went out to the provinces as governors, under the title of propraetors, and having imperium, that is, military command. In the city they had two lictors each, in the provinces six. The consuls had not arrived at the Senate House when Caesar took his place. They had gone, as was customary, escorted by crowds of followers, to offer sacrifice at the temple of Jupiter Capitolinus, and to take the auspices. He hastened to introduce a measure for taking the task of restoring the Capitol from the eminent aristocrat Catulus, meaning to give it to Pompey, whose friendship he was anxious to win. The senators in the consuls' train got wind of what was going on, rushed down to the Curia and compelled him to withdraw his bill. He then proceeded to annoy them in another way. Directly Cicero had laid down his consulship he had been attacked by the tribune Metellus Nepos, who had prevented him from making a speech on his laying down office, on the ground that he had put to death Roman citizens without trial; and now Caesar gave his countenance to Metellus in fresh attacks. When they sought to carry a bill for giving Pompey military command in Italy, on the pretext of stamping out the last embers of the Catilinarian Conspiracy, the Senate suspended them both. Caesar quietly went on with his duties until he heard that the Senate was sending officers to break up his courts; he then dismissed his lictors, threw aside his magistrate's robe and fled, refusing the offer of the angry multitude, whose idol he was, to aid him in asserting his rights. In return for this submission the Senate, which had been prepared for war, reinstated him in the most honourable fashion, sending its leading men to thank him publicly and summon him back.

Caesar's praetorship was marked by no other events, and in 61 he went to Farther Spain as propraetor. He was in the disgraceful predicament of not being able to leave Rome on account of his creditors, and said sadly—so the story goes—that he needed twenty-five million sesterces (about 220,000) to have nothing at all; but Crassus came to the rescue and he was able to go to his province. He spent the whole time of his stay in Spain in winning experience of war, subduing tribes which remained independent and sending home so much spoil that the Senate decreed him a Triumph. Characteristically he made preparations for the utmost splendour, but his plans were dashed by the discovery that he could not enter Rome in time for the elections if he took his Triumph. He was entering for the consulship of 59, and he wrote to the Senate to ask permission to be elected in his absence; but Cato prevented consent being given. The Conservatives dreaded his consulship, and hoped that he would take the Triumph and postpone the consulship. He proved, however, for the first time, his hard, keen sense and practical nature by abandoning his magnificent preparations and hastening to the city to enter his name as a candidate.

The year of his absence had been marked by the return of Pompey from the East and by his quarrel with the Senate, which, afraid of his warlike reputation, had determined to thwart him in every way in its power. Therefore, to his great wrath, Pompey found it impossible to get his arrangements in the East ratified, or State lands granted to his veteran soldiers, to whom he had promised them. Cicero mocks him sitting in silence in the Senate, looking down on his triumphal robe, and declares that he was most unpopular with the Evil Ones, while he had lost all consideration with the Good, and was "neither attractive, nor simple, nor politically upright, nor illustrious, nor strong, nor frank." In every letter to Atticus the orator found new epithets of disapprobation for Pompey, but he knew that the Senate would be wise to keep friendly with him; and he was even more displeased with the Good, led by the quixotic Cato, who quarreled with the Equestrian Order, to which the rich Crassus belonged, about the Asiatic taxes. Even though the publicans were grossly in the wrong, he said, the Senate needed their support if the State was not to be wrecked by the populares. Cato, however, led the Senate, and he cared little for Cicero's great political idea, the binding together of the Senate and Equestrian Order against the forces of revolution. The Senate entirely alienated Pompey, and this led Crassus and Pompey to form with Caesar the First Triumvirate (60 B.C.) and helped him to his consulship of 59.

The elections in July 60 were among the most exciting in the history of the Republic. The Conservatives had a well-founded dread of Caesar, but they knew that with Pompey and Crassus to back him they could not prevent his election. All they could do was to secure a stout Conservative colleague for him. They chose as their candidate Bibulus, who had already been his colleague as aedile, and was, Cicero tells us, the greatest fool of their number. They made it a matter of the utmost moment to exclude the candidate whom Caesar desired as his colleague, and even Cato consented to bribery on the largest scale. Such a proceeding was illegal, and we may be sure that Cato would not have done it for his own personal gain, but the Romans had long accepted the fatal principle of doing evil that good might come. There were very rarely prosecutions on this account and it was almost always done. The different candidates for office belonged to political clubs in which there was usually a regular official for the reception and distribution of bribe-money. Bibulus, who was Cato's son-in-law, was returned by these secret means, and as Caesar's colleague he lent the chief touch of comedy to the events of a year that was very amusing in Roman history, the year of Caesar's consulship, although behind the comedy lay very grave issues.

Caesar and Bibulus entered on office on January 1, 59, and from the first moment Caesar administered the State without taking any notice of Bibulus. The Conservatives raged against the 'kings'—Caesar and Pompey—and there were sometimes hisses when they appeared, but they had a very strong party to support them. The names of the consuls of the year were used to date documents, and wags, when writing anything of an informal nature, would put: "This befell in the consulship of Julius and Caesar." Soon a street song ran:

Caesar of late did many things, but Bibulus not one:

For nought by consul Bibulus can I remember done.

Caesar was guilty of no personal rudeness to Bibulus but once in his life do we find such a thing recorded of him—and he allowed him the first turn at being attended by the twelve consular lictors, it being the custom for the consuls to have them every alternate month; but he never allowed Bibulus to step between him and his measures.

Caesar's measures—the 'Julian Laws'—were simply for the satisfaction of himself, the Roman knights and Pompey, and he carried them through in the revolutionary way of the Gracchi. The first was his Agrarian Law for the distribution of lands to poor citizens who had three or more children, the preference being given to Pompey's veterans. This law he proposed in the Senate, but its opposition was such that in future, like the Gracchi, he carried bills straight to the people. The voters, afraid of senatorial violence, came to the Assembly with daggers concealed under their garments, but the Conservatives were overawed by the presence of Pompey and his disbanded soldiers, ready, as Pompey said openly, to come to Caesar's aid. Pompey must have regretted his conduct bitterly in later years, and the Senate must have mourned over the fact that it had driven him into Caesar's arms. Now its only idea of obstruction was to declare that the omens in the sacrifices were unfavourable to Caesar's bills, and that they could not, therefore, be passed. We can hardly blame Caesar for taking no notice of this excuse, but Bibulus and his followers were furious. Bibulus determined to risk his life for his party. With his lictors and fasces  and consular following he entered the Forum where Caesar was addressing the people from the Rostra, in order to protest against the ill-omened legislation proceeding. His lictors were at once overpowered, their fasces  were broken, and one of the tribunes who stood near was wounded in the struggle. Bibulus, though foolish, was of undaunted spirit, and he bared his throat and bade the crowd strike. "I may not be able to persuade Caesar to act rightly," he cried, "but I may fix the stigma of my assassination to his name."

He was seized and borne off by his friends, and Cato, who now came on the scene, was carried away again and again as he sought to address the people from the Rostra. The people accepted the agrarian bill, with the clause that all the senators should take an oath to observe it. When many of the senators refused, no doubt meaning to repeal it directly the year was over, they passed another law by which death was to be the penalty for refusing the oath. Then even Cato took it, and for the rest of the year the senators simply sulked in passive helplessness, Bibulus remaining shut up in his own house for all the weary months. It was bad policy, for it left Caesar a free field, and if they were ever going to fight him, now was the time. Pompey's acts in Asia were ratified, and one-third of the publicans' debt to the State was remitted. This act may have been meant purely to win over the Equestrian Order, but it was a deed of mercy to the provincials. If the publicans paid less to the Treasury, they would not have to be bled so seriously to recoup the publicans. A new act was passed against extortion in the provinces, and only very bitter Conservatives could say that evil of any sort had been carried through.

Spectacles, gladiatorial games, and largesses made the year a delightful one for the common people, and Caesar could easily have obtained from the Assembly of the people the measure he wanted for himself—the grant of Gaul as his province when his consulship was over. The Senate had been above all things afraid of his having a province which would mean the control of an army, and before he entered on office it had assigned the care of the roads and forests for his proconsulship. Now the people voted him Cisalpine Gaul and Illyria, and the Senate thereupon voted him the Roman province of Transalpine Gaul for five years. It knew that if it did not act he would get what he wanted from the people, and it claimed the exclusive right to assign provincial governments. It would have been better to make a stand now than nine years later when he returned from Gaul with a devoted army and wealth enough to win the favour of half the citizens; but at this time the Senate, thanks to its treatment of Pompey, had no one on whom it could call to oppose Caesar. So he was allowed to obtain command of—given, in fact—a province where a great war was brewing, and from which he was to return in nine years' time to make himself practically king.

It is an interesting question as to how far Caesar planned out his future career at this early date. Was he weary of the petty bickering and scheming of Roman political life and longing to do something more worthy of a Roman away from it all? Was it likely that a man over forty would plot to seize power in Rome by going away for nine years and exposing himself to the dangers and fatigue of marches and wars among the most dreaded of all the foes of Rome? Was it plan, or good fortune, or inspiration? There always remains a mystery about the motives of a man of genius, and we do not know enough about Caesar to answer these questions. It is certain that the Gallic conquest on which he was bound was of great value to Rome. It made her northern border safe for the first time in history, and it is possible that Caesar, an impressionable child when Marius returned to Rome with his Gallic glory, had always dreamed of following in Marius's footsteps. By the thoroughness of his work in Gaul he was to show that besides being a great soldier, he was a good patriot.

At the same time, if he had any plans for replacing the rule of the selfish Senate by an enlightened despotism, this was perhaps the only way. Warlike glory was the path by which Romans of the last half century had risen to supreme power. Marius and Sulla had been great soldiers, and so was Pompey who might be a new Sulla if he liked. Whether by plan or good fortune, he was to prepare in his absence for his future rule more surely than if he had spent every moment in Rome. Two stories, possibly not true, point to personal ambition. When he was journeying, says Plutarch, by the Alps to Spain, he passed through a hamlet of wretchedly poor barbarians. His companions wondered, mockingly, if there were any canvassing for office or political strife in this humble spot, but Caesar declared seriously that he would rather be the first man in this village than the second man in Rome. Again, he is said to have expressed dissatisfaction with his own youth, so inglorious when compared with that of Alexander the Great.