by Brooke C. Stoddard
Few men’s names resonate after two thousand years, for it is a very long stretch of time. And yet at the sound of the name “Caesar” everyone knows who he was and roughly what he did. Flawed, terrible, majestic; soldier, general, orator, administrator, author—he strode large in his time, so large that he still treads in ours.
So who is Julius Caesar? Two episodes in his early life are telling. While still a teenager, he was commanded by Rome’s dictator Sulla to divorce his wife, Cornelia. He refused. Murderous Sulla confiscated Caesar’s fortune and marked him for death. The rebellious teenager fled and joined the army.
Somewhat later, when about 25, Caesar was captured by pirates who vowed to free him for a large sum of money. He said he was worth more than twice as much and sent for it, promising to hang the pirates as soon as he could. The ransom arrived and the pirates freed their captive. Caesar hired ships, caught the pirates, and crucified them—after mercifully slitting their throats.
Julius Caesar: Facts from Fiction
Do we see herein a fearless and ruthless man, ready to defy convention and smash his way to a destiny? Love him or hate him, he ran through life in bold strokes.
He was a bisexual rake. Curio said of him, “He was a husband to every woman and wife to every man” in Rome. In Gaul, his soldiers sang songs in jestful warning that wives be locked indoors until he left town.
The Conquest of Gaul
Caesar is mainly remembered for his conquest of Gaul. Indeed, this accomplishment probably had more impact on subsequent history than any of his others. Oddly, though, Caesar was not a military man, but rather a politician. He went to Gaul in large part to further his career in Rome—he needed victories, the spoils that came with them, and an army loyal to him. His timing was auspicious. This was a time when Germanic and Celtic tribes were astir and in need of restraint, and it happened that Caesar had the physical courage, administrative acumen, and mental agility to defeat one after another of them. To emphasize his dominance of Gaul, he invaded Germany and established the Rhine as a border for Roman civilization, and then he raided Britain twice in force.
His greatest victory in these Gallic wars may have come when his fortunes looked their lowest, when Vercingetorix revolted. Caesar staked all on a siege of the Gallic chieftain, but then was besieged himself by a huge relieving army of Gauls. Caesar built a double ring, one around Vercingetorix and his 30,000, another outside the first to keep the second army at bay. With luck, courage, and skill he prevailed. Then he managed Gaul so well that it remained a loyal province of Rome for hundreds of years, sparing Rome invasion and spreading Classical culture to northern Europe.
Leadership by Example
Caesar’s greatest skills may actually have been in how he handled men rather than strategy and tactics. He could err at military science, but by the example of his courage, his willingness to share the privations of his men, and his keen sense of military justice he won the loyalty of his soldiers. When he crossed the Rubicon, he commanded a much smaller force than was available to Pompey in Rome, but Pompey fled knowing that Caesar’s force was competent, loyal, and motivated.
Outnumbered more than two-to-one at Pharsalus, the decisive battle against Pompey, it was morale, training, and leadership that won the day. Caesar then went on to defeat large armies in Pontus (on the Black Sea), North Africa, and Spain. He returned to Rome and began an ambitious slate of reforms that the city and empire desperately needed. His assassination postponed those reforms until Augustus could take them up again after 15 years of civil war.
An Administrative Genius, Rather Than Master Tactician
Unquestionably, Caesar matured as he aged and his responsibilities increased. This is a major reason his persona still resonates. His genius likely tilted more toward administration than toward shifting legions to the right place at the right time. But winning the hearts of soldiers, triumphing in battles, and building empires requires first the former; the second is in vain without it.