The conquests of the great soldier and statesman Julius Caesar provided security for the Roman Empire for more than five hundred years and spread Roman laws, customs, and language throughout Europe. So far-reaching were the accomplishments of Caesar that his name became the title for Roman emperors as well as for leaders centuries later, the German “kaiser” and the Russian “czar” bother being derivatives of “caesar.”
Julius Caesar did not exhibit his future military skills as a young man. After his birth on July 12, 100 B.C. (a date disputed by some historians), Caesar devoted his early years to political objectives. He combined the advantage of being born into an old and influential family with his personal charisma and administrative skills to steadily advance within the Roman government.
In his early forties, Caesar won election to consul and became one of Rome’s head magistrates. Sensing that the power and validity of Rome’s democratic government was well past its prime, Caesar began to reduce the power of the Senate. In 59 B.C. he formed the First Triumvirate with Pompey and Crassus. Each of the three, by previous agreement, took charge of various parts of the government and control of portions of the empire.
Within Caesar’s area lay Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy), Narbonese Gaul (the southern French coast), and Illyricum (Slavic lands across the Adriatic). Along with his new responsibilities, Caesar inherited four Roman legions, composed of about twenty thousand soldiers, whom he immediately put to use in acquiring additional lands and increasing defensive buffer zones.
For the next seven years Caesar directed his army in conquering the rest of Gaul, which consisted of the remainder of current France and Belgium and parts of Germany, Holland, and Switzerland. Overall, the Roman legions were vastly outnumbered, but Caesar was aware that he could attack and defeat his enemies piecemeal because the Celtic tribes of France would not unite against him. His tactics were simple and lacking in any great innovation. Instead of new ideas, he relied on the fighting proficiency of his legions and his personal capacity to motivate them.
Caesar described his style of leadership in a third-person account in his Commentaries on the Gallic War, stating: “The situation was critical and as no reserves were available, Caesar seized a shield from a soldier in the rear and made his way to the front line. He addressed each centurion by name and shouted encouragement to the rest of the troops, ordering them to push forward and open out their ranks so they could use their swords more easily. His coming gave them fresh heart and hope. Each man wanted to do his best under the eyes of his commander despite the peril.”
Caesar next turned toward the remainder of Germany, crossing the Rhine in a show of force and discouraging any German attempt to retake lost territory. In 56 B.C., Caesar crossed the English Channel and invaded Britain with a fleet of eight hundred ships. Not until nearly two thousand years later at the height of World War II, would such a large armada again be assembled in the Channel. Caesar’s attack on England laid the groundwork for the island nation to become a Roman province a century later.
The past conquests by Caesar added to his already great popularity in Rome, causing both the Senate and the other two Triumvirate members to fear his possible ambitions to assume singular power. In 49 B.C. the Senate ordered Caesar to return to Rome as a private citizen. Instead, Caesar crossed the Rubicon River, his legions behind him, and began a civil war against his opposition. With a better trained and more experienced army, Caesar cleared the Italian peninsula in only sixty-six days and sent Pompey and the Senate into exile. Caesar then pursued Pompey’s soldiers into Spain and defeated them at the Battle of Ilerda, although a major portion of the army, including Pompey, escaped.
Caesar continued his pursuit into Greece, resulting in the decisive Battle of Pharsalus in 48 B.C. Outnumbered two to one, Caesar first repelled an enemy cavalry charge and then personally led a counterattack to crush Pompey’s army, killing six thousand, with the loss of only twelve hundred men. Again, however, Pompey escaped with the remnants of his army and withdrew. Pompey fell to an assassin shortly after his arrival in Egypt, but Caesar nevertheless followed and destroyed Pompey’s remaining legions – and began an affair with Cleopatra. To repay her for various kindnesses, Caesar defeated her enemy King Pharnaces of Pontus in 47 B.C. in a five-day campaign. Caesar, not so humble, reported his victory: “Veni, vidi, vici” – (I came, I saw, I conquered).
Caesar concluded his military operations with one final, successful campaign to end remaining opposition in North Africa and Spain in 45 B.C. When he returned home, the Romans declared him dictator for life and consul for the next decade. Caesar initiated an intensive reform program that included standardizing Roman law and establishing a system of uniform municipal governments. He also instituted programs to reward his legions with land grants and to award various allies Roman citizenship.
Less than a year after his return to Rome and before he could implement most of his reforms, Caesar, in his mid-fifties, fell to assassins who feared and envied his power. Cassius, whom Caesar had generously allowed to remain in power after the civil war, and Brutus, formerly a loyal subordinate, led the assassins.
Although Caesar fell on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., his empire and his influence endured. The Roman Empire remained protected by Caesar’s conquests for more than five hundred years, and his spread of Roman influence continues to this day. His accomplishments dwarf those of all others of his era. His victories created the world’s largest empire of its age, which he bequeathed to his successor, along with a skilled army possessing the organization and motivation to maintain that empire for centuries.