Wednesday, 27 January 2016

'Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world...' 49-44 BC

The ruins of Caesar's Temple of Venus Genetrix
in the Roman Forum

Pompey's flight

After crossing the Rubicon, Caesar moved forward rapidly into the centre of Italy. He divided his small force into two columns. Both columns then pressed on, and one town after another opened its gates to him. Cicero wrote: 
‘Is it a general of the Roman people we are talking of, or Hannibal?

Caesar’s enemies included most of the senior senators, but they were also jealous of Pompey and would not allow him the powers he needed. This meant that he was unable to withstand Caesar. His veterans had known twelve years of peace, while Caesar’s were battle-hardened.  Pompey made the mistake of abandoning Rome. He retreated south and most of the Senate fled with him. In March 49 he crossed the Adriatic and made for the eastern provinces where he hoped to establish an alternative power base. In Greece he was joined by Cicero, who, after spurning overtures from Caesar, decided that Pompey was the lesser of the two evils. Caesar’s enemies were in a potentially strong position, as they had command of the sea and threatened Italy’s grain supply. It was not clear that they were going to lose.

Pompey defeated

After Caesar entered Rome, he marched quickly into Spain where after a brief campaign he broke Pompey’s possible hold on the province. On his return he was appointed dictator for an emergency period of eleven days and then elected consul for 48. In the winter of 48 he shipped an army of eleven legions across the Adriatic. He finally caught up with Pompey and in the largest battle ever fought between Romans he defeated him at Pharsalus in Thessaly on 8 August. 

Egypt and the death of Pompey

Pompey escaped and fled to Egypt, landing at Alexandria on 28 September 48 BC. He had been involved in Egypt since 55 BC Rome when one of his generals had restored King Ptolemy XII to his throne. In order to help take care of the running of his kingdom Ptolemy had appointed as co-ruler his eldest surviving daughter, the fourteen-year-old Cleopatra VII

Ptolemy died in March 51 BC. In accordance with his wishes, Cleopatra then shared the throne with her ten-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII and married him. This was not an arrangement to her taste! Around 48 BC Ptolemy’s faction, led by the eunuch Pothinus staged a coup and Cleopatra was forced to flee to Pelusium where she raised an army. 

At the time of Pompey’s landing Ptolemy had pitched camp thirty miles east of Alexandria. News of Pharsalus had already reached him along with reports that the victorious Caesar was already on his way. He held an emergency meeting with his generals and Pothinus closed the meeting with the words: ‘Dead men don’t bite’. As Pompey landed at Alexandria he was run through with a sword and his head was cut off. (For the details, see David Stuttard and Sam Moorhead, 31 BC: Antony, Cleopatra and the Fall of Egypt, British Museum Press, 2012, pp. 32-6.)

The Pharos of Alexandria
the sight that would have greeted both
Pompey and Caesar as they approached the city

Caesar and Cleopatra

On 2 October Caesar himself arrived in Egypt and  to his horror was presented with Pompey’s head. But he did not leave Egypt. He had significant investments int he country and he decided that he was the man to sort out the domestic dispute between brother and sister. 

Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, last monarch of the
Macedonian Ptolemy dynasty

Cleopatra secretly came to see Caesar in Alexandria, hidden in a linen bedding-sack, and the two became lovers. The palace was then besieged by the forces of Ptolemy, but the siege was broken in March 47 when a relief force arrived. Ptolemy was killed and Caesar confirmed Cleopatra as queen of Egypt and a client of Rome. In the summer she gave birth to a son and called him Caesarion, claiming that he was Caesar’s.

Caesar’s final victory

Even after Pompey’s death, Caesar had to fight three more wars to assert his dominance. There was nothing inevitable about his supremacy. The first war, against Mithridates’ son, was over by July 47 BC; it was over so quickly that Caesar could say ‘Veni, vidi, vici’.  He then returned to Rome to put down a mutiny among his troops.  In late December he fought a campaign in Africa against Cato and the sons of Pompey. Cato committed suicide after his defeat at Utica, thereby providing the republicans with a martyr.

Following these campaigns, Caesar was voted the first cluster of what were to be exceptional honours. For four days in August 46 he held magnificent triumphs, followed by games. A chariot and a statue with a globe were to be set up on the Capitol Hill and an inscription on the statue was to call him a demi-god. He was voted another dictatorship, this time for ten years.  

In March 45 he defeated the remaining Pompeians at Munda in southern Spain. After this he employed the title Imperator, not meaning emperor, but supreme military commander. On hearing the news of the victory the Senate decreed that he should be called ‘Liberator’ and that a temple to Liberty should be built. No Roman had ever been given this title before. In the autumn of 45 he returned to Rome, the undisputed ruler of the empire, where he was elected consul for the fourth time. 

Administrative reforms

During the intervals between his campaigns and in last two years of life that remained to him, Caesar transformed Rome.
  1. He formed many new colonies for his soldiers, most of them abroad. The most original feature of this policy was to include civilians among the settlers, including 80,000 of Rome’s penniless unemployed. These colonies acted as powerful agents of Romanisation.
  2. He did much to settle the enormous debt problem, cancelling all interest due since the beginning of the civil war. This was a serious loss to creditors, though many of them admitted that they would never have been paid this money anyway.
  3. He began the rebuilding of Rome, a temple of Mars, a huge new Forum with a colonnaded precinct, and a temple to Venus Genetrix, the ancestress of the Julian family. Beside the statute in the temple he placed a gilded bronze statue of Cleopatra, who had arrived in Rome with Caesarion in 46 BC. She stayed there for the rest of his life, much to the annoyance of his wife, Calpurnia.
  4. In continuance of Sulla’s policy, he increased the number of senators from 600 to 900, enrolling the bankers, manufacturers, industrialists and army officers who had helped him gain power. This influx permanently changed the character of the Senate, which had now lost its independence. Consuls continued to be elected annually, but those elected were invariably Caesar’s men.
  5. In 46 BC he reorganised the calendar. This had formerly been the responsibility of the priests, but it had fallen into disorder. He lengthened the year from 355 to 365 days, reduced the number of months from 13 to 12 and added the leap year. The month Quintilis was renamed Julius. January, named after the god Janus, became the first month.
  6. By February 44 coins bearing his own head were issed, the first time a portrait of a living person had appeared on a coin. This rising personality cult was stressed still further by the large number of his portrait busts that were made and distributed around Italy and the provinces.
Denarius of Julius Caesar
44 BC

In mid- February 44 he was appointed dictator for the rest of his life. This was unprecedented and such a position of supreme power was not compatible with the tradition of aristocratic power-sharing. The Senate was now packed with his own supporters, who loaded him with honours.  The appointment of governorships and magistracies fell under his control. He had been pontifex maximus since 63, and in 47 BC he was made augur. He now appeared in public on a gilded chair, dressed in a purple triumphal robe. A temple was erected to his Clemency as a tribute to his refusal to imitate Sulla and issue proscriptions against his opponents.